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

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 3

. . .Go to the mouldering lane
Where the match-girls cry in their terrible pain;
Where the phosphor eats to the festering bone,
Till the Merciful Angel claims its own,
     And the sufferers gladly die. . .

Go, shareholders, you with the dividend fair,
     Go, see and consider it well
How the daughters of women are perishing there
     In your Lucifer's Brimstone Hell!

Star, 19 January 1892, cited in Lowell J. Satre, "After the Match Girls' Strike:
Bryant and May in the 1890s,Victorian Studies, Autumn 1982, p. 17.

The strike of 1888 was not the end of the problems faced by Bryant and May.  Below the surface, tensions continued to seethe, leading to sporadic outbreaks of dissatisfaction.  Despite the company's strategic back-down in 1888, it never admitted or accepted blame for the conditions that brought about the Match Girls' Strike.  Indeed, the nearest it came to doing so was in its attempt to divert blame from the directors on to the supervisory staff.

Although such a strategy may not have fooled those who felt that the industry was both dangerous and exploitative, it seems to have worked for others.  As Lowell J. Satre points out in his article, "After the Match Girls' Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s," throughout that decade, "...writers treated Bryant and May as a model company, both in its modern technology and in its treatment of workers." In addition to a clear policy of denial, the match company mounted a campaign aimed at consumers, urging them to buy Bryant and May matches and suggesting that failure to do so was at least "inconsiderate" if not unpatriotic!
If all consumers would purchase Bryant and May's matches, that firm would be enabled to pay £1,000 a week more in wages, and large numbers of the unemployed in East London would thus be provided with work, instead of swelling the ranks of  pauperism.
In the decade following the 1888 strike, the situation of women in the workforce, particularly the physical danger those in factories were exposed to was raised on a number of occasions.  There were particularly strong campaigns in 1892 and in 1898. The more radical newspapers campaigned against the health risks to employees in several industries, among the most noteworthy of which was match-making. In these campaigns, Bryant and May were among those singled out, clearly because of the horrendous nature of the disease of phossy jaw and the company's attempt to contain any information regarding their inadequate safety features.

In the company's ongoing attempt to minimize the magnitude of health problems, phossy jaw in particular, Bryant and May constantly reiterated their claim that theirs was a safe workplace . Their public statements suggest that they viewed this serious problem simply as collateral damage.  After revelations in January of 1892, by the Star, of  cases of phossy jaw at Bryant and May other of the more left-wing newspapers, including Reynolds's Newspaper, attacked both the Government of the day and the company for their apparent lack of concern.

CHEAP MATCH-MAKING leads to what is called "phossy jaw"; that is, the rot of the mouth through the action of the phosphorous used in matches.  These matches are mostly made by young girls.  The profits on their sale are pocketed by clergymen and members of the pious middle class.  They are, of course, mainly responsible for this cruel fate of the daughters of the masses.  I venture to say that not one would abate a quarter per cent. of interest, even if he thought it would stop this frightful industrial cancer.
Should there have been any doubt as to the target of this tirade, in the very next column the reader would find that

BRYANT AND MAY, the matchmakers, pay a dividend of seventeen per cent.  It is stated that the application of a portion of this dividend to improvements would prevent the terrible disease of "phossy". ... Lord Salisbury the Tory Prime Minister, and his family are large shareholders; so are many parsons of the State Church; so is the Coercionist Whig Sir Julian Goldsmid M.P. How many of the parsons have implored that a portion of the dividends shall be spent for the protection of the poor girls? Not one. Nor, from the known character of these ecclesiastical bagmen, would anyone expect them to interfere in the cause of humanity. if, by doing so, their earthly treasures were diminished.
Much of the venom was aimed directly at the Home Minister, Henry Matthews. With the general election scheduled for July, Matthews was attacked for his failure to have factory inspectors  dealing with the obviously recalcitrant company.  Among the more vicious attacks on Matthews was one described by The Graphic as "an atrocious cartoon showing Death with a bandaged jaw, emerging from a match-box with the legend, "Vote for Matthews and "Phossy Jaw." The pressure on the Home Secretary seems to have had a positive effect. Within weeks of the election, and following  an investigation by his department, Matthews  "issued a notice that a factory inspector may call upon the firms ... To adopt such special rules or measures as may be necessary to mitigate the evil."

In 1893, a Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Lucifer Match Works noted that the only two cases of necrosis  since the special rules were established were two "which  ... occurred in the factory of Messrs. Bryant and May." The Committee went on, however, to indicate that in the opinion of its members "danger from that disease exists to all workers where white or yellow phosphorus is used."  In order to diminish the risks associated with the match making process, they suggested that the rules should be tightened even further.

The years from 1892 to 1898 represented, in many respects, the heart of what became known as "The New Journalism."  As Carolyn Malone has pointed out in Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England 1880-1914,

The theme of the physical dangers of women's work, secondary in the match girls' strike to exploitative working conditions, came to the forefront in extensive newspaper coverage of women's work in 1892 and 1898.
In 1898 the attack on Bryant and May reached new heights, and Bryant and May was certainly not innocent of the charges from the newspapers and others. On the 3rd of May, 1898, Edward Pickersgill, MP for Bethnal Green in the East End rose to ask the Home Secretary

whether his attention has been called to the report of an inquest held at Bow, on Saturday last, on the body of Cornelius Lean, lately employed at the match factory of Messrs. Bryant and May, from which it appears that Lean was poisoned by the yellow phosphorus used in the manufacture; that the factory doctor, who admitted that the death was due to "phossy-jaw."
The Home Secretary replied that he had some knowledge of the case and found the circumstances surrounding it far from satisfactory but went on to point out that there had been no other reports of phosphorous poisoning since the Act of 1895, and in light of that there seemed insufficient justification to ban the use of yellow phosphorous.

On 1 June 1898, the firm of Bryant and May was called before the Worship Street Police Court by A. P. Vaughan, one of the Factory Inspectors, charged with breaches of Rule 6 of the Factory Acts. Gilbert Bartholomew, the managing director of Bryant and May appeared for the company which was accused of not providing evidence, as required, of phossy jaw to the certifying surgeon.

As Bartholomew, and therefore the company, was not represented by counsel, the Managing Director pleaded "guilty" to the charge, probably hoping that with a speedy conviction and a small fine the mater would be quickly buried. However, as Inspector Vaughan noted, this "was only one of a long series of cases, which had been deliberately suppressed by the firm." Bryant and May, Vaughan told the court, had advised one of the Factory Inspectors "that up to that particular date no other cases of death from phosphorous necrosis had ever come to the knowledge of the firm."

Vaughan then went on to point out that there had been at least six deaths in the previous five years and that these "could be directly traced to phosphorous poisoning" contracted in the company's factory. In addition, there were eleven further cases under the care of a doctor from Bryant and May.

Bartholomew attempted to minimize the cases by admitting to the charge but he claimed that with the exception of one death the others were "old cases" which predated the Special Rules of 1895.

The Magistrate summed up by describing it as "a very bad case" and went on to castigate the firm before imposing the maximum penalty, £10 for the breach of the special rules and £5 for not reporting cases. With costs, the total came to £25.

As a part of the continuing campaign to defend themselves as well as to paint a picture of the company as sympathetic and caring, Bartholomew, in his role as managing director of Bryant and May, wrote to the papers on 3 June 1898.  In his letter he argued that while the company had failed in one respect, it had actually met all of the other requirements of the Factory Act.  He went on to point out that the company provided treatment for those afflicted with the awful disease, adding that of the 47 cases dealt with over the last twenty years, "81 percent of those attacked have been completely cured, and many of those cured are still in our employ, enjoying the best of health."

In July, the radical politician John Burns MP took the Home Secretary to task for being all talk and little action..
I want to call the Home Secretary's attention to the fact that for 50 years at the table of the House of Commons we have had similar speeches made while these women are dying of phossy jaw and lead poisoning. The time has arrived when, in the absence of legislation, we should have administration to put a stop to this terrible condition of things.
  According to The Times, in late July, the Home Secretary addressed the House of Commons on the dangers of phosphorous in the match trade and what might be done to reduce these dangers.

The Times accused those who challenged the Government of laying claims which were lacking "the support of unimpeachable authority." It went on to claim that critics of Bryant and May had "created an impression that the evils to be guarded against are much greater than there is any evidence to show." The really guilty parties, according to the newspaper were the workers and  it was their unsanitary practices which led to the problems of phossy-jaw.

The truth is that one of the chief impediments to action in all such cases arises from the attitude of the workers themselves.In very many instances they strongly object to precautions which are intended to secure their safety, and either actively or passively resist their adoption.
Clearly it is easier to blame the victims than the firm that employs them.

The newspapers, too, continued to pursue the matter even to the point of making jokes in order to keep the matter before the public. On the 19th of August, for example, the following appeared in the Dover Express:
You haven't got phossy jaw have you ma?" "Of course not; What makes you ask such a question?" "Well, Miss Overthewell said you were a frightful matchmaker!"
According to the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and workshops for the Year 1898, "the number of cases of phosphorous poisoning notified in 1898 was 21." All but one of the cases occurred in match factories where "Lucifers" were made and of the 21 reported cases, 15 were directly traceable to one factory.

The campaign against the horrors of "Phossy", mounted by the newspapers and brought before the Parliament was to have its effect.  But it had arrayed against it strong opposition from the match firms as well as segments of the government.  The main argument against the banning of the substance was the effect it would have on industry on the one hand and on employment in the industry on the other.  Nonetheless, laws were tightened, with new special rule instituted in 1899.  Eventually, in 1908, Britain passed legislation prohibiting the use of white phosphorous in matches after 31 December 1910

Although alternatives to while phosphorous, or the treatment of that substance to make it less dangerous, had certainly been known years earlier,  it was not until after 1910 that the process of making a safe, "strike anywhere" match began to be widely employed.