British Living Standards


The Ministry of Labour 1937/8 Survey: Standards of living improve dramatically

The Ministry of Labour conducted a national survey of working class cost of living in 1937/8, based on approximately 10,800 working class families. Each household created records of one week’s spending in each of the four quarters of the year from autumn 1937 to summer 1938. The importance of this survey stems from its timing. It is the only official national survey of its type taken in the period 1904-1953, and was taken prior to the Welfare State reforms of the 1940s. It thus allows us:

  • to measure progress in the early part of the century and
  • acts as a natural and useful benchmark for comparison with the post-WW2 surveys.

The primary purpose of the survey was to measure the extent of consumer price inflation, but it also tells us a lot about how household budgets had changed since 1904, and how living standards for working people had improved. We have used these data to investigate the prevalence in 1937 of the kind of severe poverty experienced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (by, for instance, unskilled workers with large families) and documented by the early pioneer social scientists. We find that this kind of deep poverty had been almost eliminated by 1937.

For almost seventy years, researchers believed that almost all of the completed surveys had been lost or destroyed. The only survivors were the 99 held within the National Archives. However, several years ago Prof Peter Scott of the University of Reading discovered another 524 surveys within the archives at the University of Bangor. Luckily, these 623 records are a random representative sub-sample of the full set of returns. Much of the data have been extracted under the supervision of Prof Scott and we will be completing this work by collecting and digitising the expenditure data on individual foodstuffs, with financial support from the Economic and Social Research Council.

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