Family standards of living in England over the very long run

March 22, 2019 | Blog
Home > Family standards of living in England over the very long run

by Sara Horrell (University of Cambridge), Jane Humphries (University of Oxford), and Jacob Weisdorf (University of Southern Denmark and Centre for Economic Policy Research)

This research will be presented during the EHS Annual Conference in Belfast, April 5th – 7th 2019. Conference registration can be found on the EHS website.


Over London–by Rail from London: A Pilgrimage (1872). Available at Wikimedia Commons.

The secular evolution in human wellbeing, measured by unskilled workers’ real wages, has long been the subject of scholarly debate. Attention is focused on whether modern economic growth is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, prompted by the Industrial Revolution, or if workers in England experienced economic progress well before the Industrial Revolution, even if on a more modest scale. The answer will help inform third-world policy-makers about alternative routes to economic growth.

Thanks to recent archival work, we now have information on payments made to working-class men, women and children across 600 years of English history – from before the Black Death through to the classic years of the Industrial Revolution. In a study to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we bring all of these payments together to provide a first-ever account of the earning possibilities of working-class families in historical England.

By asking how much a typical lower-class family consumed, in terms of basic consumption goods, such as calories, clothes, heating and housing, we are able to ask how much work was needed by the husband, as well as his wife and children, in order to achieve this. Also, because historical families were rather large (four to five children were not uncommon), we pay particular attention to the ‘family squeeze’ – that is, stages during the family lifecycle when the ratio of dependants to earners peaked.

Despite the post-Black Death period being regarded as a ‘golden age of labour’ and on assumptions of plentiful work, the husband’s earnings were not enough in the fourteenth century to satisfy a typical family’s basic consumption needs during the family squeeze. Women and children’s work was regularly needed in order to make ends meet and, even then, this was not enough to avoid insolvency problems during a couple’s old age.

But as we move forward through the medieval and early-modern periods, progressively less women and children’s work was required to ensure a stable standard of living, and old age poverty became less severe. In this sense, we conclude that the quality of life of an average lower-class family gradually improved in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution.

We also conclude by arguing that a surplus in the family budget after necessities had been bought in the run-up to the Industrial Revolution enabled families to allocate a growing fraction of their income to market goods rather than homemade products.

This served as a stimulus to the Industrial Revolution because it motivated producers to innovate and profit from satisfying this increased demand. A widening market seemed important in combination (or competition) with the hypotheses that industrialisation sprung from entrepreneurial efforts to save labour.