British Living Standards


The 1953/4 Survey: On the eve of affluence

By 1953/4 rationing had been almost entirely phased out, so the opportunity presented itself for the statisticians to observe what families would buy when free to choose. To this end, the Ministry of Labour conducted a large-scale Family Expenditure Survey with the aim of providing benchmarks for the cost of living. This survey was much more elaborate than the earlier surveys. All household members were required to keep records of their daily expenditures, itemising every purchase for three weeks. The significance of this survey cannot be overstated. Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend’s official published report on the survey, entitled The Poor and the Poorest (1965), was hugely influential in setting the social policy agenda of the 1960s. However important their analysis may have been, it was based on a 25 percent sample of the lowest per capita income groups. No one has ever examined or published the data contained in the twelve thousand or so records from this inquiry held in The National Archives. The aim of the British Living Standards Project is to do precisely this.

The data in this survey provides a lens through which we can examine the consumer activities and family structures of post-war Britons. More importantly, it allows us to examine the dynamic changes in both the British economy and society following 1937/8. Not only had the economy been put on a war footing during hostilities, but after the war there had been the greatest peacetime expansion of the public sector in British history. Many industries were nationalised and the public education, health, housing and welfare systems were expanded. In retrospect, 1953 could be characterised as being the eve of affluence. It marked out the beginning of a period of steady economic growth and historically low unemployment that would characterise much of the following twenty years. Many, such as Seebohm Rowntree, argued that the poverty of the first decade of the twentieth century had been eliminated by the early 1950s. A critical examination of this survey will allow researchers to test this hypothesis as well as measure the social gains made by the post-war reforms.

The data and codebook/guide has been deposited with the UK/ESRC Data Store (this requires registering/login; you can view the codebook here)