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The lure of aggregates and the pitfalls of the patriarchal perspective: a critique of the high wage economy interpretation of the British industrial revolution


  • I would like to thank Carol Heim, Pat Hudson, Deborah Oxley, Eric Schneider, Mark Stelzner, and four anonymous referees for comments on earlier versions of this article. The research was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council through my Professorial Fellowship, ‘Memories of Industriousness: The Household Economy in Britain, 1700–1878’. An earlier version of this article was presented at a one-day workshop on ‘The Lure of Aggregates’ at the University of Reading, 30 March 2011.


The new meta-narrative of the industrial revolution contends that Britain was a high wage economy and that this itself caused industrialization. Contemporary inventions, although derived from scientific discoveries shared with mainland Europe, could only be profitable in the context of Britain's factor prices. Therefore, important inventions were only developed in Britain where they enabled access to a growth path that transcended trajectories associated with more labour-intensive production methods. The criticism presented here concerns perspective and methodology. The account of the high wage economy is misleading because it focuses on men and male wages, underestimates the relative caloric needs of women and children, and bases its view of living standards on an ahistorical and false household economy. A more accurate picture of the structure and functioning of working-class households provides an alternative explanation of inventive and innovative activity in terms of the availability of cheap and amenable female and child labour and thereby offers a broader interpretation of the industrial revolution.