Staying Home

Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals. We seldom hear of this combination because it is the usual, and, one may say, the natural state of things.

-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 177626

Though the potential of a little more money is appealing, how can you put a cost on good friends and a feeling of home? You are where you belong right now, you decide, and so you thank your friend for the offer but politely decline. When he writes you a couple months later and tells you of how much better paying his new job is, you are happy for him, but you do not regret your decision too much, thanks to the comforts and tranquility you find in the world around you.

In the eighteenth century, wages vary greatly from location to location within England. For example, in 1770, agricultural laborers in the northern counties average 6s. 9d. weekly, while those in southern counties average 7s. 6., a significant difference for the laboring class.27 In 1771, a weaver employed at Halifax receives 11d. for his product, while a weaver employed by the same firm but working in Lancashire gets only 10d. In times of economic hardship, the gap widened further. In 1774, the Lancashire weaver’s pay falls to 6d., while the Halifax weaver’s falls only to 8d.28

Variances in the abundance of available labor account for much of this disparity. Miners in Cornwall who must toil in dangerous conditions that require a high degree of skill are compensated with 9s. to 15s. per week, while miners working in the easier situation of Anglesey earn just 6s. to 10s. Likewise, highly skilled craftsmen working in London can expect higher wages than their country counterparts who are less specialized and are often little more than handymen.28

Cottage Industry

Cottage Industry in late 18th Century, by J. C. Ibbotson7


Machines for weaving8

While wages tend to vary greatly from place to place, there is much less change in the price of goods, which makes life doubly difficult for workers earning low incomes.29 A family of seven living in Preston in 1795, for example, has annual expenses of £10 7s., which resulted in a yearly deficit of £2 11s. given a weekly salary of 6s. 6d.26

Workers cannot expect much relief from raises, as wages remain virtually constant over time during the eighteenth century. All the way from 1700 to 1770, building laborers at Oxford receive an average of 2s. a day, while from 1700 to 1790, plumbers at Westminster and Southwark earn between 2s. 6d. and 3s. daily. Wages are also irregular for some occupations, such as London tailors, who receive the relatively high rate of 2s. 6d. daily but are often idle for extended periods of time. Business owners and customers have to pay these higher rates lest the workers shift employment to survive.29

Many years pass. You rise quickly in your profession, becoming well known and respected, and your fortune accumulates. Attracted by the allure and mystique of the landed aristocracy, you decide to invest in your own parcel of land in the country. Two offers soon roll in, one for a relatively small area of land, the other for a rather sizable estate. The offer for the larger land is pricey, and you are hesitant to spend so much of your savings, and you are uncertain if you can effectively manage so much land. On the other hand, if you can manage the land, a larger estate might be more profitable in the long run. What do you decide?