decorated initial 'M' ost writers on the Industrial Revolution in Victorian Britain agree that the progress of the nineteenth century was marked by a gradual, uneven, but measurable improvement in the standard of living, especially towards the end of the century. This general conclusion, however, masks some very weighty economic and social hardship concerning the day to day lives of Victorian laborers, who constituted the bulk of the population. These hardships are notable because they contrast with living standards for laborers and artisans that are documented to be very much higher in some centuries preceding the Victorian age.

Thorold Rogers spent his professional lifetime meticulously documenting wages and prices in England for six centuries, including the nineteenth century. Based on purchasing power of wages data, he calls the fifteenth century the Golden Age of the Laborer in England (326). Wages, of course, only have comparative meaning when contemporary prices of commodities are known. It is especially true of the artisan and laboring class that their wages are spent, in large measure, on food, rent, and fuel, and in past times food was the greatest of these expenditures. For this reason, a wage or money standard of living, in pence per day per person, is far less useful for comparative purposes than a bread standard of living, in pounds of bread purchasable per day per person. All that is required is to know the cost of bread at any point in time in which the purchasing power of two different wage points in time are being compared.

Wages are always referenced in historical material in shillings and pence, usually per week. The prices of wheat, bread, and meat can almost always be found as contemporary values to laborers' wages, although the units of these prices puzzle present-day readers. Throughout medieval and much of modern British history, wheat was priced per quarter, or eight bushels. As a bushel of wheat weighs sixty pounds, the quarter was equivalent to 480 pounds of wheat. Four quarters are approximately equal to one ton.

Bread was commonly sold in medieval and Renaissance England as the gallon loaf (also called the half-peck loaf), which weighs 8 pounds and 11 ounces, or 8.6875 pounds. Later, including during the Victorian period, it was nearly always sold as the quartern loaf, which was made with exactly 3.5 pounds (or 1/4 stone) of wheaten flour, and whose finished weight was approximately 4.33 pounds. Thus, two quartern loaves of finished bread weigh the same as the older and larger gallon loaf.

With this information, it is possible to arrive at the purchasing power of wages in pounds of bread per day per person. A pound of raw wheat may be converted to a pound of finished bread by multiplying by 1.25, although most writers ignore this small difference and simply equate the price of a pound of wheat with a pound of finished bread. The price of butcher's meat, sold as "pieces" in the shop (probably similar to the stew meat of today), is usually about three times the per pound price of bread.

The Speenhamland allowance scale enacted in 1795 effectively set a floor on the income of laborers according to the price of bread. When the gallon loaf cost 1s, the laborer was to have a weekly income of 3s for himself. The per pound cost of bread at 1s/gallon is 12d / 8.6875 pounds or 1.38 d/pound. Weekly wages of 3s are equal to 36p / 7 days or 5.14 d/day. Dividing wages by the cost of bread gives 5.14 d/day / 1.38 d/pound = 3.72 pounds of bread per day for a single laborer. This is an important figure to remember as the Speenhamland allowance. As a pound of bread provides about 1100 calories, the allowance gave the laborer a total of 4100 calories per day. An agricultural laborer doing 8-10 hours of vigorous work can easily require 3000 calories/day. It is evident that the Speenhamland allowance provided just above the bare means of subsistence. The Speenhamland scale also provided an allowance for family members. For a laborer, his wife, and two children, the weekly allowance was set at 7s 6d. Performing the above calculation for the family gives 90d/week / 7 days/week / 1.38 d/pound / 4 persons = 2.33 pounds of bread per day per person for the family of four.

The Speenhamland allowance is closely related to the nutritional subsistence level and the poverty line. In the 1860s Joseph Rowntree had carried out two major surveys into poverty in Britain. Inspired by his father's work and the study by Charles Booth, 1889), Seebohm Rowntree decided to carry out his own investigations into poverty in York. Rowntree spent two years on the project and the results of his scholarly pioneering study, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, were published in 1902. Rowntree's study provided a wealth of statistical data on wages, hours of work, nutritional needs, food consumed, health and housing. He found empirically that in 1899 it cost 3s 3d a week for food to maintain a full-grown adult on a diet free of nutritional deficiency. In that year bread cost 1.32 d/pound. This corresponds to 39d/week / 7days/week / 1.32 d/pound = 4.22 pounds of bread per day per adult, or a value very close to the Speenhamland allowance. Rowntree obtained detailed dietary expenditures and food quantities from family budgets and workhouse administration records, and set this purchasing power as the level of subsistence. Later researches into poverty in the early twentieth century showed that food represented about one-third of total necessary expenditures for a family in poverty, so the subsistence food level was multiplied by three to arrive at the poverty line. For many years the poverty line was defined by governments as an income equivalent to 12.5 pounds of bread per day per person for a family of four, and the price of bread was closely monitored by governments. As can be seen, the Speenhamland allowance for the years 1795-1834 was far more Spartan than later definitions of what constituted poverty.

The following table was constructed from various sources to show the purchasing power of workers at points in time from the fifteenth century until the close of the Victorian era. In each instance, wages and purchasing power are shown with respect to a single adult male laborer, and are not adjusted for family size. The Speenhamland allowance and Rowntree's subsistence level are shown as reference values. An attempt was made to avoid selection bias in this comparison table by choosing representative values for wages during a period, and not the highest or lowest wages. The table is valid only for common laborers and artisans such as masons and carpenters; it is not intended to reflect the higher-skilled professions such as architects, draftsmen, doctors, and lawyers, or such occupations as shopkeeping, insurance, and international trade.

Year Wage Earner Weekly
s/d per quarter
Multiple of
1450 Agricultural Laborer 2/0 5/11.75 0.15 22.94 6.17 Rogers (327-330)
1450 Carpenter, Mason 3/0 5.11.75 0.15 34.41 9.25 Rogers (327-330)
1795 Speenhamland Allowance 3/0 -- 1.38 3.72 1.00 Hammond (I: 158-160)
1798 Handloom Weaver 30/0 74/0 1.85 27.80 7.47 Gaskell (376)
1831 Handloom Weaver 5/6 83/0 2.08 4.53 1.22 Gaskell (376)
1833 Factory Worker (Textile) 33/8 -- 1.93 29.90 8.04 Baines (443)
1843 Factory Worker (Pottery) 39/0 -- 1.80 37.14 9.98 Pike (196); Rogers (539)
1865 Town Laborer 3/9 -- 1.80 3.57 0.96 Porter (176); Rogers (539)
1865 Carpenter, Mason 6/6 -- 1.80 6.19 1.66 Porter (176); Rogers (539)
1865 Engineer 7/6 -- 1.80 7.14 1.92 Porter (176); Rogers (539)
1899 Rowntree Subsistence 3/3 -- 1.32 4.22 1.13 Rowntree (90ff)
1912 Carriage Washer 19/6 -- 1.30 25.71 6.91 Reeves (133)
1912 Delivery Courier 26/0 -- 1.30 34.29 9.22 Reeves (137)

The agricultural laborer in the mid fifteenth century could buy 23 pounds of bread with a day's wages. In fact, he was frequently fed for free by the proprietor, and the meals were not charged against his wages, so his purchasing power was even higher. The more skilled artisan could buy 34 pounds of bread, which puts him at a standard of living which is 9 times higher than the Speenhamland subsistence allowance. It is obvious that these wages provided sufficient income for a wife and children.

By any measure the eighteenth-century handloom weaver working his loom at home was a skilled artisan. In 1798 his purchasing power was 28 pounds of bread, again easily enough to support a family, although somewhat less than the carpenter earned in 1450. With the introduction of the power loom under the factory system, his wages fell to a mere one-sixth of their former purchasing power by 1831. To put a more human face on this statistic, imagine a 25-year-old hand loom weaver in 1798 with a family, good home, and income; by the time he was 58 years old, his income was reduced to the subsistence level, and getting worse with each passing year.

Those laborers who "got with the program", left their home shop and entered the factory, especially a skilled weaver such as the man in our example, could improve their lot. By 1833 an experienced weaver working a power loom in a cotton textile mill was earning enough money to buy 30 pounds of bread a day. In some industries such as pottery and metal working, the wages were substantially higher. Yet these high wages for adult factory workers do not tell the whole story. Whenever possible, mill owners employed children preferentially over adults, at a fraction of the adult wage. The increasing automation of the factory invited cheap child labor to tend the machines, pushing down the number of well-paying adult jobs, which were increasingly of a supervisory role. Unemployment (or as the Victorian economists called it, "overpopulation") increased in the adult laborers' ranks, and poverty surged, defining what would eventually come to be called the "condition of England" question.

By 1865 the purchasing power of even a skilled town laborer working his trade had fallen to a level of less than twice that of the Speenhamland allowance, putting the great bulk of independent town laborers barely above subsistence. Booth estimated that around the turn of the century 31 percent of the population of London was living in poverty. This estimate was confirmed by the studies of Rowntree in the City of York, where he found the proportion of the inhabitants in poverty (that is, below subsistence) was 28 percent.

The benefits of the industrial system came to the bulk of the laboring population only late in the Victorian era. Some of these benefits are not directly measured by the bread-purchasing-power standard. It has been said that in 1800, not one person in fifty living in England wore socks, but by 1900 not one person in fifty was without them. Social mobility started to improve at the end of the century as education became more widespread. With the passing of Victoria, living standards of average Britons continued to increase. In 1912 the unskilled carriage washer was earning enough to purchase 26 pounds of bread per day, and a courier driving a horse-drawn delivery truck was earning enough to buy 34 pounds. Yet it is interesting to observe that this is exactly the purchasing power of a carpenter or mason working his trade in 1450. For many Britons in the laboring classes, the Industrial Revolution took away what they once had centuries before, and only grudgingly gave it all back by the close of Victoria's reign.

Related Materials


Baines, Edward. History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. London: H. Fisher, R. Fisher, and P. Jackson, 1835.

Booth, Charles. Life and Labour of the People in London. 17 volumes. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1889-1902.

Gaskell, Peter. Artisans and Machinery: The Moral and Physical Condition of the Manufacturing Population. London: John W. Parker, 1836.

Hammond, John L. and Hammond, Barbara . The Village Labourer, 1760-1832: A Study in the Government of England Before the Reform Bill. 2 volumes. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., Ltd., 1927.

Pike, E. Royston. Hard Times: Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

Porter, Dale H. The Thames Embankment: Environment, Technology, and Society in Victorian London. Akron, Ohio: University of Akron Press, 1998.

Reeves, Mrs. Pember. Round About a Pound a Week. London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1913.

Rogers, James E. Thorold. Six Centuries of Work and Wages.London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., Ltd., 1908.

Rowntree, B. Seebohm. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1902.

Last modified 26 April 2019