Abstract: Working-Class Households and Savings in England, 1850-1920

Josephine Maltby


Working-class employment and earnings in this period have attracted substantial debate, but knowledge of workers' use of financial institutions and mechanisms in the nineteenth century draws on a limited number of contemporary studies of household structure and budgets. Modern writing is heavily skewed toward exploring debt and credit in working-class communities rather than saving. The British trustee savings banks that operated throughout the nineteenth century were designed expressly for working-class use, and solely to promote long-term saving. Despite their substantial numbers and national spread—576 banks and 1.2 million savers by 1852 and total deposits of £225 million by 1913—there have been few studies of their use by savers. Their neglect as a data source is puzzling given the extent of the surviving depositor records, which provide long-run empirical data that includes savers' identity, marital status, and occupation as well as account balances and transactions. Our preliminary work on four banks—in Limehouse (East London), Newcastle, South Shields, and Bury—shows results of significant interest in understanding working-class financial behavior, including: a substantial number of accounts opened and maintained by working-class married women before the 1870 reform of their property rights; accounts opened and run by minors from earnings; varied patterns of account usage, with only a minority operated for the long term, others used for regular expenses or for targeted saving. We discuss our findings and evaluate their importance for an understanding of working-class financial behavior in a period of significant social and economic change.