British Living Standards


The 1904 Board of Trade Survey and the quantification of the poverty of Britain's working people

The largest enquiry of the pre-First World War period was undertaken by the Board of Trade in 1904. Approximately two thousand interviews with working class families were carried out and the resulting data were analysed and summarised in Consumption and the Cost of Food in Workmen’s Families in Urban Districts of the United Kingdom by the Board of Trade in 1905.

This enquiry was a landmark in quantitative social investigation in Britain. It was the first time that policymakers sought quantitative evidence on which to base their statistics and, ultimately, their policies. The published report provides invaluable insights into the lives of working class Britons and highlights just how close to destitution many working people were in 1904. Almost half of households headed by labourers were in abject poverty. One respondent commented on his response sheet that he was so desperate that he would emigrate if he was not so poor.

Despite their importance for understanding the development of modern Britain, the 1904 survey returns have never been subject to detailed examination following the publication of their statistical summary. Historians and economists had long believed they had been lost or destroyed. In 2005, however, we discovered over one thousand of the returns at the library of the University of Bangor. Thanks to funding from the Nuffield Foundation, we were able to extract the data from these records.

The data and codebook/guide has been deposited with the UK/ESRC Data Store.

Blank Survey Form

Platelayer example and transcript.

Coachmaker example.

For a note on estimating distribution from group data, see: Note on income distribution using grouped data [PDF 128.91KB]