17.3. Good Wage Levels at the Beginning of the Industrial Revolution

Next we have to inspect the judgement of Charles Feinstein:

“For the majority of the working class the historical reality was that they had to endure almost a century of hard toil with little or no advance from a low base before they really began to share in any of the benefits of the economic transformation they had helped to create.”

(Feinstein, 1998, p. 652)

Particularly the point to be revised, is whether the working class started from “a low base” at the end of the eighteenth century. Obviously, supposing there were persons who earned enough to have a 20 % surplus over their costs of basic foods, rent, fuel, and clothing in 1770-1795, and even if they had no improvement to 1830, they would have this same surplus of 20 % in 1830, and improve on it by 1860. 

For the good condition of the mass of the people in 1728, see: Daniel Defoe, “A Plan of the English Commerce”, pp. 100-103.

Adam Smith was of the opinion that every working man in Great Britain had enough to live on: “In Great Britain the wages of labour seem, in the present times, to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the labourer to bring up a family. In order to satisfy our selves upon this point, it will not be necessary to enter into any tedious or doubtful calculation of what may be the lowest sum upon which it is possible to do this. There are many plain symptoms, that the wages of labour are nowhere in this country regulated by the lowest rate, which is consistent with common humanity.”

(Smith, “The Wealth of Nations”, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8, The Wages of Labour)

Arthur Young confirms that the poor (except those on parish relief) ate well:

“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. 1, 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, ibid, p. 443)

From the chapter on “How was Life for the People before the Industrial Revolution?”, we can see that there were a large number of people, who were earning from 10 to 12 shillings, which was the cost of 1.5 bushels of wheat.

As to the reports of David Davies in his village in 1787, this was one of the poorest parishes in England. As has been demonstrated in an earlier chapter, his examples are taken – with the best of motives – from the poorest people in the parish, that is, those who had four or more small children.

The book of Sir Frederick Eden, “The State of the Poor”, does not refer to a general situation of poverty. The reports refer to that part of society which is poor, requires help, and is receiving help.

Mr. John Marshall, testifying before the Select Committee on Hand-Loom Weavers’ Petitions in 1834, referred to the good economic conditions in the countryside around 1790-1800, and the considerable reductions in income caused by the competition from mechanized wool spinning.

“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 …”

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

As general inputs, we may state that many working people, at least in the North, were eating “animal food”, and the women were taking tea. The proportion of the population eating bread from wheat instead of from inferior cereals increased in the second half of the eighteenth century. In the poorhouses, meat was usually served three times a week.

The people had enough money to make payments to building societies and to benefit societies.

The workers in the industrial towns had enough money to not work every day, but rather to go drinking: “It is well known that in the great trading towns, such as Manchester, Sheffield, etc., four days week in a week amply supply the dissolute and the drunken.”

(Davies, 1795, p. 163)

As we saw in an earlier chapter, the agricultural labourers and their families had a good income level. Although the basic weekly wage was about 7 shillings, with harvest month at 200 % wages, higher daily rates for task-work, and spinning wool by the wife and children, the weekly income could reach 14 shilling (averaged over the year).

If it were the case, that real wages in England “remained stagnant” for 1790 to 1830, this would mean that they were at the level documented above, and thus the people would have had sufficient income for a decent life.


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