THE LABOURING POOR
THE great mass of the people, however, did not belong to the aristocracy, the gentry, or the middling sort, but were manual workers of one kind or another, the artisan, the petty shopkeeper and the labouring poor. To know, therefore, what satisfactions eighteenth-century society afforded to the majority of its members, it is necessary to know something of the conditions and way of life of this very large section of the population. Such an examination can only be very incomplete and essentially superficial; the variations within so large a class were almost endless, not only from the point of view of occupation and habitation, but also from the aspect of location. Their standard of life ranged from a crude sufficiency to the most absolute destitution that ended in death by exposure and starvation. The evidence available, too, is often unsatisfactory; instances of hardship and exploitation are common enough, but though common can they be considered typical? Moreover, it is only too easy to judge and condemn one age by the criteria of another. Bad as social conditions seem to the conscience of the twentieth century, the historian must record that they appear to have been improving, that a century of philanthropic effort and increasing production was having a beneficial effect on the standard of life of the labouring poor.
Contemporaries certainly appear convinced that the poor were better off in England than on the Continent, an opinion confirmed by foreign observers. Henry Meister, in an account of his travels in this country, declared 'I do not impose upon you when I say that though the English labourer is better clothed, better fed, and better lodged than the French, he does not work so hard. You will wonder at this the less, when you consider that the wages of the former are higher, and his diet more substantial; consequently that he has greater strength and activity in the performance of his