Adam Smith was of the opinion that every working man in Great Britain had enough to live on: “In Great Britain the wages of labour seem, in the present times, to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the labourer to bring up a family. In order to satisfy ourselves upon this point, it will not be necessary to enter into any tedious or doubtful calculation of what may be the lowest sum upon which it is possible to do this. There are many plain symptoms, that the wages of labour are nowhere in this country regulated by the lowest rate, which is consistent with common humanity.”
(The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8, The Wages of Labour)
The incomes in the cotton business in Oldham were about 9 shillings a week in 1760:
“The weaver, if the spinning was not done by his own family, paid the spinner for the spinning, and the spinner paid the carder and the rover. The weaving of a piece of chains or thicksets, containing twelve pounds of weft, at 1s. 6d. per pound, occupied a weaver about fourteen days, and he received for the weaving 18s. The spinning of the weft, at 9d. per pound, amounted to 9s.; and the picking, carding, and roving of the article, at the same sum per pound, reached 9s. Thus, when the weaver took the piece to the master, he received 36s., out of which he paid the spinner 18s., the spinner paying 9s. for the carding and roving. A weaver required three grown persons to supply him with weft.
At this period (1760) wheat was 5s. per bushel, of 70 lbs.; meal, 20s. per load; beef, 2d. per lb.; a neck of mutton, 9d.; and cheese, 2 ¼ d. per lb. Land let for £1 10s. the Cheshire acre, and a weaver’s cottage, with a two-loom shop, for £2 or £2 10s. per annum.
The average rate of wages earned by power-loom weavers at the present time (1847) is 10s. per week each, cotton spinners 17s. per week, card-room hands from 9s. to 10s., and adult piecers from 9s. to 11s. At the present period, wheat is about 10s. 6d. per bushel, of 70 lbs.; meal, £2 l0s. per load; beef, 6 ½ d per lb.; and cheese, 7d. per lb. Land in this part of the country now lets for £5 per Cheshire acre, and the annual rent of an ordinary factory operative’s cottage is about £6 10s. to £7 10s.”
(Butterworth, 1856, pp. 103-104)
Thus the wages of the men increased by 100 % in this period, if we compare with the work in the mill as spinners (the power-loom weavers at the later date would have been women). Wheat increased by 100 %, oatmeal by 150 %, beef by 200 %, and cheese by 200 %. Cottage rent increased by three times, but the cottages would have been of improved quality, in the town. In 1760, the weekly earnings were equivalent to 1.8 bushels of wheat or to 33 4-pound units of oatmeal, and in 1847 the wages were equivalent to 1.6 bushels of wheat or to 25 4-pound units of oatmeal.
In order to make comparisons of purchasing power of the wages in the different dates, we give the costs of bread and of meat.
1769: bread 6p. quartern loaf, meat 3 ½ p. pound.
1797: bread 7 ½ p. quartern loaf, meat 5p. pound.
1815: bread 10p. quartern loaf, meat 7 ½ p. pound.
Increase: 1769-1797 bread 25 %, meat 42 %; 1797-1815 bread 33 %, meat 50 %
There were a number of professions and activities which paid very well in the period 1770-1795. The first numbers come from Arthur Young in 1770 (when the quartern loaf was 6 pence, and meat was 3 pence a pound); the table shown next refers only to places in the North of England.
(Young, “A six month tour through the north of England….”, 1771, pp. 321-322)
The following table references “manufacturers” in the South of England:
(Young, “A Six Weeks Tour through the southern counties …”, 1769, p. 328)
According to Arthur Young’s report on the town of Manchester in 1769, the men weavers earned from 5 to 10 shillings a week for “velverets”, “thicksets”, “quilts” and “petticoats”, and from 3 to 7 shillings for other fustians (mix of cotton and linen yarns); for all the “check” branch, the men earned 7 shillings. The cotton spinners earned 2 to 5 shillings for women, and girls 6-12 years received 1s. to 1s. 6d.
Bread (mixture of wheat and barley) was at 1 ½ pence the pound and beef at 2 ½ pence the pound, so that 7 shillings a week would buy 56 pounds of bread or 35 pounds of beef (Young, 1771, Vol. 3, pp. 186-194).
Arthur Young reported on the wages of worsted workers in Leeds in 1769. Male weavers 5 to 12 shillings the week, average 7s.; boys 13-14 5s.; women weavers 3s. 6d. to 4s.; wool combers 6 to 12 shillings; women spinners 2s. 6d. to 3s. the week; girls 13-14 1s. 8d. the week. The price of oats was 10 ounces for one penny, and beef 4 pence the pound, so that the average income for a man weaver could buy 50 pounds of oatcakes or 20 pounds of beef (we can add the fact that all the family members worked). (Young, 1771, Vol. I, pp.137-139). There was always enough work.
He also gives us the incomes for cloth workers in Leeds in 1769. The men weavers earn 10s. 6d. a week if they are fully employed, but the real yearly average is about 8 shillings; a boy of 13 or 14 earns about 4s. a week, and some of the women earn as much as the men. There is not always enough work. The weekly income of the men weavers is equivalent to 60 lbs. of oatcakes or 24 lbs. of beef. (Arthur Young, 1771, pp. 137-139)
The comments in Sir Frederick Eden’s book, for a number of towns in 1795, as follows (quartern loaf at 10 pence, and meat at 5 pence the pound):
Dunstable Straw work (hats), women 6s. to 12s. a week, children 2s. to 4s. a week.
Reading Weavers of sacking 16s. a week; weavers of gauze 15s. to 30s. a week; weavers of sail-cloth 18s. a week; spinners of hemp 3s. a week; common labourers 9s. a week.
Chesterfield Men working at the founderies 14s. a week; stocking-weavers 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. a day; masons, joiners, etc. 2s. 6d. a day.
Derby Common labourers cutting canals 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day; children, from 7 to 12 years of age, in silk and cotton mills, 1s. to 2s. 6d. a week; stocking-weavers 6s. to 20s. a week; paper and china manufacture 10s. to 21s. a week.
Wirksworth Common labourers 1s. 4d. to 1s. 8d. a day; lead miners 10s. a week; women spinning worsted 5 ½ d to 6d. a day; women spinning cotton 3s. to 5s. a week.
Stanhope Common labourers 7s. to 9s. a week, without board; masons, 14s. a week; miners average 25 pounds a year.
Colchester Weavers 8s. to 9s. a week; woolcombers 10s. to 12s. a week; spinners 4d. to 6d. a day; card-makers 2s. a day; women weavers 5s. to 5s. 6d. a week.
Bristol Labourers in the different manufacturers 7s. to 35s. a week; common labourers 1s. 6d. a day, without victuals; children employed in cotton manufacture 1s. 6d. to 3s. a week.
Southampton Bricklayers, carpenters, etc. 15s. to 16s. a week; common labourers 1s. 8d. to 2s. a day.
Bury Women spinning wool 3s. to 4s. a week; common labourers 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day; common mechanics 2s. 6d. to 3s. a day. “Manufacturers and other labourers are better paid here than in Manchester. 16s. a week are considered as moderate earnings. The wages in the woolen are much lower than in the cotton manufacture.”
Lancaster Common labourers 2s. 6d. to 3s. a day; masons 3s. a day; common carpenters 3s. a day.
Liverpool “Common labourers earn from 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day, ship-carpenters, from 2s. 6d. to 4s.: and other artificers in proportion.”
Manchester Women in cotton 8s. a week; children 7 to 8 years old, 2s. a week; children 9 to 10 years old, 4s. a week; printers of cotton 31s. to 40s. a week; common labourers 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day. “From the accounts of well-informed persons, I think the average weekly earnings of manufacturing labourers in Manchester, may be stated at about 16s.; but it is to be observed, that they rarely work on Mondays, and that many of them keep holiday [drinking !],two or three days in the week.” “Women and children are employed in winding cotton, reeling and ending, cutting fustian, picking cotton, managing the spinning jennies, &c. Women earn from 6s. to 12s. a week; their clear weekly earnings may be stated at 8s. Children, of 7 or 8 years, can earn 2s. a week; of 9 or 10 years, 4s. a week; printers of cotton, from £1 1s. to £2 a week, common labourers, from 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day.”
Preston Common labourer 2s. a day; masons and bricklayers 3s. a day; carpenters 15s. to 16s. a week.
Ashby de la Zouch Wool spinners 1s. 6d. to 3s. a week; wool-combers 12s. to 14s. a week; stocking-weavers 7s. to 17s. a week; hatters 12s. to 20s. a week.
Leicester Stocking-weavers 7s. to 21s. a week; wool-combers 9s. to 12s. a week; worsted-spinners 4d. to 8d. a day.
Norwich Weavers (were 21s. fine work, 12s. coarse work) now 7s. to 8s. a week; women weavers 5s. to 6s. a week.
Northampton Women and children in cotton manufactory 2s. to 5s. a week; shoemakers 10s. to 15s. a week; wool-combers 9s. to 12s. a week; lace-makers 1d. to 1 ½ d. an hour; common labourers 14d. to 18d. a day.
Rode Lace-workers 8d. to 10d. a day; masons 2s. a day, with beer; joiners 12s. to 15s. a week; common carpenter 1s. a day with board.
Newcastle Pitmen 1s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. a day, average 16s. a week, plus rye at 4s. the bushel.
North Shields Common labourers 12s. a week in summer, and 10s. a week in winter; masons 15s. a week; joiners 15s. a week; colliers 15s. to 18s. a week.
Nottingham Weavers 8s. to 40s. a week, average 10s.; lace-workers 20s. to 40s. a week; women and children manufacturing cotton and silk, 10d. to 4s. weekly; common labourers 10s. week in summer, and 8s. a week in winter.
Frome Sheermen [sic.] 15s. to 20s. a week; scribblers 12s. a week; weavers 20s. a week.
Wolverhampton Different manufactures 9s. to 40s. a week.
Birmingham Buttons and buckles, men 20 to 30s., women 7 to 10s., boys 4s. a week; gunsmiths 42s. a week; common labourers 10s. a week; bricklayers 3s. a day, their men 2s. 6d. a day; labourers cutting a canal 3s. a day.
Coventry Ribbon-weavers 8s. to 12s. a week; children winding silk 2s. to 3s. a week; common labourers 6s. a week in summer and 4s. in winter, with victuals; carpenters 2s. 6d. a day; masons 2s. 4d. a day; masons’ labourers 20d. a day, with 2 pints of beer, but no victuals.
Kendal Weavers, men 8s. to 12s. a week, women 4s. a week; dyers 9s. a week; wool-combers 12s. to 16s. a week; masons and carpenters 12s. a week.
Orton Masons and joiners, 1s. 4d. a day, with diet; tailors 10d. a day.
Bradford on Avon Sheermen 17s. a week; scribblers 12 to 15s. a week; weavers 10 to 24s. a week.
Trowbridge Sheermen 14s. a week; scribblers 10s. 6d. a week; weavers 10s. 6d.; women dressing cloth 5s. a week.
Inkborough “Females are employed in spinning and weaving; by the former, an industrious woman will earn from 4p. to 9p. a day; by the latter, from 6s. to 8s. a week; where the man and the wife both weave, it frequently happens, that the man, finding a resource in the industry of his partner, spends the produce of his own labour at the ale-house, and returns to his family to devour the food of his children.”
Bradford Ordinary labourers 1s. 6d. a day, with 2 pints of beer; tailors 10d. a day with victuals; carpenters, masons and joiners, 2s. 0d. to 2s. 6d. a day, with victuals; weavers 7s. to 11s. a week; wool-combers 11s. to 12s. a week.
Ecclesfield (near Sheffield) Nails 6s. to 12s. a week; files 10s. 6d. a week
Halifax Agricultural labourers receive from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a day, and two pints of beer, but no victuals. It is a very general practice in this part of the country, to allow drink, both in the forenoon and afternoon, to labourers of every description; and the custom has taken root so deeply, that it would be difficult to eradicate it. Weavers are paid from 7s. to 11s. a week; wool-combers 9s. to 12s. a week; masons, joiners, carpenters, 2s. to 2s. 6d. a day; tailors 10d. to 1s. 1d. a day, with victuals.
Hull “The earnings of a labourer have already been noted; including the increase of wages in harvest, and the advantages arising from task-work, those of an industrious man may be estimated at about £ 40 a year, (exclusive of the earnings of his wife and children;) a sum equal to the support of a man and his wife, and from two to three children, which, it is conceived, is about the average of families. From the most accurate calculation it appears, that 4 ½ persons are the average number to a house in Hull.”
Leeds Weavers woollen manufacture 12s. to 18s. a week; scribblers of wool, dressers of cloth, 12s. to 21s. a week; bricklayers and masons 2s. 6d. to 3s. a day, their assistants 2s. a day; joiners 2s. 6d. a day; ordinary labourers 9s. to 10s. 6d. a week.
Sheffield Ordinary labourers 2s. a day, with one pint of ale and half a quartern loaf; masons 2s. 8d. a day, their assistants 2s. a day; in the various branches of cutlery, 10s. to 30s. a week; women, spinning lint, 6d. a day; washer-women 1s. a day, with victuals.
Skipton Workmen in the lime-stone quarries, 2s. to 2s. 4d. a day in summer, without victuals, and 1s. 6d. to 1s. 8d. a day in winter, without victuals; women in the cotton mills, 4s. to 5s. a week; women spinning worsted, 4d. to 6d. a day.
In only a few points, Sir Frederick’s rapporteur informs that “there is not always work”. This gives us to understand that in these non-agricultural occupations, there was close to full employment.
Incomes in the countryside
As we shall see in the chapter on Agricultural Labourers (1770-1815), the field workers with their families had high incomes in the period 1770-1795. This was due to the fact that, additional to their basic weekly wages (about 7 shillings), they earned a double wage in the harvest month and the farmer brought their food out to the field without charge; they could have a daily wage of about 150-160 % of the basic wage when they did task-work. The women and children could earn about 3 or 4 shillings from spinning wool. The family income averaged over the year could reach 14 shillings weekly.