Capital and Labour- Labour in 1800


The story of labour. In the eighteenth century, is the story of specialization and the division of labour. It is also the story of the development of intelligence and accuracy, at the expense of the artistic and beautiful.

The question of the origin of the wage-earning classes is bound up with the question of specialization. At the beginning of the century, England was mainly an agricultural country, and land was widely distributed among the population, even in the manufacturing districts. As the century went on, this altered : enclosures1 and increasing trade forced the small farmer-craftsman to specialize either in industry or agriculture, while the consequent increase in the size and decrease in the number of farms set free a large amount of labour that was absorbed into industry.2

Moreover, the century saw a large and unexpected increase in the population. This was due to a variety of causes. The food supply, at all times a limiting factor, had rapidly increased as a result of the enclosure movement, scientific farming,3 and improved transport. While the absence of plagues and the improvement in sanitation reduced the death-rate considerably. Moreover, the improvement in transport and increased movement of people about the country leveled up sex inequalities, and was a further factor in the increase, while the obsolescence of apprenticeship, and the great demand for labour, made marriage easier and earlier.

Many changes took place in the social and economic life of the working classes between 1700 and 1820, which re-acted on the growth of population, but the effects of many of them are at present almost impossible to trace or difficult to estimate.4 Thus there was an easily increased supply of labour freed or freeing itself from the ties of cultivation ready for the new industry.5 Moreover, the quality of the labour was physically good. Industry could draw " upon a reservoir of hard physique ; nourished by open-air life, and winnowed by all the forces of natural selection.''6

The new labour, in the beginning, was healthy and robust, though, perhaps, not remarkable for Its intelligence and skill. Among the papers of Boulton & Watt, we find constant complaints of the lack of skillful, or even sober workmen. The decay of apprenticeship that had already set in at the beginning of the century was by the end of it far advanced. Moreover, the expansion of industry was, in many cases, too rapid for the supply of apprentices to adjust itself over a seven year period, and on the other hand, the violent and often unexpected enclosures forced large numbers into the labour market at very short notice.7 The consequence of this was that trained and skilled labour in the new trades was very scarce. The textiles were in the best position in this respect, for many of the operations were known from the domestic industry, while the remainder were easily learnt and very mechanical.

It was in the non-textile trades that the difficulty was most felt. The potteries and engineering works had the greatest difficulty in obtaining intelligent men; while in an age when drink was one of the commonest methods of enjoyment, sobriety was almost unheard of.

Even in the potteries, where men had been trained in the old-fashioned methods, they were almost useless in the new industry, as developed by Wedgwood. He had to train practically every man whom he employed.8 At his first considerable increase (1761) in the number of his workmen, he adopted the principle of specialization and division of labour. Hitherto it had been the custom for the "journey men potters to pass from one kind of labour to another, just as impulse or convenience prompted, and this without reference to either the necessities of the moment or their master's interest."9 Wedgwood saw the evils of the old system, the slovenly habits it begot in the workmen, and the loss of time and efficiency in production. He thought it easier to teach a workman one operation than a score, and the result proved the success of his system.

In the engineering trade the matter was not quite so simple. The theory of steam-power was, in 1774, far in advance of the constructional power of the workmen. Smeaton's criticism of Watt's engine, when he first heard of it, was that neither the tools nor the workmen existed that could manufacture so complex a machine with sufficient precision.10 Fortunately, the question of tools was overcome to a sufficient extent by Wilkinson's Invention of an improved boring machine.

The labour difficulty was more important. In the first place, there was a scarcity of ordinary smiths capable of any sort of iron-work. At least there was a scarcity of smiths who were free to be collected in a large works, they were mostly village blacksmiths. However, the trade was specialized, as its organized state in London in 1745 proves.11

Boulton & Watt decided that it would be impossible to obtain smiths to do any of the parts of their engines at Soho, except those peculiar to their own patent.12 Even this small amount of work could with difficulty be completed.13 This was a scarcity which continued for many years, not only in Birmingham, but in Cornwall, where engine erecting had first become a trade. In 1780 Watt writes to Boulton, that " the Smith's work at Wh. Virgin, including Boylers, will require 40 pair of Smiths, which are not to be found out of employ in all this country ; for in all the mines where we are concerned I find a scarcity of these animals."14

This was not even the most serious difficulty. In a period of mechanical construction, when the erection of a steam-engine was a matter of humoring and adjustment, and often a long period was spent by the engineer in coaxing it to work, there was a shortage of capable " engineers.''15 Watt, writing to Smeaton, in 1778 says, " We wish we could join you in saying that we can easily find operative engineers, who can put engines together according to plan as clock makers do clocks ; we have yet found exceeding few of them-partly owing to the inaccuracy with which they have been used to proceed, and partly to their prejudices against anything new.''16 Nor was this conservatism confined to the engineering trade, but was to be found in many other places, even where the innovation did not affect the workman himself.17 This scarcity of operative engineers continued even after the firm had been producing-engines for ten years, for, in 1785, Boulton, while lamenting the decrease in orders, says, that " as it happens at present, we have at least three engineers too few here, there being eight engines all to be done in two or three months, and only three engineers."18

The scarcity of good men also applied to draughtsmen and clerks. For many years Watt did all the drawings for the engines himself, a duty which, combined with his ill health, often made delays in erection inevitable.19

These difficulties were gradually overcome. William Murdock, the inventor of gas lighting, came from Scotland, and was a valuable help to the firm. Other millwrights were engaged from Scotland, whence a constant supply of skilled labor came, owing to lack of native employment, until Scotland herself began to develop rapidly.20 The difficulty in obtaining suitable clerks was also a limitation that eighteenth-century industry had to overcome. Usually the only man who understood both the clerical work and the business itself in a firm was the owner of it, thus demonstrating the fact that the capitalist in industry still combined the functions of employer-foreman and, to some extent, that of merchant. In 1780 the engine firm were intending to engage a clerk, his wages were to be£70 to £75 per annum, and he was to take charge of the clerical side of the engine business. Hitherto the work had been shared between Mr. Pearson (cashier of the hardware business) and Henry Playfair, a practical engineer, and both were unsuitable.21 Moreover, after the engines had been erected and engine-men were appointed to watch them, the scarcity of suitable labour was still a trial to the engine owners. Here dullness, though still a handicap, was not so damaging as the drunken habits of the engine-men.22 Many times the engines were damaged by the inattention of a drunken workman.23 Nor were the complaints confined to the engine business, Boulton had found it in his own works, and the dirtiness of the workmen in the Albion Mill was, for a time, a serious matter. However, men learnt quickly, and soon improved in cleanliness and technical skill, the only point on which no improvement was visible was the drunkenness.24

Hands were also scarce in the Cornish mines themselves25 and in the hardware trade.26 The truth of the matter was that skilled labour was scarce and unskilled labour plentiful. The textiles and the canals absorbed much of the unskilled labour, just as the roads and railways absorbed the second influx of unemployed in the middle of the next century.27 This scarcity of skilled men made it desirable that agreements should be made between employers and the men they desired to keep. Efforts were also made by other employers to induce men to desert to their service by offers of higher wages. These offers were made both by English men and foreigners, and were dealt with in a peremptory fashion by the law.28 Nor was this the only difficulty in connection with the supply of labour: the country was at war during a large portion of the last half of the eighteenth century, and the Government frequently interfered to enlist men both in the army and navy. In July, 1781, Watt writes from Cornwall that " Our men are all obliged to go to-day to Kelstone to be drafted for the Militia, though they have not been three weeks in the County. Capt. Paul and I had sent a petition, and I have caused them to enter a club with the rest of the Parish, as a substitute here costs £20."29 Their men traveling about the country, and even across the sea, to erect engines, were peculiarly liable to be seized by the press gang, and, in many cases, had difficulty in escaping.30 Watt himself in his youth had, while in London, been in danger. James Law, on his arrival in Cornwall, wrote to Playfair to say that he had been stopped and examined by the press gang at Okehampton, and warned him to take care of any young hands he may have to send down.31

The employers of labour, in the eighteenth century, were thus not exempt from cares, nor were strikes unknown. In1779, in the Staffordshire coal-mines, " a passion of mutiny and rebellion seized all the colliers, they being determined to bring the ton weight down to its proper standard, and they thought the best time to do it was when the winter was so far begun that there remained not a single hundred weight of coal upon the Bank.

However, all is peace again at present, but not a solid one I think."32 There had already been a strike of miners in the Newcastle coal-field, in 1764-5, when the trouble was that by an agreement among the pit-owners, no employer would employ anotherís men, thus binding the men to one pit, or as an alternative, leaving them to idleness. 33This fear of the scarcity of labour seems constantly present in the minds of eighteenth century employers, and it is rarely that the corresponding fear among the workers of unemployment comes to the surface. This is probably due to the ease with which poor relief was obtained, or to the fact that when unemployed the worker had, until the later years of the eighteenth century, his land and subordinate employment to keep him employed.

However, Boulton gradually collected round him a body of active workmen, skillful if some what untrustworthy. Many of his mechanics were Scotsmen,34and all were carefully trained. Soho, however, employed more than engineers; the hardware business still continued and, in 1791, seven hundred were employed there.35 Boulton also contracted for coinages for our own and foreign Governments, and erected a mint, the whole employing large numbers of workmen. However, the paternal side of mastership had not wholly disappeared, for Boulton founded an Insurance Society for his employees, for sick benefit and funeral expenses. Payments varied from one half penny weekly from those receiving 2s. 6d. per week, to 4d. from those whose weekly wages were a pound. No members earning more than 20s. weekly were admitted.

Two points of interest were contained in the rules : Rule XII says that " any member who employs hands under him shall give an account of them to the Committee," while Rule XIII says that " when any member goes away, or is not employed for, or at this manufactory, he shall no longer receive any benefits from this society nor withdraw any money he has paid into it."36

The latter of these was, of course, merely copied from the ordinary insurance rules, but had the effect of retaining workmen at Soho, when other wise they might have gone away, and perhaps throws a further light on the employers' fear of a shortage of labour.

The first rule, quoted above, is also interesting as it throws a light on the organization of Soho, which was, for a long time, a model factory to which many employers came for help. The large number of separate processes, and even different manufactures proceeding at once, and the frequent absences of Boulton and Watt had made deputies essential. Boulton had, therefore, organized definitely from above a system of foremen for the purpose of discipline and maintaining the standard of work. The arrangement met with remarkable success, and Soho became an example of organization. Wedgwood came several times to Soho to see how the difficulties, occasioned by the irregular habits of the workpeople, had been overcome by his friend.

The contrast between the non-textile and the textile organization is clearly seen in the arrangements for keeping the works clean and healthy. Dirt and indecency, and so on, were subject to fines in both, but whereas in the cotton mills the fines filled the pocket of the employer, at Soho they went into the box of the Insurance Society.37 Moreover, the point is made quite clear that " it is for the health, interest, and credit of the men as well as masters to keep this manufactory clean and decent."

All wages paid by Boulton & Watt were paid m money or house-rent. Wages of ordinary employees at Soho varied from boys at 2s. 6d. to about 20s. per week. The engine erectors were paid anything from l0s., or thereabouts, upwards. Cartwright was paid 15s. per week;38 Mackell was offered 12s. 6d.39 per week, whilst James Murdock,40 and his more famous brother, William,41 were paid one and two guineas, respectively.

Soho was a combination of the old and new systems, in all that pertained to machinery, large scale production, its methods of obtaining credit, and organization of markets. Soho was as capitalist as any modern engineering undertaking, but in the functions of management and relationship between master and man, the separation of interests had not yet appeared, nor does Adam Smith's maxim, that the interests of employer and employed are in short periods antagonistic,42 have much importance.

Wedgwood's position was similar to Boulton's, but in the mines and iron-works disturbances and strikes were becoming more and more frequent. Wilkinson, himself, had started to coin his own pence with which to pay his workmen, thus beginning a bad system of paying wages in other than the coin of the realm, a cause of friction during the next century.43


1 Hammond, Village Labourer, p. 17.

Common and
Field Waste
YearsEnclosureAcreageWasteOnly
ActsActsAcreage
1700-1760152237,8455675,518
1760- 18011,4792,428,721521752,150
Total1,6312,666,566577826,688

2 Cunningham, Growth of Industry and Commerce, Vol. 11, pp. 555-6. Toynbee, Industrial Revolution, pp. 68-9.

3 The statistics of cattle sold at Smithfield prove this:

Av. WeightBeevesCalvesSheepLambs
1710370 lb.50 lb.28 lb.18 lb.
1795800 lb.143 lb.80 lb.50 lb.
Report of Committee on the High Price of Corn, 1795, p.204 n.

4 e.g. Immorality in factories employment of women meant shorter lactation periods, and so on.

5 Toynbee, op. cit., p. 8. The increase in population was from (about) 5,134,516 in 1700, to 6,039,684 in 1750, while in 1801 the first census return gives the population as 9,187,176.

6 Observer, leading article. August 20, l922.

7 Hammond, The Village Labourer, pp. 17, 19. Three million acres were enclosed in the last forty years of the century by Act of Parliament alone. Dr. Slater (Sociological Review, January, 1912) estimates the acres enclosed without an Act in tile eighteenth century as 8,000,000.

8 Meteyard, Josiah Wedgwood, Vol. I, p. 255.

9 Ib., p. 260.

10 Boulton to Watt, April 23, 1776. Smeaton called it " a pretty engine." Tew MSS.

11 General Description of All Trades, 1747. There were then twelve different kinds of smiths in London.

12 Watt to Jonathan Hornblower (senior), December 15, 1776. Tangye MSS.

13 Watt to Chapman, November 17, 1777' " We were not able to find a sufficient number of good workmen to execute our part of them quick enough." Tangye MSS.

14 Watt to Boulton, October 11, 1780. Tangye MSS.

15 W. Fairbairn, Lectures on the Rise of Engineering: " At the commencement of 1750 the title engineer was unknown in the vocabulary of science." Moreover the word does not occur in the title of any book or treatise before 1800 so far as I have been able to discover. Watt asribes the first use of the word to Smeaton. " Our present magistracy who have employed me in Engineering (as Mr. Smeaton terms it)." Watt to Small, December 12, 1769. 'TewMSS.

16 Watt to Smeaton, April 4, 1778. Tangye MSS.

17 An instance of this was the turn-cock at the Shadwell Water Works. Boulton to Watt, September 23, 1778. " I then went to Ragfair and Saltpeter Bank to see how the water came, it being the highest part of the high service, but not one drop appeared. My suspicions then turned upon Tom the Turn-cock, who had repeatedly told the Gentlemen that he was sure that engine would never serve his high services, but as we had brought with us another man who had no liking for Tom and knew the cocks as well as he did, he therefore enabled us to detect Tom and unfold all the history. For Tom had turned all the water into other streets, although he swore he had not. We turned and shut those cocks, and then the water came with more vigour into all the houses of the higher service than ever they had seen it do in their lives." Taneye MSS.

18 Watt to Boulton, August 27, 1785. Taw MSS.

19 Watt to R. Reynolds, December 31, 1777 : " I am now engaged in making a set of drawings for an engine, which will employ me about six days." Tangye MSS.

20 Boulton to Mackell, Engineer, Glasgow, February 10, 1777. Tangye MSS. Watt to Boulton. April 2, 1781 : " The young Millwright is come from Scotland." Tangyc MSS.

21 Watt to Boulton. September 20, 1780 : " Mr. Pearson does not understand our business and Playfair does not understand book-keeping nor method." Tew MSS.

22 " These two fellows say their Masters seem to believe that it requires the learning and knowledge of a university man to keep an engine in order." Boulton to Watt, September 1, 1778. Tangye MSS. " Got some sober man to attend the engine, some man of common gumsion, though not a professed engine-man." Watt to Henderson (undated probably June 28, 1779). Tangye MSS.

23 Boulton to Watt, December 17, 1778 " The want of proper men to work our engines hath brought on a loss of money and reputation." Tangye MSS.

24 Boulton to Watt, October 18, 1779. Smeaton went to see the engine at Bow, and gave the engine man some money ; he got drunk and let the engine run wild, with disastrous results. Jos. Harrison, the firm's best engineer, was untrustworthy in this respect. A Capt. Dick Williams invented a cure for swearing. " I wish Capt. Dick could cure drunkenness-it would be a more valuable receipt than that for swearing." Tangye MSS.

25 Boulton to Watt, September 25, 1780. Tangye MSS.

26 Watt to Boulton, September 12, 1780. Tew MSS.

27 Fay. op. cit., pp. 104-5.

28 Aria's Birmingham Gazette, June 22, 1778: " Last week one Homer, formerly an inhabitant of this town, was convicted in London before Lord Mansfield in the penalty of $100 and sentenced to three months' imprisonment for endeavouring to entice artificers from this Kingdom to France." This was a nuisance to which Boulton & Watt were particularly open. In December, 1799, Wm. Harrison laid information to the magistrate that he had been offered more wages if he would go and work for Messrs. Fonton, Murray & Wood, of Leeds. Deposition of Wm. Harrison, December, 1799. Tangye MSS.

29 Watt to Boulton, July 7, 1781. In 1757 the number of men to be raised in each county by its Lord Lieutenant had been fixed and the force organized on a definite basis. Tew MSS.

30 When Wm. Harrison went to Cadiz he was given a note certifying " that he was no sea-man nor ever was at sea previous to this date." TangyeMSS.

31 James Law to Wm. Playfair, June l0, 1781. Tangye MSS.

32 Boulton to Watt. October 17, 1779. Tangye MSS.

33 Hammond, The Skilled Labourer, p. 13.

34 On the completion of the Wheel Virgin engines Boulton gave a dinner to the mechanics; six Scotsmen and one Englishman sat down.

35 Boswell, Life of Johnson, p. 488.

36 Rules for Conducting the Insurance Society belonging to Soho Manufactory. Tangye and Tew MSS.

37 Hammond, Town Labourer, p. 19-20. Rule xxiv Soho Insurance Society.

38 Watt to Boulton, March 29. 1781. Tew MSS.

39 Boulton to Mackell, February l0, I777. Tangye MSS.

40 Memo relating to Jas. Murdock's Dismissal, March 20, 1795. Tango's MSS.

41 Watt to Boulton, September 28, 1780. Tew MSS.

42 A. Smith, Wealth of Nations, p. 58.

43 Boulton to Motteaux (a London Bank director), August 12, 1787. Tew MSS. " I will send you a few of Mr. Wilkinson's coin which he pays his workmen for pence. There is thirty-two of them to the pound, consequently he sells them at 2s. 8d. per pound, whereas the mint charge is IS, IId, per pound-a rare profit, and if Government doth not put a stop to ye trade every manufacturer in Birmingham will coin his own copper money."


| Capital and Steam Power | Industry and Foreign Trade |