Artificial highs

What use are higher wages for a breadwinner if they’re not shared equally with their families? Historian Emma Griffin has trawled through Victorian autobiographies to find lessons for today

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Ask any politician or pundit about the state of the economy and they will agree that wage growth is a good thing – the gold standard measure that tells us how much of the nation’s wealth lands in the hands of those who actually worked for it. So it is perhaps unsurprising that historians of Victorian Britain have tended to depict the period in relatively benign terms. In contrast with the endless debates about whether or not the workers gained from the industrial revolution, the verdict for the later period is far more unanimous: real wages were considerably higher by 1914 than they had been in 1840, thus working people, as well as their employers, had shared in the gains.

Prosperity did not simply make the nation richer, it also diverted a greater share to men’s hands

But it is worth pausing to consider more carefully who really gains when wages start to rise. We can agree that wage growth reflects a welcome shift of national wealth into the hands of workers, but it is important to recognise that if homes and families are to function, not everyone can go out to work.  In most societies, work is distributed unevenly between the sexes, with men performing most of the waged work that is done outside the home, whilst women perform most of the unwaged work done within it. And in the pre-modern age, that domestic work was arduous and time-consuming, involving such tasks as fetching water, chopping wood and preparing all meals from scratch on a daily basis. So in order to understand the lived experiences of ordinary people, wages levels are just a part of the puzzle. For a complete story, you need to understand who has access to the world of paid work, and who does not. You also need to know how money is passed from husband to wife, as well as about how the items you can purchase with it are shared out among the household. In other words, wages are just one part of a far more complex story.

These observations force us to rethink certain elements of our national story. The Victorian period is widely feted as a unique – if short-lived – moment of British greatness, where national wealth and real wages enjoyed sustained rises. But Victorian Britain was also a place where most women did not work, and those who did clustered around the very low-wage margins of the economy. This was also the era of the so-called breadwinner wage – a wage that was substantial enough for a man to keep his wife so she could keep the house. As a result, Victorian prosperity did not simply make the nation richer – it also diverted a greater share of the nation’s wealth directly to men’s hands, and this had far-reaching implications for both gender inequality and for women’s living standards.

My recent book, Bread Winner, has grown out of this concern. It seeks to shed light on the Victorian economy, but it proceeds in a very different manner to most economic history. Unlike the quantitative records that most economists favour, my book uses stories – more specifically, life stories and autobiographies written by working-class people. I use a collection of over 600 autobiographies, of which one-third were authored by women. Many writers did not provide information about precisely how much money entered their household. But they certainly did write about how it was shared within the household, and it was this – the nature of the sharing rather than the totals – that I examined.

As long as men worked hard and shared their wages with their wives, the fit between real wages and living standards was good. Around a third of the autobiographers had a father present throughout their childhood who shared his earnings, and whilst this was rarely sufficient to ensure luxurious living, it certainly ensured some degree of comfort and created an equivalence between male earnings and family living conditions.

But over and again, high male wages did not have this outcome. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary and unexpected discoveries from the autobiographies is that a good male wage tilted the traditional balance of power between husbands and wives firmly in the favour of men. The low wages of pre-industrial Britain had kept families poor, but they had also established an equality within the household between the value of male wages and the value of the female labour that transformed that money into meals and comfort. So long as a male worker could not afford to purchase cooked meals, he could only fulfil his subsistence needs by handing his full wage to his wife so that she could cook for him – he was every bit as dependent upon his wife’s efforts to provide habitable lodging, meals and adequate clothing as she was dependent upon his wage.

The high male earnings created by industrialisation snapped apart this equality between wage-earning husbands and their non-wage-earning wives and children. A man could now maintain a reasonable standard of living by depositing a part of his wage with his wife and keeping a part back for his own personal consumption. The autobiographies provide many examples of the different ways in which men might fail to provide for their families: some worked irregularly, whilst others kept back their wages for themselves, either to spend on hobbies and interests – or, more commonly, because they were drinking heavily. Furthermore, some families lacked fathers at all – the death rate was high, and so too was the desertion rate. When all these problems are tallied up, it is clear that almost half of all the autobiographers lacked a reliable breadwinner during some part of their childhood. As a result, a sizeable proportion of all households were struggling to get by without the full benefit of a male wage, and for these families, movements in male wages were largely irrelevant.

My focus on how resources are shared within families reveals that men and women’s experiences did not necessarily move in sympathy, that men’s wages don’t necessarily tell us much about women’s lives. And this finding is of relevance to our own times. Wages will remain an important way of measuring the living standards for ordinary people, but so long as we live in families, there is another story about how wages are shared that needs to be told.

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy by Emma Griffin is published by Yale, £20

Breadwinners and losers

Ethel Ley was born in Plymouth in 1890, and we know a little about her life because at the age of 90 she dictated a short account of her childhood to her granddaughter. Ethel was the youngest of a family of five children, but her mother died when she was two years old and Ethel and her siblings lived first with their grandparents and were then dispersed to different institutions when they became too old to care for them. Ethel ended up at the House for Friendless Girls in Plymouth. Their father did not remain in contact with the children and himself died an early death around the age of 40.

Alice Foley was born in Bolton in 1891, and her father was able to earn a good wage as a factory operative. Unfortunately, however, he was a heavy drinker. He only worked in “fits and starts” and spent what little he earned on drink rather than his children. They “were brought up mainly on [mother’s] washtub earnings”.  Alice herself started working in the mill at the age of 13, but she never much liked it and moved into office work in her late teens. She remained unmarried and devoted her life to the union movement and other left-wing causes. With an unreliable father and no husband, Alice never knew the advantage of a male wage, so we can’t slot her experiences into the usual framework.

Image: A man could maintain a reasonable standard of living by depositing a part of his wage with his wife and keeping a part back for himself (Alamy)

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