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  • Custom, Wages and Workload in England during Industrialization*
  • Leonard Schwarz

In 1960 Eric Hobsbawm published his seminal essay 'Custom, Wages and Work-Load in Nineteenth-Century Industry'.1 At this time he was engaging in his 'first attempts to collect together' his papers about labouring men, and, as he put it, 'to consider some of their implications'.2 As far as custom, wages and workload were concerned, the implications that he considered were long-lasting and Hobsbawm's analysis dominated discussions for many years subsequently. The original article had its centre of gravity in the second half of the nineteenth century; it did not refer much to the first half of the century, and even less to the years before then. At the core of his article was the argument that around the 1840s the skilled workers in the new industrial economy learnt the 'rules of the game', and the outcome was the concept of a fair day's work for a fair day's pay.3 The essay was primarily concerned with industrial bargaining, particularly from the mid nineteenth century.

Since Hobsbawm wrote, the context of industrial disputes before the 1840s has been examined extensively.4 What has been [End Page 143] investigated a great deal less is the wage itself, particularly the relationship of the wage to time. But this relationship is central to an analysis of the wage during industrialization. Accordingly, much of this article is about time. Readers of Past and Present will remember Edward Thompson's essay on time and work discipline.5 This article will consider time differently. It will not discuss the internalization of a certain form of time discipline, or the observation of St Monday.6 Instead, it will discuss a more traditional aspect of studies of the industrial revolution and of industrial societies. If time was money, how was this measured? Was there a new relationship between time and the wage, as the original critics of the satanic mills claimed? Did time have a different value for those outside the formal economy of regularly paid work, such as those living off the commons or those who drew heavily upon the 'economy of makeshifts'? Did the wider society move towards a different relationship between time and money, with an attack on unproductive leisure by elements of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, seeking to succeed where the Puritans had failed? This article will first consider the nature of piece-rate payments during the industrial revolution, believed by many to be the favoured method of payment at the time, as well as their relationship to time rates and the relationship of piece rates to time, or more generally of effort to reward. The second section will consider how far wage rates—for both piece and time—reflected a traditional consensus. The third section considers how far the relationship between effort and reward was not direct, at least not in the short run; relevant here are living-in servants, apprentices, and those with access to the common. The fourth section will consider perquisites, the economy of makeshifts and the Poor Law. Was there an entire section of society with a different attitude towards time and reward? [End Page 144] Conversely, were those who received poor relief—money that was by definition not given in exchange for work—expected to observe a different attitude towards time, particularly leisure time, from those who did not receive such relief ?

I Piece Rates and Time Rates

In his original piece, Hobsbawm suggested that until the 1840s employers showed an

extraordinary neglect of the problem of productivity and efficient labour utilization. Broadly speaking, employers assumed that the lowest wage-bill for the longest hours meant the lowest labour cost per unit of time; that the workers' effort could not be much increased above a given norm, though they were often too lazy to reach this; that the problem of productivity was essentially one of mechanization combined with discipline; and that incentives were mainly useful as an auxiliary to this, if at all.7

To put this into context means analysing the wider question of the relationship between effort and reward over the long run. This raises three questions. The first is...


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pp. 143-175
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2007
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