- Time and Work in England 1750–1830
In this carefully researched book, a young economic historian addresses one of the key questions of early industrialization—how long did the English people work during its crucial years, 1750–1830. In contrast to the long emphasis upon the roles of technology, capital formation, and even consumer demand, Hans-Joachim Voth returns to the provocative claims of social historians that industrialization was built on increased time at physical work. Rejecting partial and episodic approaches to the topic based on trade or regional data, Voth offers us unique general evidence. He carefully recorded answers to the question posed to over 2,800 witnesses across that 80 years in English criminal trials: “What were you doing at the time of the crime?” At first glance, this evidence might [End Page 263] strike readers as artificial and unreliable: How representative could such witnesses be, even when the dataset included records from the Northern Assize as well as London’s Old Bailey? How likely was it that they really knew the clock time when they said that they were working? Using a full range of statistical tools and references, Voth addresses these and many other potential concerns and makes a good case for reasonable accuracy. For example, he persuasively argues that surprisingly large number of even poor witnesses owned watches or clocks in England during this period.
Given his careful stage-setting, it is only on page 67 that we begin to see his reconstruction of daily life. Working hours in London extended from about 6:50 to 18:48 in 1750 and from 7:50 to 19:05 in 1830 while over the same two periods in the north working hours were from 6:10 to 19:00 and 6:03 to 20:00 (though in both cases there were large variations). While workdays decreased in London by an hour and increased in the North by about an hour, some of this difference may be explained by the decline in the work time of the London self-employed and elites while wage earners’ hours remained static over the 80 years. More important, Voth argues, was continuity: actual work time hovered around 10–11 hours throughout the period. More dramatic was evidence of change in work-free days. While in London “St. Monday” was commonly observed in 1750, it had nearly disappeared by 1800 along with about 53 “holy days,” leading to an increase in annual working hours from 2,288 to 3,666. In the North, while St. Monday was rare throughout the period, religious and political holidays also disappeared by 1830 resulting in a rise of working hours from 2,860 to 3,366. Though Voth offers a welter of statistics to qualify this bold claim, he concludes that the increase in work time during early English industrialization was about the same as was the reduction in hours between World War I and 1989.
Voth argues that longer work years can be explained by increased labor supply, the boom in the young dependent population, and declining wages. This confirms an old argument. But he also makes a more innovative case that increased access to consumer (and especially leisure) goods may have increased the pressure to work more hours (perhaps reversing the older preference of free time).
These findings suggest that increased work time, not capital accumulation or even technology explain economic growth during early industrialization in Britain. In this way, Voth stands on the side of the “pessimists” who claim that the price of economic growth was a decline in the standard of living. After surveying a wealth of data on the workday of hunting, agricultural, and modern industrial societies, Voth concludes that early industrial England stands out with its extraordinarily long working hours. This exception may be still another of the burdens of “being first” to industrialize. Today, given capital, educational, and technological advantages shared by developing countries, the long hours of England in 1830 are no longer necessary, even in the poorest Third World communities. While Voth’s...