Thursday, June 19, 2014

Income vs Expenditure in Working-Class Victorian England

East Enders
Every school student must be aware of the financial advice that Charles Dickens has Mr Micawber offer the eponymous hero of his novel, David Copperfield. In fact, Micawber offers this guidance twice within a dozen pages.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds aught and six, result misery.  The blossom is blighted, the leaf withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and --and in short you are for ever floored.
Published in 1850, it leaves the question as to the actual value of twenty pounds unclear.  What is clear, of course, is that Micawber is one who invariably spends more than he has and lives in the expectation that something will turn up.

For those who lived in poverty in the East End in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was all too little hope that something would, in reality, "turn up."  We have seen the fearful conditions under which the Matchwomen laboured and the niggardly pay they received for long hours and the risk of disease that constantly haunted their lives. But what about other workers?  What did they earn and what were their expenses like?

One problem faced by students of the Victorian Era is the relationship between income and expenditure.  A common mistake, of course, is to equate these with present-day figures.  To do so fails, particularly in the area of expenditure, to recognize changes in the inherent value of goods.  For example, if a product is new on the market, the cost will probably be higher than the price of the same product several years later, when competition may have increased and production methods improved. Other factors which may effect costs (as well as rate and volume of production) may be as diverse as advertising and the weather. Income may also be effected by the provision (or lack) of benefits as well as the influence of the seasons on employment. A servant might earn as little as  £10 per annum, but would have all of his or her living expenses covered and would be employed for the entire year whereas an agricultural labourer was at the mercy of the seasons and of the weather. For these, as well as other reasons, probably the best approach in trying to determine what is, essentially, standard of living is to use a "slice of life."  So, for our purposes, we might look at some incomes of the working class in London and some of their expenses in the middle years of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century.


A Matchwoman in the East End of London, in the 1880's would, as we have seen, be likely to have earned from 6-12 shillings a week.  Even were one of these women fortunate enough to be employed throughout the year, her annual income, at best, would be around £30.  A bank clerk, a shopkeeper or a street-seller would be doing well to bring home a pound a week. Some indication of the level of wages in the latter years of Victoria's reign can be garnered from A. L. Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (1900).

It might be worth digressing here for just a moment.  Although the UK today uses decimal currency, this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Until February of 1971, the currency was based on pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d).  Beyond this there were farthings (¼d) and half-pennies as well as other coins of varying values which are recognizable by their names (three-penny bit, sixpence). To further confuse, there are sovereigns and crowns, half-crowns and florins and most confusing of all the guinea.  The last of these has not been minted for almost 200 years but is still used to quote prices, especially when one is seeking to add a bit of an aristocratic tone.

Back to basics, however.  In the old coinage it was twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound and to help understand prices 21 shillings or one pound and 1 shilling to the guinea. Money figures were usually written in the format £/s/d so a figure of 36 pounds, 7 shillings and five pence would appear as £36/7/5.

The Farthing, 1/4 Pence

So, how much did various tradesmen and unskilled labourers earn in the '80s and '90s?  According to Bowley, a bricklayer might earn just slightly less than two pounds a week in the summer but only 36 shillings in the winter while a bricklayers labourer would, on average earn about 12 shillings less than the bricklayer. Farm labourers in the '80s would have taken home around 15 shillings a week, but work was seasonal and many weeks might have seen no income, or a much lower income. A Mason might earn 29 shillings a week and a carpenter twenty-five.Overall, in the middle years of the 1880s, the average annual wage for workers in England,   £46/12/- was greater than the average wage in Scotland or Ireland.  In the latter, it was only £23/6/-.  For the United Kingdom overall, the adult male average wage was £56 while the average wage for all workers was £42/14/-.


While grappling with the actual amounts of earnings can prove difficult, even limiting expenditure to the working class includes a wide range of employments and incomes.   Situations might differ dramatically depending upon what an individual did and his family circumstances. Fortunately, we can gain some idea of what individual items cost from newspapers, catalogues and  personal papers.  But even this does not allow us, in most instances to determine what basic expenditures might be.

An article, "Life on a Guinea a Week," which appeared in The Nineteenth Century in March of 1888, offers some insight into what a clerk, earning 50 guineas (i.e. £52/10/- might have in the way of expenditure.  The figures given are for a single male who, because of his employment, is faced with the "imperative demand for respectability." The author of the article makes the point that " ... a guinea a week can be squeezed when necessity compels" and goes on to further point out

...That there are large numbers of young and middle-aged men in London absolutely dependent upon twenty-one shillings per week is a proposition which admits of no question.

It is clear from the text that the author believes that a working man could live on much less.  But this is based on the assumption that the working man is single, has no familial responsibility and is in regular employment. Keeping these caveats in mind, how does our author suggest that his aspiring clerk can survive and even prosper on a guinea a week?

First, there is the question of clothing.  Our young friend expends, on average, a sum of £7/18/7 per year.  Since this includes such items as a silk hat, a suit of Sunday clothes and an overcoat which is to be replaced at two-yearly intervals, it is unlikely that a labourer would be subjected to such expenses. Indeed, the author of the article points out that 
a mechanic or artisan, ...preferably selects the coarsest and most wearable material as clothing.  Even this is protected whilst the man is at work by a rough apron.
As for a hat, or head-covering, "a three-and-sixpenny felt hat" will do and will last for several years for everyday wear when it is no longer appropriate for Sunday wear.

Nonetheless, the weekly expenditure for our clerk, based on the figures presented, comes to a penny over three shillings. For his weekly expenses he presents the following table:

..........  6 0
..........  1 8
..........  5 0
..........  1 0
..........  0 3
Coals and wood
..........  1 0
..........  0 9
Tobacco, etc.
..........  0 6

When all of the calculations are complete, we find that the total comes to 19s 3d.  Our self-righteous author preaches abstinence from alcohol and dining frequently at vegetarian restaurants in order to save money.  While this may be good advice for the clerks he writes about, for a labourer with a family to support, even when his wife and children work to contribute, it is unlikely to offer a realistic budget.

Buying from the street stalls in the East End

To download Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, click here.
To translate the figures presented here to current purchasing power go to


Geri Meftah Art said...

Very interesting. It makes me understand better the situation of the Bronte Sisters. The money they earned with their books, What did it mean in those days.
I will write an article about it on my blog:

L. said...

I just found this blog and it has been some great reading. I've been looking for resources on the details of 19th c. life and I really appreciate how well sourced your posts are. Most of your sources are ones I haven't seen before. Thanks!

Linds said...

I'm trying to find information on the average wage a child would be paid. As an 11 yr-old boy, my grandad sold coal from a pony and cart. He spoke at length about his adventures but I either missed what he said about his pay o I have forgotten over time.
I love your blog. Social history is a great love of mine. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Due to the fact that many of the poor women turned to prostitution
what could they expect to receive from a client in the 1900s
As a young police constable based in Hyde Park in the late 40s md 50s
it was estimated that as many as 200 women would ply their trade in the park,
on average charging 5 to 10 shillings per client for their services.
the younger ones earning 4/6 pounds per night.
my wage with extras was £9/11 per week on shift

Rick Jones said...

The current exchange rates of GBP in 2017 with GBPs in 1850 are very misleading. A bank clerk could live on 1 GBP per week which today translates into about GBP 80 per week. No bank clerk would earn so little in 2017 or be able survive on that.

The only real way of comparing money earned during the times of Dickens and today is to compare purchasing power. What could a Guinea (21 shillings or 1 GBP and 10 pence) buy you in 1850 and what would it buy you now.

This is not not an easy calculation.