Cold, Calculating Political Economy’: Fixed costs, the Rate of Profit and the Length of the Working Day in the Factory Act Debates, 1832-1847

By Steve Toms (Leeds University Business School)


The paper re-analyses the evidence presented by pro and anti-regulation interests during the debates on factory reform. To do so it considers the interrelationship between fixed costs, the rate of profit and the length of the working day. The interrelationship casts new light on the lobbying positions on either side of the debate. It does so by comparing the evidence presented in the debates before parliament and associated pamphlets with actual figures contained in the business records of implicated firms. As a result the paper identifies the compromise position of the working day length compatible with reasonable rates of profit based on actual cost structures. It is thereby able to reinterpret the validity of the claims of contemporary political economy used to support the cases for and against factory regulation.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2014-03-22 and its a follow up to that reviewed by Masayoshi Noguchi in an earlier post on the NEP-HIS blog (click here)

This second paper by Toms draws on a range of archival materials from both government and businesses to explore in detail the implications of legislative changes on British business during the industrial revolution.  It shows how the debates concerning the implementation of stricter working hours were contentious. Outlining the difficulties faced by the government and businesses to uniformly apply these new measures, particularly since businesses were exposed to different pressures according to their contribution to society, it shows how these factors further influencing the implementation and drafting of these measures.   By citing the debates of the anti-regulation bodies in Parliament, and also Parliamentary debates, it exemplifies how the interpretations of profit influenced the debates tabled by the Ten Hours movement – the pressure group created with a view to enshrine, in legislation, a maximum 10 hour working day.   This perspective in itself is new, particularly since it moves away from the traditional approaches adopted by trade union historians such as Alistair Reid and others who have examined the influence of unions in these disputes, but have examined them from the perspective of strikes (Reid, 2005).



Adopting a theoretical approach, especially in its examination of different interpretations of profit in the nineteenth century, this paper scrutinizes the range of factors that determined wages in nineteenth century factories, concluding that the reasons were much more complex than originally assumed.  In claiming that accounting manipulators were used as a major force in setting these wages, Toms shows how the considerations governing the decisions about wages were based on a range of accounting methods, although these methods at this time were not well-developed.  Furthermore, he claims convincingly that accountancy was poorly practiced in the nineteenth century, primarily owing to the apparent paucity of regulations governing the profession.   In adopting this approach, Toms highlights the two sides of the debate suggested by historians so far concerning the role of accountancy, that being: that it did not have an important role at all; or that it played a role that was sufficient to encourage competition.  By doing so, he has lucidly integrated the laissez faire ideology to elucidate the role of accountants in the policymaking process.

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Working conditions at factories were often difficult and dangerous, the implications of which are discussed in detail in this paper

Pressures on workers and the arduous hours did result in greater pressure on government to develop measures to regulate working hours

Much of the debates concerning workplace rights have adopted either a policy history perspective (examining the efforts of the government to regulate the economy) or a social history perspective (examining the perceived improvement in rights for workers).  Yet a detailed analysis of the implications of company accounting on government policy decisions has not yet been undertaken.  While economic historians such as Nicholas Crafts have used econometrics as a method to try and explain the causes of the industrial revolution, (Crafts, 2012) little attention has been given to the implications of these changes in terms of workplace legislation on not only the workers themselves, but on the calculations affecting industrial output and their response to government intervention.  Through examining the role of prominent socialists such as Robert Owen, this paper highlights the complex nature of the debates concerning profits, loss and its correlation with productivity to show that while the pro-regulation movement sought to protect the rights of individual workers, the anti-regulation movement created an inextricable link between the reduction of profit and the justification for longer working days. Locating this argument within the debate concerning fixed costs, it demonstrates how the definitions and arbiters of profits, loss and value was a moveable feast.

Robert Owen's ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

Robert Owen’s ideas to reform the system and ensure greater equality were especially influential

This approach to the data has led to a different account of the costs faced by businesses than has hitherto been suggested by historians, and while Toms is careful to claim that this does not resolve the conceptual disputes surrounding the practice of accounting in the nineteenth century, it does provide a platform for further debate and a re-examination of the figures.  For example, in the analysis of the Ashworth accounts, Toms claims that the adoption of a variable approach to costing of volume-based products shows an annual running cost of £2500 per year, £3800 less than Boyson concluded in his 1970 study.  In his analysis of profit, Toms concludes that there could be a 3 hour variable that would not have detrimentally affected the profitability of companies.  Claiming that profitability would be at last 10 percent with 58 hour or 55 hour working week, this challenges previous assumptions those longer working hours would yield greater profits.  However, he highlights that the only significant difference would be that if these figures were compared to the onerous 69 hour week, where the profit margins could be expected to rise by a further 5 percent, although the pro-regulation body, for the purposes of strengthening their argument, presented this variable as high as 15 percent.

The final part of the paper lucidly examines the impact of foreign competition.  Citing the increased costs of British production when compared with European counterparts, with Manchester reported to be 50 percent higher in terms of spinning production costs than Switzerland, Toms shows how superficially the justification for maintaining the British market was now becoming even more difficult.  However, a deeper analysis of the figures reveals a different story, and to illustrate the point, evidence from Mulhausen is juxtaposed with Lancashire to show how wages were on average 18 d per day higher in Lancashire, although their productivity was almost double that of their German counterpart, and concludes that in effect, the overseas threat to the British market was as substantial as originally assumed.


This paper is extremely ambitious in its scope and development, and has covered significant ground in its analysis.  Its conclusions are convincing and are based on deep theoretical and conceptual understandings of the accountancy process.  My only suggestion is that the final section of the paper examining the ideological theories of profit could be fleshed out more so as to fully contextualise the political, legislative and business developments at this time.  It may also be possible to connect these issues with the contemporary debates concerning ‘thrift’, and the development of commercial banking.  For example, the idea of thrift was widely debated with the growth of friendly societies, and the decision of the government to open a Post Office Savings Bank to enable workers to deposit their savings.  Therefore, was there any connection between contemporary ideas of profit and thrift, and if so, was there a common ideological strand that linked people together in terms of their perceptions of money and its role in the wider society?



Crafts, NFR., “British Relative Economic Decline Revisited: the Role of Competition”, Explorations in Economic History (2012), 49, 17-29

Reid, Alastair J., United We Stand: A History of Britain’s Trade Unions (London: Penguin, 2005).



2 thoughts on “How Long Should the Working Day Be?

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