5.5. New Wage Conditions in the Factory

The intention of this section is to revise if the wages in the first years in the factories were or were not higher than for the preceding generation of workers.

In 1818, according to a newspaper, the men spinners had a net wage of 31s. at least, and the boys and girls at least 17s. (See Chapter Three).

In 1829, the spinners’ union stated that the top class of spinners earned 40 shillings, and gave other information from which we can calculate that the average for men spinners was 22 shillings. (See Chapter Three)

According to G. H. Wood, in “The History of Wages in the Cotton Trade”, the wages for 1st. class spinners in 1806 was 33 shillings, and the average 26 shillings; in 1814-1822 the top class was 32 shillings, and the average was 26.            

(Wood, 1910, Table 6, p. 28)

We also have figures in the early years from one cotton mill:

A Statement of the clear average Earnings of Spinners, Dressers, and Weavers, in the Employ of Mr. Thomas Ashton, of Hyde, in the county of Chester, cotton manufacturer, in the years undermentioned.

 L. s. d.L. s. d.L. s. d.L. s. d.L. s. d.
Spinners, 1st class1 17 01 13 61 15 01 14 01 15 0
Spinners, 2d & 3d1 10 01   7 31   7 01   8 01   8 2
Spinners, 4th   0 19 81   0 0
Dressers1 10 01 10 01 10 01 10 01 10 6
Weavers, power-loom(young girls)0 14 00 14 00 13 00 12 00 12 0

(Taken from Baines, 1835, p. 445)

From the above data we can calculate the progression of the earnings of the average of the principal male workers (1769 weaver, 1797 spinner, 1806 spinner, 1814-22 spinner, 1816 spinner):

Wage shillings716262633
Cost of quartern loaf (d.)67 ½ 111112
Wage in loaves1425282833
Cost of 1 pound of meat (d.)357 ½77 ½ 
Wage in pounds of meat2838414452

Thus the earnings of the man increased from 1769 to 1797 by 130 % in shillings, by 90 % expressed in loaves, and by 40 % expressed in meat. The figures for 1797 to 1816 were 100 % in shillings, 20 % in loaves, and 35 % in meat.

We can also carry out the calculation “backwards”, that is, with deflation to previous dates. The man in 1797 with 16 shillings could buy 25 loaves a week; in order to buy 25 loaves a week in 1769, he would have needed earnings of 12 shillings. The man in 1816 with 33 shillings could buy 33 loaves a week; in order to buy 33 loaves a week in 1797, he would have needed earnings of 20 shillings; in order to buy 33 loaves a week in 1769, he would have needed earnings of 16 shillings. No working man in Lancashire, nor in Yorkshire (except some in Sheffield), was earning 16 shillings in 1769.

In order to take into account the movements in the wages of the women and children, and particularly the changes in the type of employment inside the family, we can calculate the total income for a family of 1 man, 1 woman, and 1.5 children (the proportion in 1833):

Wage man shillings716262633
Wage woman shillings3.58  14
Wage child shillings1.54  4
Wages 3.5 persons13.730  53
Cost of quartern loaf (d.)67 ½  12
Wages in loaves2748  53
Cost of 1 pound of meat (d.)35  7 ½ 
Wages in meat5572  84

The total family earnings increased from 1769 to 1797 by 120 % in shillings, 75 % expressed in loaves, and by 30 % expressed in meat. From 1797 to 1816 the figures were 75 % in shillings, 10 % in loaves, and 15 % in meat.

Cotton worker716262633
Agricultural labourer6.58.510.611.511.9

            This means that there was a clear rise in the wages of these people, when they entered the factory. From this time onwards, the cotton mill workers had a higher level of income than many other groups in the economy. For this reason, it is not surprising that they remained at the same wage level for the next 50 years. This was reinforced by the fact that the cost of living went down by 20-25 % in the same period.  

We have a comparison between textile wages in 1760 and in 1856:

“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 1/4 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)


In the worsted industry there was no “jump” in the wages, because the change to a factory environment only began in 1820, and the change in work methods was not great. The increases in nominal wages were exactly given to cover the costs in food costs. The wool comber changed from 18 loaves per week in 1769 to 19 loaves in 1825, the girl spinner from 6 loaves per week in 1769 to 3 loaves in 1825 (introduction of machinery, made the work easier), and the hand-loom weaver from 14 loaves per week in 1769 to 14 in 1797 and to 24 in 1825 (high volume of production from spinners).

These data do not show a particularly positive movement in wages during the beginning of the factory phase, as was the case in the cotton industry. What did happen was that the real wages stayed at basically the same level from 1770 to 1825, and that this was in spite of the fact that the population of Bradford increased exceptionally.

There was no “jump” in the real wages in Leeds, and for the same reasons as in Bradford. The wool sorter improved from 27 loaves per week in 1805 to 33 loaves in 1825, the slubber from 35 loaves in 1797 to 30 loaves in 1825, the male spinner from 27 loaves in 1797 to 23 in 1825, and the hand-loom weaver from 16 loaves in 1797 to 15 loaves in 1825.

We repeat here the remarks quoted in Chapter Four, referring to the contracting of the earlier workers to the mills. These all show that the initiative for looking for these men came from the mill-owners, and that they had to offer high wages to induce the men to change to the factories. It is not true that the men who entered the mills were agricultural workers, who were forced by hunger to look for work.

“When I began work in the cotton manufacture the workmen were not accustomed to that description of labour; they were joiners, carpenters, and colliers, who were induced by the higher wages which spinning yielded, to abandon their handicraft trades, and become spinners. These men brought their wives with them, women who had been accustomed to outdoor employment.”

(Titus Rowbotham, mechanic, quoted in Faucher, 1845, p.73)

“The art of spinning on Crompton’s machine was tolerably well known, from the circumstance of the high wages that could be obtained by those working on it, above the ordinary wages of other artisans, such as shoemakers, joiners, hat-makers, &c., who on that account left their previous employment.” (Baines, pp. 203-204)     

“You have been a witness of the formation of the operative class in these parts: you have seen it grow from nothing into a great body in the space of a few years; how was it recruited; of what was it composed; what were the spinners taken from?” “A good many from the agricultural parts; a many from Wales; a many from Ireland and from Scotland. People left other occupations and came to spinning for the sake of the high wages. I recollect shoemakers leaving their employ and learning to spin; I recollect tailors; I recollect colliers; but a great many more husbandmen left their employ to learn how to spin; very few weavers at that time left their employ to learn to spin; ….”

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Evidence of Mr. Thomas Yates, spinner and foreman since 1797, Part 1, p. 169)  

“You are a native of this part of the country, but you quitted it about the year 1800, at the time when spinning by power was just coming into general use. Can you give me any information about the manner or way in which the persons who were then being wanted for spinners were procured and collected together by the masters?” “The deficiency of hands led the masters to give great wages, and that led the people to transport themselves to these depôts of machinery, and they came in flocks from all occupations, and thus the great mass of operatives was assembled in these depôts.” 

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Evidence of Mr. Richard Wilding, Part 1, p. 171)  

The same process took place when a cotton mill was introduced into Macclesfield, Chester, which at that date (1785) had 12 silk mills:

“About 40 years ago, or in the year 1776, the wages paid to the Millmen and Stewards was seven shillings a week; that of the women employed as doublers, three shillings and sixpence. Children employed in the Silk Mills were hired for three years, at the rate of sixpence per week for the first week, ninepence, for the second, and one shilling, for the third. Butter was then fourpence per pound in Macclesfield Market; best cheese twopence halfpenny; and prime beef twopence. Mutton and veal were then bought by the joint; brown bread was sold for five farthings the pound, and fine flour at one shilling the peck of eight pounds weight. Milk was sold at a penny a quart.

…….. In 1785, some Lancashire men came to Macclesfield and erected a manufactory for spinning Cotton on the banks of the Bollin, in that part of the town called the Waters. ….. As the Cotton manufacture was then in a high state of prosperity, higher wages were given to Cotton spinners than the Silk throwsters could afford; consequently a large number of their people left them for the sake of greater emolument. A temporary stagnation of business particularly among the throwsters who had but a small capital, was the consequence; while the more opulent were compelled to counteract the influence of the cotton manufacturers by advancing the wages of their Millmen, Doublers, and the children employed in the silk mills. In a short time after Cotton spinning was established in Macclesfield, the Millmen employed in the Silk Mills were paid about sixteen shillings a week on an average; the doublers from eight and sixpence to ten shillings; and children two shillings and sixpence, three shillings, four shillings, and five shillings a week, according to dexterity.”

(Corry, 1817, pp. 66-67)  

There were many advertisements in the newspapers in the towns, looking for men mule spinners.

An advertisement for spinners to work in a new Mill in Bolton in 1816 : (cottages!; liberal wages!; constant employ!)

(Kelly, Nigel, et al., Britain 1750-1900, Heinemann, London, 1998, p. 44)

“Before Arkwright began to build his industrial empire, Derbyshire gained a poor living from a declining mining industry and some domestic spinning and weaving. Cotton spinning produced an immediate increase in living standards, and within a generation wage rates had doubled.” 

S. D. Chapman; The Transition to the Factory System in the Midlands Cotton-Spinning Industry; The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1965), pp. 526-543; Economic History Society; http://www.jstor.org/stable/2592563; p. 543.

(The same phenomenon took place at the beginnings of the textile factories in New England in 1820 to 1840. The mill owners in Lowell sent wagons out to pick up the girls who wanted to work in the factories. These girls were generally farm girls, daughters of farmers, who did not have a great financial need, but wanted to earn money, often to help their brothers to study for a good career. The wages offered were the double of those in other occupations which might be open to them. The reasons for this difference were to compensate them for the distance from their families, and for the “bad reputation” in general of factory girls. The wages in Lowell were from US$ 2.50 to 3.00 or more a week, less US$ 1.25 for dormitory and food; the other possible occupations would only pay US$ 1.50, and in bad working conditions.)

(Lebergott, Stanley; Wage Trends 1800-1900, Chapter in Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century, National Bureau of Economic Research, published by Princeton University Press, 1960; www.nber.org/chapters/c2486.pdf; pp. 450-452;

Harriet Robinson; Autobiography; Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook, www.sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/robinson-lowell.asp)

The mill-owners in Lancashire were not absolutely fixed on the idea that they had to reduce their wage costs, and always pay the minimum contractual amount: 

“In order to encourage my weavers to make a good article, I had given them one pound above their regular wages. I have paid thousands of pounds at various times in extra wages. I always told my workmen that I would give them from five shillings up to a pound extra, in proportion as they did them to my satisfaction, and I could always make the most profit on those goods which had cost the most for weaving. I therefore always took care not to leave my men dissatisfied with what I gave them. I held out every encouragement for them to make as good an article as possible. Had I not done so, it would have been a cause for them to have slackened in their endeavours. I had at this time [1818] two hundred and one weavers, who each averaged above a pound a-week, and a number of others who averaged above thirty shillings weekly. I have met many of them since, who have told me they could not get fifteen shillings for the same labour, as they got thirty shillings of me.”

(William Hirst, History of the Woollen Trade for the Last Sixty Years, S. Moody, Leeds, 1844; p. 25)

The “price lists” for each type of machine, agreed between owners and spinners, fixed a wage level for each quantity, calculated in such a way that if the spinner produced more, he could keep a part of the extra value of production. We have two examples below.

A spinner working in the first half of 1834 was working with a mule of 324 spindles, with which he produced sixteen pounds of yarn No. 200, in sixty nine hours. He was paid at a rate of 3s. 6d. a pound, which gives a total of 54s. gross. He had to pay 13s. for two assistants, which gives a net income of 41s. the week. But then his machines had their throughput doubled. He could thus produce thirty two pounds of the same yarn. His tariff was changed to 2s. 5d. a pound (i.e. it was not reduced to the half), and thus he received 77s. 4d. net. From this were deducted 27s. for the wages of 5 assistants, which gave 50s. 4d. net. His earnings were increased by more than 20 per cent, while the labour cost of the yarn was reduced by 13d. per pound. 

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Mr. Cowell’s Preface to Tables, p. 119l; and see the complete exposition by Mr. Cowell, pp. 119e to 119n)

Before 1842 the spinner’s wages for the production of 20 lbs. of No. 70 yarn on a pair of mules of 400 spindles each were 4s. 7d. a pound, corresponding to 20s. net a week. In 1859, with a pair of mules with 800 spindles each, he could earn 30s. 10d. net per week, although the rate had been reduced from 4s. 7d. to 3s. 11d. 

(Chadwick, 1860, pp. 5-6)  

 “At your factory are you obliged to get through a certain quantity of work in a day?” “Yes.”

“Is there any extra wages for the spinners getting through more than a certain quantity of work?” “Yes.”

“What are those extra wages?” “There is a clock on every wheel which we work by, to shew how many stretches we have done in a day; and after we have run such a quantity of hours we have a penny an hour for every one we do above.”

(House of Lords, Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill, 1819, Evidence of John Mellor, spinner, p. 33)

“How a rural, mostly self-employed labor force was enticed to work in mostly urban mills is one of the most interesting questions in the debate on the Industrial Revolution, and yet it has not received much attention in the literature produced by economists. One answer given, ironically, by the social historian Perkin is purely economic: «By and large, it was the prospect of higher wages which was the most effective means of overcoming the natural dislike for the monotony and quasi-imprisonment of the factory» (Perkin, 1969, p. 130). Pollard (1965) and Thompson (1967) suggest a variety of alternative ways in which the factory owners educated their workers in their own image, trying to imbue them with an ethic that made them more docile and diligent. Punctuality, respect for hierarchy, frugality, and temperance were the qualities that the value system tried to convey onto the younger generation. The factory owners used a combination of approaches; they relied first and foremost on semi-compulsory apprenticed child labor from workhouses (“pauper apprentices”) and on women driven out of their cottage industries by the rapid mechanization of spinning. Gradually, they created a more balanced labor force by a combination of higher pay and social control. An example is provided by the research of Huberman (1986; 1991; 1992; 1996). Huberman points out that although in the pre-1800 period the labor market in Lancashire worked in the classical fashion, with flexible wages equating supply and demand, employers soon found that they needed more than a labor force that was available. They needed a labor force that was loyal, reliable, and motivated. To ensure this they paid wages that soon became institutionalized as «fair wages» and lost their flexibility. The emergence of such wage rigidity in some industries meant that when demand fluctuated, the adjustments would take place through quantity adjustments: layoffs and short-time became commonplace.”

(Mokyr, 1999, p. 87; see also Pollard, 1965, whole article)

(Your author is not in agreement with the last sentence. When there was a decrease in sales volume, in a number of cases, the owners were able to make the men agree to take a 10 to 20 % wage cut. There were some strikes started by the workers, because when the situation returned to normal sales quantities, the owners refused to give back the 10 or 20 %.)

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