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Research to reveal history of British living standards

Children having tea at home in the kitchen, 1945. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Commenting in the late 1950s on the rise in British living standards, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously declared that Britons had “never had it so good”.

Now research by two academics from the University of Sussex will use a unique record of British domestic life to chart how ordinary Britons moved from poverty to prosperity during the 20th century.

From January 2010, historian Dr Ian Gazeley and economist Andrew Newell will analyse data from government surveys of household accounts for the project – The Living Standards of Working Households in Britain, 1904-1960.

Mr Newell says: “Everyone knows we became massively better off but nobody knows the details of how prosperity trickled down to working households.”

Research into living standards in Britain has been challenging because of the paucity of evidence: records exist for just three national household expenditure surveys for the period between 1904 and 1954. For each survey, householders volunteered to keep a record of their earnings and expenses. They also provided details of their household structure and the occupation of the Head of Household.

The records for 1904 and 1937/8 have been digitised, so part of the two-year project will be to digitise the last and largest data sample, for 1953/4, in which 12,900 households took part. The records for 1904 and 1937/8 will also be made available  online.

Dr Michael Hawkins of the Newton Project (a project to place all of Isaac Newton’s papers online, based at University of Sussex) will supervise the digitising of the million images of accounts that make up the 1953/4 Household Expenditure Survey.

It will take about a year to photograph the returns and build online data sets for 1,200 boxes of accounts for the 1953/4 survey. This new set will complement expenditure records from 1960 onwards, which are held by The National Archives, in Kew.

The 1953/54 records are particularly interesting as they mark the divide between the end of post-World War austerity, where basic items of food were still rationed, and the beginnings of the new consumer era.

In conjunction with the results from the post-1960 household expenditure surveys, the complete set of records from these earlier surveys will allow the researchers to build a picture of living standards for the entire 20th century. In addition to research on living standards, these data have immense potential for future use, from research into obesity and smoking trends to patterns of charitable giving.

It is also hoped that their work, funded by a £1.1m grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) will help developing countries to tackle poverty issues as their own economies grow, as well as providing a web-based “one-stop shop” for research into British living standards research.

Dr Gazeley says: “The eradication of extreme poverty is the first of the United Nations’ Millennium goals, yet we understand surprisingly little about its elimination as living standards rose in the Western economies during the twentieth century.

“For instance, for Britain, we do not know the precise roles played by the Welfare State, self-help, education, reductions in family size, and improvements in real wages driven by technological progress.”

Research findings and resources will be placed on the web, forming a virtual research centre that will provide policy makers, poverty agencies, public intellectuals, teachers, school children and any other interested party with the information they need to reach an informed opinion on the changing economic circumstances of working households in Britain.

Further work will include enlisting the help of secondary schools to create new household accounts, with pupils keeping records of family expenditure for a week, which will be compared with the data provided by families up to century ago.

The researchers are also planning to hold conferences to share their findings and to help work out how people can use the information as a teaching resource and also as a research resource.

Notes for Editors


See History for information about history at Sussex.

See Economics for information about economics at Sussex

About the National Archives

The Archives’ complete set of digitised documents will be available at  in the coming year.

The National Archives is a government department and an executive agency of the the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). As the official archives of the UK government it cares for, makes available and ‘brings alive’ a vast collection of over 1,000 years of historical records, including the treasured Domesday Book.

The National Archives brings together the Public Record office, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Office of Public Sector Informaton and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. See also

The National Archives also manages current digital information and devises new technological solutions for keeping government records readable now and in the future. It provides world-class research facilities and expert advice, publishes all UK legislations and official publications and is a leading advocate for the archive sector.

At the heart of information policy, The National Archives sets standards of best practice that activelsy promotes an encourages public access, both online and onsite at Kew. This work helps inform today’s decisions and ensures that they become tomorrow’s permanent record.

Photo: Children at tea in a post-war kitchen, 1945. Courtesy of The National Archives

For interviews, contact the University of Sussex Press office. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email

Last updated: Tuesday, 30 August 2011