17.1. Apparent Contradictions

From the totality of the previous chapters, we have three basic descriptions of England in the Industrial Revolution from 1770 to 1860.

From 1770 to 1860, the agricultural labourers had only a small increase in their
nominal income (including harvest month, task-work, and work done by wife and
children) from 13 shillings to 17 shillings per week, which corresponds to about
30 %; it would have been about 58 % if it had not been for the fact that their
wives lost the spinning at home (1790-1820). Their living costs went up by 39 %,
so that the real wages of the labourers together with their families decreased by 6 %.           
In the same period, the non-agricultural workers increased their weekly incomes
on average from 10 shillings to 20 shillings (+ 95 %). Since their living costs went
up by 50 %, the real wage increased by 30 %. There was practically no net
movement from 1770 to 1830. The “take-off” for the country was around 1830. 
The most important change in the living conditions of the population, was that
30 % of the population (from the man to his grandson) changed from working
in the countryside, which was often cold and wet, and required much physical
labour, to the towns, where they could work “under cover”. The heavy labour in
the textile mills practically terminated when the power looms were introduced.             

From 1815 onwards, nearly every year there was sufficient wheat and other
cereals in the country, to give everyone enough food. The proportion of the
population eating bread from wheat changed from about 60 % in 1770 to
about 85 % in 1860. The consumption of meat per capita increased, and in
the industrial North / Midlands and London from 1820 onwards, the families
were eating about 80 pounds per person (average of man, wife, children, and indigents) per year. The quantity and variety of other foods (especially fish in
the coastal areas and London) improved from 1840 onwards. The consumption
of beer per capita remained stable – but high – from 1800 to 1860.             

The workers in the large cities had enough money to get drunk every week, to
pay (the men!) for prostitutes, or on the other hand, to buy technical books and
to attend Mechanics’ Institutes. In Manchester, the better-paid workers built
houses, as investment to rent to other workers. Many people made weekly or
monthly payments to savings banks, benefit clubs, clothing clubs, and housing

Gas lighting was introduced in public places from 1815. Postage stamps were
introduced in 1842. The railway allowed the better-paid workers and their
families to make trips of a few miles without the need for walking (third class
transport was subsidised by the companies).

The cost of clothing went down to probably a quarter of its original lever, so that
the men and women could buy more pieces of clothing, or of a better quality.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a great success, and was visited by about a
quarter of the population of England and Wales.

Men’s heights improved gradually from 1770-74 to 1830-34, from around
64.00 to 65.50 inches.

The level of literacy for male factory workers was 86 % (reading) and 43 %
(writing) in 1833. 
The housing and sanitation of the central parts of the cities were horrible. In the
industrial towns the death rate for children under 12 months was close to 200 /
1000, and for children of 13 months to 60 months was also 200 / 1000. Although
the economy improved during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were
cases of catastrophic depressions for period of two or three years, with 30 %
unemployment, and also periods of “short time working”.             

In some small industries and individual occupations, there was such an excess
of persons, that those who had work, needed to work continuously for 14 or 16
hours in difficult conditions, to be able to buy just enough food to survive. Many
of these people were physically damaged or did not reach normal height, due to
the working conditions.

The poorest 10 to 15 % of the population were treated worse by society
(especially from 1835), than would have been acceptable in the later eighteenth
century. In the earlier period, the poor did not sleep under bridges, and did not
earn money by picking up dog excrement.  

It does not seem reasonable to suppose that the industrial workers, supposing they had a zero per cent increase in real wages from 1770 to 1830, and a 35 % increase from 1830 to 1860, could have had such an improvement in their daily living standards as is shown in the second box. The data as to improvements are demonstrably true, and are supported by writings from professional persons, who unanimously comment the positive economic changes in the period for the mass of the people. We have to find an explanation of the difference between the first box and the second box. This is the “Standard of Living Controversy”. 

We should not look for explanations as to why the data in one or other of the boxes are false. The data in each of the boxes are true. We should look for explanations as to the differences between the boxes. As is logical, the solutions lie in the definitions and the use of the numbers. The main “logical trap” is to suppose than the increase in disposable income per “mouth” is given by the increase in wages of the principal earning person. This is not necessarily true in a dynamic economy like the Industrial Revolution.  

The explanations and adjustments are:

  • the additional “Job Density” per family;
  • good income levels at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution;
  • excess of family income over basic costs in the earlier years, which led to an increase in net disposable income;
  • the retail prices index did not necessarily move in step with the wholesale prices;
  • geographical differentiation;
  • the textile industries were not very large, and therefore did not impact much the average growth rate of the country;
  • growth of the service sector;
  • installation of infrastructure without charge to wage-earners;
  • the calculation of the cost of living indices uses components which were not influenced by the Industrial Revolution;
  • contradictory “optical” assumptions.

One of the premises of this class of investigations, is that the expense types used in the cost of living index, move as a function of changes from the Industrial Revolution, and thus we can make a statement as to the effect of the Industrial Revolution on the financial situation of the workers. 

But the components were not influenced by the machines or processes of the Industrial Revolution:

  • the price of cereals was in function of the transfer price with the agricultural sector, and the price did not go down due to possible efficiencies on the farms, but only went down with the abrogation of the Corn Laws in 1846;
  • the prices of meat, cheese and butter were in function of the costs on the farms, and did not go down;
  • the reductions in the prices of tea, sugar, beer and salt after 1820, were due to changes in the tax percentages;
  • the only position which reduced clearly, and due to the efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution, was the cost of clothing (but curiously, previous studies of cost of living have supposed that the price reduction was about 20 %, when it was really about 75 %);
  • rent was a “market” price;
  • fuel was affected when coals were used in the region for heating, but not when collected firewood was used;
  • all the other expenses of the families, from their “surplus” income, are not included.  

Thus we are not able to show that it was exactly the Industrial Revolution that decreased the expenditures of the workers.


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