The debate over what happened to the standard of living of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution is contentious and politically-charged. The camps can be divided roughly into pessimists and optimists, both of whom have used a variety of methodological approaches to try and get to the root of the problem. Real wage indexes are beset by problems in their compilation and can never provide a comprehensive picture, and therefore it is helpful to move beyond them and consider other quantitative factors such as heights and total family income, and qualitative factors such as urban disamenities and civil and political rights.1 Indeed, a measurement of heights – which can be taken as a proxy for measuring the nutritional and disease environment – often moves counter to real wages.2 Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of a reliance on real wage data is its over-emphasis on the male experience – women and children often contributed substantially to a household budget through this period, and total family incomes are much more useful in understanding the total resources available to a household in a period when "relatively few" people were completely self-supporting or wholly dependent on a male breadwinner.3 The experience of both genders and all ages needs to be considered across their entire lifetime, as does the very length of this life – people might consume more per annum but less per lifetime if urban disamenities shortened their length of life.4 No single unifying factor emerges as providing a 'definite' answer to the question of what happened to quality of life, but by considering them in aggregate and in relation to each other a picture can be constructed. New methodologies complement rather than supersede earlier work.
Nominal wage movements are notoriously difficult to establish because much payment took place in kind during this period. Fluctuations in amounts of food or small beer allowed to agricultural labourers would not be recorded in wage books, and the line between embezzlement and theft was constantly redrawn according to exogenous economic conditions.5 Furthermore, a shift towards higher wages might indicate that people were getting fewer perquisites, and their overall condition may not have improved at all. Women and children working in proto-industry would typically be paid by a piece rate which is hard to quantify, and Lindert and Williamson are able to offer only a "tentative conclusion" on the wage movements of women and children.6 Lastly, regional differentials must be taken into account – it cannot be assumed that there was an 'urban' wage and a 'rural' wage, because both would vary massively between different locations. This was especially true before a national market emerged and while a sharp dichotomy existed in the labour market between the South and North. Specific regions could be hit by structural or exogenous economic factors that would usher in periods of hardship or prosperity, the former having taken place with the Lancashire cotton famine of 1861 - 65. Areas with a more generous poor law union will look particularly bleak if we focus only on nominal wages.
The progression to establishing real wages is hardly less fraught with difficulty. Establishing trends in real wages requires that we compile a cost of living index, which is usually done by considering a 'basket' of goods and giving relative weightings to each good.7 Feinstein claims to have done a more comprehensive job than Lindert and Williamson, and he includes a much broader base of rent data in his series and adjusts downwards for unemployment. But there are considerable methodological difficulties with this approach per se, such as the sources of data used. Most prices are based on institutional and wholesale prices, which tend to be sticky over a long period of time and lower because of economies of scale available to the manufacturer. Feinstein claims that wholesale prices often mirror retail ones over time, but fails to take into account other factors of production which might force shops to raise their prices such as the price of labour or rent. A rise in wholesale prices is very likely to be reflected in a rise of retail prices: but it is not the only influence on them. These prices are also often derived from London, and although a national market was emerging in the period under question it was far from complete – goods in the provinces were likely to be more expensive due to the cost of transporting them. Finally, there is difficulty in knowing how to weight the various goods as different households likely placed more emphasis on some goods than their neighbours. This aspect is especially susceptible to change as the members of a household move through their life-cycle.
Real wage series do provide a useful measure of the wealth of households (in proportion to their accuracy), but other inputs into a household budget were important. Daunton points out that in a London parish in 1848 23% of family income came from women and children, and in a Staffordshire parish in 1790 the figure was 30%.8 By focusing only on real wages series of adult males we assume that the number of dependents they provided for remained the same and that the earning opportunities of women and children went unaltered.9 Both these assumptions are unwarranted. Firstly, the massive population growth which took place in this period increased the number of dependents in a household – both because of an increased number of children and because women were forced out of the labour market by chauvinist trade unions and "protective" legislation when it was saturated.10 Humphries and Horrell believe there was a decline in the participation rate of women and children in the economy due to this saturation of the labour market, especially in the agricultural South. Only in the case of outworkers and "factory families" did women and children play a significant role in the household income as the period wore on, so we need to examine trends in participation on a regional and occupational basis. Any national figure we can compile will depend on the various weightings we ascribe to each occupation and region, and for this reason can be considered misleading – much better to look at specific instances.
A final critique of wage data concerns the issues of unemployment and underemployment, which links into the notion of the leisure preference. Our appreciation of household income will be skewed unless we recognise changes in the number of hours worked by each member a week. There is considerable difficulty in establishing data for this, as wage books are few and not representative. Although there was moral condemnation from the clergy and upper classes of the supposed idleness of the poor, the fact this was often coupled with complaints they were aping their betters suggests they were experiencing a rise in disposable income which could be attributed to a longer working week. Jan de Vries has suggested that this stems from the increased marginal utility of wages vs. leisure time because consumer goods were proliferating across the country, so people could increase their quality of life by purchasing them.11 Voth has concluded that "higher levels of consumption were bought at the expense of leisure", which suggests this was not an unadulterated good for the working classes.12 He argues that work was a disamenity and that goods were only an amenity when combined with leisure time, which was declining. Jan de Vries has argued that increased labour was a conscious change based on the "household evaluation of the marginal utility of money income vs. leisure time", suggesting that the workers of the period made a rational decision to engage in the market rather than being forced to.13 This is contentious, and an understanding of this aspect of the quality of life largely depends on how much weight is given to the claim that people resented the loss of traditional working patterns. Voth's estimate that labour input per worker increased by twenty to twenty three per cent in the period 1760 to 1831 without subsequently declining seems to suggest that Vries is correct, and that once the new socially-determined level of income was attained it was defended by a continuation of intensive work practices.
A different approach to assessing standard of living is to look at changes in heights over time. Heights reflect elements of living standards which are not captured in real wages, such as work effort and the disease environment. For this reason they are especially good at assessing the impact of urbanisation, which came accompanied by disamenities such as overcrowding, disease and poor access to food. Height data that appears representative of the general working class population has been compiled by Nicholas and Oxley from the statures of criminals transported to New South Wales.14 They compare the English and Irish data to gain an understanding of the peculiarly English pace of urbanisation, and discover the valuable insight that people in English towns are shorter than those in rural areas, but that this is not so in Ireland. Thus it seems that English urbanisation is accompanied by specifically extreme disamenities, as is corroborated by Szreter and Mooney’s study of urban mortality rates.15 A study of regional differences in statures was extended further by Floud, Wachter and Gregory, and they establish a chronology of height changes in London, large cities and rural areas.16 They are able to show that despite relatively high levels of nominal wages in London, people were generally shorter here than elsewhere due to "disease, unemployment, crowding and the high costs of living". By 1840s they argue that other cities had begun to take on the characteristics of the metropolis and that a divergence between heights in these places and London occurred.17 In doing so they establish a very valuable heuristic for looking at disamenities in urban areas.
As with the debate over 'leisure preference', we must understand the attitudes of working class people at the time to gain an insight into whether they considered higher urban wages to be a worthwhile compensation for the disamenities suffered. Lindert and Williamson warn us of applying 20th century standards to the urban workforce, pointing out that they chose to move in large numbers to the unhealthy cities such as Liverpool and Manchester.18 These cities were characterised by a high mortality regime, with expectation of life at birth there in the 1850s and 1860s a full ten years below the national average, which was 41.19 An analysis of mortality is particularly pursuant to the question of standard of living because a life that is truncated early does not provide as much opportunity for overall enjoyment. The evidence for urban areas in this period is pessimistic, especially in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The eight largest cities and London contained 26.8% of the population of England, and the effect of urbanisation on their expectation of life at birth was stark – they were all below the national average in the period 1851 – 1901. One particularly interesting conclusion to emerge from this approach is that a large city did not necessarily imply a higher mortality rate – Birmingham was relatively healthy and the smaller Newcastle had a lower expectation of life at birth than Bristol. As suburbs grew and attained the population density of inner-city areas, they still remained healthier. This suggests other factors were at play and need to be analysed, such as residential segregation based on class.20
Other approaches to standard of living stress capabilities rather than just incomes. The U.N. Human Development Index (HDI) has three strands – longevity, knowledge and income. Income is seen as making a diminishing contribute to the index beyond a certain point, when longevity and knowledge become more important. This is important, because increased choice in how to spend a life can be seen as increasing the standard of living. It also highlights the dichotomy between the male and female experience already mentioned – the Gender Development Index (GDI) improves over the period, but not as drastically as HDI. This is ascribed to falling female wage rates due to decreased participation in the labour market – their choices have declined.21 HDI provides a more optimistic picture, with literacy and time spent in education increasing across the period. So long as people have the money to take advantage of their increased knowledge, this points to an increased standard of living. The problems with HDI are that the weightings given to the three components can seem arbitrary and may not accurately reflect the concerns of citizens at this time. It can also be criticised for not including rights in the civil and political spheres – something that we now consider an essential component of standard of living.
The Dasgupta and Weale (hereafter DW) index is even more comprehensive. It takes into account per caput income, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality, adult literacy rate and indexes of political and civil rights. This would seem to be fairly comprehensive, but the weighting problem persists. Judgement on whether the index improves over the period are based on the weightings given to each part of the calculation, with particular controversy emerging between 1830 and 1850. Because of the rise in mortality after 1830, the index is not at its optimum point in 1850. We cannot ascribe accurate weightings to each part of the calculation unless we know exactly what people valued during this time period – and the task is further complicated by the fact this would surely vary between individuals. The DW index is hence useful taken in this context, especially when disaggregated down into its individual components. But the civil and political right indexes are especially contentious, because they may be thought not to accurately reflect the expectations of citizens during the period. The political index is based on the degree of democracy present in society and the civil index based on freedom of the press – traits we consider "modern" but may be anachronistic when applied to this time.
It is very hard to establish a definitive measure of the standard of living during this period, as the continuation of the debate proves. Each approach is useful in its own way, but must be interpreted in the light of what we understand of the expectations and desires of British citizens during the period. By taking all the data together we can measure trends in purchasing power, the independence of women and children based on their own wages, the disamenities which accompanied living in an urban environment and the opportunities people had for education, as well as the opportunities for expressing this in the public sphere or a free press. But we must not let national aggregate figures hide the fact that during the century specific regions were hit with hardship that might exceed the general national experience. The process of urbanisation and industrialisation was one that shook society to its core, and effected different groups in different ways. Studies of the standard of living in particular regions and occupations provide us with more useful information, and in aggregate help us to build up a picture of the national experience.
1. N.F.R Crafts, 'Some dimensions of the 'quality of life' during the British Industrial Revolution', Economic History Review, 1997.
2. R. Floud, K. Wachter and A. Gregory, Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the UK, 1750 – 1980
3. M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty
4. P. Lindert and J.G. Williamson, 'English workers' living standards during the Industrial Revolution: a new look', Economic History Review, 1983.
5. M. Daunton, loc. cit.
6. Lindert and Williamson, op. cit.
7. C. Feinstein, 'Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution', Journal of Economic History, 1998 ; Lindert and Williamson, op. cit.
8. M. Daunton, op. cit.
9.J. Humphries and S. Horrell, 'Women's labour force participation and the transition to the male-breadwinner family, 1790 – 1865', Economic History Review, 1995.
11. Jan de Vries, 'Between purchasing power and the world of goods: understanding the household economy in early modern Europe' in R Porter and J. Brewer (ed.), Consumption and the World of Goods.
12. J. Voth, Time and Work in England, ch. 5
13. Jan de Vries, op. cit.
14. Nicholas and Oxley, 'The living standards of women during the Industrial Revolution, 1795 – 1820', Economic History Review, 1993.
15. S. Szreter and G. Mooney, 'Urbanisation, mortality and the standard of living debate', Economic History Review, 1998.
16. R. Floud, K. Wachter and A. Gregory, Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the UK, 1750 – 1980
17. Ibid., pp. 200 - 206
18. Lindert and Williamson, op. cit.
19. Szreter and Mooney, op. cit.
21. Crafts, op. cit.
N.F.R Crafts, 'Some dimensions of the 'quality of life' during the British Industrial Revolution', Economic History Review, 1997.
R. Floud, K. Wachter and A. Gregory, Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the UK, 1750 – 1980
M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty
P. Lindert and J.G. Williamson, 'English workers' living standards during the Industrial Revolution: a new look', Economic History Review, 1983.
C. Feinstein, 'Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution', Journal of Economic History, 1998
J. Humphries and S. Horrell, 'Women's labour force participation and the transition to the male-breadwinner family, 1790 – 1865', Economic History Review, 1995.
Jan de Vries, 'Between purchasing power and the world of goods: understanding the household economy in early modern Europe' in R Porter and J. Brewer (ed.), Consumption and the World of Goods.
J. Voth, Time and Work in England
Nicholas and Oxley, 'The living standards of women during the Industrial Revolution, 1795 – 1820', Economic History Review, 1993.
S. Szreter and G. Mooney, 'Urbanisation, mortality and the standard of living debate', Economic History Review, 1998.
R. Floud, K. Wachter and A. Gregory, Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the UK, 1750 – 1980.