The years 1850-1914 in reality comprise not one but three periods with distinct economic characteristics. The first, lasting from 1850 until 1873, has often been selected as 'The Golden Age' of Victorian prosperity, a period of boom and rising prices under the impact of new gold discoveries in California and Australia, but also a time when average wage-increases more than kept pace with the rise in prices. Another favourable circumstance was that food prices rose less than most others, resulting in marked increases in the use of tea, sugar, and other 'luxuries'. Beer consumption reached an all-time peak in 1876 at thirty-four gallons per head a year, though it is also noticeable that investments in savings banks and friendly societies, as well as subscriptions to trade unions, were mounting appreciably. Other classes, it is true, shared quite as much, and

possibly more, in this prosperity. It has been calculated that profits grew faster than the total wages-bill at this time, and it is in these years that the solid foundations of many middle-class fortunes were being laid in commerce and wise speculation: how unequally the national income was still divided was startlingly demonstrated by Dudley Baxter in 1867.1 Some of the rich were getting richer, but the important feature of this period was that, contrary to Karl Marx's prognostication, many of the working classes were taking the first great stride out of that poverty which had been their lot for a century past. Professor Bowley calculated that over this period there was a rise in real wages of 32 per cent, the main advance occurring from around 1860 onwards, but such estimates tend to under-represent the effects of irregular and casual earnings and periods of unemployment which many less skilled workers still experienced. In a recent study of living standards in the Black Country Dr Barnsby found sustained full employment only in the years 1845-55 and 1870-4, and concluded that there was no substantial rise in real wages until the 1890s.2