The Standard of Living of Working-class Families

Material standards of living of a large group of families are difficult to summarise, but there is in most working-class communities a largely conventional element in the level at which each family tends to aim, which it will try to reach at almost all costs, and exceed only to spend the surplus on “inessentials” or on attempts to rise in the social scale. Even if this conventional standard is itself only a vague concept, it allows us to attach some significance to its change over time.

A careful study of the income, expenditure and possessions of two Sheffield workmen-a cutler and a carpenter-was made in 1851 by Le Play, who also constructed detailed accounts of local prices. The earnings with which he credited his two families were not untypical. A second, more comprehensive, source showing standards of domestic comfort in Sheffield in the mid-century is furnished by the compensation claims of victims of the “Sheffield Flood” of 1864, the result of the bursting of the Bradfield Reservoir, in which 258 lives were lost and about £500,000 worth of damage sustained. The claims for compensation and relief came in the majority from the poor householders, and were recorded in eleven volumes,’ showing also the occupations of the claimants. Even though the items claimed may not represent the actual values lost in each case, working-men would be unlikely to claim articles not commonly found in working-class households. Some information has also been gleaned from advertisements in the Press and in local directories.*

It would appear that a worker in fairly regular employ was reasonably well provided with the basic items of furniture, such as bedsteads, table and chairs, sideboards or chests-of-drawers, and with the necessary minimum of earthenware and cutlery. LePlay’s carpenter possessed movable household goods to the value of £32 5s. 2d. (he was exceptionally thrifty), and his cutler to the value Of £ 13 14s. 2d A sum Of £ 10-£ 15 could easily be saved by a sober and respectable workingman before marriage.

On the other hand, the household of even a skilled man would lack carpets (though there were rugs to cover parts of the stone floor of the sitting-room), good-quality bed coverings and curtains. Children up to any age had to share beds with brothers or sisters; many items of furniture were crudely home-made; light still came from candles or oil; and the stock of linen, particularly of the cutler, was sadly deficient. It is also clear that the replacement of major items was virtually impossible out of a narrow family budget until the children were safely set up on their own; by that time few men in the local trades had many more years to live.

A man in work commonly had two sets of clothes, week-day and Sunday, and so had his wife. The Sunday suit was replaced every year or two and the old one became the working suit. The woman’s clothing (like the child’s, and the man’s underwear) was made up at home, and, judging from Le Play’s budgets, the clothing was of poor quality.

The year 1851 was a good one in Sheffield. In times of depression standards were drastically reduced as the decline in incomes meant not only an end to replacements but often a pawning of necessary respectable skilled’man could live temporarily on credit; nevertheless., in lean times standards fell drastically. The Sunday suit was pawned and the consumption of food was curtailed. The first savings were made on tea, coffee and sugar, and the next expendable item was meat; in 1833 not only workmen but little masters were said to have gone for weeks without meat and to have lived on cabbages, potatoes and bread.

In times of good trade the Sheffield workman was relatively well fed. The town’s artisans “are large consumers of butchers$ meat and wheaten bread”.. wrote Alfred Gatty in 1867.4 and the Pall Mall Gazette concurred that “in good times, the operatives insist on having the prime joints, and always get them, because they will give higher prices than professional men think they can afford to do”. In 1851. a good year, Le Play’s cutler’s family (2 adults and 4 children) consumed -i oz. of meat per day, some of it from animals reared in their own garden, and the carpenter (2 adults and 2 children) 20 oz. of meat; the former also consumed 3 lb. 12 oz. of bread and other cereals a day, and the latter 3 lb.’ In addition, the cutler’s family, of Irish descent, had well over 2 lb * of potatoes per day; the carpenter’s consumption was only 9 oz. By contrast, the consumption of fats and green vegetables was small, and that of eggs, fish and tea negligible. The diet, then, was based largely on bread and meat; any reduction in the meat consumption was bound seriously to unbalance the diet.

By modern standards (Table 3) the diet of the carpenter was adequate, while the diet of the cutler’s family plainly, was not, largely because of the extra mouths to be fed. Even among workers in steady employment, defective nutrition was likely to occur in large households and in households in which the man was engaged in very heavy work, or the wife was pregnant, that is, when malnutrition was exceptionally undesirable.

Assuming a rent of 2s. 6d. per week, union contributions and doctor’s bills (or friendly society contributions) and school fees at a minimum of is. 6d. per week, adequate nutrition (plus fuel and light) for the average family of five persons was likely to swallow the whole of the remainder of the wage, averaging £i a week, at the prices given by Le Play. The purchase of clothing, toys, presents or any other untoward expenditure would cut into the necessary food budget.

Some families succeeded in supplementing incomes by the earnings of older girls as dressmakers or in service and of older boys as apprentices; others might consist of more than three children. or its head spent a large share of his income on drink. But an average respectable family lived perilously near the margin. Any illness of the breadwinner and any of the regularly recurring periods of poor trade were necessarily followed by periods of under-nourishment.

It was the uncertainty of the worker’s income, rather than its absolute level at any one time, which militated against regular working-class saving, preached so earnestly by middle-class authorities. The “nest egg” accumulated in good years could not survive the inevitable depression.’ It was not those who brought home high wages in good weeks, but those who enjoyed a regular. even if lower income, like domestic servants and shop assistants, who supplied the bulk of the small savings.

Nevertheless, some Sheffield artisans did succeed in saving regularly a part of their income, with the help of land societies, friendly societies, sick clubs or in the Sheffield Savings Bank founded in 1819,3 which had deposits amounting to £182,000 in 1841, £203,000 in 1849, £215,000 in 185o and £237,000 in 1851. The proportion of artisans among the depositors was much higher than in other towns .”


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