12.13. Wage Levels 1868

For the year 1868, we have information from Mr. Denton, a land engineer, who had a long experience of the agricultural activities in different regions of England, and had also noted the wages. The following text is interesting, because it shows that an arithmetical comparison of wages between agricultural labourers and industrial workers may well be misleading.

“….. With respect to wages, it has been my duty for the last seventeen years, when reporting on the agricultural operations of the General Land Drainage and Improvement Company, to inquire into the standing wages of every locality in which works have been executed. In addition to these inquiries, I have recently made others, and have obtained such reliable information, that I believe I am perfectly justified in stating that the present average weekly wages of the farm labourer, excluding extra allowances at hay-time and harvest, and all payments for piece-work and overtime, as well of the value of various perquisites in the shape of beer, milk, fuel, &c., are as follows:

                                                                        s.  d.

                                   North-Eastern district                                     14  6

                                   North-Western district                                   14  0

                                   Mid-Eastern district                                       13  0

                                   Mid-Western district                                      11  0

                                   Midland district (exclusive of Middlesex)  10  9

                                   South-Eastern district                                    12  0

                                   Mid-Southern and South-Western districts 10  6

These figures include shepherds and horse-keepers, but do not include the wages of bailiffs, where they exist, nor of other special employees, nor the earnings of labourers’ wives and children. They include, however, beer and cider when they form a regular daily allowance in lieu of money – as is very frequently the case in the West of England – but not otherwise. 

The mean weekly day-labour wages of able-bodied men throughout the whole of England may be taken at 12s. 6d. 

To this must be added the additional gains by occasional piece-work, extra payments at hay-time and harvest, when double ordinary wages is frequently given, independently of the increased allowance of beer or cider. In the aggregate, the actual income derived from these employments is equal to from 1s. 6d. to 3s. a week, according to the custom of different districts. When piece-work can wholly take the place of day-labour, a labourer may earn 25 per cent more than by the day. The total value of the beer and cider supplied to each labourer as his allowance, at hay-time and harvest, when employed in drilling and machine threshing, and when engaged in piece-work, if spread over the year, would amount to 1s. to 2s. a week more, according to locality. With these additions to his direct money wages, the farm labourer gains from 15s. to 16s. per week, taking the mean of England. 

But, besides this aggregate, he gets other advantages which are unknown to the industrial labourer living in a town. The rents of the dwellings of town operatives vary from 4s. to 6s. a week, some having very good dwellings for these rents, while others are obliged to pay as much for lodgings only. Comparing these figures with the 1s. 6d., which I have stated is more than the average rent paid by the agricultural labourer for cottages equally as good or better than the dwellings of the town operative, the difference must be regarded as a gain to the former. The town operative seldom, if ever, has the advantage of a garden wherein he may grow potatoes and vegetables. His outlay for these essential articles of food is often great, particularly if he has many children to provide for. In fact, the ordinary payment for potatoes and vegetables by a mechanic with a wife and three children, living in a town, is stated on good authority to be 2s. 6d. a week. An agricultural labourer, if he is fortunate enough to have – what he ought invariably to have – a rood of garden ground as part of his occupation, which he may cultivate after he has done his wage-paid work, – will grow upon it vegetables sufficient to yield him a return, after payment of rent and for seed, of at least 4 l. a year, which is rather more than 1s. 6d. a week. I am assuming in this estimate that he has time and strength sufficient to do all the labour that is required to cultivate it, and that he is careful in storing the refuse of his dwelling, i.e. the ashes, sewage, and waste, so that he may avoid any payment for either labour or manure. If I am right, the labourer makes from his garden ground a profit equal to the rent of his cottage.

Thus it will be seen that from his house and garden the agricultural labourer gains advantages equal to at least 4s. per week, which, if added to his money returns, will raise his wages from 15s. or 16s. to 19s. or 20s. a week, independent of what his wife and children may make, and this frequently adds 25 per cent to his income. I have said nothing about the gains of gleaning, which have been estimated at 1 l. 1s. 10d. to 40s.; about the difference in the cost of bread, meat, milk, &c., which is in favour of the country compared with the towns; nor of the benefit an agricultural labourer is said to derive from the keeping of a pig, as I am doubtful myself whether anything is fairly gained by it; neither have I estimated the great advantage of pure country air in securing the health and strength of the labourer and his family, though all of these have a money value which should be considered.”      

(Denton, 1868, pp. 10-14)

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