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The Cost of Living in Jane Austen’s England

Vulgar Economy

The orange wine will want our care soon. But in the meantime, for elegance and ease and luxury, the Hattons and Milles’ dine here to-day, and I shall eat ice and drink French wine, and be above vulgar economy. Luckily the pleasures of friendship, of unreserved conversation, of similarity of taste and opinions, will make good amends for orange wine.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Godmersham: Thursday June 20, 1808

Regency CurrencyThe cost of postage had risen in 1784 as the Chancellor of the Exchequer explained that the increases would be on the mail instead of a tax on coal. The income from letters was used to boost the funds of the Government, and the prices were raised again in 1797, 1801, 1805 and 1812.

During the wars against France (1793-1815) the income was regarded as a tax levied to help the war effort, but once Napoleon had been defeated, there was a backlash of feeling against the high rates. By this time, it was often hard to decide if it was worth sending a letter at all: the cost of a letter could be as much as a day’s wages for a working man. It became a matter of importance to get around the cost in one way or another. For instance it was cheaper to send a letter from London to Scotland by the coastal shipping – 8 pence instead of by road which cost 13½ pence (1sh.1½d).

Because the recipient usually paid the cost of the delivery, it was possible to arrange to send an empty letter (or one with an agreed error in the name or address) – so that the recipient would know the handwriting, realise that all was well with the sender, so refuse to accept it, and not have to pay.

To give some idea of comparative costs:
in 1825 on a suggested budget of £250 a year given by Mrs Rundell in her New System of Domestic Economy for ‘a gentleman, his lady, three children and a Maid-Servant’, where food took £2.11.7d a week or £134.2.4d a year, the biggest single item was:

  • 10s 6d a week for butcher’s meat (18 lbs at 7d a pound, or about ½ lb each day)followed by:
  • 7s for beer and other liquors
  • 6s for bread
  • 3s 6d for 3½ lb butter
  • 3s 6d for fish
  • 3s for sugar (4½ lb at 8d a lb) and
  • 2s 6d for tea (5 ozs at 8s a pound)

  • two pounds of candles cost 1s 2d a week in 1825
  • coal and wood 3s 9d
  • rent and taxes were allowed at only £25 a year
  • clothes (for 5) £36
  • the maid £16
  • the education of 3 children £10.10s.

There were small margins for recreation, medical expenses and savings, but although the family probably had more than enough food in total, it devoted only 3d each week a week to milk (2 pints) and 6d each to fruit and vegetables.

However, on an income of £1000 per annum the budget is quite different! Now there is an establishment of 10, for besides the same-sized family there is a cook, a housemaid, a nursery-maid, a coachman and a footman, whose combined wages are £87 a year ; there is also a ‘Chariot, Coach, Phaeton or other four-wheel carriage, and a pair of horses’, costing £65-17s a year in keep. The family consumes 52½ lb of meat a week – a daily allowance of ¾ lb for each person – there is now a guinea a week for drink, and ¾ lb of butter for each person. The smallest items are still fruit and vegetables (9d per person per week) and eggs and milk (4½d per week).*

To put this in a recognised context, in Sense & Sensibility Mrs John Dashwood, trying to dissuade her husband from giving his mother and sisters any money at all, points out that they will be so well off, they will need nothing.

… Altogether, they will have five hundred a year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that? They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind!

Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it.”

The Dashwood DaughtersBut, if, in addition to feeding/clothing the four ladies of the house, they would have to provide living quarters/food/uniform for the house servant, and if they grew their own food, they would have to employ a gardener – more outlay. Allowing for the fact that they would probably make their own clothes, they would still have to buy the materials. It would not be luxurious living by any standards.

So, it does seem as though the parsimonious Mrs John Dashwood could have convinced herself that her four indigent in-laws could manage with no financial help from their brother.

Ron and Eunice Shanahan have collected British postal history for nearly 40 years. Though their period letters were originally purchased for the postal markings, over the years, the contents of the letters became of as much interest as the postal markings. Eunice writes for Stamp News Australasia, and has managed to sneak a fair bit of social history into the articles. The Shanahans host the Regency Postal Page.

*Taken from John Burnett, A History of the Cost of Living (Penguin Books, 1969)

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