11.1. External Factors

The importance of this chapter and the following chapter is to construct a quantitative description of the living standards in agriculture from 1770 to 1860, and particularly in the last years of the period. This should help us to understand the effect of the Industrial Revolution on this section of the population.

The three important points to be checked about the incomes of the agricultural labourers at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century are:

  • did the incomes of these persons keep up with the increases of food prices, due to the effects of the wars (1792-1815) and to the bad harvests, during the period?
  • was the proportion of income to food costs at the beginning the period maintained at the end of the period?
  • did the labourers suffer generally poverty and hunger during this period? 

When we have these general data, we will have a good idea of the standard of living in the countryside in 1815, and then can see if the living conditions in 1815-1840 are a continuation of those in 1815, or if something happened to change the general economic situation for the agricultural labourers.

The main economic and political events or situations which had an effect on the living standards of the agricultural population in this period were:

  • enclosure of the commons lands, that is, privatization of these lands for the benefit of the better classes, and thus taking away the use of these areas (wood and brush for fire, pasture for cows) for the generality of the agricultural population;
  • French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars from 1792 to 1815, which removed about 400,000 men from the agricultural working segment, and thus gave a better negotiating position for the remaining workers as to their wages;
  • extreme scarcity of cereals in some years, which caused a more than doubling of the wheat price; 
  • beginnings of industrialization in the woollens industry and thus reduction of the cost of spinning, which made it uneconomic for the labourers’ wives to work on spinning in their cottages;
  • increase in the volume, and reduction in the price, of cotton cloths, which caused a change from woollen clothing to cotton, and at a lower expense;
  • introduction of potato growing, starting in 1770-1780, which gave the labourers a cheaper alternative to bread;
  • changes in the mechanism of the Poor Rates (especially Speenhamland 1795), which practically gave the poorest labourers a guaranteed income level, defined in proportion to the price of a loaf of bread.   


The majority of the farming lands in England in 1760 (excluding Kent, the South West, the North) were organized as “open fields”, that is there was a large area, without fences or walls, which was legally part of the parish or manor, but divided into strips of land which were farmed by individual peasants; one peasant would have a number of non-contiguous strips.

(Slater, 1907, facing p. 8)

The map of Laxton, Nottinghamshire, as shown, dates from a book of 1907, showing the arrangement of the strips of fields, as it was then, and as it had been for centuries. Today (2019) it is one of only three open fields existing in England. 

The process of “enclosure” meant that the landlord of the field was empowered by Act of Parliament to amalgamate all the strips and prohibit the peasants from using “their” lands. He would rent large areas (contiguous) of the field each to a person interested in farming it, which would be done in a much more efficient way. From 1760 to 1870, 7 million acres (one-sixth of the area of England) of common lands were enclosed. (There was another form of “enclosure” by which waste lands not being used for agriculture could be incorporated; 800,000 acres.)

The removal of the “common lands” to private ownership, meant in financial terms that: i) for the better-off workers, they lost the possibility of pasturing a cow, which had given them about 20 pence a week income, and had given them milk for their children; ii) the families could not collect gratis the small wood or gorse etc. for fuel, and thus had to buy wood or coals.   

The change in terms of employment, meant that instead of being peasants with land, they were now wage earners. Many could not find employment with the new owners, as the work was now done more “efficiently”; areas which were changed from tillage to pasture, there was little employment, and areas which changed from pasture to tillage, the number of hands required increased. Those that lost employment had to “go on the parish”, look for work in and industrial town, or emigrate to America. Large regions in some counties lost a considerable part of their population. Cobbett in his “Rural Rides” particularly puts before our eyes the case of the Avon valley in Wiltshire, where the population of an area which had had twenty-nine parishes, is reduced to the half of that of the parish of Kensington. But they do produce a large amount of wheat, barley, sheep, and hogs; in the village of Milton, 100 families (poorly paid) produce food for 500 families (Cobbett, 1830, pp 363-372).   

The animals which were pastured on the improved fields were larger and healthier. “Cattle: Enclosures 571, Increased in 354, Decreased in 106, As before in 111. The full increase in produce does not appear in these numbers, for the difference in the size and calue of the cattle is exceedingly great: it has been a change from poor half starved breeding stocks, to the best breeds for beef. …. Sheep: Enclosures 721, Increased in 467, Decreased in 157, As before in 97. The remark I made on cattle is equally applicable to sheep; these numbers, great as the increase is, do not mark the whole; for before, they were poor, lean, hungry, half starved common fed flocks for folding; but, since, are become far superior in breed, value, and food. …. In fact, the production of mutton and beef has increased enormously, beyond credibility to those who look only to the price they pay, notwithstanding the vast increase of produce.” 

(Board of Agriculture, 1808, General Report on Enclosures, pp. 62-63).

Appendix IV of the above-mentioned Report quotes information given by professional persons and curates, as to the “Effect on the Poor, of the Enclosures which took place during the first Forty Years of His present Majesty” [i.e. up to 1800], in 11 tabular pages. The evaluation is in every case negative. The effects are given as: the poor have lost their cows, and the milk; poverty has generally increased; fewer hands required, and poor rates increased; great decrease in consumption of cheese and pigs; nearly the whole of the owners “come to the parish”; had to sell their tenements.

Loss of spinning income

Many of the wives of the labourers could add something to the household income, by spinning wool. There are two pieces of information from Arthur Young, one from 1788 (vol. IX, pp. 349-353) that the daily pay for adult women was 4d. in Hereford, 6d. in Oxfordshire, and 9d. to 1s. in Sussex, Hampshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, averaging 6d.,  and another from his correspondents in 1793 (vol. XX, pp. 178-187), with 6d. to 9d. a day in different counties. Sixpence a day was three shillings a week, or about 40 % of the basic weekly wage of the husband. Expressed at an annual level, it was seven pounds a year, which would make a large improvement in the “deficiencies in earnings” in the family budgets which we have seen. 

But starting from 1790-95, the majority of the wives did not spin any more, because the low costs of spinning with the new machines, made it impossible for them to compete. The small jennies were bought and used by some agricultural families, who had enough money to buy one (the woman could earn 10 shillings a week), or by a businessman who bought a number of the machines, and installed them in a small town. 

“The earnings by spinning have for the last year been much curtailed, owing to the wool-staplers using spinning engines, near their place of residence, in preference to their sending wool into the country to be spun by hand. And whereas a poor woman and two small children (which is the average household of a labourer) could heretefore earn fourteen pence per day, they cannot now earn more than ten pence; …..” [“two small children” means “two small girls, of an age to work on spinning”] 

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXVI, 1796 (1), Letter XXV, Cornwall, pp. 18 and 19)   

“The children of the poor are put to some kind of employment as soon as they are able to work. In the manufactories, particularly the clothing, the introduction of machinery has supplied work for very young children, though probably at the expense of health and morals in the rising generation. It has also annihilated the means of domestic employment of women and children, not only in the adjacent villages, but through the whole agricultural district, to the extent of forty miles. The families of labourers who were used to earn a good deal towards their maintenance by spinning, have now no employment in winter, and only a partial supply of such agricultural business as is suited to their strength in summer.”

(General View of the Agriculture of the County of Gloucester, 1807, Poor, pp. 346-347) 

“It is a melancholy fact, that without any particular acts of oppression on the part of the farmers, or of dissoluteness on the part of the poor, the labourers of many parts of this county, and of the South-east District in particular, may truly be said to be at this time in a wretched condition. The dearness of provisions, the scarcity of fuel, and above all, the failure of spinning-work for the women and children, have put it almost out of the power of the village poor to live by their industry, …..” 

(Board of Agriculture / Thomas Davis, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Wiltshire, 1811, p. 215)

 “Formerly, all the women and children in the neighbouring villages, from 10 to 15 miles around, used to be employed in spinning yarn, and the wife and children, on average, could earn nearly as much as the husband. 150 wool-combers used to be employed in Lavenham, each of whom furnished work for 30 spinners. There are now only 16 wool-combers in this and all the adjoining parishes. Their work is quite superseded by machinery; the population is now become almost purely agricultural, and much less well off than formerly.”

(Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, 1843, p. 228, Lavenham)

Mr. John Marshall gave the Hand-Loom Weavers Commission a description of what had happened in the countryside from 1790 to 1820:

“…. The census of 1831 proves that the extended application of machinery has annihilated all the domestic industry or domestic manufacture which used to prevail amongst at least from 800,000 to 1,000,000 of families, and which were carried on, not to a large extent, but to such an extent as supplied all the domestic comforts of the family. Domestic manufacture used to pervade every labourer’s cottage, every farm-house, and the habitations of the handicraftsmen. The labourers’ families were more generally employed in carding and spinning of wool, given out by the shopkeepers of the villages; and the yarn, after being taken back by them in exchange for the articles of the shop, passed into other hands to be wove; the farm-houses and the houses of the handicraftsmen, such as the smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights and persons of that description, were more generally employed in the spinning of flax, the yarn of which they afterwards sent to be wove, some for sale and some for domestic use. …. I think that the great alteration which has taken place, has been the means of placing the artizan more completely in a state of dependence upon the manufacturer. My own knowledge of the fact embraces an extensive district in the midland counties, in which I can look back upon 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; and owing to its absence it is that so much privation prevails among the farm labourers in certain districts; and it will be seen, on a close investigation, that there is a greater pressure of poor-rates in all those districts where manufacturing operations were more extensively carried on, as in certain parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire, and more particularly the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk, are found to present a far greater parochial assessment than any other district in the kingdom, notwithstanding their superior advantages in an agricultural point of view, in having the benefit of the London market.” 

(Analysis of the Evidence … , Mr. John Marshall, pp. 19-20)

But there were also cases in which the women and girls could find work in small domestic manufacture:

“…. In the straw work, which is the staple manufacture of the place, a woman can earn from 6s. to 12s. a week; children from 2s. to 4s. a week. This business has given employment, for the last 20 years, to every woman, who wished to work; and, for 10 years back, straw work has sold well, particularly in the spring. ….. The straw is mainly manufactured into hats, baskets, &c.”

(Eden, 1797, Vol II, Parochial Reports, Bedfordshire, Dunstable, p. 2) 

“ …. Other commentators believed men were discouraged from seeking continuous employment, allowing their wives and children to become the chief breadwinners of the family. Burns claimed that “it is too much the case that married men, knowing their wives and families can earn enough to support themselves by plaiting, take no care about them, and spend all their earnings at the beer-houses.””

(Nicola Verdon, Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-century England, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2002; p. 148)   

Bad Harvests

The prices of wheat in the markets, in shillings per quarter (480 lbs.), showed very high figures in mid-1795 to mid-1796 (the physical scarcity started in January 1795, due to an extraordinary cold spell), end 1799 to mid-1801, early 1809 to late 1813, mid-1816 to mid-1817. The first three cases were due to “back-to-back” bad harvests. The last period was probably due to the “year without a summer”, caused by the explosion of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

In the majority of years from 1794 to 1821, due to weather problems, the harvest was not sufficient in quantity or in quality. This caused hunger, but not deaths from starvation (there were perhaps ten thousand additional deaths in 1795-1796 and in 1799-1800, from pneumonia and fevers, acting on people weakened by the hunger).

YearHarvest QuantityHarvest Quality
1790Peace and favourable Seasons 
1791   “       “         “               “ 
1792   “       “         “               “ 
1793War but favourable Seasons 
1794Deficiency of crop 
1795       “          “     “ 
1796Season less unfavourable 
1797      “       “           “ 
1798      “       “           “ 
1799Bad season 
1800   “      “ 
1801Good crop followed by Peace 
1802Favourable crop 
1803       “             “ 
1804Deficient crop 
1805Average Crops 
1806      “           “ 
1807      “           “ 
1808Partial deficiency 
1809Great deficiency 
1810Good crop 
1812Favourable Crop 
1813        “            “ 
1814Nearly average crop 
1815Full average CropQuality good

(“Harvest Quantity”: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 1, 1839, pp. 56-57)

(“Harvest Quality”: Tooke, A History of Prices … 1848-1856, 1857; p. 129)


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