Earning a living in Victorian times

When you visit Tower Bridge’s East Walkway, you will see a selection of Victorian coins. Shillings and pennies are placed together with bills and invoices from the 1890s.

These coins are linked to John Heaney and his two sons. They were a Scottish family of riveters that settled in London and helped to build the steel structure of Tower Bridge.

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Riveters inside the Bridge

Earning as a riveter

Being riveters, the Heaneys were in the top bracket of earners at the Bridge.

A team of riveters earned an average of £137.78 per week in wages. This equates to about £610 per week each in today’s money, which is a good wage, even by modern standards.

In comparison, other workers earned between 4 and 6 pennies a day, so a weekly pay of about 3-6 shillings (£15-30 per week in today’s money).

Worker at the time of the construction of the Bridge

The currency system

To put all of this into context, consider two things. First, the unique currency system at the time, which lasted until far the 20th century. The United Kingdom used a triple system with all prices in pounds, shillings and pence (abbreviated as £, s and d).

The basis of this triple system was 12 pennies to the shilling, and 20 shilling to the pound.

Below is a breakdown of how it worked.

Table of UK currencyThe United Kingdom didn’t switch completely to its current decimal system, known as ‘Decimal day’, until 15 February 1971.

A Victorian shopping list (c) Society of Genealogists

Victorian goods

The second consideration is how these wages related to the price of goods and services. For example, the cost of a loaf of bread. This also provides an idea of the comparative value of different goods, such as what was considered essential or luxury in Victorian times, and how this has changed.

In the 1890s, two pots of marmalade cost one shilling – about £5 in modern money. As 1s was 12d, a Tower Bridge worker would therefore have had to work roughly a day, if not more, for one jar of marmalade. So, a marmalade was quite a luxury product those days.

Two pounds of beef, for instance, cost 3s, so six days of work. A load of bread was between 2d and 3d, less than half a day. Luxury items, such as ‘best feather pillow’ cost 14s 6d, and were clearly out of the question for a regular working class family.

Image: a Victorian shopping list © Society of Genealogists

Historic image of Tower Bridge lifting

After 1894

Once Tower Bridge was complete, the construction teams left and the operation staff took over. Employed by the City of London, these workers were well paid, considerably more than in other sectors.

Working at the Bridge soon became a desirable job, with the lowest paid worker, the Post & Rail man, earning 24d 6d per week in 1894.

Job roles and wages have changed, but working at Tower Bridge is still an incredible experience. You can find out more about our team with our upcoming Highlights Tour, powered by Smartify.

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