Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850

Peter Kirby, Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 212. 8 tabs. 6 figs. ISBN 9781843838845 Pbk. £19.99)

Review by Alysa Levene (Oxford Brookes University)

Book by Peter Kirby

‘Child workers and industrial health in Britain 1780-1850’ is published by Boydell and Brewer. SAVE  25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 18th July 2019. See below for details.


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The physical horrors endured by child workers in the early industrial workplace are well known to historians – or at least, we think they are. The regulations of the various Factory Acts and the testaments of sub-commissioners, doctors and factory workers to the parliamentary enquiries of the 1830s and 1840s are common reference points for those of us working or teaching in this area. However, over the last few years, several in-depth studies of child labour in industrial England have appeared which have started to challenge and nuance what we think we know. First, Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820 (2007) suggested that apprentices to cotton mills were often better looked after than we have thought. Then, Jane Humphries, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2010) set industrial work in a wider context of schooling and family life, as evidenced in over 600 working-class autobiographies. And now, Peter Kirby has added the first monograph study of occupational health among child workers in the first half of the nineteenth century¸ and has again, knocked down many of the key points we have been telling students for years.

The book is organised thematically, starting with an Introduction which sets out in detail the historical background to child labour in industry, and the sources we have for studying it. Here, Kirby points out the problems with the medical evidence collected for the parliamentary enquiries in the 1830s and 1840s; namely that many of the doctors concerned did not have first-hand experience of occupational health and so tended to attribute any health issues to working conditions rather than environmental ones. This leads him to place more emphasis on the writings of non-medical men, shifting the perspective away from doctors and children and towards health and conditions of work in the round. The main chapters consider child health in industrial cities generally; the key issues affecting the health of child industrial worker (deformities; ‘materials’ – see more below; and injuries); heights and ages, and how these were measured; and finally, corporal punishment and murder.

One of Kirby’s key conclusions is that it was environmental rather than working conditions which were responsible for most of the health problems experienced by child workers. He states that many began work in factories and mines already compromised by poor nutrition, environmental pollution and the impact of parental loss (which led to work at a young age), and that in fact, stunted and disabled children may have been preferentially admitted to the factory workforce because they were suited to the lighter tasks found there. To a certain degree this is convincing, and it is certainly instructive and worthwhile to draw attention to the relationship between the conditions of home life and working life so clearly. The discussion of environmental pollution and its impact on health is particularly detailed. However, it seems hard to believe either that so many children would have suffered from conditions like byssinosis, scoliosis or poliomyelitis as Kirby suggests, or that pre-existing disability could have been so widespread among child workers given the need to stand upright and bear a load in so many areas of work.

The discussion of ‘materials’ is another area where Kirby provides an impressive level of detail, and which advances our understanding of the realities of working life in mills. In particular, he draws attention to the pollutants which can be carried in raw cotton, and ties this to changes in supply during this period, for example, away from imports from the West Indies, and towards those from North America, which were less likely to be contaminated (this coincided with a fall in ‘mill fevers’). This is something which has not been much considered in previous work (although it was noted by contemporaries) and which has a bearing on both adult and child workers.

Kirby attempts to bring a similarly new perspective to the discussion of workplace violence, suggesting that corporal punishment was common only in specific circumstances (such as where safety or productivity demanded it, or where child workers were particularly vulnerable, like parish apprentices), and that it was in any case a more accepted part of daily life than it is now. These two points do not necessarily sit easily together; certainly the evidence of violence in the commissioners’ reports suggests that it was not condoned. He is more confident on the system of medical inspection, and provides a detailed discussion of its scale and potential pitfalls, particularly the difficulty of assessing children’s ages (vital for ensuring that factories and mines adhered to the changing laws on age at starting work). Ultimately this led to the development of standard charts for growth and dentition.

Overall, this is an excellent and comprehensive study of the occupational health of child workers in the most high-profile areas of the industrial sector. It makes a significant contribution to debates on child labour, and the impact of industry on health and daily life. Kirby paints a notably more optimistic picture of the industrial workplace than we are used to, certainly in times of the impact on health and stature of its youngest workers. He ends by calling for more work on other areas of the industrial workforce, and this would certainly be welcome. The book is an excellent introduction to the topic for students and researchers alike; it remains to be seen whether it sparks a new wave of debate over the ‘optimistic’ versus the ‘pessimistic’ schools of thought on the industrial revolution.


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Women’s work and structural change: occupational structure in eighteenth-century Spain

by Carmen Sarasua (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona)

The full paper was published on The Economic History Review, and is available here


Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 19.14.12This research uses householders’ declarations in the Cadaster of Ensenada to calculate labour participation rates for women and men in inland Spain. Conducted between 1750 and 1755, the Cadaster was a general property survey carried out with the aim of modernizing and unifying the fiscal system of the Kingdom of Castile (about three-quarters of modern Spain). Most householders did not declare the occupations of wives or children because their wages were not taxed. In some towns, householders did declare the occupations of their wives and children:

I belong to the General estate, my trade fuller, married, my family is formed by myself, 46 years old, Ynés López Zamorano, 40 years old. I have four daughters, Agustina, 20, her occupation weaver, Isabel, 13, her occupation spinning, María, 11, her occupation going to sewing school, María Teresa, 2 months.

Based on a database currently comprising 44,484 individuals (the population of 22 localities in five provinces of southern Castile), this article shows that men’s participation rates ranged from 78.2 to 92.5 percent. Generally, men’s participation rates were lower in large towns and cities because these localities were home to nonworking members of the nobility, beggars, and monks.

The article also establishes that the actual levels of women’s market activity were much higher than is commonly assumed. For the entire region, women’s participation rate was 32.3 percent. Differences in participation rates among localities were much larger for women than for men, ranging from 12.4 percent in Pedro Muñoz to 82.7 per cent in Villamanrique. Such large differences are explained by the failure to record women’s work. Ajofrín, in Toledo, was a prosperous production centre for woolen fabrics, with a population of 3,308 in 1753. According to householders’ declarations, 82.4 percent of men and 25.3 percent of women were gainfully employed. However, in response to a Cadaster question about the number of poor people living there, the town council responded, ‘Only eight, as everybody is devoted to the work of wool, particularly women, even the oldest ones.’

The Cadaster permits analysis of the region’s deeply gendered occupational structure. The primary sector occupied 60.0 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, of working-age men and women. Men’s primary-sector employment was lower in towns, while women’s presence in the primary sector ranged from zero in some localities to 35.3 percent in regions where flax cultivation was important.

The service sector occupied 16.4 percent and 34.4 percent, respectively, of working men and women. Domestic service was especially important accounting for 84.4 per cent of women and 17.8 percent of men. For women, domestic service correlated with the size of town and the number of households headed by priests. For men, service occupations were more diversified, and included transportation and retailing.

The most important results from my research involve the industrial sector. The labour-intensity of manufacturing together with the abundant supply of cheap labour, the diffusion of cottage industries, and the demand for commodities (particularly textiles) from internal and colonial markets, meant a large portion of the region’s population worked in manufactures in the eighteenth century. This sector occupied 23.6 percent of working men and 62.8 percent of working women.

Table 1. Occupational distribution of women and men, 18th century inland Spain. For sources, access full article here

The unusually high share of men in industry is explained by the recruiting practices of royal factories. Women’s stronger presence in manufacturing was explained by contemporary observers as follows:

The trade that people from La Mancha carry out, within the court, of stockings, bonnets, knitted socks, girdles and garters is from their mills. The merchant associations do not agree with this freedom.

The importance of these products is largely unnoticed in the academic literature which suggests they were consumed by families. But a range of finished products made by women — stockings, lace, scarfs, bonnets, knitted socks, girdles, garters, bedspreads, ribbons, and edging – were destined for the market. Householders’ declarations indicate that women’s textile work was motivated by the need to obtain food and to support the family.

According to the 1877 census, 66.1 percent of the Spanish labour force was engaged in agriculture compared to 14.4 percent in industry. Agriculture was the principal employer until 1930. Standard interpretations of economic growth view a large share of agricultural employment as an indicator of economic backwardness. But such analyses tend to focus only on the structural decomposition of the male labour force. By incorporating women’s work my research develops historical analyses of structural change. My findings are consistent with recent literature that in many European regions non-agricultural employment followed a U-shaped curve.

La Mancha failed to industrialize in the nineteenth century. The invasion of the Napoleonic army in 1808 and the subsequent war led to widespread destruction of sheep flocks and infrastructure, abandonment of agricultural lands, inflation, and severe demographic crisis. National and international commercial networks were disrupted generating a substantial increase in the price of imports. Subsequently, the share of the labour force in agriculture grew. Following the mechanization of textile production thousands of women and girls lost their jobs. Manufacturing employment fell across the country, even in the regions that industrialized. Women found fewer employment opportunities in the countryside, and many eventually moved to the cities to work in domestic service. Only by considering women workers is it possible to understand when, where, why, and how this structural change happened.


To contact the author:

Recurring growth without industrialisation: occupational structures in northern Nigeria, 1921-2006

by Emiliano Travieso (University of Cambridge)


InStove factory workers in Nigeria. Available at <;

Despite recent decades of economic growth, absolute poverty is on the rise in Nigeria, as population increases continue to outpace the reduction in poverty rates. Manufacturing industries, which have the potential to absorb large numbers of workers into better paying jobs, have expanded only very modestly, and most workers remain employed in low productivity sectors (such as the informal urban economy and subsistence agriculture). 

 This scenario is particularly stark in the northern states, which concentrate more than half of the national population and where poverty rates are at their highest. As the largest region of the most populated nation in the continent (and itself three times as large as any other West African country), quantifying and qualifying northern Nigerias past economic development is crucial in order to discuss the perspectives for structural change and poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa.  

 My research traces the major shifts in the economy of northern Nigeria during and since colonial rule through a detailed study of occupational structures, based on colonial and independence-era censuses and other primary sources. 

 While the region has a long history of handicraft production – under the nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate it became the largest textile producer in sub-Saharan Africa – northern Nigeria deindustrialised during British indirect rule. Partially as a result of the expansion of export agriculture (mainly of groundnuts and, to a lesser extent, cotton), the share of the workforce in manufacturing decreased from 18% to 7% in the last four decades of the colonial period. 

 After independence in 1960, growth episodes were led by transport, urban services and government expenditure fuelled by oil transfers from the southeast of the country, but did not spur significant structural change in favour of manufacturing. By 2006, the share of the workforce in manufacturing had risen only slightly: to 8%. 

 In global economic history, poverty alleviation has often resulted from a previous period of systematic movement of labour from low- to high-productivity sectors. The continued expansion of manufacturing achieved just that during the Industrial Revolution in the West and, in the twentieth century, in many parts of the Global South. 

 In large Asian and Latin American economies, late industrialisation sustained impressive achievements in terms of job creation and poverty alleviation. In cases such as Brazil, Mexico and China, large domestic markets, fast urbanisation and improvements in education contributed decisively to lifting millions of people out of poverty. 

Can northern Nigeria, with its large population, deep historical manufacturing roots and access to the largest national market in Africa, develop into a late industrialiser in the twenty-first century? My study suggests that rapid demographic growth will not necessarily result in structural change, but that, through improved market integration and continued expansion of education, the economy could harness the skills and energy of its rising population to produce a more impressive expansion of manufacturing than we have yet seen. 

Cotton, industrialisation and a missing piece of the puzzle

by Alka Raman (London School of Economics)

This study was awarded the prize for the best new researcher poster at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast. The poster can be viewed here.


Cotton merchant, taken by Francis Frith between 1850 and 1870. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The first Industrial Revolution has long been seen as the beacon of modernity, heralding unprecedented economic growth and the biggest uplift of living standards in human history. Its prominence amid themes in economic history is such that it dwarfs all others in comparison, including the fact that the British cotton industry – the nucleus of industrialisation – was not the world’s first cotton manufacturing industry serving a global demand for cotton goods.

Handmade cotton fabrics were exported from India to the rest of the world as early as the twelfth century. Indeed every textbook on economic history, when charting the growth of the British cotton industry, precedes its achievements with a dutiful narration of the introduction of cotton goods into England by the English East India Company in 1699 and the ‘frenzy’ for these cottons within the domestic and overseas markets.

But a passing reference to imitations quickly gives way to an impressive series of mechanisations and illustrious British inventors associated with them. Any connection to the preceding handmade Indian product is effectively lost.

Consequently, a crucial piece of the puzzle – how the seat of cotton manufacturing went from the Indian subcontinent to the heart of England – has remained inadequately explained. Learning from pre-existing products has been mentioned, but what this learning contained, how it may have been transferred and with what kind of outcomes are concepts that have been under-explored.

Hence the question at the heart of my research: did the pre-existing, handmade and globally demanded Indian cottons influence the growth and technological trajectory of the nascent British cotton industry?

Central to my thesis is the idea that the pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles contained the material knowledge required for their successful imitation and reproduction. These handmade Indian cottons embodied the cloth quality, print, design and product finish that the machine-made goods sought to imitate. Did learning from these pre-existing market-approved products contribute to the growth of early British cotton manufacturing?

My research identifies learning from the benchmark product, as well as competition with it, as two simultaneous stimuli shaping the British cotton industry during its initial phase. In terms of methodology, the thesis tests these two stimuli against historical textual and material evidence.

The writings of manufacturers, traders and historians/commentators of the period show that both manufacturers and innovators recognised that there was a knowledge problem or a ‘skills gap’: British spinners could not spin cotton warp to match Indian hand-spun warp’s quality. Entrepreneurs identified matching the quality of Indian hand-spun warp as a key motivation for innovation. Their language of quality comparisons with reference to Indian cottons is crucial and highlights comparative quality-related learning from Indian cotton goods.

Does the material evidence corroborate this textual finding? To establish if cloth quality improved over time, I study the material evidence (surviving cotton textiles from the period) under a digital microscope and thread counter to chart the quality of these fabrics over the key decades of mechanisation. I use thread count to establish the comparative quality of the machine-made cotton fabrics vis-à-vis the handmade Indian cottons.

My findings show that early British ‘cottons’ were, in reality, mixed fabrics using linen warp and cotton weft. In addition, the results show a marked increase in cloth quality between 1746 and 1820.

Assessed together, the textual and material evidence demonstrate that mechanisation in the early British cotton industry was geared towards overcoming specific sequential quality-related bottlenecks, associated first with the ability to make the all-cotton cloth, followed by the ability to make the fine all-cotton cloth.

Imitation of benchmark Indian cottons steered the growth of the British cotton industry on a specific path of technological evolution – a trajectory that was shaped by the quest to match the quality of the handmade Indian cotton textiles.

Deindustrialisation in ‘troubled’ Belfast: evidence of the links between factory closures and sectarianism – and lessons from the community response

by Christopher Lawson (University of California, Berkeley)

This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.


The Shankill road, Belfast during the troubles. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

My new research provides fresh insights into the relationship between industrial decline and sectarian conflict in late twentieth century Belfast, and increases our understanding of how communities respond to the loss of their economic base.

The poverty and deprivation that continues to afflict much of West Belfast is usually understood as a direct result of the sectarian ‘Troubles’ of the 1960s to 1990s, when ‘ancient’ ethnic and religious hatreds erupted and brought economic misery as investment fled.

But industrial decline actually predated the ‘Troubles’, and was a cause rather than an effect of sectarian tension. The linen industry, on which West Belfast had been built, shed tens of thousands of jobs in the 20 years following the Second World War, leading to some of the highest unemployment rates in the entire UK by the mid-1960s.

I argue that it was the social consequences of the collapse of the linen industry that made West Belfast neighbourhoods like the Shankill and the Falls such centres of conflict in the following decades. West Belfast communities were caught in a downward spiral, where unemployment and urban decay was exploited by those seeking to promote sectarian resentment, leading to violence, which in turn made the economic conditions even worse.

In addition to showing how deindustrialisation helped spur the ‘Troubles’ in West Belfast, my research also shows how new community organisations sprang up to fill the gap left by government and lead the effort to adapt to post-industrial world.

I focus particularly on the creation of the Shankill Community Council and Ardoyne People’s Assembly, on either side of the sectarian divide in West Belfast. These organisations are usually seen as outgrowths of the Troubles, focused on defending their communities from sectarian violence, but my research shows that their primary focus was actually on re-development and reversing economic decline.

These organisations recognised that the linen industry would not be returning, and instead focused on education, daycare, skills retraining and transport linkages. In communities where more than 70% of adolescents left school without any qualifications whatsoever, improved education was essential if young people were to build meaningful lives and resist the temptation to join sectarian paramilitaries.

The emphasis on quality daycare was part of a larger effort to reduce the barriers preventing women from entering the workforce as equals to men, as community leaders recognised that the idea of the ‘male breadwinner’ was a thing of the past.

Although the progress of these organisations was slow, their efforts helped to begin the process of economic and social recovery, and they set the agenda for government support in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. The Shankill Women’s Centre, an outgrowth of the Shankill Community Council, would receive significant government support from New Labour and from the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and it continues to provide subsidised daycare in the neighbourhood.

With deindustrialisation widely recognised as a contributing factor in the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, it is important that we understand the serious social and cultural consequences that such dramatic economic dislocation can have.

My research helps to provide a better understanding of the role of deindustrialisation in the outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, but also shows how bottom-up social action can make a genuine difference in the process of recovery. In this way, it provides lessons that can be applied to struggling post-industrial communities across the Western world.

Family standards of living in England over the very long run

by Sara Horrell (University of Cambridge), Jane Humphries (University of Oxford), and Jacob Weisdorf (University of Southern Denmark and Centre for Economic Policy Research)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Over London–by Rail from London: A Pilgrimage (1872). Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The secular evolution in human wellbeing, measured by unskilled workers’ real wages, has long been the subject of scholarly debate. Attention is focused on whether modern economic growth is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, prompted by the Industrial Revolution, or if workers in England experienced economic progress well before the Industrial Revolution, even if on a more modest scale. The answer will help inform third-world policy-makers about alternative routes to economic growth.

Thanks to recent archival work, we now have information on payments made to working-class men, women and children across 600 years of English history – from before the Black Death through to the classic years of the Industrial Revolution. In a study to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we bring all of these payments together to provide a first-ever account of the earning possibilities of working-class families in historical England.

By asking how much a typical lower-class family consumed, in terms of basic consumption goods, such as calories, clothes, heating and housing, we are able to ask how much work was needed by the husband, as well as his wife and children, in order to achieve this. Also, because historical families were rather large (four to five children were not uncommon), we pay particular attention to the ‘family squeeze’ – that is, stages during the family lifecycle when the ratio of dependants to earners peaked.

Despite the post-Black Death period being regarded as a ‘golden age of labour’ and on assumptions of plentiful work, the husband’s earnings were not enough in the fourteenth century to satisfy a typical family’s basic consumption needs during the family squeeze. Women and children’s work was regularly needed in order to make ends meet and, even then, this was not enough to avoid insolvency problems during a couple’s old age.

But as we move forward through the medieval and early-modern periods, progressively less women and children’s work was required to ensure a stable standard of living, and old age poverty became less severe. In this sense, we conclude that the quality of life of an average lower-class family gradually improved in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution.

We also conclude by arguing that a surplus in the family budget after necessities had been bought in the run-up to the Industrial Revolution enabled families to allocate a growing fraction of their income to market goods rather than homemade products.

This served as a stimulus to the Industrial Revolution because it motivated producers to innovate and profit from satisfying this increased demand. A widening market seemed important in combination (or competition) with the hypotheses that industrialisation sprung from entrepreneurial efforts to save labour.

Demographic shocks and women’s labour market participation: evidence from the 1918 influenza pandemic in India

by James Fenske, Bishnupriya Gupta and Song Yuan (University of Warwick)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.



Women washing clothes at the Sabarmati river, Ahmedabad. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Women’s labour force participation is an important driver of economic development and gender equality. Historically, India has had low female participation in economic activities outside the home. Researchers have cited early marriage, social conservatism and limited comparative advantage of women in certain types of agriculture among the potential explanations.

Despite economic growth, female labour force participation has fallen in recent years, generating several important studies. Our research, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, considers the response of female labour force participation to one major demographic shock – the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Past studies have looked at the wartime mortality of men as a demographic shock affecting the total supply of labour, and have found that this affects women’s labour market participation. The empirical evidence of other types of demographic shock due to epidemics is more limited.

Our research focuses on India and aims to understand the impact of the large-scale demographic shock that was the 1918 influenza pandemic, in the context of a society in which female labour market participation had typically been low due to cultural norms.

From 1918 to 1919, a deadly influenza epidemic hit India, and caused more than 13 million deaths, equivalent to 5% of the population. In contrast to typical epidemics, which are disproportionally deadly to immunologically weak individuals such as infants and the very old, this epidemic primarily caused deaths among young adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

The mortality rate varied greatly across districts, ranging from 1.4% to 17.9% of the population in our sample. We focus on three questions: did the 1918 influenza pandemic increase or decrease female employment? If so, why? Was this effect persistent?

To answer these questions, we combine detailed district-level historical census data on occupations by gender from 1901 to 1931 with data from multiple sources on influenza mortality, marital statuses by age and gender, and wages.

Using an event-study approach, we find that a 1% increase in the mortality rate raised the female labour force participation rate by 1.2% in 1921 and the change was concentrated in the service sector. But this was transitory, disappearing by 1931. By contrast, the pandemic did not affect the labour force participation of men at either the district or district-by-sector level.

How do we explain the labour market effects of the pandemic? Possible causal channels will have affected either the supply of or the demand for female labour. One possible channel is that the death of men increased the share of widows in the population. As household income was generally earned by men, widows were pushed to participate in the labour market in order to mitigate the negative economic shock.

On the other hand, the rise in the proportion of widowers had no impact on male labour force participation, as most men worked before the disaster, whether widowed or not. In addition, the pandemic led to a shortage of labour, potentially increasing wages, inducing women out of the home and into the labour force.

Our findings provide evidence that negative demographic shocks alter the working behaviour of women, at least in the short run. In contrast with previous research on events such as the slave trade and the two world wars, which have considered sex-biased demographic shocks, we show that shocks that are not sex-based can also play a role in determining female employment. Further, it enables us to understand the historical dynamics and determinants of female economic and social status in India.


The returns to invention during the British industrial revolution

by Sean Bottomley (Max Planck Institute for European Legal History)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website


british industry
Ancoats, Manchester. McConnel & Company’s mills, about 1820. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Since the Victorian period, it has been commonly assumed that inventors were rarely remunerated for their inventions. To contemporaries they were ‘the miserable victim of [their] own powerful genius’, ‘Martyrs of Science’ who worked ‘alone, unfriended, solitary’, while ‘the recorded instances of the[ir] martyrdom would be a task of enormous magnitude’. Prominent examples of important inventors from the industrial revolution period, but who had the misfortune to die in penury (the steam engineer Richard Trevithick, for example), has meant that this view has passed into the modern literature almost without scrutiny.

This assumption, though, is significant, as it directly informs how we might explain probably ‘the’ big problem in economic history: what were the origins of the industrial revolution, and concomitantly, of modern economic growth. In particular, if inventors did usually fail to obtain financial rewards, this precludes potential explanations of the industrial revolution that invoke incentives to explain the actions of those who invented and commercialised the new technology industrialisation required. It also precludes the applicability of endogenous growth theory to the industrial revolution (theory which has earnt two of its progenitors 2018 Nobel prizes) as it assumes that profit incentives determine the amount of inventive activity that occurs.

In an attempt to determine the wealth of inventors, I have collected probate data for over 700 inventors born in Britain between 1660 and 1830, from a list first compiled by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr. This probate data indicates that inventors were in fact extremely wealthy. For instance, in one exercise, I compared the probated wealth of 422 inventors who died between 1800 and 1870, with that of the overall adult male population.


Table 1.           Probated wealth of inventors, 1800-1870

Probated wealth Adult male population (1839-1841) Adult male population (1858) Inventors
<£200 or no will 73302 (88.14%) 87043 (87.70%) 124 (29.4%)
<£1,000 5570   (6.70%) 6690   (6.74%) 39   (9.2%)
94.84% 94.44% 163 (38.6%)
<£10,000 4296 (5.16%) 4554 (4.59%) 104 (24.6%)
<£50,000 812 (0.82%) 95 (22.5%)
   £50,000+ 154 (0.16%) 60 (14.2%)
5.16% 5.56% 259 (61.4%)

Notes: For details on how the distribution of male probated wealth was estimated for 1839-41, and 1858, please refer to the appendix in the original article published in the Economic History Review.


The table above shows us that approximately 5 to 6 percent of adult males who died in 1839-41 and 1858 (years for when these figures can be collated), left behind wealth probated in excess of £1,000. The equivalent figure for inventors was over 60 percent. The disparity only increases as we move up through the wealth categories. Whereas only 0.16 percent of adult males left behind wealth probated in excess of £50,000 in 1858 (one in 650), for inventors it was 14.2 percent (one in 7).

It does not, however, automatically follow that the wealth of inventors was actually derived from their inventions. These were presumably talented individuals and their income may have been accrued over the course of a ‘normal’ business career and/or inherited. Unfortunately, this is a prohibitively difficult subject to approach directly: accounts rarely survive for these inventors and in any case, it is doubtful whether income from an invention could be neatly distinguished from ‘normal’ business income. As an indirect approach, I have also collected probate information for the brothers of inventors. Brothers are an especially apposite group for comparison: they would have enjoyed a very similar inheritance to their brothers (although inheriting financial capital appears to have mattered less than inheriting social capital) and they tended to enter similar occupations to their (inventive) brothers. Indeed, 24 of the inventors in the entire dataset were related as brothers – the talents and opportunities required to become an inventor were clearly not evenly distributed among the adult male population.

For 143 of the 422 inventors discussed in table 1, it was possible to confirm the existence of at least one adult brother who reached at least the age of 25 and who died in Britain between 1800 and 1870 (253 brothers in total). In the table below, the top row divides these 143 inventors into the same wealth categories as those used in the table above, with the number in parentheses denoting how many of the 143 inventors are in each category. The columns beneath this then show the distribution of the wealth of their brothers. So, there are 25 inventors in this exercise whose estate was worth less than £200. Of their 45 brothers, 31 were also left behind less than £200. Three had probated wealth between £200 and £1,000, nine between £1,000 and £10,000 and two between £10,000 and £50,000. None left behind more than £50,000.


Table 2.           Brother’s Probates, 1800-1870

< £200 (25) < £1,000 (11) < £10,000 (35) < £50,000 (44) £50,000+ (28)
     < £200 31 12 26 35 23
  < £1,000 3 3 7 7 2
< £10,000 9 2 14 31 13
< £50,000 2 2 3 9 8
    £50,000+ 3 2 6

Notes: as Table 1


Overall, if inventors were wealthier than their brothers, then the latter should be concentrated at the top and to the right of the table, and away from the bottom left corner. Clearly, they are – overwhelmingly so when one considers how important simple happenstance can be in influencing an individual’s financial success over the course of their career.

Previous work has relied on impressionistic evidence to suggest that inventors in this period rarely obtained financial rewards commensurate with their technical achievements. Probate information, though, shows that inventors were extremely wealthy relative to the adult male population. Inventors were also significantly wealthier than another group who would have received a similar inheritance (in terms of both financial and social capital) and entered similar occupations: their brothers. Their additional wealth was derived from inventive activities: invention paid.


To contact Sean Bottomley:

The Price of the Poor’s Words: Social Relations and the Economics of Deposing for One’s “Betters” in Early Modern England

by Hillary Taylor (Jesus College, Cambridge)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website

Poverty and Wealth. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England was one of the most litigious societies on record. If much of this litigation was occasioned by debt disputes, a sizeable proportion involved gentlemen suing each other in an effort to secure claims to landed property. In this genre of suits, gentlemen not infrequently enlisted their social inferiors and subordinates to testify on their behalf.[1] These labouring witnesses were usually qualified to comment on the matter at hand a result of their employment histories. When they deposed, they might recount their knowledge of the boundaries of some land, of a deed or the like. In the course of doing so, they might also comment on all sorts of quotidian affairs. Because testifying enabled illiterate and otherwise anonymous people to speak on-record about all sorts of issues, historians have rightly regarded depositions as a singularly valuable source: for all their limitations, they offer us access to worlds that would otherwise be lost.

But we don’t know much about what labouring people thought about the prospect of testifying for (and against) their superiors, or how they came to testify in the first place. Did they think that it presented an opportunity to assert themselves? Did it – as some contemporary legal commentators claimed – provide them with an opportunity to make a bit of money on the side by ‘selling’ dubious evidence to their litigious superiors?[2] Or were they reluctant to depose in such circumstances and, if so, why? Where subordinated individuals deposed for their ‘betters’, what was the relationship between the ‘pull’ of economic reward and the ‘push’ of extra-economic coercion?

I wrote an article that considers these questions. It doesn’t have any tables or graphs; the issues with which it’s concerned don’t readily lend themselves to quantification. Rather, this piece tries to think about how members of the labouring population conceived of the possibilities that were afforded to and the constraints that were imposed upon them by dint of their socio-economic position.

In order to reconstruct these areas of popular thought, I read loads of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century suits from the court of Star Chamber. In these cases, labouring witnesses who had deposed for one superior against another were subsequently sued for perjury (this was typically done in an effort to have a verdict that they had helped to secure overturned). Allegations against these witnesses got traction because it was widely assumed that people who worked for their livings were poor and, as a result, would lie under oath for anyone who would pay them for doing so. Where these suits advanced to the deposition-taking phase, labouring witnesses who were accused of swearing falsely under oath and witnesses of comparable social position provided accounts of their relationship with the litigious superiors in question, or commentaries on the perceived risks and benefits of giving evidence. They discussed the economic dispensations (or the promise thereof) which they had been given, or the coercion which had been used to extract their testimony.

Taken in aggregate, this evidence suggests that members of the labouring population had a keen sense of the politics of testimony. In a dynamic and exacting economy such as that of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, where labouring people’s material prospects were irrevocably linked to their reputation and ‘honesty,’ deposing could be risky. Members of the labouring population were aware of this, and many were hesitant to depose at all. Their reluctance may well have been born of an awareness that doubt was likely to be cast upon their testimony as a result of their subordinated and dependent social position, which lent credibility to accusations that they had sworn falsely for gain. More immediately, it reflected concerns about the material reprecussions that they feared would follow from commenting on the affairs of their ‘betters.’ Such projections were not merely the stuff of paranoid speculation. In 1601, a carpenter from Buckinghamshire called Christopher Badger had put his mark to a statement defending a gentleman, Arthur Wright, who had frustrated efforts to impose a stinting arrangement on the common to, as many locals claimed, the ‘damadge of the poorer sorte and to the comoditie of the riche.’ Badger recalled that one of Wright’s opponents – also a gentleman – later approached him and said ‘You have had my worke and the woorke of divers’ other pro-stinting individuals. To discourage Badger from further involvement, he added a thinly veiled threat: ‘This might be an occasion that you maie have lesse worke then heretofore you have had.’[3] For members of the labouring population, material circumstance often militated against opening their mouths.

But there was an irony to the politics of testimony, which was not lost on common people. If material conditions made some prospective witnesses reluctant to depose, they all but compelled others to do so (even when they expressed reservations). In some instances, labouring people’s poverty rendered the rewards – a bit of coal, a cow, promises of work that was not dictated by the vagaries of seasonal employment, or nebulous offers of a life freed from want – that they were promised (and less often given) in return for their testimony compelling. In others, the dependency, subordination and obligation that characterized their relations with their superiors necessitated that they speak as required, or face the consequences. In the face of such pressures, a given individual’s reservations about testifying were all but irrelevant.

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[1] For debt and debt-related litigation, see Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1998).

[2] For suspicions surrounding the testimony of poor and/or labouring witnesses, see Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2015).

[3] TNA, STAC 5/W17/32. Continue reading

Medieval Clothiers and their workers: an early ‘gig’ economy?

by John S. Lee (University of York)

The Medieval Clothier is published by Boydell Press. SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher – offer ends on the 31 March 2019. See below for details.


Dyers soaking red cloth in a heated barrel. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Casual wage-earners dependent on wealthy entrepreneurs for their work are not just a modern phenomenon. A new book by John S. Lee, The Medieval Clothier, charts the rise of clothiers in the period 1350-1550, and the innovative ways in which they organised their workforce.

Clothiers co-ordinated the different stages of textile production and found markets for their finished cloth. They increasingly managed all the stages of cloth-making, operating what historians have called the ‘putting out’ system. In this method of organising work, clothiers put-out raw materials for spinners, weavers, fullers and other cloth-workers to process. Clothiers paid these cloth-workers, often based in their own homes, on a piece-rate basis, rather than receiving a regular wage.

Like the modern ‘gig’ economy, the benefits of this system were hotly contested. Clothworkers enjoyed the independence to choose their own hours, and combine their craft with other activities; clothiers incurred no overheads for work done in the homes of their workers and benefitted from lower labour costs. When clothworkers protested in Suffolk in 1525, their spokesman, John Green, explained that the clothiers

‘give us so little wages for our workmanship that scarcely we be able to live, and thus in penury we pass the time, we our wives and children.’

Another, a group of weavers, accused ‘the rich men, the clothiers’ of setting a single price for their work. Others complained that clothiers reimbursed their workers in ‘pins, girdles, and other unprofitable wares’ rather than in cash. Clothiers were even accused in 1549 of paying poor labourers with ‘soap, candles, rotten cloth, stinking fish, and such like baggage’.

Local and national governments responded with ambivalence. On the one hand, cloth exports brought welcome revenue through customs. Governments were also aware though, that disruptions to overseas cloth sales created unemployment and unrest. The putting-out system relied on outworkers, whom the clothier only paid when work was available, and on keeping labour costs low. Following disruption to overseas markets, the government tried to prevent clothiers from laying off their workers. Even the king’s leading minister, Cardinal Wolsey, pressurised London merchants to continue buying cloth from the clothiers.

A few clothiers were able to amass great wealth from this industry, construct lavish mansions and erect elaborate church memorials, which can still be seen today. Thomas Paycocke’s house at Coggeshall, Essex, built to impress in 1509-10 with its stunning woodcarving and elaborate panelling, is now a National Trust property. The wealth of Thomas Spring III, ‘the rich clothier’ of Lavenham, Suffolk, caught the attention of the royal court’s poet, John Skelton, in 1522. The screen constructed to surround Spring’s tomb in Lavenham church in Suffolk engaged craftsmen familiar with commissions for the royal court.

Clothiers that profited from their trade often remembered their workers in their wills. Thomas Paycocke, who died in 1518, left bequests in their wills to ‘my weavers, fullers and shearmen’. He gave additional sums for those ‘that have wrought me very much work’. Paycocke’s bequests to his workers, which totalled £4, may have stretched to as many as 240 workers, while those of Thomas Spring II of Lavenham, who died in 1486, may have supported nearly 4,000 workers. Both these clothiers operated large-scale production through the putting-out system, although exactly how large must remain a matter for discussion.

Cloth-making became England’s leading industry in the late Middle Ages – no other industry created as much employment or generated as much wealth. By the 1540s, as many as 1 in 7 of the country’s workforce were probably making cloth and 1 in 4 households were involved in spinning. This book offers the first recent survey of this hugely important and significant trade and its practitioners, examining the clothiers and their impact within the industry and in their wider communities.

Intended for the general reader, as well as students and academics, this book is the first in a new series – Working in the Middle Ages – which will examine different trades, professions and industries. The series aims to provide authoritative, accessible guides to medieval trades and professions, offering surveys of their origins and development, alongside the practicalities of the occupation.

New proposals for the series are welcomed, and should be sent to the series editor, Dr James Davis, School of History, Queens University Belfast ( or to the Editorial Director (Medieval Studies), Boydell and Brewer (


SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher using the offer code BB500 online at Offer ends 31 Mar 2019. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291, and quote the same code. Any queries please email


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