16.3. Expenses Indices, Agricultural and Non-Agricultural

The yearly movements in the total of expenses do not show much difference between agricultural and non-agricultural:

The main difference between the indices for agricultural labourers and for non-agricultural workers, were: 

  • the agricultural labourer was more affected by the yearly movements in the prices of cereals (upwards and downwards); 
  • the non-industrial worker up to the index 1860 was more affected by the accumulated prices of meat, butter, and cheese (which increased more than wages), because he had a larger proportion of these foods. 

Expenses Index, This Study and Allen

Against the calculations of Allen (these are not given in detail, so we suppose them to be close to those of Clark), he has less increase in meat, cheese and butter, and this calculation has much more decrease in clothing costs. This study gives a considerable decrease from 1821 to 1822, which is due to the exceptionally good harvest in 1822.

We see that in both cases, the costs in the period 1815 to 1820 went down by about 20 %, and then remained fairly constant. The end-value 1860 in terms of 1770 is 147.6 from this study, and 146.4 from Allen. 

16.2. Living Costs for Non-Agricultural Occupations

The first task is to decide the weights of the different cost elements in the family budgets. Below we have the figures for some families noted in previous sections.

 Spinners 1806Wool
Two Spinners
Two Spinners
Operative 1839
Bread, meal,
flour, oatcake
Meat, bacon22.37.014.515.111.7
Potatoes, vegetables3.
Coffee, tea3.
Butter, cheese11.116.810.210.63.2
Coals, candles7.
Rent, taxes12.912.611.712.311.7
Clothing 2.28.0 8.8
Beer, ale,
cider, tobacco
2.8 10.010.2 
4.2 8.5 7.3
Other 8.8 11.17.5

We see that there was a great deal of difference in percentages between the income levels and between the occupations. The industrial workers spent about 25 % of their income on bread/ meal/ flour/ oatcakes; the agricultural labourers about 50 %. We cannot calculate only one average of the cost structures of the family budgets for all the workers in the country, and use this as a basis for estimating the movements in the cost of living.

The percentages used in the following calculations are as follows:

Bread, meal,
flour, oatcake
Meat, bacon17

Types of food, and their cost

As the largest part of the expenses of the labourers and their families was for cereals and breads, and the prices were very different between wheat on the one hand and barley, rye and oats on the other hand, it is important to define the percentages used for each one. The figures would also have to reflect the change from the inferior cereals to wheat in some regions of England during the eighteenth century.

For the period 1760 to 1780, it appears that the proportions should be:

Wheat 63 %, rye 15 %, barley 12 %, oats 10 %.

In order to take measures to reduce the suffering due to the scarcity of wheat in 1800, the House of Lords requested an investigation into the consumption of wheat, which gave information which leads to percentages which could be used for 1780 to 1799:

Wheat 60 %, rye 10 %, barley 15 %, oats 15 %.

But taking into account the information above, that “where, within a few years, that diet had been partially changed for wheaten bread, recourse had almost universally been had to their former food”, and also from the note below, that there was a large change to barley in the years after 1800, in order to economize the cost of food in the family budget, the percentages for England should be changed to:

Wheat 40 %, rye 10 %, barley 30 %, oats 20 %.

The change in food choices is commented by E. J. T. Collins:

“That choice of cereal was price and income elastic, and that pre-industrial patterns endured until at least the early nineteenth century is verified by the government inquiries of 1796 and 1800, which show not only a marked decline in per capita cereal consumption, but also a widespread substitution of barley, and to lesser extents, of oats, pulse, and rye, for wheat, and of browner for whiter flours. 

Positive aversion to the use of wheat substitutes was more apparent in 1796 than in 1800, but was in both years confined to a few southern and eastern counties, in particular, London and Middlesex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, and Wiltshire. Here it was probably true, as at Wootton Bassett, that the “lower orders” preferred “half a loaf of fine Wheaten Bread, to a pound of mixed with any substitute.” The only important concession was a switch from first- to second- and third-quality flours.

Elsewhere in Britain, and even in parts of the above-mentioned counties, substitution was the general rule. In 1796 one-third of the population of Calne (Wiltshire) ate barley bread alone, and another third a two-to-one mixture of wheat and barley. In 1800, partly because cereal prices were higher and partly because the backbone of resistance was already broken by the earlier crisis, coarser grains were more extensively resorted to than in 1796. Of the almost 500 towns and villages replying to the government circular, most claimed a reduction in wheat consumption of between 30 and 50 per cent. The greater part of the “labouring population” of southern Britain then subsisted, largely if not completely, on barley, while in the north wheat lost most of the ground it had gained there since the mid-eighteenth century. Large quantities of rye were imported to help bridge the gap. In Barkway (Hertfordshire) a “wholesome nutricious [sic] Bread made of Half Wheat and Half Rye” was employed by the “poor People, many Farmers and the little Tradesmen””

(Dietary Change and Cereal Consumption in Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1975, pp. 104-105)

For the period 1816 to 1860, the same proportions as for 1780 to 1800 should be used, as the price of wheat returned to normal levels.

Wheat 60 %, rye 10 %, barley 15 %, oats 15 %.            

The use of these parameters impacts strongly on the ratio of earnings to expenses in the period 1800 to 1815. If we use the numbers above, we have a situation in which the farm worker population can buy enough to eat, but if we continue with wheat at 60 %, there is a large negative gap. The labourers could buy enough to eat, but at a cost of reducing their “food standard of living”, eating barley bread instead of wheaten bread, and (the poorest segment) eating large quantities of potatoes.

Basis data for indices are defined in each case as:

Wheat:                       quartern wheat loaf, Retail Prices, Bread (City of London)
Barley, Rye, Oats:    prices ex-farm 
Meat:                          Greenwich Hospital, volume discount prices
Potatoes:                   index movement in line with wheat
Cheese:                      Greenwich Hospital, volume discount prices
Butter:                        Greenwich Hospital, volume discount prices
Sugar:                         retail prices, with 15 sh. tax from 1784,
and 25 sh. tax from 1803.
Tea:                             retail prices, incl. duty
Milk:                           index movement in line with butter
Beer:                           Greenwich Hospital, barrel price, adding
25 % for years before 1830,for “Beer Tax”
Candles and Soap:  Greenwich Hospital, volume discount prices
Rent:                           in line with industrial wages
Fuel:                           Coal, pit-mouth prices 
Clothing:                    reducing to Index = 40 in 1860 


Greenwich Hospital, Contract Prices
Board of Trade, Report on Wholesale and Retail Prices, 1903.
Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 1, 1839, p. 56-57.
“British History Chronologically Arranged”, John Wade, 1839
“Gentlemen’s Quarterly” each year
Grey Coat Hospital
“Coal and the Industrial Revolution”, Gregory Clark 

Reductions in prices of cotton, wool, and linen clothing articles, in function of the decreases in costs of thread and cloth.

Cotton calico cloth 72 7/8 went down from 1L. 8s. 0d. per yard in 1814, to 15s. 9d. in 1820, 16s. 0d. in 1825, 8s. 3d. in 1830, 9s. 9d. in 1835, 7s. 3d. in 1840, and 6s. 9d. in 1845 (Porter, 1851, p. 184).

The cost of labour for woollen broadcloth of initial weight 80 lb. was 8L. 18s. 2d. in 1796, 6L. 3s. 5d. in 1805, 5L. 15s. 5d. in 1820, and 4L. 7s. 3d. in 1828 (Lipton, 1921, pp. 258-260; quoting House of Lords, Hand-loom Weavers, 1840, p. 439).

Spun yarn of flax is reported at 11s. 5d. per bundle in 1834, 10s. 9 ½ d. in 1840, 7s. 9d. in 1845, and 6s. 7d. in 1849 (Porter, 1851, p. 228).

Canvas material from linen (No. 37) decreased from 30s. 0d. in 1813 to 23s. 0d. in 1820, 18s. 0d. in 1826, 17s 0d. in 1830, and 18s. 0d. in 1833 (Porter, 1851, pp. 227-228).

Cotton prints, bought by Bethlehem Hospital, decreased from 1s. 1 ½ d. per yard in 1818 to 0s. 6 ¼ d. in 1835 (Porter, 1851, p. 590).

Shoes, bought by Greenwich Hospital, went down from 5s. 8d. in 1800 to 3s. 3d. in 1837 (Porter, 1851, p. 591).

Officers’ coats bought by Chelsea Hospital, decreased from 3L. 8s. 7d. in 1815 to 2L. 2s. 7d. in 1834 , but 2L. 7s. 4d. in 1835 (Porter, 1851, p. 591).  

(Harley, 2010, p. 8)

“There is no doubt as to their comparative situation now and during the war. Their woollen clothing is now one-third cheaper than it was during the war; cotton clothing is less than one-half the price it was. In their food, certainly, 1s. will go farther than 18d. would during the war; house-rent is 25 per cent at least lower.”

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufacture and Shipping, 1833; evidence of Mr. James Thomson, Calico Printer, Lancaster, p. 237)

“Clothing also became extremely cheap, which enabled the working classes not only to clothe themselves more decently and comfortably, but to wear articles of a more durable description than formerly. Calicoes are supposed to have fallen two-thirds in price since the peace of 1815; linens, one-half; stout shoes, one third; the coarse felt hats, for which the labouring man usd to pay 3s. 6d. fell to 2s. or have been superseded by silk hats.”

(Wade, p. 1035, referring to 1830-1837)

“The benefit of cheapness reaches them [the working man or woman] in the quality of their purchases, and as the tendency has for many years been towards lessened prices, we now see – such, at least, is the case in London – that the working classes are better clad than formerly, keeping in this respect their relative position with the more easy classes, whose dress – especially among ladies – is generally not only better in quality, but actually more costly, than when the articles used were of much higher price than now. When engaged on an inquiry similar to the present, fifteen years ago, I was informed by a person who gave constant employment to 1,200 people, men and women, in making up articles of clothing used by the working classes, that, taking one article with another, the materials used then cost not more than one-half they had cost at the close of the war in 1815, and we know that since 1834, there has been a further and very great abatement in the cost of most, if not all, such materials. Strong cotton cloths, the wholesale price of which in 1810 was 10d. a yard, sold in 1820 for 9d., had fallen in 1834 to 4d., and now may be bought at from 2d. to 2 ½ d. a yard. Printed calico, which sold in 1810 at 2s. 2d., in 1820 at 1s. 4d., in 1833, the Excise duty having been removed, at 6d. to 8d., may now be bought at from 3s. to 8s. per piece of 28 ½ yards, or from 1 ½ d. to 3 ½ a yard. The increased use of cotton in this country, so far beyond the increase in our export of cotton goods, proves that the people, and especially the working people, who are the great consumers of cotton goods among us, have fully profited by their progressive cheapening.”

(Porter, 1850, p. 213)

“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.” 

(Baines, 1836, p. 358)

There may well be doubts that the yearly movements in wholesale or large-discount prices for food, may not be reflecting correctly the movements in the prices actually paid by the labourers or workers. In the following we compare the 1770 (approx.) and 1860 (approx.) prices reported in family budgets, with the large-discount prices used in these calculations. We see that in the three cases the 1770-1860 increases in consumer prices are a little less than those in the large-discount prices. 


Young 17703 to 5    
Davies 17874 ½ to 5    
    Man Stat Soc 17903 ¼ 
Eden 17965 to 6    
    Man Stat
 Manchester18596 ½     
PurdyNorfolk etc18617 ½     
FACTOR 1770-18601.75 x  1770-18602.0 x 

Cheese (inferior)

Young 17703 ½ to 5    
Davies 17874 ½ to 5    
    Man Stat
Eden 17966    
Porter London1840-506    
PurdyNorfolk etc18618    
FACTOR 1770-18602.0 x  1770-18602.3 x

Butter (fresh)

Young 17709 to 10 ½     
Davies 178710 to 12    
    Man Stat Soc 1790
Eden 179610 to 12    
    Man Stat Soc  
PorterBirmingham1840-5011 to 12    
London 12
PurdyNorfolk etc186113    
FACTOR 1770-18601.3 x  1770-18602.0 x 

The 1860 values (1770 = 100) for the individual components are:


Average inflation 1770-1860, agricultural = 139.3, non-agricultural = 150.3.  

These compare with the index of 187 for industrial wages.

Curiously, the prices of meat, cheese and butter increase more than the wages, although agricultural wages were the major component of their costs.

Clothing reduces significantly, because there was an impressive improvement in productivity. 

16.1. Wages in Non-Agricultural Occupations

We now present the average earnings in shillings in each non-agricultural occupation, following the tables and graphs in previous sections. 

The earnings per occupation are then weighted by numbers of employees, to give an average for the country in each year.

 Cotton  Labourer  Boot  Seamst  Miners  Builders  Tailors  Woollens 
    shoe  Coal 


 Silk  Worsted  Iron  Cutlery  Hosiery  Lace  Rail Average
17708. 10.1
17759. 10.4
17809.010.520. 11.0
178510. 11.5
179011. 12.5
179511.010.520. 15.1
180015.010.525. 15.4
180515. 16.0
181015. 16.0
181515.025.525. 16.5
182015. 15.5
182515. 15.7

Numbers employed in each occupation (thousands, estimated):

 Cotton  Labourer  Boot shoe  Seamstr  Miners 
 Builders  Tailors  Woollens 
1770150  140     90     45    40   118     50   100 
1775 150  145     93     45     42   122     51   100 
1780    150   150     96     50     45   127     53   100 
1785  150   157   100     50     50   132     55     80 
1790  168   165   105     50     53   140     58     60
1795  200   172   110     55     56   146     60     50
1800  247   180   115     58    61   153     63     52
1805  274   193   125     60    73   164     67     66
1810  300   206   132     65    85   180     72     70 
1815  334   223   147     75     84   200     78     72 
1820  366   240   153     80     89   220     85     76
1825  413   259   165     80    95   240     91     81 
1830  425   278   177     95   102   260     98     86 
1835  408   306   197   100   114   300   107     91 
1840  385   380   210   150   127   350   117     96 
1845  333   360   240   250   150   400   124   106 
1850  374   340   275   340   183   440   132   116 
1855  398   320   300   350   210   440   134   126 
1860  437   309   330   360   240   450   136   137 
 Silk  Worsted  Iron  Cutlery  Hosiery  Lace  Railways Total
1770    46     20     30     10     30     90             –   959
1775    46     20     30     11     30   100             –   985
1780    48    20     30     12     30   110             –   1,021
1785    48     20     35     12     40   120             –   1,048
1790    50     20     50     13     40   130            –   1,102
1795    50     20     55     13     45   140             –   1,172
1800    52     20     60     14    50   150             –   1,275
1805    52     20     65     15     55  150            –   1,379
1810    55     20     70     16     60   150             –   1,481
1815    55     22     75     18     60   150             –   1,593
1820    60     24     80     22     62   140             –   1,697
1825    60     26     85     28     64   120             –   1,807
1830    65    28    90     33     64   110     101,921
1835    70     30     95     38    70  110    20 2,056
1840    80    40   100     41     80     90     30 2,276
1845    90    50   120    41  100    90    402,494
1850  111    75  150    51   130    80    552,852
1855  105   100   180    51   140    80    80 3,014
1860  101   125   190     51   150     75   1003,191

These numbers are taken from the individual sources per industry. The figures for 1840, 1850, 1860, have been revised against the Census data. In the less documented cases, the numbers from 1840 are projected back to the earlier years.  

Combining the average earnings of agricultural labourers (other chapter) and non-agriculture workers, using the number employed as the weighting, we have:

Shillings week Shillings week  Shillings week 
Agr Lab Non Agr  All Occupations 
17907.412.2                  10.2

It is counter-intuitive, but arithmetically correct, that the increase 1770-1860 in the average of “agricultural” and “non-agricultural” is greater than the increases in the constituent parts. The explanation is that in 1770, 65 % of the workers in our sample were agricultural, and in 1860, only 35 %. Thus the curve of the average “gravitates” towards the “non-agricultural” curve.

As a final input for the movements of wages, we convert to pounds per year for the sum of agricultural and non-agricultural, and reduce by 10 % to take probable lost working days into account. This is then compared with the data of Feinstein from his work of 1998.



Average wageAverage wage
Pounds paPounds p a 
Present studyFeinstein 1866 42


The figures correspond fairly closely to the Feinstein values, and to those of some of his sources, which means that we are both reporting the same real economic conditions of 1770-1860:

(Feinstein, 1998, Wage-earnings in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution, p. 199)

The only difference which has importance for our conclusions is that for the years 1770-1795. This study is more optimistic about the earnings, and has a value of 8.3 shillings for 1770 (6.5 for agricultural, 9.6   for non-agricultural), while Feinstein has 7.6 shillings average. Arthur Young has 9.5 shillings for manufacturing in the North, 8.5 for manufacturing in West/East/South, and 7.0 for agricultural labourers in West/East/South. This study is closer to Arthur Young. This may well be due to a different selection of “typical occupations”. 

But more importantly for our general conclusions, the movements for Feinstein’s figures for 1770 to 1795 are not consistent with the real happenings of the day. He has an increase from 7.6 to 11.0 shillings, which is + 45 %; this did not happen in any of the industries, and was much above the food inflation. Thus his figure of increase in nominal earnings from 1770 to 1860 may well be too high.

The increase of 45 % from 1795 to 1810 according to Feinstein is also not very probable, as not one of the constituent industries showed this movement. The figure of 1855, which gives a difference against 1850 of 16 % is exaggerated, but the datum for 1860, of 18 % against 1850, may well be true. 

Before we comment the figures which result from this calculation, we should revise the level of probability of the base numbers. It is important to note that as the data come from different sources for each occupation, and in general are copied from one series of yearly (or 5-yearly) data from one source, it is very unlikely that there would be any systematic error; from the theory of statistics we have that the probable error in the weighted total should be considerably less than the errors in the individual lines. 

The figures for “agricultural labourers” and for “cotton” – which together make 30 % of the weighting – are as exact as they can be made. The “agricultural labourers” data come from a large number of sources, including Arthur Young, parliamentary commissions, “The Farmers Magazine”, and Mr. Purdy, director of the statistical department of the Poor Law Administration, and are totally consistent with another. The series for “cotton” comes from Mr. George Wood in his book on the History of Wages in the Cotton Industry, where he presents an average calculation per year, based on the total content of his book. The main cause of doubt in the table above would be in the calculations for boot and shoe makers and the tailors, where we do not have good data for the division into “professional” and “price-competing” workers, and their respective average incomes.      

The average trend of nominal non-agricultural wages from 1800 to 1850 was to remain constant. This is easily explained, as the living costs did not increase, and thus the workers did not have much arguments when they wanted to negotiate an increase with the owners. In individual industries, there were other factors which had an effect on the wages, for example, “combinations”, unions, and “houses of call” of the workmen, introduction of machines with high capacity and ease of use, transfer of work to women and children, and division of labour and greater specialization. 

Additional to the figures evaluated above, there are two special cases. Firstly, in the cotton industry, there were general increases (net of increase in food costs) of 50 % or more, when the men and women changed to factory work, that is from 1780 to 1810.  Secondly, in the period 1840 to 1860, there came into being a number of new well-paid occupations, especially for skilled mechanics and administrators, which are not included in the table above (only “railways”).

The increase in earnings for 1855 and 1860 is not what it seems. There was also a considerable increase of the living costs during the decade of the 1850’s.

As an additional check to the figures, we should revise the situation calculated for the whole country at 1860 (number of persons, and total of weekly income, for each occupation), against some contemporary source from 1860. What we actually have is a detailed report written in 1867, with number of persons and income levels for 1867. This is a book written by Leone Levi, Wages and Earnings of the Working Classes; with some facts illustrative of their economic condition, drawn from authentic and official sources. 

Mr. Levi was a jurist and statistician, with a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Tübingen, and he researched and wrote the book at the request of M. T. Bass, who was a liberal Member of Parliament, and owner of Bass Breweries. He says that he collected the data from a number of publicly available sources, but in many cases by direct request to the employers and the employed. The book has about 120 pages of detailed information, classified by occupation.     

See the pages reproduced two pages below, with the totals over the country; two pages are exhibited showing the totals of weekly incomes per occupation, and the book also has two more pages showing the number of persons per occupation. The numbers given by Mr. Levi include Ireland, so that an adjustment – based on the detailed text – was made in the table calculated by this author, to show only England + Wales + Scotland.

The following two tables are: a) the wages in each industry/occupation, corresponding to this investigation for the date of 1860, b) Mr. Levi’s data for 1867, reduced by the quantities referring to Ireland. 

OccupationNumber of Persons
Av. Income
Total Income
(million sh./week)
Per cent of 16 occups.
Agricultural labourer (*)1,026,0001111.323.5 %
Cotton, calico,
manufacture, printing
437,000114.86.5 %
Labourer309,000144.35.8 %
Boot and shoe maker330,000164.96.9 %
Milliner, dressmaker, seamstress360,00072.53.1 %
Coal miner240,000184.35.8 %
Carpenter, joiner,
mason, bricklayer
450,0003314.820.1 %
Tailor136,000152.0  2.7 %
Woollen cloth
137,000202.73.6 %
Silk manufacture101,000111.11.5 %
Worsted manufacture125,000121.62.2 %
Iron manufacture,
moulder, founder
190,000366.89.2 %
Cutlery51,000331.72.3 %
Hose (stocking) manufacturer150,000142.12.8 %
Lace manufacture75,000100.70.9 %
Railways100,000232.33.1 %
Total 4,217,00016.367.9100.0 %

Number of Persons
Av. Income
Total Income
(million sh./week)
Per cent of 16 occups.
labourers (*)
1,060,0001212.721.6 %
Cotton558,000126.78.3 %
Builders480,0002713.016.1 %
Tailoresses and Dressmakers451,00094.1 5.1 %
Boot and Shoe
352,000176.0 7.4 %
Coal Mining288,000174.9 6.1 %
249,000143.5 4.3 %
Hosiery and Lace230,000112.5 3.1 %
Hardware216,000214.5       5.6 %
Railways200,000234.6 5.7 %
Iron149,000253.7 4.6 %
Silk Manufacture122,00081.0 1.2 %
Machines and Tools121,000212.53.1 %
Tailors120,000192.3 2.8 %
Mining other100,000181.82.2 %
Linen78,000122.3 2.8 %
Total 4,774,00015.976.1 100.0 %

(*) only adult male labourers, working outdoors; does not include farmers and cottagers, with their wives and children; does not include indoor farm servants

We note that the numbers of persons are a little higher in this study than according to Mr. Levi. This is because he includes all the people working even in small auxiliary tasks, and thus including men, women, and young persons; the present investigation refers to adults working in the principal tasks. Mr. Levi’s table includes “hardware”, “machines and tools”, and “mining” (other than coal), which had become more important from by 1867.

The average wage over these 16 occupations differs by only 16.3 shillings per week (42.3 pounds per year) against 15.9 shillings (41.3 pounds). This small difference is actually the net position of four general concepts:

  • Increase in wage levels from 1860 to 1867 of about 10 %;
  • Replacement by new industries with higher general wage levels, than those cancelled;
  • Mr. Levi does not include data for general labourers, which would decrease the average;
  • Mr. Levi’s average figures include the auxiliary work by women and young persons.
Page scan of sequence 80
Page scan of sequence 81

(Levi, 1867, pp. 16-17)

In general, the data in this study are very close to the numbers collected by Mr. Levi.

A revision of these figures of wages per industry, against some tables in books or reports which give a number of wages at a given date, gives a general agreement

Arthur Young, “Travels in …”
Frederick Eden, “State of the Poor”
Richard Philips, “Book of Trades”
Jelinger Symonds, “Arts and Artisans at Home and Abroad”
Statistical Committee of the Town Council, Leeds, “Report on the Condition of the Town of Leeds and of its Inhabitants, October 1839”
David Chadwick, “On the Rate of Wages in Manchester and Salford, and the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire, 1839-59” 

There is also a list of wages at about 1850 for some 200 actividades from “Labour and the Poor in England and Wales 1849-1851, Letters to the Morning Chronicle …”, Appendices 1 and 2.

Chapter 16. Calculations of Movements in Nominal Wages, Cost of Living, and Real Wages

16.1. Wages in Non-Agricultural Occupations https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-1-wages-in-non-agricultural-occupations/

16.2. Living Costs for Non-Agricultural Occupations https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-2-living-costs-for-non-agricultural-occupations/

16.3. Expenses Indices, Agricultural and Non-Agricultural https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-3-expenses-indices-agricultural-and-non-agricultural/

16.4. Movements in Real Wages, Agricultural and Non-Agricultural https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-4-movements-in-real-wages-agricultural-and-non-agricultural/

16.5. Wages, Expenses, and Real Wages, for Agricultural plus Non-Agricultural Occupations https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-5-wages-expenses-and-real-wages-for-agricultural-plus-non-agricultural-occupations/

16.6. Necessary Corrections https://history.pictures/2020/03/24/16-6-necessary-corrections/

To calculate the average increases in earnings for people with continuous work, we first have to see the number of people per occupation, and their average weekly earnings. The inconvenient point about the following table, is that we should really be working with the division by people as per 1815, which is a medium date; however, there are no useful data about occupations before the Census of 1851. 

OccupationNumber of Persons
Av. Income
Total Income
(million sh./week)
Per cent of 15 occups.
Agricultural labourer 1,006,0001111.119.1 %
Cotton, calico,
manufacture, printing
501,000126.010.4 %
Labourer376,000155.69.6 %
Boot and shoe maker274,000154.17.1 %
Milliner, dressmaker, seamstress340,000103.45.8 %
Coal miner219,000122.64.5 %
Carpenter, joiner,
mason, bricklayer
351,000227.713.4 %
Tailor152,000365.59.5 %
Woollen cloth
137,000334.57.8 %
Silk manufacture114,000151.72.9 %
Worsted manufacture104,000151.62.8 %
Linen, flax manufacture98,000121.22.1 %
Iron manufacture,
moulder, founder
80,000252.03.4 %
Hose (stocking) manufacturer65,00070.50.8 %
Lace manufacture63,00080.50.8 %
Railways55,00000.00.0 %
TOTAL4,335,00015.058.0100.0 %

(Note: for the average nominal earnings per occupation, Feinstein – and thus also Allen – uses the job structure inside each segment as of 1881, and deflates backwards in time.)  

In this chapter we will make the necessary calculations for the totality of these non-agricultural occupations, and then add the data from previous chapters with regard to agricultural labourers.

15.6. Reasons for Extreme Poverty

The Industrial Revolution strictly defined, that is, the use of machines and the factory system, did not cause poverty. In many “modern industries”, the workers were enabled to produce large quantities of articles at low prices, and thus could receive good wages. In many cases, new – metal – tools came into use, which made life easier for the workers.

The causes of the cases of extreme poverty were:

  1. excess of persons in some industries/occupations, which caused competition between the workers at the levels of wages or of working hours;
  2. employment of children and women, which added to the number of persons looking for work;
  3. the absence of a “floor” in wages or in working conditions (worse, after the New Poor Law prohibited outdoor relief);
  4. the fact that many people, instead of selling their days, sold the articles that they produced, to an impersonal market;
  5. competition in the market (retail or wholesale) between products, on the basis of prices offered;
  6. the impossibility in general, for the authorities to enforce minima of wages, working conditions, or of ages of children employed (even if they had wanted to).

The principal concept here was of absolute competition, through prices of products and through levels of wages. Note that in the eighteenth century, there was not much competition, because the people worked in agriculture, in artisan work, or in personal service, and the income was informally regulated by the idea that the person had to earn enough to eat. In the nineteenth century, a large proportion of the population was “making things”; their income was constrained by the market for their products.

“The diminution of the intervals of work, has been a gradual encroachment. Formerly an hour was allowed for dinner; but one great manufacturer, pressed by his engagements, wished his work-people to return five minutes sooner. This abridgement was promptly adopted at other mills. It was found also that breakfast and “drinking” [afternoon refreshment], might be taken while the people were at work. Time was thus saved; more work was done; and the manufactured article consequently could be offered at a less price. If one house offered it at a lower rate, all other houses, to compete in the market, were obliged to use similar means. Thus, that which was at first partial and temporary, has become the established period; and the unfortunate artizans working before in excess, have since had to carry labour to a still greater and more destructive extent.”

(Thackrah, 1832, p. 82)

15.5. Treatment of Children outside of the Textile Industries

The sector of the population, which suffered most physically in the years of the Industrial Revolution, was that of those children and young persons who did not work inthe textile factories. The point is that, from 1819 onwards, children below the age of nine could not enter into employment in the textile factories; further, the conditions of work were at least legally defined (official inspectors from 1833), and the children – through their parents – did receive a contractual wage. In the other industries, the children were often put to work from 6 years old, the working conditions were often very bad, the food was minimal, and the payment low and not guaranteed. Further, there were no official regulations, and no way to enforce any minimal standards. The employment of small children continued until the Children’s Education Acts of the 1870’s.   

These additional industries were, in terms of the Report on Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture(1843), of the Children’s Employment Commission: metal wares; earthenware (pottery); glass; machine lace; pillow lace; hosiery; calico-printing; paper-making; tobacco.

The number of children thus employed was, according to the writers of the Report, in some towns practically equal to the number of children of the working class above eight years old (not counting the “lucky ones” in the textile factories from 1833).

According to the 1851 Census, the number of boys and girls employed (supposing the information to have been fully reported) in the different industries was:

Principal Occupations of Boys and Girls under Fifteen in Britain, 1851

Navigation& docks46Navigation& docks4
General labour15Domestic service71
Domestic service9  
Total423 237

(Hopkins, 1994, p. 92)

This can be compared with the total number of males and females from 10 to 15 years old, which was 2,070,000 persons, according to the 1851 Census. It is probable that the proportion of small children thus employed had decreased from 1815 to 1851, since the parents were gradually receiving better incomes, and thus did not need the “extra two shillings” from their child, and were also more interested in giving their children an education.

According to the reports of the commissioners, in a number of industries the children were put to work from the age of six or earlier. This was generally in those activities which did not need physical strength, but rather dexterity in moving threads (lace) or pins. In the glass industry and in paper-making, the children started at nine or ten. 

As to the conditions in the places of work:

“From the general tenor of the Reports and Evidence it appears that, with exception of bleaching, paper-making, toy-making, and some of the processes connected with calico-printing, and the manufacture of earthenware and glass, the places of work in which the various trades and manufactures are carried on are in general lamentably defective in drainage, ventilation, the due regulation of temperature, and cleanliness. There is scarcely any accommodation for the workpeople to wash themselves at meal-times, or to dress or warm their food. In great numbers of instances there are even no separate privies for men and women, nor for boys and girls; and very commonly these places are in a disgusting state of filth. The general statement, however, is, that in almost all the buildings recently constructed, a greater attention has been paid to the health and the decent comfort of the workpeople than in those of older date.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture, 1843, V.- State of the Place of Work, p. 32)

In general, the work of the children was not physically tiring, measured in calories expensed per hour, but the problem was rather the work without interruption during long hours, and also the difficult working positions. In many cases, the children helped the adult worker, adjusted or controlled the machinery, or brought materials to the work-station. In only a few cases did the children take part in industrial processes. 

The theoretical length of the day was twelve hours, with permission for mealtimes. But the reality was that the child always had to be ready to work when the adult worker needed him/her, and this might mean working two more hours in the day, or getting out of bed at some hour during the night. 

The wages for children (up to 12) were in the range of 2 shillings to 4 shillings a week, and the young persons (13 to 19) of 4 shillings to 6 shillings, with some cases ofup to 10 shillings. The lowest payments were in lace, where the women earned 3 shillings weekly for a 13 or 14 hour day, and thus the girls earned only 1 shilling a week.

The physical state of the children was – with the exception of a few industries – very bad. They were badly fed, and some were clothed in rags. The worst region was in the Black Country (Wolverhampton), and the worst industries the domestic activities of frame-work weaving and dressmaking. In the industries where they were put to physical work, the continuous work destroyed their bodies:

“In stature, the Children are so stunted that the Sub-Commissioner, during his first examinations, was unable to credit the statement they made of their ages; with very few exceptions, however, all were alike, and these few exceptions only proved the rule, for they were Young Persons who had not come to work till they were eleven or twelve years of age, or they lived comfortably with respectable parents, or they were not natives of Wolverhampton. Lads of fifteen or sixteen years of age are the size of ordinary English school-boys of twelve or fourteen, but not as strong and healthy. Many of the manufacturing girls of fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen presented none of the external developments corresponding with commencing womanhood.”

“Among other witnesses, the Superintendent Registrar states that in those trades, particularly in which the work is by the piece, the growth of the Children is injured; that in these cases their strength is over-taxed for profit. One of the constables of the town says that “there are examples without number in the place of deformed men and boys; their backs, or their legs, and often both, grow wrong – the backs grow out and the legs grow in at the knees – hump-backed and knocked-kneed. There is most commonly only one leg turned in, – a K leg; it is occasioned by standing all day for years filing at a vice; the hind leg grows in – the leg that is hindermost. Thinks that among the adults of the working classes of Willenhall, whose work is all forging and filing, one-third of the number are ruptured. Some cannot afford to buy trusses, some get them by means of a club they have established.”

There are many instances of retarded puberty in both sexes; a lad, for example, seventeen years of age, is described as being very poorly grown, scarcely any signs of manhood in his appearance. Another lad, eighteen years of age, is stated to be in stature and size dwarfed and meagre; no appearance of approaching manhood. A girl, sixteen years of age, very small in stature; not the least appearance of approaching womanhood; quite a child. A girl, aged nineteen, utterly stunted; no appearance of womanhood.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Children and Young Persons employed in Mines and Manufacture, 1843, XIV – Influence of Employment on the Physical Condition, Metal Wares, Willenhall, p. 103)

Probably these cases represented the majority of the children employed since an early age. But we also have information about happy, well-paid, not over-worked children:

“Do you employ any boys or children?” “A great number.”

“What proportion out of the 400 or 500?” “I should think that we employ about 50.”

“How are they employed?” “They are employed in the pits and mines to deposit the ironstone, and to attend to the fires and various light jobs about the furnaces; to fill the boxes, barrows, &c. for the men.”

 “How old are those boys?” “From nine to 14 and 15 years of age.”

 “Are not those boys generally the children of the men employed in the works?” “Yes.”

“So that it is an advantage to those men to get their children employed in the works?” “Of course.”

“What wages do you pay those persons?” “From 3s. a week to 7s. or 8s., according to their strength and capacity.”

“For what time do they work?” “They work their own time; if they are tired they go home, and their fathers do their business; but generally they work six or seven hours, and sometimes eight or ten; they work and play pretty much as they like, subject to the control of their parents.”


“Are there any schools for the education of the children?” “The district is full of schools.”

“So that any poor workman may get his child educated?” “Yes, he may.”

“Free of expense?” “Yes, generally free of expense. There are a good many national schools.”

(Select Committee on Commerce, Manufacture and Shipping, 1833, Evidence of Mr. William Mathews, Coal and Iron Trade, Dudley, p. 584, p. 586)

“No. 18.- Mary Ann Perry states:-

I am about 11 years old; I live with my parents in Thomas-street; I have been working at Mr. Flower’s, as a sheeter, about 12 months; I get a shilling a week now; I am only a beginner; I have only to put the pins in the paper; it is not hard work; I come to work at nine o’clock now, go home to dinner at two, have an hour, and then work till nine at night. I am not tired at night. I go to a Sunday School, where I learn to spell; I cannot read or write; I generally get milk or tea and potatoes, or bread for my meals, and sometimes meat for dinner; I like the work I am at; I have never been ill since I was at it; I sit down at my work; there is a fire in the room to keep us warm. I give my wages to my mother; it is very clean work that I do.”

(Children’s Employment Commission, Appendix to the Second Report of the Commission, Trades and Manufactures, Part 2, 1842, p. G 11, Pin-Factory, Dublin, Interviewee No. 18)

15.4. Unemployment and Slumps

Another set of factors in calculating the real incomes of the working class in England in these years, is the prevalence of recessions and slumps, general medium term unemployment, and shore-time working. There is a lot of difference – particularly for the men and women concerned – between a continuous income of 20 shillings a week, and an income of 20 shillings but with gaps of 12 months without money. There were industrial recessions in the First Industrial Revolution in: 1810-12, 1816-17, 1819, 1826-27, 1830-31, 1839-42, and 1848-48 (note: there were no recessions in England in the eighteenth century, thus the total lifetime earnings did not suffer a diminution). The worst was in 1839-42, and was a large part of the cause of the riots in the North and Midland of England in 1842. It is presented here in a long text, because it really had a great importance for the people of that time. 

“During the last twenty-five years the cotton trade has passed through three great crises: that of 1819, that of 1829, and that of 1841. The latter continued to the commencement of 1844, and the germs of it were manifest in the midst of the fictitious prosperity of 1836. In 1835 and 1836 two successive harvests had reduced the price of wheat to an average of 44s. 8d. per quarter. Wages roses considerably, and this rise, combined with the low price of provisions, gave the operative a command over the necessaries and comforts of life, which rendered his condition far superior to that of the agricultural labourers. The result was an extensive immigration of the latter to the manufacturing districts, where they immediately found employment. Labourers were to be had in any numbers, and as the demand for English goods in the American markets continued to increase, and the joint stock banks offered great facilities to their customers, speculation began. From the first of January, 1835, to the first of July, 1838, the new mills erected in the two counties of Lancashire and Cheshire, represented a force equal to 13,226 horse-power, of which 11,826 were appropriated to cotton; and those in course of construction represented an additional force of 4,187 horse-power.

Reckoning 500 pounds sterling, and five operatives to be required for each horse-power, it would follow that in less than five years a capital of 8,000,000 pounds sterling would be absorbed in the construction of buildings and machines in the two counties of England, and that 87,000 hands, with their wives and children, &c., would be added to the population.

This disorganized competition would alone have sufficed to produce a glut in the marker; but the crisis was still further accelerated and aggravated by external circumstances. Towards the end of 1836, the manufacture of cotton suffered a series of disasters, at the very period when a universal failure of the American banks took place, and deranged the commerce of that country.

After having diminished its importations by bankruptcy, the Americans next endeavoured to diminish them by an exclusive tariff. The duty on manufactured goods was raised from an average of twenty per cent to thirty per cent, for the purpose of protecting the young manufactures of Maine, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, against the competition of England. Several states of Europe imitated this policy, and although Manchester still sent its yarn into the states of the Germanic Union, it saw its woven goods excluded. At the same time the competition of foreign manufacturers became more formidable. The fabrics of Lowell obtained a preference over the English goods in the southern American markets. Saxon hosiery competed with that of Leicester and Nottingham, not only in the American market, but also in the English market. To increase the distress a succession of bad harvests had raised the price of wheat, during the years of 1838, 1839, 1840, and 1841, to a mean price of 66s. 5d. a quarter; and during this rise in the price of food of the community, the wages decreased from twenty to twenty-five per cent. Add to this the necessity of paying in gold for the importation of wheat to meet the deficiency, had exhausted the coffers of the Bank of England, and the directors, yielding to the panic, suddenly contracted their circulation, and thus gave a shock to commerce and manufactures. Manufacturing and commercial establishments which had not great solidarity were cast down, like so many paper buildings. It was an immense and terrible catastrophe, and of which the traces are still visible.”

(Faucher, 1845, pp. 141-143)

“In Great Britain, meanwhile, grievous reports of distress were being received in 1837 from all the manufacturing districts. At Paisley fourteen thousand men, generally employed in the weaving of fancy goods, had been unemployed for the whole of the summer, and the relief funds were exhausted. In the lace and hosiery districts of Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, business failures were alarmingly frequent, and many thousands of workers were in desperate distress. Riots were taking place against the harshness of the New Poor Law, the operation of which was now for the first time being felt in the manufacturing districts. The effects of distressed trade were especially severe in the Lancashire cotton district, the fortunes of which were already closely bound up with the trade conditions in the United States. At Manchester, during the summer of 1837, fifty thousand workers were said to be out of employment, and most of the large establishments were working only half-time. At Wigan there were four thousand weavers entirely out of work; and the same situation was found elsewhere throughout the county. The entire trade of the district was brought to a standstill, and well-informed observers feared that unless trade improved rapidly half a million workers, at least, would be idle in the manufacturing districts, in the very worst time of the year. 

There had, of course, been trade depressions in almost regular sequence during the previous generation; but the most terrible feature of the depression beginning in 1836-7 was its long continuance. The troublous times of the later ‘thirties were succeeded by years of still severer distress in the early ‘forties. In 1841-2 trade was reported to be going from bad to worse in all the manufacturing districts, and especially in the Lancashire cotton area. At Stockport it was reported in 1841 that between six and seven thousand “hands” had been displaced from employment; and in 1843, when trade was believed to be recovering, horse-power adequate for the employment of over five thousand operatives was still standing idle. In that neighbourhood the wages for cotton-spinning had been reduced from 2s. 11d. per thousand hanks in 1839 to 2s. 6d. in 1841, and 2s. 1d. in 1842, for precisely the same work; and this 30 per cent reduction was said to be “about the general rate for spinning”, In the Manchester area the number of bankruptcies was still abnormal in 1842, and many factories were being closed down; some of the mills had been closed ever since 1836-7, and mill fires seem to have been curiously frequent.

A trade depression of such persistence inevitably caused important displacements of the manufacturing population, and checked for a time the current of townward migration. The 1841 census returns reveal a thinning of the population in many of the manufacturing townships through the stoppage of factories and the removal of factory workers in search of employment; while some other industrial towns were only saved from a decrease of population through the employment afforded by railway construction. Cobden asserted that in Stockport one house in every five was empty through the dispersal of the unemployed industrial workers. At Oldham, it was reported, no less than 1,800 houses were standing empty, and in many cases several families were living together in the same house; a similar report concerning the elasticity of demand for house accommodation was received also from the neighbouring townships of Rochdale and Saddleworth, as well as from Sheffield. 

At the time when all the manufacturing areas were suffering from extreme depression, wandering in search of employment was a desperate and demoralizing ordeal. Many hitherto respectable workers were reduced to begging from door to door for bread; others, more ingenious, picked up a precarious living in all sorts of curious ways. “Some have acted as porters and carriers; some have begun to sell hardwares; some have hawked salt for sale; some sand; some have gone about the country with vegetables … some go about hawking the various cheap publications of London.” Other textile workers, hitherto unused to heavy manual labour, became accustomed to spade work, and found employment “working on the road, or quarrying in the stone quarry, or assisting builders.” Detailed analysis of the reabsorption of one thousand labourers, displaced through the closing of a cotton-spinning mill near Bolton, showed that dispersion had taken place over the area of a circle forty miles in diameter.

Such readjustments of labour within and around the same industrial area may suffice to tide over minor fluctuations of trade, but were quite inadequate in so prolonged a depression. Luckily the period depression was marked by great activity in the construction of new railways, … “

(Redford, 1976, The Hungry Forties, pp. 119-121)

The situation was so bad, that calculations presented in the House of Lords by Lord Kinnaird showed i) that the general purchases by the working class had gone down by 15 % from 1836 to 1842, although the population had increased by 8 %, ii) sales of wheat had reduced by 7 % in two years, while the population had increased by 2.7 %.

The official register informs that Lord Kinnaird produced a table, showing that the money received in Customs and Excise Tax (recovered from the population, at rates given in moneys per article or by weight) had reduced considerably from 1836 to 1842. The population increased by about 8 % in those 6 years, so that one would suppose that the taxes would increase in the same proportion. But they actually decreased from 36.4 million pounds to 30.7 million pounds, that is by 15 %. Thus the purchases per capita of the population of their basic necessities went down by 21 %.

DatePopulation Net Produce:
Customs and Excise Tax
Actually Produced
183726,518,885should give36,938,36333,958,421
183826,879,246 37,484,25434,478,417
183927,239,607 38,030,14535,003,633
184027,599,868 38,567,03635,536,469
1841   32,230,261
1842   32,340,739

But in 1840 the additional duty of 5 per cent was imposed. If that had not been the case, the receipts for the last three years (calculating the proportions) would have been:-


This shows that the disposable income of the people decreased by about 21 % per capita. This information has two important consequences:

  1. The standard of living of the working class during the Industrial Revolution was not given only by movements in the contractual wages, but in some years, more importantly by the decrease in the numbers in employment or the numbers of days effectively worked, and the temporary cuts in wages; the multiplication of these effects gave a decrease in the average disposable income;
  2. The yearly movements in the disposable income of the workers, and thus in the amounts actually spent for food, rent, and clothing for the family, can be objectively calculated taking the customs and excise taxes of each year, divided by the size of the population; the resulting figures would have to be adjusted for changes in the rates of tax for each type of article, or the addition or removal of certain taxes.

Lord Kinnaird then commented the sales of wheat in 1840, 1841, and 1842.            

“He would now advert to a subject that was of great interest to their Lordships, as being the principal landowners in the country – he meant the consumption of wheat. The actual consumption of wheat had fallen off during the last three years to the extent of 1,361,252 quarters annually. He had been furnished with a very important document which had been prepared with the greatest care. It showed the quantity of wheat consumed from October 1839, to May, 1842, in separate periods of eight months each. The quantities of wheat sold in the 150 towns, from which the old averages were calculated, represented, as nearly as could be ascertained, one fifth of the whole quantity sold in the kingdom. The quantity sold in these 150 towns, from which the old averages were calculated, represented, as nearly as could be ascertained, one fifth of the whole quantity sold in the kingdom. The quantity sold in these 150 towns in eight months, from the 1st of October to the 1st of May in each of the three last Years, was:-

Oct. 1, 1839, to       May 1, 1840             1840 to                    1841 to                                                                           
1841                         1842
These multiplied by 5, show the sales in the kingdom      
                         2,620,753          2,467,783          2,216,201
                                               5                                 5                                 5     
                           13,103,765        12,338,915          11,081,005
To these quantities add the foreign wheat, which paid duty in each period                                     
1,138,492          1,311,642             2,200,000
                                14,242,257       13,650,557           13,281,005
In the two former years the foreign wheat was all consumed, and additional large quantities were delivered for consumption in May and June; but this year there remained in warehouse 400,000 quarters of foreign wheat which had paid duty.
Thus the difference between the consumption in 1840 and 1842 was 1,361,252 quarters.         

This means that the consumption of wheat went down by 7 % in a period of two years, while the population increased by about 2.7 %. But the most impressive point is that of the wheat imported in 1842, and on which import duty had been paid and thus the wheat had been physically discharged from Customs, 400,000 quarters (24,000,000 lbs.) could not be sold. The poor part of the working class population, who needed the wheat because they were starving, could not pay for it, however low the price was.

(Sitting of the House of Lords, 2nd June 1842, Lord Kinnaird on “National Distress”; http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1842/jun/02/national-distress)

In August 1841, about 600 non-Anglican clergymen gathered together in Manchester, to discuss what could and should be done by the authorities, to correct the horrible situation of the working class and the poor. The report of the conference is accompanied by a section of Documentary Evidence (40 pages). The figures had been collected by the clergymen according to a questionnaire. The report on towns in 26 counties of England (generally distributed) and some in Scotland and Wales. In practically all the towns there is extreme poverty, hunger, and poor housing; also the industrial companies have been unable to sell much more than the half of their theoretical production, and the food shops are selling less. (In some agricultural districts, and in Yorkshire, the workers and agricultural labourers have enough work and enough food) In many cases, it is noted that 1833-36 were prosperous years, and that 1840-41 had been catastrophic. 


“I have never known (except in the depth of severe winters) employment as scarce as at present. Trades which within my memory regularly earned 24s. and even upwards per week, now receive only 18s., and work is so scarce, that if discharged from a regular place, there is considerable difficulty in finding employment. …. Employment is scarce, wages low, and provisions excessively dear. The condition of small traders is decidedly bad, as from decreased consumption, and increased bad debts. Their income is in many cases decreased from one-third to one-half, in some cases more. Many who a few years ago were doing considerable business at good profits, and now fast sinking into a state of insolvency.” (p. 244)

Daventry, Northampton

“The working classes are not well employed. The principal shoemakers in the town assured me last week, that they have an unusual stock on hand, for which they can find no market; in consequence the men have not had during the week more week given them than could with ease accomplish in four days. The average wage of our shoemakers is between 9s. and 10s. a week, the whole of which is, in many cases, spent in the purchase of bread alone …. The condition of the labouring population, as a class, is necessarily worse now than in former periods; as a proof of which, parents of large families have been compelled to send some of their children to the union workhouse, not being able to obtain for them the means of support.” (p. 248)

Tallywarn, near Pontypool           

“Some idea of the general distress in this parish may be formed from the fact that out of fourteen furnaces there are now but five on blast, and all the mills, where the iron is manufactured, in our vicinity, are stopped.” (p. 221)

In correspondence to the conference, we have:

“Thousands of these people are starving – actually starving; and deaths from starvation are constantly occurring. A poor law guardian asserts that they are numerous; two cases have been narrated that came under his own observation. James Birstal, native of Wiltshire, with a wife and six children, could get no employment. When visited they had nothing – there was no article of furniture in the house. The man was found dead upstairs, and an old rag thrown over his naked body. The last words he was heard to utter were two days before he died: “O that I had a little bread and a small piece of cheese!” There was another found stretched dead upon his loom. A jury brought in a verdict in this case, of “Death for want of food!”” (p. 206)

A similar Report was made out to the Anti-Corn Law Conference in 1842 in London. The conclusions were practically the same, although they covered only the manufacturing and domestic industry areas. An exception is that some of the mill workers in the better jobs, still have enough money to live on.

In Leeds the consumption of groceries and butcher’s meat declined by one quarter from 1835/1836; the decrease in consumption of meat by the “operative classes” was indirectly estimated to be one half. The unit price went up by 30 to 40 per cent. In one township, three quarters of the grocers went out of business in the period since 1833.

In Bradford, mechanics formerly employed by machine makers at 24 to 30 shillings a week, had to find work at breaking road-stones, or were dependent on the income of their wives or children.

In Manchester, the number of ill persons admitted to public dispensaries was 54,000 for the total of the years 1830-1835, but was 169,000 for the years 1835-1840: the annual mortality increased by 18 %.

The deaths in industrial counties (Lancashire and Cheshire) increased from 261 per 10,000 in 1838, to 288 in 1839 and 300 in 1840, i.e. 4,000 per year more in the sum of these two counties. The criminals committed to trial (we can suppose that many were for theft) in the industrial counties increased from 167 per 100,000 in 1838 to 239 in 1841 and 265 in 1842, i.e. 2,000 in the two counties.

Year     Agricultural Counties            Industrial Counties         Total England

to Trial
to Trial
to Trial
per 10,000per

(Agricultural counties are Cambridge, Essex, Norfolk, Oxford, Lincoln, Suffolk, Wiltshire; Industrial counties are Lancashire and Cheshire)

(Extracted from Tougan-Baranowsky, 1913, p. 295; his data taken from Registrar-General’s reports)

Another phenomenon which cut into the workers’ incomes, was that of “short time working”, that is, a reduction in the number of days worked per week, so that full unemployment for a given number of men could be avoided; the official statistics may be reporting for example only 10 % “unemployed”, but it may be that the men are only working 4 days out of 6. We have data for the Black Country, that is, the coal, iron, and engineering region near Wolverhampton. In the eighty-five years from 1815 to the end of the century, only 23 were years of full employment. In the same period there were only three spells of sustained employment, namely 1834-37, 1845-55, and 1870-74. The effect of these cuts in income by up to 50 % was – in the worst years – destitution and hunger.

Page 234 of The Standard of Living in the Black Country during the Nineteenth Century

(Barnsby, 1971, Appendix 1, p. 234)

The following is a calculation of how much the earnings of the men were reduced in each year, due to the short time or other economic problems. The column 4 shows what percentage of the contractual wage was actually paid (estimation) in each year.

Page 238 of The Standard of Living in the Black Country during the Nineteenth Century

(Barnsby, 1971, Appendix IV, p. 238)

Weekly wage necessary to maintain a family of man, wife, two small children at a minimum standard of comfort: 25s. 0d. (1850), 4s. 2d. per day.

Weekly wage necessary to maintain a family of man, wife, two small children to subsist: 12s. 6d. (1850), 2s. 1d. per day. 

15.3. Poverty in the Countryside

We also have reports about the poor and the very poor agricultural labourers in this period. They speak of continuous hunger. The reports come primarily from a book “The Hungry Forties: Life under the Bread Tax” of 1904, which is a collection of about 60 memories by very old people (the oldest is 100), referring to country life from 1820 to 1850. It should be noted that the expression “Hungry Forties” was not used in the nineteenth century, but rather the term came into use due to this book. The collection was organized by Mrs. Cobden Unwin, daughter of the Corn Laws reformer Richard Cobden, and herself a political activist. She put a letter in a number of newspapers, asking for information about the lives of the people, “how it really was”, and also had some personal interviews with old people. The procedure is obviously an invitation to the people to “tell the worst”. But this worst information is really very bad, as we shall see in the next paragraphs. There is however no reason to doubt that the individual data are untrue or exaggerated (two of the informants were parish priests). 

“My father’s wages were 15s. per week, which was 4s. per week above that of the average working man. Bread was 10 ½ d. per 4-lb. loaf; very common sugar, 6 ½ d., which was adulterated with sand; and I may say all goods were largely adulterated. Clothing was dear, and the working man had to dress in the coarsest of clothing. I can well remember having to turn into the fields at the break of day gleaning, and my father, after a hard day’s work, perhaps walking two miles to help carry home our burden of corn, which was often sprouted at the end of the harvest. This was sent to the mill and ground into flour. The bread which was made from the flour was nearly black, and I quite sure the working nan of to-day would not eat it.” (pp. 69-70)

“My recollection takes me back into the fifties when, if bread was but slightly taxed, many other things were heavily burdened. Physically and intellectually we dwelt next door to destitution. The principal course at the morning meal would be a small basin of bread soaked in water, and seasoned with salt, occasionally a little skimmed milk added, and a small piece of bread tinged with lard in winter ….. Many families would have to go into debt, trusting to extra pay in harvest and the gleanings of the family to enable to pay them to pay the shoemaker, &c.” 

(“A. J. M.”, Northampton, pp. 69-77)

“ ….. Joseph Pugh had 10 /- a week. He had a large family, and they were unhealthy. I believe buttermilk was given to them, and my grandmother, who could not bear to see the children die one after another, relieved them from time to time with clothing. Joseph Pugh’s wife and daughter used to go early into the meadows and eat snails ….Joseph Pugh was at work before 5 a.m., and left at 6 p.m. … Very few children of the peasantry in Worcestershire had shoes, and those that had were in holes.” (Italics in the original)

(Mrs. Margaret Evans, from a moneyed family with servants, Worcestershire, pp. 83-84) 

“The weekly wages paid to agricultural labourers in that day (circa 1840) were about eight shillings in ordinary times, with something extra for the hay and harvest. The question which determined the rate of wages was not what the work done was worth, but what amount a man and his family could subsist on; not what a man earned, but how many he had to keep. Often the wage received was not enough to buy bread for the family, and so he had to resort to the purchase of coarser stuff was necessitated to obtain more bulk to meet the wants and stay the cravings of hard-working, hungry men and growing children, such as barley meal, toppings, grey peas, potatoes, and swede turnips …

A really good piece of bread, such as we now always get in abundance, was then a luxury and a treat to the poor – greater than roast beef is to-day. As for meat, there were thousands of cottages into which a piece of fresh meat never entered during the year, and only occasionally, in small quantities, a bit of bacon or salt pork. 

A woman told me that her husband had gone many times to threshing without a bit of bread, and was obliged to relieve the gnawings of hunger by eating some of the pig pease and horse beans he was threshing. If these failed, he was wont to buckle the strap he wore around his loins a hole tighter.”

(Rev. A. Barnard, Congregational Minister, East Anglia, pp. 91-101)

“In the month of February, 1841. I left my village home to be apprenticed to a firm of grocers in a large way of business in Wiltshire, and I now began to understand the privations of the poor. The wages were even a little below Hampshire, and the limited purchases of the country people astonished me, and their abject complaining was distressing to a degree. Women employed in rough field work, such as pulling up turnips, earned 6p. per diem. At piece work the men did a little better. (pp. 140-144)

All the people whose letters were included in the book, were poorer than any person in England in 1790. In general they say that their experiences were not just from their own lives, but representative of the people around them. The reason that their lives were worse than of people in 1790, is that in the earlier period, the authorities did look after the poor.  

One difference against the reports of family budgets by Mr. Purdy, is that the 4-lb. loaf cost the labourers much more than the normal “town prices”. The figures in the book go from 11d. to 1s. 3d., in a period when the normal prices were 7d. and 8d. It was generally supposed that the farmers held the wheat back until they could get a high price. “I remember well enough hearing it said that certain farmers, wheat-growers, were keeping their wheat ricks standing in the farmyard, waiting and hoping that the long prices then prevailing would become still longer; and one notable instance engraved itself on my memory. This was a case in which a farmer had kept a rick standing so long as to require re-thatching, and when the men got up to the rick they suddenly disappeared, in consequence of the interior of the rick having been eaten away by rats and mice. In this way the avarice of the rick owner was righteously, as I think, requited.”
(Thomas Barker, born 1834, Sussex, pp. 148-149)

Here we have a problem of two different images of country life in this period. The figures in the family budgets according to Mr. Purdy (Poor Law central administration) are not consistent with people being hungry. But the people recounting their experiences were not lying; the local administrators of the Poor Law Unions were not falsifying the reports that they sent to Mr. Purdy.

On reading the accounts of the book in detail, we can find some differences and some segmentations. First, the prices for a quartern loaf that was paid by the people in the book were higher than those in the official reports, because the local farmers and landlords were selling at artificially high prices. Secondly, the families of the people reporting did not have 3 or 5 children, but 7 to 10 children; it is not too bad if these children are of “working age”, that is, 7 years old or more, but if they are too small to work, they are just mouths to be fed. Then a number of the people in the book belong to families where the father did not have a job as a field labourer, but had some other occupation, which paid even less. The large problem was for those men who were not employed all the weeks of the year, as the theoretical weekly income did not leave any possibility of saving for the weeks without income. 

Basically, the difference is that the official figures refer to a “normal” or “majority” situation, and the personal testimonies refer to “problem” situations.

This appreciation is shared by Dr. Wilhelm Hasbach, a German economics professor, who wrote in 1894 (English translation 1908), “The History of the English Labourer”. “Accordingly Dr. Smith comes to the following conclusions. The English agricultural labourers, as distinct from their families, were as a class not badly fed; and life in the farmhouse was particularly favourable to good nutrition. But the position of the labourer varied greatly; a fact which is to be attributed to the variety of classes into which they were divided. Things were worst with them in winter, as then their expenses rose (they had to provide more fuel) whereas their income fell considerably. In no county was the standard of feeding so low as in the industrial districts to which the inquiry extended, although in some the nitrogenous foods [proteins] fell below the subsistence minimum. The labourers were in a very unfavourable position in cases where they had several children under ten years old, where the wife could find no by-employment, the house rent was high, vegetables could not be produced for sale as well as consumption, or where no fairly large town was nearby to allow of the other necessary purchases being made there.” (p. 403)

Dr. Smith was the rapporteur of the “Report on the Food of the Poorer Labouring Classes”, which was Appendix 6 to the “Sixth Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council” of 1864 (there is no particular reason to suppose that the economic conditions in the countryside were worse than in the period 1840-1860). He had previously made calculations of the food requirements for minimum subsistence of adult men in manual work, and had estimated the minimum amounts to be 4 pounds of carbohydrate foods and 3 ounces of proteins per week. His investigations for the Report gave average real amounts consumed by agricultural labourers in the different counties, of which the following are examples:

 Carbohydrates (lb.)Proteins (oz.)

In Berkshire, Rutland, Oxfordshire, Hampshire, Staffordshire, Somersetshire, Cornwall, Wiltshire, Cheshire and Essex, the protein consumption was less than the subsistence level. (Hasbach, op. cit., pp. 401-403)

But these numbers are the averages of all the agricultural labourers per county. It is probable that, for example, the workers with a steady job ate at a level 10 % above this average, but the workers without continuous employment ate at a level 20 to 30 % below the average. The Report further states that: “And the men were better fed than the women and children, especially when they boarded with their employers either as servants or as day-labourers. In that case an unreasonable proportion of the family income went to maintain the man, and an insufficient share remained for his wife and children.”

One grave problem was the New Poor Law of 1834, which cancelled the money payments to men and families without work, and only permitted help to these people (plus the ill and the very old) on the condition that they entered the workhouse. The effect was that those families who had received payments for each child, if the father was without work or with very low earnings, suddenly did not receive any money, and the father had to find the money with which to pay for the food for the wife and children. The father who was not in a steady job with a farmer, was not in a good position to negotiate wages for non-continuous work or less important tasks. 

“Even granted that the labourer himself now needed no allowance, what had he in place of the allowance for his family and the out-of-work relief? Something in place these he must have, for even labourers’ families must live, and he got nothing now from the poor-rates, while the farmer neither could nor would give higher wages, and paid only for work done. What was the way out? The labourer must sell more labour-power; and since his own was already sold, he must put that of his family on the market. This was how the problem of the wage of the married man was solved.” (Hasbach, op. cit. p. 224)

“When Dr. Kay [proponent of the New Poor Law] was examined before the Lords’ Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act, he described the astonishment of travellers at the number of women and children working in the fields, and traced their increased employment to the Poor Law.” (Hasbach, op. cit., p. 225)            

The intention of these pages has been to show that the optimistic statements of Mr. Purdy, with an increase in earnings of 10.7 % from 1824 to 1837, of 12.1 % from 1837 to 1860, and of 24.1 % from 1824 to 1860, are incomplete. A more correct expression would be that the earnings did increase by these percentages in these periods, but only for labourers who had a steady job with a given employer; there were cases where the man could not find work at the normal rated, and the wife and children had to work in the fields (which was a horrible change for the children, who previously could work a little in the house, or attend school).

Dr. Smith’s research actually referred to the universe of the “poorer labouring classes”, and included reports on occupations which were well known to be poor in income, in food consumption, and in working conditions. These occupations were: silk-weavers and throwsters, needlewomen, kid-glove makers, stocking and glove weavers, and shoemakers. These people were the poorest wage-earners in the country.

Table 2 Weekly food consumption of adult indoor workers

 Silk-weavers and throwstersNeedle-womenKid glovesStocking and glove weaversShoemakers
Bread (lb.)9.57.758.7511.911.24
Potatoes (lb.)22.55.2543.5
Sugars (oz.)
Fats (oz.)4.54.573.55.75
Meat (oz.)per family3216.2518.251215.75
Milk1.1 pints7 oz. 18.25 oz.1.25 pints18
Tea (oz.)per family221.7523.5
Cheese (oz.)per family191214

Smith, “Report on the Food of the Poorer Labouring Classes in England”, pp. 219-233; Quoted in Rioux, 2012, p. 83

We see that these people eat from 9 to 12 lbs. of bread (per adult), 2 to 5 pounds of potatoes, and close to one pound of meat, per week. Really these are not starvation levels; they are a little less than the amounts for agricultural labourers. The problem is that these people, in order to have enough income per week (usually on a basis of production volume) to cover their food costs, have to work 12, 14, or 16 hours a day, and in very bad physical conditions in their work-place. This explains why all these workers were clearly hungry and thin.

15.2. «Dickens’ London»

There is no documentation of the very poor and their activities in London around 1800-1820, although there were a number of poor dress- and clothes-makers. It was to be expected that an increase in the population from 1820 would cause more poverty, due to the structural problems of the metropolis. Firstly, there was no heavy industry, or factories with repetitive machines (high cost of coal). Secondly, much of the production of clothes was based on changing fashions, which meant that it was not worthwhile investing for machinery or tools for long production runs. Thirdly, there certainly was a change to mass production, but as this was not accomplished by mechanization, the only way to reduce unit costs was by division of labour and greater specialization. Fourthly, the search for reduction of labour costs was channelled into employing more women instead of men. Fifthly, in a number of trades, the costs in the counties were less than in London, and so the production “migrated” to other regions, leaving the Londoners without work; in some cases, the rough work “migrated” and the fine work remained in London, which meant that there were few jobs, but well paid.

We might suppose that the existence of this segment of the very poor was caused by the Industrial Revolution, or by the social policies of the governments of the time.

But actually, we do have an academic commentary on the change in the 1830’s and 1840’s in London, and it comes from M. Faucher, the French economist who visited London and Manchester in 1844.

“Let us commence with the poverty, which explains the rest. A few years ago, London was less burdened with poor people than the rest of the country. One found few beggars in the streets, and the “work-houses”, the retreats of the workers, were not full ….

The British metropolis descended rapidly from the pedestal where fortune had placed her. A series of calamitous years brought want to the families. The commerce lost some of its outlets, and the workers, who were now not employed, or employed less frequently, passed to the responsibility of the parish. …

At the end of 1843, the poorhouses of the capital did not contain less than twenty-five thousand poor, who were almost exclusively old persons and children. Additionally, more than one hundred thousand paupers received assistance at home. …

Thus, while the number of poor relieved in England, which was, as a proportion of the population8 6/10 of 100 in 1840, increased to 9 4/10 in 1841; the proportion, which had been 7 1/6 of 100 in London, increased the following year to nearly 11 of 100. 


Let us see what happened to London a few years ago. An army of half-naked wretched poor, expelled by hunger from the agricultural districts, from the towns of Lancashire, from Scotland, from Ireland, invaded the streets of the metropolis. One can follow, using the records of just one Union [Administrative District of the Poor Law], that of the City, the advance of this impressive flood. In 1838, the number of casual paupers [non-residents], asking for assistance, was not more than 356; in 1839, it was 2,403; in 1840, it was 11,203; in 1841, it was 26,703; and 45,000 in 1842.

A letter written by Mr. Thwaites, “relieving officer” [“Poor Law Administrator”] of the City, shows with impressive interest the details of the epidemic vagrancy which afflicted London during the winter of 1843. “The vagrancy”, says the magistrate, “is increasing in an alarming manner in the metropolis; this is due in part to the distress in the manufacturing districts, and in part to the stoppage, in the agricultural districts, of the works for the railways.””

(Translation by this author)

(Faucher, 1845, Études sur l’Angleterre, pp. 61-68)

Thus we see that there was not a large number of very poor in London before 1840. The influx from that date was due principally to the recession of 1839-1842. The pictures that we have of the poor in London in generally from years after 1840, and should not be taken as continuously existing during all the period of the Industrial Revolution.

The first complete description of the very poor in London was made by Henry Mayhew in 1851, with the title “London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those who Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work.” The information is very detailed, based on interviews with a number of people in each segment of this society, and referring to their trades, habits, domestic arrangements and standards of living.

The first three volumes describe the “street-people”, who he divides into six groups:

  1. Street-Sellers (of fish, of vegetables and fruit, of eatables and drinkables, of stationery, literature, and the fine arts, of manufactured articles, of second-hand articles, of live animals, of mineral productions and of curiosities;
  2. Street-Buyers (of hare-skins, old clothes, old umbrellas, bottles, glass, broken metal, rags, waste paper, and dripping);
  3. Street-Finders (literally “pick up” their living; see below);
  4. Street-Performers, Artists, and Showmen (street-performers, street showmen, street artists, street dancers, street musicians, street singers, proprietors of street games);
  5. Street-Artizans, or Working Pedlars (those who make things in the streets, those who mend things in the street, those who make things at home and sell them in the streets);
  6. Street-Labourers (cleansers, lighters and waterers, street-advertisers, street-servants).

The Street-Finders are those who “literally “pick up” their living in the public thoroughfares. They are the “pure“ pickers, or those who live by gathering dog’s dung; the cigar-end finders, or “hard-ups”, as they are called, who collect the refuse parts of smoked cigars from the gutters, and having dried them, sell them as tobacco to the very poor; the dredger-men or coal-finders; the mud-larks, the bone-grubbers; and the sewer-hunters”

(Vol. I, p. 3)

The information about this lowest section of the poor is rather embarrassing, as we can find similar activities in an encyclopedia about China, written by the Jesuit missionaries there in the eighteenth century: “Things that seem to be the most useless, they know how to make a profit from them: a number of families in Peking do not subsist from anything except selling wick and matches; others have no other profession than picking up on the street pieces of fabric of silk, of linen, of cotton, and of hemp; chicken feathers, dog bones, pieces of paper that they wash and then sell to other people,”

(Du Halde, Jean-Baptiste; Description géographique, historique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise, …, Henri Scheurleer, La Haye, 1736; https://archive.org/stream/descriptiongog02duha#page/n5/mode/2up, Vol. 2, p. 86)  

The people in this segment in London run the whole gamut from absolute destitution in food, living quarters, and clothes, to long term businesses (street restaurants) with steady revenues. There were about 50,000 people working in the street. Mayhew estimates the average net income of being about 8 shillings a week (the agricultural labourers had basic wages of 8 to 12 shillings, and bricklayers in Manchester 27 shillings).

We have a small “cross-section” of the lowest manual workers. These are data which were collected about the previous activities of 67 men, who had presented themselves to work at a company of “scavengers” (road cleaners). We see that they eat well, but apart from this, they do not have good lives.

Ages                                       10 from 20 to 30, 13 from 30 to 40, 24 from 40 to 50,
15 from 50 to 60, 4 from 60 to 70, 1 above 70

Previous occupations         22 labourers, 3 had been scavengers, 3 dustmen,
3 ostlers, 2 stablemen, 2 Carmen, 2 porters,
2 gentlemen’s servants, 2 greengrocers, 12 artisans,
14 other unskilled workmen

Time of having been at scavenging
            3 “all their lives”, 1 about 27 years, 6 from 16 to 20 years,
6 from 10 to 15 years, 4 from 5 to 10 years,
34 from 1 to 5 years, 13 twelve years or less

State of education                49 could read and write, 5 could only read,
12 could neither read nor write

Go to church or chapel?      22 answered Yes, 9 went to church,
4 went to the Catholic Chapel                         
Why did they not go to church          
12 had no clothes, 55 no answer 
Did they bathe?                    59 answered No, 3 replied Yes, 2 Yes, in the Thames

Were they married or single? 56 married, 5 widowers, 6 single

How many children?              1 had 15, 1 had 6, 2 had 5 each, 11 had 4 each,
19 had 3 each, 9 had 2 each, 16 had none,
2 reported “grown-up children”

What were the ages of their children?
 11 were grown up, 2 between 30 and 40,
9 between 20 and 30, 49 between 10 and 20,                  
                            80 between 1 and 10, 8 one year and under  

Did the children go to school? 13 answered yes, 13 to the National School,
5 to the Ragged  School            
Did their wives work?         15 answered no, 12 yes, 10 “sometimes”

What were wives’ earnings?  10 “uncertain”, average around 2s. 6d.a week

What wages were they in the habit of receiving?
      3 had 16s. 6d. a week, 2 had 16s.,
28 had 15s. 3 had 14s. 6d., 1 had 14s.,
2 had 12s., 15 had 9s., 4 had 8s.,
5 had 7s., 4 had 1s., 4 had 1s. 1 ½ d. a day and 2 loaves

Weekly expenses rent           Majority 2s. or 2s. 6d.

Weekly expenses bread        Majority 2s. or 3s. 6d.

Weekly expenses meat         Majority 2s. 6d. or 3s.

Weekly expenses tea and     Majority 1s. 6d. or 2s. sugar

Weekly expenses fish            23 spent 6d., 23 spent nothing

Weekly expenses bacon       14 spent 6d. or 8d., 43 spent nothing

Weekly expenses butter        Majority 6d. to 1s.

Weekly expenses potatoes  18 spent 6d., 28 spent nothing

Yearly expenses clothes       17 spent 10s. to 2 pounds, the majority spent little or nothing

Had they a change of dress?  28 had a change of dress, 45 had none

Had they any Sunday clothing? 20 had some, 45 had none

How many shirts had they? 10 had 3 shirts, 54 had 2 shirts, 2 had 1 shirt
How many shoes had they?  27 had 2 pairs, 39 had 1 pair

How much did they spend on drink?     
10 spent 6d. to 2s. a week, 44 gave no return

Did they save any money?    36 answered no, 31 gave no reply

What did they do in case of illness to themselves or their families?  
28 went to the dispensary  

Were they in receipt of alms? Nearly all answered no

Did passers-by give them anything? Nearly all answered no

Did they receive any relief from their parishes?    
56 replied no, 7 received loaves

(the bread is 4 to 7 quartern loaves, the meat is 7 pounds weight, the butter is 2 pounds, potatoes are 3 pounds or nothing)  

“These analyses are not merely the characteristics of the applicants or existent street-orderlies; they are really the annals of the poor in all that relates to their domestic management in regards of meat and clothes, the care of their children, their church-going, education, previous callings, and parish relief. This inquiry is not discouraging as to the character of the poor, and I must call attention to the circumstance of how rarely it is that so large a collection of facts is placed at the command of a public writer.


It will be seen from these statements, how hard the struggle often is to obtain work in unskilled labour and, when obtained, how bare the living. Every farthing earned by such workpeople is necessarily expensed in support of a family, and in the foregoing details we have another proof as to the diminution of the purchasing fund of the country, being in direct proportion to the diminution of wages.


Let it be remembered that, out of 67 labouring men, three-fourths could not afford to buy proper clothing, expending thereupon “little” or “nothing”, and, I may add, because earning little or nothing, and so having scarcely anything to expend.”

(Mayhew, 1851/1861, Vol. II, pp. 264-268)

But there were also “businesses” in the street, which brought in around one Pound per week:

(Mayhew, 1851/1861, Vol. I, plate facing p. 184)

“The coffee stall-keepers usually sell coffee and tea, and some of them cocoa. They keep hot milk in one of the large cans, and coffee, tea, or cocoa in the others. They supply bread and butter, or currant cake, in slices – ham sandwiches, water cresses, and boiled eggs. The price is 1d. per mug, or ½ d. per half-mug, for coffee, tea or cocoa; and ½ d. a slice the bread and butter or cake. The ham sandwiches are 2d. (or 1d.) each, the boiled eggs 1 d., and the water cresses ½ d. the bunch.”

(Vol. I, p. 184)

A fourth volume reports on “Those Who Will Not Work”, and describes the activities of the prostitutes, thieves, swindlers, and beggars (this really is “Dickens’ London”).

The prostitutes in London were estimated to number about 80,000. The income per week was at a maximum of 20 or 30 pounds for those working permanently in theatres, music halls, and gin palaces, to 1 pound for those who had to offer themselves from time to time, because their work gave them very low earnings (seamstresses). The majority of the well-paid women were under the control of men, who received more than the half of the “price”. Many of the women and girls frequented soldiers, sailors, and dock workers. Others lived in sin with men with criminal activities. The prostitutes also made money by stealing from the pockets of their clients. There was also an “industry” of brothel-keepers, and “lodging-house” keepers. 

Thieves made their money from picking pockets, burglary of houses or shops (especially the tills), or picking something from street-stalls or from carts. There may well have been 15,000. Many started at an early age, as abandoned children who had had to find a way to pay for their food. The men often lived in groups in “thieves’ dens”.  The “rookery” in Spitalfields, was of about 400 square yards, and inhabited by about 800 thieves, beggars, and prostitutes. It was a very dangerous place to visit. Associated with the activities of theft, were “dolly shops”, that is, receivers of stolen property; these were often simultaneously dealers in old clothes, and pawnbrokers. In the Metropolitan Police area, there were 163 houses of receivers of stolen goods, 255 public houses (*), 103 beer-shops (*), 154 coffee-shops (*), 101 other suspected houses, 1,076 brothels and houses of ill-fame, and 361 tramps’ lodging-houses; (*) known to be frequented by criminals and prostitutes.

Many goods were stolen from ships on the River Thames and in the Docks, which transported large amounts of merchandise and raw materials. There were “mudlarks”, boys (often orphans) who picked lots of objects from the mud of the Thames: coals, iron and copper objects, pieces of wood, and lengths of rope.

Other illegal activities were: false coinage, embezzlement, forgery, swindling, begging for money, writing begging letters (appears in “Les Misérables”!).  

15.1. The Underclass

There is still another adjustment to be made to the calculation of average wage increases. Up to this point we have not been able to construct the picture of “cotton mills, children badly treated, and very low wages”, since this does not fit with the fact of the general increase in wages. Following we will comment the picture of “Dickens’”, which also does not fit with the figures.

We have here people who do not earn wages, cannot find a job, do not have a home, and do not eat normal quantities of food. A certain percentage are criminals or prostitutes. They do not exist arithmetically, because they do not have normal lives, and are not known to the authorities (except possibly the police). These men, women and children in London are the counterparts of “Les Misérables” in France. 

The important point arithmetically about these people for our argumentation (although the moral side cannot be forgotten), is that if their proportion of the population increased from 1800 to 1840 or to 1860, then the idea of general improvement is not necessarily valid. We were perhaps supposing that 100 % of the population (heads of families) had incomes, and the average of these incomes increased from 25 Pounds to 30 Pounds annually. But if these “Misérables” were 10 % and changed to 20 %, and their income was close to zero, then the average of incomes in the country moved from 22.5 pounds to only 24 Pounds.

We do not know if the percentage of these people increased, but it is certainly probable. There are no official information or comments by visitors about this matter from 1800 to 1840, although obviously there were poor people in London during this period. Reports by professional people who wanted to make changes started about 1840. At the same time the “Novels about the Condition of England” began to appear. These novels by Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli had as their background the horrible working and living in the industrial towns and in London. To be more exact, the novels about the industrial towns in the North started about 1830, and those about the underworld in London about 1840. 

What we should now do is: a) try to quantify the change in percentage of the poor from 1800 to 1860, b) try to find an economic/social reasoning, why the general improvement in this period was accompanied by a probable increase in very poor people, and c) what happened person-by-person, that is, how a poor person in 1800 had a grandson in 1860 who was very poor.

There are no contemporary (or present!) estimations of the percentage of very poor in Charles Dickens’ time, but we can decide on a probable maximum, using three unofficial surveys of homes from the end of the nineteenth century. One was organised by Seebohm Rowntree in York in 1899, visiting all those people who did not themselves have domestic servants. It gave a figure of 27 %of the total population of York, who either had incomes insufficient to cover their minimum necessities of food, rent, and clothing, or had incomes slightly above this “poverty line”. A survey of large parts of London was carried out by Charles Booth in 1886-1891, which showed that 30 %of the inhabitants of London, and 35 %of the East End, were “poor” or “very poor”. He presented a street map, with colours reporting the income/social level; the first two stages were “Lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal” and “Very poor, casual; chronic want”. The third investigation was carried out by Fred Scott in the poorest parts of Manchester, i.e. Ancoats and Salford, in 1899, and reported to the Manchester Statistical Society. He found that 21 % (Ancoats) and 40 % (Salford) did not have regular work. 

It may however be the case that the percentage of the very poor in England (and especially in London) increased from 1850 to 1900.