11.6. Absolute Figures as to the Standard of Living

We have now inspected the movements of wages and of living expenses from 1770 to 1815. But now we have to see if this means that the labourers lived in a state of mere subsistence for all this time, or if they ate sufficiently in general. (A segment that did suffer poverty and hunger, was that of families with several small children, and no children over 10 years with work) 

The condition of the agricultural labourers from 1770 to 1794 was not one of near starvation:

“In consequence of the very great price of bread-corn during the whole of 1794, the distresses of the Poor were unusually great, and the sums expended on their relief beyond all former example. If, however, we except the late period of scarcity (which was such as had not occurred for near a century before) it is believed that no period during the present reign [George III] can be adduced in which the condition of day labourers was not much more comfortable than that of the same class of people in what are often called the “good old times” of former reigns.”

(Eden, 1797, Vol. I., Abridged version, A. G. L. Rogers, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1929; https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001742830, Ch. II, p. 111)

“The labouring poor, in general, earn nowsufficient to live decently cloathed, and in good health; some, I know, are not able, but such as their parish assists; I am speaking of those, that support themselves without maintenance.”  

(Arthur Young, The Farmer’s Letters to the People of England, 1771, W. Strahan, Vol. 1, Letter V, p. 204)

“Upon these averages I may remark, that they are high enough for maintaining the labouring poor in that comfortable manner, in which they ought certainly to live;”

(Young, The Farmer’s Tour through the East of England, 1771, Vol. 4, pp. 313)

“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)

It is logically very unlikely that the day workers lived in a state of minimum subsistence:                       

  1. the food and care in the poorhouses in 1795 (a bad year) were, according to the reports compiled by Sir Frederick Eden, very good, with meat three times a week and a bed for each old person; it is not possible to mentally construct a socio-economic system in which the adult males working in the fields are not eating enough, and the old, the sick, the indigent, and the bastard children are eating well;
  2. the reports of Sir Frederick refer in general to the poor in the workhouses; he does not report much in the text about the poorest workers, or express any particular compassion for their circumstances;
  3. each year more than 100,000 cattle were driven from Scotland, Wales, and Northumberland; this is more than could be eaten by only the rich and the professional classes;
  4. in the General Views of Agriculture published in 1794, written with respect to 36 counties and reported by an equal number of surveyors, professional farmers and agricultural specialists, there are practically no expressions about horrible conditions of work, of food, or of clothing (although all of them criticise the cottages). We might perhaps think that professional persons did not have much emotional interest in the poorer classes and thus did not make any comments, but that not one of 36 persons said anything about these supposed bad conditions, makes us suppose that the conditions were not very bad. 


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