3.3. Family Budgets

The spinners in the cotton mills, who usually had at least one other family member working, had enough income to purchase a good level of food.

The earliest budget calculation that we have is from 1806:

(“Calculation of the Expense of maintaining a man, his wife, and six children for a year”, “Tax on Labour”, Manchester Mercury, 29thJuly 1806; quoted in: Gordon Brindley Hindle, Provision for the Relief of the Poor in Manchester, 1754-1826; Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1975)

We see that the family (apparently a normal case) has a total income of 81 pounds per year, or 31 shillings a week. The food expenses are equivalent to a weekly consumption for the whole family of: 7 quartern loaves, 7 pounds of meat, 5 pounds of cheese and butter, 7 pints of small beer, and 7 pints of milk. This would appear to be a more than sufficient amount of food. 

2 spinners, man and wife, with 2 children, Manchester, 1833, weekly income and expenses:

  L  s  d
Earnings 2 10  0
Bread30 lbs.0  4   2
Beef 8 lbs.0  4   4
Potatoes20 lbs.0  0 10
Butter  3 lbs.0  3   0
Sugar3 ½ lbs.0  1  9
Tea2 oz.0  0  7 ½ 
Coffee2 oz.0  0  2 ½ 
Flour3 lbs.0  0  6
Oatcakes120  1  0
Ale7 quarts0  2 11
Milk7 quarts0  1  6
Soap1 lb.0  0  6
Candles½ lb.0  0  3
Rent 0  3  6
Washing 0  2  4
Fire  0  1  0
Total 1  8  5

(Factories Inquiry Commission – Supplementary Report, 1833, p. 170)

The figure of 2s. 4d. for the washerwoman is very interesting. It shows that a) well-paid spinners had interest in having clean clothing, and were willing to pay for it, b) they had a full change of clothing, because otherwise they could not give their clothes to be washed. But also, if we suppose that the washerwomen did her work at a speed of one family’s washing per day, we see that she earned more than 12 shillings a week.

We see below that a family of 2 adults and 3 children in 1839, 1849, and 1859, with a total income of 30 shillings per week could have a comfortable life, consuming 8 4-lb. loaves and 5 lbs. of butcher’s meat per week.

(Line 2: ½ peck = 7 ½ lbs.)

(Chadwick, 1860, Table (DD), p. 35)

Mr. Edward Baines (author of “History of Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, and part of the woollens “establishment” at Leeds) was convinced that the totality of the cotton factory workers had a good standard of life: 

“The eleven tables now given establish beyond all controversy that the 237,000 work-people employed in the cotton-mills of Great Britain are in the receipt of wages amply sufficient to yield them not merely the necessaries of life in food, clothing and habitation, but also many comforts and some superfluities, – to enable the adult workmen, with proper management and frugality, to educate their children, and to provide against sickness and old age, – and to admit of children contributing materially to the support of necessitous parents. Where a spinner is assisted by his own children in the mill, as is very frequently the case, his income is so large that he can live more generously, and clothe himself and his family better, than many of the lower class of tradesmen; and, though improvidence and misconduct too often ruin the happiness of those families, yet there are thousands of spinners in the cotton districts who eat meat every day, wear broad cloth on the Sunday, dress their wives and children well, furnish their houses with mahogany and carpets (*), subscribe to publications, and pass through life with humble respectability.  

Wages, it will be seen, have declined in nominal amount since the war, but not so much as the prices of provisions and clothing; so that the workmen are now receiving higher real wages than at any former period. The rate of payment has in many cases been reduced on a given quantity of work, yet without diminishing the receipts of the workmen – the improvements in machinery enabling them to throw off a greater quantity of work in the same time, and thus compensating for the reduced rate of payment.”

(Baines, 1835, p. 446)

(*) There are references in other sources to good furniture:

 “The town itself [Sheffield] is ill built and dirty, beyond the usual condition of English towns; but it is the custom for each family among the labouring population to occupy a separate dwelling, the rooms in which are furnished in a very comfortable manner, the floors are carpeted, and the tables are usually of mahogany; chests of drawers of the same material are generally seen, and so in most cases is a clock also, the possession of which article of furniture has often been pointed out as the certain indication of prosperity and of personal respectability of the part of the working man.”

(Porter, 1851, p. 523)

 “…. whilst in all the concerns of the leading manufactures [in Bolton], whose command of money has enabled them to work their mills on full time, regardless of losses, there are large numbers above want, and some who enjoy small luxuries, such as a house with three sleeping rooms, enabling them to cultivate delicacy in their families, who have a good stock of books, furniture, and clothing, and educate their children even at some sacrifice of their earnings, – indications which lead to a gratifying estimate of their tastes and feelings.”

(Ashworth, 1842, p. 79)

“Nothing struck me more, while visiting and comparing notes in the different operative districts of Manchester, than the regularity with which the better style of house and the better style of furniture went together; it being always kept in mind that, so far as wages are concerned, the inhabitants of one locality are almost, if not quite, on a par with those of another. But the superior class room seemed, by a sort of natural sequence, to attract the superior class furniture. A very fair proportion of what was deal in Ancoats was mahogany in Hulme. Yet the people of Hulme get no higher wages than the people of Ancoats. The secret is that they live in better-built houses and consequently take more pleasure and pride in their dwellings.”

(Morning Chronicle, 1850, “Manchester”)

“One can nearly always see from the furnishings of the dwelling, how much wages the worker receives weekly. With 15 shillings, which is a very moderate wage, there is rarely a carpet covering the stone floor – usually a small mat is found in front of the fireplace -, the walls are without decoration, the whole furniture is just a table, chair and bed. With 20 shillings the appearance is better; the chairs have cushions, the carpet – a necessary object in England, due to the climate – is larger, on the cupboard there are glasses and cups, and from the ceiling hangs a whole ham or a side of bacon. The people who receive 30 shillings, allow themselves a certain level of comfort, which extends to the small figures, cups and glasses, which embellish the shelf above the fireplace.” 

(Translation by this author)

 (Weerth, 1843-1848, Ch. 7 The English Workers [Bradford])

The weavers of wool in the West of England had a good standard of living up to 1830:  


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