There is no reason to suppose that the men and women working in the countryside of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the late eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, and who entered the mills in the following years, were poor, hungry, and backward.
Defoe in 1727 gives his impressions of the country district around Halifax:
“This country seems to have been designed by Providence for the very purposes to which it is now allotted – for carrying on a manufacture – which can nowhere be so easily supplied with the conveniences necessary for it. Nor is the industry of the people wanting to second these advantages. Though we met few people without doors, yet within we saw the houses full of lusty fellows, some at the dye vat, some at the loom, others dressing the cloths; the women and children carding or spinning; all employed, from the youngest to the oldest, scarce anything above four years old but its hands were sufficient for its own support. Not a beggar to be seen, not an idle person, except here and there in an almshouse, built for those that are ancient and past working. The people in general live long; they enjoy a good air, and under such circumstances hard labour is naturally attended with the blessing of health, if not riches. The sides of the hills were dotted with houses, hardly a house standing out of a speaking distance from another; and the land being divided into small inclosures, every three or four pieces of land had a house belonging to them. . . In the course of our road among the houses we found at every one of them a little rill or gutter of running water; . . . and at every considerable house was a manufactory, which not being able to be carried on without water, these little streams were so parted and guided by gutters and pipes that not one of the houses wanted its necessary appendage of a rivulet. Again, as the dyeing houses, scouring shops, and places where they use this water, emit it tinged with the drugs of the dyeing vat, and with the oil, the soap, the tallow, and other ingredients used by the clothiers in dressing and scouring, &c., the lands through which it passes, which otherwise would be exceeding barren, are enriched by it to a degree beyond imagination. Then, as every clothier necessarily keeps one horse at least, to fetch home his wool and his provisions from the market, to carry his yarn to the spinners, his manufacture to the fulling mill, and when finished, to the market to be sold, and the like, so every one generally keeps a cow or two for his family. By this means the small pieces of inclosed land about each house are occupied; and by being thus fed, are still further improved by the dung of the cattle. As for corn, they scarce grow enough to feed their poultry.”
(Defoe, Tour through Great Britain, 1727, vol. 3, p. 98)
The rural areas in East Lancashire had the same type of cottage industry:
“The neighbourhood of the town,” he says, “was thickly studded with groups of cottages, in hamlets or folds as they are there called, many of which have since been surrounded by new houses, and now form part of the town itself. There were no tall chimneys in Bolton in those days, but many considerable warehouses to contain the heavy fustians and other piece goods made in the neighbourhood …. “
(French, Life of Crompton, p. 4, quoted in Chapman, 1904, p. 8)
“In the year 1770, the land in our township [Mellon] was occupied by between fifty to sixty farmers; rents, to the best of my recollection, did not exceed 10s. per statute acre, and out of these fifty or sixty farmers, there were only six or seven who raised their rents directly from the produce of their farms; all the rest got their rent partly in some branch of trade, such as spinning and weaving woollen, linen, or cotton. The cottagers were employed entirely in this manner, except for a few weeks in the harvest. …… The father of a family would earn from eight shillings to half a guinea at his looms, and his sons, if he had one, two, or three along side of him, six or eight shillings each per week; but the great sheet anchor of all cottages and small farms, was the labour attached to the hand-wheel, and when it is considered that it required six or eight hands to prepare and spin yarn, of any of the three materials I have mentioned, sufficient for the consumption of one weaver. This shews clearly the inexhaustible source there was for labour for every person from the age of seven to eighty years (who retained their sight and could move their hands) to earn their bread, say one to three shillings per week without going to the parish.”
(William Radcliffe, Origin of the new System of Manufacture: …, J. Lomax, Stockport, 1828, pp. 59-60)
John Marshall, the major flax manufacturer in the country, giving evidence to Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions in 1834, gives his memory of the situation in the countryside in about 1800, before the loss of employment in wool spinning:
“My own knowledge of the fact embraces an extensive district in the midland counties, in which I can look back on the habitations of 50 families, whom I knew as agricultural labourers 35 or 40 years ago, living in great comfort, the mother and children of the family exchanging the produce of their labour at the wheel to the extent of 2s., 3s., 4s., or 5s. a week, all of which operation is now annihilated; ….. “
(Analysis of the Evidence taken before the Select Committees on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions (1834-1835), evidence of Mr. John Marshall, p. 19)
Arthur Young confirms that the poor (except those on parish relief) ate well:
“Bread in England may be reckoned at 1 ¼ a pound; but we must not, therefore, conclude, that it is near double the French price; for the materials are not the same. In England, it is very generally made of wheat, and the poor, in many parts of the kingdom, eat the whitest and best”
(Arthur Young, Travels During the Years 1787, 1788, & 1789, ….The Kingdom of France, 1794, Vol. I, W. Richardson, London, p. 442)
“In England, the consumption of meat, by the labouring poor, is pretty considerable; … the consumption of cheese in England, by the poor, is immense.” (Arthur Young, op. cit. p. 443)
The variety and quantity of food in Manchester and environs were considerable:
“The supply of provision to this populous town and neighbourhood is a circumstance well deserving of notice. Formerly, oatmeal, which was the staple article of diet of the labouring class in Lancashire, was brought from Stockport: … Since that time, the demand for corn and flour has been increasing by a great amount, and new sources of supply have been opened from distant parts by the navigations, so that monopoly or scarcity cannot be apprehended, though the price of these articles must always be high in a district which produces so little and consumes so much.
Early cabbages, and cucumbers for pickling, are furnished by gardeners about Warrington; early potatoes, carrots, peas, and beans, from the sandy land on and about Bowden Downs. Potatoes, now a most important auxiliary to bread in the diet of all classes, are brought from various parts, especially from about Runcorn and Frodsham, by the duke of Bridgewater’s canal. Apples, which form a considerable and valuable article of the diet even of the poor in Manchester, used in pies or puddings, are imported from the distance of the cyder counties by means of the communicating canals, and in such quantities, that upwards of 3000 l. in a year has been paid for their freight alone. The articles of milk and butter, which used to be supplied by the dairy-farmers in the vicinity, at moderate rates, are now, from the increase of population, become so dear as in the metropolis, and are furnished in a similar manner; viz. the milk, by means of milk houses in the town, which contract for it by the great, and retail it out; and the butter from considerable distances, as well as salt butter from Ireland and other places. Of butcher’s meat, veal and pork are mostly brought by country butchers and farmers; mutton and beef are slaughtered by the town by the town butchers, the animals being generally driven from a distance, except the milch cows of the neighbourhood, which are fattened when old. The supply of meat and poultry is sufficiently plentiful on market days; but on other days it is scarcely possible to procure beef from the butchers; nor is poultry to be had at any price, there being no such trade as a poulterer in the whole town. Wild fowl of various kinds are brought to market in the season.
With fish, Manchester is better provided than might be expected from its inland situation. The greatest quantity of sea-fish comes from the Yorkshire coast, consisting of large cod, lobsters, and turbots, of which last, many are sent even to Liverpool, on an overflow of the market. Soles, chiefly of a small size, come from the Lancashire coast. Salmon are brought in plenty from the rivers Mersey and Ribble, principally the latter. The rivers in the neighbourhood abound in trout, and in what is called brood, which are young salmon from one to two years old, and not easily distinguished from trout, which they closely resemble in shape, but are more delicate in taste. Salmon trout is also plentiful, and likewise small eels. The Irwell at Manchester and for some distance below is, however, destitute of fish, the water being poisoned by liquor flowing in from the dye-houses. Many ponds and old marl-pits in the neighbourhood are well stored with carp and tench, and pike and other fresh fish are often brought to market. The poor have a welcome addition to their usual fare, in the herrings from the Isle of Man, which in the season are brought in large quantities, and are sold at a cheap rate.”
(Aikin, 1795, pp. 203-205)
The living standards of the men in the period just before the introduction of the cotton mills were sufficient:
“The workman generally earned wages which were sufficient not only to live comfortably upon, but which enabled him to rent a few acres of land, thus joining in his own person two classes that are now daily becoming more and more distinct. His farming being but a subordinate occupation, the land yielded only a small proportion of what, under a better system of culture, it was capable of producing. A garden was likewise an invariable adjunct to the cottage of the hand loom weaver; and in no part of the kingdom were the floral tribes and edible roots more zealously or more successfully cultivated. Of simple habits and few wants, the diet of the manufacturing labourers consisted chiefly of oatmeal pottage and milk, bread, beef, cheese, &c., the uses of tea, coffee, and groceries in general being but little known. The amount of labour gone through was but small, for the operative worked by the rule of his strength and convenience.”
(Butterworth, 1856, p. 105)
These people working in the countryside could save a large part of their income, as they did not have the costs of buying grain or bread.
The most complete data that we have referring to the end of the eighteenth century come from the investigation organized by Sir Frederick Eden in 1797, and published as “The State of the Poor”. He was a member of the lower aristocracy, but very interested in social reform, and in order to have a good idea of the level of poverty in the country, he sent an employee to collect data from a large number of towns and cities. These data included the incomes and costs of the workhouses or poorhouses, and how these treated the poor people. Also the income levels, the costs of food, and the number of friendly societies.
The general reports for each town show that in the North there was little extreme poverty.
Leeds: “Wheaten bread is generally used here; some is partly made of rye, and a few persons use oat bread. Animal food forms a considerable portion of the diet of the labouring people; tea is now the ordinary breakfast, more especially amongst women of every description; and the food, both of men and women, is, upon the whole, much more expensive than what is used by persons, in the same station of life, in the more northern parts of England.”
Sheffield: “Wheaten bread universally used here; malt liquor, and butcher’s meat form part of the diet of all ranks of people. The tradesman, artisan, and labourer, all live well.”
Halifax: “Butcher’s meat is very generally used by labourers”
Hull: “The usual diet of labourers in Hull, and its neighbourhood, is wheaten bread; (but since the great advance in the price of wheat, their bread has consisted, two-thirds of wheat, and one-third rye; which is about half the price of wheaten-bread); the cheapest sort of butcher’s meat; potatoes; and fish; the latter may be frequently bought on moderate terms.”
The most impressive part of the reports, in each case, is that referring to the workhouses. These are practically all run with a good administration, requiring the inmates to do some light work (except the old, the infirm, and the lunatics). The food is good: in the majority of the houses, beef is given 3 or 4 days a week, being 2 pounds in total (at Preston, beef every day). At Alcester, Warwickshire, “the diet is extremely good; hot-meat dinners three times a week, with good small beer; the other days cold meat, if any left, with bread and cheese, broth for breakfast; and bread and cheese for supper, except on meat days.” In one workhouse, iron bedsteads were bought for the older people; in another, the old people slept 4 to a small room, but with its own hearth.
Of all the poor in the history of the world up to this date, these must be the “least poor”. Sir Frederick’s book is called “The State of the Poor”, but these poor are not really suffering, as some sections of the population did 30 years later. The problem as to words is that we today have the idea that the poor must necessarily be hungry, dressed in rags, and with horrible housing. This is an idea that we have from the images of the Industrial Revolution. Sir Frederick’s idea of the poor is of people who have no income, or very low income, but who are not suffering; the reason that they are not suffering, is because society is looking after them.
There was considerable consumption of milk, butter and cheese, in and around the towns. In the 1790’s, in the Liverpool area there were 600 cows which gave about 12 quarts of milk daily; the price of cream was 14d. per quart, 2p. per quart for new milk, and 1d. per quart for inferior milk.
(General View of the Agriculture of Lancaster, 1794, pp. 14-17), (General View of the Agriculture of Lancashire, 1815, p. 545).
In Yorkshire in the second half of the eighteenth century the working people also ate well, although obviously the poor did not eat the better quality of food:
“Cereals were the staff of life. The poorer workers in both the North and West Ridings consumed oats, the cheapest grain, and poured boiling milk or water over the meal. Oatmeal-based diets essentially required milk and butter, and these articles were especially important in the West Riding. But the eighteenth century witnessed the partial replacement of oats, barley and rye, by wheat, the most expensive cereal. The more affluent workers adopted it first; it symbolized their relative wealth. By 1800 claims were made that wheat has also largely replaced barley-bread, the one-time staple food of the East Riding population. The most prosperous workers could also afford a more varied diet, especially meat, which was high on the list of plebeian preferences governing the expenditure of surplus incomes. Potato consumption had also risen among all workers; the poorest used potatoes in conjunction with oatmeal, while the affluent used them in their meat stews.”
(Wells, 1972, p. 13)
The general level of food on feast days was very good, as shown by the contrast commented by a diarist in the famine (bad harvest) of 1800:
“A strange Christmas this! I have known every family in this Town have plenty of roast Beef, pies, cheese & Ale etc very great supperings nights Christmas, with singing and mirth …. at this time there is not five famileys here that has bread enough. What will be the event of such Distress God knows.”
(Diary of William Wyatt for Christmas 1800, quoted by Wells, 1972, p. 12)
“The Corn-Market is held every Tuesday in Cross-Parish, and begins at eleven o’clock in the forenoon; but as a market for grain, Leeds does not rank very high. In the Autumn the quantity of Fruit brought here to be sold every Market-day is almost incredible. The Shambles are abundantly supplied with all kinds of butcher’s meat. The beef is remarkably fine. On a Saturday evening the town is crowded with the workpeople of the surrounding villages, who come to lay in a stock of provisions for the week. The town is well supplied with Fish from the East coast, the Market-days for which are Monday and Thursday.
(Billam, A Walk through Leeds, 1806, p. 13)
The people in the villages of Yorkshire or on their farmsteads were not poor or backward. They were also not physically weak. The men walked 10 miles twice a week to the “big town” to sell their woven wool.
The Cloth Makers, The Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814, Archival Reprint Company
The “Shearers” or “Croppers”, who cut the nap from the surface of the cloth, used shears of 4 feet and 40 pounds.
The Cloth Dressers, The Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814, Archival Reprint Company
Work on the farm was physically hard, but not with exceptionally long hours, except in the harvest months, when everyone would work from sun-up to sun-down, defined as when there was no more light.
The weavers in the farmhouse had to take up a difficult bodily position, and many had to work 12 hours even before the Industrial Revolution; but they could take a rest or do some task on the farm when they wanted.
“WEAVERS have a confined atmosphere, and though the limbs are fully exercised, the trunk is kept comparatively fixed, and the chest is not fully expanded. This stooping, however, is somewhat diminished by the mode of casting the shuttle with a string instead of the hand. When weaving is carried out at home, the rooms are often small, and ill-ventilated. …. Fever is rather frequent among weavers, but other acute diseases are rare; the men, however, seldom enjoy health. The appetite is often impaired, digestion is almost always imperfect; …. Asthma and other affections of the chest are common. They complain of the smell of the oil lamps. This no doubt annoys the lungs, but their reduction in health is attributable chiefly to the confinement. The susceptibility to fever may arise from the frequent defect of proper nourishment. … Notwithstanding the poverty and general reduction of health among the weavers, longevity is by no means rare. …. ”
(Thackrah, 1832, p. 34)
As general inputs, we may state that many working people, at least in the North, were eating “animal food”, and the women were taking tea. The proportion of the population eating bread from wheat instead of from inferior cereals increased in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the poorhouses, meat was usually served three times a week.
The people had enough money to make payments to building societies and to savings banks (Hart, 2009).
The workers in the industrial towns had enough money to not work every day, but rather to go drinking: “It is well known that in the great trading towns, such as Manchester, Sheffield, etc., four days work in a week amply supply the dissolute and the drunken.” (Davies, 1795, p. 163)