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British Economic History

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British Economic History

Supervision 4

''Qualitative aspects of living standards, such as the disamenities of urban living, have become the decisive factors in evaluating whether the English working classes benefited from Industrial Revolution''.

Introduction

One of the most controversial issues of British Economic History is the living standards during the industrial revolution. ''Pessimists'' against ''optimists'' oppose their ideas about whether the standards of live during the industrial revolution improved,deteriorated or remained stable. On the one hand,optimists like Jeffrey G.Williamson, held the view that although some workers suffered from harsh working conditions and were working more days,the increase in real wages could offset these disamenities and as a whole,the majority of people lived from 1760 to 1850 benefited from the industrial revolution in terms of standards of life. On the other hand,pessimists like Charles H. Feinstein argued that the living standards of life deteriorated for the working class in early industrialisation. The main difference in the perception of judging the living standards between optimists and pessimists is the distinction between the importance of qualitative and quantitative factors that influenced the lives of workers during industrialisation. On the ''quantitative side'',optimists base the arguments on real wages,life expectancy and on the move to the cities away from the ''idiocy of rural life''.[1] On the ''qualitative side'' pessimists count on more intangible aspects, like political rights,work discipline,hours of work,fertility and infant mortality. To answer to this really controversial issue of standards of life of working class during industrial revolution we have to weight the any qualitative benefits in real wages and to subtract any losses of qualitative factors. For example, could an increase of 20% in real wages,offset a loss of 20% in political rights?In other words,was the significance of real wages in the early 19th and late 18th century the same with nowadays?

Real wages

One of the most typical and predicted ways to estimate the standards of living, is the evaluation of real wages. Williamson argued strongly that real wages increased especially after 1820 for the workers, as a compensation for the harsh conditions that experienced during the their transition from rural to urban areas. Optimists,basing their arguments on the increase of real wages,have concluded that there should not be any debate about the living standards during industrialisation any more. More specific,Williamson and Lindert[2] argue that ''The average worker was much better off in any decade from the 1830s onwards than in any decade before 1820'' while Mokyr[3] supports that:''The long debate between optimists and pessimists.....seems to have been settled recently in favor of the optimists''.As far as the survey of Lindert and Williamson is concerned,they examined farm workers ,middle group workers like cotton spinners,policemen and colliers,artisans which according to their wages they were the highest paid workers,blue collar workers which were the sum of the three previous categories of workers,white collar employees like doctors and school masters and finally all workers together which came from the sum of Blue and White Collar employees. This survey showed a huge increase of 80% in real wages between 1820 and 1850.More specifically,skilled workers do the best with almost 50% increase in their real wages from 1750 to 1850,something which is quite predictable since the demand for skilled workers was very high during the industrial revolution. However,it seems that this model suffers of some problems. First,this model does not include self-employed workers like miners and glass makers. Also, it examines only the wages of adult male employees, which understates the living standards determined at a household level. This happens because during that era women and children were working as well. Thus,if the estimation of real wages is calculated at a household level,automatically the increase in real wages is not as high as it is shown by the survey of Horrell and Humphries.[4] However,even after this survey the increase of real wages remained significant. In addition,something else that moderated more the conclusions of optimists, were the new points of view about the cost of living during the industrial revolution. In this context,the new consumer price index created by Feinstein,[5]used more accurate rent series and contained data on candles,coal and clothing, which moderated more the fall of prices after the Napoleonic Wars. As a result,the new estimated decline in prices was 37% percent instead of 51% percent calculated by Lindert and Williamson which in turn moderated the increase in real wages and purchasing power between 1820 and 1850.Furthermore,since less and less women and children continued working,and in the same time the population increased (rising fertility),the wage dependency increased as well and the autonomy gone lost. All these, led Feinstein to mention:''On these estimates the average worker gained no clear-cut benefit in the form of real wages......from 1790 to 1840.Only after there were significant gains made''.

Qualitative Factors

As it is mentioned in the introduction,the qualitative factors was an argument of the pessimists against optimists' arguments which concerned the increase in nominal wages. Pessimists argue that if nominal wages are ''deflated'' by qualitative factors,then this increase in wages will not be so significant.

Working Hours

The industrial revolution has been synonymous with long hours of arduous toil often by children and women who were working under unhealthy conditions. The working years in 'Europe's dark satanic mills' were the longest recorded in human history and compared to these,the working week in the Third World Today seems to be short. The question that rises immediately is if these exhausting working schedules existed before the Industrial Revolution or created as a consequence of the higher demand of labour force during industrialisation. Unfortunately,the figures for working hours before the Industrial Revolution are very rare and pre-industrial societies seem to had irregular hours of work. This increase in working hours during industrialisation can be explained by the fact that factories in order to be more competent had to intensify the production which in turn led to more consistent hours of work. The same applies for the agricultural sector since capitalist agriculture requires more discipline among the labour force. Voth[6] in 2001 using court records of the Old Bailey in London,concluded that male workers in 1830 and in 1850 were working more than their great-grandparents did in 1760.Voth also found that hours of work increased by maybe 23% but they remained at this level before they start falling again. This increase however was not a result of bigger working days,but it seems that people were working more days during the year. This happened in general because days that were synonymous with days of leisure during the middle of the 18th century,became days of regular work during the early 19th century. Moreover,in the late 18th century, women and probably children started working less,and the increase in the working hours of males maybe is explained by their effort to offset the declining participation in the labor force of women and children. All the above imply that people,especially male workers,were working more during the Industrial Revolution. So,if the opportunity cost of working more is the loss of leisure,then any gains in consumption seem to disappear (Voth,2001).Also,any increase in real wages would be overstated if this increase is attributed to the increase of working hours per year.

Consumption

It seems that the figures for consumption do not provide significant support for the views of optimists. One would logically assume,that when the income of people increases, there should be a significant increase in the consumption of semi-luxury or luxury goods. However,Joel Mokyr found out in his survey,that the consumption of some luxury goods like tea,coffee,sugar and tobacco represented only a small share of total expenditure of the households. This survey showed that the imports per inhabitant for tobacco remained stagnant,while consumption of sugar and tea increased only after the Napoleonic wars. It is important to mention that sugar was used broadly in many goods like jams,biscuits and in combination with the decline in its price it was expected to be consumed much more. None the less,consumption of sugar increased only by 14% between 1790 and the second half of the 19th century,and the respective figure for tea is 2.3%.Only the consumption of tobacco doubled after 1820s. In brief,it seems that with tobacco as an exception,the consumption was really low from 1800 to 1830.After 1830,consumption begins to improve,but only after 1850 it improves significantly.

Political and Civil Rights and Freedom of the Press

It is clearly desirable to judge the living standards during industrialisation not only in terms of GDP per person,but to examine also other factors like economic welfare or quality of life. As Crafts mentions,in the early years of industrialisation,income and real wages remained really modest,life expectancy and heights improved,whereas civil rights deteriorate. After 1830 when the real wages improved significantly,mortality conditions worsened,heights declined but civil rights improved. This shows the connection of civil rights with real wages and with other factors like height and mortality. In addition,the extent to which people can decide for their leaders and the extend to which they can express their ideas publically without fear,it is an argument by itself for whether rights of people should be a factor for judging standards of life or not. Although it is very difficult to quantify the civil rights,it seems that by the later eighteenth century,there was an independence of the judiciary and the law was oriented to the direction of limiting the authorities not to rely on coercive power. This changed in the period between French Revolution and 1820s,a period which was characterised by the severe repression of workers' rights reflected in the Combination Acts and the use of military forces to suppress popular disturbances. From 1830 to 1850,this situation seems to reverse,and more advances for the working class established,like trade unions,cooperative and friendly societies. Comparing to other 11 European countries plus US,Britain seems to have good established civil rights and scores equal first along with the three Scandinavian countries in this sector.[7] Press was substantially influenced by the government and suppressed with high taxation and the law of seditious libel. Pressure on the press was even higher in times of social suppression like for example the period of 'six Acts' in 1819.However,the reduction in stamp duty after 1836 and the right for defense of truth against a charge of criminal libel,led to the increase of newspaper circulation and to the creation of radical organs like the Chartist Northern Star (1837)

Conclusion

The fact that there is still the debate between pessimists and optimists,indicates that neither side could provide unambiguous arguments to support its views. On the one side of the coin,pessimists argue that any increase in the real wages occurred because of the increase in working hours in unhealthy,dark and disease-ridden environment. Apart from this,the transition from rural areas to industrialised cities with high mortality and especially infant mortality,reduced more any benefits from higher real wages. On the other side of the coin,very hardly can anyone not be optimist in the long run. The period of 1750-1850 allowed Britain to escape from Malthusian constraints and become a modern industrial country. In my opinion,an individual can judge the standards of life of the working class during industrial revolution according to his/her own beliefs of what really is significant. If the most important is the real wages,then for sure optimists would ''win'' in this debate ,whereas if what really matters is the quality of the environment in which one grows then the opposite would happen. It is the eternal dispute between quality and quantity. There will always be fanatic supporters of both sides.

Bibliography

• Some dimensions of the 'quality of life' during the British industrial revolution by N.F.R. Crafts • ''Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution'',by Charles H. Feinstein • Floud/Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain,Volume 1 • Urban Disamenities Dark Satanic Mills,and the British Standard of Living Debate • Lecture notes of Sarah Horrell
-----------------------
[1] Floud/Johnson, The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain,Volume 1
[2] English Workers' Living Standards During the Industrial Revolution:A New Look by Peter H .Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson
[3] Is there still Life in the Pessimists Case?Consumption during the Industrial Revolution, 1790-1850,by Joel Mokyr
[4] S. Horrell and J. Humphries (1983) ''English Workers' Living Standards during the Industrial Revolution:a new look''
[5] ''Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution'',by Charles H. Feinstein
[6] ''The longest years-new estimates of labour input in England,1760-1830'',Journal of Economic HIstory
[7] Some dimensions of the 'quality of life' during the British industrial revolution by N.F.R. Crafts

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