The First Half of the Nineteenth Century: Progress of the Nation and the Race (1851)


At mid-century, the editor of The Economist looks back upon fifty years of progress for the people of Britain.


Too many of us are disposed to place our golden age in the past.... Nearly everybody agrees by common consent to undervalue and abuse the present. We confess that we cannot share their disappointment, nor echo their complaints. We look upon the past with respect and affection as a series of stepping-stones to that high and advanced position which we actually hold, and from the future we hope for the realization of those dreams, almost of perfectibility, which a comparison of the past with the present entitles us to indulge in. But we see no reason to be discontented either with our rate of progress or with the actual stage which we have reached….

Perhaps the best way of realizing . . . the actual progress of the last half-century would be to fancy ourselves suddenly transferred to the year 1800, with all our habits, expectations, requirements, and standard of living formed upon the luxuries and appliances collected round us in 1850. In the first year of the century we should find ourselves eating bread at ls. 10 1/2d. the quartem [four-pound] loaf, and those who could not afford this price driven to short commons, to entire abstinence, or to some miserable substitute. We should find ourselves grumbling at heavy taxes laid on nearly all the necessaries and luxuries of life—even upon salt; blaspheming at the high price of coffee, tea, and sugar, which confined these articles, in any adequate abundance, to the rich and easy classes of society; paying fourfold for our linen shirts, threefold for our flannel petticoats, and above fivefold for our cotton handkerchiefs and stockings; receiving our newspapers seldom . . . and some days after date; receiving our Edinburgh letters in London a week after they were written, and paying thirteen pence-halfpenny for them when delivered, exchanging the instantaneous telegraph for the slow and costly express by chaise and pair; travelling with soreness and fatigue by the “old heavy” [coach] at the rate of seven miles an hour, instead of by the Great Western [railway] at fifty; and relapsing from the blaze of light which gas now pours along our streets, into a perilous and uncomfortable darkness made visible by a few wretched oil lamps scattered at distant intervals.

But these would by no means comprise the sum total, nor the worst part, of the descent into barbarism. We should find our criminal law in a state worthy of Draco; executions taking place by the dozen; the stealing of five shillings punishable and punished as severely as rape or murder; slavery and the slave trade flourishing in their palmiest atrocity. We should find the liberty of the subject at the lowest ebb; freedom of discussion and writing always in fear and frequently in jeopardy; religious rights trampled under foot; Catholics, slaves and not citizens; Dissenters still disabled and despised. Parliament was unreformed; public jobbing5 flagrant and shameless; gentlemen drank a bottle where they now drink a glass, and measured their capacity by their cups; and the temperance medal was a thing undreamed of. Finally, the people in those days were little thought of, where they are now the main topic of discourse and statesmanship; steamboats were unknown, and a voyage to America occupied eight weeks instead of ten days; and while in 1850, a population of nearly 30, 000, 000 paid £50, 000, 000 of taxes, in 1801 a population of 15, 000, 000 paid no less than £63,000,000.

We have ample means of showing by indisputable facts that wealth has been diffused as well as increased during the period under review; that so far from “the rich having become richer and the poor poorer,” as is so often and so inconsiderately asserted, the middle classes have advanced faster than the great, and the command over the comforts and luxuries of life, even among peasants and artisans, is far greater now than at any former period.

In the first place let us look at the savings banks, which are entirely the growth of this century, the first having been established about 1806, and which are confined to the savings of the peasant and artisan class, of domestic servants, and of the humbler portion of the middle class. . . . The deposits in savings banks must . . . be considered as so much capital accumulated since 1800 by the humbler classes of the community. These amounted in 1846 to no less a sum than £31, 743, 250. But this is not all; the amount deposited in proportion to the population shows a steady increase [from 13s. 6d. per head in England, Wales and Ireland in 1831 to 20s. lid, per head in 1848].

Let us now collect together a few facts showing the increase in the consumption of those articles of necessity, or luxury, which are used indiscriminately among all classes.

We have no means of comparing the amount of butchers’ meat consumed now with that consumed at the beginning of the century, but the price we know has fallen from 5s.8d. to 3s.4d. a stone, and M’Culloch considers the quantity per head eaten in London to have doubled since 1750. During the latter part of the 18th century rye and barley bread were very extensively used in many parts of England, the former being ... the habitual food of one-seventh of the population; it is now unknown, except in Durham, while the use of wheaten bread is almost universal among the poorer classes.

In the use of coffee, tea, and sugar also, a marked advance has taken place.

The truth is, that the relief to the population generally, and to the working classes especially, which has been given by the remission of taxation, has been something quite unprecedented. . . . If we except the excise on soap, it may be said that no tax now remains on a single one of the strict necessaries of life. If a poor man is content to live, as wise and great men have often thought it well to live, in health and comfort, but with strict frugality. . . he may escape taxation almost entirely. The whole tendency of our fiscal changes for the last twenty years has been to release the working classes from all financial burdens. To this enumeration of our increased command over the comforts and essentials of life must be added one more item, not the least important in its influence. In 1800 the poor man paid from 6d. to a shilling for each letter he received; it now costs him only one penny.

In no one point is the half-century we have just closed more distinguished from its predecessors than in the share of PUBLIC ATTENTION AND SYMPATHY WHICH THE CONDITION OF THE POORER CLASSES HAS OBTAINED. Formerly the lower orders were regarded, even by the kindly disposed, simply as hewers of wood and drawers of water.... The idea of studying them, of raising them, of investigating into the operation of the causes which affected them for good or evil, had scarcely taken rise. There was kindness, there was charity, there was sympathy toward the poor as individuals, but not any interest in their condition as a class. We are far from considering the multiplication of charitable institutions as a. . . source of unalloyed good to the indigent and industrious of the community, but it at least shows the increase of sympathy towards them on the part of the rich. . . . In the metropolis alone the charitable institutions reach 491 in number, and have an annual income of £1,765,000. Of these 109 were established in the last, and no less than 294 in the present century.

But a far stronger proof of the general interest now taken in the working classes, is to be found in the various commissions that have of late years been issued to inquire into the state of the people in various occupations. Wherever there was a rumor of an abuse, a tyranny, or an injustice, a representation was made in Parliament, and an investigation immediately took place. We have had a factory commission, a children’s employment commission, a commission to inquire into the condition of those employed in mines and manufactures, and a commission to inquire into the employment of women and children in agriculture. We have had inspectors of mines and inspectors of factories appointed.

On the novel and extraordinary attention which is now being paid to SANITARY MATTERS we can look with. . . unmingled satisfaction. . . . Our progress since 1800 has been far from contemptible. The population is less crowded than it was, and roomier dwellings are constantly in process of erection. The average number of individuals in a house which was 5.67 in 1801 had fallen to 5.44 in 1841; and the census which is to be taken this year, will, we have no doubt, show a still further diminution. . . . Many removable causes of premature death yet remain, but the four or five years which the last half-century has added to the average duration of life are a hopeful earnest of what may yet be done to prolong it, now that the subject has awakened public interest, and that administrative exertions are conducted under the guidance of scientific skill.

We hope we [have] succeeded in satisfying those who [have] followed our facts and figures that the national advance in wealth and all the material appliances of civilization ... has not been turned solely to the benefit of the more favored children of fortune, but that all classes of the community, the humbler as well as the richer, have participated in the blessings of the change. Indeed, it scarcely could be otherwise. The cheapness of the necessaries and of the commoner, and therefore more indispensable comforts of daily life, must redound more especially to the advantage of those whose income is most exclusively devoted to the purchase of those needful articles. A reduction in the price of bread, meat, coffee, sugar, and calico, affects the comforts of the poor man far more immediately and extensively than that of the rich or the easy classes... . The only way in which our conclusion could be shown to be erroneous, would be by proving that the wages of labor had fallen to an equal or a greater ratio; but this, it is well known, is far from having been generally the case. . . . While unquestionably wages have fallen considerably in a few departments of industry, this fall has been confined to those departments in which a change in the machinery employed has taken place, and in which the artisans have obstinately refused to accommodate themselves to the new state of things, and have continued to overstock an impoverished and doomed employment, as in the case of plain hand-loom weaving; or to those where senseless strikes have introduced supernumerary hands or new mechanism into the trade, as in the cases of coarse cotton spinners and of the London tailors; or to those where the easiness and collateral conveniences of the occupation have attracted to it excessive numbers, as in the case of needlework. In these branches wages have undoubtedly fallen, and the hours of work have become in some instances longer; but the general tendency in most departments of industry has been the reverse;—a desire for shorter hours has been of late rapidly spreading. The hours of labor in factories have been reduced for adults from 74 to 60 a week, and for children from 72 to 40; shops are beginning to be closed much earlier, and great, and in some cases already successful, efforts are making to secure a weekly half-holiday for the generality of tradespeople. All these, where not pursued by illegitimate means, are steps in the right direction. The progress of scientific discovery has been magnificent, and its application to the arts of life more remarkable still. . . . The first steamship constructed in the British Empire carried passengers upon the Clyde in 1811: in 1816 we had 15 steamboats with a burden of 2,612 tons; in 1848, we had 1,253, registered at 168,078 tons. Many of these are ocean steamers, and ply between England and America at an average speed of ten miles an hour. Between Holyhead and Dublin we have attained a speed of 15 miles an hour.

But this advance is nothing compared to that which has taken place in LOCOMOTION BY LAND within the last twenty years. It is here that our progress has been most stupendous—surpassing all previous steps since the creation of the human race. In 1829 the first railway for the transport of passengers was opened between Liverpool and Manchester;—it opened at the modest speed of 20 miles an hour. At the period at which we write, the whole of England is traversed by almost countless railways in every direction. . . . In the days of Adam the average speed of travel, if Adam ever did such things, was four miles an hour . . - in the year 1828, or 4,000 years afterward, it was still only ten miles, and sensible and scientific men were ready to affirm and eager to prove that this rate could never be materially exceeded;—in 1850, it is habitually forty miles an hour, and seventy for those who like it. We have reached in a single bound from the speed of a horse’s canter, to the utmost speed comparable with the known strength and coherence of brass and iron.

Now, who have specially benefited by this vast invention? The rich, whose horses and carriages carried them in comfort over the known world?_the middle classes to whom stage coaches and mails were an accessible mode of conveyance 7—or the poor, whom the cost of locomotion condemned often to an almost vegetable existence? Clearly the latter. The railroad is the Magna Charter [sic] of their motive freedom. How few among the last generation ever stirred beyond their own village? How few among the present will die without visiting London? The number who left Manchester by cheap trips in one week of holiday time last year exceeded 202,000; against 150,000 in 1849, and 116,000 in 1848.

But even the rapid augmentation of our locomotive speed shrinks into nothing when compared to that which has taken place in the last five years in the transmission of intelligence. If Abraham had wished to communicate to Lot some important tidings by express, he must have sent a man on horseback with the news, and even then he could not have transmitted it much faster than 10 miles an hour. . . . In the year 1800, the case was exactly the same; the most important expresses could seldom average more than 10 miles an hour. The same was the case in 1830 and 1840, except where the old signal telegraphs enabled governments to transmit their orders in fine weather, by the raising and lowering of certain clumsy arms attached to a high tower. But now in 1850, for a sum varying from 5s. to 12s. 6d., any private individual may send a message or summon a friend [by telegraph], the distance of many hundred miles in a space of time reckoned by seconds rather than by minutes….

Economists as we are, we should be little satisfied with even these signs of astounding progress - . . were there not ample reason to believe that a corresponding improvement has taken place in EDUCATION, SOCIAL MORALS, AND PUBLIC PRINCIPLE.

When we remember that it is only within our own recollection that the propriety or wisdom of educating the lower orders at all was seriously and very generally questioned; that before 1800 the only provision for popular instruction was to be found in grammar and other endowed schools (the funds for the support of a large proportion of which had been scandalously jobbed away or misapplied), together with a few dame schools in towns, and a few squires’ and ladies’ schools in the rural districts; and that now not only is the paramount necessity of general education universally insisted upon, but every sect vies with every other in the number and excellence of its schools; that even pauper schools are systematically good; that even ragged schools for the most desolate and depraved of our town population have been established with great success in many localities . . that Lancasterian schools, national schools, model schools, and normal schools, are all the product of this century; that a committee on education now forms a recognized department of the government, and finally, that Parliament, which in 1833 could with difficulty be persuaded to vote £20,000 for educational purposes in aid of private munificence, now votes liberally and ungrudgingly £150,000 a year:—when we remember all those things, we shall scarcely be disposed to deem our national progress under this head unsatisfactory or slow.

The general tone of morals in the middle and higher classes has unquestionably become much higher and purer in the last generation. Language which was common in our fathers’ days would not be tolerated now. A higher sense, both of duty and of decency, has taken possession of all ranks…. Debt, which used to be considered as an indispensable characteristic of a man of fashion, is now almost everywhere scouted as disreputable; and reckless extravagance is no longer regarded as an indication of cleverness and spirit. . . - Labor has ceased to be looked down upon—exertion is no longer regarded as derogatory, nor a life of languid indolence as the supreme felicity. The bees are more considered than the butterflies of society, wealth is valued less as an exemption from toil, than as a call to effort, and an instrument of influence and power; the duties of property are, far less than formerly, forgotten in its rights; if the poor do not yet work less, the rich certainly work more...

The third point to which we wish to draw attention, is the marked improvement which has taken place in one generation in habits of temperance, especially among the upper circles. Within the memory of men still in middle life, excess in wine was the rule, not the exception; few left the dinner- table without having taken more than was good for them) many got drunk every day.

… Now, intemperance is as disreputable as any other kind of low debauchery, and, except in Ireland and at the universities, a drunken gentleman is one of the rarest sights in society. -

On no account has this country greater ground for self-congratulation than on the vast improvement which is observable in the CHARACTER and tone of feeling among PUBLIC MEN.... Statesmen have now learned to feel not merely that they are playing a noble game … but that they are called upon to guide a glorious vessel through fluctuating shoals, and sunken rocks, and storms of terrific violence. . . the greatest nation that ever stood in the vanguard of civilization and of freedom….