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Time and Work in England 1750-1830

Author(s):Voth, Hans-Joachim
Reviewer(s):Humphries, Jane

Published by EH.NET (February 2002)

Hans-Joachim Voth, Time and Work in England 1750-1830. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2001. viii + 304 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-19-924194-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jane Humphries, All Souls College, Oxford.

Whether people worked harder during the industrial revolution is a question

with “Oomph!” as Deirdre McCloskey would say. Great economic historians from

Marx to E. P. Thompson have addressed it. More recently, Robert Fogel, Jan de

Vries and John Hatcher have entered the fray. Is there anything left to say?

Time and Work in England 1750-1830 brings both new evidence and a new

approach to this celebrated issue.

The “Oomph!” is in the implications. First, time use bears on the role of

technical change in industrialization. Modern economic historians have debunked

the old-fashioned view of the industrial revolution as involving rapid

technical progress by showing that increases in factor inputs accounted for a

large part of growth. As Nick Crafts first noted total factor productivity

growth would need further reduction if more accurate estimates of labor input

became available which scaled up those based on the growth of the working-age

population. Second, time use bears on the standard of living debate. To enjoy

leisure is a valued human functioning. If working people enjoyed less free time

during industrialization, estimates of their welfare gains must be adjusted to

reflect this loss.

For the pre-industrial period and the industrial revolution, records of either

the number of hours worked per day or days per year are scarce and scattered.

Historians resorted to literary materials, regulations, occasional government

reports and employment records. Such evidence illustrated E. P. Thompson’s

argument that in pre-industrial times work was irregular and uneven with St

Monday symbolizing a leisurely start to a working week that often ended in a

storm of effort as workers struggled to complete tasks. With an increasing

division of labor and larger-scale capital, work and workers had to become more

regular and disciplined. The drive for surplus value motivated employers to

extend as well as intensify work. Thompson’s evidence was not convincing to

modern economic historians who preferred more systematic testing. Nor did

surveys of rules and regulations and case studies of employment build


Economic historians turned to the indirect evidence offered by nutritional

standards, or contradictory trends in real wages and probate inventories, or

comparisons of annual full employment income with daily wage rates, all of

which were made to yield inferences about time use. Inferences can even be

teased from the seasonality of conception, the timing of “crowd events” and the

scheduling of weddings. A Sherlock Holmes-type economic historian, Voth clearly

enjoys the cleverness of these indirect approaches but acknowledges that they

too failed to resolve the issue. “What is needed is a new method that yields

direct evidence on patterns of labour and leisure among the population at

large, and on a broad empirical basis. This data should be available on a

consistent basis, from the same source, and should be collected for more than

one location” (p.16). Both are provided by the ingenious use of court records.

From the witness statements of more than 2,800 men and women, Voth extracted

all mentions of time use for three periods (1749-63, 1799-1803, and 1829-30).

At every opportunity he recorded what a particular individual was doing at a

particular time. Originally his attention was limited to London (see Voth,

1998), but anxious to include the crucible of industrialization, the monograph

also examines evidence from the Northern Assize Depositions.

The court records reveal the timing (by hour, day, and month) of crime, but

also the structure of daily life as lived by the working men and women who

happened to witness crime. Voth can estimate when they got up and went to bed,

when they started work and stopped. Schedules can be compared over time and

between London and the North. In London, an approximately 12-hour working day

appears to lengthen and then contract, while the initially longer hours in the

North were further extended by 1830. But as both starting and stopping times

are observed with an error the statistical significance of these differences

cannot be demonstrated.

The court records also facilitate estimation of the working week and year.

Non-random variation in the numbers working by weekday while suggestive is not

sufficient to demonstrate the existence of St. Monday. To this end Voth

constructs a dichotomous variable, one if the witness was working, zero

otherwise, and then regresses it on a set of other characteristics including

the days of the week so uncovering the probability of working by day of the

week. Alas only simple logistic regressions on the day dummies are reported.

Traditional interpretations receive support. For London, the odds of observing

somebody in work and its statistical significance suggest that St Monday ceased

to be celebrated between 1760 and 1830. The later days of the week, when

workloads purportedly increased, show higher than average work probabilities

that are statistically significant in the case of Friday for 1800 and in the

case of Saturday for 1800 and 1830. In the North there is no evidence of St

Monday, either before or after 1800, nor of increasing work frequency by Friday

or Saturday. In the 1750s, holy days saw a strong reduction in the probability

of observing somebody at work both in London and in the North. By 1800 this

effect had vanished completely in London but lingered in the North. Similar

analyses of the probability of observing a person at leisure were conducted for

the London data providing supporting results. Alternative methods of

aggregating up to hours per year and combining the results for London and the

North are worked through providing seven different indexes of annual hours. The

differences are small and all estimates well within the range suggested by

earlier authors. Annual hours increased somewhere between 14 and 32 percent

(p.131). Elementary, my dear reader!

Voth anticipates objections to his method. One is bothersome. The disappearance

of St Monday and decline in the likelihood of not working on holy days might

reflect not a net increase in labor hours but rather increasingly randomized

time-use as individuals dispersed their holidays through the week and year

according to their own increasingly secular preferences. If this were the case,

retorts Voth, there would be an increase over time in the proportion of cases

misclassified, in the logistic regressions. There is some evidence of this in

the London data, though not enough Voth charges, to have obliterated the

significance of the coefficients on the holy days and the Mondays.

Why did people work longer hours? Five competing hypotheses are explored:

declining nutritional constraints; increasing dependency; better health;

cultural changes; and, the desire to consume. Each receives incisive

assessment, though Voth displays the prejudices of the economic historian in

his snippety treatment of cultural changes.

Voth’s preferred explanation remains the increasing attractions of consumption.

But there is a wrinkle in his consumer revolution. A firm pessimist on the real

wage front, it is the asymmetry between the ability and the

desire to spend that drives up labor input. Voth also suggests that the

rising dependency ratio explains about a quarter of the increase in hours. This

rescues an important and neglected feature of the period and slots it neatly

into place. My own current work on increasing child labor implicates rising

dependency as an explanatory factor.

In moving from estimates of annual hours to aggregate labor inputs, Voth

acknowledges the importance of assumptions about participation rates. In

particular, if the participation rates of women were declining between 1750 and

1830, this would offset some of the growth in labor input. On the other hand

declining female participation rates imply additional numbers of dependents and

strengthens this pressure driving men’s longer hours. Gender (and class)

differences in the timing of activities are given brief attention with rather

predictable results (women dominate unpaid activities and appear less likely to

have leisure). More generally, I remain convinced that women’s distinctive

experience in the labor markets of the period cautions against attempting to

uncover a general trend in hours of work especially from a data set in

which 84.7 percent of the observations refer to men.

Voth’s book lends powerful support to the new view of the industrial

revolution. With increased labor input total factor productivity barely grew at

all, and the first seventy years of industrialization delivered even more

paltry improvements in living standards than hitherto estimated.

Jane Humphries has published extensively on gender, the family and the history

of women’s work. Her main current research interest is in the relationship

between the family and the economy in the past and in the present. Among her

recent works are “Cliometrics, Child Labor, and the Industrial Revolution,”

Critical Review (2000) and “Women’s Labour Force Participation and the

Transition to the Male-Breadwinner Family, 1790-1865,” with Sara Horrell,

Economic History Review (1995).

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century