Sunday 28 November 2010

The Squeezed Middle

A great article from 1888 on 'How to Live on £700 a year' (from the journal called The Nineteenth Century), essentially advocating a little restraint and economy amongst the children of the upper middle class. It begins with the claim that to 'live upon £700 a year' is:

"A question which has to be solved by many a young couple who have been brought up in luxury - and who have to live in London. It is rather a fashion amongst the bachelors of clubland  to say that it is an impossibility to begin married life on less than a thousand a year ... Of course, it will be understood that, in saying that it is impossible to live on less than a thousand a year in London, absolute want is out of the question. What is really meant is that a young man and a girl, both of whom have been accustomed to all the ordinary luxuries of the upper middle classes, he to  a share in the use of his father's stable, the drinking of good wines, the smoking of good cigars, the luxuries of clubland, and such like; she to driving in the her mother's carriage, wearing of nice frocks, nice gloves, and neat hosiery, stalls a the opera, popular concerts and so on - that such a young man and young woman cannot, without an undue relinquishment of such advantages, venture upon a joint existence with less than the said sum as a settled income."

The advice is, naturally, to look for savings.

"What is it but pride that makes us on a fine day prefer a hansom cab to the box seat of an omnibus or the garden-seated top of a road-car? .... If travelling is done day by day on the Metropolitan and District Railways, consider the saving that putting out pride into our pockets and taking out a third, instead of a first-class fare effects ...

"Take again the habit of smoking ... he must be aware, if he has ever kept an accounts, what an appalling amount a regular expenditure on cigars will reach at the end of a year .... nine smokers out of ten will tell you that a pipe is the pleasantest of all 'smokes' ...

"A half-guinea stall at the theatre is an expensive luxury ... an ascent must be made to the upper circle ... for eight shillings, two people may see the same show as one in a half-guinea stall ...

"It will not be out of place to point out that the domestic hearth affords a great counter-attraction to the evening amusements considered almost essential in days of bachelorhood ...

"How may she better employ her mornings than by doing her marketing herself? By this means she becomes informed of the proper value of groceries, meat, fish, game, etc."

In typical Victorian fashion, the article provides a sample list of annual accounts, by which one might keep within a £700pa budget:

  £ s d
Rent 105 0 0
Rates and taxes (including gas) 38 18 10
Coals 12 8 6
Wages 48 2 1
Food: Butcher 46 9 11
Food: Baker 9 8 8
Food: Dairyman 35 4 8
Food: Grocer 38 8 10
Food: Greengrocer 10 6 0
Food: Poulterer 10 3 7
Dress: Wife 35 8 4
Dress: Husband 29 17 3
Washing 34 14 9
Doctor and chemist 33 1 0
Travelling and tips 43 7 5
Local travelling 19 17 9
Stamps 7 16 7
Stationary 8 1 3
Pleasures, presents, smoking 35 18 2
Wine 15 0 8
House repairs &c. 26 12 10
Garden 4 13 9
Balance 50 19 2
  700 0 0

Unusually - such household budgets are quite common in the literature - the article provides a clear description of the actual household it envisages running on such an 'economic' model. To give you a clue - the average servants wage would be £12-20pa (admittedly with food and lodging free); a skilled labourer could maybe earner £75pa; a police inspector £100; a middling City clerk, £300. So what sort of household are we looking at here?

"The house is situated close to Kensington Gardens, in a cheerful terrace upon sandy soil, in a thoroughly respectable, if not fashionable, neighbourhood. It has a small garden in the rear, and stands back about ten yards from the roadway. It comprises kitchen, scullery, and servants' hall, with separate entrance in the basement; dining-room and drawing-room on the ground floor, four large bedrooms, two small, a dressing-room, and a bath-room, as well as an ample supply of offices. The household, besides Monsieur et Madame, consists of one child and three servants - nurse, cook, and house-parlourmaid - "

Hmmm. I wonder how much that would set you back nowadays?


  1. According to the BofE Inflation calc ( £700 would be worth £67,827 in todays money. Doubt that would pay for that particular house expenses never mind "nurse, cook, and house-parlourmaid"

  2. Interesting, isn't it? A lot of these calculators seem fairly pointless - property prices really didn't exist, for a start ... the vast majority of people rented, as envisioned here.