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

St Paul’s Cathedral – the construction of the Dome. Available at <>

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.


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

by Tom Heritage (University of Southampton)

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.