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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2000

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2000 Contents

The Way We Were

John Gurnett

Most of us have agricultural workers in our blood - if not then ordinary working people from miners, and biscuit makers to railway men. If we are fortunate we may discover something about their life at school, or when they served in the forces, but apart from letters or diaries we rarely uncover the minutiae of their daily lives. However, just this week a small book came into my hands, which sheds some light on the earnings and weekly budgets of ordinary people.1

The report compares the incomes of the working classes between 1857 and 1884 and some interesting figures emerge from the study. The author found that there was an average Of 2.17 earners for every family and that family size in 1881 was 4.67. Agricultural wages for men ranged from 7s to 10s a week, compared to 30s to 40s and even 60s in other industries. Most agricultural labourers earned 37.10s a year while builders earned 75 to 95. The wages of domestic servants for men ranged from 20 to 40 a year plus board and lodging. While the disparity between the incomes of rural and town labourers was large, it did not take into account the low-rent cottage enjoyed by a farm worker, nor a piece of land where he could grow vegetables and keep a pig.

It was thought that the physical condition of the labouring classes was better than it ever was. 'If the food of the people is more artificial than it used to be, they certainly have more of it'. A workman's budget in 1857 was 24s a week. Food for the family consisted of a loaf of bread, 4lbs of meat, a 1lb of butter, filb of cheese, 3lbs of sugar, filb of tea, vegetables and potatoes, milk, eggs, drink, coal and gas, rent at 4s a week, and tobacco at 1s. There was also some over for clothing, furniture, travelling and amusements and the church and doctor. Expenditure just about balanced income. By 1884 more meat was eaten, rent had gone up to 6s, and education had been added to the list, but by now there was an annual surplus of almost 6. This report gives a lively and interesting indication of the rise in living standards towards the end of the nineteenth century, and is well worth reading.

1 Levi, Leone, 'Wages and Earnings of the Working Classes,' London 1885


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