The eighteenth century is often described as the Age of Enlightenment. Europe was experiencing a period of social, political and intellectual spawning. This title refers to Europe because it was put into effect on a broad scale by several ideas from the previous 100 years. Prior to the Industrial revolution, basic capitalism existed in Europe in forms of contracts, wealth accumulation or private property. The introduction of the revolution fuelled innovation to create a system of capitalism that was, to an extent, more modern. Supposedly during this transformation, Britain led the way becoming familiar with things like widespread credit, large scale stock markets, and investments, but in more recent times, economic historians have discussed the speed of the transformation and whether the industrial revolution was really one.
It is agreed by most historians that an industrial revolution did of course happen but talks concerning exactly what constitutes an industry of ‘revolution’ have been studied. Was it exclusively British? Was it primarily industrial? If we assume that there was a revolution, putting its rapidness aside, we might ask ourselves, ‘what exactly did we learn from it?’ These questions are just a mere portion of ideas concerning this topic, which will be interpreted as part of the main idea within the body of this essay. In attempt to try and answer some of these questions, traces of change in Britain will be made out through living standards: did working classes material life get worse for most, or all of them between 1750 and 1850? Who exactly benefitted from the industrial revolution: was the gap between the highest and lowest incomes widening or narrowing, and when? Again, an investigation on the standards of living to understand the progress of the revolution will be made through mortality and height measurements, real wages and the distribution of income based on Peter H. Linderts chapter and research in the Economic History of Britain in the 1700’s. This topic will also investigate England’s established poor relief policies between 1750-1850.
The role of the government plays a key role in society during this time. It is important to know that how they treated people 200 years ago had a huge influence on how the industrial revolution was shaped and who truly received the short end of the stick. Gaps between the rich and poor were said to show signs of little to no improvements, and concern about inequality will be touched on in greater detail throughout this essay.
Before exploring workers, absolute living standards, and indicating workers suffering of well-being, we must first look at the differences between indicators. Indicators that appear to be more obvious from these living standards to help understand the living standards in depth are for example, how long they lived, the length of time they worked during the day and consumption usage on average; and to get a better result about trends in the long run, specific measures that are related more to workers are real wage rates and quality.
To start, when measuring peoples state of health while living, born in either 1750, 1800 and 1850, length of life as a direct measure is a good starting point. Anyone born in England within those years had an average life expectancy of 40 years or below. Compared to the average life expectancy in Britain today which is about 79, mortality rates in 1750 to 1850 would be deemed shocking by the twenty first century standards. In the cities, overcrowding, a lack of medical knowledge and high rent affected a person’s well-being and caused major health issues and diseases. One in seven babies did not survive until their first birthday, and the ratio of infant mortality was about one in five babies. A census was taken by John Rickerman between 1750 and 1850, which did not show that mortality worsened. However, the trend in mortality did show that it was almost constant and grew at a rapid pace in more urban areas. In rural areas it fell. Studies done by a few economic historians suggested that there was a gain in life expectancy between 1750-1850, but this could easily be misinterpreted. There are two reasons that could explain this. Firstly, the true national average apparently improved far less than a fixed-weighted average of all regions, due to the population shifting from the healthier rural areas into the deadly urban centres. It was secondly not a working-class average based on the true national average (Floud and McCloskey). We define the working-class average as the lower-income of 50 per cent of the population, and as a group whose life expectancy would not have exceeded the national average. The lives of workers may have shortened over the generations, which reflects a warning in which the national average shows no gain. Since parts of the population continued to shift in to the city where mortality was greater, national average could have potentially stayed the same if all areas showed signs of improvements.
Height by age is another health indicator which helps to understand the living standards. The teenage growth spurt differentiates in the timing and extent of a society. Differences in trends show that heights reached by adulthood completely depends on the nature of the individual’s nutrition which corresponds to the general health achieved during childhood. To gain a deeper insight about the health status that the Britons suffered, or enjoyed during their childhood or infancy, it is ideal to know how tall they became. Over time, studies have done this, and the heights of 100,000 males from the Army, Marines, Royal Military, convicts, and the Marine society was taken. Recent studies showed that there was a gradual pace of health improvements before 1850, but the trends between 1750-1850 is uncertain. Men and boy’s height rose slightly from around 1820 to 1840 as well as their life expectancy, but then fell back around the mid-century (Floud et al. 1990). What the study of height, and mortality concludes and agrees on is that before 1850, progress most definitely not have been as rapid as progress in the twentieth-century.
What ever happened to the populations source of income? This concept is a direct indicator amongst the workers in particular. Wage rates for adult men have been heavily studied by twentieth-century scholars who found out what workers were paid, and how much they had to pay to consume goods. Historical records followed adult male wages and work in greater detail than the pay and work of women and children. From their research, the real-wage trend roughly began to increase, keeping in mind variations by region and occupation which is essential. Prior to the 1850 period, real wages did not show signs or progress within the population between 1750 and 1790. In London, workers wealth started to reduce, but increased in the rural south. In the North and midlands, real-wages advanced for workers in trade. This included labourers, bricklayers and carpenters. Coal miners and potters had an even bigger increase. Until the First World War, this pattern held, and the labour demand in the south was favoured. Purchasing power for men improved after 1810, along with national life expectancy, per capita and consumption. If their research is in fact true, the average working man earned more than the average working man in 1810. This is questionable since it is odd to read that a working man in 1851 was better off than their ancestors, especially because 1815-1850 was a valuable time of conflict with the loss of wealth for workers, and 1795 during the harvest failures and disruptions. Parliamentary disclosures of unfair treatment and living conditions for workers in factories outraged the public. Evidence of real-wages show us today that workers living standard probably improved in the nineteenth century, as workers income increased approximately around 1820.
Occupations during the 1800’s are difficult to measure, and the limited data on unemployment for the years before 1856 conceals the trends in workers living standards. We can however try to estimate the seriousness of unemployment and the timing and extent of the lift in workers’ real income thanks to Lindert’s research. We are told that post-war depression, workers’ income may not have risen until 1820 as prices would have decreased. Gains from real-wage were not applicable, as the worst unemployment started around 1820.
Looking back at the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the most worrying features were overcrowding in cities, diseases and pollution in cities and towns, the lack of job variations for workers, harsh conditions in factories, and traditional family roles being disturbed. The measure of England’s standard of living will always have missing data and numbers on income and or consumption, hence why the debate over trends and patterns in workers well-being and health is prolonged. Quality of life compared to the purchasing power of consumption and income can be measured by using people whose welfare is weighed and their values. Lindert makes us think, ‘if workers’ incomes rising and their quality of life is deteriorating, how much did choosing workers income forego so that they could avoid a quality of life that was lower?’ They made their own important decisions on whether to move to the city and the industry they wanted to work in, based on higher wages and living conditions. These living conditions that they moved into, would today be considered as disturbing. By looking at these changes in quality of life through prices that they accepted or did not accept, we find that an obvious change took place in urban and industrial sectors and they were rising. Significant changes also occurred in rural declining, non-industrial sectors and through the population that lived in 1850, as it rose and experienced a time of deterioration. Trends in consumption and life expectancy that are suggested can be clarified through data in real-wages, unemployment, migration and workers values. Through this, we know that yes, there was a period where the country’s state was not moving and workers absolute living standards had shown improvements from 1820 to 1850.
England lead the transformation of industries. Before this, the infamous British laws that came out in the modern age of 1834 was the Poor Law Amendment Act. The reason this came out was to assist and deal with increasing costs of poor relief and as an attempt to have the system reformed from the Elizabethan era. This era was not capable of coping with the industrial revolution and the urbanizations and industrializations that were going on. They sent most of the able-bodied people that needed the poor relief, to appalling factory conditions and living conditions which we have already established. Engagement with the causes of poverty were small as Britain made 2 segregated assumptions of the deserving poor, like those that were old, young or handicapped, and the able-bodied who didn’t have work and were the ‘undeserving’ poor. Demands of the act were basic, but they were not implemented effectively and properly until the 1840s. The timing and start of the poor relief was to do with need. As scarcity of food increased, wages fell. Eventually people began to take a step back and look at what caused poverty, instead of reacting to unemployment and allowance system ideas. More generous rural poor relief assisted in prevention of emigration and the malnutrition that workers needed when it was time to harvest. Due to the return of peace in Europe, the costs of the poor relief initially decreased, and increased again as population rose.
Before living standards rose by a substantial amount after 1820, the absolute living standards of the English (Britain) workers stagnated between 1750 and 1850. Gains did not become clear until around 1818, government intervention/parliamentary debate over workers and the conditions they had to work in started. Was it a revolution perhaps? As we have stated already, Europe in fact did go through a period of growth after up to about 1760, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the industrial revolution. Although it pushed millions into cities, it did create a leeway and allowed people to live in other places that were in demand of workers. Succeeding generations of workers within the last era showed that they did not live any better than their great grandparents etc, on the average of the earlier period in 1750-1820. A view of when England industrialised and the standard of living in an earlier era has been getting more attention. In fact, in Britain, inequality between the rich and poor and concerns about this issue was centred there. Can we trust the data? Although it may be a rough estimate, Britons were unequal in wealth. In the era of 1750-1815, there was most likely an earlier increase of inequality which is still debatable. The response to poverty by England was distinguished. The share of national product given to the poor in the late eighteenth-century rose about 2%. Aid and other support remained at the same level until the Poor Law Reform of 1834. Up until later when the First World War, the Poor Relief only amounted up to half of the share of national product. There was however indications of a slight trend and pattern. By this time the Poor Relief was more giving in the country side rather than in cities that were expanding and developing in growth. This growth was more evident in the East and the South.
To solve the mystery of what happened to living standards and inequality requires detail. Goodwill within people differed dramatically then, as opposed to now. Not only because of values but also because it was hard to know what happened to diverse groups. From what is talked about in the body of the essay, we clearly have better information at hand now. We now know that 1) workers living standards showed no clear progress before 1820 2) wealth and incomes were unequally distributed 3) inequality could possibly have risen in the late 18th century and early nineteenth and 4) A greater share of national product was distributed by the British government to the poor between 1780-1834.
Finally, to conclude my findings drawn from the standard of living in Britain during the reformation of the industrial revolution, the question to conclude is, who did benefit the most from the industrial revolution? I believe that many people benefited immensely from the Industrial Revolution, for example the middle class (had at least one servant). Because they were so wealthy, the lived in outer suburbs and had larger houses which meant they were further away from the poor. However, some people didn’t. The working class was heavily affected due to a high exposure of disease-filled areas, lack of medicine, which allowed very little to no growth.
Lindert, P. H. (1983). English workers’ living standards during the industrial revolution: a new look. Economic History Review 36: 1-25 in Roderick Floud and D. N. McCloskey (eds.), The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 103 – 127, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Lindert, P. H. (1985a). English workers’ real wages: a reply to Crafts. Journal of Economic History: The age of mercantilism, vols, 2 and 3 in Roderick Floud and D. N. McCloskey (eds.), The Economic History of Britain since 1700, 103 – 127, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Kelly, Morgan, O Grada, Cormac, and Mokyr, Joel (2013). Precocious Albion: A New Interpretation of a British Industrial Revolution, UDC Centre for Economic Research Working Paper Series, WP 13/11.