everal times a year, I receive questions about wages, cost of living, and related matters in Victorian England, but I rarely have encountered a set of questions as obviously well informed those from Jim Skipper of Houston, Texas, which arrived shortly after the beginning of 1999. I am therefore putting together his questions, my answers, and my additions to those initial answers. Together, we shall also be putting up a list of relevant items, including wages for particular occupations and prices at specified times for particular goods and services.
JS: The first question simply, is what does 16/- signify? It is listed as the weekly wage of a Metropolitan Police officer. My quess was 16 shillings, but I am not familier with how amounts are written.
GPL: Yes, 16/ = 16 shillings (which equals 4/5 of a pound sterling), and a pound (£) was worth about $11.00 for much of the period. Before the recent introduction of decimal currency, British money was written in the following order: pounds/shilling/pence (or £/s/d). Prices less than one pound generally appeared as shilling/pence (e.g., 10/6).
Two things in particular about British money drove foreigners crazy, the first being that twelve pence (or pennies) made up a shilling, but twenty shillings made up a pound. Adding up the cost of several items became quite a chore, as one can imagine, but the British long remained committed to their bizarre monetary system, and, indeed, a sign of the impracticality of one of Trollope's major characters, Plantagent Palliser, the Duke of Omnium, lay in the fact that his political program advocated decimal currency (!). A second maddening thing involved a peculiar, obviously classed-based pricing scheme in which prices were quoted in guineas, the guinea being a nonexistent denomination worth 21 shillings (or a shilling more than a pound). Items intended for the wealthier classes were listed in guineas. Having described the complex idiosyncracies of the older currency, I have to admit that, like so many other foreigners who had become acustomed to it, I felt particularly bereft when it disappeared — not only because something peculiarly British had vanished but also because I had lost that special advantage for a foreigner of being able to negotiate the system. Goodness, now anyone could understand prices in London!
JS: The second question involves other wages, specifically, are there good resources for wages in other businesses. I found a copy of A. L. Bowley's Wages in the United Kingdom in the 19th Century, but it focuses on the labouring classes, artisans and sailors. I could not find any material dealing with clerks, shopkeepers, barristers, doctors and such. Do you know of a resource for such material, or do you have information like that at hand?
GPL: All these issues have been topics on the discussion list Victoria, and specific occupations have been featured in various books, but I don't know of any magisterial work containing all this crucial information. Servants, who had all living expenses taken care of, earned as little as £10/year, and the sign of being (or having become) a member of the middle class was having at least one servant. Some poor vicars at mid-century earned as little as £40-50/year.
Dale H. Porter's fine new book on the Victoria Embankment, London (look under the technology section of VW for a review and copious selections) contains valuable materials on the development of engineering as a profession and provides some information about wages for workers and professions at particular dates. As a rough guess, then, I'd say that for most of the Victorian era, a pound then might buy $100 today.
JS: Lastly, I have been curious about the cost of living in Victorian England. What was the pound worth in present day dollars? What were pounds worth compared to dollars at that time? How much did a train to Liverpool cost, and how much did it cost to send a telegram? Here John Burnett's A History of the Cost of Living gave me some answers but left me wanting more.
GPL: Answering such questions becomes complicated for several reasons, the first is that the Victorian period lasted a good long time, during which the UK went from being a largely rural, lightly industrialized country to a heavily industrialized urban nation. Therefore, one often has to phrase a question in the following manner: "What was the cost of living in 1850?"
A second complicating factor is that specific goods and services cost far less or far more than they do now, so any comparison inevitably misleads. For example, durng the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the post office delivered two or even three times daily, and the system was so effcient that Londoners would arrange social engagements, sending queries and receiving answers within a few hours. A penny postcard, in other words, brought one something very like a personal courier service. Does one then say that a British penny in 1879 is equivalent to $10 or $15, the cost of modern commercial delivery services?
A third complicating factor is that unlike the relative closeness of modern economic and social classes, which form a spectrum, large gaps separated those in Victorian England so that moving from one class (or really set of classes) to another required a kind of quantum leap. Thus, as M. W. Flynn has pointed out, doubling a worker's wages would not, as it would now, markedly improve his or her lifestyle, particularly in regard to sanitation and healthiness, because such enormous gaps existed between the costs of housing for the working and middle classes that one would have had to raise the wages enormously to affect the kind of available housing.
- The Price of Bread: Poverty, Purchasing Power, and The Victorian Laborer's Standard of Living
- Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era
- The Cornhill Magazine — Fees for Writers in 1860
- Victorian Workers' Wages and the Quality of Life
- What aspects of Victorian culture have been lost with decimalisation?
Bowley, A. L. Wages in the United Kingdom in the 19th Century.
Burnett, John. A History of the Cost of Living. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969.
Porter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.
Last modified December 2003