EHS 2018 special: Wine prices in Anglo-Gascon trade, c.1337-c.1460

Robert Blackmore (University of Southampton)

29-autunno,Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.
Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century)
9-autunno,Taccuino Sanitatis, Casanatense 4182. Available at <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:29-autunno,Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182..jpg>

Episodes of major market volatility are rarely out of the headlines today. Their ramifications, though considerable, are discussed as if these were somehow new, and that they are the result of how economies are structured in our globalised world. Yet prices in international markets in the late middle ages could be just as volatile and have just as far-reaching consequences.

The wine trade between Gascony and England is one key example. Gascony, in modern southwestern France, was part of the medieval duchy of Aquitaine: a territory ruled by the English crown almost without interruption from 1154 to 1453.

Geography and geology permitted the production of just one commodity, wine, and as a result the region was dependent, like so many modern states specialised in fossil fuels or mining, on export earnings to pay for the purchase and import of food and all other goods from distant markets.

My research provides a better understanding of the possible factors that influenced fluctuations in prices, and their knock-on effects. To achieve this, I use wholesale prices in Bordeaux and Libourne from between 1337 and 1466, largely sourced from surviving original documents stored both in the Archives départementales de la Gironde in Bordeaux and the National Archives in London.

As today, extreme climactic events, as well as disruption by war, or demographic catastrophes such as disease or famines, can be understood to cause sudden shifts in supply. Likewise there were abrupt changes in local demand, for example, in 1356 the arrival of a victorious Edward, the Black Prince, with his army laden with ransoms and plunder after the battle of Poitiers, can be observed in the data.

Volatility was exacerbated by government intervention: particularly a 1353 English law that had constrained certain merchants from buying up stock in advance at pre-agreed prices, as would be done in modern markets. Likewise, ill-considered price controls at retail in England probably caused suppressed trade.

Critically, wine was a luxury in northern European ale-drinking societies, where only the rich would tolerate high prices, so any brief disruptions in supply or local demand disproportionately affected the level of exports.

Such characteristics also meant that wine prices were responsive to wider economic shocks in ways that would be well understood today. Monetary policy mattered. England and Gascony used different currencies with a changing exchange rate. As the Gascon livre appreciated against sterling in the two decades after the Black Death (1348-9), prices rose for foreign buyers, then later devaluations, such as in c.1370, 1413-4 and c.1440, made purchases suddenly cheaper, and triggered noticeable increases in English wine imports.

Yet, for Gascony, as in Venezuela today, an over-dependence on foreign imports meant such surges or falls in the value of one single exported commodity resulted in sudden strong trade surpluses or deficits. Foreign currency, then in the form of precious metals, poured in and out of the economy with fluctuations in the wine trade.

This made prices, and by extension, the duchy of Aquitaine’s whole economy, even more unstable. In the end inflation set in as production declined and later years of English Gascony were mired in an economic depression that contributed to the region’s loss to the French crown in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War.

Are businessmen from Mars and businesswomen from Venus? An analysis of female business success and failure in Victorian and Edwardian England

by Jennifer Aston (Oxford University)  and Paulo di Martino (University of Birmingham)

The full paper was published on the Economic History Review, accessible here

 

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Fashion in Edwardian England

Do women and men trade in different ways? If so, why? And are men more or less successful than women? These are very important questions not just, or not only, for the academic debate, but also for the policy implications that might emerge, especially in countries such as the UK where, rightly or wrongly, we believe in personal entrepreneurship as one of the main antidotes to unemployment and to the crisis of big business.

In economic history, it has traditionally been argued that women and men traded in similar ways up to the industrial revolution but, since then, women have ben progressively relegated to a “separate sphere” allowed, at most, some engagement with naturally “female” occupations such as textiles or food provision. Although more recent literature has strongly undermined this view, a lot of ground has still to be covered, especially about the period post 1850s.

We approach this debate by starting with a simple question about business “success” across gender: did women happen to fail more likely than men? Thanks to the reconstruction of original data on personal bankruptcy derived from contemporary official publications by the Board of Trade, this research suggests that this was not the case. In fact, depending on how prudently data on the number of female entrepreneurs are looked at, women appear more successful in, at least, keeping their businesses alive.

This finding, however, only paved the way for more questions. In particular, had the narrative of women only dealing with traditional and safe industries and operating in semi-informal businesses been true, what we observe via the lens of official statistics would be just a distorted view. This researched focussed on other primary sources: the reports of about 100 women whose businesses failed around the turn of the century. The findings support the initial hypothesis: although smaller than male counterparts (hence, in fact, riskier), female businesses were not hidden away from the public sphere, the official trading places, or the rules of the formal credit market. So, boarding house keeper Eleanor Bosito and the hotelier Esther Brandon were declared bankrupt and subject to formal proceedings despite having very few creditors who all lived within five miles from the businesses of the two women.  with unsecured debts of about £160 faced bankruptcy as a result of the petition filed by Jane Davis, a widow who lived less than half a mile from Agnes’s home and had lent her the sum of £5. This was the same destiny faced by Elizabeth Goodchild a businesswoman who, contrary to the other cases, operated on a large scale with suppliers and clients from all around Britain and Europe. This evidence reveals that, first of all, small scale trade was thus not necessarily the rule for women and, even when it was the case, it did not coincide with informality or sheltering from the “rules of the game”.

Businesswomen then did not come from, nor traded on, a different planet and certainly did not need the patronising protection of a male-dominated institutional environment. Instead the legal system forged ad hoc rules for married woman, via specific provisions in Bankruptcy Laws which lifted them from any responsibility. These level of defence, similar only to the one available to lunatics and children, proved ineffective. Or, in fact, the perfect background for frauds: in 1899 a spinster who was due to be declared bankrupt got married before the actual beginning of the procedure, thus avoiding any legal consequence (and, hopefully, having found love too).

In conclusion, this research indicates that Victorian and Edwardian businesswomen were perfectly able to trade in a fashion similar to the one of their male counterpart and, if anything, they were more successful. This leads to a basic and probably intuitive policy implication: if we want more women to successfully engage in business, all we have to do is to remove the economic, social, and cultural barriers that limit their access to opportunities.

Modelling regional imbalances in English plebeian migration

by Adam Crymble (University of Hertfordshire)

 

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FJohn Thomas Smith, Vagabondiana,1817

We often hear complaints of migrant groups negatively influencing British life. Grievances against them are many: migrants bring with them their language, cultural values, and sometimes a tendency to stick together rather than integrate. The story is never that simple, but these issues can get under the skin of the locals, leading to tension. Britain has always been home to migrants, and the tensions are nothing new, but two hundred years ago those outsiders were from much closer afield. Often they came from just down the road, as close as the next parish over. And yet they were still treated as outsiders by the law. Under the vagrancy laws, poor migrants in particular ran the risk of being arrested, whipped, put to hard labour, and expelled back home.

It was a way to make sure that welfare was only spent on local people. But thanks to this system, we’ve got a unique way to tell which parts of Britain were particularly connected to one another, and which bits just weren’t that interested in each other. Each of those expelled individuals left a paper trail, and that means we can calculate which areas sent more or fewer vagrants to places like London than we would expect. And that in turn tells us which parts of the country had the biggest potential to impact on the culture, life, and economy of the capital.

As it happens, it was Bristol that sent more paupers to London than anywhere else in England between 1777 and 1786, including at least 312 individuals. They did not arrive through any plan to overwhelm the metropolis, but through hundreds of individual decisions by Bristolians who thought they’d have a go at London life.

From a migration perspective, this tells us that the connectedness between London and Bristol was particularly strong at this time. Even when we correct for factors such as distance, cost of living, and population, Bristol was still substantially over-sending lower class migrants to the capital.

There are many possible explanations for this close connection. The tendency for migrants to move towards larger urban centres meant Bristolians had few other options for ‘bigger’ destinations than smaller towns. Improvements to the road network also meant the trip was both cheaper and more comfortable by the 1780s. And the beginning of a general decline in the Bristol domestic service economy was met with a rise in opportunities in the growing metropolis. These combined factors may have made the connections between London and Bristol particularly strong.

Other urban pockets of the country too showed a similarly strong connection to London, particularly in the West Midlands and West Country. Birmingham, Coventry, Worcester, Bath, Exeter, and Gloucester were all sending peculiarly high numbers of paupers to eighteenth century London. So too was Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed, despite being located far to the north and almost certainly requiring a sea journey.

But not everywhere saw London as a draw. Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, and Cheshire – a band of counties within walking distance of the sprouting mills of the industrialising North – all sent fewer people to London than we would expect. This suggests that the North was able to retain people, uniquely acting as a competitor to London at this time. It also means that places like Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne may have had a bigger impact on the culture of the metropolis in the eighteenth century than places such as York and Sheffield. And that may have had lasting impact that we do not yet fully understand. Each of these migrants brought with them remnants of their local culture and belief systems: recipes, phrases, and mannerisms, as well as connections to people back home, that may mean that the London of today is a bit more like Bristol or Newcastle than it might otherwise have been. There is more research to be done, but with a clear map of how London was and was not connected to the rest of the country, we can now turn towards understanding how those connections sculpted the country.

To contact the author on Twitter: @adam_crymble

Late Marriage as a Contributor to the Industrial Revolution in England

by James Foreman-Peck and Peng Zhou (Cardiff University)

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A Wedding at St George’s Church in London. Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-17/wedding-at-st-georges-church-in-london/8443430

A central question of economics is why some nations experienced economic growth and are now rich, when others have not and are poor. We go some way to answering this core question by estimating and testing a model of the English economy beginning four or five centuries before the first Industrial Revolution. Western Europe experienced the earliest modern economic growth and also showed a uniquely high female age at first marriage – around 25 – from at the latest the 15th century. Whereas real wages actually began a sustained rise during the first Industrial Revolution, without the contribution of late marriage, average living standards in England would not have risen by 1870.

We utilise long time series evidence, some dating back to 1300, and test the hypothesis that this West European Marriage Pattern was an essential reason for England’s precocious economic development. Persistent high mortality in the 14th and 15th centuries and massive mortality shocks such as the Black Death lowered life expectations. Subsequently as survival chances improved, especially for children, a given completed family size could be achieved with a smaller number of births. In an environment without artificial birth control, a rise in the age at first marriage of females ensured this reduction in fertility.

Later marriage not only constrained the number of births but also provided greater opportunities for female informal learning, especially through ‘service’. A high proportion of unmarried females between the ages of 15 and 25 left home and worked elsewhere, instead of bearing children, as in other societies. This widened female horizons compared with a passage from the parental household directly into demanding motherhood and housekeeping. Throughout this period the family was the principal institution for educating and training future workers. Schooling was not compulsory until 1880 in England. In the early nineteenth century few children attended any school regularly and few remained at school for more than one and a half years. Such skills and work discipline as were learned were passed on and built up over the generations primarily by the family. Our paper shows how, over the centuries, the gradual rise of this human capital raised productivity and eventually brought about the Industrial Revolution.

Over past centuries marriage and the family were an important engine of economic growth. Whether they still have any comparable contribution in an economy where the state has assumed so much responsibility for education and training remains an open question.        .

 

To contact the authors:

James Foreman-Peck,  Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, CF10 3EU (foreman-peckj@cardiff.ac.uk.  Tel:07947 031945)

Peng Zhou,  Cardiff  Business School, Cardiff University CF10 3EU.  (ZhouP1@cardiff.ac.uk)

The Public Works Loan Board and the growth of the state in nineteenth century England

by Ian Webster

The Public Works Loan Board was formed in 1817, when the government was faced with a stagnant economy and rising unemployment after the Napoleonic wars. It was established to lend money to finance public works like road, bridge and canal building. Later in the nineteenth century, the PWLB became a major lender to local government to finance the building of workhouses, schools, sewers and water supply facilities. The PWLB still exists in the twenty first century, and is the major provider of loans to local government.

During the nineteenth century, the PWLB survived two attempts by chancellors of the exchequer to abolish it. Sometimes its decisions were overruled by Parliament which directed the PWLB to make loans which were unlikely to be repaid. The Treasury preferred to see the PWLB as a high-cost ‘last resort’ lender when the private sector wouldn’t lend. But the prevailing view of the PWLB was as a low-cost lender to reduce the cost of national public health and education policies to local ratepayers.

These debates continue today. A recent chancellor of the exchequer sought to increase the PWLB’s interest rates closer to market rates, in order to encourage more private sector lending. He also proposed the abolition of the PWLB as a body of commissioners. There is still a debate about the merits of government borrowing to improve public infrastructure.

PWLB profits and losses 1817-76
Sums lent Profits(losses)
£M £M %
Lending decisions made independently of Parliament 37.9 3.4 9%
Lending decisions made by Parliament 4.2 (2.3) (55%)
Totals 42.1 1.1 3%

 

The research reached three main conclusions. First, 90 per cent of the PWLB’s lending was profitable, in spite of the fact that most loans were made at below market rates of interest. The critical factor is that lending decisions were made independently and with a prime concern about the security of the loan. The remaining 10 per cent of loans were made at the direction of Parliament. In these cases, social or economic reasons overcame the PWLB’s concern about repayment, and large losses resulted. Second, seeing the PWLB as a low-cost loan provider was a victory for local interests and national spending departments, over the Treasury desire to minimise the national debt. Third, the story of the PWLB highlights five key decisions between 1859 and 1876 that contributed to the substantial growth in government activities in the late nineteenth century. Without the PWLB’s cheap loans, it would have taken longer for elementary education and constant clean water supplies to become universal services.

To contact the author: ian.webster1954@gmail.com

On archives, macroeconomics and labour markets

Everything (well,… most things) you know about wages 1650 -1800 is wrong. That’s a great opportunity for historians

by Judy Stephenson (University of Oxford)

 

My forthcoming paper in the Economic History Review (abstract available here) makes some big claims about the level of nominal and real wages in urban England before industrialization. There is an early working paper version here

Specifically, I argue that the data used for the years between 1650 and 1800 are completely wrong because the people who compiled them (who go back in some cases to the 1930s and late nineteenth century) took figures from bills for construction services rather than actual wage books. As an actual wage book from the contractor who built the South West Tower of St Paul’s shows, men were not paid these charge out rates, they were paid considerably less.

This has some big ramifications for some influential economists and historians who have relied on long established data sets of ‘builders wages’, such as those of Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1955, 1956) to create macroeconomic models of the past to calculate real wages and infer GDP; to argue that Britain had ‘high wages’; or a comparative advantage in traded goods; or a narrower ‘skill premium’ and better institutions.

In truth, that these wages were ‘wrong’ is in no way surprising to anyone who has ever done work on early modern earning. Any historian of the eighteenth century sensed that these ‘average wages’ were unreasonably high and that their implied welfare ratios gave a falsely rosy picture. (As someone face palmed; ‘A labourer in London able to afford a respectable basket of goods for a family in the mid eighteenth century?? Have you read Dorothy George?’). Those who have ever worked with labour records and account books know that the homogenous figures found by Elizabeth Gilboy were questionable, and indeed in 2011, John Hatcher had successfully called into question the golden age of the fifteenth century. ‘Real’ day wages and wage accounts are always fascinatingly messy, unpredictable, and varied, yet econometricians clung to the old data sets because they believed it was too difficult to find anything else.

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Chart showing comparative real wages, in grams of silver, of European cities 1650 -1800, based on Allen, (2001), where the nominal wage has been reduced by 25%.

My findings make the idea that Britain was a ‘high wage’ economy in the long eighteenth century hard to sustain. If paid wages were 25% lower than we thought, the real wage for labourers through this period in London was not the highest by far. Rather, it seems, they were at the lower end of NW European advanced economies.

This is exciting for economists who think that explaining why the industrial revolution happened in Britain is the ‘Holy Grail’ (it’s back up for grabs). But, the debunking of these inaccurate wage series also makes it a really exciting time for people who want to understand the role of labour in the economy, and who think that the period before collective bargaining and factories has some strong parallels with our own. Lots has been written about the decline of ‘history’ in economic history, but the new opportunity is as wide and bright for historians as it is for economists and econometricians. This breakthrough in this long-run view on wages came not from new statistical techniques, but from the margins of dusty parchment, little iron pins, raggy old papers, smudged watered down ink, and the tentative ‘x’s’ and proud flourishes of the archives.

It’s time to stop recycling tired old data sets and expecting new technology to tell us something different about them. There is a wealth of sources and data in London archives, which have never been used before because they didn’t look comparable to Elizabeth Gilboy’s ‘day rates’, but which offer historians and economists the potential to look at earning, bargaining and the capital labour relationship in new ways. There is exciting work in progress from established and new scholars in the field. No one data set will ever be able to replace the supposed reliability of Phelps Brown and Hopkins, but even they were very tentative about their sources.

To contact the author: judy.stephenson@wadham.ox.ac.uk

References list available here

Slavery in medieval England: broad continuation between the 12th and 17th centuries

by Judith Spicksley (University of York)

Slavery in England had apparently been replaced by serfdom in the twelfth century, yet writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries continue to use terms such as ‘slave’, ‘serf’, and ‘villein’ interchangeably. This research seeks to make sense of this historical conundrum.

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Reeve and serfs in feudal England, c. 1310. From Wikimedia Commons <http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Serfdom&gt;

Historians of medieval England have suggested that slavery had disappeared by the twelfth century. Explanations include the growth of a new notion of chivalric behaviour, and the liberalising effects of an expanding Christianity, in which enslavement of fellow Christians became unthinkable.

But most emphasis has been placed on the effects of economic development, through a combination of technological change, demographic expansion, market growth and a shift in the nature of agricultural production.

In the view of many commentators, serfdom – the system of unfree labour associated with the manorial system – replaced slavery as the main method of restricting the freedom of the individual. Slaves were of unfree status, but serfs, who were given access to land in return for providing a varied mix of labour, goods and cash – were of unfree tenure.

The term ‘serfdom’ has wide application across a range of European manorial systems, but in England, it is usually referred to as ‘villeinage’, since this was the name of the common law institution that developed in the twelfth century.

While there has been considerable debate about the causes of slavery’s decline, there has been much less disagreement about its timing. More recent research has suggested that domestic slaves – mostly women – were retained and underwent something of a revival in southern Mediterranean towns in the later medieval period. There are also examples of young women who were kidnapped and sold as prostitutes in England.

This research suggests that for a number of reasons, we have missed the broader continuation of slavery between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. In part this is because it did decline, but it also became less visible.

On the one hand, the economic roles undertaken by slaves were no different from those done by individuals who were free. On the other hand, the institution of villeinage used a new language to define itself: the unfree were villeins, bondmen and nativi, and were not identified as ‘slaves’.

It is also clear that there was an overlap between unfree status and unfree tenure that has not yet been adequately investigated. Later histories have been heavily influenced both by the transatlantic slave trade, which provided an unforgettable image of the ‘slave’, and by the emergence of two major theoretical approaches: classical economic theory; and the Marxian materialist dialectic.

Together these factors have been instrumental in bringing about a reluctance to translate the Latin word servus as ‘slave’ in the legal texts, literature and documentary evidence of late medieval England, and give preference instead to the language of villeinage.

Slavery may have changed its appearance in the late medieval period, but in law, little had changed. Those of unfree status still owned nothing, could devise nothing and were at the will of their lords; moreover, their children inherited their unfree status.

British engineering skills in the age of steam

by Harry Kitsikopoulos (academic director, Unbound Prometheus)

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Wiki Commons. The side-lever Engine, 1849 ca.

 

Engineering skills in Britain improved during the eighteenth century but progress was not linear. My research uses a novel approach to quantifying the trends from the first appearance of the technology of steam power (1706) through to the last quarter of the century (the Watt era), using a large amount of data on fuel consumption rates.

Britain was a very unlikely candidate for the invention of steam engines, as I argue in my 2016 book, Innovation and Technological Diffusion: An Economic History of the Early Steam Engines. It was French and Italians who first rediscovered, translated and published the ancient texts of Hero of Alexandria on steam power; they also discovered the existence of vacuum in nature, the main principle of a steam engine’s working mechanism.

But Britain had two advantages: first, a divorce-obsessed king who detached the island from the Catholic dogma and its alliance with the Cartesian epistemological paradigm, both denying the existence of vacuum in nature. The same king also brought a seismic institutional transformation by passing monastic properties under the ownership of lay landlords, a class far more keen on solving the water drainage problem plaguing the mining industry in its drive to exploit mineral wealth.

Britain was also fortunate in another respect: it was relatively backward in terms of mining technology! That proved to be a good thing. While mining districts in Germany and Liège used a technology that resolved the drainage problem, Britain failed to imitate them, hence forcing itself to seek alternative solutions, thereby leading to the invention of the steam engine.

Grand inventions earn glorious references in school textbooks, but it is the diffusion of a technology that contributes to economic growth, a process that relies on the development of relevant human capital.

The records reveal that there were not much more than a dozen engineers who were active in erecting engines during the period 1706-75, including Thomas Newcomen, the obscure ironmonger from Devon who came up with the first working model. The figure increased to at least 60 during the last quarter of the century through the action of the invisible hand: the initial scarcity of such skills raised wages, which, in turn, acted as stimuli transferring talent from related engineering occupations.

My new study traces the production and marketing strategies of this group, which ranged from the narrow horizons of certain figures concentrating on the erection of engines in one locality, a single model, or focusing on one industry all the way to the global outlook of the Boulton and Watt firm.

The last question I pose is perhaps the most interesting: did British engineers get better during the eighteenth century in managing these engines?

Measuring skill is not a straightforward affair. Two well-respected experts at the time came up with tables that specified what the ideal fuel rates ought to have been for engines of different hp. When plotted in a graph these two variables depict a curve of ideal rates.

My analysis uses two distinct datasets with 111 fuel rate observations recorded in working engines – one for the older Newcomen model and another for the newer Watt engines. These actual fuel rates were plotted as bullet points around the respective ‘ideal’ curves. A progressively narrower distance between the curves and the bullet points would indicate higher efficiency and improved engineering skills.

The results reveal that for the first 25 years following the appearance of both models, there was no consistent trend: the bullet points alternated coming closer and moving away from the ideal curves. But the data also reveal that these initial patterns gave way to trends revealing consistent progress.

In an era of practical tinkerers lacking a formal educational system when it comes to this particular skill, British engineers did get better through a classic process of ‘learning-by-doing’, But this only happened after an initial stage of adjustment, of getting used to models with different working mechanisms.

Safe-haven asset: property speculation in medieval England

by Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick (ICMA Centre, University of Reading)

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While we might imagine the medieval English property market to have been predominantly ‘feudal’ in nature and therefore relatively static, this research reveals that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it demonstrated increasing signs of commercialisation.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that a series of demographic crises in the fourteenth century caused an increase in market activity, as opportunities for property ownership were opened up to new sections of society.

Chief among these was the Black Death of 1348-50, which wiped out over a third of the population. In contrast with previous research, this research shows that after a brief downturn in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the English market in freehold property experienced a surge in activity; between 1353 and 1370, the number of transactions per year almost doubled in number.

The Black Death prompted aristocratic landowners to dispose of their estates, as the high death toll meant that they no longer had access to the labour with which to cultivate them. At the same time, the gentry and professional classes sought to buy up land as a means of social advancement, resulting in a widespread downward redistribution of land.

In light of the fact that during this period labour shortages made land much less profitable in terms of agricultural production, we might expect property prices to have fallen.

Instead, this research demonstrates that this was not the case: the price of freehold land remained robust and certain types of property (such as manors and residential buildings) even rose in value. This is attributed to the fact that increasing geographical and social mobility during this period allowed for greater opportunities for property acquisition, and thus the development of property as a commercial asset.

This is indicated by changes in patterns of behaviour among buyers. The data suggest that an increasing number of people from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in property speculation – in other words, purchase for the purposes of investment rather than consumption.

These investors purchased multiple properties, often at a considerable distance from their place of residence, and sometimes clubbed together with other buyers to form syndicates. They were often wealthy London merchants, who had acquired large amounts of disposable capital through their commercial activities.

The commodification of housing is a subject that has been much debated in recent years. By exploring the origins of property as an ‘asset class’ in the pre-modern economy, this research draws inevitable comparisons with the modern context: in medieval times, much as now, ‘bricks and mortar’ were viewed as a secure financial investment.

Employment, retirement and pensions: the Victorian era as a golden age for the elderly

by Tom Heritage (University of Southampton)

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Irish spinning wheel – around 1900
Library of Congress collection

For far too long, our elderly ancestors have been viewed through the prism of the National Health Service and the modern welfare state: old people are regarded as a burden, taking out of society rather than contributing. In contrast, this study of census data for five counties across England and Wales from 1851 to 1911 reveals a reciprocal relationship between those living in old age and wider society.

First, across the whole period, 86-93% of men aged 60 and over were in employment. Even if we exclude those in workhouses, the figure is 80-85%.

Most old men worked in agricultural and general labouring, although an increase was evident by 1911 in the mining industry in Glamorgan and metal manufacturing in Sheffield. Bricklaying, house painting, dock labouring and commercial sales were also pursued in urban areas. Labour force participation rates were higher among men in their sixties than among men in their seventies and eighties.

Second, from 1851 to 1911, between a sixth and a third of women aged over 60 were in employment. Although their occupations were less diverse than those of men, the majority were based in domestic service.

Old women were also involved in cotton and silk textiles and in the manufacture of straw hats. Over time, though, the employment rates of old women did not increase like those of men, owing partly to foreign competition in Asian straw imports and French silks.

Third, retirement was not an innovation brought about by the creation of old age pensions. As early as 1891, over 13% of old men were described in the census as ‘retired’, with high rates in the areas favoured by today’s retirees: the coastal areas of Christchurch and Portsmouth in southern England. More old people retired than went into the workhouse.

But retirement was only an option for those who had inherited or managed to accumulate wealth, such as former smallholders, grocers, innkeepers, civil servants or military officers. Others who lacked land or capital, for example agricultural labourers, or boot and shoe makers were forced to resort to the Poor Law.

Even then, this did not always, or usually, mean the workhouse. Welfare assistance to old people in their own homes was common, especially for women. ‘Outdoor relief’, usually around 2s 6d per week, was issued as a weekly ‘pension’.

Moreover, the women who received it were not always as old as those entitled to a pension in the modern era: in Yorkshire in 1891, over 10% of old women described as ‘on relief’ were under 66, which will be the minimum pension age for women by 2020.

So is it really true to say that nowadays, ‘the elderly have never had it so good’? In a sense it is, as old people lead healthier and longer lives today than they have ever done.

But it would be wrong to conclude that old people in Victorian times were largely condemned to lives of pain and poverty. They had a wide range of experiences, and many had access to employment opportunities and sources of assistance that are no longer offered.

In terms of present day policy, we might learn something from our Victorian forebears about ways to integrate the general population in their sixties into the workforce, so that they can contribute to society as well as receive welfare.