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The standard of living controversy 1790-1840, with special reference to agricultural labourers in seven English countries

Richardson, Thomas Lill


Thomas Lill Richardson


John, 1916-2009 Saville


The long-standing controversy over working class standards of living during the early nineteenth century is demonstraably one of the most intractable in our historiography. To a large extent the controversy exists because much of the statistical evidence used to measure changes in the standard of living is of dubious value and is open to wide interpretation. In view of the paucity of a reliable body of statistical evidence one of the main tasks of this thesis has been to meet this deficiency by providing a substantial quantity of new statistical evidence on agricultural labourers' wages and the cost of living in seven English counties; Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Dorset, and Hampshire. A further important aim has been to utilise this evidence to test the generalisation put forward by J. H. Clapham that the English agricultural labourer experienced an improvement in his material standard of living between 1190 and 1840.

The thesis is divided into three parts. Part I is primarily concerned with providing the necessary background material to the subject. The first chapter begins by surveying the history of the standard of living controversy and the various approaches economic historians have adopted in seeking a solution to the problem. In reviewing the different methods used to measure the standard of living particular attention is focussed upon the usefulness of existing statistical series and the kinds of hazards which are involved in using macro-economic techniques to measure changes in living standards. Chapters 2 and 3 examine in some detail the main strengths and weaknesses of the empirical evidence used in this study and the kinds of practical and methodological problems that were encountered in processing the raw data into final index numbers.

The approach adopted in Part II, which constitutes the major part of the original research, is primarily one of a series of exercises in quantitative data processing. Two chapters are devoted to each of the seven counties and these are basically concerned with the construction and analysis of two statistical variables - the wage earnings of male agricultural labourers and the cost of living - in order to determine the long-run trend of real wages. In view of the local nature of the evidence, and in the interests of avoiding unnecessary confusion and maintaining a consistent approach to the standard of living question, all the counties have been investigated independently of one another. In Part III, the final section, the conclusions obtained on the standard of living in each county are assembled together and considered on a comparative basis.

It has also been the policy of this thesis to relate the variations in the purchasing power of wages to the economic and social background of each county. In particular, attention has been paid to the role of short-run exigencies, such as a run of abundant or deficient harvests, the outbreak of the Napoleonic war or the post-war economic depression, in order to assess their influence upon the economic welfare of the rural labouring classes. Although the main emphasis has been placed upon statistical material, this material has been generously supplemented by a large quantity of qualitative literary evidence. The main importance of this evidence, which covers such topics as unemployment and the practical operation of the Poor Law, dietary standards and household expenditure patterns, and the incidence of social disorder, is that it gives a vital insight into some of the more obscure aspects of early nineteenth century rural life as well as serving to confirm the conclusions indicated by the statistical evidence.

Finally, it is hoped that this thesis will provide a model for future research into the standard of living controversy. The methodological approach used in this study could, if the evidence were found, be readily applied to agricultural labourers in other counties as well as to other industries and occupational groups. Until this labour intensive exercise is carried out on a large enough scale the standard of living controversy is doomed to remain an unresolved issue.


Richardson, T. L. (1977). The standard of living controversy 1790-1840, with special reference to agricultural labourers in seven English countries. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 23, 2016
Publicly Available Date Feb 23, 2023
Keywords Economic and social history
Public URL
Additional Information Department of Economic and Social History, The University of Hull
Award Date May 1, 1977


Thesis (32.5 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 1977 Richardson, Thomas Lill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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