17.6. Geographical Distribution

It is probable that the Industrial North, the West Midlands, and London, had better incomes, and better nutrition (meat) than the rest of the country.

Until 1830 at least, the non-industrial regions did not have a special impulse to grow, and thus grew at only the rate of before 1800.

Thus some of the statistics and some of the textual descriptions which refer to the agricultural regions of the South and South East regions may give a negative impression, which is not applicable to the industrial regions.

Following, a map of the distribution of industries, from the report on the 1851 Census:

17.5. The Retail Prices Index did not necessarily move in Step with the Wholesale Prices

It is probable that the retail prices improved during the period as a proportion of the wholesale prices, as the effective margins of the wholesalers were reduced, from the lesser use of chandlers’ shops, from the prohibition of “truck” and “tommy shops” and the introduction of workers’ cooperatives.

There is however no clear arithmetical evidence of this from the family budgets.

17.4. Excess of Family Income over Basic Costs

The basic assumption in the comparison of increases in wages with increases in costs of food and services, is that all the workers/families in the first years of the Industrial Revolution, had incomes just covering their expenses.

However, this is not true. All the “family budgets” for cotton workers that we have, starting in 1806, show the expenses (with a good level of food) to be about 70 % of the total family income.          

The building artisans could always save money. In 1812, the carpenters’ association in London had funds of twenty thousand pounds (the cost of 200 houses). All the trades in London had standard wages of at least 30 shillings a week, according to a statement by the committee of carpenters.

(Thompson, 1964, p. 238)

There is no quantitative statement in the “family budgets” for industrial workers, as to what they spent the surplus money on, but we have a certain quantity of general information:

Moving to better housing in new suburbs (Manchester, Leeds)
Better level of food, and imported food
Wine (Birmingham)
Building houses in “building clubs”, to rent to poorer workers (Manchester, Birmingham)
Buying houses for themselves (Bradford, Potteries)
Good furniture for their homes
Good clothing for weekends
Membership in Mechanics’ Institutes, and purchase of technical magazines
Savings banks, medical insurance, unemployment and funeral insurance through their “trades unions”, building societies (since 1780)
Train journeys (for example, to the Great Exhibition)
Buying tools for using in their occupations (building trades, Sheffield cutlery) (*)
Saving money, to start an own business, or an own workshop
Theatre entertainment
Getting drunk

(*) Here, exactly due to the efficiency of processes in the Industrial Revolution, the unit costs of the tools decreased significantly.  

The problem is that we do not have much data for the consumption of these articles or activities, of for the unit prices. So we cannot estimate the real outgoings of these families in each decade for these concepts, and not even for 1860. If we had numbers 1860, we could calculate the increase in real disposable income from 1770 to 1860.

We do have one source of the detail of expenses for an unskillled manual worker, which comes from Mr. Mayhew, “London Labour and the London Poor” (1851). This is a “better paid and fully employed operative scavenger, with his wife and two children” (the boy works, the girl is part-time at school). A “scavenger” is a street-sweeper, and here we have him:

(Mayhew, 1851, vol. II, plate facing p. 262)

The man, together with his wife and son, earns £ 1  8s. 4d. per week:

                                                            £.  s.  d.

Nominal weekly wages of man       0  16   0

Perquisites                                           0    2   0

Nominal weekly wages of wife        0    6   0

Perquisites in coal and wood.          0    7   4

Nominal weekly wages of boy          0    3   0

Total                                                    1    8   4

With this income, in a week averaged over the year, he purchases the following:

Rent, candle, bread (5 quartern loaves), butter (2 lb.), sugar, tea, coffee, butcher’s meat (10 lb.), bacon, potatoes, raw fish, herrings, beer (at home), beer (at work),spirits, cheese (1 lb.), flour, suet, fruit, rice, soap, starch, soda and blue, dubbing, clothes for the whole family and repairing ditto, boots and shoes for ditto, milk, salt pepper and mustard, tobacco, wear and tear of bedding, schooling for the girl, baking Sunday’s dinner, mangling, amusements and sundries.

(Mayhew, 1851, Vol II, p. 231)

We see that he has an acceptable standard of living, although his job is not very nice (10 hours a day, sweeping and collecting rubbish), he probably lives in just two small rooms, and he does not wash very often.

But we can compare him with persons of the same class of job (and therefore the same relative wage position in the economy) in 1770. For this date, we know that construction assistants, building labourers, estate workers, and road labourers earned from 6s. 3d. to 8s. 6d. The cost of a quartern loaf was about 6d.; the men and their families would probably have eaten about 10 loaves a week, and had about 2s. 6d. over, to pay for other food, clothing, rent, and fuel. 

The contrast between 1770 and 1860, for the same class of work, is considerable. 

The other point of importance which results from the probable surplus amounts at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the higher increase of incomes than living costs from 1770 to 1860 (+ 95 %, + 50 %, for non-agriculturals), is that there is a disproportionate improvement in the real net disposable income.

We see from the weekly incomes from jobs, reported by Sir Frederick Eden, that a good number of workers had wages of 12 shillings a week in 1795 (they were only a litte less in 1770). The quartern loaf was at 10 pence,so that a family eating 6 quartern loaves a week would spend 5 shillings; the other basic requirements might cost them 4 shillings, so that the total was 9 shillings, and the net disposable income was 3 shillings. 

Now we inflate these figures to 1860, with 95 % improvement in income, and 50 % increase in the cost of living. The earnings are 23.4 shillings, the basic requirements are 13.5 shillings, and the net disposable income is 9.9 shillings. Regressing this figure to 1770, the disposable income is 6.6 shillings. The amount for “other expenses increases by a factor of 2.2, not by a factor of 1.3.

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

Next we have to inspect the judgement of Charles Feinstein:

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

(Feinstein, 1998, p. 652)

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

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

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

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

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

“Bread in England may be reckoned at 1 ¼ a pound; but we must not, therefore, conclude, that it is near double the French price; for the materials are not the same. In England, it is very generally made of wheat, and the poor, in many parts of the kingdom, eat the whitest and best.” 

(Arthur Young, “Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, & 1789, … The Kingdom of France”, 1794, Vol. 1, W. Richardson, London, p. 442) 

“In England, the consumption of meat, by the labouring poor, is pretty considerable; … the consumption of cheese in England, by the poor, is immense.” (Arthur Young, ibid, p. 443)

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

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

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

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

“My own knowledge of the fact embraces an extensive district in the midland counties, in which I can look back upon the habitations of 50 families, whom I knew as agricultural labourers 35 or 40 years ago, living in great comfort, the mother and children of the family exchanging the produce of their labour at the wheel to the extent of 2s., 3s., 4s., or 5s. a week, all of which operation is now annihilated; and owing to its absence it is that so much privation prevails among the farm labourers in certain districts; and it will be seen, on a close investigation, that there is a greater pressure of poor-rates in all those districts where manufacturing operations were more extensively carried on, as in certain parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire, and more particularly the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk …”

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

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

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

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

(Davies, 1795, p. 163)

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

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

17.2. Increased «Job Density» per Family

The idea here is to show that it is not in general useful, to compare the income of one head of family in 1770 with the income of one head of family in 1860. The correct calculation is to compare the total income of (for example) 1.0 head of family and 0.65 other family members in 1770, with the total income of perhaps 2.1 family members in 1860; further, the family members in 1860 were earning good incomes.

To illustrate this difference, we will analyse the family incomes of a group of families in Lancashire in 1836. The original study was made to show the horrible decrease in living standards of the working classes, due to depression of 1839-1842. The 1841 figures represent a short-term situation of great poverty. It is not admissible to use these data to make a general judgement about living standards in the Industrial Revolution.

The data were collected by Mr. William McNield, the Mayor of Manchester, from interviews with 19 operatives in Manchester and the satellite town of Dukinfield, and published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Volume 4, 1841, p. 320, under the title of a “Comparative Statement of the Income and Expenditure of certain Families of the Working Classes in Manchester and Dukinfield, in the Years 1836 and 1841”.

We notice that, although well paid, none of the heads of family belongs to the top class of workers. The family incomes in Manchester go from 15 shillings to 87 shillings, and Dukinfield from 13 shillings to 37 shillings. The expenditure in food per week (including rent and coals, but not clothing) is in 1836 about 70 % of the income, and the difference (average 10 shillings) is shown as “left for instruction and purchase of goods”.

Page 333 of Comparative Statement of the Income and Expenditure of Certain Families of the Working Class in Manchester and Dukinfield, in the Years 1836 and 1841

For each of the families, we have a detail of the expenditure, as per the following report. The man is a mechanic’s assistant, which is a non-skilled position, and he has 6 other persons to support. Even so, he has a surplus of 5 shillings per week. 

Page 332 of Comparative Statement of the Income and Expenditure of Certain Families of the Working Class in Manchester and Dukinfield, in the Years 1836 and 1841

The expenditures of the family in 1836, for one week and 7 persons, correspond to:

36 pounds of flour;
7 pounds of oatmeal;
2 pounds of meat and 1 ½ pounds of bacon;
1 ¼ pounds of butter;
2 pounds of cheese;
20 pounds of potatoes;
12 pints of milk;
2 ounces of tea;
1 ½ pounds of sugar. 

(see Table 3, in the lower part of the page above)

But the really important point of these tables, is that the total family income is much higher than the normal wage level for these job descriptions (we shall be comparing with the figures given by Mr. David Chadwick for 1839 in Manchester and Salford).

For instance, the numbers given for the machine printer and the millwright are 87 shillings and 90 shillings; these were very well-paid jobs (respectively 33 shillings and 30 shillings), but no skilled worker in Lancashire earned more than 35 shillings in 1836. The power-loom weaver may be correct at 14 shillings, but the dresser earns 24 shillings, instead of 20 shillings. One watchman earned apparently 21 shillings, when the average was 16. The overlooker earns 34 shillings, but the average according to Mr. Chadwick was from 18 to 25. The labourers earn 22 and 21 shillings, but the norm was 16.

What is happening, is that the other family members are earning useful amounts from other activities. The father is not going to allow his wife, sons and daughters to do nothing all day. But note that the figures show an excess in the weekly accounts. This means that they do not need all the income from the additional work to cover their expenses.

The wife may well be washing clothes; either she is literally “taking in other people’s washing” when the family needs the money, or she has an established business. According to the Census of 1851, there were about 146,000 washerwomen in the country. Mr. Levi puts their income in 1867 at about 10 shillings a week.

A daughter of from 12 to 18 years old could be working in auxiliary tasks in industry. There was a lot of employment of boys in calico printing, chemical works, and small workshops for metal manufacturing. The work was hard, with very long hours, and paid around 2 shillings a week. We may suppose that, as these families are relatively well of, they do not send their son to this type of work, but he might be working as a messenger boy. 

The point of this section is that these additional employments did not exist 50 years earlier. The artisans and labourers in the towns and villages lived from – and paid for the food of their family from – exclusively their own income. The domestic weavers in the towns and the countryside certainly were helped by their wives, but the figures in the present calculations do not register any cash payments for other work to wives or children. 

What has happened is that the world is more complex. “Employment” is not just agricultural labour, carpentry and painting, weaving and spinning. There is a lot more to be done.

So the arithmetical movement from 1770 to 1860 should not use only the wages of a typical head of family, but should take the total wages of a normal family, and reduce this to income per “mouth” (family with 4.5 members).

It is not correct to form an average of incomes, using – for example – additional earnings of the wife as a domestic servant. We suppose a man earning 20 shillings, the family eats food for 12 shillings, and the wife starts work as a domestic servant for 10 shillings. The two amounts should be added to give the 30 shillings, which make it easier to pay the 12 shillings for food, apart from other necessary expenses. This then is valid for the country as a whole: all incomes for domestic servants, who are wives or daughters of men working for wages, should be added to the total income.

If we refer to the tables of Mr. Levi for the total of the working classes with incomes in the United Kingdom (incl. Ireland) in 1867, we have: 

 Males under 
20 years
Males 20 years or moreFemales under 20 yearsFemales 20 years or
more (*)
Total Males and females
Total earnings per year23,366,000302,834,00027,108,00074,725,000428,034,000
Number of persons1,183,0005,935,0001,306,0002,591,00011,018,000
Earnings Pounds per year19.750.920.828.838.8
Earnings Shillings per week7.619.

(*) of which: Domestic servants, 38,800,000 Pounds, 944,000 persons, 40 pounds per year, 15.5 shillings per week (incl. bed and board).

But Mr. Levi says that is reasonable to assume that in every family, on average 2 persons work, and that each working class family receives 31 shillings income per week (p. 9). At 4.5 persons per family (figure from Mr. Levi), this is 6.9 shillings per family member. From the detail pages of Mr. Levi’s book, we can see that the majority of the persons who are employed are earning “adult wages”, that is, above 10 shillings.

Another investigator, Mr. Dudley Baxter, in his “National Income of the United Kingdom” (1868), gives figures for the “Manual Labour Classes” of England and Wales, of 7,785,000 persons Earning Wages and 8,345,000 Dependents, with a total income of 254,729,000 Pounds per year. This gives 3,580,000 families, and 2.17 persons working per family. The unit income per family is 27.4 shillings per week, and the income per “mouth” is 6.1 shillings per week. The figure is somewhat less than Mr. Levi, which is approximately explained by the fact that Mr. Baxter supposes 20 % decrease for lack of work. If we adjust to only 10 % decrease for lack of work, we have an income per mouth of 6.7 shillings.

As a different way to look at the number of workers, we may take the 1851 Census of Great Britain. (Mr. Levi took for his population numbers 1867, the 1861 Census plus 6 %, and the increase from 1851 to 1861 was 10 %); thus the “working class population in employment” in 1851 on Mr. Levi’s terms, would be 11,000,000 / 1.16 = 9,500,000.

The total of wives, widows, children at school, and children at home is 10,400,000, on a total of 21,000,000 population. Thus 50 % of the population are in employment. We may suppose that the figure for the working class is close to this. Then with 4.5 persons per family, we have 2.25 employed persons per family (1.16 men, 0.59 women, 0.29 young men, 0.20 young women). These proportions are close to those of Mr. Levi and Mr. Baxter.

From the following page of the Census of 1851, we see that, of the males under 20, 42 % are at home, 29 % are at school, and 29 % are working. Of the females under 20, 51 % are at home, 28 % are at school, and 21 % are working. This is approximately equivalent to saying that the boys do not start work (on average) until 14 years old, and the girls do no start working before 16 years old. The educational level is 6 years in school for boys, and 5.5 years for girls.   

Page scan of sequence 132

We now need to calculate the average total family income in the working class in 1770. For this we take the information of Arthur Young as to the average wages in the manufacturing activities.

            Average of men          9s.   6d.,

                            of women     4s.    7d.

                            of children    2s.   8d.

Given the type of activities, it is not probable that each family had 3 persons working for a separate cash wage. If we suppose that in 40 % of the families, a woman is working for a separate wage, and in 25 % of the families, there is one child working for a separate wage, then the average total family income is 12.1 shillings (27 % more than the father alone). If there are 4.5 persons in the family, the average income per “mouth” is 2.7 shillings. The 40 % is probably a high figure; the only women who worked in the same workplace as their husbands for a separate payment were the cotton workers in Lancashire; on the other hand, many women and older girls worked in a different industry or service, for example, lace embroidery, silk, straw articles, glove making, button making, domestic service, washerwomen. 

If we inflate the 2.7 shillings as per the cost of living index, we have 3.9 shillings at level 1860.

This is to be compared with the real 1860 value above, of 6.8 shillings. Thus the increase in real income per “mouth” is 6.8 / 3.9 = 1.75 times.

This line of reasoning is indirectly supported by Bob Allen in his “Class Structure and Inequality during the Industrial Revolution: Lessons from England’s Social Tables, 1688-1867”, utilizing contemporary estimations of total incomes per social class, from 1759, 1798, 1846, 1867.

In his table 4, showing «average annual income per earner in pounds per year, England and Wales», he gives for the workers, 13.58 pounds in 1759, and 31.83 pounds in 1867. This is 2.34 times. The 2.34 times, when deflated by his cost of living index (2007) of 1.51 for 1759 to 1867, gives 1.55 times, which we may suppose demonstrates an improvement in real wages of this magnitude for the average worker.

But when we look at the Table 5, “average real annual income per person, England and Wales (multiples of subsistence income)”, the improvement from 1759 to 1867 is 6.21 / 3.27 = 1.90 times (we may suppose that the movements in the defined “subsistence income” would be very close to those in the cost of living index; anyway, both figures refer to the worker’s possibilities of buying food, etc.)

Thus we have again a difference between real income per earner, and real income per family member. The figures are 1.55 and 1.90. This is explainable by an improvement of 22 % due to the number of family members actually earning. This is somewhat less than the number calculated two pages above.

It appears, then, that the increase in real (corrected for inflation) income per family member for 1770 to 1860, that is, the measurement of the amount of food and expenses that could be purchased per “mouth”, is about 80 % (0.65 % per annum, compounded, or 6.7 % per decade, compounded).

As we have analysed in detail the movements of the total family income for agricultural labourers, and we know the real income per family member, we must suppose that the 80 % improvement refers exclusively to the universe of non-agricultural families.

It may be objected that the 40 % participation of women does not have much documental support, and thus gives room for doubt as to the per cent increase in real wages from 1770 to 1860. But we can make a “reverse calculation”.

We know that the average income per family in 1860 was 31 shillings, and the income per “mouth” was 7 shillings. We divide these by 1.35 for the generally accepted increase in real wages from 1770 to 1860, and divide by 1.45 to adjust for inflation. This gives 15.8 shillings nominal income for the family in 1770, and 3.6 shillings per “mouth”. To adjust to the “Arthur Young” figures, we would require 0.85 women and 0.85 children per family, in work, and earning the given wages with a separate cash payment.This obviously was not the case. 

As we have seen in the section on “Drunkenness”, Mr. Porter, the Secretary of the Board of Trade, made a report on the annual consumption in the United Kingdom of spirits, beer, and tobacco. From this report, we can calculate that the average cost of consumption of beer in the working class families was 1.3 pounds per person per year, or 2.3 shillings per family per week; the volume consumption was 15 pints per family per week. The average income per principal wage-earner was about 14 shillings at that time, so that 16 % of the income went on beer.

This means that, either, the families were able to spend an important part of their income on beer (and some additional amounts on gin, brandy, and tobacco), and thus were in very good financial circumstances, or, that the total weekly incomes of the families were higher than are generally supposed. It also means that the “family budgets” that we have are not complete. 

(Porter, 1850, On the self-imposed Taxation of the Working Classes in the United Kingdom)

To illustrate how the types of work became more varied during the first half of the nineteenth century, we can refer to the reports of correspondents to the Morning Chronicle in 1849-1851, which describe the jobs done in all parts of the country, and all sectors of industry. A modern recopilation of the letters is found in “Labour and the Poor in England and Wales 1849-1851”, Jules Ginswick, 1983. In the introductory volume, the modern editors present an extraction of all the job descriptions in the light manufacturing, heavy manufacturing, textile, and mining industries (Appendix 1, pp. xxxvii – xlv). There are about 350 job descriptions, of which we give 12 below; some are for women, girls, and boys, and with decent earnings levels. This is a very different range of employments against the possibilities in 1770.


Staffordshire Iron Works

Blast furnacemen, from 18s. to 25s. (but wages always fluctuated with the state of the iron trade)
Forgemen, 25s. to 30s. 
Millmen, 16s. to 25s.
Underhands, boys, 7s. 6d. to 10s.
Women employed about blast furnaces and coke ovens, 4s. to 6s.  

 South Wales Iron Works, Merthyr Tydfil, Dowlais Iron Works

Founders, 25s.
Furnace fillers, 24s. 
Puddlers (average of puddler and second hand),
18s.Labourers, 10s.
Piling and mine clearing, girls, 5s. 

In Appendix 2 (pp. xlvi – lvi), the job descriptions are listed, ordered by decreasing weekly income, from above 40 shillings to under 5 shillings.

It might be objected that this list of jobs only shows that men, women, and children, could find a variety of different jobs, but that this does not demonstrate that there were – in absolute numbers – more jobs available, above the 2.5 times increase in population.

The answer to this point, is that there were many new occupations and industries, which created a large amount of employment, at good wages:

  • (up to 1830) excavation of canals;
  • (from 1830) excavation of railway cuttings, opening of tunnels, laying of railway truck, 200,000 men in the years with most work;
  • pottery and porcelain, 50,000 direct workers, plus incoming and outgoing transport;
  • manufacture of 200,000 metal power looms in 20 years (plus the extraction of iron ore, and foundry work);
  • manufacture of railway engines, passenger carriages, freight wagons;
  • manufacture of steam engines (stationary and railway),
  • manufacture of railway tracks;
  • opening of iron and steel works in South Wales;
  • increase in volume of coal mining (coal required for the steam engines);
  • housing construction;
  • factory construction, public buildings construction;
  • drivers for horse omnibuses;
  • chemical products and glass:

For the effects of railway expansion on employment, earnings and expenses, see: 

Tooke (1857), Part III, “On the Progress of Railway Construction … “, pp. 348-390, “…. The population supported by the Railway Works was nearly, if not quite, as large, on the average of the five years [1846 to 1850], as the total population in the whole of the Factories of the United Kingdom.”

17.1. Apparent Contradictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The explanations and adjustments are:

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 17. Solutions

17.1. Apparent Contradictions https://history.pictures/2020/03/25/17-1-apparent-contradictions/

17.2. Increased «Job Density» per Family https://history.pictures/2020/03/25/17-2-increased-job-density-per-family/

17.3. Good Wage Levels at the Beginning of the Industrial Revolution https://history.pictures/2020/03/26/17-3-good-wage-levels-at-the-beginning-of-the-industrial-revolution/

17.4. Excess of Family Income over Basic Costs https://history.pictures/2020/03/27/17-4-excess-of-family-income-over-basic-costs/

17.5. The Retail Prices Index did not necessarily move in Step with the Wholesale Prices https://history.pictures/2020/03/27/17-5-the-retail-prices-index-did-not-necessarily-move-in-step-with-the-wholesale-prices/

17.6. Geographical Distribution https://history.pictures/2020/03/27/17-6-geographical-distribution/

17.7. The Textile Districts were not very Large https://history.pictures/2020/03/27/17-7-the-textile-districts-were-not-very-large/

17.8. Increase of the Services Sector https://history.pictures/2020/03/27/17-8-increase-of-the-services-sector/

17.9. Installation of Infrastructure without Charge to Wage Earners https://history.pictures/2020/03/28/17-9-installation-of-infrastructure-without-charge-to-wage-earners/

17.10. Contradictory «Optical» Assumptions https://history.pictures/2020/03/28/17-10-contradictory-optical-assumptions/

16.6. Necessary Corrections

The above calculations show us what happened to the standard wage levels for the head of the family, from 1770 to 1860.

They are not useful to demonstrate what happened to the living costs per family member, because they do not take into account income from other family members, and the wages are calculated per earner and not per food consumer.

The necessary changes are:

  • for the agricultural labourers’ families, add the summer wage difference, the harvest month bonus, extra pay for task work, income from boys’ work, women’s income from spinning, women’s income from working in the fields, and present the total amount per family per week;
  • for the agricultural labourers’ families, add the women’s income from spinning up to 1810, and present the total amount per family per week.

The “model” for the agricultural families is as follows:

  1. of the number of adult male workers in the basis data per year, 80 % are men of 20 years or more;
  2. we suppose that exactly these men are heads of family, and thus this figure gives the number of families;
  3. the extra income for the man is made up of: 4 months summer wage, 10 % more than the winter wage, one month harvest wage at double rate, task work at different percentages during our period;
  4. for each family, there are proportionally 10 % young men of 16 to 19, who earn a full wage;
  5. 30 % of families have a son from 12 to 16 years, who earns 30 % of the father’s basic wage;
  6. starting from 1770, and decreasing to zero in 1820, 80 % of the wives earn 3 shillings a week from spinning;
  7. starting from 1840, 30 % of the wives work in the fields at 40 % of the man’s basic wage;        
  8. the income of little girls from spinning is negligible;
  9. the income of little boys working in the fields is negligible.

The corrections to the income of the agricultural family give the following figures:

Average wageAverage wageWeekly wage Bushel wheat
Shillings weekwithout spinningShillingsShillings 

Wages, expenses, and real wages for agricultural families, with spinning in the eighteenth century:

Wages indexExpenses indexReal Wages
Agr LabAgr LabAgr Lab


Thus we see that the agricultural families had a slightly lower real wage in 1860 than in 1770. If we cancel the effect of including the women’s spinning in 1770, the increase in real wage would be about 15 %.

1770 = 100 
WAGES                158
EXPENSES          139
REAL WAGES     114 
1770 = 100 
WAGES                130
EXPENSES          139
REAL WAGES        94 

Total agricultural and non-agricultural 

The average nominal earnings of the families, agricultural and non-agricultural, with the above changes, are:

Shillings week Shillings week  Shillings week 
Agr Lab Non Agr  All Occupations 

Pounds per Year                           

The above calculation with the new assumptions, gives the following comparison against the Feinstein data:



Average wageAverage wage
Pounds paPounds p a 
Present studyFeinstein 1866 42


As was to be expected, the average wage over all occupations in the earlier years shows a considerable increase against the Feinstein data. This is due to the income from the wives’ spinning activities, and the income from the husbands’ task-work.

The numbers also show that the standard of living shortly before the Industrial Revolution was not low, as was supposed by Feinstein.   

Wages indexExpenses indexReal Wages
All occupAll occupAll occup


1770 = 100 
WAGES                168
EXPENSES          148
REAL WAGES     113

Again, the averaging of the agricultural and non-agricultural figures does not give us any new insights. 

16.5. Wages, Expenses, and Real Wages for Agricultural plus Non-Agricultural Occupations

Wages indexExpenses indexReal Wages
All occupAll occupAll occup

The two columns are weighted by the number of persons employed in each sector.

1770 = 100 
WAGES                  197
EXPENSES            147
REAL WAGES       133

This average result does not actually tell us more than the two component series. The average value of 130 at 1860 is higher than the two component amounts, because about 30 % of the work force (over the long term) changed from the lower wages in the agricultural sector to the higher wages in the non-agricultural sector.  

Real Wages, This Study and Allen

This studyAllen
Real wage indexReal wage index


(The figures of real wages in this study for 1840 and 1855, are artificially low; the cost of living in exactly these years was high, and not representative of the quinquennia)

The high figure of real wages in this study for 1780 is correct; there was an excellent harvest in 1779.

The difference in real wages to 1860 comes from the different starting points in 1770, this study = 19.3 pounds nominal per year (7.4 shillings per week), and Feinstein/Allen = 18.0 pounds per year (6.9 shillings per week). The increase from 1800 to 1860 is 59 % in this study, and 58 % per Feinstein/Allen. The pounds figures are net of an estimation for lost working days.

The presentation of the data in five-year periods hides the large variations in wages and in prices during the decade of the ‘fifties. In 1852-1854 there was a speculative wave in sales of manufactured articles, but linked to an impressive increase in salaries. From 1854 to 1857 there was a collapse of sales and manufacturing, a number of textile companies registered bankruptcy or suspension of activities, and some banks and financial companies failed. At the end of 1857, the situation of liquidity in the country was so fragile, that the Government had to authorize the Bank of England to issue documents without real backing. 

(Gendron, John Henry; An Investigation into Great Britain’s Commercial Crisis of 1857 and the Preceding Business Cycle; Short presentation of forthcoming master’s thesis, Providence College, 2012. http://www2.gcc.edu/dept/econ/ASSC/Papers2013/ASSC2013-GendronJohn%20Henry.pdf)

This description for the fifties is supported by data from the individual years, to be found in George Henry Wood’s article written in 1909: Real Wages and the Standard of Comfort since 1850.

 WagesRetail PricesReal Wages

(Wood, 1909, Appendix, p. 102)

And informations as to the average earnings in England in terms of quartern loaves:

16.4. Movements in Real Wages, Agricultural and Non-Agricultural

The comparisons between the wages indices and the expenses indices give the following results. (In all cases, in the five-yearly data, the figures for 1840 and for 1855 are not representative of the general trend, as exactly these years had abnormal inflation; the recommendation is to mentally draw a straight line from 1835 to 1845, and another from 1850 to 1860.)

Wages and Expenses Agricultural Laborers

Wages indexExpenses indexReal Wages
Agr LabAgr LabAgr Lab


1770 = 100 
WAGES             169
EXPENSES       139

For the whole period from 1815 onwards, the real wages are about 20 to 25 % higher than in 1770.

Wages and Expenses Non-Agricultural Occupations

Wages indexExpenses indexReal Wages
Non AgrNon AgrNon Agr


1770 = 100 
WAGES                  195
EXPENSES            152
REAL WAGES       128 

The real wages for non-agricultural workers are in negative territory for the period 1800 to 1830, as they did not compensate for the high prices caused by the bad harvests up to 1815, and the financial recession in 1815-1822.

The Industrial Revolution for a number of industries/occupations only impacted the technology and the business model starting in 1820, and thus there was not a great movement in the average wages in the country.  

            Possibly the most interesting method for showing the movements in the incomes and expenses of the workers, is to compare the average weekly wage with the cost of 15 quartern loaves (approx. corresponds to one bushel of wheat). The cost of one bushel of wheat – or a little less – was taken to be enough to cover the normal expenses of a family. 

Average wageQuartern Loaf
Shillings weekPence
Present study

We see that the average incomes of the families at the beginning of our period show a surplus of about 30 % above the normal expenses, then are below the required amount in the years 1800-1810 due the high prices of corn, revert to 30 % surplus for 1815-1830, and increase considerably up to 1860. In 1860 the families, after paying for their necessary expenses, have an equal amount free for any other sort of goods or services; they will not be using this extra money for paying for a second quantity of bread! For this reason they are a lot richer than before 1830.

            But we must note that these figures are averages of averages. They are averages of a number of occupations, and inside each occupation, they are averages of a range of job descriptions and personal circumstances. The fact that the country average is around the 17 line in a given year, does not mean that everyone is eating enough. It probably means that as an estimate 25 % of the population is between 10 and 15, and 5 % of the population is below 10, which means that they are really suffering.