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THE FABJAN Society, 3 CLEMENT'S INN, STRAND, W.C. PUBLISHED MARCH 1897. Fourth REPRINT JANUARY 1908.
LABOR IN THE LONGEST REIGN.*
THE "Sixty Years' Reign" of Queen Victoria—1837 to 1897— inevitably produces a crop of comparisons between the condition of the people at the two dates. At first sight, nothing is more conducive to our self-complacency.
If the Chartists, in 1837, had called for a comparison of their time with 1787, and had obtained a fair account of the actual social life of the ordinary working man at the two periods, it is almost certain that they would have recorded a positive decline in the standard of life of large classes of the population. And if the Spenceans or the “Corresponding Societies” of 1787 had compiled a trustworthy comparison of that year with 1737, it is probable they must have marked a similar decline. There seems reason to believe, îndeeed, that in 1837 some large sections of the “dim inarticulate multitude" were struggling in the trough of a century's decline in all that makes life worth living. Whatever had been of advantage in the patriarchal or semi-feudal relationship between social classes had passed away, without yet being succeeded by the political freedom and mutual respect of democratic organization. The industrial independence which marked the hand industry had been in great part lost, whilst the advantages of the factory system were as yet not universally developed. The poor had lost the generous laxity of the old Poor Law without having yet gained the bracing education in independence which was the main advantage of the new. The parochial and manorial systems of local administration had, in many places, broken down under the enormous growth of population and industry, while the new municipalities were but beginning, and public sanitation and public education were unknown.t And whilst the worst horrors of industrial anarchy prevailed in the mills and mines, not yet subject to any effective legislation, the workman found his food rendered artificially dear by the remnants of the protective system. In almost every respect, indeed, the wage-earner in 1837 was suffering from the surviving evils of the old order, whilst losing all its advantages; and he was already exposed to many of the disadvantages of the new era, whilst enjoying but few of its benefits. Nothing is more difficult than to estimate fairly the comparative well-being of a whole community at different periods. But if one may trust one's impression of numerous converging testimonies, 1737 shows approximately the high-water mark of prosperity, at any rate since the
* Reprinted (by permission), with numerous alterations, from the Wholesale Co-operative Society's Annual for 1893.
† Lord Beaconsfield's novel, Sybil, or the Two Nations, gives a good idea of some of the horrors of this period, as Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton does of the poverty of Lancashire. Engel's Condition of the Working Classes in 1844 (Sonnenschein, 1892) is a picture of the period largely compiled from official reports.
Middle Ages, of the farm laborers and perhaps also of the little handicraftsmen. Their life, no doubt, was then rude and hard, but it had, perhaps, with its yearly bonds and customary wages, more permanence and regularity on the whole than has since been possible. On the other hand, 1837 marks almost the lowest depth of degradation of the English rural population, and a very low level indeed in the condition of the miner and the mill operative. And, therefore, even if 1897 represents a great advance in almost every respect on 1837, we cannot accept this result with any very great self-complacency. In comparing ourselves with 1837 we set an appallingly low standard, and great indeed would be our guilt if amid our huge increase in national wealth no advance on that year were recorded.
It is not possible in a Fabian Tract to attempt a full examination into the condition of the workman to-day as compared with his position in 1837. All that can be done is to give a general impression on the subject, and a few of the many detailed facts which could be cited in support of that impression.* Bad as we are sometimes tempted to think the present condition of the people, it is clear that, on the whole, there has been a substantial advance since 1837. In the great mass of trades, and in nearly all places, the money wages of the men are much higher, and the workman obtains a far larger supply of commodities in return for his labor than he did sixty years ago. In many cases the hours of labor are shorter, the conditions of work are better, and the general standard of life has been considerably raised. The house accommodation, both in town and country, is much improved ; the sanitary conditions have often been revolutionized; education is not only far more general, but is also far more extensive ; whilst such opportunities for culture as libraries, museums, art galleries, music and healthy recreation are much more accessible to the workman than they ever were before. In a word, the great bulk of the population are far more civilized than they were sixty years ago.
Cruel as is our industrial system, life in England is in nearly every respect much more humane than it was. The evils which still exist must not blind us to the progress that has been made. So far the panegyrics of the optimistic statisticians of our time are justified.
Wages. It is unnecessary to say very much about the general rise in money wages which has taken place since 1837. There seems no reason to doubt,
so far as concerns the male worker, the general accuracy of Sir Robert Giffen's conclusion that the rise in nearly
* The Queen's Jubilee in 1887 produced a number of "Fifty Years Retrospects," to which reference should be made by those studying the subject. Of these, Sir Robert Giffen's two essays on "The Progress of the Working Classes during the last half-century”. (in his Essays in Finance, second series, 1887), contain the best survey of the economic facts, presented in a somewhat too optimistic way. Mulhall's Fifty Years of National Progress contains a mass of statistics. A more general survey is taken in Sir W. Besant's Fifty Years Ago (Chatto and Windus), which contains a mass of interesting particulars as to the social condition of the nation, but is untrustworthy upon economic facts. The History of Trade Unionism, by S. and B. Webb, tells the story of the working classes ; see also The Tailoring Trade, edited for the London School of Economics and Political Science by F. W. Galton (Longmans).
all trades has been from 50 to 100 per cent.* In some of the building trades, for instance, wages have in certain localities actually doubled during the present century. The son of a carpenter in Scotland told me that he remembered his father, about 1850, regularly bringing home 34/6 as his wage—not for one, but for four
reeks' work, the system of monthly pays not yet having been abolished. It is true that this was in the neighborhood of Inverness, but I mention the incident to recall the fact that wages have often risen most in obscure nooks and corners of the land which have been opened up by those great levellers of wages and pricesrailways and the postal system. But even in Glasgow the minutes of the energetic Joiners' Union show that it was fighting hard between 1833 and 1837 to get a standard rate of 21/- per week, as against 36/- at the present day. And the stone-masons in Glasgow have improved their rate of pay from 5d. per hour in 1853, which is the earliest year for which I could obtain the figures, to 8fd. per hour now. And if we turn to quite another industry, I have ascertained the rate of wages of the engine-men at a small colliery in the Lothians since the year 1831. They begin at 11/- per week, and rise steadily, though with numerous fluctuations, to 23/4 in 1872, and to no less than 33/3 per week in 1892.
The compositors, too, in many places have doubled their money wages during the present century. In Edinburgh, for instance, in 1803 the average earnings of compositors in eleven of the best printing offices of the city varied from 13/9 to 17/115 per week, the rate being 31d. per 1,000.
The "Interlocutor" of 1805an order of the Court of Session fixing a scale of piecework ratesraised the average earnings to about 20/3 ; but from that time until 1861 no advance was made on these rates, and the average earnings of men at piecework in book printing establishments seem positively to have declined during these years. But in the meantime the “stab" system had greatly increased in the city, and “stab "
wages had risen from 21/- in 1833 to 26/- in 1861. Edinburgh has never been a good city for compositors, but the rate per 1,000 is now 6 d., and the minimum weekly wage of men on the establishment is 3216.6
But perhaps one of the most remarkable instances of improvement of social condition is that of the Northumberland coal miner. Two generations ago, he was a helpless, degraded wage-slave, utterly without the means of resisting the worst abuses of capitalist tyranny. The hewer of 1830, if we may trust a contemporary pamphlet, often received no more than 11ur 12 - a week for ten or twelve hours a day underground. The miners' delegate meeting settled the strike of 1831 on terms which included a minimum of 30/- per fortnight
* See Sir Robert Giffen's two papers on "The Progress of the Working Classes in the last half-century" (Essays in Finance, second series, 1887, pp. 365-409). But it must be remembered that this general rise has not taken place without numerous ups and downs in good and bad times, the details of which for particular trades and in particular localities would well repay study.
+ It may be added that the method of computing piecework per 1,000 ens is said to have been introduced in London in 1774, when the rate was 4d. (Edinburgh being 3d, at that time); By 1785 the London rate had advanced to 5 d., where it appears to have remained stationary until 1861, when it was raised to 6d. It now averages 87d.