‘To what extent was there a rise in the standard of living for working people in Britain in the period between 1850 and 1885? (25)


  • This period is largely seen as a time of economic prosperity for the extent to which this picture was reflected in the livelihoods of working class people must be questioned.
  • Working people were the labouring classes who were at the bottom of the social class system. They lived in both urban and rural areas.
  • The standard of living refers to economic opportunity, political voice, working conditions, affordability of food and shelter, access to infrastructure and services.
  • Overall, there was a general improvement in the standard of living.

On the one hand there was a rise in the standard of living…..

Self Help and Trade Unions

  • Ideas about self-help developed trade unionism and this influenced political reform.
  • Samuel Smile’s book “Self Help” outlined laissez-faire attitudes and encouraged the working classes to take charge of improving their own lives.
  • This led to the development of Trade Unions which included the Friendly Societies and their benefit schemes but also the concept New Unionism which existed among the working classes during the 1880s.
  • Among skilled labourers, the peaceful support for the liberals brought about the 1867 Second Reform Act.
  • The limited reform for the working classes encouraged the union of unskilled labourers and this was not repressed.


  • The Forster’s Education Act 1870 laid the foundations for the provision of universal primary school education.
  • This was a definite improvement considering that the majority of education was taking place either through the church, or through charities, or within the factories in the middle of the 19th century.
  • Further reform came with the Mundella Act of 1880 which made education compulsory until age 10.
  • This was significant because it showed that the government were investing in the futures of all children, regardless of class. Even though literacy took a long time to trickle down, the provision of education allowed children to expand their ambitions beyond the factory floor and therefore greater opportunities mark an improvement in the standard of living for working people.

Public Services

  • During this period, local councils began providing public services and infrastructure such as libraries, parks and baths.
  • Joseph Bazalgate was also responsible for the development of the London sewage system during the 1860s.
  • This improved public health and sanitation but also allowed them to expand their learning and literacy as well as enjoy social spaces.
  • A wider range of facilities meant that the working classes could engage with society more easily, thus improving their standard of living.

Political enfranchisement

  • Significant political reforms were passed during this period.
  • The Secret Ballot Act of 1872 and the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act meant that less and less the lower classes were subject to corruption and bribery by the local aristocracy.
  • The 1884 Third Reform Act meant that the electorate doubled in size and unskilled men were included for in the franchise for the first time as it was no longer linked to property. More representative of the largest sector of society.
  • 1885 Redistribution of Seats gave more MPs to the larger cities in the north where the working classes were concentrated. This gave them a greater voice.
  • The fact that political engagement and activity had improved among working people allowed them to access and demand a higher standard of living.

On the other hand, there was only a limited rise in the standard of living….

Poor Relief

  • Poor relief in the form of the workhouse still existed.
  • No form of welfare to insure against sickness or unemployment. This was largely only available through Friendly Society which remained inaccessible for those who could not pay the subscription.
  • The conditions of the workhouse were still harsh.
  • The economic prosperity of the period could not banish the poverty experienced by the many.

Loss of cultural identity

  • 1972 Scottish Education Act attempted to Anglicise Gaelic speakers in order to prepare them for urban life.
  • In reality, this meant that the national languages of Scotland, Wales and Ireland were under threat.
  • This contributed to a loss of cultural identity and division within the union, as it appeared as though England was asserting its ‘superior power’ within the union.

Regional Variances

  • Even though the real wages of farmers improved by 30% above inflation, others suffered.
  • High rents in the highlands led to civil disobedience in the Crafters War.
  • Railways failed to reach the highlands of Scotland and Wales and many agricultural workers in these areas were still using basic tools such as the foot plough and so the process remained slow and difficult.
  • Some historians have described Britain at this time as Two Nations: the rich urban centres Vs the remote rural areas.
  • Developments such as the sewage system in London was not replicated in other cities until much later.


  • Generally speaking there was an increase in the standard of living for the working classes, especially towards the end of the period.
  • Ideas about self-help and the support for the liberals among the skilled working classes had encouraged further reforms which benefitted all working people in the long-term.
  • However, these benefits were not felt union-wide and rural areas still lagged behind and some of the developments took time to filter through to all areas of the country.
  • Therefore, there was a general increase in the standard of living for working people from 1850-1885 but these benefits experiences regional variances.

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