The Value of Currency in Eighteenth Century England
For most of the eighteenth century, a shilling a day was a fair wage for most workers. Highly skilled workmen naturally made more; unskilled laborers and farm workers fared somewhat less favorably. One shilling would take home "5 Ibs.. of meat or four rabbits, 3 quarts of strong ale, or 6 gallons of 'middling' beer" (Mays 6). M. Dorothy George relates that the cheapest theatre seat, in the top gallery, was about a shilling. And the "weekly rent of a miserable London attic, ready furnished" might be 1 shilling six pence" (George Hogarth 51 n).
John O'Donald Mays points out:
The coin would also allow the traveler to ride about 4 miles on the stagecoach in winter, and a slightly greater distance in summer. At a noted Liverpool inn, 'The Lion,' a couple could pay a shilling and enjoy a fine meal consisting of veal cutlets, pigeons, asparagus, lamb and salad, apple-pie and tarts. In London the shilling had a slightly lower purchasing power than in the provinces, but nonetheless went a long way in supplying items for the family larder. For twelve pence one could get almost 4 Ibs.. of meat, 1 = Ibs.. of salt butter, almost 3 oz. of tea, 2 Ibs.. of sugar, and 2 Ibs.. of cheese. (quoted in Mays 7)
For a country girl traveling to the city, the cheapest, and slowest, form of travel was the wagon. For a mere "shilling a day, which meant a halfpenny a mile," she might even have the luxury of lying in the soft straw. Nights however might also have to be spent either in the wagon or in a bam along the way since no respectable inn would lodge someone who rode in a wagon (George, Hogarth 51 ) . Not nearly so comfortable, but much more dignified, was the stage coach. The coach was really not much faster than the wagon at 28 to 29 miles a day. The fare was around two pence a mile and half-price for the outside seats. The gentry avoided that stage-coach as a rule and used their own carriages or went by post-chaise (George, Hogarth 52)
The early 19th century, with the coming industrial revolution, did not change the purchasing power of the shilling as much as its scarcity. For the poor, the shilling was much harder to come by. Where the farmer might make a shilling a day for his labors, William Cobbett relates how the farmer's two young daughters could each earn as much as their father by plaiting straw and finding a market for it in the city (Mays 7-8).
During the eighteenth century, the shilling continued to be the "principal medium of exchange" (Mays 85). Earnings usually equated to shillings: "Bricklayers in the North of England earned 22 shillings a week, but shoemakers were content to receive a third less. Unskilled labourers made 15 shillings, but handloom operators took home only 13 shillings after a week's sweating in the mill" (Mays 85). Rural areas fared much less where farm workers might consider themselves lucky to earn more than a shilling a day. These...