“Thrift” and the working-class economy, 1858-1903

Recent investigation has directed attention again to the deposit accounts of savings banks as an indicator of the ability of and propensity for the working class to save (not least through management of the household economy (Perriton and Maltby; Maltby). In one sense, this recourse to savings banks complied with ideological constraints of social control and reflected inversely the different standards imposed on or associated with middle class and working class (Paul Johnson). There is the possibility, consequently, that deposits in savings banks miss aspects of a working-class independent ethos. Such a potential difference – one of necessity, but also choice – was illustrated by Robert Noonan in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and is also well attested through the relationships with pawn brokers (Tebbutt): that working class people “invested” in household goods (‘assets’) which temporarily improved their lives, but were “realisable”, in the sense that they were capital which could be liquidated in times of necessity. Accordingly, we might then examine the probate calendars introduced in 1858 for the ability of the working class to accumulate as a prospective form of saving. The following comments are based on an interim sample of more than 20,000 probate records for Leicestershire. (All the data – some 24k records – have been collected, but are still being input into the database, which has now progressed to 22k). There are obvious caveats. The valuation occurred at death, at the end of the lifecourse, but we might suspect little adherence to a Chayanovian life-cycle relinquishing of goods in later life, for they still provided a capital reserve. Secondly, the deceased have been divided into various categories of work, but we know from Noonan’s description of building work in Hastings that the employment of the various building craftsmen was often not in their particular skill, but whatever work was available, usually at lower rates. Thirdly, the numbers involved are low. The reason is that a vast realm of deceased has been excluded because it is uncertain whether they were employed or self-employed, so, for example, all painters, plumbers, glaziers, and so on, have been excised. The concentration is thus on unskilled (as far as any work lacks acquired skills) (labourers), semi-skilled (framework knitters), and skilled (bricklayers). What the data indicate is the possibility for the fortunate, diligent, but minority of, working-class employees to accumulate, in many cases comparable with the capacity of the lower-middle-class retailer, who depended on their aggregate demand (a massive contrast with Jack London’s East End in The People of the Abyss and even Noonan’s Hastings) . There are other categories which illumine the range of working-class opportunity. Workers in extractive industry had very poor potential. The new railway industry, in contrast, elevated a new ‘labour aristocracy’.

The division before and after 1881 is explained by W. D. Rubinstein, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain Since the Industrial Revolution (New edn, London, 2006), p. 20.

Linda Perriton and Josephine Maltby, “Working-class households and savings in England, 1850-1880”, Enterprise and Society 16 (2015), 413-45.

Maltby, “‘The wife’s administration of the earnings’? Working-class women and savings in the mid-nineteenth century”, Continuity and Change 26 (2011), 187-217.

Paul Johnson, “Class law in Victorian England”, Past & Present 141 (1993), 147-69.

Melanie Tebbutt, Making Ends Meet: Pawnbroking and Working-Class Credit (London, 1983).

Jack London, The People of the Abyss (London, 1903).

‘Robert Tressell’, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists ed. Peter Miles (Oxford, 2005).

1 Farm labourers after 1881

N

37

mean

156.5

Standard deviation

204.77

median

85

Before 1881: 7, ranged <£20 to <£100.

2a Bricklayers before 1881

Under £

Leicester

Town

Rural

20

0

2

2

50

1

1

1

100

5

2

9

200

0

0

2

300

2

0

3

450

0

0

3

600

0

1

1

1500

1

0

0

2b Bricklayers after 1881

Leicester

Town

Rural

N

24

5

18

mean

233

189

212

Standard deviation

236.2

174.7

259.2

median

133

93

87

3a FWKs before 1881

Under £s

Leicester

Town

Rural

5

0

0

2

20

3

2

27

50

1

1

5

100

7

8

34

200

6

3

8

300

2

1

2

450

0

1

7

500

0

0

1

600

0

0

1

800

1

0

0

3b FWKs after 1881

Leicester

Town

Rural

N

51

30

75

mean

169

166

168.5

Standard deviation

170.9

227.1

229.0

Median

97

99.5

60

4a Labourers before 1881

Under £

Leicester

Town

Rural

10

0

0

1

20

0

2

17

40

0

1

0

50

2

0

5

60

0

0

1

70

0

0

1

80

0

0

1

90

0

0

1

100

9

12

48

200

1

5

39

300

1

0

9

400

0

0

2

450

0

2

4

600

0

0

1

4b Labourers after 1881

Leicester

Town

Rural

N

36

22

174

Mean

209.2

272.9

128.4

Standard deviation

272.4

462.5

145.7

Median

92.5

166.5

81.5

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