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The Great Enrichment Enriched From Its Start

In my latest column for AIER I rely heavily upon Emma Griffin’s excellent 2013 book, Liberty’s Dawn, to report that the rapid and unprecedented modernization of Britain’s economy that began in the mid-18th century – known to history as the “industrial revolution” and called by Deirdre McCloskey as the start of the Great Enrichment – enriched ordinary British people from the start. A slice:

Careful quantitative research by economic historians has exposed these horror accounts of the industrial revolution as false. This research shows that inflation-adjusted daily wages began rising no later than 1840, and likely much earlier. Inflation-adjusted annual incomesbegan rising even sooner as work became more steady. Even in the last half of the 18thcentury, the households and bellies of ordinary people were growing accustomed to goods and foods that, just a few years earlier, were available only to the rich. The economic historian Peter Mathias found that “quite a lot of evidence suggests that beer sales per head were rising toward the end of the [18th] century; that the working masses were demanding wheaten bread and meat more insistently in the 1780s than when the century opened.”

For more on these quantified data, consult the work of, among others, Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell. Of Gregory Clark. Of Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson. Of Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf. Of Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin. And of Deirdre McCloskey. This research overwhelmingly justifies McCloskey’s call to rename the past 200 or so years as “the Great Enrichment,” with the period commonly called “the industrial revolution” being simply the launch of this Enrichment.

By all means, consult the quantitative data. They’re vital.

But consult also the fascinating non-quantitative research of historian Emma Griffin. In her 2013 book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Griffin reports the results of her deep-dive into 350 personal accounts written by ordinary British workers from the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries. These “autobiographies,” as Griffin calls them, unfailingly reveal lives, at home and at work, that were incomparably harder and more perilous than are the lives of Brits and Americans today. Yet they also reveal that these workers overwhelmingly believed themselves to have benefitted from the unprecedented economic change in Britain during the first several decades of the Great Enrichment.

Consider, for example, John Bennett, a carpenter who was born in a rural English village in 1787.

Writing down his memories at the end of his life [recounts Griffin], he asked his children to “Look back and see what troublesome times we had during my bringing up.” He told them ‘the working classes in my opinion, was never as well off’ as they were in the present day…. Bennett saw the developments he observed in the most positive terms. He did not think simply that life had changed. He thought it had done so for the better.

Griffin continues a few lines later:

What is striking is the degree of agreement between the autobiographers concerning the general tenor of the changes they had witnessed. All through the nineteenth century, writers sound the same celebratory notes of improvement and progress….

If wages were higher, what about the possibility that life was simpler and the poor happier back in the old days? James Hawker could not be more scathing about this proposition. He scoffed at the notion that the agricultural labourer ‘seemed a Deal happier 60 years ago’…. None of the autobiographers had time for those who fondly reminisced about the past. ‘When I hear people talk of the good old days,’ thought George Mallard, ‘they must be ignorant of what did hapen [sic] in those days. I know it was hard times where I was….

Our writers were not simply commenting on the change in their personal circumstances. They were also reflecting upon the strides that other working men and their families seemed to be making. These writers never lamented the passing of the old days – or ‘the bad old times’, as they were styled by one writer. There were no fond words for the quite or simplicity that their forefathers had known. To a man, our writers were glad that their grandchildren would never know the life they had once lived….

Gains were tenuous; gains were sometimes lost. Life was still extremely hard and many lived perilously close to the edge of a comfortable subsistence. Yet tenuous gains were preferable to the predictable course of a life devoted to hard labour with no prospect of real improvement. Industrialisation brought immediate and tangible benefits for large sections of the labouring poor. It held out the promise of better wages even to the unskilled and and very poor.

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