An Economic History of England: the 18th Century

By T. S. Ashton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Labour

I

N O generalisations are more unsafe than those relating to social classes. The wide diversity of organisation in English agriculture and manufacture was matched by a similar diversity in the conditions and attitudes of the workers. Many of the writers of treatises and pamphlets tended to ignore these differences: they were obsessed with the problem of the paupers, and, since in an age of economic fluctuation independent workers were liable to fall into poverty, there was a tendency to identify them with that sub-stratum of the population which was rarely, if ever, regularly employed. The insecurity of the standard of life of the wage-earner was attributed not to faulty social or economic arrangements, but to defects of personal character.

According to one group of writers, the workers were by nature indolent, improvident, and self-indulgent. They were addicted to ale and spirits, and their wives drank too much tea. They took little or no part in public worship -- at least, in the orderly forms established by law. And if they were indifferent to their fate in the hereafter they were equally insensible to their interests in the world of the living. It was the irrationality of the poor, quite as much as their irreligion, that was distressing. They took no thought for the morrow, and when evils came upon them they cast their burden on others. 'A clergyman, an annuitant, an officer in the army, a tide-waiter or an excise officer, whose income is only seventy pounds a year, is not considered an object of the Poor's Law: they support themselves and bring up their families in credit. Why then are mechanics with equal incomes, less creditable, less independent?'1 The answer given by some was that the workers were a different order of being. 'I always consider this class of people as in some respect in a state of minority', wrote Charles Townshend. 'They can never from their situation in life, and from the nature of their education, acquire at

____________________
1
T. Jarrold, A Letter to Samuel Whitbread, Esq., M.P., on the subject of the Poor's Law (1807), p. 24.

-201-

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An Economic History of England: the 18th Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Title Page vii
  • Chapter I - The People of England 1
  • Chapter Two - Agriculture and Its Products 30
  • Chapter Three - Internal Trade and Transport 63
  • Chapter Four - Manufactures 91
  • Chapter Five - Overseas Trade and Shipping 130
  • Chapter Six - Money, Banking and Foreign Exchange 167
  • Chapter Seven - Labour 201
  • Appendix 237
  • Index 255
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