British Living Standards

The project

The systematic study of living standards using records of household budgets was pioneered in Britain from the late 19th century onwards. Today in Britain and worldwide, this practice allows the monitoring and analysis of trends in household living standards, including the living standards of the young, the old and other potentially vulnerable groups. Politically important issues, such as price inflation and economic inequality, are measured using the results of these surveys. Less than a hundred years ago this practice was in its infancy, but the influence of those pioneers has been profound. For instance, today’s household surveys inform, influence and help to evaluate welfare and social security policy throughout the world; they influence the direction of aid to developing countries; they even help set macroeconomic policy instruments, such as interest rates.

Surprisingly few large scale household survey data exists for the period before 1960. This critical period, during which extreme poverty of the kind found in the poorest parts of the world today, was eliminated in Britain. This lack of data makes it harder to draw lessons from British social history that could inform policy today both in Britain and in the rest of the world, perhaps even in developing countries.

The actual household returns of the earliest official household survey had been thought lost. We rediscovered over half of them and digitised them, with financial help from the Nuffield Foundation. However, the largest non-digitised official national survey was collected in 1953-4. It was, in some respects, the best ever household expenditure survey. It is the only national survey in the long period from 1938 to 1960. It is a unique record of British households at the end of the rationing imposed during WW2, and just before the steady economic growth of the 50s and 60s rapidly transformed the country. For many years the survey returns have lain in the vaults of The National Archives. We are bringing them back to life, funded by a £1.1m grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-062-23-2054).


Our Goals

Our main goal is to create an open access online resource devoted to the study of British living standards and household expenditures during the first half of the twentieth century. Within the space of five decades, Britain was transformed from a country characterised by widespread poverty among its working people into a society in which at least a modest amount of leisure was affordable for almost everyone. In order to understand this pivotal change, we are digitising the first three official nationwide surveys of household expenditures in Britain. These are:

  • The Board of Trade’s 1904 Survey
  • The Ministry of Labour’s 1937/8 Survey
  • The Ministry of Labour’s 1953/4 Survey

These three surveys form will form the nucleus of our ‘virtual centre’ on British living standards. Individuals will be able to download them as CSV files for offline analyses.

These three enquiries offer invaluable insight into the patterns of change that affected ordinary people’s economic lives. The fifty years that they spanned was a time of unprecedented turbulence where demographic shifts and rising real earnings impacted strongly on economic well-being. By using the data provided by these enquiries, individuals will be able to investigate:

  • how patterns of expenditures changed over time and varied by household and income group
  • the relationship between changes in the nutritional attainment of working families and the growth of their income
  • the evolution of housing conditions and the incidence of overcrowding
  • the incidence of extreme poverty among adults and children in working households

In order to come to a better understanding of the processes of economic development, it is crucial to understand the sequence of change over the course of this half century. These surveys afford insights that may clarify the interactions between improvements in publicly-provided social infrastructure like housing and sanitation, increased work opportunities for women and changes in fertility patterns. We believe that our project has the potential to exert a transformative influence on both policy research and British economic and social history by suggesting new lines of inquiry and directions for research.

In order to fully understand these surveys, however, we believe that it is vital to have an appreciation of not only their nature and contents but also how they were evaluated by investigators within the Ministry of Labour and how their analyses informed British policy decisions. To this end, we will also provide:

  • a non-technical commentary on the compilation and analysis of each of the surveys
  • an illustrative sample set of each of the original returns available for download as PDFs
  • downloadable PDF versions of key policy documents, such as the following which used the 1904 survey to study changes in living standards during the Great War: Working Class Cost of Living Committee, 1918. ‘Report of the Committee appointed to enquire into and report upon (i) the actual increase since June, 1914, in the cost of living to the working classes and (ii) any counterbalancing factors (apart from increases in wages) which may have arisen under war conditions.’ P.P 1918, Cd 8980 (Sumner Committee).
  • links to other relevant resources, such as the post-1960 data sets at the Economic and Social Data Service and the qualitative record of working class life in the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex.

While our main objective is the publication of the 1904, 1937/8 and 1953/4 data sets and the materials necessary to understand them, our vision is to create an active virtual centre for the study of issues related to British living standards. In order to maximise our impact, we developed an active outreach programme aimed at increasing awareness of the wealth of information contained within these three enquiries. We ran a Teacher-Scholar programme in order to demonstrate the relevance of British Living Standards to the History Curriculum (see the Teacher-Scholar pages). We created a resource-rich moodle-based online forum for teacher-scholars working on these and related issues. This served to demonstrate to young teachers the possible ways that our core outputs can be embedded in history teaching and learning.