Economic exploitation: a comparative case study of the cost of human smuggling

by Alicia Kidd (Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull)

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

 

Border_crossing_at_Gibraltar,_Gibraltar_side_2005
Border crossing at Gibraltar. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The terms human smuggling and human trafficking are often confused and used interchangeably. While there is a terminological distinction between the two, it is possible for the lines to be blurred when an individual’s relationship with a smuggler becomes exploitative. My study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, uses information gathered from face-to-face interviews to argue that individuals’ economic circumstances play a role in blurring those lines.

My research considers two qualitative case studies of individuals who hired agents to assist them in illegitimately escaping their home countries in the hope of reaching safer living conditions abroad. Both respondents were confronted with dangerous situations in which they faced limited options of either staying in their home countries where they were at risk of death or unfair arrest, or finding a way to escape.

Both chose the latter, but there was no possibility of leaving their countries legally without attracting the attention of the authorities looking for each of them. This led both respondents to employ the assistance of smugglers to assist them out of their home countries.

The respondents were from significantly different backgrounds and their economic standing influenced the path that lay ahead for them. The first had a relatively wealthy upbringing, had received a good education and was working in a lucrative job.

He was able to pay a smuggler upfront to assist him in leaving the country to avoid the death penalty he was facing. This was a simple financial exchange in which he paid a set fee in return for a service. His relationship with the smuggler ended after he had crossed the border out of his home country.

The second respondent’s experience was quite different. She was from a poor background and did not have the money to pay the smuggler prior to travel. Instead, she agreed with the agent that, in return for safely removing her from the country, she would work for him on arrival to pay off her debt. But while an agreement had been made that this would be care work, after arriving in the UK she was locked in a basement and sexually exploited as a means to pay off her debt.

My research uses these two case studies to explore the hugely diverse outcomes of an exchange with a smuggler. By assessing the divergent economic positions of the two individuals, the research addresses how the difference between a payment and a debt can lead to the difference between safety and extreme exploitation.

Anthropometric history and the measurement of wellbeing

Bernard Harris (University of Strathclyde)

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

 

PSM_V31_D331_Variations_in_human_stature
Variations in human stature, 1887. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Interest in the history of human height, and other anthropometric indicators, has increased dramatically over the last four decades. Most of the earliest studies were based on measurements obtained from living subjects but increasing use has also been made of skeletal evidence (see for example, Steckel et al, 2019).

The development of the field reflects James Tanner’s conception of height as a ‘mirror of the condition of society’. The growth of children, he wrote, ‘is a wonderfully good gauge of living conditions and the relative prosperity of different groups in a population’ as well as an effective form of health screening (Tanner, 1987).

The use of height as a measure of human welfare can be traced back at least as far as the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1829, the French physician, Louis-René Villermé, argued that ‘human height becomes greater and growth more rapid… as a country is richer…. The circumstances which accompany poverty delay the age at which complete stature is reached and stunt adult height’ (Tanner, 1981).

During the 1980s and 1990s, Roderick Floud (1984), John Komlos (1987) and Richard Steckel (1992) all highlighted the value of height as a measure of human ‘wellbeing’. For Steckel, ‘average height is also conceptually consistent with [Amartya] Sen’s framework of functionings and capabilities though, of course, height registers primarily conditions of health during the growing years as opposed to one’s status with regard to commodities more generally’.

My paper at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference revisits some of these arguments to ask whether studies of height still provide a general guide to the wellbeing of past societies. It starts by looking at the background to the development of the field before considering some possible challenges.

These include debates over the reliability of historical height data, the nature of human growth and the proximate determinants of variations in human stature. The paper also explores the extent to which these variations can also be associated with indicators of future wellbeing.

 

References

Floud, R (1984) ‘Measuring the transformation of the European economies: income, health and welfare’, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 33.

Komlos, J (1987) ‘The height and weight of West Point cadets: dietary change in antebellum America’, Journal of Economic History 47: 897-927.

Steckel, RH (1992) ‘Stature and living standards in the United States’, in R Gallman and J Wallis (eds) American economic growth before the Civil War, University of Chicago Press.

Steckel, RH, CS Larsen, CA Roberts and J Baten (eds) (2019) The backbone of Europe: health, diet, work and violence over two millennia, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1981) A history of the study of human growth, Cambridge University Press.

Tanner, J (1987), ‘Growth as a mirror of the condition of society: secular trends and class distinctions’, Pediatrics International 29: 96-103.

The trafficking of children: exploitation, sexual slavery and the League of Nations

by Elizabeth A. Faulkner (University of Hull) and Cathal Rogers (Staffordshire University)

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

 

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Child trafficking graffiti on brick. Available at Pexels.

The trafficking of children receives extensive media coverage today, with endless tales of exploited and enslaved children. But these reports are not isolated.

For example in 1923, the League of Nations Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children heard that ‘The White slave traffic assumed large proportions; young girls – and even young boys – swelled the personnel of the over-numerous houses of ill-fame’.[1] The purpose of our study is to identify whether fears of the sexual enslavement of children during the era were legitimate or the product of a ‘moral panic’.

The issue of human trafficking is a relatively new area of international law, but the issue has appeared on numerous occasions as an issue of grave moral concern at the international level for over a century. In 1921, the League of Nations passed the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children.

This Convention marked a notable departure from the overtly racialised focus of previous attempts to address this issue of human trafficking namely, the 1904 and 1910 White Slave Traffic Conventions.[2]

Our study investigates the trafficking and exploitation of children between 1922 and 1929 through an examination of the archives of the League of Nations, Geneva. The inquiry sought to uncover recorded cases of child trafficking through focusing on the Summary of Annual Reports submitted to the Traffic in Women and Children Committee.

In terms of references to ‘trafficking’, from the 324 responses (1922-1929) considered by this inquiry, only 11 references to trafficking were identified. As a percentage, that is just 3.3% of responses.

Our research seeks to understand the exploitation of children during the 1920s, beyond ‘trafficking for immoral purposes’. Identifying the types of exploitation that children experienced globally, whether for commercial or economic gain, sexual gratification or adoption.

The aim of the research is to challenge and enrich our understanding of morals, race and the exploitation of children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, through deconstructing fears of the sexual enslavement of children.

The inquiry seeks to readdress the racial bias of previous examinations of the human trafficking of the era and to expand our knowledge of trafficked and or exploited children in the legacy of the ‘White Slavery Conventions’.

 

Notes:

[1] De Reding De Bibberegg, Delegate of the International Red Cross Committee and the International Red Cross Committee and the International ‘Save the Children’ Fund in Greece. League of Nations, Advisory Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children, Minutes if the Second Session, Geneva March 22nd – 27th 1923 at 65

[2] The ‘White Slavery Conventions’ namely the International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic 1904, the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic 1910, the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children 1921 and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age 1933

Initial determinants of Mexican mass migration

by David Escamilla-Guerrero (London School of Economics)

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

 

1851_Tallis_Map_of_Mexico,_Texas,_and_California_-_Geographicus_-_MexicoTexas2-tallis-1851
John Tallis and John Rapkin’s 1851 Map of Mexico, Texas, and Upper California. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

We are living in a time of globalisation backlash characterised by a reduction of economic and political cooperation across borders. The renaissance of economic protectionism has manifested in increasing barriers against immigration in both the United States and Europe. Furthermore, the public perception of why people migrate seems to be increasingly influenced by nationalist prejudices rather than empirical evidence.

Using novel historical micro data, my research addresses the initial determinants of the Mexico-US migration, the most intense and persistent of the twentieth century. The main lessons to take are two-fold:

  • First, the push and pull factors influencing migration vary across regions of sending countries.
  • Second, we have focused our attention on wage differentials between countries as main determinant, overlooking the role of structural differences within sending countries.

The core data of the research come from manifests that recorded individual border crossings. These documents are known as Mexican Border Crossing Records and were used by American authorities to collect information about immigrants. The sample used in this research consists of 10,895 immigrants that crossed the border through eight ports of entrance from July 1906 to December 1908.

The results reveal that differences in the Mexico-US relative wage did not explain the migration flow. But differences in living standards and population size across Mexican municipalities mattered. On average, locations with low living standards and large populations represented a source of frictions in the Mexican labour market, pushing labourers to migrate.

In addition, the estimates show that the flow was consistently driven by the social capital formation in the destination – that is, immigrant networks. Just as found for recent periods, migrating to a county with a large Mexican community increased the net benefits of migration.

Therefore, for more than one hundred years, immigrant networks have represented a self-perpetuating social asset that provides information and assistance, which reduces the costs and risks of migrating.

The regional results reveal that there were two migration models at the time:

  • In the border region, distance costs and labour market potentials in the United States influenced the decision to migrate.
  • In contrast, migration from the Mexican central plateau was completely determined by immigrant networks and labour market pressures in Mexico.

Since 2010, Mexican migration to the United States has come to a standstill, although the salary gap remains at levels like those of the early twentieth century. Hence, the persistence of immigrant networks as the main driver of the Mexico-US migration raises the question of whether the convergence of real wages between home and host countries would be an effective mechanism to reduce or control migration.

An integral migration policy must consider the different incentives behind the decision to migrate as well as their evolution through time and across space. Only then, will we maximise the benefits of labour migration and minimise the problems derived from it.

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.

 

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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.

Unequal pay in Victorian Britain

by Chris Minns (LSE) and Emma Griffin (UEA)

 

Thames_embankment,_London,_England-LCCN2002696941
Thames embankment, London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Women made a vital contribution to the labour force in Victorian Britain. Census evidence suggests that close to 40% of women in Britain were employed in the second half of the nineteenth century, which is roughly twice the rate found for the United States at the same time. This implies that the labour market earnings of women made a substantial contribution to the fortunes of many working-class households. 

But how did the industrial economy of mid-Victorian Britain treat women who sought work? It is well-known that women experienced large-scale occupational segregation with women excluded entirely from many professions and industries. Less well known, however, is how the pay of women evolved after 1850, particularly in relation to their male counterparts.  

In a new study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we draw on the reports of wages and salaries paid between the 1850 and 1890 prepared by the Board of Trade. In total these sources contain over 9,000 wage quotations for male workers in industry, and well over 1,000 similar quotations for female workers. 

We use this information to compute the gender pay gap in Britain between 1850 and 1800, and to examine the structure of the disadvantages experienced by women at this time.  

Overall, we find that between 1850 and 1890, women in British industry had earnings a little more that 40% of male earnings in industry. The gender pay gap closes by only a few percentage points over the period we study, and it would appear that it is at least as large in the second half of the nineteenth century as what others have found for the first part of the Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1850. 

While part of the explanation for the large pay gap is the exclusion of women from the best paid industries and trades, our preliminary work suggests that differences in the composition of employment between men and women can only account for a small fraction of the gender gap. 

When comparing matched wage quotations for men and women in the same location, industry, occupation and year, the gender pay gap is only modestly smaller, at 51%. Consistent with this finding, we do not find evidence of substantial gender pay gap differences between regions or industries that were major employers of women. 

What are the main implications of these findings? 

First, it appears that the dynamics of gender pay in late nineteenth century Britain were strikingly different than in the United States. The gender pay gap in UK industry at the end of the nineteenth century was about 15 percentage points larger than in American manufacturing, which saw a more noticeable narrowing over the century. These transatlantic differences in the relative price of women’s labour may have implications for the patterns of industrial development seen in Britain versus the United States. 

Second, the fairly uniform gender pay gap across British industry, despite notable differences in skill and strength requirements between occupations speaks to a pattern of broad-based labour market segmentation that worked to suppress women’s wages well before the spread of internal labour markets that and long-term contracts thought to formalise different pay structures for men and women.

Social mobility and inequality in the Republic of Venice, 1400-1700

by Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan, Dondena Centre and IGIER)

 

 

Luca_Carlevarijs_-_The_Wharf,_Looking_toward_the_Doge's_Palace_-_WGA04227
The Wharf, Looking toward the Doge’s Palace, 1700s, by Luca Carlevaris. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Recent research in economic history has unearthed previously unknown facts about the long-term trends in inequality. We now have, for at least some areas of Europe, continuous time series of key inequality indicators from around 1300.

These new data are changing the way in which we perceive economic inequality not only in the past, but even today – as a key lesson from history is that economic inequality (especially but not only of wealth) has a marked tendency for increasing over time, and only catastrophes on the scale of the Black Death or the World Wars managed to bring it down, albeit temporarily (see Figure 1).

The new historical evidence is also relevant to the debate about the long-term determinants of inequality growth. This seems to be independent, to a large degree at least, from economic growth. Other factors seem to have played a crucial role, including institutional factors and in particular (in the early modern period) the rise of the fiscal-military state.

These recent acquisitions, however, raise many questions about the actual impact on society of distributive dynamics. My current project funded by the European Research Council – SMITE: Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe 1300-1800 – is exploring at least some key aspects of the social impact and significance of inequality change.

In this context, particular attention is being paid to the case of the Republic of Venice, which is the object of the study to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019  annual conference. In the Republic of Venice, as seemingly was common throughout Europe, economic inequality tended to grow monotonically from the fifteenth century until the end of the early modern period (which is also the end of the Republic of Venice as a specific political entity).

Generally speaking, this inequality growth could not simply be considered the consequence of economic growth, as it also covered phases of economic stagnation. Indeed, the Italian domains of the Republic of Venice transitioned, over the period 1500-1900, from being one of the richest and most advanced areas of Western Europe, to being one of the poorest. Partly as a consequence of this, it is very unlikely that during the period, and especially from 1600 on, inequality growth could have taken place in a context of easy upward social mobility.

Our research aims to measure rates of socio-economic mobility in different periods, based on a range of case studies, including the large and very important city of Verona. Our results so far confirm that during the early modern period inequality growth came to be increasingly associated with more difficult upward socio-economic mobility.

This provides useful hints about the nature and the causes of inequality growth in pre-industrial Europe. We pay particular attention to the role played by state taxation in consolidating the relative position of the richest, while compromising the ambitions of upward mobility of other socio-economic groups. Our study is also one of the very first attempts at reconstructing household-level measures of social mobility for the pre-industrial period by means of extensive record linkage of the available sources and by using the standard methods of mobility studies.

The picture that we reconstruct suggests that from around 1600 or 1650, the Italian domains of the Republic of Venice were characterised at the same time by economic stagnation, growth in economic inequality, and low (and worsening) rates of social-economic mobility. This picture corresponds quite closely to the situation being faced by Italy and by other parts of southern Europe since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 – which is definitely not a very encouraging scenario.

 

Alfani Chart 2

Source: Alfani, The top rich in Europe in the long run of history, Vox 15 January 2017

Income inequality in times of war and revolution: the city of Moscow in 1916

by Elizaveta Blagodeteleva (National Research University Higher School of Economics)

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.

 

Moscow,_Kremlin,_Voznesenskaya_Square,_1900s
Voznesenskaya Square, 1900s. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

In autumn of 1916, a big scandal roiled the Moscow public: local landlords petitioned the municipal government for the permission to raise rents, which was prohibited by the military administration a year before amid the escalating refugee crisis. Newspapers fumed at the selfishness of the rich, who not only avoided serving their country at the battlefield but exploited wartime hardships to get even richer. Health inspectors, lessees and workers of the largest industrial plants publicly raised their objections to the proposal.

Although the concerted effort of the city landlords to increase revenue eventually failed, the public outrage persisted. The occasional evidence of huge war profits and rumours about the luxurious life of industrialists and rentiers stoked anger among the urbanites, who struggled to make ends meet under the increasing pressure of galloping inflation and food shortages. The rent scandal highlighted the growing animosity towards the rich that the Bolsheviks would later channel into fully-fledged class warfare.

In 1916, Moscow residents sincerely believed that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population was enormous and it kept widening at an alarming pace. But did their beliefs match reality? In other words, how unequal was urban society in Russia in the last year of the old regime? To answer this question, a student of social and economic inequality would usually refer to income tax records. Unfortunately, there are very few of them in case of imperial Russia.

The Russian authorities had been extremely wary of income taxation up until the beginning of the Great War, when the national political mobilisation elevated the issue of the personal responsibility of each and every subject of the tsar. As a result, the state legislature passed an income tax in the spring of 1916. Its political objectives overwhelmed fiscal practicalities as lawmakers wanted it to bring the state closer to the ‘pockets’ and ‘hearts’ of the people. The progressivity of the new tax was supposed to ensure the levelling of the great fortunes and make the body politic more cohesive.

Since tax collection began in March 1917 and continued through the period of an intense power struggle and regime change, surviving records are patchy. Neither the tsar’s local treasures nor early Soviet fiscal authorities left comprehensive accounts of the sums collected in 1917. Nevertheless, Moscow archives have preserved some tax rolls that document the personal incomes for the year 1916, reported by taxpayers and then ascertained by tax collectors in the first half of 1917.

The records allow a tentative reconstruction of the level of income inequality in the city. Given that the adult population of Moscow amounted to 1.1 million in the spring of 1917, the estimates show that the wealthiest 1% and 5% must have received and then reported about 45.9% and 58.8% of their total income. With the Gini coefficient standing at 0.75, those shares display an extremely high level of income inequality among the city residents in 1916. A huge gap between the rich and the others not only felt real but was real.

Stealing for the market: the illegitimacy of enslavement in the early modern Atlantic world

by Judith Spicksley (Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull)

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.

 

 

Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)
The Slave Trade (Slaves on the West Coast of Africa), by Auguste-François Biard, 1840. Available at Wikimedia Commons. 

Slavery was understood to be illegitimate long before anti-slavery activists called for the abolition of the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Slavery is now prohibited in international law, but it was a legal institution in the vast bulk of societies at some point in the past.

A range of legal methods were used to enslave people, of which the most common were birth, capture in war, judicial punishment, debt, and poverty. But there was another method of enslavement that historians include in their list: the kidnap and theft of persons for sale on the market.

These practices were never considered acceptable forms of enslavement. In among the earliest law codes that survive from Old Babylonia in the second millennium BCE, to Israel in the first, are punishments for the theft of a person, which attracted the death penalty.

But demand for slaves created opportunities for traders to sell those they had stolen as if they were slaves proper, and increase their wealth in the process. These cases of illegal enslavement ran alongside bona fide sales throughout the period in which slavery was legitimate.

Examples include the activities of Cilician-based pirates in the eastern Mediterranean in the late Roman Republic and early Empire, and the violent sourcing of labour in Africa for the American plantations in the early modern Atlantic world. But it was the raiding bands that scoured the Slav lands of Eastern Europe for captives in the high medieval period that encouraged an understanding of the meaning of slavery as illegal in the west.

The term ‘slave’ appeared in English, and in the languages of Western Europe more generally, from the late medieval period via the ethonym Slav. This was the name given to members of the Slavic peoples living in Eastern Europe whose communities were frequently raided for persons who could be sold as slaves.

But the term ‘slavery’ does not enter the English language until the mid-sixteenth century. At that point, it was applied as a metaphor for the tyranny of Catholicism, as the development of Protestantism created a major religious schism.

The term ‘slavery’ was also applied to the activities of the earliest English slave traders. During his first voyage in 1562, John Hawkins is reputed to have violently captured around 400 Africans in Guinea, whom he later sold in the West Indies. He repeated these activities over the next five years with the support of Queen Elizabeth.

Hawkins was following in the footsteps of other Europeans, most notably Lançarote de Freitas, the Portuguese explorer, who is recognised as having set the transatlantic slave trade in motion. De Freitas returned from North Africa to Lagos in 1444 with a cargo of 235 Berber captives seized in a series of raids, who were subsequently sold into slavery.

From the mid-seventeenth century, with the challenge to the divine right of kings, ‘slavery’ became a metaphor for, and a weapon of, political tyranny in England. It also became a reality for travellers.

The seventeenth century saw an increased level of activity by the so-called Barbary pirates, operating out of North Africa, who seized European sailors and travellers and held them as ‘slaves’ for ransom. Englishmen and women were captured and enslaved in the Americas too, as the Atlantic economy underwent expansion.

As a result, the meaning of ‘slavery’ as a system of illegal subjection, linked to tyranny, violence and theft, had become deeply embedded in English thought before the abolitionists were established as an organised force from the late eighteenth century.

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.

 

Dore_London
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.