Changes in English living standards

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ornate letter T

here has always been a gulf between the rich and the poor in England but, before twentieth century State welfare and pensions, anyone unable to earn a living risked destitution without family help or outside charity.

stirling castle bedroom

The wealthy have always been able to live in comfort, as these reconstructed 1682 interiors of the house of the Earl and Countess of Argyll, in Stirling, show...

stirling castle

... and an Illustrated London News sketch of the latest Paris fashions in 1851 showing a plump, over-dressed young lady reclining on a sofa, which the ILN further noted could result in death, by tight lacing!

In Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853), the squalid city court called "Tom-all-alone's" (below) could just as well have been in Nottingham as in London.

Tom all alone's

Dickens describes the destitute orphan boy, Jo:

" ... a youth, whose face is hollow, and whose eyes have an emaciated glare. He is so intent on getting along unseen, that even the apparition of a stranger in whole garments does not tempt him to look back. He shades his face with his ragged elbow as he passes on the other side of the way, and goes shrinking and creeping on, with his anxious hand before him, and his shapeless clothes hanging in shreds. Clothes made for what purpose, or of what material, it would be impossible to say. They look, in colour and in substance, like a bundle of rank leaves of swampy growth, that rotted long ago ... "

Helen McKenny was the daughter of a Methodist Minister, the Rev. John McKenny. They lived from 1885-88 in the manse at Wesley's Chapel on London's City Road where Helen, in her twenty's, 'encountered many of the more deserving poor and was appalled by what she learned of their living conditions – the grossly overcrowded tenements, the dirt, the vice and the destitution.' (A City Road Diary eds. Alfred Binney & John Vickers, 1999)

Helen kept a diary during her three years here:

November 10th 1886: Very wet. Went to the Mission again. A lot of rough boys made a great noise and we did not have at all a good time.

November 14th: Went to see poor Mrs. Stevens who has another little baby come to starve. Miss H had been down and scolded her about many things, putting Johnnie's boots into pawn, etc. Poor soul, she has enough troubles and difficulties to bear and contend with without scoldings! Love, kindness, and help is what they want, not cross words. What a hole they live in! Yet the children are dear little things. Carrie and Tilley and Johnnie and Billie are as fond of each other as richer children. Carrie is to come to our sewing class and learn to make some things for herself. She has not a frock at present to go into Sunday School. Fortunately I happen to have one left from the Summer gifts.

Later, Helen records the dreadful London fog, so vividly described by Charles Dickens in the first paragraphs of Bleak House.

Sunday January 2nd 1887: Dense yellow fog, distressing. The afternoon Covenant Service was a very precious time although the fog was so dense that we could not see the Ministers in the Communion. A stifling, stinging, suffocating yellow fog.

January 3rd 1887: Went out in cold and rain to take a dolly to a poor little soul in Cherry Tree Court who nearly broke her heart because she hadn't one at the Christmas tree! O God! the children! How terrible it is to see them in such places and so neglected! Surely their cry comes up to Thee.

Charles Dickens in Bleak House describes how three orphaned children survive in an attic room above a chandler's shop in Bell Yard. Click HERE for his full account [panic not - link not yet activated!]

cottage interior 1830

... The life of rural farm workers seems idyllic by comparison, from a distance, but this sketch (right) from an 1830s Illustrated London News tells a different story, with sparse furnishings and a meagre fire inside a cottage with leaking thatch and damp, crumbling walls.

From The Martyrs of Tolpuddle (TUC General Council 1934), an account of 1830s rural life and the trial of six poor Dorset farm labourers who were transported to Australia for forming a Trade Union:

"Conditions among the farm workers were almost unbelievably wretched. They were housed in hovels not fit to shelter cattle. Typical of the conditions of housing in Dorsetshire is the recorded case of a family of eleven persons who slept in a room ten feet square, roofed with open thatch, only 7 feet high in the middle, and with a single window 15 inches square. Under the influence of the prevailing economic theories, few new cottages for farm labourers were built, and many existing cottages were pulled down. A Dorsetshire clergyman who gave evidence before a Committee on wages in 1824, said that labourers lived almost entirely on tea and potatoes."

The opportunity of an education has always given poorer people the chance of bettering themselves. plaque on old schoolhouse, Normanton on Trent

This plaque (right) on the front of the old schoolhouse in Normanton on Trent tells us that, in 1776, 'Henry Jackson of this town, Gent, built and endowed this school with four pounds a year for the education of ten poor children belonging to this parish.' How much did the building itself cost, compared with the cost of educating the children?

Old Schoolhouse, Normanton


The Old Schoolhouse, Normanton on Trent

The Ragged School

Education then was pitifully basic compared with our expectations today. How much more – or less – did the Ragged School children learn in their impressive new Lambeth school, (Illustrated London News sketch, right) built at a cost of 10,000 in 1851, but with only 250 annually for the education of the children, 'to be raised by subscription'.

The Illustrated London News also records that:

There are two large classrooms – one for boys and one for girls; ... The Ragged Schools were, 'calculated to accommodate about 800 children' and that this 'system' had taken 'many hundreds from a state of filth and misery and raised (them) to one of honourable independence.' At the Lambeth Ragged School's opening, Lord Ashley declared that, 'There was no reason whatever why Lambeth should not rescue itself from the present disgraceful opprobrium which attached to it,' and then, 'Let the great basis of all Ragged School teaching be true sound evangelical Protestantism. (Great applause) The Bible, and the Bible alone, is the religion of Protestants. (Hear, hear)

The Commercial Traveller's Orphans, 1851

The Commercial Travellers' School (Illustrated London News sketch, right) is an example of a group of people, having a common interest, organising themselves to look after each other.

Byron Road School, Gillingham, c1925Even an elementary education was not compulsory for children until 1876. The State had established School Boards in 1876, and from 1902 the Education Act made local authorities responsible for schools. This photo (left) shows my father, Philip John Drake, at Byron Road School, Gillingham, Kent c. 1925

Playing the organ


My Great Aunt playing hymns c. 1900



The Sunday School movement paved the way for institutionalised education. In 1783 Robert Raikes, an evangelical churchman and editor of the Gloucester Journal, published an account of how he had been much disturbed by gangs of unruly children breaking what he considered should be the peace of the Sabbath. He organised a school for them on Sundays. The idea caught the imagination of other evangelical church-people and Sunday schools quickly opened. The aim was 'to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety.' Sunday schools were not free but by 1788 nearly sixty thousand children had enrolled. By 1851 there were more than two million children in over twenty three thousand schools. The children were expected to be disciplined and arrive punctually in clean, neat clothes. For one day a week poor children could feel self-respect and aspire to high ideals. Golden Bells Hymnbook, 1905



... and her Golden Bells hymn book right


Sunday School bookplate, 1918




Sunday School bookplate, 1918

And if treasures were unattainable on this Earth, they were possible in Heaven ...

Pilgrim's Progress, 1918


Picture from Pilgrim's Progress, 1918 right


Household insurance ad, 1950 



left This 1950 insurance advertisement (Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Co. Ltd.) illustrates just how far many people's expectations had risen.

Certainly not many families owned a car or telephone, or 'valuables', or took holidays abroad by 'sea or air', but they could dream that one day perhaps they might.