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Every historical age sees extraordinary inequalities of wealth. Whether we are talking about ancient Rome or 20th-century Britain, the pattern is commonly described as a pyramid, with a small number of exceedingly rich individuals at the apex and a large number of poor people at the base. As we all know, the differences between the top and the bottom are extreme – to the extent that some of the super-wealthy have incomes more than a thousand times greater than the national average. But what about the variance in their basic standards of living? Aside from the glitz and the glamour, are the lifestyles of the rich and poor always poles apart?

You might assume that the only possible answer to that question is yes. Peasants and slaves never live like lords and kings. But consider it in terms of life expectancy. In the Middle Ages, a lord’s sons and daughters could expect to live into their mid-thirties and the peasantry about five years less, so the poor lived around 85 per cent as long as the rich. The modern world is only a little more equal: children growing up today in the most deprived areas of Britain can expect to live between 85 per cent and 90 per cent as long as those in the least-deprived areas. It looks as if that proportion is more or less a constant.

In parts of Ashton-under-Lyne, life expectancy was 13, less than a third of that of more prosperous citizens

But one period stands out as different: the early 19th century. In the 1830s, middle-class Londoners could expect to live to 44 but working-class ones only 22, just 50 per cent as long. Working-class people in towns like Liverpool, Preston and Manchester were lucky if they reached 19, at a time when average life expectancy from birth in the UK was more than 40. In the unsewered streets of Ashton-under-Lyne, artisans’ life expectancy at birth was just 13, less than a third of that of their more prosperous fellow citizens.

Extremes of opulence

Why was the early 19th century so unusual? As you can imagine, there were several reasons. The industrial revolution obviously led to the worsening of the living conditions of the poor. At the same time it had an impact on the wealthy, too, enriching them to an unprecedented degree. The result was a greater variance in living standards than probably ever before or since. As the American ambassador to Great Britain, John Quincy Adams, put it in his diary while in London in 1816: “The extremes of opulence and of want are more remarkable, and more constantly obvious, in this country than in any other I ever saw.”

Anyone who has even so much as glanced at a gentleman’s country house built before 1830 will be aware that the wealthy were surrounded by uplifting, refined architecture and design, in which comfort was combined with a fabulous sense of style. In the grandest houses of all, such as the Prince Regent’s Carlton House on Pall Mall, the internal fittings were a wealth of silk damask and gold. The decorative features were covered in gold leaf, as was the furniture; the huge glass chandeliers were trimmed with gold; golden clocks and ornaments were exhibited on gold-leaf-covered plinths; the paintings were framed in gold. The prince spent vast sums on the place – by 1795 he was £630,000 in debt – and in 1826, as king (George IV), he could afford to have it demolished.

Even an ordinary gentleman with an income of about £2,000 per year from his country estate could afford a London house as well as a country seat stuffed with mahogany furniture designed by the likes of Hepplewhite and Sheraton, and decorated with art by Reynolds, Gainsborough and many more great British artists of the time. By the 1820s most gentlemen’s residences had water closets and provisions for washing. Some even had dedicated bathrooms with hot and cold running water.

In marked contrast, the workmen who physically built the houses of the gentry could consider themselves well paid in the 1820s if they received 15 shillings a week. Factory workers and labourers would receive less than this, and servants less still. Hundreds of thousands of men and women lacked regular employment altogether. Their accommodation was truly appalling, especially in the rapidly growing industrial towns. In the parish of St Giles in London, a surveyor visited a slum terrace and found the yard “covered with night soil from the overflowing of the privy, to the depth of nearly six inches, and bricks were placed to enable the inmates to get across dry shod”.

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Inspectors frequently reported similar conditions in the northern towns. In parts of Liverpool, people were crammed into court houses at a density of more than 1,000 people per acre. Liquid from cesspits and the foetid rubbish strewn across the ground outside oozed through the cellar walls where many were forced to sleep. The communal cesspits in the courts had no doors as the landlords claimed they would have been used for firewood.

Those without homes had to cram together in boarding houses, often on the floors, or find a place in a communal barn at 2 pence per night, where every imaginable disease spread quickly among the unwashed bodies, including such killers as smallpox, tuberculosis and, from the 1830s, cholera.

Life-threatening labour

While the poorest Britons lived in squalor, the upper classes managed their estates and indulged themselves in their enthusiasms. Most didn’t work. Younger sons and those who opted for employment chose a well-paid and dignified patriotic service, such as a commission in the army or navy, an ambassadorial role, parliament or the church. The middle classes similarly selected how they wanted to make a living.

The working classes, who made up more than 70 per cent of the population, had no such choice. Those who were lucky enough to work as agricultural labourers could expect to live for 36 years – approximately twice as long as their cousins in the industrial towns. But agricultural opportunities were on the decline as more machines were employed, more arable land was given over to sheep farming, and more food was imported. For the remainder, the options were to go into service or to work in a factory or mill.

Robert Blincoe’s career is illuminating in this respect. He was born in London in 1792, orphaned at the age of four, and placed in a workhouse. From there he was sold at the age of seven to the owner of a mill near Nottingham. For the next 14 years he was required to work without pay for 14 hours a day, six days a week, on the spinning frames, in dusty conditions. His clothing was minimal; he was not given soap to wash nor was he fed properly. He started stealing doughballs from the mill’s pigsties but the pigs soon became wise to his pilfering and threw them in the mud when they saw him coming. He suffered from constant diarrhoea, was regularly beaten, and like all his young colleagues, he lost parts of limbs in the unguarded machines. One day he watched in horror as a girl his age was dragged into a spinning machine by her skirts. He heard her bones all snapped by the whirling mechanism and then her blood “thrown around like water twirled from a mop”. Later, he tried to run away from the mill but was quickly caught and returned, with a reward being paid to the man who found him.

Those who had such a start in life, with no education and nothing else to offer, were generally doomed to a short existence of hard labour. Blincoe left the mill as soon as he was old enough but many stayed there for their whole lives, and died either from the dust or their injuries.

Huge numbers of men, women, boys and girls worked as labourers in the mines. In 1813 in Cumberland, 630ft underground, the author Richard Ayton raised his lantern to see lines of wagons driven by young girls in the pitch-black tunnels. He described all the people down there as being “distinguished by an extraordinary wretchedness. Immoderate labour and a noxious atmosphere had marked their countenances with the signs of disease and decay; they were mostly half-naked, blackened all over with dirt, and altogether so miserably disfigured and abused that they looked like a race fallen from the common rank of men and doomed, as in a kind of purgatory, to wear away their lives in these dismal shades.”

Whatever the industrial process, it was likely to contribute to the workers’ ill health and premature deaths. Painters and glaze dippers developed lead poisoning. Tailors developed chronic heart and stomach problems. Chimney-cleaning boys developed scrotal cancer. Arguably the worst working conditions of all were those to be found in the grinding industries, especially in Sheffield. The work was carried out in poorly ventilated cellars and generated a lot of dust. Most fork-grinders in Sheffield were dead by the age of 28. Ninety per cent did not make it to 40.

For the rich, the Regency period was one of haute cuisine and epicurean variety. As the poet Robert Southey wrote in 1807: “All parts of the world are ransacked for an Englishman’s table. Turtle are brought alive from the West Indies… India supplies sauces and curry powder… hams [are imported] from Portugal and Westphalia; reindeers’ tongues from Lapland; caviar from Russia; sausages from Bologna; macaroni from Naples; oil from Florence; olives from France, Italy or Spain; cheese from Parma and Switzerland.”

Over-indulgence was common. Several ‘ordinaries’ or standard menus in the finest London hotels at this time cost 3 guineas (£3 3s) per head, with an extra guinea for a bottle of fine wine. The earliest restaurants in London were established at this time; there was even an Indian curry house in the 1810s catering to returning nabobs.

Tea-stained water

The poorest sectors of society found themselves eating as their medieval ancestors had done, with very little protein in their diet. Many examples were quoted by the Revd David Davies in his examination of the living standards of agricultural labourers in the 1790s. A typical case was that of a Berkshire couple and their five children, who bought 7½ gallons of flour each week for their daily bread, plus 1lb of bacon. They also purchased a little tea, salt, sugar and butter. And that was it. No fish, no cheese and no vegetables other than what they grew for themselves. No beer, even. Of their total income of 8s 6d per week, 8s 3d went on food. Most meals were simply bread and butter. So when the price of flour in Berkshire trebled, as it did in 1800, their lives became wretched.

As for tea, people talked about it being a great leveller, but there was a world of difference between the fine teas drunk by the wealthy and the water stained with a few re-used tea leaves consumed by the poor.

An agricultural labourer’s family could at least use the garden that probably went with their cottage. It was precisely for this reason that the growing of potatoes spread across the whole of the British Isles over the course of the 18th century. In short, gardens saved lives. Those living in the over-populated urban slums had no such opportunities to grow their own. For them, it was not so much a matter of having a balanced diet as obtaining anything to eat.

Among the lower classes, the difficulties faced by mothers and newborn babies were particularly challenging. For a start, the mothers were malnourished. The children of those transported to Australia grew about 2 inches taller than their parents, due to food shortages having stunted their parents’ growth in England.

When it came to the birth, well-heeled families could afford their own accoucheurs, midwives and doctors, equipped with forceps and good medical knowledge. Some private doctors saw maternal mortality rates of just 0.2 per cent over the course of their careers.

A woman breastfeeds her child, c1830
A woman breastfeeds her child, c1830. In industrial towns like Liverpool, more than half of all infants died before they were five, often due to malnourishment passed down from their mothers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The poor had only limited access to professional medical help and hence their women and babies died more frequently in childbirth. If both survived, the malnourishment of the mother was then passed on to the child. Hence one of the key reasons why life expectancy was so low: many more working-class babies did not live. In Liverpool, 53 per cent of babies died before they were five; in Preston, 57 per cent did. These figures are almost exactly the same as those of slaves in the West Indies.

These infant deaths must have sapped many mothers’ will to live. But the position was so dire that some deaths were welcomed, on account of there being fewer mouths to feed. In the 18th century, the philanthropist Jonas Hanway estimated that an infant under the age of four had a life expectancy of just one month after entering a London workhouse. As he put it: “Parish officers never intend that parish infants should live”.

Couples would enrol a baby in a burial club and then, when the child fell sick, let it die so they could claim on the insurance

Even more shocking was the desperate strategy of families living off the deaths of their own children. Hard-pressed couples would enrol a baby in one or more burial clubs and then, when the child fell sick, they would let him or her die so they could claim on the insurance. This is why rent collectors were sometimes asked to wait a few days until a child had died.

On one occasion, a wealthy Lancashire gentlewoman heard that her wet nurse’s child was ill, so she kindly offered to send her own physician to help. But the mother replied: “Oh, never mind, Ma’am, it’s in two burial clubs.” A government inspector reported that “It is not an unfrequent circumstance to find a child enrolled in three or more burial clubs, so that the parents may receive at its death from £16 to £20. That, in certain instances, this has been productive of infanticide is proved beyond all doubt by the well-known trials for infanticide at Bolton and Stockport.” And, he adds, “an analysis of returns from Preston, where, in three societies alone there are upwards of 23,000 members, has distinctly shown that there is a greater rate of mortality among children entered in burial clubs than in those not belonging to them”.

Shockingly, babies under the age of six months whose parents entered them in a burial club were 35 per cent more likely to die than those who were not in such a club.

Turning to prostitution

Extreme poverty was, almost inevitably, accompanied by high levels of crime. If a couple with a family were denied poor relief and did not wish to go into a workhouse,
they had no choice but to resort to more desperate measures. Huge numbers of women turned to prostitution: it was estimated at the time that one in five women in London lived off immoral earnings.

Large numbers of men and women took to crime. More than 90 per cent of all cases in the county courts in the early 19th century were for theft. (For comparison, in the modern world, less than a quarter of arrests involve stolen property.) Until 1823, the Bloody Code was still in force, meaning that the penalty was death for more than 200 crimes, including stealing goods worth more than 12d. If the principal breadwinner was hanged or transported to Australia, then a family was left in a worse position than before.

The rich could spend £4 on a tall feather to wear in their hair – a sum that would have fed a labourer’s family for 10 weeks

Another strategy was to obtain food on credit. However, most shopkeepers only advanced credit facilities to those they believed could pay. Moreover, if a poor family failed to pay, then the father could be sent to prison at the shopkeeper’s request for non-payment of his bills. This meant extra costs (gaolers’ fees) and prevented him from earning while inside. Some people spent decades in prison for failing to repay a few pounds; many died behind bars. Again, the family was even worse off as a result.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why there was so much discontent, especially in the industrial north of England. Fashionable ladies in London could spend £4 on a single tall feather to wear in their hair at a ball – a sum that would have fed a labourer’s family for 10 weeks.

From rags to riches

It really was both the best and the worst of times (to paraphrase Dickens), depending on how much money you had. Yet this age offered men and women more opportunities than perhaps ever before to start life at one end of the social spectrum and end it at the other. James Morrison was the orphaned son of an innkeeper. He gained a job in a London haberdashery business, married the daughter of the senior partner, and made himself rich through overseas investments: by the time he died in 1857 he was worth more than £6m.

Harriot Mellon was the illegitimaate daughter of a poor Irish woman who looked after the wardrobe of a troupe of travelling actors. She learned from them how to act and came to London to star on the stage. There she caught the eye of the banker Thomas Coutts, who eventually married her. When he died, he left her his 50 per cent share in his bank, which she then controlled, enhancing its value and becoming the richest woman in England. Then she married the much younger Duke of St Albans and ended up both a multi-millionaire and a duchess.

But for every James Morrison and Harriot Mellon, there were millions who failed to bridge the chasm between rich and poor in early 19th-century Britain, and who were condemned to live and die in the poverty in which they were born. So what changed? The answer is that such poor living conditions gradually gave rise to public outrage – at both ends of the social spectrum. Workers’ protests made the grievances increasingly clear; the religiously inspired social consciences of upper and middle-class social reformers did the rest.

Following the Great Reform Act in 1832 (which extended the franchise) and the abolition of slavery the following year, there was a greater political will to take responsibility for the welfare of people in Britain. Within two decades there were profound changes in urban sanitation, poor relief and working conditions in factories and mines. Gradually the difference in life expectancy between the poor and the rich declined – in fact, it constantly diminished between the 1870s and the 2010s.

But anyone who thinks of the early 19th century as a glorious age, when Britain was riding high on the profits of the industrial revolution and victory over France, should be aware: such wealth and glory had long, dark shadows.

Ian Mortimer is a historian and author. His latest book, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain (Bodley Head, 2020) is out now


This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine