Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850

By M. J. Daunton | Go to book overview

Floud, that gains in real wages in the second quarter of the nineteenth century 'were bought at a very high price', producing a stunted population in an unhealthy environment. 34 The data could, however, be read differently: Britain had a volunteer army which tended to be an employer of last resort, so that it could be that workers were better able to obtain well-paid jobs without being forced to join the colours. The debate over 'well-being' remains inconclusive.

It is possible that workers experienced a psychological decline even if 'economic welfare' improved, after taking account of the cost of urban disamenities. The attack on common rights, the erosion of entitlements, the decay of artisan production, and political repression could make workers feel that they were losing their rights as free-born Englishmen:

It is quite possible for statistical averages and human experiences to run in opposite directions. A per capita increase in quantitative factors may take place at the same time as a great qualitative disturbance in people's way of life, traditional relationships, and sanctions. People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time. 35

Factory employment could, for example, reduce the amount of leisure, so that higher per capita consumption was at the expense of free time. But did workers consider this to be a rise or fall in their standard of living? Much depends on whether leisure time in the eighteenth century was 'worthless' or valued. Perhaps the more limited and defined time for leisure in the early nineteenth century was valued more highly because towns offered greater facilities for recreation. Work discipline in the factory was more onerous, but was compensated by freedom from the supervision of squire and parson, and the ability to form independent clubs and chapels. Neither should politics be excluded from the assessment of workers' 'well-being'. They could, during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, feel powerless as legislation on apprenticeship or wage regulation was abrogated, and the Combination Laws challenged their right to organize. Social change coincided with the French Revolution and the attack on Jacobinism and 'it is the political context as much as the steam engine, which had most influence upon the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class'. 36 In the end, purely statistical measures of real wages, per capita consumption, economic well-being or height must be integrated with social and cultural behaviour and attitudes in the growing towns.


NOTES
1.
B. Disraeli, Sybil; or, The Two Nations ( 1845), 198-9.
2.
T. S. Ashton, "'The Treatment of Capitalism by Historians'", in F. A. Hayek (ed.), Capitalism and the Historians ( 1954), 41.
3.
Disrael, Sybil, 261-2.

-441-

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