Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Standards of Living in the Past

My mother-in-law once told me the following. She came from a family of farmers, and in the 1930s they needed a new farm-worker, so they advertised in the local paper. The pay offered was £2 a week plus a cottage - the cottage being really only four walls and a roof, without running water, electricity or gas. This being a period of high unemployment in the Midlands, they received more than fifty applicants, and in the end they gave the job to the man who had the biggest family to support - in his case, eight children! The farmworker and his wife successfully brought up their family on £2 a week in this cottage without modern facilities. (My mother, on hearing thi story, said she wasn't surprised they had so many applicants, since in her part of the country, Yorkshire, £2 a week would have been very good pay for a farmworker).

At about the same time, my father left school to train as a civil engineer. Nowadays his first step would be to enter university and get a degree, but in those days it was done by a kind of apprenticeship, and he was taken on by a local firm to be trained "on the job". But to get him taken on, his father had to pay the firm a "premiuim" of £100. So the question must be; in those days, what chance did any child of a farmworker on £2 a week have of entering a good middle-class profession? And the answer must be; probably none whatsoever. I think we should bear this in mind when we discuss modern problems of lack of social mobility.


  1. The same chance as any modern child of a poor worker stupid and irresponsible enough to have had 8 children! Besides, in 1930s people didn't have to pay gas, electricity and water bills, or buy their children video games. Unless you've got connections, education nowadays doesn't necessarily gets you a decent job and is basically a waste of time and money.
    I don't think justice consists in giving a job to someone because he spawned 8 children rather than to someone with best skills.

  2. This is far too sweeping! I know several people with "decent jobs" gained as a result of education, without the benefit of "connexions". Also, poor people between the wars had little chance to learn about contraception methods. They had always had large numbers of children, but in the past, most had simply died young.