DP2814 New Estimates of British Unemployment, 1870-1913

Author(s): George Boyer, Timothy J. Hatton
Publication Date: May 2001
Keyword(s): 1870-1913, Measurement, UK, Unemployment
JEL(s): E24, J64, N33
Programme Areas: Labour Economics
Link to this Page: www.cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=2814

Existing estimates of the annual unemployment rate from 1870 to 1913 were constructed by the Board of Trade, initially in 1888, and updated thereafter. This is still the series which is widely used and cited. It is based on records of the number unemployed in various trade unions and it has a number of well known flaws. The index is weighted by membership of reporting unions and is heavily skewed towards engineering and the metal trades. Some important sectors are largely omitted. We reconstruct sectoral unemployment rates based on union records and supplement this with (crude) estimates for certain other sectors based on proxies for employment. These are weighted according to labour force shares but the index still excludes agriculture and services. The basic cyclical pattern is preserved but the new series has a higher mean and a lower standard deviation than the Board of Trade index. The wide swings in unemployment during the 1870s are confirmed but the amplitude of fluctuations in the 1880s and 1890s is smaller in the new index than in the old. More tentatively, unemployment increases over time in the new index relative to the old.