How many days a year did people work in England before the Industrial Revolution?

By Judy Stephenson (University College London)

The full paper that inspired this blog post will be published on The Economic History Review and is currently available on early view here

DomeConstruction09
St Paul’s Cathedral – the construction of the Dome. Available at <https://www.explore-stpauls.net/oct03/textMM/DomeConstructionN.htm>

How many days a year did people work in England before the Industrial Revolution? For those who don’t spend their waking hours desperate for sources to inform wages and GDP per capita over seven centuries, this question provokes an agreeable discussion about artisans, agriculture and tradition. Someone will mention EP Thompson and clocks or Saint Mondays. ‘Really that few?’ It’s quaint.

But, for those of us who do spend our waking hours desperate for sources to inform wages and GDP per capita over seven centuries the question has evolved in the last few years into a debate about productivity and when modern economic growth began in an ‘industrious revolution’. A serious body of research in economic history has recently estimated increasing numbers of days that people worked from the late seventeenth century. Current estimates are that people worked about 270 days a year by 1700, rising to about 300 after 1750.

The uninitiated might think that estimates of such important things like the working year would be based on some substantive evidence, but in fact, most estimates of the working year that economic historians have been using for the last two decades don’t come from working records at all. They come from court depositions where witnesses told the courts when they went to and left work, or they come from working out how many days a worker had to toil to afford a basket of consumption goods. This approach, pioneered by Jacob Weisdorf and Bob Allen in 2011, essentially holds welfare as a constant throughout history, and it’s the key assumption made in a new paper on wages forthcoming from Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf. Unsurprisingly for historians familiar with material showing the miserable conditions under which the poor toiled in eighteenth century Britain, this calculation frequently leads to a high number of days worked. It also implies that Londoners, due to higher day wages, may have had slightly more leisure than rural workers. Both implications might appear counterintuitive.

Knowledgeable historians, such as John Hatcher, have pointed out that the idea that anyone had 270 days paid work a year before the industrial revolution is fanciful. But unless there was an industrious revolution, and people did begin to work more days per year in market work – as Jan de Vries posited – the established evidence firmly implies that workers became worse off throughout the eighteenth century, because wage rates as measured by builders wages didn’t increase in line with inflation, and in fact builders earned even less than we thought.

My article, “Working days in a London construction team in the eighteenth century: evidence from St Paul’s Cathedral” forthcoming in the Review, takes a different approach: it uses the actual working records of a team of masons working under William Kempster who constructed the South West tower of St Paul’s Cathedral. For five years in the 1700s, these archives are exceptionally detailed. They show that building was seasonal (it’s not like we didn’t know – it’s just we had sort of forgotten), and building was stage dependent, so not all men could have worked all year. In fact, they didn’t. Surprisingly, for a stable firm at an established and large site, very few men worked for Kempster for more than about 27 weeks. Work was temporal and insecure, and working and employment relationships were casual.

If one was to take a crude average of the days each man worked in any year it would be less than 150 days. To do so is obviously misleading and that’s not what the paper claims, because obviously men worked for other employers too. But, what the working patterns reveal is that unless men seamlessly moved from one employer to another with no search costs or time in between, it would have been impossible for them to have worked 250 days a year. Its more plausible that they were able to work between 200 and 220 days.

Moreover, the data shows that men did not work the full 6 days per week on offer. The average number of days worked per week was only 5.2. This wasn’t because men did not work Saint Mondays (which are almost indiscernible) but because they took idiosyncratic breaks. Only the foremen seem to have been able to sustain six days a week.

However, men that had a longer relationship with Kempster worked more days per year than the rest. This implies that stronger working relationships or consolidation of employers and workers relationships might have led to an increase in the average number of days worked. However, architectural and construction historians generally think that consolidation in the industry did not occur until the 1820s. If there was an industrious revolution in the eighteenth century it might not have happened for builders. If builders’ wages are representative – and that old assumption seems increasingly stretched these days – then the story for wages in the eighteenth century is even more pessimistic than before.

The evidence from working records presented in this article paper are still relatively fragmentary but they do clearly show that holding welfare to be stable by calculating the number of days worked from consumption goods – as the Weisdorf/ Humphries/ Allen approach does not give us the whole story.

But then again, is it really plausible to hold welfare stable? The debate, and scholarship no doubt will continue.

 

To contact the author:

J.Stephenson@ucl.ac.uk

@judyzara

Spinning little stories: Why cotton in the Industrial Revolution was not what you think

Judy Stephenson reviews some of the developments in debates about causes of the Industrial Revolution from this year. 

When Nick Crafts reviewed competing ‘meta-narrative’ explanations of the Industrial Revolution by Joel Mokyr and Robert C. Allen in 2010 he noted that explanations of the cause of the IR were a bit like the Holy Grail (1). He was expressing the feeling of a generation of economists who believed that economics could ‘explain’ the modern world, and so must explain the IR. When Deirdre McCloskey’s critique (2) of every meta narrative ever generated about the Industrial Revolution declared that economics could do no such thing it was indicative of a shift generally away from that kind of thinking, or as John Kay said, there are no meta-narratives, only little stories. But in economic history, Allen’s meta narrative has largely prevailed. A recently published little story has questioned it.

 Allen ‘explained’ the Industrial Revolution by claiming that because Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the eighteenth century, the high cost of labour and the relative cheapness of coal and capital incentivised labour saving mechanisation, and this is why Britain industrialised before other countries. The theory has met with challenges already. In 2013 Humphries undermined the assumptions about household conditions, and since she has also produced new wage data with Jacob Weisdorf that is fundamentally at odds with the day wages Allen used. (3) (I have shown to these be too high, 4). Humphries and Ben Schneider have also shown that spinning was a very low wage activity (5). Whilst all this undermines Allen’s theory, a well told little story by John Styles in the latest edition of The East Asian Journal of British Studies, is notable because it challenges much of what we understand about the innovations at the core of the IR.

http://www.history.ac.uk/sites/history.ac.uk/files/eajbhvol5.pdf see p.161 onwards.

 Allen’s favourite and oft used case of the effect of British factor prices has always been that of the spinning jenny. In ‘The Industrial Revolution in Miniature’ (6) he sets out high British spinning and labouring wages, and low French wages to show that the jenny was only economical in England. Styles brings some other facts to the case. It’s enjoyable reading so I won’t attempt to reproduce it here but suffice to say he also shows in the first part of the paper that French wages were higher, British lower, and there were more jennies in France than thought.

 Whilst every economic historian knows that whoever says the IR says ‘cotton’, what many probably didn’t know is that ‘cotton’, in England, for most of the eighteenth century meant cotton weft spun on linen warp. The inability of English spinners to create cotton warp strong enough to go on larger frames needed for calicoes meant that English ‘cottons’ were a cotton linen mix, which, although popular and cheap, was not a match for the colour and fineness of proper cotton calico. The burgeoning American market wanted calicoes above all else, and to provide it, and tap into that valuable demand, properly spun cotton warp was the only answer. The spinning jenny did not provide such warp, and whilst the calico acts protected or sheltered the home market it was not until Arkwright’s water frame that English cotton could conquer the profitable American market.

In the story of the spinning jenny, high wages (nor cheap coal) had no part to play. It was Arkwright’ invention which fundamentally changed the production of cotton and which met the demand for fine new cotton fashions, and the incentives are far less clear in this story. Styles makes the important point that Arkwright’s macro-invention was the “outcome of a long history of applying capital-intensive, mechanical solutions to quality and supply problems in luxury textile manufacturing” (see particularly pp.186-7). This is not all bad news for Allen. Styles is clear that the wage for those who could produce good warp was very high, but Arkwright, nor others, could not produce enough of it at the volumes needed at any wage. As many readers will understand this little story has implications for our understanding of jennies as ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ inventions, and so for Mokyr too. Bear in mind that Wallis, Colson, and Chilosi and separately Keibek have both shown this year that industrialisation was as much 17th century phenomenon as 18th, so we may need some new models anyway (7). 

 Styles contribution highlights how a strong empirical basis for economic analysis is essential if meta narratives or ‘big theories’ are to explain economic developments of the past. Allen has always stressed the comparative level of wages in Britain, and there is work to be done on current sources here. (There is a developing Twitter conversation between myself, @pseudoeramus @VincentGeloso @MarkKoyama @benmschneider @ulyssecolonna regarding this subject and market size for instance). But in a year where the notion of economic rationality itself has been shaken to its foundations perhaps it’s not surprising that the Industrial Revolution is moving back towards being ‘unexplained’, although we should await reviews of Mokyr’s latest contribution, (which seems to chime with McCloskey’s ‘cultural’ one) before returning to the view of a couple of decades ago that there really wasn’t one at all.

In the meantime research on the coal tax in early modern England is long over due….

Notes:
(1) http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/44710/1/WRAP_Carfts_10.2010_craftsindustrial.pdf

R..C Allen, The British industrial revolution in global perspective, CUP, 2009.

J. Mokyr, The enlightened economy: an economic history of Britain, 1700-1850, Yale, 2009.

 (2) McCloskey, Deirdre N. Bourgeois Dignity : Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

http://www.johnkay.com/2011/10/04/the-map-is-not-the-territory-an-essay-on-the-state-of-economics/ http://www.johnkay.com/product/the-truth-about-markets/

(3) http://www.ehs.org.uk/app/journal/article/10.1111/j.1468-0289.2012.00663.x/abstract

http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/Oxford-Economic-and-Social-History-Working-Papers/unreal-wages-a-new-empirical-foundation-for-the-study-of-living-standards-and-economic-growth-1260-1860

(4)http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/workingPapers/2016/wp231.pdf

(5)http://www.economics.ox.ac.uk/Oxford-Economic-and-Social-History-Working-Papers/spinning-the-industrial-revolution

(6) Allen, Robert C. “The Industrial Revolution in Miniature: The Spinning Jenny in Britain, France, and India.” The Journal of Economic History 69, no. 04 (2009): 901-27.

(7)http://www.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/workingPapers/2016/WP240.pdf , for Keibek see this blog 

  J.Z. Stephenson, Wadham College, Oxford. judy.stephenson@wadh.ox.ac.uk, tw:@judyzara