Hans Joachim Voth on the increase in working hours around 1800
Edward is on holiday, so I thought I might post a few things on ‘work’ and ‘labour’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that one of the things which more or less unites the people commenting on this blog is that they do not only look at labour as ‘a cost of production’ or even ‘a valuable resource’ – but as an activity which deserves respect, which is part of somebody’s identity and which, if given a chance, is a creative force for the better. In this spirit today a little bit of economic history: the innovative work of Hans Joachim Voth who discovered that in the second half of the eighteenth century, people start to work a lot harder. And this ‘industrious revolution’ must have been as important to the economic changes around 1800 as coal, steel, steam and the potato. There is some discussion about why this happened (Necessity? A craving for the new consumer goods like sugar, coffee and cottons? A new ethic? A new sense of ‘self’? All of these?). But it did happen:
Did working hours in England increase as a result of the Industrial Revolution? Marx said so, and so did E. P. Thompson; but where was the evidence to support this belief? Literary sources are difficult to interpret, wage books are few and hardly representative, and clergymen writing about the sloth of their flock did little to validate their complaints. In this important and innovative study Hans-Joachim Voth for the first time provides rigorously analysed statistical data. He calls more than 2,800 witnesses to the bar of history to answer the question: ‘what were you doing at the time of the crime?’. Using these court records, he is able to build six datasets for both rural and urban areas over the period 1750 to 1830 to reconstruct patterns of leisure and labour. Dr Voth is able to show that over this period England did indeed begin to work harder – much harder. By the 1830s, both London and the northern counties of England had experienced a considerable increase – about 20 per cent – in annual working hours. What drove the change was not longer hours per day, but the demise of ‘St Monday’ and a plethora of religious and political festivals
On the ‘industrious revolution’: Jan de Vries (who stresses the dynamic side of it as well as the historical role of the household) and R.C. Allen and J. L. Weisdorf who make a distinction between ‘necessity and hardship driven’ increases in work and ‘consumer driven’ increases.