Thursday, 23 June 2011

What was unemployment in the nineteenth century?

It is difficult to superimpose twenty-first century notions of unemployment on the mid-nineteenth century labour market. There are no statistics, national or otherwise. Patterns of work were very diverse, varying between different industries and trades but also within the same industry in different parts of the country.[1] The enormous variation in the nature of waged work is not the only difficulty. Industrialisation separated work from home and this reduced the wage-earning capacity of married women who were increasingly tied down by household duties. The ability of the working population to work was determined simply by physical capacity. Statutory attempts to impose restrictions on the use of child labour in the 1830s and 1840s initially proved unsuccessful. Both employers and parents colluded in their evasion, the former because child labour was cheap and more easily disciplined; the latter because children’s earnings were vital in the constant battle against poverty.[2] Larger working-class families tended to be poorer families and family size grew during the first half of the century. The introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880 was far more effective in eliminating such practices than anything that went before.

Equally, Victorian England did not recognise a common age of retirement from working life that was determined by the requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker.[3] Work was overwhelmingly manual and premium was placed on physical strength and stamina that faded with age, especially when accompanied by a poor diet consequent on low earnings and as a result, the age at which workers ‘retired’ varied considerably. In the 1840s, Engels observed how miners’ working conditions bred chronic illness and required a high level of physical fitness and many miners were forced to stop work at 35-45 and rarely lived beyond the age of 50.[4] At the same time, Mayhew documented the case of a 70 year old London needlewoman who was refused help by a Poor Law relieving officer because she was considered fit to earn her own living.[5] In all branches of the labour market, advancing years spelt reduced earnings and irregular work and, if death did not intervene, eventual reliance on children, charity or the poor law.

No respectable worker or his family would turn to the poor law in time of distress except when absolutely essential to survival.[6] By 1850, the name ‘pauper’ carried a social stigma second only to that of the convicted criminal. The ‘pauper burial’ was regarded by working people as the ultimate humiliation and resulted in the development of ‘penny death’ insurance to cover burial costs.  This helps to explain the huge expansion of clubs, societies and associations that collected contributions from working people in order to help them cope in the event of a crisis. Insurance against unemployment was less common and was largely confined to skilled men in printing, construction, engineering, metal-working, shipbuilding and some of the older crafts such as leather-working, bookbinding and furniture-making. It operated through trade unions and was principally designed to prevent union men being forced to work below the recognised rate when desperate for want of work. In other sectors of the economy, notably mining and textiles, unions negotiated work-sharing schemes as an alternative form of protection against the threat of recession. In this way, the negotiation of working practices was designed to protect jobs as well as maintain wages.[7]

By 1906, unions that did provide help for those out of work covered about 1 million workers, but did not distinguish very clearly between those idle due to strikes and those unemployed because of a depression in trade. For the vast majority of the workforce there was no automatic support to fall back on when recession struck and, in trying to maintain their self-esteem, resorted to various things. Credit played a major role within working-class families and loans were obtained from money-menders or relatives and neighbours on the understanding that debts would be repaid when times were not so hard. The local pawnshop was a familiar resort of many who pledged items on Monday and redeemed them on Friday when (and if) the wages arrived. The unemployment of the husband frequently pushed the wife into taking in more washing, more cleaning, child-minding and sewing and, in the last resort, into prostitution in order to supplement dwindling family resources. Working-class households survived on a precarious structure of credit that tended to collapse when employment was scarce, debts mounted, the rent was unpaid and creditors at the door. By various strategies, the families of unskilled labourers ‘got by’ most of the time, but without any security outside the informal help of family or friends. The only other option for the unemployed was migration from depressed to prosperous areas within Britain or emigration to colonies such as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa where labour was still scarce. Emigration, whether assisted[8] or not, was an option for the young and skilled since colonies were not prepared to be used as a dumping ground for Britain’s surplus labour and colonial governments had as little desire for British paupers as for British convicts.[9]

By the late-nineteenth century, urban expansion concentrated unemployment and underemployment in unprecedented fashion and made social distress more visible. With the migration of the middle-classes and the skilled working-class to the suburbs, those unable to find regular employment were left behind, forming the backbone of an ‘inner city’ problem. The new visibility of disorganisation in the labour market, at a time of German and American economic expansion, the extension of the vote to most working men in 1884, the growth of trade and labour organisation and the inability of traditional institutions to cope with the situation combined to promote the unemployment question as a key issue in national politics for the first time.[10] It took over twenty years to convert emergency intervention into permanent government policy.[11]


[1] On this issue see, Whiteside, Noel, Bad Times: Unemployment in British Social and Political History, (Faber), 1991 and Burnett, John, Idle hands: experience of unemployment, 1790-1990, (Routledge), 1994.

[2] For the debate on the effectiveness of enforcement see, Peacock, A.E., ‘The successful prosecution of the Factory Acts, 1833-55’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 37, (1984), pp. 197-210, Nardinelli, C., ‘The successful prosecution of the Factory Acts: a suggested explanation’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 428-430 and Bartrip, Peter W.J., ‘Success or failure? The prosecution of the early Factory Acts’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 423-427.

[3] See, for example, Goose, Nigel, ‘Farm service, seasonal unemployment and casual labour in mid nineteenth-century England’, Agricultural History Review, Vol. 54, (2006), pp. 274-303 focuses of Hertfordshire.

[4] Ibid, Engels, Frederick, The condition of the working class in England, pp. 247-262.

[5] Ibid, Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor: The Condition and Earnings of Those that will work, cannot work, and will not work, Vol. 1, 404. Millinery and dressmaking constituted the higher end of female employment with the needle; they were ‘respectable’ occupations for young women from middle-class or lower middle-class families. The number of women involved in dressmaking alone in the early 1840s was estimated to be 15,000: House of Commons, Reports from Commissioners: Children’s Employment, Trade and Manufactures, Sessional Papers, Vol. XIV, (1843), p. 555.

[6] Boot, H.M., ‘Unemployment and Poor Law relief in Manchester, 1845-1850’, Social History, Vol. 15, (1990), pp. 217-228 provides a valuable local study.

[7] Hatton, Timothy J., ‘Unemployment and the labour market, 1870-1939’, in Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A., (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Vol. 2: economic maturity, 1860-1939, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 344-373 and Boyer, George R. and Hatton, Timothy J., ‘New estimates of British unemployment, 1870-1913’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 62, (2002), pp. 643-675.

[8] Howells, Gary, ‘”On account of their disreputable characters”: parish-assisted emigration from rural England, 1834-1860’, History, Vol. 88, (2003), pp. 587-605 considers Bedfordshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. See also, Haines, R., ‘Nineteenth century government-assisted immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia: schemes, regulations and arrivals 1831-1900, and some vital statistics 1834-1860’, Flinders Occasional Papers in Economic History, Vol. 3, (1995), pp. 1-171.

[9] See, for example, Richards, Eric, ‘How Did Poor People Emigrate from the British Isles to Australia in the Nineteenth Century?’ Journal of British Studies, Vol. 32, (1993), pp. 250-279 and Gray, Peter, ‘“Shovelling out your paupers”: the British state and Irish famine migration 1846-50’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 33, (4), (1999), pp. 47-66.

[10] On this issue, see, Harris, José, Unemployment and politics: a study in English social policy, 1886-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1972, Davidson, Roger, Whitehall and the labour problem in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain: a study in official statistics and social control, (Routledge), 1985 and Walters, William, Unemployment and government: genealogies of the social, (Cambridge University Press), 200, pp. 12-53.

[11] Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, ‘Unemployment’, in ibid, Crafts, Nicholas F. R., Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, (eds.), Work and pay in twentieth-century Britain, pp. 225-263.

2 comments:

(c) Julie McNeill all rights said...

It's not until you start doing your working-class family tree and see so many coal miners, ship labourers etc die at 65 years that they set retirement for then! and why current governments are so keen to extend retirement age, as very few collected a pension for long.
I've got my head in Jarrow with my husbands paternal line where unemployment on the Glasgow shipyards led to a move to Jarrow in 1870, some full and regular employment and procreation of more ship workers, and then by 1930 my father-in-law's teacher advises the 14 year old to get out - unemployment is going to get worse, so the family moved to Leeds...so there would be work for the 3 sons. Two became Tailors.
Back to the working trails....over to Australia 1964.

Anonymous said...

The statement that there are no data on employment rates in the nineteenth century is incorrect. The US Census published data for 1870 through at least 1940. I am unsure about the data for 1850 and 1860, but there is some.