In this term paper we will discuss about the industrial revolution that took place in Britain during 1815-1832.
1. Term Paper on Industrial Revolution:
In the 1780s the British economy began to change very rapidly—at a rate, in fact, unprecedented in the history of the world. This increase of tempo marks the decisive point in the development toward modern industrialized, urbanized society, the point which Rostow has strikingly christened ‘the take-off into self-sustained growth’, after which the progressive exploitation of new sources of power and new techniques has made possible a long-term economic growth-rate once unimaginable but now considered normal.
In order to understand what happened after Waterloo, it is essential to know something about the beginnings of this revolution and to appreciate its significance. Many industries were affected, but three most prominently: coal, iron and cotton. It is thought that coal production rose from about 6,000,000 tons in 1780 to about 25,000,000 tons in 1830. The output of pig-iron in 1788 was estimated at 61,000 tons, in 1806 at 227,000 tons, in 1830 at 700,000 tons.
Most remarkable, in 1790 the cotton industry consumed 5,000,000 lbs. of raw material, in 1800 56,000,000, from 1816 to 1820 an average of 139,000,000 a year, and from 1826 to 1830 an average of over 220,000,000 a year.
It is the story of the cotton industry which is the most significant. An industry which had been of little importance before 1780 was already, around 1815, exporting more, both by value and by volume, than the woolen industry, which had been Britain’s staple since the Middle Ages. In 1830 half the whole value of British exports was made up of cotton manufactures, cotton twist and yarn, despite a great fall in cotton prices and a great rise in total exports.
Not only was it a new industry in the sense that it had virtually grown from nothing in fifty years. It was new in its character. Before 1815 a series of machines had been invented which, made it possible to transform both the process of cotton-picking in the United States and the processes of spinning and weaving in Britain so that production could be vastly increased and costs dramatically reduced.
The essential change in spinning and weaving was the displacement of human motive power. First water-power was applied, then steam-power. A new opportunity now existed for a man who could afford capital outlay on the new machines, and consequently a new social structure emerged in the industry: the capitalist owner set over against a mass of wage-earners who had no share in the property of the enterprise.
Further, it was now desirable to concentrate both the spinning and the weaving, hitherto often conducted at home in the country, into large factories which, when steam-power was applied to the process, were best located in towns. There was naturally a time-lag between the inventions and their widespread application, and different processes were affected at different times. In 1815 weaving was still mainly ‘domestic’.
But spinning was already monopolized by mills, some driven by water but many by steam; and the size of the average steam spinning mill in the chief manufacturing centres, even in 1815-16, was something unprecedented in British industry. Forty-one Glasgow mills averaged 244 workpeople each … and, at New Lanark, Dale and Owen employed over 1600.
In England, the Strutts, at Belper and Millford, had 1494 workpeople. A list of forty-three important mills, in and about Manchester, gave an average employment figure of exactly 300…… In the year of the Reform Bill, a similar list of about the same number of Manchester mills gives a figure of nearly 401.
Power-loom weaving had spread further by 1832, but was still not typical; so at first the other inventions brought into existence, as well as factories, armies of handloom or domestic weavers, a quarter of a million of them in 1830.
Unprecedented also was the widespread application of the motive power of steam in the cotton industry. Steam provided probably three-quarters of its inanimate power by the ‘thirties. This had become possible only after successive inventions, again in the late eighteenth century, had improved the old steam pumping-engines, long used in coalmines.
Man thereby acquired a new ‘prime mover’, the first to have been discovered in historic times. He was no longer dependent on rivers, wind, and the labour of men and animals, and the new source of power was evidently far more generally effective than its competitors.
The cotton industry in 1815, still more in 1832, appeared revolutionary in its wholesale use of machines, in the size, number and location of its factories and in its reliance on steam-power. It was also, as will be seen, revolutionary in its relation to world trade.
Innovation in the iron industry was less spectacular. The most important changes were those which made possible the use of coal rather than wood for smelting. As a result of this development Britain had become by about 1800 a net exporter instead of a net importer of iron, which was of course an essential raw material for the construction of machines, railways and so on.
As for coal, the industry was a breeding-ground for inventions, like the steam-engine and the railway, which were influential chiefly outside it. However, coal as a raw material was of vast and growing importance – gas from coal was just beginning to be used for lighting around 1815, more and more heating processes were being converted from scarce timber to plentiful coal, and steam-engines always used coal. ‘Coal and steam,’ Landes has written, ‘did not make the Industrial Revolution; but they permitted its extraordinary development and diffusion.’
It must not be supposed that all British industries were revolutionized during this period. Before 1780 many had been well-established and highly-developed, especially coalmining, copper and tin mining and wool manufacture. Large numbers of workmen had long been gathered together in arsenals, mines, breweries and silk-mills, where capital and labour were separated.
Though nearly all industries expanded greatly between 1780 and 1850, and though most benefited from some invention or other, the cotton industry was still at the latter date unique in its degree of mechanization, concentration and reliance on steam power.
However, most historians have accepted that it is appropriate to use the term ‘Industrial Revolution’ with reference to this period, given the great expansion and transformation of the cotton industry and the lesser expansion and developments of other industries.
The concept is not generally taken to refer to industrial developments in isolation. It connotes the complex of changes, which were associated with industrialization and urbanization. Of these the most fundamental was the growth of population. By comparison with the Britain of 1885, or still more with the Britain of the 1960s, the Britain of 1815 was an empty country.
But its population was twice as great as that of the Britain of the early eighteenth century. At the first census in 1801 it was 11,000,000; by 1831 it was 16,000,000. The rate of population growth in the years after Waterloo was the highest in British history.
This increase was by no means evenly spread over the country. In England the population of the South grew, but not nearly so fast as that of the North. In Scotland High-landers increased in number, but not nearly so fast as Low-landers. The most densely populated English counties in 1700 were Middlesex and Surrey (owing to the spread of London’s suburbs), followed by some of the southern and South Midland counties.
By 1801 Lancashire came second after Middlesex, Surrey was third, and then came Warwickshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire and Staffordshire. Only these six had a density of population higher than 200 per square mile. In 1831 the order was the same, but the six now had a density higher than 340 per square mile, and eight other counties had a density above 200.
Another way of looking at the matter is to compare the rates of growth of counties between 1801 and 1831. Two British counties more than doubled in population, Monmouth shire and Lanark shire; Lancashire almost did so.
Eight other counties gained 70 per cent or more:
5. The West Riding,
7. Staffordshire and
At the other end of the scale several Welsh and Scottish counties grew hardly at all; while in England Rutland, the North Riding, Herefordshire and Wiltshire grew by less than 30 per cent.
Urban population increased much more rapidly than rural. Manchester and Glasgow furnish the most spectacular examples of town growth on a large scale. In 1757 Manchester and Salford had roughly 20,000 inhabitants; in 1801 90,000; in 1831 228,000. Between 1801 and 1831 Glasgow grew from 77,000 to 202,000.
For many centuries the greatest towns of England after London had been the ancient cathedral cities of Bristol and Norwich. As late as the third quarter of the eighteenth century Bristol, with in 1750 about 60,000 in-habitants, was still England’s second city. But by the first census in 1801 Bristol had dropped to fifth place, behind Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, the three great cities of the future.
Manchester was the centre of the Lancashire cotton industry, Liverpool its chief outlet to the sea and the busiest Atlantic port, Birmingham the capital of the metal-working trades. By 1831, even though Bristol had continued to grow and had reached 100,000 inhabitants, it had been over-taken by another upstart, Leeds, the centre of the growing woolen industry of the West Riding.
London, indeed, remained supreme, its population increasing from 865,000 in 1801 to 1,474,000 in 1831. But it had closer rivals now than for many centuries, and these rivals were parvenus: as yet Manchester and Birmingham were not even boroughs. In Scotland the Capital was actually displaced as the most populous city: Glasgow, port and cotton town overtook Edinburgh around 1815.
Why population increased so rapidly is a matter of acute controversy, or perhaps it would be truer to say of intense speculation. For the eighteenth century the figures of total British population are all estimates made by later students on the basis of incomplete returns worked out from defective parish registers.
Even for the early nineteenth century census totals are not wholly reliable. When it comes to the statistics of births, marriages and deaths, on which any attempt at explaining the growth of population must be founded, there is the same difficulty for the early nineteenth as for the eighteenth century – it is known that many of these events went unrecorded even after more efficient registration was established in 1836, and the figures must be still less complete for earlier dates.
Further, there seems to be no satisfactory theory of population growth, and in particular there appears to be little justification for the assumption commonly made that ‘prosperity’ or ‘economic advance’ naturally produces a high birth-rate.
Again, attempts to explain the rise of population in Britain often fail to allow for the fact that, while Britain alone in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries underwent an Industrial Revolution, in most of the countries of the world population was growing fast.
The most hopeful approach promises to be that of Deane and Cole, who distinguish between areas within England and between stages in the whole story. Broadly, they suggest this picture for the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. In London and the surrounding area it is hard to deny that there was a fall in the death-rate between the middle of the eighteenth century and 1830.
This was presumably the result of somewhat improved sanitary arrangements and living conditions, somewhat better medical services (including the spread of vaccination) and an absence of great epidemics, with the necessary precondition that food supplies kept pace with the rise in numbers.
It is difficult to find evidence for London of a rising birth-rate. About half the increase in its population seems to have been due to migration, and London and the Home Counties apparently gathered people from all over the South.
In the North-west, the principal industrial area, on the other hand, the effects of a sustained rise in the birth-rate in the late eighteenth century would appear to have been enhanced by a fall in the death-rate in the early nineteenth century. Migration was comparatively small and local, apart from a growing influx from Ireland.
The rise in the birth-rate is explained partly by economic opportunity, especially because it encouraged earlier marriage. It has been suggested by Habakkuk, with great plausibility, that Britain’s overall pattern of population growth diverged from Continental Europe’s in the early years of the nineteenth century, industrialization explaining the faster increase in Britain.
But it is so difficult to be sure of the pattern and of the statistics of birth and death-rates that it is impossible to substantiate this suggestion, and it is hard to reconcile it with the case of Ireland, an almost purely agricultural country which until the 1840s had a population rising as fast as any.
To account for the location of the growing industrial districts is somewhat easier. Deposits of coal were near all of them, making domestic as well as industrial heating cheaper. However, before coal was much used in manufacture, Yorkshire was competing successfully with the woolen industry of the South, cotton was established in Lancashire, and Liverpool was outdistancing Bristol in the slave and sugar trades of the North Atlantic. The previously underdeveloped North seems to have afforded better opportunities than the South for new enterprise.
As well as the new industries, the oldest agriculture, developed greatly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In fact it has been common to speak of an Agricultural Revolution of the same period as the Industrial Revolution. However, if the agricultural changes are to be regarded as revolutionary, they must be seen against thousands of years of development.
For the advances were slow, and much less radical than those in industry. They were of two kinds. First, methods of farming on existing farmland were improved. Secondly, the area of farming was extended. Both were age-old processes.
The former had speeded up in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when the cultivation of turnips and similar crops became more general in Britain, making it unnecessary to leave fields fallow for one year in two, three or four, and when serious efforts began to improve the breeds of sheep and cattle.
The extension of farming, especially arable farming, became more rapid in the late eighteenth century, with the pressure of growing population and the sharp rise in food prices during the wars with France. An index of these developments was the increase in the frequency of ‘enclosures’, or redrawing’s of the rural map of ownership.
Sometimes they took the form of replacing long-standing arrangements of a partially feudal or communal character by strict division into individually- owned and compact farms; sometimes it was a matter of taking into cultivation and ownership waste or common (communally- owned) land; often it was a bit of both.
Generally it required an Act of Parliament; and 3554 enclosure acts were passed in the reign of George III, mostly for the Midlands and during the wars. They made possible greater efficiency in farming. But the scale of the changes must not be exaggerated. It has long been normal for historians to cite the effect of better techniques on the rental of Thomas Coke of Holkham in Norfolk, later Earl of Leicester.
His rents are usually said to have gone up ten times in forty years before 1816. This is an error – on a constant area they only doubled, and that in a time of rising prices. This is a fair indication of the rate of change—far from spectacular, but considerable. Progress continued after 1815, but the emphasis was different. Livestock farmers continued to prosper, but, though grain yields rose, the area of arable cultivation probably fell slightly.
More dramatic were the improvements made in communications. In the 1750s the canal age began. By the 1820s there were 3000 miles of canals in Britain, almost all in the North and Midlands. They made little difference to the traveller, but they made it possible to carry large non-perishable loads to parts of the country previously difficult or impossible of access by water, at a time when heavy bulk transport by road was hardly feasible.
They also reduced transport costs by perhaps three or four times. The roads were not neglected. This was the age of the ‘turnpike trusts’, which took upon themselves the duty, supposed to be that of the ordinary local authorities, of bringing main roads into a tolerable condition. There were about 20,000 miles of turnpikes in the 1820s.
The most spectacular achievement they made possible was the introduction of rapid mail and passenger coach services between the principal towns of Britain. In the middle of the eighteenth century it had taken nearly a week to travel from London to Edinburgh by road, and well into the nineteenth century people preferred to make the journey by sea; but the coach time had been cut to less than 48 hours by 1830.
The government took some part in improving roads where military considerations operated, as in the Highlands of Scotland and with the route to Holyhead, the port for Ireland. Some of the most beautiful British road bridges date from this period, perhaps the most striking being the Menai Bridge between Anglesey and the mainland of Wales, opened in 1826, designed, like hundreds of lesser structures, by Thomas Telford.
These developments were necessarily accompanied by the growth of ‘special commercial organizations’. Over the period of the Industrial Revolution the number of London and country private banks increased enormously. A century after the first foundation of a country bank in 1716, there were about 900.
The Stock Exchange, which had started very informally, was by 1815 well-organized and publishing a list of securities, mostly government stocks, in which the public might invest. Insurance against fire and other risks also developed considerably.
Better communications and financial organization were associated with a great expansion of the internal market. But the high rate of growth attained during the Industrial Revolution would have been impossible to achieve but for the existence of huge overseas markets, some under Britain’s political control, some not, which her industry was able to exploit.
The cotton industry tapped a mass market of unprecedented size. It also had a novel relationship with world trade. Before the rise of the cotton industry Britain had imported few commodities in bulk: only timber, sugar, and in bad years grain. She had exported relatively little too, chiefly woolen goods.
But the cotton industry required enormous imports of raw cotton, most of which, by the thirties, came from the United States; and it exported more of its manufactured products than it sold at home. Not only did it capture large markets in both North and South America, but between 1820 and 1840 its competition destroyed the cotton industry of India.
This was not merely a gratifying extension of Lancashire’s markets. It was a major landmark in world history. For since the dawn of time Europe had always imported more from the East than she had sold there. . . . The cotton shirting’s of the Industrial Revolution for the first time reversed this relationship.
The Industrial Revolution had made Britain even by 1815 certainly the richest and most industrialized, and probably the most urbanized, country in the world; and she had established such a lead, possessed such good natural resources and had access to such excellent markets the gap between Britain and other countries widened.
As far as Britain herself is concerned, many of the trends of the Industrial Revolution persisted throughout the period and beyond. The high rate of population growth was sustained until the 1880s. Up to the First World War cotton, iron, (with steel) and coal, together with wool, remained the staple industries of the country.
The same nine British cities which were the largest at the census of 1801 are the largest still, in a slightly different order. Devoted to tracing these trends and their impact on British society down to 1885.
2. Term Paper on the Industrial Revolution (Economic Vicissitudes):
The Industrial Revolution as though economic development was proceeding smoothly and beneficently in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In fact the process was far from smooth, and, though the general trend was doubtless towards greater prosperity all round, many people suffered economic hardship.
In the first place, account must be taken of the impact of the war with France and its aftermath. It cut links between the mainland of Europe and the rest of the world, especially after 1807, when Napoleon inaugurated his ‘Continental System’, designed to make the territories under his control as nearly self- sufficient as possible and to eliminate all trade with Britain, and when Britain began to retaliate with Orders in Council intended to establish a complete blockade of his Empire.
These measures were not entirely successful, but they did virtually close overseas markets to the products of the Continent, and they did give Britain almost a monopoly of the carrying trade, so that such non-European goods as reached the countries of Napoleon’s Empire came in British ships.
On the other hand, between 1812 and 1814 Britain was at war with the United States, and both the imports and exports of the cotton industry were drastically reduced. The war created exceptional demand for such things as iron, ships and woollen goods. By cutting Britain off from Continental grain supplies, it encouraged the development of her agriculture.
After, the war foreign competition returned to overseas markets and the carrying trade. But for the Corn Law, it would have seriously affected British agriculture. The demand for iron, ships and woolen goods fell. However, some European markets and the trade with the United States were reopened.
It may be that the war was decisive in permitting Britain to keep control of certain markets, especially the South American. But otherwise it would seem that the short-term gains of wartime were offset in peacetime, and that the war should be thought of as distorting rather than furthering British economic development as a whole.
This is particularly evident when the effects of the wartime activities of the government are considered. Britain by 1815 had been at war, with one short break, for twenty-two years. Taxation rates and government expenditure, over £100,000,000 a year in 1814 and 1815.
The impact of the war on the economy was comparable with that of the First World War. After 1815 government expenditure dropped sharply, taxation somewhat less sharply, and 300,000 men were thrown on to the labour market by the demobilization. The combined effects of these changes, of depreciation of the currency and of the disruption of trade were to raise prices during the war and lower them when peace came.
There were other factors affecting prices, of course. Cotton prices fell more than general prices after the war, because the technological changes in the industry made possible reductions in costs. The overall picture is that, as compared with the beginning of the war in 1793, prices had nearly doubled by 1813, and were back to their old levels by 1821.
Many factors other than the war worked against smooth economic development. One was the weather. The quality of the harvest was still of crucial importance to the whole economy. A bad harvest meant high bread prices, higher still given the Corn Law. Dear bread meant a drastic reduction in the power of ordinary people to purchase commodities other than food.
This limited the market at home for the products of British industries. Even if overseas demand remained good, high domestic consumption was necessary to maintain full employment in industry. So, there was likely to be heavy industrial unemployment just at the time when food prices were high. In other words, the industrial worker lost twice over.
Further, there were superimposed on to the effects of the war and the effects of the weather the fluctuations of the business cycle. When goods are selling well, it is likely that too many workers will be taken on, too much capital invested and too many goods produced.
There then comes a point when the goods no longer sell, workers lose their jobs and capacity is idle. The cycle still occurs in the second half of the twentieth century, but it is now much less evident because controlled by governments. In the early nineteenth century it was allowed to operate with a minimum of interference.
These were some of the difficulties. Manufacturers, traders and investors were working largely in the dark, especially in their dealings outside Europe, now more important than ever before. It took several weeks to cross the Atlantic, several months to get to India; there was no telegraph; people in Britain could have very little idea of conditions in such areas as South America.
The success of British exports depended not only on willingness to buy, but also on ability to pay. Many countries could take British exports only if they could provide Britain with useful imports, and development of their resources might depend on attracting British investment.
Britain throughout this period imported more goods from the rest of the world than she exported; her balance of payments was generally favourable, but only because of earnings from shipping, services and foreign investment. Of these, foreign investment was growing in importance.
Some of it, however, was in the nature of the case in dubious projects in areas with unsettled governments and unreliable banks. The most remarkable instance was a loan of £ 200,000 subscribed in 1822 to the ‘Kingdom of Poyais’ which did not exist. So, there were periodical crises of confidence following upon defaults, repudiations and bank failures.
Each crisis resulted in a drain of gold from Britain and therefore in credit restriction and recession at home. In this period the early 1820s were years of high foreign investment, and by 1825 the total was almost £100,000,000, four times that of 1815. Then in 1825 came the crash. This crisis also revealed the weakness of English country banks, about 70 of which failed.
For all these reasons there were marked fluctuations in production, exports, imports, wages and prices from year to year. To take prices, although their trend was downwards after 1813, the annual variations were very large.
In 1812 the average wheat price was 126 shillings a quarter, the highest ever; in 1815 it was down to 66 shillings, hardly more than half what it had been three years earlier; in 1817 it was 97 shillings; in 1822 45 shillings; in 1825 68 shillings again. It helps to understand political history to know that there were particularly high wheat prices in 1812-13, 1816-19, 1824-25 and 1828-31, those of 1824-25 being offset by boom conditions.
There were also longer-term trends operating against the British economy. Until the 1840s the prices of imports, mainly raw materials, tended to rise and the prices of exports, mainly manufactured goods, to fall. Hence, the great increase in the volume of exports brought relatively little benefit.
State action often made matters worse. The tariff system was ill-adapted to the British economy, in general as well as in particular. The end of the income tax, and the imposition of the Corn Law and of other tariffs to replace the revenue previously derived from the income tax, increased the burden of taxes on the poor, thus reducing the demand for cheap manufactured goods.
There was a duty on the import of raw cotton, small it is true, but manifestly harmful. There was a heavy duty on imported timber, which Britain needed in large quantities. There was a duty on the export of coal, of which Britain produced a considerable surplus and other countries were short.
High excise duties were levied on ‘printed calicoes and muslins’, that is, on the main products of the cotton industry, and on glass and paper, when made and sold in Britain. Further, the export of machinery was prohibited; skilled labourers might not emigrate; and trade was in many cases restricted to English ships.
During the period 1815-32, as has been seen, Ministers tried to make improvements. Most statesmen accepted, with growing conviction as the years went by, that, while tariffs were clearly necessary to raise revenue, they were unlikely to promote economic development.
The views of the ‘political economists’, and especially of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, had partially won over educated opinion. What prevented Governments from reducing duties further was partly their belief that the House of Commons, probably reflecting public opinion, would not tolerate the income tax in peacetime.
But, further, the Corn Law was admitted to be a special problem; there was much support for colonial preference, entrenched in the tariff system; and manufacturers and shippers clung to protective measures.
An Act of 1826, which took away the Bank of England’s monopoly of joint-stock banking, was an attempt to assist economic development in another way, by encouraging the formation of stronger country banks than those which had proved inadequate in 1825. Parliament was also slowly repealing, in the name of laissez-faire, the old laws, which restricted apprenticeship and terms of employment and had attempted to regulate industrial production.
So the economy as a whole, despite the great advances of the Industrial Revolution, could hardly be said to be in a happy state. Although there were some very good moments, especially in 1824-25, when output, investment, exports, profits and employment were all high, there were too many bad moments.
The uncertainties of commerce and the sharp fluctuations of the economy caused much hardship. Manufacturers, traders and investors were liable to find themselves suddenly bankrupt. The special case of the farmers was important. Although protected by the Corn Law, they saw the general level of agricultural prices fall.
Many of them had borrowed money during the war to carry out some improvement and found themselves after 1815 paying the interest out of lower receipts. All farmers were discontented, a few were ruined. This is when the small farmer suffered, rather than in the war years. The new conditions favoured larger-scale farming and pasture farming.
Much more serious than the farmers’ difficulties was the hardship of wage-earners. Wages in the northern industrial districts were in general high, and workers in the new factories were well paid in good times. But in periods of unemployment their position would be appalling.
Workers in some trades were not merely thrown out of work from time to time, but saw the craft in which they had been trained and by which they had lived eliminated by technical advance. Fear of this led to opposition to mechanization. The years 1811-12 had been particularly notable for ‘name-breaking’, in some areas rather as a means of drawing the attention of employers to workers’ grievances, but in others as a protest against the introduction of labour-saving machinery.
As yet large numbers of handloom weavers were necessary to the textile industries. But their wages were falling in relation both to the cost of living and to the wages of workers in factories. In the South especially, the agricultural labourer too was the victim of grave hardship.
Migration from the South to the North was difficult and un-common, the surplus population of predominantly rural areas found few opportunities open, and real wages in many southern counties were lower after the war than before it.
Something of the same technological threat existed for the agricultural as for the industrial worker. The labourers’ revolt of 1830 in the southern counties was directed partly against the introduction of threshing machines.
The situation was complicated by the law, especially the Poor Law. The basis of the Poor Law was the Act of 1601. It provided, humanely, and as few countries’ laws provided even by the early nineteenth century, that the individual had a right to the bare necessities of life.
The old, the sick and the insane were to be kept alive, if need be, by their parish, through a rate levied on owners and occupiers of landed property; children and others who, though capable of work, were unemployed were to be ‘set on work’ in special ‘workhouses’. By later legislation it was laid down that a man should be ‘chargeable’ only to a parish in which he acquired a ‘settlement’, either by birth or residence.
These were the laws, which of all laws meant most to the ordinary Englishman, offering him his only security against starvation. From the late eighteenth century the problem of poverty began to grow, and new methods were adopted to deal with it. It became more common for parishes to group together to build a workhouse, which was made generally possible by Gilbert’s Act of 1782.
In 1795, at a time of high prices, the magistrates of Berkshire, gathered in Quarter Sessions at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland took a decision, which was quickly imitated elsewhere. They decided that the money raised by the poor rate should be used to supplement wages according to a scale based on the price of bread.
When the Gallon Loaf of Second flour, weighing 8 lb. 11 ozs. shall cost 1s.
Then every poor and industrious man shall have for his own support 3s. Weekly, either produced by his own or his family’s labour, or an allowance from the poor rates, and for the support of his wife and every other of his family, 1s. 6d………..
And so in proportion, as the price of bread rise or falls…..3d. to the man, and 1d. to every other of the family, on every 1d. which the loaf rises above 1s.
This and other forms of ‘outdoor relief’ had been known before, but now they became more general in the South of England. By 1830 there was scarcely any work done in the so-called workhouses, which had become refuges, but the amount spent on poor relief was much greater than in the eighteenth century.
It seems that the sum spent in the 1820s would have kept the whole population at the bare level of subsistence for rather less than five weeks, or between 8 and 9 per cent of the population for the whole year. The total rate represented a sum comparable with the yield of the land tax, the principal national direct tax levied after the income tax lapsed.
In fact the receipts and expenditure were spread unevenly over the country, being highest in southern agricultural districts not under the influence of London and highest of all in Sussex. The Poor Law kept the poor alive, with relatively few exceptions. But the way in which it was administered after 1795 came to be regarded as unfortunate.
In the worst areas, it was thought, wages were deliberately kept low by employers in order that rates, paid by owners and occupiers, should supplement them; laborers’ earnings were thus maintained at or below subsistence level and the law of settlement discouraged them from migrating to areas where wages were higher.
In Scotland, where the law was different, and in some industrial districts, poor relief was given sparingly, and a better hope of high wages was balanced by a sharper fear of starvation.
The question of whether the standard of living of the worker rose or fell during and because of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the factors which enter the discussion are social rather than economic, and will be considered elsewhere.
It must first be said that it makes a considerable difference whether one takes 1780 or 1800 as the starting date, and 1830, 1850 or the end of the depression of 1837-42 as the final date. But the conclusion cannot in any case be straightforward and confident. According to such calculations as have been made, average real wages were rather higher in Britain in the 1820s than in the 1780s.
But the early 1820s were especially good years in this respect. During the war standards seem to have declined. 1800, incidentally, was a particularly bad year. Further, the statistics ignore unemployment and are unable to take proper account of the redistribution of the labour force; and the average real wage will be higher than the real wage of the average man.
As has been seen, conditions varied enormously from area to area, trade to trade, and year to year. It would seem that the Industrial Revolution increased the uncertainties and fluctuations of the economy and the number of people exposed to their full effects.
Given these vicissitudes, the high levels of poor relief expenditure and indirect taxation in the 1820s, and the size of two groups of workers whose real wages were then lower than before the war, the handloom weavers and the southern agricultural labourers, it is hard to accept a picture of general improvement in the standard of living of the working classes since the 1780s, at least down to 1832.
It is important, however, not to romanticize the pre-industrial age, when poor people often suffered appallingly; and it must always be remembered that the rise of population was to a large extent independent of the Industrial Revolution, and that hardship would have been vastly greater in Britain if numbers had grown without an Industrial Revolution.