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

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.

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