Divided by money

Divided by money

Wealth and poverty were often defining aspects of our ancestors’ lives. Juliet Kemp explores the overpowering importance of money. Case studies by Dr Matthew Graham

Header Image: St James's Workhouse, London

Juliet Kemp, writer

Juliet Kemp


At the start of the 17th century, wealth was based heavily on land ownership. Those rich in land also had access to money, but the source of their wealth was their land. The better-off poor might have a little of their own land, but most would work the estates of the local lord, then have access to common land for grazing animals, gleaning food and wood, and a little growing of crops. Over the course of the next 200 years, enclosure (where common land was claimed by the rich and could no longer be used by the poor) meant the poor became reliant entirely on wages from the rich landowners. Together with the Industrial Revolution, this was part of a move to a more money-based system and, further up the social chain, an industrial middle class began to develop. By the 19th century, however, 85-95% of people were still working class; the wealth of the Industrial Revolution was concentrated sharply at the top of the social pyramid.

Mr and Mrs Andrews
Two images showing the extremes of wealth and poverty. Above, Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews; below, the slums of Thomas Annan Close in Glasgow, 1898 British Library Board
Thomas Annan Close

Economic status had a big effect on life expectancy by the 19th century: a middle-class professional’s life expectancy was up to 18 years more than that of a labourer. Before the 19th century, life expectancy figures are at best rough estimates, and it’s hard to get different figures for rich and poor. But the evidence is that adult mortality began to decrease for both rich and poor from about 1700, suggesting general, not income-dependent, changes. It’s important to remember, too, that life expectancy figures include infant mortality, which for most of history has been very high. Life expectancy in 1700 was around 40, but if you made it to the age of 21, you had a far better chance of living another 40-50 years. Infant mortality was high for both rich and poor but, as urbanisation increased, it rose further, and probably more so for the poor whose living conditions were far worse.

One of the big changes from the 17th century onwards was the move from rural to urban living. Agricultural employment failed to keep pace with the rise in population and, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, more labour was needed in the towns, so huge numbers of the working-class began to move into them. The middle class emerged in the towns along with industry during the 18th century, and the rich were also moving out of the country. Britain was becoming urbanised.

Social mobility was also increasing; it was possible to accrue money in industry and to move upwards into the middle class. Social mobility has always been a feature of English social history: while the aristocracy may appear static, surname surveys over time shown that it’s always been open to new entrants.

Motherless by Sir Luke Fildes

The ‘new gentry’ in the early 19th century consisted of those who were successful in commerce, industry, and the professions, and their circumstances were extremely comfortable. The poor, on the other hand, found life in towns increasingly difficult, and the issue of poor relief began to gain in importance.

The original system of poor relief was first set properly in place in the 16th century. It was funded by local taxation, administered at a parish level, and primarily offered ‘outdoor relief’ (bread or money given to people still living in their own homes). The workhouse movement began at the end of the 17th century and, a hundred years later, nearly 2,000 workhouses had been established. Poverty was seen as providing an incentive to work, and the assumption was that an able-bodied person who was out of work was ‘shiftless’, with no suggestion that there might not always be work to be found.

The Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century had a big impact on poverty. Imports slowed, the price of bread increased while wages did not, and riots and social unrest followed. In 1830, the Swing Riots (prompted by a sharp downturn in both wages and poor relief) led to the foundation of the 1832 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Their two main proposals were ‘less eligibility’, ie that conditions inside the workhouse should be worse than those of the poorest labourer outside; and the ‘workhouse test’, ie that relief should be available only in the workhouses, to discourage people from taking it.

pauper boy

In the event, neither proposal was really implemented, despite the subsequent Act trying to do so. ‘Less eligibility’ proved impossible to implement without starving people to an unacceptable degree (saying something about conditions of the poor outside the workhouse!), although workhouses were far from comfortable; and in practice much ‘outdoor relief’ continued.

Attitudes began to change again in the late 19th century. Reformers such as Charles Booth demonstrated the reality of urban poverty, and after 1884-5, those who had received medical treatment paid for by the poor laws were no longer disqualified from voting in parliamentary elections.

In 1901 Joseph Rowntree calculated that 16% of London wage-earners were in ‘primary poverty’, earning less than the bare minimum it was theoretically possible for a five-person family to live on (21s 8d). Around a third of wage earners were within 6 shillings of that (and thus at high risk of falling into primary poverty). A London labourer at the time was earning 18-21 shillings per week.

The 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws noted an increase in the number of paupers since 1870, but continued to blame this on the ease of accessing relief, rather than on low wages or jobs being harder to find. They continued to argue as well that supplementation was bad for the ‘character’ of the poor. However, the Liberal government of the time largely ignored the report and instituted their own schemes to provide social services (including Old Age Pensions and National Insurance). The remains of the Poor Law scheme gradually disappeared over the next 20 years, to be replaced by the beginnings of our modern system of state welfare.

Jacob’s Island
The slum 'rookery’ of Jacob’s Island, Bermondsey, London

Compared to modern expectations, even the rich in the 17th century had a hard life, with high levels of disease and infant mortality, and a different definition of everyday ‘comfort’. Wealth nevertheless insulated them from the much harder life of the poor, and with insecure wages and mass urban poverty, the gap in life experience increased. By the early 20th century, while the wealth gap continued to increase, state intervention was beginning to reduce (although not eliminate) the gap in living conditions and health. Our ancestors, rich or poor, would doubtless see our modern lives as wealthy and comfortable in the extreme!

Timeline: Wealth & Poverty

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Elizabethan Poor Law formalised existing poor relief practices and legislation.
Hearth tax collected, giving historians an excellent source of information on wealth.
Land tax assessments compiled to show who was entitled to vote.
Poor Law Amendment Act centralised and reformed the old system.
1870 & 1882
Land tax assessments compiled to show who was entitled to vote.
Finance Act introduced death duties, leading to the breakup of some large estates.
Poor Law Amendment Act centralised and reformed the old system.
Land Valuation Survey assessed the value of land across the country.
Married Women’s Property Act allowed married women to retain ownership of their own property.

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