Nutrition in the English agricultural labourer's household over the course of the long nineteenth century


  • We gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments received from three referees that encouraged us to tighten and improve our arguments. We also thank Nicola Verdon, with whom the Eden and Davies budgets were collected and transcribed; Jane Humphries, with whom the household budgets dataset that provides many of the other accounts used here was compiled; and the Leverhulme Trust for their funding of that initial project.


The welfare of agricultural labourers has recently received renewed interest in both establishing living standards for a baseline group over the long term, and assessing the energy available for increased physical labour in the eighteenth century. Disagreement persists. This article examines a key aspect of agricultural labourers' families' welfare: nutrient consumption. We utilize datasets of the diets of agricultural labourers' households for 1787–96, 1835–46, 1863, 1893, and 1912, to analyse the availability of calories and 11 key nutrients. Self-provisioned foodstuffs are incorporated and adjustments are made for beer consumption. Deficiency is computed against household needs. The results corroborate the general levels of calorie availability identified in agricultural production accounts for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and assess these as sufficient for productive agricultural labour. However, no improvement is found in the nutritional aspect of household welfare between 1787–96 and 1835–46, thus endorsing pessimistic views of living standards for this group over this time period. Gains were evident in the next half-century, but these improvements were neither consistent nor dramatic and left a large minority of these households with nutrient deficiencies even in the twentieth century.