Chapter 2. General Study

  • 2.1. Introduction to the Industrial Revolution in England
  • 2.2. Development of monetary wages and real income
  • 2.3. Development of living and working conditions
  • 2.4. Time frame
  • 2.5. Non-representative regions and industries

2.1. Introduction to the Industrial Revolution in England

Chapter 1. Contemporary Evaluations

A large number of people in different walks of life left us their comments on the improvements in the long run in the standard of living of the majority of the people.

Your author has not been able to find any contemporary expressions that the general standard of living decreased during this period.

The fact that these improvements were continously visible in our period, leads us to suppose that the real wages went up by about 5 per cent per decade.

There were of course periods of recession in which parts of the population did not eat enough, and in some non-wage occupations the people suffered considerable poverty.    


“This better living consists in the people consuming more food, and of a better sort; eating wheat instead of barley, oats and rye – and drinking prodigiously great quantity of beer.”

(Arthur Young, agricultural activist, Political Arithmetic, 1774, Part I, p. 32)

“The real recompence of labour, the real quantity of the necessaries and conveniences of life ….. has, during the course of the present century increased perhaps in a still greater proportion than in money price. Not only has grain become somewhat cheaper, but among many other things, from which the industrious poor derive an agreeable and wholesome variety of food, have become a great deal cheaper. Potatoes, for example, do not at present, through the greater part of the kingdom, cost half the price which they used to do thirty or forty years ago. The same thing may be said of turnips, carrots, cabbages; things which were formerly never raised but by the spade, but which are now commonly raised by the plough ….. The great improvements in the coarser manufactures of both linen and woolen cloth furnish the labourers with cheaper and better cloathing; and those in the manufactures of the coarser metals, with cheaper and better instruments of trade, as well as with many agreeable and convenient pieces of household furniture. Soap, salt, candles, leather, and fermented liquors, have, indeed, become a good deal dearer, chiefly from the taxes which have been laid upon them. The quantity of these, however, which the labouring poor are under any necessity of consuming, is so very small that the increase in their price does not compensate the diminution in that of so many other things. The common complaint that luxury extends itself even to the lowest ranks of the people, and that the labouring poor will not now be contented with the same food, cloathing, and lodging which satisfied them in former times, may convince us that it is not the money price of labour only, but its real recompence, which has augmented.” 

(Adam Smith, economist, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8, On the Wages of Labour)

«In Great Britain the wages of labour seem, in the present times, to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the laborer to bring up a family. In order to satisfy ourselves 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 this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity.»

(Adam Smith, op. cit. same chapter)

“Before I take my leave I would request you to ask your parents for a description of the country we inhabit when they first knew it; and they will tell you, that the inhabitants bore all the signs of poverty to a much greater degree than they do now. Their houses were miserable huts; the land poorly cultivated and yielded little of value for the food of man or beast, and those disadvantages, with roads almost impassible, might be said to have cut off our part of the country from the rest of the world, besides not rendering it very comfortable to ourselves. Compare this picture which I know to be a true one, with the present state of the same country. The workmen earning nearly double their former wages – their houses mostly new and comfortable, and the lands, roads and every other circumstance bearing evident marks of the most pleasing and rapid improvements. From whence and from what cause has this happy change taken place? You will be beforehand with me in acknowledging a truth too evident to be denied by any one. Industry has been the parent of this happy change – A well directed and long continued series of industrious exertions, both in masters and servants, has so changed for the better the face of our country, its buildings, lands, roads, and not withstanding the present unfavourable appearances, I must say the manner and deportment of its inhabitants too, as to attract the notice and admiration of countries which had scarcely heard of us before; and how far these improvements may still be carried by the same laudable means which have brought us thus far, has been one of the most pleasing contemplations of my life.”

(Josiah Wedgwood, An Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Pottery, Pamphlet, 1783, cited in: McKendrick, 1961, pp. 52-53)

“The Trade of Wilmslow Parish, forty years ago [1745], was very trifling, and confined to a few petty Shopkeepers in Wilsmlow, who sold Treacle, Brown Sugar, Salt, Tobaco, Coarse Linens, and Woolens, and other small Necessaries for the supply of the Inhabitants. The business of a Butcher at that time was also in as low a state: half a Cow, and two or three Calves were a sufficient Supply for the weekly Saturday’s Market. There was one Swaler; and I do not recollect more than two Shoemakers; but to make amends, there were at least a dozen Wooden Clogg makers, who were under the necessity of procuring old Shoes from the neighbouring Towns to supply their customers with upper Leathers, such was the great consumption of this commodity; for every body amongst the farmers, Servants, labouring, and poor People, Men, Women, and Children wore Cloggs. But since that time there has been a gradual change of every thing. The number of Shopkeepers has increased amazingly; some of whom deal in a great Variety of valuable Articles in a manner unknown to former times: Tea, Coffee, loaf Sugar; Spices, printed Cottons, Callicoes, Lawns, Cambricks, fine Linnens, Silks, Velverets, Silk Waistcoat pieces, Silk Cloaks, Hats, Bonnets, Shawls, laced Caps, and a Variety of other Things, which are to be found in the well furnished Shops of rich Towns. The Butchers can now scarcely procure Meat enough for the the supply of the Market, the old useless Cow of the Farmer will no longer go down; they are obliged to fetch their Beef out of Yorkshire, for everybody eats Butchers’ Meat, which was formerly a food the Labourers, and even many of the lower Farmers tasted but at Wakes or at a Christening. There are now at least a dozen Shoemakers in the Parish, and perhaps not above two or three Cloggmakers. Joiners, Carpenters, Brickmakers, and Bricklayers, &c., are all greatly increased.”

“Survey of the Parish of Wilmslow” (MS), Samuel Finney, 1785, “Agriculture, Trade, and Manufactures of the Parish of Wilmslow”, Cheshire and Chester Historical Collector, edited by T. Worthington Barlow, Vol. 1, No. 2, W. Kent and Co., London, 1853, pp. 5-6,

[Wilmslow is near Styal]

“Though the manufacturing part alone, in the potteries and their vicinity, gives bread to fifteen or twenty thousand people, including the wives and children of those who are employed in it; he looks upon this as a small object when compared with the many others which depend on it, namely, 1. The immense quantity of inland carriage …. 2. The great number of people in the extensive colleries …. 3. The still greater number employed in raising and preparing its raw materials, …..  4. The coasting vessels, ….. 5. The further conveyance …. by river and canal navegation, …. 6. The re-convoyance of the finished goods ….”

(Dr. John Aiken, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester, 1795, pp. 551-552, referring to the testimony of Josiah Wedgewood to Parliament in 1785)  

“So greatly is the consumption of flesh meat increased, that, whereas in the memory of some persons now living, not more than one cow used to be killed weekly in Bolton, or, if two, the unsold beef used to be sent to Bury market,- before the beginning of the present war, a tanner in Anderton bought weekly thirty-five cow hides of the Bolton butchers, and yet was supposed not to take half the whole produce.” 

(Dr. John Aiken, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles around Manchester, 1795, “Bolton”, p. 261)

“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, 1760-1820] 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.”

(Sir Frederick Eden, The State of the Poor, 1797, Vol. I, Book I, Ch. II, p. 111)

“It does not fall within my plan, to enter into minute comparative estimates relative to the progress of society in England; but there can be little doubt, that the ten years ending in January 1793, exhibit the most flattering appearances, in every circumstance that can be considered, by political economists, as demonstrative of national prosperity. The demand for employment, and a consequent advance in income, have risen in a progressive ratio: and to those who investigate the state of the nation, without a disposition to blame the present, and admire the past, which too often influences even “persons endued with the profoundest judgement, and most extensive learning”, both these and other symptoms of increasing industry and wealth must have been perfectly satisfactory.”

(Sir Frederick Eden, The State of the Poor, 1797, Vol. I, Book II, Ch. II, pp. 574-575)

“It cannot be doubted, that the increased population of the country has had its share in creating the deficiency; but I consider the great and principal cause to arise from the increase of commerce, and the decrease of tillage. The wealth acquired by our various branches of manufactures has been the means of advancing wages, by which numbers of hands have been drawn from the country into towns. The consequence of which has been the entire change in their habits and modes of life; their former frugal manner of living is abandoned; they are no longer fed upon milk, cheese, and vegetables, with little or no animal food. Less than two acres and a half was then amply sufficient for the support of a labourer.    

The whole body of manufacturers (as well as most of those employed in great towns), are since that period subsisted on butcher’s meat, with the constant use of malt liquor, and, I fear, the pernicious habit of using spirits is but too common amongst them. Five and a half acres will barely suffice to furnish them with the various articles of food and liquor. ….. These combined causes have all contributed to increase the demand for animal food, and consequently to operate, with other causes, in lessening the growth of grain. The increase of butcher’s meat in country markets within fifty years is prodigious. Meat, that was provided only at particular seasons, is now weekly, if not daily, offered for sale. 


Smithfield market has (taking the increased weight of the carcasses into calculation), doubled the weight of flesh sold within fifty years. If such has been the case in the capital, where luxury ever predominated, what must be the increased consumption of meat throughout the whole empire?


The increasing demand for workmen, for our manufacturies, has united with other causes to enhance the price of labour, and operated as a further check on agriculture. 


It must be allowed, that agricultural wages are regulated (in a great measure) by the price of the prime necessaries of life; the late high prices of grain advanced wages forty per cent. In the years of plenty which have succeeded, it has been found impracticable to reduce them; various other articles having also advanced, over which the fall of grain has no control.” 

(John Christian Curwen, Esq., M.P., Communications to the Board of Agriculture, on Subjects Relative to the Husbandry and Internal Improvement of the Country, Vol. V, Part I, On the Means of Supplying Milk to the Poor, Vol. V, Part I, Art. 1, 1806, p. 143, p. 144, pp. 148-149)

“It will, I think, be obvious to every impartial observer, that the proportion which the industrious classes obtain of the annual produce of the society, is much larger than that which they enjoyed previous to the improvements which have been produced in the country by the progress of commerce and knowledge; and their condition is become both absolutely and relatively improved. Of what still further amelioration it is susceptible, or at what point the remuneration of labour would counteract the exertions of industry, we must leave time to develop. It has, however, been supposed that incessant and continued labour is incompatible in that class, with a remuneration which is much more than adequate to the comfortable support of a family, and that a considerable desfalcation of the produce of national industry might arise from an excess of wages, if it were not counteracted by the improvidence so generally the characteristic of that class. 

(William Turner Comber, An Inquiry into the State of National Subsistence, 1808, p. 279)  

“Upon the whole, I attribute this great increase in population, and regular course of protracted life, to an improved agriculture, more regular employment, better food, diseases less fatal, a decreasing use of ardent spirits, and to no law-suits. And where the same causes prevail, I have little doubt the same results will be found throughout this county.”

(General View of the Agriculture of Cornwall, 1808, G. B. Worgan, rapporteur, p. 177)  

“Mr. Park of St. Giles, believes the state of the poor is much altered for the better within the last twenty years, and principally by the introduction of potatoes, which were scarcely known thirty years hence. At the former period, the labourers had very little beside bread and cheese and water, but at present they have the important additions of potatoes, pork, and bacon. Almost everyone keeps a pig, which is fed on potatoes, and sometimes finished with a small quantity of pease and barley.” 

(Board of Agriculture / William Stevenson, General View of Agriculture in the County of Dorset, 1812, pp. 454-455)

“ ….. Larger establishments were erected, and order, system, and cleanliness in their arrangement and management, became more necessary and more generally cultivated.

This has been attended with good effects on the habits of the people.- Being obliged to be more regular in their attendance at their work, they became more orderly in their conduct, spent less time at the ale-house, and lived better at home. For some years they have been gradually improving in their domestic comforts and conveniences.”

(John Kennedy, mill owner, Observations on the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Trade, in Great Britain, particularly in Manchester and the adjoining counties, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Volume III, 1819, pp. 129-130)

“ ….. But I believe the rapid growth of the trade, in this particular district, is chiefly to be ascribed to the great ingenuity and the persevering, skilful [sic], laborious disposition of the people. In these qualities I believe they surpass the inhabitants of every part of this island, or of the whole world.

We have the satisfaction of observing also, that they are gradually becoming better informed, and more regular in their conduct. Their employers see the advantage of this, and many of them take great pains to promote the welfare of the people, and the education of their families.- The people themselves begin to take a pride in this, and value themselves on the proficiency of their children in education.”

(Kennedy, op. cit., p. 133)

“In England, the lower classes now form a community of no small consideration in the state. They are great consumers both of the produce and of the manufactures of the country, and having acquired a taste for domestic comforts, and even a degree of luxury, their wants have established a home demand, superior in its extent to the market afforded by all the world besides.”

(John Kennedy, mill owner, An Inquiry into the Effects produced upon Society by the Poor Laws, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Volume III, 1819, p. 438)

“It is generally admitted, that all conditions of society have been gradually improving for the last fifty years; ….

(Kennedy, op. cit., pp. 440-441)

“It was a letter he had recently received from a man of great authority in matters of this kind – Mr. Cropper of Liverpool; … The consumption of wheat in 1821 showed an increase of 7 ¼ per cent, as compared with that of the previous year; but the increase of 1822, as compared with that of 1821, was an advance of 22 per cent. This great increase of consumption was owing to the advanced wages of the manufacturing classes throughout the country; indeed, in some places, the improved choice of food had almost cast brown bread, previously so much in demand amongst the humbler classes, out of use; and he knew some friends, who in their neighbourhood in the country had been unable to procure it. In Lancashire, too, the oaten cake, so generally used by the people, was disappearing, and a better sort of bread substituted in its place. In this way the consumption was going on at a far greater rate than the growth; ……” 

(The Parliamentary Debates, published under the Superintendence of T. C. Hansard, House of Commons, Corn Laws, Feb. 26, 1823, Mr. Whitmore’s Motion, p. 267) 

“The population of Britain has increased, and is still increasing, yet not to such an extent as to exceed our ordinary supplies. It has increased probably about one third since the accession of George III; but the means of support have been more than doubled within the last fifty years. Every branch of industry has been greatly increased, and many new branches formed since that time, and our comforts have been greatly augmented. It had been a maxim for many years, that the wages, for one day, of a mason, or the better sort of workmen, should be equal to the current price, for the time, of a peck [1/4 bushel; 15 pounds] of oatmeal, and inferior labourers in proportion. Many yet alive have seen the price of labour for one day, and that of meal generally in these proportions. But during the last forty years or so, the wages of labour have greatly increased above the price of meal. Masons, and the best labourers, have generally been paid the price of two, and are at present receiving fully three pecks of meal for every day’s work.

The vast increase of agricultural produce has not only proceeded from any greater number of people being employed, but chiefly from the use of improved implements, better courses of cropping, the reclaiming of waste land, melioration of every species of soil, and improved farm stock. By such means farm produce has been doubled, and the condition of the soil, the occupiers of land, and every description of labourers, has been much improved during the present generation.”

(William Aiton, Remarks on Mr. Malthus’ Opinions on Agricultural Subjects, The Farmer’s Magazine, Vols. 25-26, 1824, p. 464)            

“It is not to such a state [culture of potatoes] that we are called upon to look in Great Britain; our labourers are not compelled to subsist on the lowest kind of food. Even the most indigent, those who are supported by the local poorrates in their own dwellings, such as are placed in poor-houses, work-houses, hospitals and other receptacles for indigence, are not, like those in similar circumstances, in poorer countries, compelled to live exclusively on Potatoes. All of them are fed with Corn of some description, and in the South of the Island almost wholly with Wheat. Those, a little above absolute want of, or whose feelings forbid them to apply for, parochial aid, may sometimes suffer more than those who receive it; but this class comprises a very small proportion of the whole inhabitants of Great Britain, and it is among them that the greater use of Potatoes has been chiefly extended.                

In the absence of the knowledge of many facts realting to the extended culture of Potatoes in most countries it is difficult to conceive that whilst from 1816 to 1828 our population has been augmented by upwards of two millions consumers, the additional food supplied by Potatoes, can have fed one quarter of that number. If the whole quantity of Potatoes were an absolute increase, it might be deserving of more notice, but in proportion as the manure of a farm is applied to the crop of Potatoes, it must be lessened in its application to the part appropriated to Corn

.Whatever may be the effect of the extended culture of Potatoes, the easy circumstances in which the greater portion of the inhabitants of Great Britain are placed, must make the increase of their numbers to be at a higher rate than of the class who are fed chiefly on Potatoes; besides, the lowest classes are rising a step in the scale of subsistence, with a degree of gradual regularity, much more than those above them are descending. The middle classes are receiving recruits from the lower in much greater than the latter do from the former. This state of things is clearly proved by the fast number of neat houses of the smaller class arising in every part of England, in exchange for the crowded and filthy dwellings formerly inhabited by the artisans, which are as rapidly, in every county disappearing. This view is also farther strengthened by referring to the great increase in the consumption of all those articles which form the comforts of those a few steps above the indigent class. Thus, within the last twelve years, in increased use of soap, candles, leather, sugar and other articles, is evidence to show, that the augmentation of our inhabitants has been chiefly in that class of society who are not compelled to subsist on the lowest desription of food. 

It may further be added, that the increase in the amount of the capitals accumulated in the several Savings Banks, in a few years, from two to fourteen millions sterling, affords other ground for taking a favourable view of the condition of those one or two steps removed above the condition of mere day labourers, and who lived on better food than Potatoes.

Jacob, William (Inspector-General of the Corn Returns), Mr. Jacob’s Report on the Trade in Corn, and on the Agriculture in the North of Europe, 1826, pp. 39-40

“Within the last seventy years, the habits of the lower classes especially, have been rapidly improving; and as there can be no question that the moral more than the physical condition of human beings, influences the rate of mortality, we may hope for yet greater improvement in the healthiness and comfort of our population.”

(John Roberton [sic], doctor, Observations on the Mortality and Physical Management of Children, 1827, p. 77)

“The very great diminution of the mortality of infants in England is one of the most remarkable phenomena of modern times”

(T. R. Edmonds, statistician, Mortality of Infants in England, The Lancet, Vol. 1, 1835-36, p. 690)

“It is remarkable, that this superior value of life [life expectancy] in Great Britain is not confined to any particular districts, or classes of individuals. To whatever point we turn our view, the advantage is still the same: the man of affluence, the pauper-patient of the hospital, the sailor and the soldier on active service, the prisoner of war, the inmate of a goal, all enjoy a better tenure of existence from this country than from any other of which we have been able to consult the records.”

(Francis Bisset Hawkins, doctor, Elements of Medical Statistics, 1829, p. 30) 

“The products of manufacturing industry are obtained at a lower price, and of superior quality; and those articles, which were once regarded as the peculiar accomodations of the higher classes of society, are now placed within the reach of all. There is not, perhaps, a more striking feature of the recent improvements that have taken place in this country, than the increased comforts enjoyed by the working classes, particularly as these are intimated by their better food and clothing, and the more convenient furniture of their humble dwellings.“

(John Kennedy, mill owner, Observations on the Influence of Machinery upon the Working Classes of the Community, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Second Series, Volume V, 1831, p. 31)

“The increased duration of life, in present as compared with past periods of our history, does not, it is obvious, bear on the present subject. The augmentation of food, the better information of the lower orders, the improvement of dwellings, and especially the advance of medical science, have effected this happy change.”

(Thackrah, C. Turner, doctor, The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States, and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, 1832, footnote to page 204)

“Do you remember the condition of the labourers at that time [during the war]: were they pretty well satisfied?” “They used to say they should be satisfied if they could earn a gallon of flour a day [8 pounds a day]; now they can earn two.”

(Mr. John Neve, land agent, Kent, evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, House of Commons, 1833, p. 250)

“From all these circumstances, do you judge that there is a greater mass of wealth contained in the houses, and the town [Stockport] generally, than there was 20 years ago?” “Decidedly so.”

“What is the comparative condition of the operatives; supposing two families, each living with an equal degree of prudence in 1814, and at the present time, what would be the comparative condition of such a family, considering the wages they receive, and the price they are obliged to pay for the necessaries of life?” “Their present condition has decidedly improved on 1814.” 


“What do you consider in that period has been the alteration in prices of provisions?” “I have not any tables by me to refer to, but considering the prices of woollen cloth, and the prices of bread, tea, sugar and coffee, and all those things, I should think the price is about one-half what it was at that time.” 

(Henry W. Sefton, administrator, evidence to the Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce, and Shipping, House of Commons, 1833, p. 622)

“I have been engaged 41 years in the trade [cotton spinning], during which I have hardly ever missed the market day in Manchester. I have lately endeavoured to review my experience, and it is my firm conviction that there never was a time in which the working classes were better off than present, considering the price and quality of provisions, the extreme cheapness of clothing, and the number of charitable institutions that minister to their wants.”

(Factory Inquiries Commission, Second Report, 1833, Lancashire District Medical Reports, George Royle Chappel, Cotton Spinner and Weaver, examined by Mr. Tufnell, D.2. p. 39)

“We can state, as the result of the extensive inquiries made by this Commission into the circumstances of the working classes, that the agricultural labourers when in employment, in common with the other classes of labourer throughout the country, have greatly advanced in condition; that their wages will now produce to them more of the necessaries of life than at any former period.”

(Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Operation of the Poor LawsFirst Report, 1834, p. 198)

“Have you paid much attention to the condition and manners and morals of the working people?” “Yes.”

“How long has your attention been directed to these matters?” “About 44 or 45 years.”

“What do you consider is the condition of the working people as to their habits and morals at present, as compared with former times, within your recollection?” “It is greatly improved with my own knowledge, as far as I have had any opportunity of observing them.”

“In what respects do you think it is improved?” “I think in all respects; they are more intelligent, they are more cleanly, they are better behaved, and they are longer lived.”

“Does your observation apply to the inhabitants of towns only, or do you mean to extend it to the inhabitants of the country also?” “Principally as to towns.” 

(Mr. Francis Place, political and educational reformer, Evidence to the Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, 1835, p. 47)

“The effect of those better habits has been the prolongation of the average period of life among the working classes?” “Yes; cleanliness, their better nursing, and their better feeding of their children, better training in every particular, have produced this effect.”

“There are more children reared than there used to be?” “To a very great extent. From the best inquiries I have been able to make of everybody likely to posess information, and especially some connected with Life Insurance Offices, I have the most satisfactory assurance that more children are reared, and the term of life is prolonged very considerably. I mean that this is so independently of the extermination to a great extent of the small-pox and the autumnal fever.”

“You think their dress is improved, their habits of cleanliness and their sustenance is better?” “Yes; I remember the time when an immense number of children were bandy-legged or bowed in the front, usually called “cheese-cutters”; scald-head was a very common complaint; the hair of the children’s heads was thin and stood out in all directions; these things are seldom seen now. I have been in all the narrow lanes and courts about Petticoat-lane and Rag-fair for the last two or three years, observing the children of the poorest people very particularly, and find deformities very rare where they were very common.”

(Mr. Francis Place, political and educational reformer, Evidence to the Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, 1835, p. 74)

“The assertion that the condition of the labourer depends entirely on his earnings is false and mischevious; it depends quite as much on his expenditure. If, instead of the three shillings he received a few years ago, he now receives two, and with these two can buy more bread, meat, and manufactured goods than before with the three, his condition is, in fact, improved. That this is actually the case may be proved by accurate calculations, and may also be inferred from the general appearance of the workmen, from the large deposits in the savings-banks, and from many other facts.” 

(Friedrich von Raumer, German university professor, England in 1835: a series of letters written to friends in Germany during a residence in London and excursions into the provinces, Vol. 2, p. 181)

“In Great Britain, on the other hand, the population increases, and the number of those who enjoy the comforts or luxuries of life increases in the same proportion. Nobody can prove that the masses of the people are worse off than twenty years ago, or that they have not greatly benefited by the remission of so many taxes. Nobody can believe that the lords alone, with their families, consume all the meat and bread, drink all the tea and coffee, &c.” 

(op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 304)

“In England the working classes in the towns are accustomed to eat meat, if not every day, at least on most days of the week.”

(Report on the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, House of Commons, Appendix G, State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, 1836, Introduction, p. xii)

“Subsistence and employment have never increased more rapidly than in the last forty years; …”

(John Stuart Mill, political philosopher, Principles of Political Economy, 1846, p. 159)

“It is impossible to estimate the advantage to the bulk of the people, from the wonderful cheapness of cotton goods. The wife of a labouring man may buy at a retail shop a neat and good print as low as fourpence per yard, so that, allowing seven yards for the dress, the whole material shall only cost two shillings and four pence. Common plain calico may be bought for 2 ½ d. per yard. Elegant cotton prints, for ladies’ dresses, sell at from 10d. to 1s. 4d. per yard, and printed muslins at from 1s. to 4s., the higher priced having beautiful patterns, in brilliant and permanent colours. Thus the humblest classes have now the means as of great neatness, and even gaiety of dress, as the middle and upper classes of the last age. A country-wake in the nineteenth century may display as much finery as a drawing-room of the eighteenth; and the peasant’s cottage may, at this day, with good management, have as handsome furniture for beds, windows, and tables, as the house of a substantial tradesman, sixty years since.” 

(Edward Baines jr., Member of Parliament for Leeds, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, 1835, p. 358)

[The proportion of deaths to the population, according to Mr. Porter’s sources, reduced from 1/39 in 1700, 1/41 in 1750, and 1/47 in 1800, to 1/53 in 1811, 1/60 in 1821, and 1/58 in 1831] 

“Showing in this respect a continually diminishing mortality. This effect, so strongly indicative of amendment in the condition of the people, must be attributed to the concurrence of various causes. Among these may be mentioned, the less crowded state of our dwellings; the command of better kinds of food and medical assistance; the superiority and cheapness of clothing; and probably also, more temperate habits and greater personal cleanliness. One influential cause of the diminished mortality will be found in the introduction of vaccination, which has had so powerful an effect in diminishing the rate of mortality among children; besides which, the extensive surface drainage which has been going forward in those parts of the country which, owing to the presence of stagnant waters, were once productive of intermittent fever, has added to the general healthiness of the country.”

(George Porter, Head of the Statistical Department at the Board of Trade, Progress of the Nation, 1836, Vol. 1. Section 1, Population, p. 19) 

“As to the condition of the labouring classes generally, and of the operatives in particular, my decided opinion is, that with the exception of some hand-loom cotton weavers, in Lancashire, and some of the clothing districts in Gloucester, ….. the operatives of this country are quite as well, and in most cases better off, than those of the Continent, and are doing as well now, as at any former period of the history of England.” 

(Samuel Sevill, clothier, Gloucestershire, letter to J. A. Miles, Assistant Commissioner for the Condition of the Hand-loom Weavers, 1837)

“With the exception, perhaps, of a few particular branches, I think it will be generally allowed that the earnings of those employed in manufactures are adequate, with prudence and economy, to provide a sufficiency of wholesome food and clothing, and to procure all the necessaries of life.”

(Dr. Richard Baron Howard, Physician to the Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, Manchester, An Inquiry into the Morbid Effects of Deficiency of Food, 1839)

“I shall here only observe, as to the depressing effects assumed from the admitted tendencies of an increase of population, that the fact is, that hitherto, in England, wages, or the means of obtaining the necessaries of life for the whole mass of the labouring community, have advanced, and the comforts within the reach of the labouring classes have increased with the late increase of population. This may be verified by reference to various evidence, and amongst others to that contained in Sir F. Eden’s examination of the wages and modes of subsistence of the agricultural labourers of his day, and we have evidence of this advance even in many of the manufacturing districts now [1842] in a state of severe depression. For example, an eminent manufacturer in Lancashire, stated to me in November ultimo – “That the same yarn which cost my father 12d. per lb. to make in 1792, all by machinery, now costs only 2d. per lb.; paying then only 4s. 4d. per hand wages weekly, now 8s. 8d. or more; yet those wages amounted then to 5 ½ d. per lb., and notwithstanding the higher wages, now, to only 1d. per lb.

The prices of provisions were, during the first period, as high as now, and the cost of clothing 30 or 40 per cent higher.”

(Edwin Chadwick, health reformer, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, 1842, p. 188)  

“That high prosperity in respect to employment and wages, and various and abundant food, have afforded to the labouring classes no exemptions from attacks of epidemic disease, which have been as frequent and as fatal in periods of commercial and manufacturing prosperity as in any others.”

(Edwin Chadwick, health reformer, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain,1842, p. 369)  

“In 1837 or 1838 Thomas Holmes, an old man of 87, born in 1760 [sic], gave to a member of the Liverpool Statistical Society his impressions of the changes that had taken place since his youth at Aldbrough (Holderness): “There has been a very great increase in the consumption of meat, wheaten bread, poultry, tea and sugar. But it has not reached the poorest, except tea, sugar, and wheaten bread. The poorest are not so well fed. But they are better clothed, lodged, and provided with furniture, better taken care of in sickness and misfortune. So they are gainers. This, I think, is a plain statement of the whole case.”

Referring to mechanics and artificers, he says, “The wages of almost all have increased in a proportion faster than the rise in the expenses of living.” When asked, “Are the poorest classes more intelligent?”, he replied, “Beyond comparison.””

(T. S. Ashton, The Standard of Life of the Workers in England, 1790-1830, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 9, Supplement: The Tasks of Economic History (1949), p. 37, footnote 26)

“While articles of ordinary use fell in price, the rate of wages kept up. There was no diminution in the means of purchasing. Some occupations certainly suffered, and were superseded, as that of the hand-loom weavers, by mechanical improvements; the fluctuations of fashion, also, wrought partial derangements, but generally there never was a period within the experience of the present generation when employment was more abundant, and when the wages of labour, taken in conjunction with the prices of every article that forms the expenditure of a working man, were so well calculated to ensure his comfort and independence. 

Over this gratifying representation it is necessary to introduce some shading to render the social picture correct. The agricultural classes did not participate equally with the manufacturing in the general improvement of condition. In the benefits resulting from the low prices of clothing and food all shared; but this cheapness was accompanied with, and partly helped to produce, a scarcity of employment in the rural districts.”

(John Wade, financial commentator, British History, Chronologically Arranged, 1847, p. 1036, referring to the reign of William IV, 1830-1837)

“The hypothesis, that an unusual abundance of wheat causes an immediate expansion of its consumption as bread, would have entitled us to expect that the surplus wheat produce of the years 1833 to 1835, or the greater part of it, would have been applied in that way. But the facts of the case did not bear out such an anticipation; for so little impression did the extra consumption, as food for man, make upon the extra supply, that wheat in 1834 and 1835 was used to a considerable extent for the purpose of feeding cattle, and sheep, and pigs, and for brewing and distilling. It is true that in consequence of the dryness of the summers of 1833 and 1834 the crops of spring corn were short, and fetched higher prices than usual, relatively to wheat. But still the fact remains, that Wheat, cheap as it was, cheaper than it had been for fifty years before, with a greatly increased population to feed, proved to be, even at extremely reduced prices, so unequivocally in excess of the demand for it as human food as to render necessary the adoption of unusual and inferior methods of absorption; …”

(Thomas Tooke, economist, A History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation from 1792 to the Present Day, Vol. V, 1857, p. 74)

“Wheat is now the all but universal bread-corn of England; and in some of the manufacturing towns, within the last few years, the use of the inferior sorts of wheaten bread has been a great deal restricted; and is rejected, indeed, by all but the very lowest and poorest classes.

The change that has taken place during the last half century in the consumption of butcher’s meat, is still more extraordinary than that which has taken place in the consumption of corn. The quantity made use of has been wonderfully increased, and its quality signally improved.


… Hence, on the most moderate computation, it may be affirmed, that the consumption of butcher’s meat in the Metropolis, as compared with the population, is twice as great at this moment as in 1740 or 1750.

In most other parts of the country, the increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat has been even greater. In thinly peopled agricultural districts, very little is consumed, but in manufacturing and commercial towns it is quite the reverse; and their vast increase, during the last half century, more than justifies the inference, that there has been, at least, a corresponding increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat.”

(John Ramsay McCullogh, economist and statistician, A Statistical Account  of the British Empire, 1837, Vol. 1, pp. 586-587)

“The workmen in this town [Birmingham] drink principally beer and ale, which, generally speaking, is very wholesome and well brewed. They drink large quantities of low-priced beer sold at 2d. or 3d. per quart. Spirits are not much drank [sic] by the working mechanic. The habit of drinking foreign wines is growing among the better class of workmen.”  

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of England, 1842, Birmingham, p. 212)

“And he can well be satisfied, at any rate the textile worker, if he compares his lot with the fate of his comrades in Germany and France. The worker there earns just enough to allow him to live on bread and potatoes; he is lucky if he can buy meat once a week. Here he eats beef every day and gets a more nourishing joint for his money than the richest man in Germany. He drinks tea twice a day and still has enough money left over to be able to drink a glass of porter at midday and brandy and water in the evening. This is how most of the Manchester workers live who work a twelve-hour day.”

(Friederich Engels, Letter written to Marx, December 20, 1842, published in the “Rheinische Zeitung”, No. 359, December 25, 1842)

“While the Church of England lived in luxury, the Socialists did an incredible amount to educate the working classes in England. At first one cannot get over one’s surprise on hearing in the Hall of Science the most ordinary workers speaking with a clear understanding on political, religious and social affairs; but when one comes across the remarkable popular pamphlets and hears the lecturers of the Socialists, for example Watts in Manchester, one ceases to be surprised. The workers now have good, cheap editions of translations of the French philosophical works of the last century, chiefly Rousseau’s Contrat social, the Système de la Nature and various works by Voltaire, and in addition the exposition of communist principles in penny and twopenny pamphlets and in the journals. The workers also have in their hands cheap editions of the writings of Thomas Paine and Shelley. Furthermore, there are also the Sunday lectures, which are very diligently attended; thus during my stay in Manchester I saw the Communist Hall [“Manchester Hall of Science”], which holds about 3,000 people, crowded every Sunday, and I heard there speeches which have a direct effect, which are made from the special viewpoint of the people, and in which witty remarks against the clergy occur. It happens frequently that Christianity is directly attacked and Christians are called “our enemies”.

In their form, these meetings partly resemble church gatherings; in the gallery a choir accompanied by an orchestra sings social hymns; these consist of semi-religious or wholly religious melodies with communist words, during which the audience stands. Then, quite nonchalantly, without removing his hat, a lecturer comes on to the platform, on which there is a table and chairs; after raising his hat by way of greeting those present, he takes off his overcoat and then sits down and delivers his address, which usually gives much occasion for laughter, for in these speeches the English intellect expresses itself in superabundant humour. In one corner of the hall is a stall where books and pamphlets are sold and in another a booth with oranges and refreshments, where everyone can obtain what he needs or to which he can withdraw if the speech bores him. From time to time tea-parties are arranged on Sunday evenings at which people of both sexes, of all ages and classes, sit together and partake of the usual supper of tea and sandwiches; on working days dances and concerts are often held in the hall, where people have a very jolly time; the hall also has a café.”

(Engels, Friederich, Letters from London, Schweizerischer Republikaner No. 46, June 9, 1843, Letter III, MECW, Volume 3;, p. 379)

“The effects of the original industrial impulse are infinite. The movements of one branch of industry affect all the others. The newly created forces require sustenance, as we have just seen; the newly created working population has new living conditions and new necessities. The mechanical advantages of manufacture reduce the price of the article, and thus make the living necessities and – as a result – the cost of labour, cheaper; all other products can be sold cheaper and thus reach an expanded market, in function of this cheapness. Given the example of the advantageously used mechanical instruments, this is gradually copied in all industry branches, the progression of civilisation, which is the unfailing effect of all industrial improvements, creates new requirements, new industry branches, and thereby new improvements.”    

(Friedrich Engels, Die Lage Englands, “Vorwärts!”, no. 73 of 11th September 1844,, p. 563)

“Dr. Howard gives, in his above-cited work, a detailed account of the expenditure of seven poor families, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, of which, each contained, on an average, six members. They earned from twenty to five-and-twenty shillings per week, and had each a cottage, with a little piece of kitchen garden, rent-free, from the masters for whom they worked. With this sum was purchased flour, oatmeal, meat (about four shillings-worth weekly), potatoes, tea, coffee, sugar (a pound a week), milk, soap, coals, tobacco, salt, pepper, and other spices (often six-pennyworth of these every week), rice, and schooling for the children (seldom more than six or sevenpence a week). Four shillings a week for meat! How much meat do our wealthiest peasants and labourers consume in the week? Six-pennyworth of pepper and spice! As much as for the schooling of the children.”    

(Johann Georg Kohl, travel writer, England, Wales and Scotland, 1844, p. 142)

“We may mention however, that for several years the bills of mortality have exhibited a continually and steadily increasing number of persons whose death can be ascribed to no particular disease, and who are stated to have vanished from the scene of life in consequence of “old age and debility”.”

(George Porter, Head of the Statistical Department at the Board of Trade, Progress of the Nation, 1847, Vol. 1. Section 1, Population, p. 21)

“In England and Scotland agricultural skill has of late increased considerably faster than population, insomuch that food and other agricultural produce, notwithstanding the increase of people, can be grown at less cost than they were thirty years ago.”

(John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848, edition of 1915, p. 704) 

“This increase of inhabitants would be sufficient, as already remarked, to contradict the idea of any great inadequacy in the quantity of food, if the experience and observation of every one did not enable him otherwise to disprove such a position; and as it is equally impossible to believe that the increasing wants of the people, during the above-mentioned period of forty years [1801 to 1841], were in any material degree met by supplies from without, the conviction is irrestibly forced upon us that a most important increase in the amount of agricultural products must have taken place within the kingdom. It is not necessary for us, however, to rest satisfied on this point with reasonings and calculations, however convincing, since we are enabled to ascertain with precision, from custom-house returns, the entire quantity of grain that has been imported into the kingdom for each one of a long series of years. It is equally unnecessary to load these pages with numbers and long series of figures, in order to make good the position that has here been advanced. The following short statement of the quantity of wheat and wheat flour that has been imported for each year of the present century will suffice to show how insignificant, when compared with the wants of the community, have been the supplies which have been drawn from foreign countries:” 

(George Porter, Head of the Statistical Department at the Board of Trade, Progress of the Nation, 1851, Chapter II, Section I, Agriculture, p. 139) 

“The change in the price of provisions has added greatly to the comfort of the [agricultural] labourer. Within the last ten years the decrease in price of the principal articles of his consumption is upwards of 30 per cent. In 1840 a stone of flour cost him 2s. 6d., which he can now purchase for 1s. 8d; good Congou tea in 1840 was, exclusive of duty, 2s. 6d. per lb., and is now only 1s.; and the same quality of sugar which then cost him 6p. per lb., can be had now for 3 ½ d.“

(James Caird, later “Sir”, writer on agriculture, English Agriculture 1850-51, 1852, p. 518)

“It will be remembered that the year 1835, in which there appears one departure from the uniformity of this effect, was a year of great, of almost universal, excitement throughout the kingdom. Never before, perhaps, was there an equal number of public works in operation. Every man who was able and willing to work readily obtained employment at full wages. Every loom was filled, every anvil was at work, and, to crown the advantages thus enjoyed by our labouring population, the chief necessaries of life were procurable at prices lower than had been previously known by the existing generation.”

(George Porter, Joint Secretary of the Board of Trade, The Progress of the Nation, 1851, pp. 542-543)

“It will be apparent, from the examination of the foregoing tables, that although at certain seasons all those who live by daily wages must have suffered privation, yet with some exceptions their condition has, in the course of years, been much ameliorated. The exceptions here alluded to are hand-loom weavers, and other following analogous employments, conducted in the dwellings of the workmen. The diminution in the weekly earnings of other parties has been but small in any case, and certainly not commensurate with the diminished cost of most of the necessaries of life, comprehending in this list most articles of food, and every article of clothing. By this means they have acquired, with their somewhat diminished wages, a much greater command than formerly over some of the comforts of life.

It is true that the necessity under which most labouring men are placed of purchasing in very small quantities from retail dealers who are themselves, perhaps, unable to purchase in the best markets, prevents their deriving in every case the full advantage of diminished prices; but it must be plain to everybody that at least in one respect the condition of the labouring poor is greatly mended. The reduction in the prices of all kinds of manufactured goods, accompanied as it is by improvement in their quality, has been such that few indeed are now so low in the scale of society as to be unable to provide themselves with decent and appropriate clothing. It cannot be necessary to adduce any evidence in support of this fact, which is obvious to every one who passes through the streets; so great, indeed, is the change in this respect, that it is rarely we meet with any one that is not in at least decent apparel, except it be a mendicant, whose garb is assumed as an auxiliary to his profession. …..”  

(George Porter, op. cit., p. 452)

“I believe it is admitted by the great mass of the intelligent working men, that their physical and social position has much improved during the last twenty years; and it is hoped that the continued progress of sanitary improvements in rendering their “homes” more healthy, will further greatly contribute to this result.

As a body they are now much better educated, and are much less addicted to the sin of drunkenness; they have much greater self-respect and intelligence; and if they have not more political privileges, they have more real independence, and are in every other respect elevated and improved as compared with their position twenty years ago.”

(David Chadwick, Town Treasurer of Salford, On the Rate of Wages in Manchester and Salford, and the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire, 1839-59, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, March 1860, p. 21)

“The results of the present enquiry prove that a large proportion of the operative classes in the various branches of trade, are receiving more wages at the present time than they have done during the last twenty years; and there appears good reason to expect that the prosperity now prevailing is likely to be more than usually permament.

It may safely be affirmed that the low prices of Provisions and Clothing, together with the high rate of Wages, and the facilities for education and mental culture now existing, have placed within the reach of the working classes more physical comforts and the means of obtaining more social and intellectual enjoyment than at any previous period.”

(David Chadwick, op. cit., p. 19)

“If, however, we look back to the condition of the mass of the people as it existed in this country, even so recently as the beginning of the present century, and then look around us at the indications of greater comfort and respectability that meet us on every side, it is hardly possible to doubt that here, in England at least, the elements of social improvement have been successfully at work, and that they have been and are producing an increased amount of comfort to the great bulk of the people. This improvement is by no means confined to those who are called, by a somewhat arbitrary distinction, the working classes, but is enjoyed in some degree or other by tradesmen, shopkeepers, families,- in short, by every class of men whose personal and family comforts admitted of material increase.”

(George Porter, op. cit., p. 222)

“….. it is a satisfaction to know that the rate of agricultural wages throughout the country has increased within these thirty-five years quite as much as 20 per cent, while the prices of those provisions and supplies which constitute the ordinary food and necessaries of life have, on the whole, decreased in the aggregate about 10 per cent.”

(J. Bailey Denton, agricultural engineer, The Agricultural Labourer, 1868, pp. 16-17)

“That, on the other hand, it was a direct consequence of the Railway Expenditure of the years 1848, ’49, and ’50, that the Working Classes were provided with fair employment during a period of interrupted trade; and it was also a direct consequence of the Cheapness of Food and the low range of general prices which prevailed to the year 1852, that the Working Classes were able to command, by means of their wages, a larger amount of sustenance and comfort, than had been within their reach probably at any former period of the Century.”

(Thomas Tooke, economist, A History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation during the Nine Years 1848-1856, 1857, p. 347)

A more nuanced view is given by Sir Archibald Alison, history writer and Rector of Edinburgh University, in his “England in 1815 and 1845; and the Monetary Famine of 1847; Or, A Sufficient and a Contracted Currency”. He confirms that the great majority of the population had a great improvement in their incomes and living standards. But he also draws attention to the fact that the lowest levels of society live in very bad conditions. He thinks that this extreme differentiation has no reasonable explanation, and cannot understand how the ruling classes were so incompetent as to let this happen. 

“….. While population was advancing with unparalleled strides in the manufacturing districts, pauperism even more than kept pace with it in all; and the extraordinary fact has now been revealed by statistical researches that, in an age of unbounded wealth, and general and long-continued peace, a seventh part of the whole inhabitants of the British islands are in a state of destitution, or painfully supported by legal relief. (*)”

(*) Footnote. Ireland 2,300,000; England 1,500,000; Scotland 200,000; Total 4,000,000 (pp. 6-7)

“But what we do say is unparalleled in the history of the world, is the co-existence of so much suffering in one portion of the people, with so much prosperity in another; of unbounded private wealth, with unceasing public penury; of constant increase in the national resources, with constant diminution in the comforts of a considerable portion of the community; of the utmost freedom consistent with order, ever yet existing on earth, with a degree of discontent which keeps the nation constantly on the verge of insurrection; of the most strenuous efforts for the moral and religious improvement of the poor, with an increase of crime unparalleled at the same, or perhaps any other, period in any civilized state.”

“…. Nor has the increase in opulence in cities been less remarkable than the augmentation in the number of their inhabitants. This daily display of wealth in the metropolis excites the astonishment of every beholder. It is not going too far to say, that it is double of what it was at the close of the war. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Dundee, Aberdeen, and all the trading towns of the empire, have advanced in a similar proportion, not merely in the opulence of a few, but the evident ease and well-being of a considerable proportion of the community.” (p. 15)

“The last feature – and it is a most distressing one – of society for the last twenty-five years in the British islands has been the extraordinary inequality in the condition of the working classes themselves, and the general want of those habits of foresight amongst them which are the only lasting foundation of durable prosperity. This is the more distressing, as it might reasonably have been expected to have arisen with the advantages many of them have enjoyed. It is a great mistake to say the working classes are all permanently miserable. Many of them doubtless are so; and what is very extraordinary, certain professions, or trades, are generally immersed in poverty, while others, in their close vicinity, are often rioting in affluence. Wages differ in a remarkable and most distressing degree in different places. In many of the agricultural districts they are as low as 7s. or 8s. a-week;- the piecers and female workers in manufactories seldom, save in years of extraordinary prosperity, earn more than 6s. Weavers are generally as low as 7s. a-week, in seasons of distress they sink to 4s., and even less. On the other hand, the cotton-spinners, iron-moulders, and other skilled trades, earn, in ordinary years, from 20s. to 30s. a-week; but the affluence of some professions or branches of labour affords no compensation for the degraded and unhappy state of others. It is impossible to strike an average in such cases; you might as well make an average of the happiness of some, and the sorrows of others, in private life. Perhaps, however, those of the laboring classes which are in a state of prosperity, are fully as well off as they were during any former period of our history.

Their wages, indeed, are in many cases thirty or forty per cent. lower than they were during the war; but provisions, and the other necessaries or comforts they require, have fallen in a still greater proportion, and their condition, consequently, has been in no way depressed; on the contrary, it has been rather improved by the fall.” (pp. 15-16)

“But it is this condition of the poor in this lowest grade which is the most extraordinary feature of the last twenty years, and which has now assumed such a magnitude as to have become, in every point of view, a national concern. The hand-loom weavers are everywhere at the starving point; with the utmost industry they can never earn more than seven or eight shillings a-week; during periods of commercial depression it sinks to four or five. ….. But this magnitude and condition of the destitute class itself is the alarming thing. In every great town of the empire there is a mass, about the twelfth or the fifteenth of its number, who are generally in a state of almost total penury. In periods of commercial distress this destitute body rises to double, sometimes triple, its average amount. It is from this frightful accumulation of poverty, intemperance, vice, and destitution that two-thirds of the physical contagion which ravages, and four-fifths of the convicted crime which burdens, society takes its rise. The alarming increase of offences which penal severity and lenity, uncertainty and certainty of punishments, have been alike unable to restrain, mainly comes from this class.

Close packed in the centre and worst parts of every great city – crowded together, many families in the same room – scarce knowing where they are to find their daily food – careless because destitute, often joyous because always unforeseeing, this deplorable body are retained within the precincts of contagion and vice by the iron bonds of hopeless poverty. It is impossible that regular or virtuous habits can be acquired, it is scarcely possible that those of temperance and wickedness can be avoided, in their dismal abodes. …. And all this exists unnoticed, unrelieved, within a few hundred yards of the most unbounded opulence, amidst luxury unheard of, prosperity unexampled, and in a community making a more rapid progress in material resources than any that ever yet appeared upon earth.” (pp. 16-17)

The only comment referring to a large-scale reduction in incomes, was that which Mr. John Marshall (owner of the largest flax mill in the country) gave the Hand-Loom Weavers Commission in 1833, and was a description of what had happened in the countryside from 1790 to 1820, due to the introduction of machinery for spinning wool:

 “…. The census of 1831 proves that the extended application of machinery has annihilated all the domestic industry or domestic manufacture which used to prevail amongst at least from 800,000 to 1,000,000 of families, and which were carried on, not to a large extent, but to such an extent as supplied all the domestic comforts of the family. Domestic manufacture used to pervade every labourer’s cottage, every farm-house, and the habitations of the handicraftsmen. The labourers’ families were more generally employed in carding and spinning of wool, given out by the shopkeepers of the villages; and the yarn, after being taken back by them in exchange for the articles of the shop, passed into other hands to be wove; the farm-houses and the houses of the handicraftsmen, such as the smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights and persons of that description, were more generally employed in the spinning of flax, the yarn of which they afterwards sent to be wove, some for sale and some for domestic use. …. I think that the great alteration which has taken place, has been the means of placing the artizan more completely in a state of dependence upon the manufacturer. 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, are found to present a far greater parochial assessment than any other district in the kingdom, notwithstanding their superior advantages in an agricultural point of view, in having the benefit of the London market.” 

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




The Industrial Revolution was not All Bad

“Nullius in Verba” / “Take Nobody’s Word for it”

(Motto of the Royal Society)

This work was originally going to be one chapter of a book about generalisations in writing history. The idea was to show how difficult it is to make a statement about the Industrial Revolution in England, giving weight to both the increases in income and the bad living conditions. The first version of the chapter did not satisfy me, as there were a number of pieces of information which turned out to be without a real basis, or were in contradiction with the real world. Particularly, it seemed impossible that people with such low incomes and bad working conditions could have had normal lives, especially if these conditions were valid for the whole of the working class.

 So I decided to investigate and document as far as I could.

The general view of the Industrial Revolution is that the people suffered from low wages, insufficient food, bad treatment by the owners, bad sanitation, and much illness and mortality of children. This is then supported by the calculations of real (inflation-adjusted) wage development, which give only zero increase from 1770 to 1830, and 30 % from 1830 to 1860. But we shall see that there were a number of positive living situations. We shall also see that the figures as to real wages are not what they seem.

It is certainly important to evaluate what happened to the people in the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution gave us machines, which allowed us to do things and produce articles, with more speed, more power, more exactness, work for longer time periods, and with less costs. It gave us stationary steam engines, the factory system, cheap textiles in large quantities, trains and reduction of transport costs, gas lighting, sheet glass, facility of work in mining and in agriculture, machine tools. It made it possible to absorb the great increase in population, and to reduce the number of people who worked out-of-doors and using their bodily strength. But for a number of decades, large parts of the population suffered bad living and sanitation conditions. Thus, the great questions are: “was it worth it?”, and “could it have been done another way?” But these questions can only be answered, if we have the answer to the question “what really happened to the people?”

Hopefully, the presentation of the large mass of data in this book, will make it possible to have a “political” discussion about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, but on a generally accepted and objective basis.

In the second half of this chapter I shall give a short history of the opinions and investigations of academics from 1880 to the present, as to the financial situation and the living conditions of the working class in the period 1770-1860. Since 1910 there has been a situation of “ping-pong” between the Optimists and the Pessimists; at this time, the Pessimists have the ball under control.

It will there be seen that the accumulation of studies and commentaries has not given us much in the way of quantitative data. It is not clear why this should be so. Following we have a list of required data in order to evaluate the reality of the period of the Industrial Revolution, and of the points actually reported.  

Average Wages: 

There is only one series of average wages per year for the period, that is, one figure per year for the average of the working class (Feinstein, 1998); but the detailed working papers have been lost, and so we cannot check if it is correct and we cannot use it to answer questions, i.e. movements of wages in agricultural labourers vs. in non-agricultural occupations.

Average Wages Agriculture: 

There is an investigation (Clark) which gives basic wages for agricultural labourers for every year; it does not show the complete financial situation of the worker, because it does not include earnings from task-work, harvest month, spinning wool (wives and daughters).

Effect of mechanization of spinning of wool, on the agricultural families (loss of income): Nothing.

Numbers in each occupation: Only agricultural workers, textiles, miners.

Wages in non-agricultural occupations: Only textiles.

Narratives of changes in working processes and social conditions in each occupation: Only textiles.

Index of cost of living per year, average over all occupations: Three calculations (Feinstein, Clark, Allen) with full documentation, and consistent figures.

Expression of earnings in terms of purchasable food quantities (can they eat enough?): Nothing.

Non-financial improvements in the lives of the working class: Nothing.

Other expenses apart from food + clothing + rent + fuel (i.e. do they have surplus income to buy other things?): Nothing.

Effect of the New Poor Law 1834 and the prohibition of “outdoor relief”, on the poor persons who did not enter the workhouse: Nothing. 

Average consumption of bread: Nothing.

Average consumption of meat: Only the number of animals slaughtered at Smithfield.

Average consumption of beer: Nothing.

Family Budgets: Some from 1780’s, 1790’s, 1830’s, 1840’s.

Percentages of infant mortality: Nothing before 1840 (apparently nobody knows that the infant mortality in the industrial towns was nearly all caused by lack of care and feeding by the mother).

Life expectancy: Nothing before 1840.

Proportion of areas in industrial towns with reasonable sanitation and housing: Supposed to be Zero.

Cultural activities of workers: Supposed to be Zero.

Literacy: Supposed to be low-level.

Identification of years with bad harvests or with industrial recessions, plus descriptions of effects on the population: Nothing.

Nearly all of these points are resolved in the body of this work.

What do we learn about life in the Industrial Revolution, from the research for this book, additional to the investigations made up to this date?:

  • the standard of living in the 18th century, as measured by wages and cost of food, was acceptable;
  • the persons who changed to employment in the cotton factories in Lancashire in 1780-1800, made their decision based on the offer of high wages, in comparison with those that they had had in their previous work; 
  • the average real incomes of the agricultural families went down in the period, and those of the average non-agricultural families went up;
  • the workers in the “modern” industries had in general good incomes and food situations, and those in occupations where they were in competition with a large number of other workers, selling the produce of their hands, were in bad circumstances;
  • the weekly wages earned by the agricultural labourers must be adjusted upwards, for the harvest wage, task-work, and income from spinning wool (wives and daughters) up to 1820; the total family wage remained basically unchanged from 2.5 bushels of wheat in 1770 to 2.6 bushels in 1860;
  • the agricultural families in many cases had additional food sources from allotments and fields that they farmed in their spare time, and their pigs;
  • the weekly wages of the average non-agricultural worker went up from 1.3 quartern loaves in 1770 to 2.0 quartern loaves in 1860;  
  • the simultaneous narrative of the technical and social advances, and the wage movements, in each industry, allow us to understand the factors which moved the wages; 
  • the use of machinery did not cause decreases of wages or losses of jobs (only in the case of wool spinning in the agricultural areas); machinery increased the throughput and decreased the costs in each industry, so that sales numbers increased greatly, and the owners and the workers could share the improved profits; 
  • threshing machines did not take away jobs in the South and South Midlands; the Swing Riots were not caused by poverty or hunger;
  • the catastrophic decrease in the wages of the cotton hand-loom weavers (1817-1833) was not caused by competition from the power-looms, but by the Government permission to export cotton thread, which then allowed the Continental cloth producers to lower their costs;
  • we do not have series of figures of production or of per capita consumption of cereals, but there was enough for everyone from 1815 onwards;
  • we also do not have series for per capita consumption of meat, but we do know that in the industrial towns, the average consumption per person (man, wife, children, babies, indigents) was from 80 to 100 pounds per year;  
  • the descriptions of the horrible life in the towns given by Engels were selected to give a bad impression; he makes this clear in letters to Marx;
  • not all of the areas of the industrial towns had bad sanitation and over-crowded housing; particularly in Manchester the “Engels description” only applied to the Old Township (130,000 inhabitants), and not to the new suburbs (230,000 inhabitants);
  • Birmingham and other cities were different to Manchester;
  • there were a large number of mills and “mill villages” in the countryside of Lancashire and the West Riding, where the sanitation and housing were acceptable; 
  • the very high infant and child mortality was not due to the bad sanitary conditions, but primarily to the lack of care and feeding by the mothers, who had to work long hours in the factory;
  • in Manchester and in Birmingham, the better-paid workers built houses through “building clubs”, to rent to other workers; in Bradford and the Potteries, one third to one half of the workers owned the houses where they lived; 
  • literacy was high amongst the workers in the new industries; many read technical journals, and some could read in French or German; 
  • there were many self-help projects, for example, the Co-Operative Society;

So now we have to ask why these points have not been uncovered or investigated by academic researchers. The following may be valid explanations:

Firstly, because there has not existed a data base of average wages per industry and per year. These numbers are very useful for understanding the living conditions in each industry or region, and for asking detailed questions about the reasons for the movements in wages.

Secondly, because no one has made the experiment of expressing the weekly wages in terms of the amount of food/cereals which could be bought.

Third, because those data which have been used to make descriptions or to reach judgments have only been those that are findable in numerical or index/series form. No interest has been shown in reading text descriptions or collecting illustrations, which show in a general way how the people lived. The only descriptions used are those of the Parliamentary Commissions on Great Cities, Children’s Employment, etc.     

Fourthly, it appears that the historians are convinced that the present, semi-pessimistic evaluation is correct, and thus it is not necessary to look for data in new sources. This may be influenced by the calculations of “real wages” at a given date that are carried out, using the index movements of wages and comparing these with the index movements of prices of food, etc. The correct calculation is to compare the wages at a given date with the food costs at that date.

The totality of the different academic opinions since 1900 about the experiences during the Industrial Revolution, is known as the “Standard of Living Controversy”.

The “Optimists” say that there was at least no decrease in real incomes from 1770 to 1810, and a large increase from 1810 to 1860, and the “Pessimists” say that there was only a small increase during the period 1770 to 1830, and a median improvement from 1830 to 1860. It must be noted that there was a considerable decrement in the cost of food and other articles from 1825 to 1860. 

It should not come as a surprise, that the “Optimists” are political believers in the free market, while the “Pessimists” are socialists and communists.

It is not clear how there can be doubts about the conditions (good or bad) in the Industrial Revolution. One would suppose that in a country with continuous internal peace for centuries, and abundant documentation of historical situations, there would have been in, for example 1900, a consensus as to whether the experiences had been “good” or “bad”. In 1900 there were still people living who could remember the 1840’s. I have not been able to find any history books written in 1860 to 1900, which refer to the living situations of the working classes in the previous decades. I have also been unable to find books or pamphlets published by the unions or other representatives of the working classes, which might speak about horrible financial or food situations (a few in the case of the agricultural workers).

There are some situations which might predispose us to a bad general impression of life in the Industrial Revolution: the bad treatment of the children in the factories, the long hours in the textile factories, the bad sanitary and housing conditions, the high infant mortality, and the industrial injuries and bodily deformations. But these should not predispose us to a vision in which all the workers had subsistence wages and all the workers had insufficient food. The problem is that we work from some assumptions which were often not valid: 

  1. “we know that the workers had to work very long hours, to make up their wages”, but actually the cotton workers had very good daily wages, the long hours were required to have an efficient use of the machines;
  2. “the textile factory workers had to live in bad sanitary areas, because they were poor”, but really they lived in the bad areas in Manchester and Leeds because that was where the work was (*);
  3. “the small children in the factory areas died in large quantities due to the lack of sanitation in the areas of their houses”, but the fact is that the majority of the small children died because their mothers did not have time to look after them or feed them, because they were working long hours in the factories;
  4. “the workers had to struggle against the factory owners for their wage level, and thus their wages were low”, but in the cotton factories the owners had to offer good wages to attract the men from other occupations;
  5. “the real wages were stagnant, and thus the workers did not have enough income to purchase sufficient food”, but really the incomes in the eighteenth century had been of a reasonable amount, and continued in the nineteenth century;
  6. “the working classes were poor and overworked and lived in horrible circumstances, and thus did not have time and energy for anything except eating and sleeping”, but really they invested time and money to improve their education.

(*) According to M. Faucher, a French economist who visited England in 1844, and reporting on Leeds, the working-class families living in the lower class of housing, and with considerable overcrowding, earned 30 shillings a week.

There is not really much to dispute about the bad living conditions, for which there is abundant documentation from the period; there is however, room for doubt, as to whether these conditions existed in all regions and in all occupations. The difference in the controversy is with regard to the incomes of the people, that is, whether they all had wages just above subsistence level, or whether at least the total of the “manufacturing classes” had enough to eat well. The poor were certainly very poor (and poorer than in the second half of the eighteenth century).

To be sure that the figures that we have tell us everything about the finances of the workers, we have to check if they have other forms of income, and if they have expenses that cannot be explained with their incomes. On the one hand there are workers who can buy the houses in which they live; on the other hand, the amount of beer and gin drunk is suspicious!

To form a complete impression of the living conditions, that is, working hours, treatment of the children, infant and child mortality, sanitation, water supply, housing density, house rents, etc., we need a revision of these factors in the majority of the regions and in the majority of the occupations. Not all of the industries – and non-industrial occupations – and not all of the regions, and not even all of Manchester, were as bad as they are painted.

On the other hand, there were a number of improvements in daily life which should be included in the “equation”. For example, gas lighting in streets and public places, trains for transport of persons and of goods, and less physical exertion in mining and in agriculture.

 All of these points are presented and evaluated in the body of the book.

So as not to be influenced by later impressions and judgments about the conditions of the workers, I have not taken generalised expressions from twentieth century and twenty-first century authors. “Generalised expressions” are those of the form: “many people …”, “much of the time”, “were unhappy”, “were exploited”, “nearly all of them ate little meat”, and worse: “it is generally accepted that ….” Books and doctoral theses have been used, but only for copying numerical and descriptive data, or to identify sources from earlier periods.

The investigation and evaluation take place through two methods: the description of the development of the industries and of the daily life of the workers, and the arithmetical analysis of the movements of incomes and the movements of family expenditures. Visual descriptions of daily experiences, so long as we can be sure that they were generally valid, are given precedence against figures. The advantage of carrying out the analysis on an industry basis is that the individual results can be checked easily against “the real world”, and if found to be incorrect, they can be adjusted. 

The procedure for collecting monetary data and descriptions has been to use primarily data from historians, statistical societies, parliamentary reports, information from visitors to the regions, and from workers and from business owners, from the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. The idea of taking the data of the contemporary statisticians is because they not only could collect and evaluate the figures, but also interpret them in terms of their daily information as to the economic and social situation. The “best” information is that which is given as a series of figures for a number of years, by the same person (thus guaranteeing that the definition is consistent), or in terms of a statement, comparing the contemporary situation with some previous year. The advantage of quoting foreign visitors or visitors from other regions of Britain is that they give us an idea, as to what was “normal” and what was “surprising” to them.

The economists, statisticians, landlords and farmers, and foreign visitors were unanimous that the great mass of the working classes had an optically demonstrable long-term improvement in their earnings and living standards. The statements correspond to probably an increase in earnings of about 5 % per decade (See Chapter 1.: Contemporary Observations).

The types of input data are not only the standard wage levels and the monetary amounts of basic expenses, and the descriptions of the sanitary and health problems. The most important data are those which report on the physical amounts of food consumed. To form an idea of how the working people lived, we use descriptions of their physical appearance, and how they used their spare time and their surplus cash.

To decide if the condition of the working class and the general population improved or worsened in the period, the usual questions are not sufficient:

1.What was the percentage movement of the basic wages?
2.What was the percentage movement of the expenses of the families?
3.What were the changes in the non-monetary disadvantages in their living conditions?

The full set of necessary questions is as follows: 

1.What was the percentage movement of the total earnings, per person and per family?
2.What were the figures in shillings of total family earnings, divided by the number of family members (“mouths”)?
3.What was the percentage movement of the expenses of the people?
4.What were the changes in the composition of the expenses?
5.What were the absolute differences per person or per family, between earnings and expenses? 
6.What were the changes in the non-monetary disadvantages in their living conditions?
7.What were the changes in the non-monetary benefits in their living conditions?
8.Were their large changes in the percentages of the long-term unemployed or destitute poor?

Point 2 in the second box is crucial to addressing the apparent contradiction between the low figures of increase of real (inflation-corrected) weekly incomes per worker (0 % from 1770 to 1830, 30% from 1830 to 1860), and the observations of improvements in the standard of living made by professional persons of the time (perhaps 5 % per decade, which over 90 years compounded is 55 %). Until now, the idea among the academics has been to define the improvement in real incomes per family, as equal to the increase in wages of the principal wage-earner. But with the qualitative changes in employment in the period 1770 to 1860, this is not valid. 

The number of persons per family who had a decent income increased from perhaps 1.65 to 2.1. The total income of the family, as a multiple of that of the average wage-earner, increased from 1.27 to 2.1. The father earned in 1770, 9.5 shillings per week, and thus the family had an income of 12.1 shillings. Supposing 4.5 persons per family, we have 2.7 shillings for food and expenses per “mouth”. With inflation to 1860, this situation becomes 3.9 shillings per “mouth”.

In 1860, the average wage-earner had 15 shillings income, and thus the family total was 31 shillings. But the number of “mouths” to feed remains constant from 1770 to 1860 at about 4.5. Thus each adult and child, instead of being able to spend an income of 3.9 shillings at level 1860, can spend an income of 6.8 shillings. This is an increase of about 80 % in real incomes (i.e. corrected for inflation).

An additional dimension to this study is to attempt to fix rules as to how to formulate general descriptions of the life of the people in a given period, and which general descriptions can be formulated about the Industrial Revolution in England. For any period of rapid changes, and of much differentiation in living standards between classes and between occupations, such as was the Industrial Revolution, it is very difficult to find short and useful statements. It is certainly better to use general descriptions for a well-defined group, by persons of the era, than to present a number of individual examples. 

A first step is to see what is the validity of the “evidence” for living standards in the past. For the period 1770 to 1860 in England, there are enough figures on incomes per person to show what was the increase in nominal wages to an accuracy of plus/minus 5 percentage points, and equally there are enough figures on the costs of food and other necessities to make a good estimate of the inflation. There are insufficient data as to “typical family budgets”, and certainly very little idea, as to whether these food patterns were really “typical” or “average”. We could only make statements of the form: “the average working family ate better in 1860 than 1770”, or “the average working family ate two pounds of meat per week in 1770, and five pounds of meat per week in 1860”, if we had a large number of family budgets. 

But what really happened? If we could go back in a time machine, and take photos of the people in 1770 and in 1860, and talk to them, and see if they were thin or well-built, what would we learn? We might find some errors in our present data, or more probably in our methods of using the data. As we cannot visit the past, we might use the eyes, mind, and words of Mr. McCulloch, a prominent economist, in 1833: “The change that has taken place during the last half century in the consumption of butcher’s meat, is still more extraordinary than that which has taken place in the consumption of corn. The quantity made use of has been wonderfully increased, and its quality signally improved”. This is an expression based on real observation, by an expert with access to the figures, and referring to a long period of time. It cannot be brought into doubt through use of a number of figures collected 180 years later. 

We can also take note of Dr. Douglas Logan, the doctor who accompanied the Captain Swing rioters (1830) in their ship to Australia, whence they were transported: “Generally speaking, they had the sturdy build of labouring men.” The men are not thin from overwork, or from hunger. Dr. Logan describes “labouring men” as “sturdy” without any restrictions, which must mean that he held the description to be valid for the majority of these people in the country. 

Mr. George Porter, Secretary to the Board of Trade, refers to the improvement in clothing for the labouring classes, and to the clear visual evidencefor this statement (1851). “The reduction in the prices of all kinds of manufactured goods, accompanied as it is by improvement in their quality, has been such that few indeed are now so low in the scale of society as to be unable to provide themselves with decent and appropriate clothing. It cannot be necessary to adduce any evidence in support of this fact, which is obvious to every one who passes through the streets; so great, indeed, is the change in this respect, that it is rarely that we meet with any one that it is not in at least decent apparel, except it be a mendicant, whose garb is assumed as an auxiliary to his profession …”  

Which data should we use?, the statistical or the descriptive? If there is a difference between the two, we should use the descriptive, because they are/were real. More exactly, we should use the descriptive data, so long as a) we are sure that they are applicable to all the people, or b) we can state that they are applicable to a certain percentage of the population, or to a given segment of the population.           

It is important to verify that the “naked facts” represent the totality of incomes and of expenses. There were many additional factors on both sides of the equation, for example:

  • the agricultural workers and their families had additional incomes from harvest bonus, task-work (especially threshing), field work by the wife and children, gleaning, and saving the food costs in the harvest, as the farmer gave them the food in the harvest field;
  • many agricultural families had a pig, which was killed for meat at the end of the year, and many others had an allotment in which they could grow potatoes or vegetables;
  • the poorest agricultural families did not eat “butcher’s meat”, but they did buy cheaper cuts such as head, neck, feet, or liver and kidneys at half price;
  • the general food budget in the North of England was cheaper but more nutritive than that of the South, as it was based on oatmeal, which was of a lower unit price, but gave more weight of food as served on the plate;
  • many families, agricultural or industrial, had more than one person working for a wage, or in informal activities;
  • the male industrial workers spent a lot of their money on drink, but in many cases, their stated income was not enough to cover this outgoing, so that we have to suppose that they had a few shillings a week from other work.      

We must also revise if statements which appear to be generally valid, really apply to all the people and all the regions, or if they can be subdivided for different regions. In fact, the horrible descriptions of sanitary conditions and infant mortality in Manchester cannot be made applicable to all the industrial districts, and not even to the whole of Manchester. The worst parts of Manchester were where visitors were taken to observe the bad conditions (“slum tourism”), and where there were a lot of Irish and non-factory workers. By 1833, the better class of workers did not reside in the Old Township (population about 130,000), but in the new suburbs (230,000).

The figures collected for living standards of agricultural workers from 1830 onwards, if they refer to the South-West of the country, which show bad conditions, are not representative, because this area had wages of around 8 shillings, and the other regions had 10-12 shillings. With respect to the often-cited agricultural workers of South Wilts, these were only 1.5 % of the labourers in England. But they did live on average to 60 years old.

The figures of deaths at less than 12 months, about 220 per 1000 births in Manchester and Liverpool, although very bad from our present point of view, were actually only a little higher than those of small towns in England in the later 18th century, and lower than those in Germany, predominantly a rural country, in the 19th century. These figures were accepted as normal by the people at the time, as they had not known anything better.

It is further a logical requirement, that we check that the descriptions and numerical data really apply to all the years of the period being investigated. From the years 1770 to 1860, there were a number of years in which a large part of the population suffered. These would be 1795-1796, 1800-1802 and 1816-1817 with insufficient harvests, 1810-1812 in the industrial districts due to the interruption of trade with the United States, 1826 due to restriction of the money supply, and the catastrophic depression of 1839-1842, caused originally by the bursting of a bubble in plant investment and in employment. These should not be taken to be indicative of the whole Industrial Revolution, rather the treatment should be: consider how the economic/financial/social organization and philosophy of the country caused these problems in each case, and why they could not be corrected.   

The investigation will present data to show that not all of the generally accepted assumptions (negative!) were 100 % true in each case. In many cases the data and descriptions are true, but refer to only the worst parts of each city, or only to years of recession. This will help us to understand the effects of the Industrial Revolution. For example:

  1. The agricultural and textile industry regions were not poor in 1770-1790, in terms of employment, working conditions, or illnesses.
  2. The bad economic experiences from 1795 to 1815 were caused not only by the Industrial Revolution, but by the indirect effects of the French Wars, by high taxation to pay for the war, and by bad harvests.
  3. The first workers who went into the cotton mills in Lancashire were not poor/starving farm workers who needed a job, but rather artisans and other town workers, to whom the mill owners had to offer high wages to induce them to change work.
  4. Monetary incomes in the textile industry were in general good, with the exception of the hand-loom weavers after 1817, and of the years of recession.
  5. A part of each city was in horrible conditions (housing and drainage), but some parts were normal, and the authorities did take steps to improve the situation.
  6. It is not true that all the mill owners in Lancashire and Yorkshire treated their employees badly; a certain proportion rented them clean housing, paid their visits to the doctor, and schooling in the evening or on Sunday.
  7. A large part of the bad conditions of the very poor was not caused by the technological and socioeconomic changes of the Industrial Revolution, but by the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834, and its prohibition of “outdoor relief”.
  8. The levels of poverty experienced by some sectors of the working population, were not a reflection of low contractual wage levels, but rather of the amount of unemployment, and of the people selling their production to an anonymous and highly price-competitive market.
  9. The agricultural labourers had higher incomes than usually supposed, because extra payments from harvest month and from task-work added about 70 %; up to 1790, they also had the incomes of their wives from spinning wool in the cottage.
  10. They had a decrease in their total yearly earnings in the period, and their food consumption was just enough to eat well, but they were not at starvation level.
  11. The higher paid industrial workers had a surplus in their wages against their family expenditures, which they used for: drinking, buying furniture, building a house to rent it, studying in Workers’ Institutes, or depositing in savings banks, benefit societies or building societies.
  12. Many industrial workers and artisans managed to have satisfying lives, although they lived in bad sanitary conditions.

It is necessary to give the correct “weighting” to the reports of committees, doctors, and social reformers. It is not possible to deny the truth of the sufferings and bad living conditions of much of the population. But the parliamentary committees sent out their rapporteurs exactly to those geographical regions or industries where there were problems. It is not true that the bad conditions reported upon, existed in the whole country. 

This investigation has had an unexpected by-product. It has shown that the men and women of the agricultural and industrial segments were not passive wage-slaves, but demonstrated in many situations, initiative, interest and hard work, in improving their personal situation and the political and social conditions in the country:

  • agricultural families farmed allotments or rented fields to farm in their spare time, and some of them managed to save enough money to buy a field and build their own cottage;
  • the better class of workers studied in the evenings in Mechanic’s Institutes, which had large libraries, and subscribed to technical magazines;  
  • they took part in associations to promote teetotalism, which required them to address the public from a platform;
  • they took part in the activities of their church, usually “dissenter”;
  • the Cooperative Society was founded by workers in 1842, and grew considerably;
  • there were many workers’ organizations (forerunners or disguised versions of trades unions), even in the years when these were under attack by the authorities;
  • they supported during many years the movements to reduce children’s working hours, and to reform the political structure of the country through the People’s Charter, assembling in many cases crowds of tens of thousands;  
  • women were active in the unions, especially in the north of Lancashire, and in education of the wives of the workers. 

The above paragraphs show that we have to be very careful in formulating generalisations, and in presenting evidence.

The principal point of investigation is whether the working classes in England, from 1770 to 1860, saw an improvement in the real (corrected for inflation) wages, and an improvement in the amount of food that they could buy. We will be seeing – and everyone at the time accepted this – that the “great mass” of the working-class families were in this positive condition. What we can also say, is that nearly all of the workers with continuous employment with an employer had a net improvement from 1770 to 1860 (accumulated over 3 or 4 generations!). This does not mean that they had a continuous improvement, or even that in all the years they ate well. There were a number of years of insufficient harvests or of industrial depressions. Even then, we have to remember those fathers who had two, or three or four small children, and no children over 10, in their families; for the years while they were in this situation, they had considerable expenses for food, and no income except their own wages. 

The supposed subsistence levels of income come up against “Marx’ Contradiction”. Marx supposed that in the future there would be a continuous poverty of the working class, who would be working to produce large amounts of articles, and thus produce high profits for the owning class. But the question is: “if the working class will be producing all these articles, who will be buying them, if the working classes do not have any surplus from their income?”  

Here we can consider the situation in 1800 to 1860. Engels gives us a number of pages in the Introduction to “The Condition …”, describing the large volumes of production of textiles, of metal articles, of trains and railways, of infrastructure, and of coal and iron. Thus the question is: “if the working class is producing all these objects, who is buying them, if the working classes do not have any surplus income?”

A great deal has been written about the non-financial sufferings of the people of the time, such as bad sanitation, high infant and child mortality, and bad conditions in the factory. But we should also include in an evaluation of the lives of the people of the time, the non-financial improvements. The most important was that a large part of the population in 1860 was not engaged in heavy physical labour. After the large-scale introduction of the power-loom, there was little physical labour in the textile mills (the hand-loom weavers in their cottages in 1770 had worked about 10 hours a day, sitting in exactly the same position all day in front of their loom). There were a number of changes in the implements that the agricultural workers could personally use. The miners (more exactly their wives) in the 18thcentury had to bring up the coal from the coal face on their backs; in 1860, the coal and the men were brought up on a platform, lifted by a stationary steam engine, and supported by a metal cable. 

The Industrial Revolution, defined solely as the use of machines, did not in general cause poverty. In many cases, it increased the production volume considerably, with lower unit costs, and thus allowed both the owners and the workers to have better incomes.

The incomes of the workers in each occupation had a lot to do with their possibilities (explicit or implicit) in their wage negotiations. Basically, those who had a continuous job, paid by an employer on the basis of “x” shillings per week, were in a much better position those who sold the produce of their hands to the market in general, at a price which was influenced downwards by competition against many other persons in the same situation.

The hope is that this book will make it possible to evaluate the living and financial conditions of the workers in the Industrial Revolution in England, from the point of view of calculations of real wages, andfrom the point of view of textual descriptions. As to the bad living conditions, investigations should be carried out, to define what percentage of the workers and their families suffered these situations.  Historians should also give recognition to the activities and initiatives of the members of the working classes.

Earlier Investigations

The first general description of the Industrial Revolution and its effects was made by Arnold Toynbee, uncle of the historical philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee. His thoughts are given in the posthumous collection of his “Lectures on the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century in England” (1894). It is important to note that the lectures he gave before his early death only reach the date of approx. 1800, and we do not know what he would have said about the poverty, the long factory hours, and the over-working of the children. He is often quoted with the passage (in a chapter referring to about 1770): “There were dark patches even in his age [Adam Smith], but we now approach a darker period,- a period as disastrous and as terrible as any through which a nation ever passed; disastrous and terrible, because, side by side with a great increase of wealth was seen an enormous increase of pauperism; and production on a vast scale, the result of free competition, led to a rapid alienation of classes and to the degradation of a large body of producers”. He does not give any figures as to the changes in the standard of living of the workers during the Industrial Revolution from 1800 to 1860, because his lectures did not reach this period.

The first book in the twentieth century to present a vision of life during the years of the Industrial Revolution was “The Hungry Forties; Life under the Bread Tax” written and published in 1904 by Jane Cobden Unwin, daughter of the reformer Richard Cobden, and social activist in her own right. It is formed of a number of letters written to her by old persons, who could remember life in England in the years from 1830 to 1850, and who reported on how difficult life was for the poorer classes in certain situations. The book was designed as a propaganda tool against a possible reintroduction of protectionist tariffs, showing what the condition of the people was before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The expression “Hungry Forties” was not used in the nineteenth century, and was invented by the authoress of this book.

It is clear that all the descriptions are honestly given. They talk about the poverty in the countryside in the South and the Midlands, and the impossibility to live a normal life with the very low wages. Some of the people suffered hunger for the whole of their life as children. Often the father had to go out in the morning without any breakfast; barley bread and turnips were eaten, and a sort of tea was made from burnt crust in hot water. Any sort of work, even for a few shillings, was welcome. Clothing and shoes were bad. 

The first detailed work on the social conditions during the Industrial Revolution was by Barbara and John Hammond, consisting of three volumes: “The Village Labourer, 1762-1832: A Study of the Government of England before the Reform Bill” (1912), “The Town Labourer, 1760-1832: The New Civilization”(1917), “The Skilled Labourer, 1760-1832” (1919). These books were very popular and sold large numbers from 1912 up to after the Second World War.

“The Village Labourer” has to do mainly with Enclosures, the attitude of the authorities to the villagers, and the Swing Riots (“The Last Labourers’ Revolt”), and does not mention much the incomes or the living standards of the labourers. It does not much concern us here. 

The “Town Labourer” informs us about the bad treatment that the working men, women, and children received from the employers and the authorities. The themes are: long working hours, lack of education for the children, the use of the military to keep order, the “War on Trade Unions”, employment of children (“it was physically impossible to keep such a system working at all except by the driving force of terror”), children in mines and chimneys, etc. There is not one piece of good news in 348 pages referring to 30 years of history. A country like this cannot exist.

The third volume gives information about the workers in a number of occupations: miners, cotton workers, woollen and worsted weavers, woolcombers, silk weavers and frame-work knitters; a number of these trades were destined to disappear. The main theme is that of the struggles (sometimes, strikes or destruction of machinery) of the men against the masters, these last often backed up by the public authorities. The chronological narration in each case is detailed. The disagreements were in many cases about working hours, contractual conditions, legal disadvantages, and less about wages. 

The wages are noted in some of the above cases, but as these cases are exactly those that will disappear, the figures are low. The only explicit commentary about the general level of wages is in the chapter “The Economic Conditions” in “The Town Labourer”: 

“There is another fact not less conspicuous, to those who have explored even the surface of this society. The wage earners employed in these industries did not obtain any part of the new wealth. They received more money in wages when employment was good than when it was bad, but the expansion of industry did not in itself increase their share in the wealth of the nation. They were shut out from the surplus profits of an industry that earned such fortunes as to create a new and powerful rich class, besides enabling England to maintain a long war with France and pay Europe handsomely to fight by her side. Indeed, their case was worse than this. The vast mass of people working in these industries were not even receiving a maintenance from them. It is true of the cotton weavers, of the frame-work knitters, even of some of the miners, that they were supported partly by the parishes, partly by their children. The industries that were making the new wealth were not supporting their workpeople. 


Immense fortunes were made in cotton, wool, iron, and coal, but on the workers in these industries there fell degradation and distress. Not all employers grew rich with the Peels, nor did all the workmen grow poor with the hand-loom weavers, but the general feature of the times was the rise of a class of rich employers and the creation of a large and miserable proletariat.”

(The Town Labourer, Chapter VI, The Economic Conditions, pp. 95-96)

This commentary is surprising, as in “The Skilled Labourer” by these authors, the chapters on Cotton Workers mention the good wages earned by the spinners, and give an illustrative case of one spinner (assisted by three children) who earns 45 shillings weekly, and an average of 31s. 10d. for adult male spinners. They also refer to reports to the Home Office: “Weavers and mechanics are daily springing up into Manufacturers commencing Business with their accumulated Savings” (Mr. Chippendale, Oldham, 1822); “A very great evil about Blackburn and Burnley is the number of weavers who (owing to the late facility of obtaining credit and County Bank paper) have become small manufacturers … “ (Major Eckersley, 1827). 

Woolcombers and woolsorters in the 1830’s earned from 16 to 24 shillings. The workers in the iron foundries in South Wales had wages of 30 to 45 shillings. The pit-face workers in the mines of the North-East earned 20 shillings, with free rent, coal, and doctor’s services. The three previous data come from the “Returns of Wages published between 1830 and 1886”, published by the Board of Trade in 1887. Mrs. Hammond would have had easy access to this document. 

We know that Barbara Hammond, who did the research, used particularly documentation from Home Office archives. This would of course mean that a great part of the content of the books would describe situations of conflict between authorities and workers. Engels was accused by German academics of his time, of giving “a so one-sided description of only the dark side of the British industry and the workers’ world as just as untenable, as would be the case if statistics of human health were to be based only on observations in the hospitals.” Engels gave data of a level compared with hospitals, the Hammonds used files from the Interior Ministry. These were not promising starting points! 

The next author is John Clapham, with his Economic History of Modern Britain 1820-1850: The Early Railway Age, published in 1926.  

In the Preface to the First Edition (1926), he resumed the condition of the working classes with these words:

“Again, the legend that everything was getting worse for the working man, down to some unspecified date between the drafting of the People’s Charter and the Great Exhibition, dies hard. The fact that, after the price fall of 1820-1, the purchasing power of wages in general – not, of course, of everyone’s wages – was definitely greater than it had been just before the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, fits so ill with the tradition that it is very seldom mentioned, the work of statisticians on wages and prices being constantly ignored by social historians.”

These expressions were criticized by J. L. Hammond, so that Clapham offered in the Preface to the Second Edition (1930) the following precisions:

 “I only meant that recent historians have too often stressed the worsenings and slurred over or ignored the betterings.”

In the chapter on Life and Labour, he gives a slightly more detailed exposition of the movements in wages:

“In the insanitary and crowded towns – which, it is not to be forgotten, were less crowded than the great towns of other countries and not as a group more insanitary – and in industrialised rural districts, the money wages of labour, viewed in the mass and neglecting year to year vicissitudes, were almost stationary between 1830 and 1846-50. …. A great wartime rise; a post-war fall, less than the rise, often very much less; then comparative stability, is the general formula for the years 1790-1830.”

“For every class of urban or industrial labour about which information is available, except – a grave exception – such dying trades as hand-loom cotton weaving, wages had risen markedly during the intervening sixty years [net movement from 1780 to 1848].” There are a number of pages with the wages of the different occupations in a number of dates.

He makes use of a Wage Index calculated by G. H. Wood in 1903, which starts in 1790 with 72, 1810 = 120, 1831 = 103, 1840 = 100, 1845 = 99, 1850 = 100, so that the nominal amount increases by 40 % from 1790 to 1850. 

For the movements in cost of living, unfortunately he uses a calculation by Silberling in 1923, which gives 1790 = 100, 1810 = 176, 1820 = 132, 1830 = 108, 1840 = 121, 1850 = 83, so that we have a reduction of 30 % in the last ten years.  This calculation was taken as a by-product of data collected for an inflation index on wholesale goods, the majority of which were imported, and the half of the components were not used directly by physical people. It was greatly criticized by economists in the following years. 

He gives a considerable amount of space to the Truck system, child labour, and the New Poor Law of 1834.

Eric Hobsbawm was a Marxist, which certainly influenced his views of the Industrial Revolution. These views were “black”, but his ideas of the wages of the workers were not based on any quantitative evidence. 

In his “The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848” (1962), we have some expressions such as: 

  • “The exploitation of labour which kept its incomes at subsistence level, …”;
  • “In 131 Manchester mills average wages were less than 12s.; in only twenty-one were they higher.”
  • “the competition of the machine … reduced the average weekly wage of the handloom weaver in Bolton from 33s. in 1795 and 14s. in 1815 to 5s. 6d. … in 1829-34. … But there was a physiological limit to such reductions, unless the labourers were actually to starve, as of course the 500,000 handloom weavers did.” 

In two articles in professional reviews (1957 and 1963), he gives a number of his points on the controversy, and particularly attacks Clapham and Hartwell.

Professor Hobsbawm’s intention is to show, as a minimum position, that the data of the optimists are not sufficient to demonstrate that the financial standard of living improved in the period. Apparently he was the first use the nomenclatures “pessimist” and “optimist”, as he says, “for the sake of convenience the classical (Ricardo-Malthus-Marx-Toynbee-Hammond) view will be called the pessimist, the modern (Clapham-Ashton-Hayek) view the optimistic school.” 

He affirms that the figures for wages and for costs of living, which Clapham uses, are not well investigated, and thus useless: “We therefore possess nothing which would be regarded as an adequate index of money-wages today. The weakness of the cost-of-living figures is equally great.” But this makes it impossible for him to adduce data for his side of the argument.

In the whole document he does not once mention the wages or the living costs of the workers in the cotton, woollen, or iron industries. But, the experiences and work of exactly these persons were the central activity of the Industrial Revolution. 

His position as to the level of wages is as follows: “…about 40 per cent of the industrial working class in later periods lived at or about the poverty-line, i.e. at or below subsistence level on the prevailing definitions of this concept. Perhaps 15 per cent belonged to a favoured stratum which was in a clear position to improve its real wages at almost all times.” 

His first entrance into real data is to inspect those for a) mortality and health, b) unemployment and c) consumption. He says that, given the weakness of the wage and price figures, the best indication for the financial position of the workers would be that of food consumption. 

He mentions the pauperism rates, which are difficult to find on a consistent basis, and the cyclical crises which caused great unemployment and suffering (particularly that of 1841-2, where he gives the example of a report from Bolton). There is also the case of “probable unemployment”, i.e. the expectation by the workers that they would be without work for one, two, or three months a year; as an example he gives a report from Leeds in 1838, where the normative wages of from 18 shillings to 26 shillings are reduced by the missing months. 

As to food consumption, the only data input is for meat, for which he has some original documentation, Smithfield Market (animals slaughtered) for the entire period, and the whole country through the Hides and Skins Excise for 1800-1825. The numbers do not increase in step with the growth in population, and he is not fully convinced of the validity of the increases in weight per beast. He does not give the absolute figures of average consumption per head, which actually were fairly high. 

E. P. Thompson published “The Making of the English Working Class” (1963) to describe the “formative years 1780 to 1832”, so that unfortunately he does not comment the years after 1832. He is more interested in the social development of the working classes than in the financial and living conditions.

His basic intention was to bring before the reader’s eyes, the experiences of some of the workers in this period (particularly the older trades), and how they had to defend themselves against the difficult employment and economic environment. He considers “the standard-of-living controversy” through a number of pages, and is not very impressed with the academics who have taken part in it, as they usually interpret the data from their own political point of view. But the quantitative distance between the two camps is not great; both sides are of the opinion that real wages declined during the Napoleonic Wars and the following years. He quotes Dr. Hobsbawm as denying any marked general rise before the mid-1840’s, while Professor Ashton sees a “more genial” economic climate after 1821. Thompson thinks that the situation improved starting with the railway boom in 1843. “This does not look very much like a “success story”; in half a century of the fullest development of industrialism, the standard-of-living still remained – for very large but indeterminate groups – at the point of subsistence.”

He is clear about the problem of evaluating life during the Industrial Revolution, using only figures. Firstly, the historians at that time did not have enough continuous figures (“abundant but patchy”) to recreate the lives of the worker in terms of incomes and outgoings. Secondly, to understand what the workers were going through, we need to know about homes, health, family life, leisure, …; “from standard-of-life we pass to way of life”. And it may well be that although there might have an improvement in the quantitative aspects, there was worsening in the personal experiences; … or vice versa. “Thus it is perfectly possible to maintain two propositions which, on a casual view, appear to be contradictory. Over the period 1790-1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery.” 

He then goes on to relate in detail (one chapter each) the histories of the agricultural workers, the artisans, and the hand-loom weavers. We note that these are not the classical “industrial workers” in cotton, woollens, and metals. The information refers to the daily work experiences; the income levels and the personal experiences are treated in the chapter following these three. 

The report on the agricultural workers concentrates on enclosures, power differences between employers and employees, the Poor Laws, the Game Laws, the tithes of the clergy, and the Swing Riots. It demonstrates that “average” wages or conditions really did not exist in a human sense, since many worker segments were unhappy and some segments were contented.

The chapter on artisans gives us the building trades, the shoemakers, tailors, cabinet-makers, printers, clockmakers, jewellers and bakers. The wages were not defined by diktats of mill-owners, by difficult economic conditions, or by unemployment rates in the trade. They were defined partly by “supply and demand” or by “custom”. That is to say, we have here a free market, in which the actors can have an income level, based on what was – and had been for years – taken as “normal” for a given description of the work. A number of these trades had some sort of “combination”, and thus could fix their general income level, and even have an emergency fund. In the years after 1815, however, the income level was negatively impacted by an increased population that could not always find work. 

The chapter on the hand-loom weavers gives the story of the descent of their wage level from often 30 shillings in the period 1790-1817, to 10 shillings in 1817-1826, and to 5 or 7 shillings in 1826-1840; equivalently, their descent from a life of luxury to starvation or near-starvation. This led to the destruction of a way of life for possibly 400,000 persons. He does accept that it was not particularly the power-loom which made impossible the use of the hand-loom. Basically, it was continuous price competition which caused the low prices; added to the impossibility of the weavers to defend themselves. 

The following chapter, on “Standards and Experiences”, gives a few pages on food consumption, about which he is negative, but does not have any evidence. The other sections are about housing, sanitary problems, life expectancy and death rate, and the bad treatment of the children. There are no new findings, but the wealth of detail does give an idea of all these experiences. 

We now come to the article “The Standard of Living” (1961) by R. M. Hartwell, which was presented as a discussion with Hobsbawm; it is included as Chapter 13 in his book “The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth” (1971).

His position is that there was an upward trend in living standards during the Industrial Revolution, which he argues from: a) figures of national income and of wages and prices, b) consumption amounts, c) vital statistics and social changes. 

Contemporary estimates of per capita nominal income are – according to the figures that he has – consistent around a movement of + 90 % from 1800 to 1850. This increase of income is very probable, since the national income went up, the volume of manufacturing production increased, and the proportion of manufacturing employment in the whole population went up. The increased efficiency of manufacturing processes would have improved the real income of the workers, unless there had been a deliberate distribution of wealth to the richer sectors of the population. 

During this period, the prices of food and other expenses went up, but certainly by considerably less than 90 %; from 1815 to 1845, they actually went down. Those articles produced by the new mechanical process became a lot cheaper, so that the expenses of the population went down, and their real (inflation-corrected) incomes went up. Import tariffs were reduced in 1824, and again after 1840; domestic taxes on consumption were also reduced, particularly that on beer (1830), which saved one pound a year for each household. 

From 1830 onwards, the non-financial condition of the working class was improved by government legislation: factory acts (hours of work, age of employment of children), truck acts, legislation for savings banks and friendly societies. Also the municipal authorities were given powers to provide water and to clean up sanitary problems. 

Although there are few statistics (except of imported goods), there are a large number of indications that food consumption increased. The only important doubts are those of meat, for which there are no guaranteed data. He can show in general terms that farm production increased, due to Enclosure and to improved efficiency. Potatoes were introduced, although it is not clear, if they were a substitution for cereals, or an addition. He gives us an estimate of consumption in London in 1850, from contemporary data, of 5 oz. butter (per person per week), 30 oz. meat, 56 oz. potatoes, 32 oz. fruit; the figures are very close to those of the 1960’s. 

In his closing paragraphs, he does make clear his acceptance that all these financial and material improvements cannot compensate directly for the difficult situations of housing, water supply, sanitary disposal, and infant mortality.          

Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson in 1983 decided to carry out a well-structured and detailed calculation of incomes and cost of living of the English working class, which was published as “English Workers’ Living Standards during the Industrial Revolution: ANew Look”. This type of analysis was badly needed. They collected wages or incomes for a number of years in the period from 1755 to 1851 for 18 different employee classes (“blue collar” and “white collar”). Further they made some estimates as to the movements in the cost of living (food, rent, clothing, fuel) between each of these years.

The result was clearly a win for the “Optimists” school. It demonstrated that real (inflation-corrected) incomes in the period 1755 to 1810 showed no net movement, and that from 1810 to 1851, there was an impressive improvement of an exact multiplication by 2, which logically make up a 100 % total increase in real income in 1755-1851. The preceding figures refer to those of Lindert and Williamson’s text about blue collar + white collar workers, but the qualitative statement is also true for only blue collar workers.

One clear problem in the total data base of Lindert and Williamson, was that it did not include the cotton weavers and the wool spinners and weavers, who were a large proportion of the working classes in the following decades. As to the elements of the cost of living, they do not give a list of these factors, their weights in the family budgets, or their progression during the period. This is unfortunate, because a large part of the improvement against previous (less explicit) calculations is the decrease in the cost of living by 15 % from 1781 to 1850, when actually all the types of food had price increases in the period. 

The document was criticized by other economic historians, because it was not really consistent with all the evidence and information of contemporary people, as to the level of the physical life of the workers. In reaction to the comments by Nick Crafts, Lindert and Williamson made some adjustments in the cost of living inputs, with the effect of changing the movement in real wages 1819-1851 from + 84 % to + 62 %. 

Following we have a resumed version of the figures reported by Lindert and Williamson.


YearNominal WageCost of LivingReal Income
1810180.8181.3 99.6
1835157.9 94.9166.1
1851167.7 84.3199.2

(Lindert, Williamson, 1983; Table 3 p. 7, Table 4 p. 11, Table 5 p. 13)

(Data converted to 1781 = 100 index, by this author)

In 1998, Charles Feinstein presented a quite different, or “pessimistic” estimate, and which he effectively called “Pessimism Perpetuated”, which covered all the years from 1770 to 1860. The data base reflected more closely an average of all the working class, since a) it included women, and b) it added the occupations of cotton weavers, wool spinners and weavers, railway workers, engineering and shipbuilding, tailors, boot and shoe makers, female agricultural labourers, and male and female domestic staff.  These were presented as 20 occupations, covering 80 per cent of all wage earners at the level of 1851. The increase in nominal wages from 1781 to 1851 was + 65 %, very close to the Lindert and Williamson figure.

The cost of living index was constructed with much more detail, and the paper as presented shows the percentage division of the consumption budgets, and the movements of each element during the period. In comparison with Lindert and Williamson, price data for potatoes, oatmeal and beer were added. The cost of living up to 1851 is + 29 %, in comparison with – 15 % in the earlier investigation. 

The real wage, according to this paper, increased very little – about 10 % – from 1770 to the 1830’s, and then increased rapidly by an additional 30 % up to 1860.  

Unfortunately, the detailed working papers are not findable.

YearNominal WageCost ofLivingReal Income
1800174.4204.3 85.4

(Feinstein, 1998; Appendix, Table 3, pp. 652-653)

The last words of Feinstein’s paper are, at the very least, unluckily chosen:

“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)

With these words, Feinstein, a) decides that the living standards before 1800 were «low», without any proof as to absolute figures of wages; b) decides that the working class had a century of hard toil without sharing in the benefits, which is an absolute statement as to real wages, when he has only investigated relative movements; c) takes the position that these calculations of real wages take precedence in the «standard of living controversy», before any other forms of evidence.

Gregory Clark carried out two studies of individual occupations,Farm Wages and Living Standards in the Industrial Revolution: England, 1670-1850 (2001), and The Condition of the Working-Class in England, 1209-2003 (2004), giving figures of practically zero movement for real wages from 1770 to 1800, but 10 % increase (farm workers) and 50 % (skilled construction workers) from the 1800’s to the 1850’s. 

With respect to the farm workers, he reports basic day wages for male farm workers from 1670 to 1850, using farm and estate accounts, and secondary sources referring to the whole country. He gives a detailed calculation of cost of living by quinquennia. From 1770-74 to 1845-49, nominal wages + 63 %, cost of living + 31 %, real wages + 24 %. Nominal wages in the period 1845-49 in South West were 15 % less than other regions; real wages increased by only 10 % in the South West, but rose by 50 % in the north. 

“The real wage of male farm workers, measured by the purchasing power of the day wage, increased little if at all in the Industrial Revolution. Indeed workers in the southern regions may have seen declines in their real wages. These findings are in line with Feinstein’s recent pessimism about real wages in general in the Industrial Revolution.”    

His investigation of incomes of male building craftsmen and labourers in England 1209-2003 showed up to 1800 no increase in real wages. From 1770-9 to 1850-9 the nominal wage went up by 87 %, the cost of living by 23 %, and the real wage by 52 % (from 1820-9 to 1850-9, the real wages went up by 30 %) 

“Thus the Industrial Revolution is not an abrupt break around 1800 from a stagnant economy, but an acceleration of a process of modern growth that began about 150 years earlier.”

“….. from 1200 to 1800 there was no trend increase in real wages, even though by 1800 English workers were probably the best paid in the world.”

The series is much more optimistic than Feinstein; the reason is that the estimated cost of living rises much less than Feinstein’s. The real wage series suggests that Feinstein is too optimistic about the early Industrial Revolution. It was not until the 1820s that real wages advanced beyond the level of the 1760s.  

In this section of detailed calculations, we finish with a paper by Robert Allen (2007), in which he compares and evaluates the three concepts: Feinstein (1998), one chapter by himself in 2001, and Clark (2005). Allen comes to the conclusion that the truth is closer to the calculations of Feinstein and himself, and thus he gives the title to his work: “Pessimism Preserved”. The movement in real wages in the period is somewhat more favourable than in the Feinstein study, due the data of costs and usages of cereals.

The results of Allen (2007) for the same period as Feinstein are as follows:

YearNominal WageCost of LivingReal Income
1800174.4190.4 91.7

(Allen, 2007, Appendix I p. 36, Appendix II p. 37)

Converted to index 1770 = 100 by this author

“In particular, the growth of the real wage in the late eighteenth century means that the real wage in the early nineteenth century was not a “subsistence wage”. It could not have been, for it was clearly above the 1770s level! Indeed, British wages during the industrial revolution were very high by international standards, again calling into question explanations couched in terms of subsistence.”  

A further advance is also due to Bob Allen, in his The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: a Restatement (2013). The concept is the “Welfare Ratio”, which is the proportion of the income of a family to a fixed physical amount of food that they would eat. This ratio can be calculated for people of the same occupation in the same country for different dates, or for people in different occupations in the same country at one date, or for people of the same occupation at the same date but in different counties. In the sense of this book, we would be interested in an average of the workers (or a number of different occupations) in England on a number of different dates.

The advantage here is that we would not be working on the yearly movements of the real wages, which for the dates 1770-1830 are taken to be “stagnant”, but we would be able to see if the worker and his family were eating “enough”, and what was the movement/ improvement of this “enough”. This procedure has its parallel in the general usage in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, when the agricultural and domestic-industry wages were often re-expressed in bushels of wheat per family per week.

Allen has two Baskets of Goods:

 RespectabilityBare Bones Subsistence
 Quantity per Person per YearQuantity per Person per Year
Oatmeal/Grain  170 kg
Bread 182 kg 
Beans/Peas 34 kg 20 kg
Meat 26 kg 5 kg
Butter/Oil 5.2 kg 3.0 kg
Cheese 5.2 kg 
Beer/Wine 182 lt 
Soap 2.6 kg 1.3 kg
Linen/Cotton 5 m 3 m
Candles 2.6 kg 1.3 kg
Lamp Oil 2.6 lt 1.3 lt
Fuel 5.0 M BTU 2.0 M BTU

(each basket provided 2100 calories per day)

Allen has some calculations as examples. A building labourer in England had 2.7 subsistence baskets in 1775, 2.9 baskets in 1825, and 4.5 baskets in 1875; this is a very high level, as the family could not have eaten 4.5 times their standard weight of cereals, and thus could have paid for many additional expenses. In the North of England, an agricultural labourer had around 2 subsistence baskets for all the period 1780 to 1860 (with a maximum of 3, for a few years around 1820-1825); a worsted hand loom weaver went down from 1.5 in 1770 to 1.0 in 1800, up to 3.2 in 1815, and finally down to 1.0 in 1850. 

Unfortunately, Allen does not show a calculation of the average worker’s income, expressed in subsistence baskets, for each year or each decade of the Industrial Revolution in England. This would clarify what was the absolute standard of living in each date. For the non-agricultural workers it would probably be around a ratio of 1.5 from 1770 to 1830, and then climb quickly to 3.0 in 1860 (according to the calculations in the body of this book).  

“There is a deeply ingrained tradition among British historians that emphasizes the poverty of the working class during the Industrial Revolution. This was a theme of social critics of the period and was theoretized by the classical economists who thought wages were at “subsistence” (*). While Ricardo, Malthus, and Marx subscribed to this view, it is worth remembering that Adam Smith had a far more nuanced understanding of the world. He thought that the English and Dutch workers had the world’s highest wages followed by other Europeans and then by the Chinese and Indians. Indeed, Friedrich Engels’ description of working class diets contradicted his own theory, for it showed that all but the poorest strata ate expensive foods like bread, cheese and meat. The average Italian or Indian labourer could not afford to eat so well. Unless we base our theories of the Industrial Revolution on comparative analyses that recognize the high standard of living achieved by eighteenth century Britain, we shall never understand why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did.”    

(*) (Note by this author) The term “subsistence wage” is not what it seems. The classical economists did not understand it as the wage which could allow the worker to purchase just enough food to be able to work. It was “the quantity of food, necessaries, and conveniences [which] become essential from habit” (Ricardo). Expressed from the other direction, it was an income which did not include a surplus with which to buy unnecessary luxuries. 

From the above collections of observations, we see that Gregory Clark and Bob Allen judge that the real wages from 1770 to 1830 were practically constant, but that this was not necessarily bad, as they were continuing from the wages of 1770, which had permitted a reasonable standard of living. We may call Clark and Allen: “Semi-Pessimists”! 

The most recent contribution is from Emma Griffin, with her “Diets, Hunger and Living Standards during the British Industrial Revolution” (2018). This essay does not bring much new data about the movements in living standards, but does put forward some useful non-“real wage” procedures which she has started to put into practice, and others which she suggests should be evaluated. These are: autobiographies of working-class persons, prevalence of hunger situations in these writings, percentage of food in collected family budgets in different occupations, food inputs from self-provisioning (allotments, pigs), searches for data in not-investigated segmentations such as urban/rural, regions, age, gender, occupation.

Emma Griffin’s aim in the article is to “demonstrate that the evidence of stagnant living standards sustained across a large range of indicators is far more ambiguous than quantitative historians are prepared to admit. Furthermore, in seeking to interpret all results within a pessimistic framework, the possibility of a fundamental split between the experiences of different sections of the population – urban/rural, adult/child, male/female – has not been properly incorporated into our understanding of this historical transition.”       

From the totality of the preceding investigations, it would appear that a large part of the people had a difficult life from 1800 to 1833. When we add to these the reports of Parliamentary Commissions, etc., there is not much room for doubt. The real incomes would seem to have been on the same level from 1800 to 1830, and then increased significantly up to 1860. If we follow the comments of Gregory Clark and Bob Allen, the absolute values of the wages were fairly high, that is, the majority of the population could eat sufficiently well.