Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Freedeman, Charles Eldon, 1926-

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

Department of History


Cost and standard of living--England; England--Economic conditions--18th century; England--Economic conditions--19th century


The period from 1760 to 1850 was one of transition where-by, under the impetus of industrialisation, the social and economic framework of England was undergoing rapid transformation from ruralism to urbanism. Historians agree that the England of 1850 differed considerable from the England of 1760. Yet, they cannot agree as to whether industrialisation raised or lowered the standard of living of the English working class. The controversy over living standards found its beginning in the early twentieth century with the works of the Hammonds and John H. Clapham. John L. Hammond and his wife Barbara presented a pessimistic study of working class discontent in their three volumes: The Village Labourer, 1760-1832 (1911), The Town Labourer, 1760-1832 (1971), and The Skilled Labourer, 1760-1832 (1919). Their view that the living standard of the English working class fell during the period from 1760 to 1832 remained virtually unchallenged until John H. Clapham published the first volume of his economic history of Britain in 1926. Clapham, relying heavily on the statistical research of A. L. Bowley, G. H. Wood, and Norman J. Silberling, purported that the standard of living had increased markedly from 1800 to 1850. Clapham's optimistic thesis was reinforced in the same year (1926) by William H. Hutt's attack on the sources the Hammonds used to support their viewpoint. The optimistic thesis launched by Clapham and Hutt was relatively successful and within ten years came to dominate over the Hammond's traditional view. Though after 1926, there was more talk of stability, the Hamond thesis still commanded considerable support, particularly in textbooks, and to many British historians the statistics backing up Clapham's thesis seemed inadequate. The problem of statistics and continuing support of the traditional view prompted Thomas S. Ashton, in 1949, to modernise the optimist viewpoint. Ashton rejected the statistics used by Clapham and tried to prove that an increase in national productive output led to an increase of real wages and a rising standard of living. Ashton's thesis was reinforced in 1954 with the publication of F. A. Hayek's edited volume, Capitalism and the Historians. Without challengers, Ashton's modern interpretation appeared to have settled the controversy once and for all. E. J. Hobsbawm, however, in his article, "The British Standard of Living," published in the Economic History Review (1957) reopened the controversy when he stated that more evidence was needed to discredit the Hammond thesis. Since the appearance of Hobsbawm's article the controversy has continued between Hobsbawm and R. M. Hartwell. In 1965 E. F. Thompson, in his volume, "The Making of the British Working Class," Supported the Hobsbawm-Hammond thesis. Like Hobsbawm, his work has also been criticised by R. M. Hartwell. The purpose of this paper is to present an analytical and unbiased presentation of the various interpretations with the object of deciding which are most defensible and cogent. It is hoped that a conclusion favoring either the optimistic or pessimistic view can be made. The fact that historians are often in disagreement makes the study of history a dynamic discipline. As an analysis of a controversy this paper should prove interesting and beneficial.


Includes bibliographical references.


47 pages




Northern Illinois University

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