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Victorian Social Reform in Britain

When considering the changes brought about in the social policy of Great Britain, in the decades immediately either side of 1900, one must look at the nation ‘s industrial history. The position as the world’ s premier industrial nation had been cemented by the mid nineteenth century, achieved in part, as it was the first nation to industrialise.

However, the headlong embrace of laissez- faire capitalism ignored the social infrastructure, and the emigration from the depressed agricultural areas to the industrial areas caused immense strain on the poorly-planned towns and cities. At the dawn of industrialisation, there were those who expressed concern about the health and hygiene of the dense industrial areas, notably Freidrich Engels, whose study of Manchester and London in 1844 collated in Conditions of The Working Class in England painted a truly dismal picture of urban squalor and hopelessness.

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world.

If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air – and such air! – he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither. (Engels. F. 1844 p. 84 ) The publication, in 1842, of the Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain elicited, and perhaps foresaw, the protests of disbelief. Edwin Chadwick was responsible for the report and also invoked the image of the unknown country as Henry Mayhew later did to bring to public attention the abysmal conditions with which the labouring poor had to contend.

His principal concern appeared to be with the miasma emanating from decaying matter the poisonous exhalations which were the source of their physical, moral and mental deterioration. At the height of the cholera epidemic, the flushing of the sewers in order to dissipate the miasma, actually aggravated the problem by further contamination of the water supply, in the face of the advice which stated that the disease was spread by germs and infection.

Engels took much of his material from Chadwick and other bourgeois reformers, critics and investigators, but went further in that his purpose was different. They wanted to arouse the consciousness and conscience (and perhaps the fears as well) of the middle classes in order to promote specific reforms. Engels wanted to portray the workers in that condition of destitution and degradation which was a prelude to not to reform but to revolution, a revolution to restore the humanity that the present system denied to them.

Himmelfarb 1984 p. 276) Himmelfarb points to a correlation with the work of Henry Mayhew in London Labour and London Poor and Chadwick’ s Sanitary Report. Not only because the Mayhewian poor lived and worked under the worst sanitary conditions, but they themselves were, in a sense, that sanitary condition. It is significant that the same words- residuum, refuse, offal,- were used to denote the sewage waste that constituted the sanitary problem and the human waste that constituted the social problem.

And it no accident that some of the characters in the Sanitary Report reappeared in London Labour. (Himmelfarb, 1984 p. 358) Henry Mayhew’ s background was originally in law, but he became a playwright and journalist, co-founding Punch Magazine. The outbreak of cholera in London prompted Mayhew to write an article concerning the effect of cholera in Bermondsey, extending the idea to the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales.

The talented writers, Reach, Mackay, and Brooks were assigned to various parts of the country whilst Mayhew concentrated on London, and the ensuing articles published in The Morning Chronicle caused quite a reaction. Mayhew’ s work was praised by Christian Socialists and Radicals alike and substantial extracts from the reports were published in their own newspapers. The reports were collected and published in 1851 as London Labour & London Poor which highlighted the plight of the unemployed and starving working class.

In 1856, Mayhew started a new series of articles about London ‘ s street folk, but critics stated that Mayhew originally promised to become the chronicler of the working classes, and seemed to abandon that mission in favour of concentrating on the regressive street folk, probably to increase sales. His revelation was the existence of a barbaric tribe in the heart of the world’ s greatest metropolis. , which seemed even more regressive at the time (1850s 1860s as it was a period of relative well- being for the poor. )

If Mayhew’ s journalistic style lay him open to criticism, it was nothing compared to the caution with which the accounts of Charles Dickens were taken. The Westminster Review, in reviewing Our Mutual Friend in 1866, suggested that Dickens should write a pamphlet or go to Parliament, if he was so serious about the Poor Law, rather than use his novels as an instrument of reform. In fact, this avenue had greater effect, as his novels would have been more widely read than any political pamphlet. Indeed, the short- hand term for Victorian squalor and deprivation is described as Dickensian.

Although Dickens was now a very successful novelist, he continued to be interested in social reform. His unsuccessful investment in a new radical newspaper, The Daily News, did not diminish his determination to create a vehicle for his ideas, and in 1850 he began editing Household Words which included articles on politics, science and history. To boost sales, it also contained short stories, humorous pieces and serialisations of novels that were concerned with social issues such as his own Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Cranford.

During this time Dickens campaigned in favour of parliamentary reform and improvements in the education of the poor, and was extremely hostile to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and wrote several articles on the workhouse system, public health and legal reform . Elizabeth Gaskell herself was a writer who came from a Unitarian background, and her marriage to William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, afforded her the opportunity to visit his parishioners, who were textile workers.

She was sufficiently moved by the poverty that she witnessed, to write novels sympathising with the poor and advocating social reform. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life attempted to address the issue of urban poverty, Chartism and the rise of the trade unions. Although a little melodramatic in places, its story- line of love, murder and wrongful arrest is gripping even to a modern readership, and the descriptive passages served only to confirm everything that Engels had written.

The closing years of the nineteenth century brought about a change in the attitudes towards poverty, in that contemporary writers differentiated between the poor and the working classes. The major shift was from the blame of the feckless, to the blame in the actual structure of the economy, the move from advocating self- help, to governmental intervention, individualism to collectivism. The Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875 were largely left to local authorities to uphold, as they were not compulsory.

It was only when the nation’ s industrial advantage over it’ s main competitors began to erode that questions of eugenics were asked. In the 1890s and 1900s there was much anxious discussion among doctors, education experts, nutritionists and criminologists of ‘physical deterioration’ and ‘racial degeneracy’; and in all these fields expert opinion was deeply divided between a small but embattled minority who detected signs of irreversible organic decline in the British race, and a majority who thought that the symptoms of decay could be treated and cured by political intervention and environmental improvements.

Harris 1993 p231/2) Despite the fact that the United States size alone accounted for it’ s eventual supremacy, and the British entrepreneur’ s lack of capital re-investment allowed Germany to gain ground, it was found that the foot-soldiers of the industrial machine were unfit and uneducated for battle against their rivals. The poor standard of potential recruits for the Boer War sparked the realisation that the defence and expansion of the Empire was at stake.

Not only this, the rise of trade union membership and socialist ideas accounted for establishment fears of revolution, the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893,and it became clear that a series of measures would have to be implemented to placate the populace. Reform movements began to take place within the major political parties, and the newly empowered middle classes began to feel uneasy. This was reflected in the literature of the time from writers such as Morris, Carlyle, and Ruskin who warned that traditional English freedoms were under threat from land -desecrating capitalists and that the dignity of labour must be re-affirmed.

There were those who were of middle class origin, that wished to see for themselves the problems faced by the poverty-stricken, in an attempt to alleviate their suffering. Charles Booth was such a man, made wealthy from his shipping interests, and dismissive of contemporary anecdotal literature of the time, as it conflicted with his own experiences in London. Dismissing the Social Democratic Federation’ s estimate that one in four Londoners were in great poverty, as socialist propaganda, he decided to carry out a survey for himself.

Seventeen years and seventeen volumes forced him to come to the conclusion that the SDF had, in fact, underestimated the problem. Finding The 1881 Census inadequate, as he wished to find out the breakdown of occupations, income, and the distribution of wealth, Booth perused the London School Board records and went out and interviewed people. His helpers in this mammoth undertaking included Beatrice Potter, later Webb, who helped write the parts entitled The Trades which eventually was published under the title Life and Labour of the People in April 1889.

It featured detailed accounts, diagrams and tables of statistics as well as his ‘poverty map’, a colour coded map indicating occupations and incomes, general state of the environment in each street. Booth found himself asking how poverty could be quantified, and the ‘poverty line’ came into being. The figure of eighteen to twenty-one shillings per week for a moderate- sized family, encompassing Classes C & D (A being the lowest), could, Booth calculated , make ends meet with frugality and self-discipline .

Booth’ s work presented the facts, but not the reasons, nor was there any comparison with other areas. However, the work was unprecedented in its descriptions and discoveries, as much as 85% cited irregular employment and low pay, or large family and sickness. The popular middle class myth of idleness accounted for a mere 15%, thus despite himself, Booth lent support to the socialist view that poverty was a collective, not an individual, responsibility (Fried & Elman, 1969,xxviii)

Booth’ s findings did little to revise his conservative views however, reassuring the public that despite his investigations, the threat of revolution was distant. His views appeared contradictory. Fearing that the people from Class B would drag those above them down, thus destroying the social structure, he advocated compulsory labour camps to train skills and discipline, under threat of the poor house. This contradicted his laissez-faire principles, but he saw these measures as state socialism in order to help those who could not help themselves, thus benefiting society as a whole.

He reasoned that those with a stake in society and liable to rise up in revolution (Class E & F), would be pacified by the abolition of poverty, regain a sense of obedience and sense of duty, and industry would become more efficient in the face of foreign competition. Booth’s subsequent discovery of poverty in all areas of London, often in the same areas as the middle and upper classes, did not modify his original opinions and turning his attentions to the state of industry, the long hours and low pay and insecurity, he supported the rights of the entrepreneur.

The ‘socialist ‘ measures should, he explained, not hinder the creativity and wealth of industry and that education of the worker was the way forward. The influence of social and political institutions, religious bodies and philanthropic organisations was, he concluded, negligible, and that the moral shaping forces on the poor were likely to be socialism and trade unionism. He was prepared to admit, that socialism offered faith, hope and dignity and that it meant more than state repression and anti-individualism .

His eagerly anticipated concluding volume, was seen as disappointing, offering no solutions, no alternative to his previously noted faith in individualism and ‘limited socialism’. He was, after all, a recorder rather than a reformer. This he left to others, yet despite the congratulations afforded him for his statistical work, he fell back into nineteenth century conservatism and called for the expansion of the Poor Law. Beatrice Potter, meanwhile, had parted from Booth and her work in the East End of London convinced her that only a society- wide change could halt the march of poverty.

Webb, Clara Collet, and others drew attention to the prevalence of sweated labour in households headed by women, and to the connection between below-subsistence-level wages and high infant and child mortality. Potter’ s work amongst London’s Jewish community, and investigation of sweated trades was invaluable, and her marriage to Sydney Webb, cemented the intellectual socialism of her subsequent work within the Fabian Women’ s Group. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb in particular, devoted themselves to the analysis of social and economic conditions.

They were convinced of the incapacity of the free market to diminish poverty and inequality. They placed their faith instead in social ownership, economic planning and extensive measures by central and local government to provide institutional and other relief to prevent and cure poverty due to unemployment, old age, sickness and other causes of need. The Webbs devoted themselves to pressing these ideas upon leading politicians and civil servants. (A McBriar, 1962 in Pat Thane 1996 p. 16)

From 1909 to 1913 the Fabian Women’s Group recorded the details of the daily budgets of thirty families in Lambeth, published as Round A bout a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves, in 1907. At The Works by Lady Florence Bell surveyed the lives and living standards of the people of Middlesbrough. Her book was more anecdotal and observational than Booth’s , and was more concerned with the welfare of the ironworkers wives who were important to the health of their men and the family. Illness, or a change for the worse in wages would have a devastating effect on a family who were kept together by the women.

Beatrice Webb initiated a number of studies of the aspects of poverty for the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws 1905-09. All of them made clear the extent to which poverty persisted even in households headed by a male working long hours, when wives and children contributed to family income in all ways possible. Similar investigations were carried out by Clementina Black, who edited a report of an enquiry undertaken by the Women’s Industrial Council, undertaken mainly in 1909/1910, to discover the problems encountered by women in the workplace.

Married Women’s Work presents the conditions endured by thousands of married women, their pay, conditions, health, home and relationships. The investigators were charged with obtaining a substantial body of information about each woman visited. It was compiled in a standardised form, in that questions such her occupation, if she continued to work after marriage etc were asked. In addition, questions concerning living conditions , infant mortality and weekly budget provided an invaluable snapshot of how families lived at that time. In order to assist them, each investigator was given a booklet of suggestions Hints to Investigators

They were told not to write down their responses while interviewing but to make rough notes immediately after leaving the dwelling. And that Reports should be as lifelike and complete as possible. Details that seem, in the individual case, unimportant, become significant when they recur again and again. Thus the appearance of good or bad health, cheerfulness or the reverse, are points worth noting; and so are any little details that may be given of family history in the previous generation. Too much detail is preferable to too little. (Mappen, 1983, p. vi)

The work of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree was directly influenced by that of his father Joseph, who in the 1860s carried out two surveys into poverty in Britain. Seebohm also studied Charles Booth ‘ s work in London and decided to carry out a similar study in York. The results were published in 1901 as Poverty, A Study of Town Life Rowntree sent investigators to survey every working class household in York (11,560) to establish family income and expenditure and to record their impressions of living conditions and that of neighbours, voluntary workers and clergy.

His methods were impressionistic like Booth ‘ s and similarly did not seek to construct a precise poverty line. He perceived poverty as not simply lack of income but as possessing insufficient means ‘for decent independent life’, i. e. he saw poverty as a relative concept not, as is sometimes thought, as absolute. Rowntree felt the need to establish the minimum income on which survival in a state of ‘physical efficiency’ was possible. This included an amount sufficient to buy food adequate for energy needs at various ages, at the lowest current prices.

This calculation was made possible by the recent exploration of nutritionists of the relationship between diet and health. He concluded that the minimum income necessary for a family consisting of a father, mother and three children was 21s 8d a week. He found that 6. 8% of the working class population of York (3. 6% as a whole) lived in houses with an income below this level. Rowntree described these as living in primary poverty. (Thane, 1996, p. 8) Rowntree’ s study made a further important contribution to the study of poverty when he reasoned,

The life of a labourer is marked by five alternating periods of want and comparative plenty. (Thane, 1996 p. 10. ) These were firstly childhood, when the family had most dependants, in early middle life after marriage and the arrival of a family, then finally, old age. The implication was that almost everyone experienced some kind of poverty at some stage of their lives, and that a great deal of blame could be laid at the door of drinking and gambling. However, he understood this as a form of escapism from their harrowing existence.

Rowntree to some extent reaffirmed the earlier Victorian view that the poor were not a ‘class apart’ but were deeply intertwined with the rest of the working class. ‘Poverty’ and ‘comfort’ were not mutually exclusive cultural conditions: they were cyclical phases that most working people might expect to pass through at some stage of their lives. (Harris 1993 p. 240) Both Seebohm and his father, Joseph, believed that a healthy and well-fed workforce would be efficient, and thus raised the wages in their own company, saying that the existence of those firms who refused to follow suit were bad for the nation’ s economy and humanity.

Rowntree , Booth, and Beatrice Webb all drew attention to the structural and organic effects of poverty , as well as its implications for the poor individual . The Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1904, condemned the habits of the poor and analysed poverty as a form of organic social disease. Five years later the Majority and Minority Reports of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, appeared in 1909. The Poor Law Commission embraced a wide range of economic and political opinion, including Beatrice Webb and Helen Bosanquet.

Surveying the history of poverty since 1834, The Majority Report, which represented the views of Helen Bosanquet , endorsed the traditional individualist view that pauperism was fundamentally a moral condition, but at the same time came to the conclusion that ‘ something in our social organisation is seriously wrong’ . Social policy, it was thought, should in future have elements of preventative, curative and restorative methods, be geared towards the needs of the individual, and to foster a spirit of independence.

The Minority Report drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, shared the Majority view in that much poverty and destitution were linked to bad moral character. Unlike the Majority, however, the Webbs considered bad moral character as a consequence rather than a cause of the wider issue of social disorganisation. The solution of the Minority was not more humane and restorative treatment of those specifically defined as poor, but a network of comprehensive public services dealing with health, child care, education, and employment; services which would be equally available for all classes of the community.

The authors of the Majority and Minority Reports on the Poor Laws were at one in the belief that there were savage tribes ‘ lurking at he bottom of our civilisation’, which if not tamed and disciplined would ultimately overthrow it. (Harris 1993 p242) In considering the effect of the revelations concerning poverty, it must be said that all the tireless work by recorders and reformers alike brought the plight of the poor to the attention of successive governments.

The Conservative ministries, to their shame, prioritised their imperialistic ambitions to the detriment of social reform. Gladstone’s 1892/5 ministry was stifled in its endeavours by a Conservative House of Lords and a divided Liberal party, and it was n’t until the 1906 Liberal administration that Campbell-Bannerman and Balfour laid the foundations of the Welfare State. The work of Dickens, Gaskell and Mayhew seeped into popular consciousness, whilst the work of the Webbs , Pember-Reeves, Black, Collet, et al raised the awareness of social ills in governmental circles.

Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain lead to, amongst other things, the Public Health Acts of 1848 and 1875 and its further amendments in 1890. Charles Booth ‘s discovery of so many old people in the workhouses, lead to his proposal of a state pension of five shillings per. week for men and women aged sixty-five. His concerted effort, and that of trade unions for state pensions, resulted in the Liberal government of 1906 incorporating the proposal into its platform, the result being The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908.

The Rowntree study featured a wealth of statistical information on wages, conditions, food and nutrition, health and housing, and he hoped that his conclusions would be incorporated into Liberal party policy. Lloyd George ‘ s rise to Chancellor of the Exchequer meant that Rowntree’ s influence was felt in the Old Age Pension Act of 1908, and The National Insurance Act of 1911. Overall, by 1900, central government action on recognised social problems was greater than in 1870, but still slight in contrast with the magnitude of those problems and of the range of demands for action.

In the 1880s and 1890s there was an impressive number of official investigations. Royal Commission on Labour(1893-4) Housing of the Working Classes ( 1884-5) Aged Poor (1895) the Depression of Trade & Industry ( 1886) Sanitary Laws (1871) Factory Acts (1876) select committees on Distress from Want of Employment (1895) National Provident Insurance (1885-7) Old Age Pensions (1896,1899) The Sweating System (1890) Poor Law Relief ( 1888) Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvements (1881) to name but a few. The results were unsubstantial, owing partly to continuing powerful opposition to government intervention.

Thane 1996 p. 42) However, even considering this list of investigations, sympathy for the poor did not lead to a desire for reforming action by the state, whose interference was strongly opposed. Fear of the growing Labour movement, as well as German military and economic rivalry accounted for the apparent new governmental paternalism, which was tempered by the cost of implementation, and orthodox laissez-faire ideals. Ultimately, the reformer’s success was in the raised awareness of the problem of poverty, but implementation proved to be a more gradual process, and thus success could be regarded as limited and long term.

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