In 1844, Friedrich Engels published his famous study of the condition of the working class in England, a furious arraignment presented as objective social science:
What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand, and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man’s house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law, and all so shameless, so openly avowed that one shrinks before the consequences of our social state as they manifest themselves here undisguised, and can only wonder that the whole crazy fabric still hangs together.
England and Scotland pioneered the Industrial Revolution. In its early years, this mighty economic transformation did not raise wages much. Romantic conservatives and revolutionary socialists then and since have cited this one fact to indict the factory system as cruel and exploitive. Perhaps the single most influential work on the subject in the postwar period, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, insisted: “People may consume more goods and become less happy or less free at the same time. … Over the period 1790–1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery.”
Tombs rebuts the Engels-Thompson version of events with carefully gathered statistics demonstrating that pre-industrial English wages were already the highest on earth—almost 12 grams of silver per day and rising fast for an ordinary London worker in 1775, versus about nine and stagnating in Amsterdam, under four and dropping in Vienna and Florence, a stagnant three in Beijing, and only one in Delhi. In fact, the urgency of economizing on costly labor was one reason that industrialization started in England rather than other then-technologically advanced regions, like the great cities of China’s Yangtze River Delta. In turn, it was the proliferation of attractive goods to buy, not the whip of necessity, that drove many English people to work harder and longer than their agrarian predecessors. Tombs notes that not until the later 20th century would English people take as much leisure time as they had before 1600.
Instead, as early as 1700:
There was a revolution in the clothing of ordinary people: in came white linen undergarments, white stockings, colorful outer clothes, ribbons, men’s wigs, women’s silk hats, neckerchiefs, silver buckles. … Regional styles of dress disappeared. People were not aping their betters, but showing they were as good as anyone. Young working men and apprentices worked and spent—and sometimes stole—to look what they called “tight,” “knowing,” and “genteel.” …
People began to consume more and more things that were merely pleasurable—and novel pleasures at that: tobacco, tea, sugar, coffee, fresh white bread, convenience foods and alcohol. … New habits of consumption reached not only the ‘middling sort,’ but trickled down to the poor, who acquired more goods than would have been available to a prosperous yeoman a century earlier: ownership of saucepans, dishes, clocks, pictures, mirrors, curtains, lamps, and tea and coffee utensils doubled between 1670 and 1730. Watches, usually in silver cases—a new fashion item—became general among English working men in the second half of the century. … By the 1790s, there were an estimated 800,000 silver and 400,000 gold watches in England.
After 1790, however, England and the United Kingdom were pulled into a quarter century of the most protracted and costly warfare in the kingdom’s history to date. The war both accelerated technological progress and consumed most of the proceeds. What was left over was used by workers to marry earlier and have more children: England’s population tripled between 1701 and 1851, despite heavy emigration first to North America, then later Australia and New Zealand. The northern hemisphere’s climate also seems to have cooled in the early 1800s, ruining harvests in the first decade of post-Napoleonic peace. In consequence of the costs of war, crop failures, and the population boom, which multiplied the number of workers and pushed wages down,
real wages [rose] by only 4 per cent between 1760 and 1820. Over this period working hours greatly increased. Women and children worked more intensively, contributing about 25 per cent of family incomes. Food prices rose and diet deteriorated. Health and hygiene in industrial societies worsened. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy low by present-day standards, and both actually deteriorated. People’s physical condition as measured by their heights fell to one of its lowest ever levels and showed marked differences between classes—over five inches’ difference between rich and poor boys in the 1790s.
The worst crop failure of them all would strike Ireland in the 1840s—the potato famine that still haunts that nation’s memory. The United Kingdom responded with the most ambitious program of food aid and cash relief ever attempted by any nation to that point, but one that still fell horribly short of the magnitude of the disaster.