Home > Uncategorized > Hans Joachim Voth on the increase in working hours around 1800

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

Here’s a pdf of an article about this.

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.

  1. henry1941
    May 23, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    Land Enclosure is the explanation. Most of the remaining unenclosed land in England was subject to private parliamentary inclosure acts between 1760 and 1844.

    The peasantry was systematically deprived of its means of sustenance. The options were then to work for pittance wages or starve.

  2. robert r locke
    May 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

    If you mean dark satanic mills, factories, by industrialization, then you are leaving out proto-industrialization, the putting out system where work was done by the handicraft weavers, and they were under heavy pressure to work longer hourers as cottage weavers and spinners and coalcoal burniing forges worked to compete with new technologies. Industrialization before industrialization might be where the longer hours originated.

  3. ezra abrams
    May 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    1) this is a great post, thanks – give one hope that Macro doesn’t represent economics.
    2) is this related to the idea that “hardwork” is the measure of a man, and why the Victorians were big on hard workers – it was something new, sort of modernism in action, the first time in human history that hard work could get you somewhere ?

  4. Peter T
    June 3, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    The timing is interesting – it’s before the wide application of steam-power, and more or less coincident with increase in control over labour. To me, it ties in with the typical pattern of an economy approaching a key resource constraint – people have to work harder as returns decrease. Of course, in this case steam and trade unions came to the eventual (partial) rescue.

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