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The Condition of the Working Man (S385a: 1886)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 2 of the 28 January 1886 issue of The Daily News (London). To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S385A.htm

To the Editor of The Daily News.

    Sir,--In your article yesterday on Mr. Giffen's paper on the condition of the working classes you accept his facts and figures as substantially correct, while pointing out that certain considerations may diminish the value of the improvement claimed. There are, however, many persons who, like myself, doubt the correctness both of the figures and the reasoning adopted by Mr. Giffen. We maintain that he has only set forth one side of the case, and that side not accurately, while he has altogether omitted some important considerations which render his conclusions worthless. I ask you, therefore, to allow me to adduce a few facts bearing on this important point.

    In his former paper Mr. Giffen made the increase in the wages of skilled labourers from 20 to 100 per cent., and he now maintains that the higher figure is nearer the truth than the lower one; but he has said nothing whatever about the cases in which even money wages have actually decreased, and these affect, as I shall show, a considerable body of workers. A gentleman, who has close relations with large numbers of working men and women, has taken the trouble to collect from them the actual wages they received from forty to fifty years ago and now, and I have the results before me. The wages are reckoned by the week, and though the hours are less, because it is not now the custom to work on Saturday afternoon, this is no money gain to the mechanic. Out of thirty-seven trades which are tabulated, the earnings of fourteen have increased and those of the rest have diminished. The increase (from 1835 to 1884) has varied from 12 1/2 to 30 per cent., while the decrease has been very much greater, most of these, however, being paid by piece-work, and therefore not necessarily representing the same decrease of earnings. As examples, I may mention French polishers, 30 per cent. lower; boxmakers, upholsterers, chairmakers, turners, wood and stone carvers, artificial flower-makers, and some others, who work from 20 to 50 per cent. lower now; while another extensive class, including ironers, shirt-makers, card board and matchbox makers, trunk makers, ulster and trouser finishers, &c., are now paid from 30 to 150 per cent. less than at the earlier period. The large class of seamstresses are at the present day far worse off than when Hood wrote the "Song of the Shirt," their actual payment being much lower, while their rent is enormously higher. In Hood's time a shilling was paid for work for which they now receive fourpence! It is also the general belief that work is more uncertain and more difficult to get now than fifty years ago, and that the nominal wages are not so generally earned in full as they were then. Surely an estimate of the "condition of the working classes" which leaves out of account altogether those whose condition has deteriorated is not of much value; while the omission of all reference to the greater struggle and competition, and the consequently larger proportion of time lost in getting work, is hardly less important.

    In order to magnify the supposed improvement in the condition of the people, Mr. Giffen makes the extraordinary statement that "meat fifty years ago was not an article of the workman's diet as it has since become." In opposition to this strangely incorrect statement, I have the evidence of an old man who fifty years ago was potman at the Three Tuns public-house in Blackheath village, and he states that at that time and for some years after as much as from 200 to 300 pounds weight of steaks and chops were cooked daily for the mechanics, labourers, and others working in the neighbourhood who came there at their dinner hour. It is very doubtful whether the same thing occurs now.

    Another important consideration is that whereas now full two-thirds of our population live in towns, more than half lived in the country fifty years ago, and had many advantages which served as a real addition to their wages. Gleaning was then a common practice, and a labourer's family would often thus obtain from three to eight bushels of wheat, barley, peas, and beans. Milk was abundant, and good skim milk could be had at a halfpenny a quart, whereas now few labourers' children ever taste it. Eggs were much cheaper; rent was one-half, or one-third what it is now in towns; meat was about half its present price, and even bread, though sometimes very dear, was, on the average, very little dearer than now. (Average price of wheat, 1824-32, 61s. a quarter; 1870-80, 56s. 3d. a quarter.) Clothing, though nominally a little cheaper now, is so inferior in quality that many workmen maintain it to be really dearer. Everywhere in the country sticks could be gathered for firewood, watercresses and mushrooms gathered and sold, all which is now usually forbidden, under penalty of fine and imprisonment. The commons then had only been partially enclosed, and most labourers were able to keep geese, poultry, and pigs, and had gardens, in which they grew potatoes and other vegetables. All this is lost to the labourers who, to the amount of many millions, have been driven from the country to the towns, and the result is seen in the enormous increase of imported food, which we used to grow at home. Instead of being an indication of well-being, this increase is, to some extent, a measure of the peoples' loss, for they used to grow much of this food in addition to their money wages.

    I also wish to point out, in conclusion, that Mr. Giffen has adopted a most unfair and misleading mode of estimating increase of wages, having taken (for mechanics) Manchester and Glasgow instead of London prices. But fifty years ago what may be termed "country prices" ruled in these towns, whereas now they approach much nearer to London prices. Why did he not take the London wages of fifty years ago as given by the contract prices of Greenwich Hospital and compare them with present London prices? These tables show that from 1820 to 1832 the wages of carpenters, bricklayers, masons, and plumbers, were 33s. a week, and they now average from 36s. to 40s. a week, an increase of from 10 to 20 per cent., instead of from 24 to 85 per cent. as given by Mr. Giffen.

    I think that the facts and statements I have now adduced will show that Mr. Giffen has not approached the investigation of this subject with an impartial mind, and that neither his facts nor his conclusions are trustworthy. Perhaps if you, Sir, were to open your columns to statements by working men and women who can give their own experience of life forty or fifty years ago and now, you would enable the public to form a more accurate judgement on this interesting and important question.--I am, yours, &c.,

Alfred R. Wallace.
Godalming, Jan. 26th.

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