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Inequality needs to be put at the heart of our understanding of social change during the industrial revolution

By Josh Allen - May 14, 2018 (0 comments)

by Prof. Emma Griffin (University of East Anglia)

For the past decade, I have been looking at the impact of the British industrial revolution on the lives of ordinary men, women and children, drawing upon life-writing and autobiography and focusing on the lived experience. My reading of the autobiographical evidence suggested that adult men working in industrial occupations earned higher wages and enjoyed a raft of advantages compared with those who remained on the land, and although I emphasised these gains were not shared by women and children, the suggestion that industrialisation brought any meaningful benefits to any segment of the working classes, nonetheless proved to be controversial.

A collection of extraordinary working-class household budgets collected between 1790 and 1850, offered the promise of studying the living standards of the early industrial workforce in a more quantitative way than was possible with the working-class autobiographies. The budgets were recorded by gentlemen investigators – vicars, landowners, and other members of elite society with an interest in the lives their poorer neighbours. The investigators collected information about income and expenditure in selected households in their parishes, making it possible to compare the incomes and diets of those who lived in the industrial heartlands with those who lived in more traditional, rural communities as yet unaffected by the industrial revolution.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I analysed and compared the diets consumed by the different social groups, the difference between the communities was stark. Family incomes were significantly higher in the industrial districts, which enabled the families to enjoy diets that contained more meat, more dairy produce, and more imported items, such as tea, coffee and sugar. In the rural areas, by contrast, male wages and family incomes were much lower – less than half the level earned in industrial areas. As a result, these families consumed a far more limited diet, composed largely of bread, with very small quantities of bacon and diary, and very little else. My analysis appeared to show that the early industrial areas, so often depicted as places of extreme poverty and deprivation, in fact offered workers higher wages and the opportunity to consume a better diet.

When I began presenting elements of this work in academic seminars and conferences, however, I received a mixed, and often very critical, reception – particularly from economic historians, among whom the belief that the industrial revolution did not improve living standards is very widely held. As these critics were likely to be the gatekeepers to the world of academic publishing, I realised that I would have to rethink the evidence and get to the root why my results from the budget data were at odds with so much recent writing about living standards during the industrial revolution.

I decided to explore whether the large collection of autobiographies which I had previously worked with (and could readily access) could be used to shore up my findings. Of course, autobiographers did not provide comparable information about family incomes and food expenditure, but they did frequently write about the experience of hunger, and so offered the possibility of thinking about access to food from a different perspective. I resolved to work through all of the autobiographies – around 350 in all – for references to hunger, and analyse the context and causes of every instance.

But the endeavour threw up a number of surprises, and did not support my initial findings in the straightforward way I had hoped for. The evidence for the families living in agricultural communities was the easiest to interpret. Here, as we might expect given the evidence from the food budgets, hunger was endemic and widespread. Around 40 percent of all the autobiographical writers recalled a specific moment in their life when they had lacked food to the point of going hungry. The experience was most common in childhood, but it did occur in adulthood as well. In almost every case, it was caused by low family incomes: when individuals went hungry it was because their household lacked the money to purchase adequate rations for all.

In the industrial context, however, the evidence was far more ambiguous. The overall rate of hunger was lower, just as the family budget data would indicate. But with hunger being mentioned by 20 percent of the industrial writers, it was still far from eliminated. Most surprising of all, however, was the cause of these writers’ hunger, as their lack of food did not appear to be directly related to their family income. In most instances, the father in fact earned a relatively good wage. The problem was that their families did not see very much of that money, as it was spent before it ever reached his wife for housekeeping. Such behaviour by male breadwinners was virtually unknown in rural areas, but affected a significant minority of families in the industrial regions, and explained almost every instance of hunger in the examples I surveyed. Had male wage earners shared their earnings as consistently and reliably as the agricultural workers did, hunger would have been eliminated. Instead, it remained a significant social problem, affecting one in five of all families.

I had never imagined that the story told by two different sets of data – food budgets and autobiographies – could be so divergent. Yet they were, and the significance of this goes beyond the standard of living debate.

Economic historians, who objected to my initial results because they failed to conform to those from other recent quantitative studies, had prompted me reanalyse the data. The new results were certainly closer to what they might have expected, but the process threw up some deeply worrying implications for the methods of economic historians. The budget data is presented as numbers in tables, and as a conscientious quantitative researcher, I had carefully entered all those numbers into my computer programme. Yet the procedure had led me to error – to exaggerate the quality of the diets eaten in industrial areas. What had gone wrong?

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The budget data might be presented numerically, but it was still loaded with the social and cultural assumptions of the men who collected it; and when I entered their data into my database, I entered all their assumptions too. The investigators had always assumed that men handed all their wages over to their wives for housekeeping money and that the contents of the family’s weekly food basket was therefore determined by the sum of his earnings. The autobiographies could not be quantified in the same way as the budget data, but they did shed light on how families really behaved, and indicated that this process of transfer from male breadwinner to female housewife was much more complex and uncertain than the investigators ever reported. Economic history might aspire to rigorous quantitative analyses, but the use of numbers does not void the problems surrounding the need to understand the messy social and cultural context within which the historical record was created.

The research also forced me to reconsider the complex relationship between rising wealth and individual outcomes. I have long believed that industrialisation led to more wealth entering the hands and households of working people, and the evidence suggests that it did. But comparing the different sources also suggests that a more nuanced reading of this process is necessary. The nation’s rising wealth made some workers richer, but it also created new forms of inequality. Historians are accustomed to looking for inequality between different classes, but my evidence suggests another place we need to look: higher wages triggered greater inequality within families as well. Economic growth and wealth creation was not a simple, unambiguous good. Families and individuals gained in highly uneven ways and inequality needs to be put at the heart of our understanding of social change during the industrial revolution.

A Ghost Army of Ancestors

By Josh Allen - April 27, 2018 (0 comments)

by Dr. Song-Chuan Chen (University of Warwick)

Located in Taipei, the voluminous records on tomb protections in the Academia Sinica archives, piqued my curiosity. It was 2009, and I was leafing through a collection of Qing dynasty foreign office documents when my attention was arrested by accounts of Chinese villagers ardently protecting ancestral tombs against Western encroachment during the closing decades of China’s last dynasty.

The villagers’ tears and protests against tomb destruction conjured personal memories of growing up on a remote outer island of Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s where an old evolving tradition of ancestor worship escaped the disruption of modernity. In those days, my mother faithfully prepared annual rituals of ancestor worship during important festivals, and my father careful maintained his father’s tomb, to which he has a deep attachment. To him, the tomb provided a physical connection to his father, whose remains lay just beneath the earth. Because my father and brother believed that my career was not going anywhere (in fact I have been not a day without employment even before graduation), they sought to improve my fortunes in 2011 by trimming the overgrown Acacia trees surrounding the burial site. In their minds, the tomb’s feng shui holds a particular significance to my life. At the same time and entirely by coincidence, I was in Bristol writing the paper “The Power of Ancestors” and thinking more about obtaining a permanent teaching position. Even though my family and I are half a world apart, the completion of my PhD deepened their belief in feng shui. I allow them—and myself half-heartedly—to maintain this belief system that I have known my whole life merely by growing up in that world.

This map by an unknown Chinese artist of the nineteenth century depicts the 1874 incident in which Chinese protesters were gunned down by French policemen. (Picture source, Collectif, Le Paris de l’Orient : Présence française à Shanghai 1849-1946, Musée Albert Kahn, 2002, 44

The title “The Power of Ancestor” had different origins altogether. When I finished reading the thousand pages of archival materials that I had gathered, an image came into mind that encapsulated how I imagined villagers across China fighting against foreign encroachment to protect ancestral tombs during the second half of the nineteenth century: The Army of the Dead in the movie The Lord of the Rings. These ghosts of the White Mountains, cursed to dwell in the cold and darkness, were summoned by Aragorn, the Heir of Isildur, using a sword re-forged by elves that allowed him to command this soulless army. Swiftly levelling battlefield enemies to lift the siege of Minas Tirith, the ghost army was vital to Aragorn’s victory. No sooner was the battle won than he released them from their curse. The story helped me visualise how tombs, ancestor worship, and the concept of feng shui played a role in China’s foreign relations. The deceased Chinese, while nowhere near as powerful as the ghost army of the White Mountains, succeeded in assisting the Qing patriots in expelling Westerners from tomb land.

The more I have researched this history, over seven years on and off, the more I have realised how the Qing’s bureaucratic officials, who were the most talented men of the Qing empire, played a key role in limiting the power of the ancestors. They were no Aragorns. Their weapons were not swords but brush and ink. Rather than summoning the power of the ancestors as a weapon, they negotiated peaceful interactions between the village believers and the foreign community—and thus dissipated the latent force that stemmed from the belief system.

The power of ancestors has subsequently been subjected to modernity’s onslaught in the twentieth century. Yet, the ghosts of the ancestors live on. Even though tombs in China under the communist regime have experienced greater destruction than ever before, the religious system is alive and well—and edging its way into urban space and modernity in unimaginable ways of reinvention. It was not what it was, but it is as it has always been.

Introducing Manuscript Pamphleteering in Early Stuart England

By Josh Allen - April 24, 2018 (0 comments)

by Dr. Noah Millstone and Dr. Richard Bell (University of Birmingham)

Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, England developed a large, influential and often radical pamphlet literature. Speeches, learned briefs, and scaffold apologies joined character assassinations, secret histories and conspiracy theories in a jumbled literary underground. Our two-day interdisciplinary conference will explore the scope and significance of this literature, considering both the scale and significance of scribal production in a period of political, religious and social turmoil. It will also introduce a forthcoming database of over four hundred texts that will enable scholars to understand better the production and circulation of pre-Civil War political writing.

The conference will take place at the University of Birmingham (in conjunction with the British Library and UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies) between 29th and 30th June 2018. Speakers include: Dr Victoria Anker, Dr Richard Bell, Professor David Como, Dr Alexandra Gajda, Dr Emily Jennings, Professor Peter Lake, Professor Julia Merritt, Dr John Reeks, Dr Richard Serjeantson, Dr Laura Stewart, Dr Angus Vine and Dr Alison Wiggins.

Past & Present logo, 2017 all rights reserved

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. Applications are welcomed from scholars of at all career stages working on all time periods.

Introducing "Negotiating Networks: new research on networks in social and economic history"

By Josh Allen - April 11, 2018 (0 comments)

by Charlie Berry (IHR) and Esther Lewis (University of Nottingham)

On 25th June 2018, the Institute of Historical Research will host a one-day conference showcasing the latest research by social and economic historians who study networks and employ techniques of Social Network Analysis (SNA).

The conference is co-organised by two PhD students, Esther Lewis (University of Nottingham) and Charlie Berry (Institute of Historical Research). Esther and Charlie specialise in late medieval social history and met at the 2017 Harlaxton Medieval Symposium. We both use SNA to investigate aspects of urban social life and got chatting about the challenges and rewards of such an approach.

Facade of Senate House ( by Josh Allen, all rights reserved)

Social Network Analysis has become increasingly popular amongst social and economic historians as part of their ‘digital toolkit’, alongside other methodologies borrowed or adapted from the social sciences such as GIS. Whilst the language of network theory has been familiar to historians since the 1980s, the advent of readily available SNA software such as QGIS has hastened its adoption as a methodology for primary research in recent years.

We have both seen significant benefits to the use of SNA in our research, but recognise that there are some real challenges to its adoption. Network research takes place across a wide range of sub-disciplines, so we have put together a conference programme which deliberately breaks down barriers of periodisation and sub-discipline with the aim of introducing scholars to the full range of potential uses for the methodology. Papers range from the social networks of nineteenth-century prostitutes to early modern networks of overseas trade via the Danish Sound.

Negotiating Networks will also provide a space where scholars at all career stages, from research students to senior academics, can join the conversation about the potential for network analysis. Thanks to the generosity of Past and Present and the Social History Society, we are offering bursaries for postgraduate and early career scholars to attend the event. We hope Negotiating Networks will start a conversation about best practice in the use of network analysis in historical research.

Registration and a full programme are available via the IHR website

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