Chapter 19. The Point of View of the Worker

Almost all the economic information and the descriptions of working life and daily life in this book, have been “external” to the worker, that is, they are collections of numerical data or optical observations, made by professional persons, farmers, landowners, and politicians. A small number come from agricultural labourers or industrial workers, interviewed by committees in Parliament, or by commissioners sent out by Parliament. In these latter cases, there are practically no cases of the workers giving their ideas of changes in the preceding 50 (for example) years.

As we do not experience their lives in flesh and blood, we cannot really “construct” how they might utilise information about the financial situation, and the good and bad living conditions, to give a general statement about how they felt in their terms.

The best we can do, is try to imagine what a man in 1850 might say about the changes since 1790, according to what he had heard. We will suppose that we are interviewing a man in 1850, who talked a lot with his grandfather in 1800, when the man was a child. The grandfather would have been a 10 year old boy in the decade 1790-1800. The questions would be: “based on what you grandfather told you, do you think that life is better now than in 1790?”, “would you like to change places with your grandfather, and go back to live in the years before 1800?”

The answers would have been different, according to the path that the family had taken in those 90 years.

The grandfather was an agricultural worker, and the grandson is also an agricultural worker:

“My grandfather and my grandmother did not have money problems. That is, so long as my grandmother had income from spinning. Afterwards, they had just enough to eat meat a few times in the week. Today, I earn a little more, and we eat meat also a few times a week, but we have enough over to buy tea, sugar, cheese, butter, and a lot of vegetables. My wife and I can both read, and the small children go to school. The work is less physically tiring, because I do not have to do any threshing, and other tasks are also done by machines. But this means that I cannot earn so much with the extra tasks. I have a better cottage than they did. We live near a small town, and from there once or twice a year we take an excursion by train.”

“I don’t think I would like to live in 1790. Perhaps there was a little more money, but life was harder.”

The grandfather was a weaver in the Lancashire countryside, and his family worked a plot of land; the grandson is a spinner in a cotton factory:

“My grandfather had a simple life, without any problems. He had to work about 10 hours each day, sitting down all the time, but he could take a pause when he wanted. They had enough to eat, especially because they had the oats from their plot. He told me that on a few occasions they had saved up money through the year, and they could buy a little more land.

I have a good life, the family (myself, my daughter, and a small son) earn in total 30 shillings a week in the mill. We eat meat or bacon nearly every day, we can buy things for the house, and nice clothing for the wife and girl for Saturdays. I save money in a benefit society. We don’t know the owner of the mill, and he doesn’t know us, but he doesn’t treat us badly. The work in the mill is not physically hard, like it was before the power looms. We work 56 hours a week, finishing on Saturdays at 2 o’clock. All the men can read, and all the younger women. There are problems with the filth in the streets, and the small number of privies. I have had two children who died in their first year, because my wife really does not have time to look after them and to give them milk. Working in the spinning hall of the mill affects your body; all the men are short, have sallow skin, and sharp features on the face.”

“I definitely would not like to live in 1790. My standard of living is the double of my grandfather’s, and the only real disadvantage is the lack of sewers and privies. The town council should do something about that.”          

The grandfather was an agricultural labourer, and the grandson is a worker in a chemicals factory:   

“My grandfather worked very hard, with long hours, and worked outside even when it rained. His wages were just enough so that the family could eat some meat. He had extra wages from task work and in the harvest month, but he used these to pay the year’s rent, and to buy clothing. His advantage was that he had a less stressful life, and had a social life, and often conversed with the farmer. He told me that on the occasions when he had very little money at the end of the week, the farmer would sell him some wheat at a low price. The farmer also paid for visits to the doctor.

I do not have a good life. Apparently I have good enough wages at 12 shillings a week, but I have to send the boy out to work for 3 shillings a week. Otherwise we could not pay for food – we have four children from 2 to 10 – and the rent. Sometimes the company does not pay us for one or two weeks, because they do not have any orders. The work in the factory is dangerous, and some of the men suffer with their lungs. The rooms where we live are small, and we have to share the privy with other families. We do not go out on Sundays, because we do not have any money.”

“Probably I would like to go back and work in 1790. The work was harder, but you could enjoy life.”

The grandfather was a casual building worker, and the grandson is a low-paid tailor.

“My grandfather said that he just earned enough to get to the end of the week, but he could always find work. He worked from 9 to 10 hours a week, but at his own speed. He and his family ate a lot of bread and a little meat; he drank beer every week. He did not have enough money to support his widowed mother, so he put her in the poor-house; she had a room with some other old women, and ate two quartern loaves and three plates of thick gravy each week.

I have not married, because I would not have the money to support a wife and family. I earn about 8 shillings a week, depending on the prices of the clothes, and how many pieces I can make up. I can only earn the 8 shillings if I work 14 hours a day, Sundays included. I live and work alone in my room. The problem is that there are a lot of us, bidding for the work, so the prices are very low. There is no least price, which might give us the chance to earn a living wage. For all the poor people, things have been worse since the Poor Law in 1834.”            

“I would rather have worked in the last century. There was a limit to how poor you could be.”               

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