Poverty, Progress & the Nonconformist Conscience in Britain, 1844-1914: London, Manchester & Birmingham.

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Under the Viaduct’ (1872) by Gustave Doré (1833-83). Over a hundred thousand people were displaced from their homes in London alone as a result of railway building, and many were crowded even closer in the centres of cities because they could not afford to travel to work on the railways that had effectively evicted them. The French artist Doré became a major artistic ‘institution’ in Britain through the wide circulation of engravings of his works and his illustrated editions of popular writings. His sombre images of squalor leave a profound, sulphurous impression.

The ‘Manchester School’ and the Industrial City:

By the 1840s, Manchester had become the symbol of a new form of social organisation, a ‘modern Athens’ to Benjamin Disraeli. But, in a sense, the City deserved the rough treatment it subsequently got from two notable foreign visitors, Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Engels. In 1851, John Bright, the Quaker economist and politician spoke at the Free Trade Hall, extolling the virtues of ‘laissez-faire’, which he re-named ‘the Manchester Policy’. With its satellite towns of Stockport, Salford and Oldham, Manchester was the most impressive example of urban expansion up to the mid-century, and its dependence on factory industry and persistent identification with the ‘gospel’ of the market economy. It demanded attention as ‘the portent of a new age’ as Disraeli had suggested and, therefore, quite naturally, attracted the attention of social critics such as de Tocqueville and Engels. Writing in 1844, however, in his Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels identified in Manchester the process of social and residential segregation that was typical of so many towns and cities in mid-Victorian Britain. But where Engels saw urban squalor as the result of the acts of an exploiting bourgeoisie, Tocqueville blamed it on the absence of a tradition of governmental intervention. He commented, in 1835, that the sight of its fine civic buildings with Corinthian columns in the city centre could not disguise the squalor which was found in its residential areas:

But who could describe the interiors of these quarters set apart, home of vice and poverty, which surround the huge palaces of industry and clasp them in the hideous folds? On ground below the level of the river and overshadowed on every side by immense workshops, stretches marshy land which widely spaced ditches can neither drain nor cleanse. Narrow, twisting roads lead down to it. They are lined with one-storey houses whose ill-fitting planks and broken windows show them up, even from a distance, as the last refuge a man might find between poverty and death. Nonetheless, the wretched people living in them can still inspire jealousy of their fellow beings. Below some of their miserable dwellings is a row of cellars to which a sunken corridor leads. Twelve to fifteen human beings are crowded pell-mell into each of these damp, repulsive holes. …

… The fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colours by the factories they pass, of one of the streams I mentioned before, wander slowly round this refuge of poverty. … Look up and all around this place you see will see the huge palaces of industry. You will hear the noise of furnaces, the whistle of steam. These vast structures keep air and light out of the human habitations which they dominate; they envelop them in perpetual fog; here is the slave, there is the master; there is wealth of some, here is the poverty of most… From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity strains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation makes its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.

Manchester had, in fact, been given its first Corporation under the terms of the Municipal Reform Act in 1835, but all this did was to deprive local oligarchies of the rich pickings of old privileges. But it was only after the public health reforms of the 1840s that local government began to assume the shape fully established half a century later in Birmingham. Engels also identified the ‘Two Nations’ of Britain, as captured in Disraeli’s novel Sybil (1846), in which the poor were spatially distanced from an emerging middle class increasingly housed in a rural or suburban idyll of villas and private gardens. With their strengthening purchasing powers, the middle classes were able to move away from town centres to genteel suburbs with their domesticity and security. Engels quoted a local cleric, Canon Parkinson in support of his case for Manchester as a case study of the ‘two Britains’:

There is no town in the world where the distance between rich and poor is so great, or the barrier between them so difficult to be crossed. I once ventured to designate the town of Manchester the most ‘aristocratic’ town in England, and, in the sense in which the term was used, the expression is not hyperbolical. The separation between the different classes, and the consequent ignorance of each other’s habits and condition, are far more complete in this place than in any country of older nations of Europe, or the agricultural parts of our own kingdom. There is far less ‘personal’ communication between the master cotton spinner and his workmen, between the calico printer and his blue-handed boys, between the master tailor and his apprentices, than there is between the Duke of Wellington and the humblest labourer on his estate, or than there was between good old George the Third and the meanest errand-boy about the palace. I mention this not a matter of blame, but I state it simply as a fact.

Industrial Manchester in the late nineteenth century (Eastern section)

Manchester was never merely a factory town. In the 1770s, it had been unremarkable, if thriving textile manufacturing centre which had capitalised on its location adjacent to the Pennine slopes, with their ideal conditions for cotton-spinning and weaving. It had had a population of about twenty-five thousand. Thirty years later, it had almost tripled, and by the 1840s it had also become the commercial centre of the textile trade, and the factories were soon outnumbered by warehouses and salesrooms for finished cloth. The typical Manchester worker was not a factory worker, but a carter, porter, packer, or labourer. In fact, the social gulf which worried contemporaries was, by the mid-century, filled with clerks, shopkeepers and members of the emerging professions, alongside the ‘labour aristocracy’ of master cotton spinners, calico printers and tailors. Besides the further expansion of manufacturing, the growth of secondary and service industries led to the city’s waterways becoming clogged with both human and industrial waste from tanneries, abattoirs, foundries and dye-works.

As in London and other cities, in Manchester railway lines had isolated ghettos such as ‘Little Ireland’, which then became slums. Chimneys dominated the skylines and the city became shrouded in smoke, which blackened buildings and killed vegetation. Contaminated water supplies and the accumulation of waste in the streets and allies contributed to a life expectancy for working-class inhabitants of less than half that of the surrounding agricultural districts. As the old town crumbled under the weight of the increased population, new districts of working-class housing sprang up to the east and south, as shown in the graphic map above, engulfing existing residences and driving the middle classes out into the neighbouring villages which, by the new century, had become more fashionable suburbs.

The Segregation & Conditions of the Classes:

In the first half of the nineteenth century, very few houses were purpose-built for the British working classes. Instead, the existing housing stock was ‘made down’ (subdivided into many rooms) as the wealthy quit the increasingly hostile physical and moral environs of the city centre for houses some distance away. Alternatively, outhouses and courtyards were adapted and back-to-back housing was developed. The correlation between poverty and housing conditions were widely publicised through Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes (1842) after details of the causes of death began to be recorded in the Registrar General’s annual reports on births, marriages and deaths (from 1837 in England). The conditions in British cities contributed to the process of suburbanisation from about 1850, as the middle classes increasingly sought to distance themselves from the moral and physical degeneration identified with town centres. Infant mortality rates, a sensitive indicator of the relationship between poverty and death, show how, in the 1860s, this was closely associated with urban districts and, in London, with the central part of the city. Indeed, moving away from London to housing with more generous space significantly reduced infant mortality.

Infant mortality, 1861-70

The map above shows a fairly clear correlation between areas of intense industrialisation and high infant mortality. Rapid urban population growth caused intense pressure on existing housing. The entrepreneurial response, being free of any form of regulation, was to subdivide larger properties or construct cramped new housing for rent. Only slowly were steps taken to regulate the standards of housing built for the working classes. Speculative builders were more important in determining housing quality and the fluctuations in house-building itself, together with the zoning effect of mid-century railway developments. On the demand side, the stability of employment and the level of household incomes were crucial. In Leicester, for example, where female employment in the hosiery trade supplemented a male workforce mainly occupied in the boot and shoe industry and in engineering, steady household incomes contributed to a housing stock that on the eve of World War I was superior in quality and amenities to that of over a hundred other English towns and cities.

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A Sunderland slum, circa 1889. Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class in Victorian times. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, local by-laws were used to regulate new housing, but clearing slums like the one shown here took longer.

Housing quality improved ultimately in the final quarter of the nineteenth century because of four linked developments; rising real wages, smaller family sizes, slum clearance and compulsory building by-laws. Together, these resulted in improved dietary, sanitary and environmental conditions. The ‘by-law’ terraced house became an almost universal English and Welsh working-class housing type, as the housing around central courtyards was opened up, cellar-dwelling banned, and back-to-back house-building suspended. The nature of twentieth-century housing was influenced by the block dwellings of the Peabody (London) and Guinness (London and Dublin) Trusts and by those of the newly formed London County Council in the 1890s, which were much criticised by their tenants. Company housing, though limited in quantity, did improve quality of life at Saltaire (Bradford), Port Sunlight (Cheshire), New Earswick (York) and Bournville (Birmingham), emphasising perspectives, with boulevards, curves and an explicitly English country cottage design, later associated with the concept of garden cities. Bournville was the estate created by George Cadbury, Quaker and chocolate manufacturer, for his factory workers.

The London Poor: ‘Snobs’, ‘Street Preachers’ & Social Surveyors:

The ascendancy of Disraeli and Gladstone in the politics of the 1870s and 1880s represented the emergence of the middle class as a major force in British politics. While the aristocracy maintained its grip on many of the leading organs of the state, including the ministries, and was to return to the prime ministership in the shape of the marquis of Salisbury and the Earl of Rosebery, but more middle-class businessmen, of whom Joseph Chamberlain is a pre-eminent example, and professionals now also aspired to political office. This mirrored the emergence of the middle class as a dominant class in British society, partially replacing the rural gentry. Britain’s built environment is full of the homes they made for themselves. The wealthier echelons of the middle class, whose fortunes were usually made in the industry and commerce of the towns, also set out to secure country estates in order to gentrify themselves, although this may have served to dilute their entrepreneurial spirit. These professional classes, including lawyers, doctors, academics and teachers, also grew tremendously during this period.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was a noted English Baptist minister who preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle to a congregation of six thousand. Some two hundred million copies of his sermons have been distributed worldwide since his death.

As early as 1861, following the opening of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Charles H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, warned against the atmosphere of snobbery which he perceived was increasingly prevalent among his flock:

There is growing up even in our Dissenting churches, an evil which I greatly deplore, a despising of the poor. I frequently hear, in conversation, such remarks as this: ‘It is of no use trying in such a place as this: you could never raise a self-supporting cause. There are none but poor living in this neighbourhood.’ … You know that in the city of London itself, there is now scarce a Dissenting place of worship. The reason for giving most of them up and moving them into the suburbs is that all the respectable people live out of town, and of course, they are the people to look after. They will not stop in London. They will go out and take villas in the suburbs where they may be maintained. ‘No doubt’, it is said, ‘the poor ought to be looked after: but we had better leave them to another order, an inferior order. The city missionaries will do for them; send them a few street preachers.’

Henry Mayhew, who in E. P. Thompson’s estimation, was incomparably the greatest social investigator in the mid-century, absorbed himself, in his monumental London Labour and the London Poor, (1851-62), less in the investigation of the casualties of industrialisation and more in the casualties of non-industrialisation, as the extract below shows. His subjects were the urban masses whose expansion did not directly result from the expansion of industry, and whose apparent social degeneracy alarmed other commentators.

The American socialist and writer, Jack London, referred to these urban masses, half a century later (see below), as unable to render efficient service to England in the world struggle for industrial supremacy. They were the product not of the organisation of industry but of the disorganisation of urban growth. Unlike Jack London, however, Mayhew was a sympathetic early ethnographer, who got his subjects to talk to him with a rare frankness and lack of inhibition. The individual components of the urban mass, whom some commentators treated at best as inanimate statistics or at worst as anonymous brutes, gained an identity as they talked to him. Mayhew came from the same ‘milieu’ as Dickens; he was a playwright and journalist. Occasionally the theatrical shows through, but this does not detract from his value in providing direct contact with the forgotten masses of Victorian London.

Some of the most compelling photographs of poverty to survive were taken for religious and charitable organisations concerned with saving and helping children. The photograph above is of a ‘Ragged School’ showing not only ragged clothes but thin rickety legs, bare feet and the hollow-eyed accusative stare of children robbed of childhood. If Dr Barnado was guilty on occasions of exaggerating the condition of hi ‘street Arabs while they were under the eye of his photographer, substantive pictures from the Church of England’s Children’s Society, the Methodist Mission and the Salvation Army confirm that the appearance of the children matches the descriptions left us by various contemporary social commentators.

In the 1840s, John Pounds, a crippled cobbler of Portsmouth, used to gather in his workshop little groups of the poorest boys he could find, teaching them to read while he continued with his repairs. Pounds’ work and that of the London City Mission, which started schools into which ‘children raggedly clothed are admitted’ were the originators of the evangelical mission which became known as the Ragged Schools’ Union. The mission was to rescue children who were the street Arabs and outcasts of the poorest working-class districts and provide them with education and recreation. It was into the London of Dickens’ Oliver Twist that they delved to find and rescue children from the worst effects of indescribable poverty and abandonment. Indeed, Dickens supported and wrote of the work of the Ragged Schools, a movement that also attracted Lord Shaftesbury and other reforming figures. Finding that their pupils were often ‘crying from hunger and falling off their seats through exhaustion’, the schools gave meals as often as possible. About the time that the photograph of ragged children with their teacher was taken, in 1890, the Camberwell Ragged School announced ‘bring a spoon’. Two hundred and fifty children sat at rows of long tables and were given a slice of bread and a basin of soup thickened with peas and barley, at the cost of a halfpenny. Though the purpose of the Ragged Schools was an education for ‘Church and Empire’, they also filled empty bellies and cared for those for whom society had no care.

Church v Chapel – Establishment Schools & Progress for the Poor:

Newlyn School, Cornwall, 1889: Even isolated fishing communities, such as Newlyn, experienced growth in educational provision, extended to girls as well as boys.

The chief providers of elementary education for most of the nineteenth century had been the voluntary bodies, especially the churches, from the 1830s receiving Treasury grants. Some among the middle classes supported universal education for philanthropic reasons, as a means of preventing crime and immorality, or as insurance against social unrest. Some Anglicans were alarmed at the growth of Catholicism and Nonconformity and saw an Anglican education system as a defence against this. There was opposition, however, from those, especially farmers, who feared that educating the working classes would lead to higher taxes and labour costs, if not the spread of radical political ideas. National differences in education and literacy were marked. Levels of literacy were comparatively low in many parts of rural Britain, where school attendance was also low, but especially high in Scotland and Ireland, where favourable attitudes to an educated population were supported by a network of parochial schools. They were also higher among girls than boys in some areas where they were educated at voluntary schools, for example in East Anglia. In Wales, the Nonconformist churches, and in Ireland, Catholics opposed state funding of education, fearing Anglican propaganda. The Welsh also feared that the established Church sought to extinguish the Welsh language through the provision of monolingual English schooling. This strategy would undermine the Sunday schools provided by the Nonconformist chapels, in which Welsh was the medium of instruction.

Nineteenth-Century educational provision and literacy.

Thirteen years before the first Education Act, when countless children toiled ten or twelve hours a day in a mill or a colliery, Jeremiah James Colman opened Carrow School for the children of his employees at his Stoke and Carrow mustard works in Norwich. He was the grandnephew of the founder of the company, a strong Nonconformist, philanthropist and Member of Parliament. The weekly payment for attendance at the school was a penny for one child, three halfpence for two and twopence for a third from the same family. The first school was over a carpenter’s shop and crammed in fifty-three pupils. In an opening statement, Colman announced:

… the school helps you to educate your children and to train up a set of men who will go into the world qualified for any duties they may be called upon to discharge.

With a workforce of three and a half thousand, Colman’s was, in effect, the local community and it was likely that their duties would be discharged in manufacturing mustard. The school began each morning with a hymn, a prayer and a Bible reading, but while a Colman education included diligent and careful teaching of the scriptures, it also included art and craft subjects in addition to ‘the three r’s’. Not only was Colman far-sighted in his attitude to education, but he was also a firm believer in women being given every opportunity for learning, and from the outset drawing and needlework were included in the subjects taught. Caroline Colman, Jeremiah’s wife, was the force in the direction and development of the school. The Colman’s were also committed to technical education, and in 1899 they claimed to be the first to introduce cookery, gardening, laundry work, beekeeping and ironwork into the curriculum. As the school grew, it moved and improved, adding a wide range of technical subjects, but never neglected art and culture.

At the time the photograph above was taken in the early 1900s, Caroline Colman was intensely concerned with the physical wellbeing of her pupils, urging mothers to ensure that their daughters wore warm dresses ‘as a caution against measles and other childish ailments’. Although the children have been carefully groomed and prepared for the class photograph, their general condition of wellbeing contrasts sharply with the ragged appearance and thin faces of the children in the London photographs. The reminiscences of former pupils were warm and grateful, happy and nostalgic if at times a little pious.

In successive Education Acts from 1870, governments took steps to fill the most obvious gaps in education provision and made it compulsory until the age of ten. Although standards of literacy had been relatively high before the Education Act of 1870, the emergence of compulsory elementary education under the legislation produced one of the best-educated and most literate populations in Europe. The 1870 act provided for basic literacy and numeracy, together with religious and moral education, though the curriculum was gradually widened. The so-called public schools were reformed and became a model for a new wave of independent schools as well as the grammar schools and high schools, sometimes built on ancient foundations, that emerged in every city and town.

University education had expanded slowly in the nineteenth century as it became clear that the ancient foundations could no longer meet the economic and intellectual demands of Victorian Britain. New colleges, soon to be elevated to the status of universities, were founded in all major industrial cities, offering a more accessible tertiary education to many. By the end of the century, universities had been established in all the major urban centres of England and Wales. In 1878 the University of London had become the first institution to to admit women students, and by 1900 women were attending all universities, although with some restrictions. The number of women receiving degrees was limited, and Oxford and Cambridge resisted awarding degrees until well into the twentieth century.

Cambridge in the 19th Century: During the Victorian period, the growth in the university’s provision was as marked there as it was in the new university towns. This, in turn, encouraged rapid population and urban growth, and the development of modern Cambridge.

Consumer Co-operation – A ‘Self-help’ Solution?:

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Beatrice Potter (later Webb) in 1875.

Beatrice Webb, née Potter, (1858-1943) was born into a Lancashire family who became integrated into the traditional administrative and professional class, and Beatrice found herself related to a good proportion of the academics, senior civil servants and leading lawyers of the capital. On the other hand, she still kept in contact with her Lancashire forebears who had not made the transition. Stimulated by the great Charles Booth, she embarked in 1884 on her own programme of social research into Co-operation and Nonconformity in Bacup, a town in the South Pennines of Lancashire, close to the border with Yorkshire. In a letter to her father, She wrote of her enquiries into the operations of the co-operative societies in the town, entirely owned and managed by working men:

I have spent the day in the chapels and schools. After dinner, a dissenting minister dropped in and I had a long talk with him: he is coming for a cigarette this evening after chapel. He told me that in all the chapels there was a growing desire among the congregation to have political and social subjects treated in the pulpit and that it was very difficult for a minister, now, to please. He also remarked that in the districts where co-operation amongst the workmen (in industrial enterprise) existed, they were a much more independent and free-thinking set.

There is an immense amount of co-operation in the whole of this district; the stores seem to succeed well, both as regards supplying the people with cheap articles and as savings banks paying good interest. Of course, I am just in the centre of the dissenting organisation; and as our host is the chapel keeper and entertains all the ministers who come here, I hear all about the internal management … each chapel is a self-governing community, regulating not only chapel matters but overlooking the private life of its members.

Working-class self-help or self-protection organisations grew rapidly in the nineteenth century. Friendly societies, trade unions and consumer cooperative societies, the most important of the predominantly working-class mutual assistance societies, are often presented as ‘self-help’ organisations; but they were as much about self-protection as self-advancement and much more about solidarity than individualism. Cooperatives, on the model of the Rochdale ‘Pioneers’ of 1844 (pictured below), were identified with consumers. Skilled workers led the way, as they were better able to pay subscriptions and use their literacy to organise beyond the workplace, and their jobs and conditions were often threatened by technological innovation in the mid-century. Many workers felt the need to make provisions to avoid the much-feared Poor Law; skilled workers sought to combine together to defend their livelihoods in an era of rapid technological development.

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The Rochdale Pioneers founded the first modern cooperative in Rochdale in 1844, with their first shop in Toad Lane. The Pioneers established the principles of consumer cooperation.

Forty years after the Rochdale Pioneers, the young social researcher Beatrice Webb, not yet a socialist, was clear about the ties which existed between the Nonconformist chapels in Bacup and the local cooperatives:

One cannot help feeling what an excellent thing these dissenting organisations have been for educating this class for self-government. I can’t help thinking, too, that one of the best preventives against the socialistic tendency of the coming democracy would lie in local government; which would force the respectable working man to consider political questions as they come up in local administration. … they are keen enough on any local question which comes within their own experiences and would bring plenty of shrewd sound sense to bear on the actual management of things… There is an immense amount of spare energy in this class, now that it is educated, which is by no means used up in their mechanical occupation. … It can be employed either in the practical solution of social and economic questions or in the purely intellectual exercise of political discussion about problems considered in the abstract. …

In living amongst mill-hands of East Lancashire … I was impressed with the depth and realism of their religious faith. … Even the social intercourse was based on religious sympathy and common religious sympathy and common religious effort. …

Cooperatives and trade unions.

As legal restraints were lifted in the 1870s, it became easier for trade unions to spread to ‘unskilled’ groups, such as the agricultural workers, led by the Methodist Joseph Arch, who founded the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. The growth of waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded trade union membership had penetrated deepest in Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, the rest of Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise in agricultural trade unions. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer cooperatives. ‘Coops’ divided profits among their members and were based on the doctrines of the mill owner Robert Owen, whose great discovery that the key to a better society was unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life. They attempted to build virtuous alternative societies based on a fair distribution of the rewards of labour, whose superiority to corrupt competitive capitalism would gradually and ultimately prevail. To raise funds for these Owenite communities, shops were established, with the surpluses going towards the next stages of cooperative manufacturing and agriculture.

Dozens of such societies were founded, to begin with mainly in the industrial north of England. The extra spark was provided by Rochdale’s Equitable Pioneers in 1844 in deciding to divide up the profits from sales, in proportion to their spending at the store. This ‘dividend’ enabled working-class consumers to save while they spent, and its attractions provided the basis for a tremendous expansion of consumer cooperation, extending to housing, manufacturing and insurance, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire 112, followed by Durham (twenty-eight), the Northamptonshire footwear district (twenty-one) Northumberland (eighteen) and Cheshire/ Derbyshire (seventeen). At this point, there were just six societies within a twelve-mile radius of London.

The story of the Radcliffe Co-op, whose shop is shown above, is not unique, but rather typifies the pioneering enterprise of the early co-operators. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton for inspiration and advice. The founding members would ‘cart it’ to the towns to attend the tea parties and lectures of other societies, the strongest contingent of workers coming from the Red Bank Mills. The ‘cut-lookers’, overlookers, winders and weavers, encouraged by the obvious success of these societies, soon took the decision to start a Cooperative store in Radcliffe, the first sovereign being subscribed at a pub in Black Lane. Their first meeting was held in August 1860, incurring an expense of eleven shillings and sixpence. By October, 181 workers had subscribed one shilling and sixpence each, enabling a flour bin to be made and a shop to be rented in Mount Sion Road for fourteen pounds a year. The stock was ordered, one sack of soda heading the list. After only a year, the first dividend was paid, two shillings in the pound to each member. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished, reading rooms, educational classes, Women’s Guild and political committee interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce, and a growing number of branches. Radcliffe existed as a separate Society for more than a century, finally merging with Bolton Co-operative in 1963.

Wherever traditions of self-help and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, cooperation took root. These included Birmingham and the Midlands, which were also strongholds of radical religious Dissent which was becoming overtly political with the rise to municipal power of Liberal reformers like Joseph Chamberlain. Beatrice Webb commented on her conversations with him in her diary, in entries made during their four-year relationship which had begun in 1882 when he had become a minister in Gladstone’s second government:

The same quality of one-idea’d-ness is present in the Birmingham Radical set, earnestness and simplicity of motive being strikingly present. Political conviction takes the place here of religious faith. … Heine said some fifty years ago, “Talk to an Englishman on religion and he is fanatic; talk to him on politics and he is a man of the world.” It would seem to me from my slight experience of Bacup and Birmingham, that that part of the Englishman’s nature which has found gratification in religion is now drifting into political life. When I suggested this to Mr- Chamberlain he answered. “I quite agree with you, and I rejoice in it. I have always had a grudge against religion for absorbing the passion in man’s nature.” It is only natural then that, this being his view, he should find in the uncompromising belief of his own set a more sympathetic atmosphere wherein to recruit his forces to battle with powers of evil, than in the somewhat cynical… political opinions of London Society. (MS diary, 16 March 1884).

‘Slum Sisters’ & Child Labourers:

The photographs below of children queing for, and enjoying, farthing breakfasts, taken for the Salvation Army in the 1890s, are a reminder of the tens of thousands of children who went to school hungry. In addition to the meals provided by the Ragged Schools, breakfasts were provided by the the ‘slum sisters’ of the Salvation Army; a huge mug of hot, sweet tea and a ‘doorstep’ of bread in a ‘jam butty’ would be given in return for the smallest coin of the realm. It was not only the best meal of the day for many, but for some, the only meal.

Farthing Breakfast queue

The poor children, especially in East London, would otherwise have gone to school with empty stomachs. They might well have been given, on their return each evening, stale bread covered with dripping or a red herring with pickles. Skimmed milk and a pennyworth of brawn would commonly serve as the main meal for the children of the East End, and the less fortunate would scour the market places for rotten vegetables and fruit discarded as unsaleable by the ‘barrow boys’.

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Farthing breakfasts

As far as diet was concerned, the Medical Inspector of Schools for Lambeth, Dr Alfred Eichholz, testified to the interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration in December 1903 that:

Want of food, irregularity and unsuitability of food, taken together are the determining cause of degeneracy in children. The breakfasts that these children get are nominally bread and tea if they get it at all. There is bread and margarine for lunch, and the dinner is normally nothing but what a copper can purchase at the local fried fish shops, where the most inferior kinds of fish such as skate are fried in unwholesome, reeking cottonseed oil. They frequently supplement this with rotten fruit, which they collect beneath barrows. … In these districts the only milk which any of the children know is tinned milk which does not possess the nutritive power of fresh milk … As regards meat, if they get it at all, it is for the most part once a week on Sundays and then very little and of the poor sort.

The photographs below, of London children in a school playground and a street, are memorials to the working-class children who went to school barefoot. They were taken for the Salvation Army and others in order to demonstrate aspects of poverty, though that does not detract from the help they give us in understanding the effects and extent of poverty in London at the height of imperial splendour at the turn of the century. Robert Sherhard’s description of the little milk carrier in Glasgow, a girl of ten, whose ‘feet felt and looked like pieces of frozen meat’ drives away any illusion of the romance of going without shoes in the British climate. Barefoot children were a phenomenon that remained in Britain until the outbreak of the Second World War. For fifty years before that clog clubs and boot clubs flourished as parents scrimped and scraped to see their children shod and even then waged a constant struggle to keep boots and shoes in repair. In wet and wintry weather, rain and snow squelched through holes stuffed with brown paper as children shuffled to school, their footwear too large or too small, cast-offs from brothers and sisters.

Even after 1880, when elementary schooling had been made compulsory, for thousands of poor children it came only after work, which was either casual help to local tradesmen or part-time work in factories and mills. Legally allowed to start work at eleven years of age, the children would clock on at five in the morning, working barefoot in the shattering noise and humid atmosphere of the mill before going exhausted to school in the afternoon. Health and education suffered but mill owners fought fiercely against depriving them of their cheap labour and it was not until the Education Act of 1918 that half-time work for children was legally ended. The report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Employment of Schoolchildren, in 1901, put the figure at three hundred thousand children in England and Wales combining school attendance with paid employment. But that fact by itself does not convey the devastating effect on the health and education of working-class children inadequately or badly fed, invariably badly dressed, totting up a sixteen-hour day of schoolwork and labour. Reports of children falling from their desks with exhaustion or fainting from hunger were common and it does not require more than a modicum of imagination to picture the condition of barefooted, raggedy-clothed children arriving at school in wet or wintry weather, having already put in a few hours work, often in the open air.

Looking closely at the photograph from the Fawcett album of schoolchildren in a playground, it is apparent that those with boots (or clogs) are scarcely better shod than those barefooted. School authorities were not unaware of the problem, and as early as 1879 the London School Board began to provide boots for the poorest children in order that they could attend school, only to find themselves attacked by the Charity Organisation Society who feared that other parents would keep their children at home in order to obtain boots. The problem of the poor in providing boots for their children was to remain a source of concern and debate until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Work for children was a necessity born of adult unemployment and underemployment, casual labour, trade recessions, seasonal occupations, and the payment of less than subsistence wages, not only in the sweated trades but by the employers in the major sections of British commerce, including clockwork, mining and agriculture. What of the work that the children undertook in their playtime? Helping the milkman from four-thirty in the morning till school time and again from five till nine; selling newspapers for sixty hours a week, lather boy for the barber from school-out till ten every night, delivering heavy groceries, paid a ‘thruppence for six hours’, these extra chores contributed to the family income and in some cases, where dad was out of work and the family large, was the family income, saving them from the final degradation of the workhouse.

The photograph above, of children outside a pie shop, was taken for the Salvation Army. It poses questions that suggested it was contrived. The children seem poor, even if the boy in knickerbockers is far better attired than his ‘mates’, but they all seem able to make a purchase from the shop. Perhaps the photographer staged the ‘event’ by rewarding his subjects. Nevertheless, the small sartorial details tell a story of hand-me-down clothes and a lack of footwear that was a common sight in cities at the turn of the century.

In November 1886, the Revd. Samuel Francis Collier was placed in charge of the new Methodist Central Hall, Manchester, built at the then prodigious cost of forty thousand pounds. Magnificent though the Hall was, the dynamic evangelist, with a social as well as a spiritual conscience, soon launched a programme of practical help for the poor, using the motto ‘Need not creed’ in his daring new ministry. Nobody in need was to be refused help, regardless of belief. In 1891, an old rag factory was established at Ancoats, salvaging the waste of the city, old bottles, jars, empty tins, cotton waste, pails and clothing all being sorted for re-use and sale, destitute men being given a good bed and three square meals a day for their labour. From that venture in social rehabilitation grew the most complete set of social service premises possessed by any church in Britain. By the early 1900s, a Men’s Home, Labour Yard, Women’s Refuge, a Maternity Hospital for unmarried mothers and a Labour Advice Bureau had all been developed together with educational clubs, prison visiting services and holiday funds. The picture below shows the boys in the Labour Yard of the Manchester and Salford Wesleyan Missions. Outcasts of industrial society, they were welcomed by Collier and provided with clothes, food, shelter and hope in exchange for ‘honest toil’.

Distant Dissenters & Social Justice:

Against this ‘backdrop’, the attitudes towards the poor of the more distant and ‘conservative’ Nonconformist leaders, were well illustrated from the pens of those who patronised them, those who preached to them and from those amongst the poor who discovered in the Nonconformist pulpit a means for calling their colleagues to self-realisation. It was significant that Andrew Mearns, William Booth and Charles Booth were all Nonconformists, but Dissenters were also prone to being accused of philanthropy divorced from a sense of social justice, and even of outright hypocrisy in their attitudes towards the poor. All too easily, as Briggs and Sellers (1973) noted, the phrase ‘the Nonconformist conscience’,

could lapse into an unlovely onslaught from a determined, Puritanical middle-class sectarianism against the drink, gambling and thriftlessness of the classes below and above it to the ignoring of the deeper social problems which afflicted the nation.

This collage from the cover of the book by John Briggs and Ian Sellers on ‘Victorian Nonconformity’ was designed to illustrate different facets of Victorian Nonconformity. The figures are part of the Pugh Collection of Staffordshire figures at pressures on loan to the City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

That is not to say that Nonconformity’s sympathies rested upon calculation alone. The growing call for the preaching of a ‘social gospel’ was, at least, the ‘child’ of a more positive definition of individualism, standing as a proper, practical and involved corrective to the implicit pietism of the tradition of conscientious separation. In his address published in the Congregational Year Book in 1885, Dr Joseph Parker envisaged a speech by one of ‘that suffering community’ of ‘ignorance, misfortunate, misery and shame’ who had spent a year observing the ‘Unions, Conferences, Assemblies and Convocations’ held among Nonconformist ‘leaders’:

We have had a full year among, and we cannot very well make out what you are driving at. We do not know most of the long words you use … We do not know what you are, or what you want to be at. From what we can make out you seem to know that we poor devils are going straight down to a place you call hell. … We read the inky papers which you call your “resolutions” but in them, there is no word for us that is likely to do us real good. They say nothing about our real misery; nothing about our long hours, our poor pay, our wretched lodgings.’

… our evangelism is in danger of devoting itself almost exclusively to what is known as ‘the masses’. I must protest against this contraction, on the ground that it is as unjust to Christianity, as it is blind to the evidence of facts. If the city missionary … is wanted anywhere, he is specially wanted where … conscience is lulled by charity which knows nothing of sacrifice, and where the political economy is made the scapegoat for oppression and robbery. … There is only one class worse than the class known as ‘outcast London’, and that class is composed of those who ‘have lived in pleasure on the earth and been wanton. The cry is ‘bitterer’ in many tones at the West End than at the East; … the thousand social falsehoods that mimic the airs of Piety … these seem to be distressed without alleviation and to constitute heathenism which Christ himself might view with despair.

Within the Nonconformist tradition, however, the individualistic emphasis upon personal conversion had always had to be held in tension with a corporate understanding of the church and its role in society: as the normative social philosophy of Victorian Britain changed from individualism to collectivism, so correspondingly this second emphasis, which for much of the century was neglected, came into new prominence. Social Science may well have been a middle-class preoccupation of the mid-century, but when linked with the kingdom of God theology of the Christian Socialists it provided an important link between the ‘Political Dissent’ of the 1830s and ’40s with the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’ or ‘social gospel’ of the ’80s and ’90s. The Baptist pastor, J. Clifford, was actively involved in campaigning against the ‘living in’ system, as the photograph above shows. ‘Dressed like dukes, treated like slaves as the slogan went, since shop assistants were expected to dress like aristocrats and to spend their lives in total subjection to their employers. Almost half a million were of them were compelled to ‘live in’ their employers’ premises in conditions that were appalling and institutional. The shopowners created a tyranny as harsh as the yearly bond system of the mine-owners or the feudal power of the squirearchy. Stores were open from morning to night for six days a week and working hours of eighty to ninety hours per week were common.

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The ‘living in’ system bound the shopworker to the shopowner as tightly as the tied cottage bound the labourer to the farm owner. Much of the accommodation was barrack-like with beds alive with fleas and walls crawling with bugs. Baths were rarely provided and hot water was almost as scarce. The rules of one Knightsbridge store forbade lights after 11 p.m., breaching of which resulted in instant dismissal. Sleeping out required permission and failure to comply with this also resulted in dismissal on the second offence. Assistants were also forbidden to marry without permission and communal living denied them the vote. On their one free day, they were expected to attend church. The photograph, taken in May 1901, shows thirteen shop assistants advertising a meeting against the system, with Dr Clifford as the chief speaker. The sandwich boards were hired from the Church Army; third in line is P. C. Hoffman, a pioneer of the Shop Assistants’ Union and a trade union official for forty years. In his Fabian Tract of 1897, Socialism and the Teachings of Christ, Clifford encapsulated the transition from individualist to collectivist thinking among many Nonconformists and Church organisations:

Collectivism, although it does not change human nature, yet takes away the occasion for many of the evils which now afflict society. It reduces the temptations of life in number and in strength. It means work for everyone and the elimination of the idle, and if the work should not be so exacting, responsible, and therefore not so educative for a few individuals, yet it will go far to answer Browning’s prayer:

O God, make no more giants,

Elevate the race.

… Individualism adds to the number of the indolent year by year; collectivism sets everybody alike to his share of work, and gives to him his share of the reward. … Collectivism affords a better environment for the teachings of Jesus concerning wealth and the ideals of labour and brotherhood. If man is … only ‘the expression of his environment’ … then it is an unspeakable gain to bring that environment into line with the teaching of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, accumulated wealth appears as a grave peril to the spiritual life, a menace to the spiritual life, a menace to the purest aims and noblest ideals. Christ is entirely undazzled by its fascinations and sees in it a threat against the integrity and progress of his kingdom. ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth’. … Now, though Collectivism does not profess to extinguish vice and manufacture saints, it will abolish poverty, reduce the hungry to an imperceptible quantity, and systematically care for the aged poor and for the sick. It will carry forward much of the charitable work left to individual initiative … is not all that in harmony with the spirit and teaching of Him who bids us see Himself in the hungry and sick, the poor and the criminal?

… Collectivism fosters a more Christian conception of industry; one in which every man is a worker, and each worker does not toil for himself exclusively, but for the necessities, comforts and privileges he shares equally with all members of the community. … It is a new ideal of life and labour that is most urgently needed. England’s present ideal is a creation of hard individualism; and therefore is partial, hollow, unreal and disastrous. … Individualism fosters the caste feelings and caste divisions of society, creates the serfdom of one class and the indolence of another; makes a large body of submissive, silent, unmanly slaves undergoing grinding toil and continuous anxiety, and a smaller company suffering from debasing indolence and continual weariness. … No! the ideal we need and must have is in the unity of English life, in the recognition that man is complete in the State, at once a member of society and of the Government…

In terms of collective ‘self-help’, by 1899, 1,531 cooperative societies in Great Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a cooperator. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time, and the cooperative and trade union movements marched in step, though they rarely collaborated, except when there were strikes and marches of workers to London. As a more widely supported movement that drew in women as well as men, especially through its Women’s Guild, and pulled in whole families as consumers, Cooperation had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade union movement, especially during the troughs of the trade cycle. The geographical bases of the two movements are best understood as products of the economic peaks and troughs, or as two sides of the same coin.

Investigating Poverty:

It was against this paradoxical economic, social and political background that poverty began to attract more attention once again primarily due to men and women of public conscience, notably the nonconformist shipowner Charles Booth and the Quaker chocolate manufacturer, Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, to quantify it and to reveal its extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. Thirty per cent of London’s population at the beginning of the 1890s fell on or below Booth’s poverty line and in certain parts of London the percentages were far higher, sixty-eight per cent in Southwark, for instance, and sixty-five in Greenwich. Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was hardly any lower so that cases of real want could no longer be characterised as unrepresentative. Nor, in many cases, could they be attributed to an unwillingness to work. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes below the level needed for the maintenance of ‘physical efficiency’. Rowntree spelt out in precise and detailed language for middle-class readers exactly what this meant:

A family … must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. … They cannot save, nor can they join a sick club or Trade Union. … The children must have no pocket money. … Should a child fall ill, it must be attended by the parish doctor, should it die, it must be buried by the parish. Finally, the wage-earner must never be absent from his work for a single day.

In the York of 1899, nearly ten per cent of the total population, more than fifteen per cent of wage-earners, lived in ‘primary poverty’ below even this ‘line’, and these figures were believed to be not untypical of other provincial towns. These revelations of poverty by Booth and Rowntree came as a ‘disagreeable shockfor late Victorian society. According to J Burnett in his seminal (1977) work, A History of the Cost of Living, the period between 1830 and 1900 saw a doubling of the real earnings of the average worker. Britain’s productive resources had, at last, enabled its working classes to realize a standard of living that was unique in time and place. Because of this improvement and due to the continuous upgrading of labour from unskilled to semi-skilled occupations, there was little doubt that the working classes had gained as much as other classes during the period of late Victorian prosperity. It was against this ‘optimistic’ background that the findings of Booth and Rowntree stood out in stark contrast. By the standards of the most rigorous, scientific measures available at the time, a subsistence level defined by reference to the smallest amount of food necessary to support mere physical efficiency, they came to an almost precisely identical conclusion, namely that nearly 31% of the population of London and 28% of the population of York were existing in poverty, one in six babies died before reaching their first birthday, and one in five of the population would still ‘look forward to the indignity of a pauper’s funeral from the workhouse in which they would end their days‘.

It was, therefore, with hindsight, hardly a matter for surprise that just over a third of men who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1908 (at the time of the Boer Wars) were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators’ ‘arithmetic of woe’. The plight of the poor was made worse to some extent by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. The urbanisation theme, frequently encountered in earlier chapters, now reaches its climax. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed as urban; by 1911 it reached eighty per cent of a much larger total. A visiting American visiting London in 1909, drew some interesting internal contrasts together with international comparisons:

These beef-eating, port-drinking fellows in Piccadilly, exercised, scrubbed, groomed, they are well enough to be sure; but this other side of the shield is distressing to look at. Poor, stunted, bad-complexioned, shabbily dressed, ill-featured are these pork-eating, gin-drinking denizens of the East End. Crowds I have seen in America, in Mexico, and in most of the great cities of Europe … Nowhere is there such squalor, such pinching poverty, so many undersized, so many plainly and revoltingly diseased, so much human rottenness as here …

Jack London, already the author of a two-volume work about life in the Klondyke, had come to London in the summer of 1902, aged twenty-six, living in the dockland area for two months. He published his book chronicling the visit, The People of the Abyss, the following year. In it, he remarked that:

There is one beautiful sight in the East End, and only one, and it is the children dancing in the street when the organ-grinder goes his round.

The Wisconsin-born journalist, R. D. Blumenfeld had visited England even earlier, in the 1880s and kept a diary, which he eventually published in 1930. As editor of the Daily Express, he played an important role in the shaping of popular journalism in Britain. In his entry for December 1901, he gave a vivid portrayal of a night spent on the Embankment among the poor and homeless. ‘Charlie’ Chaplin was born in 1889 at Walworth and grew up in Lambeth and elsewhere south of the Thames. When his father’s death at thirty-one brought about the family’s ruin, they were forced into the Lambeth workhouse, where they had to separate. In his Autobiography, published in 1966, he recalled:

… the poignant sadness of that first visiting day: the shock of seeing Mother enter the visiting-room garbed in workhouse clothes. How forlorn and embarrassed she looked! In one week she had aged and grown thin, … but she smiled at our cropped heads and stroked them consolingly, telling us that we would soon all be together again. From her apron, she produced a bag of coconut candy which she had bought at the workhouse store with her earnings from crocheting lace cuffs for one of the nurses.

In 1921, Chaplin went ‘home’ to the East End, during a stay at the Ritz. His visit was recorded as one of the events of the year in the Daily Express’ publication, These Tremendous Years (1939):

In his Life and Labour of the London Poor, written in 1902-3, Charles Booth wrote of his encounter with a group of East End children as he stood in the lighted porch of a chapel which had the sound of Sankey’s hymns coming from inside. Going towards them, he suggested that they would be better off in bed at that time of the evening. One of the girls, scarcely more than eight years old, replied:

“Garn, we’re ahrt wiv ahr blokes … that’s my bloke”. “Yus”, said the other girl, and that’s mine” (they pointed to two boys about their own size). At this there was a general shout of laughter and then came the plaintive plea from the first child, “Give us a penny, will you, Guv’nor?!” Regular cockney Arabs these.

Retrospectively, and more ‘optimistically’, J. Burnett, in his 1977 book, A History of the Cost of Living, took a longer-term look at the period from 1790 to 1900, which saw a quantifiably absolute increase in the real earnings of the average worker of some two-and-a-half times, and probably a doubling within the period 1830 to 1900. According to Burnett:

Britain’s productive resources had, at last, enabled it to realise a standard of life that was unique in time and place. … Because of this improvement, and because of the continuous up-grading of labour from less-skilled to more skilled occupations, there can be little doubt that the worker had gained as much as other classes during the period of late Victorian prosperity.

There are qualitative sources in the social sphere to support the view that progress and prosperity were more the ‘orders of the day’ for most British people, and increasingly the conditions experienced by those workers who did not fall into the poorest tenth of the population. Yet for perhaps the majority of the working-class population, industrialisation had disrupted the traditional patterns of their social lives as much as their working lives. Of course, much of this disruption was for the betterment of individuals within society. While on the one hand there were new constraints, on the other new horizons were extended in other directions by technological advances and distances were being overcome. The range of consumer products was enlarged and cheapened, and social experiences were diversified. It is not necessary, when evaluating the qualitative evidence, to posit a pre-industrial ‘Golden Age’ of social harmony and higher living standards, though many in Victorian and Edwardian times, as well as more recently, have been eager to do so. The emergence of industrial society, it was claimed, did untold and irreparable damage to the traditional, spiritual values of society. Personal relationships took on a corporate, commercial and mercenary character; competition and rivalry replaced a society based on cooperation. In total, the effect was to produce an imbalance between man and nature, since man had become as mechanical in his responses as the machines he tended. Further apprehensions were expressed about the growing uniformity of society.

The Birmingham ‘Bible’ & Social Gospel:

Birmingham’s diverse industrial base made it a serious rival to Manchester as Britain’s second city in the later nineteenth century. The city gained a reputation for municipal enterprise for its public works, including one of the country’s most extensive urban tramway systems. Cheap and efficient public transport systems, based on horse-drawn omnibuses and trams, proved to be an effective way of dispersing the industrial working class from overcrowded and disease-ridden city-centre slums. From the Nonconformist point of view, however, R. W. Dale delivered a Lecture to the New Electors in which he addressed the citizens of Birmingham who had acquired the vote as a result of the 1867 Reform Act which enfranchised the majority of working-class men, but not its ‘slum-dwellers’:

You have a great practical concern in whatever measures are likely to make the criminal classes disappear, and I trust that such measures will have your hearty support. … There is another class from which we have almost as much to fear … one million persons receiving relief. … And in this million you have first the permanent paupers, and then a vast mass of people who are on the parish on and off again every few months, but who when they go off are sure to leave successors … We have hereditary paupers, as well as hereditary criminals, and I maintain that this is intolerable. … You will feel very distinctly the sharp pressure that comes upon the community for the support of the ‘armies of the homeless and unfed’, and will be the more eager to discover how the pauperism of the country can be effectively diminished.

In Birmingham, as Dale knew well, the city’s municipal administration was notably lax with regards to public works, and many urban dwellers lived in conditions of great poverty. Joseph Chamberlain made his career in Birmingham, first as a manufacturer of screws and then as a notable mayor of the city. He became involved in Liberal politics, influenced by the strong radical and liberal traditions among Birmingham shoemakers and the long tradition of social action in Chamberlain’s Unitarian church. Chamberlain He was a radical Liberal Party member and an opponent of the Elementary Education Act 1870 on the basis that it could result in subsidising Church of England schools with local ratepayers’ money. As a self-made businessman, he had never attended university and had contempt for the aristocracy.  In November 1873, the Liberal Party swept the municipal elections and Chamberlain was elected Mayor of Birmingham. The Conservatives had denounced his Radicalism and called him a “monopoliser and a dictator” whilst the Liberals had campaigned against their High Church Tory opponents with the slogan “The People above the Priests”. As Mayor, Chamberlain promoted many civic improvements, promising the city would be “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and ‘improved'”. In February 1874, he wrote to Henry Allen, Editor of the Nonconformist Review, reflecting on the election results and the need for a campaign to further a closer union between nonconformists as such and the working classes.

The only chance of the Government lay in a declaration of policy calculated to arouse the hearty enthusiasm of the non-conformists and the working. Instead of this Gladstone issued the meanest manifesto that ever proceeded from a great Minister. … At the same time, the returns show that the present political position of the Dissenters is not satisfactory. They are very hazy as to the principles of the Education question, and have, in many cases, been carried over to the enemy by the ‘Bible’ cry.

In the latter assertion, it can be assumed that Chamberlain is referring to the provision of the 1870 act in respect of Religious Education, which placed Biblical knowledge at the centre of the curriculum, alongside numeracy and literacy. By ‘the enemy’, Chamberlain was referring to ‘the Anglican Establishment’, as he went on to explain:

Worse still, they have ceased to combine cordially with the working classes, without whose active assistance further advances in the direction of Religious Equality are impossible. But both in the case of the agricultural labourers, and in reference to the demands of the Trades Unions for the repeal of what I do not hesitate to stigmatize as class legislation of the worst kind, the Dissenters have largely held aloof, and their organs in the Press … have been unsympathetic and even hostile.

In his references to the agricultural workers and the trades unions, Chamberlain was no doubt referring to the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, founded in Warwickshire in the early 1870s, led by the Wesleyan lay-preacher Joseph Arch and supported by thousands of Nonconformist workers who had faced wage cuts and evictions from local squires simply for joining the union, and whose children had been excluded from parish schools in some areas. The failure of some nonconformist church leaders to support their poorer members led Chamberlain to argue that:

Unless this is altered in the future such questions as Disestablishment and Disendowment will be indefinitely postponed, as the Artisan voter can see little difference between Caesar and Pompey, and looking like the whole affair is a mere squabble between Church and Chapel, will take no interest in the matter.

Chamberlain pointed out that the only districts in which Liberalism had come well out of the recent were the Midland Counties, where they gained one seat and the Northern Counties, where the balance was still in favour of the Liberals. There, he wrote, the local parties appealed directly to the mass of the working-class population, with the Dissenters aiding very largely with their purses and influence, and cordially recognising the justice of the labourers’ claims. Chamberlain contrasted the enduring support of the local Liberal Press in Birmingham and Newcastle, in particular, with …

… this narrowness on the part of many of the rank and file of Dissent, will be fatal to the success of our special aims unless we can induce and make a more generous recognition of the claims of the masses.

The ‘richest country’ in the world? Rising Standards of Living?:

Paradoxically, the changing composition of the ruling classes gave the emergent working classes the opportunity to fight for a share in the spoils of progress and power. Initially, working-class activity had taken the form of semi-legal organisations and actions, mainly aimed at restricting production and/or trade. But once the working classes had established more ‘mature’ craft-based trade unions, and economic and political organisations, the ruling classes were not slow to entangle them in their political intrigues. At the same time, despite the revelations of Booth and Rowntree that poverty was still alive and ‘well’ in the richest country in the world, there was an overall rise in living standards for the majority of British people over the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The growing urbanisation of the country which many people thought aggravated the problems of the poor also made it easier to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services, as local government expenditure almost doubled between 1900 and 1913. It was in towns that free school meals and school medical inspection began. Better medical attention was becoming available, too, in hospitals, which catered mainly for working-class patients.

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A football match at the Molineux Grounds in the 1890s, shortly after it was taken over by Wolverhampton Wanderers. The first match played by the Wolves on their new ground was a friendly against Aston Villa when on Monday, 2 September 1889, at 5.30 p.m., a crowd of just under four thousand watched them defeat the Villa 1-0. Five days later, the Wolves staged their first League game at Molineux, against Notts County. Wolves won 2-0. Despite the extensions to the embankments and terraces shown below, by 1905 the ground was falling behind those of near neighbours Birmingham, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion. It stayed that way until 1911 when a curved roof was built over the north end of the ground, nicknamed ‘the Cowshed’ because of the corrugated iron fencing that formed its walls.

Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity compatible with popular pleasures like football and the seaside, as more working people could afford to save and spend or save in order to spend, as cooperation became a mass movement. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s onwards, electric tramcars, together with cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled many wage-earners to escape from the congested central areas of towns into the suburbs, leaving more room for those who still had to remain. Other innovations were the music halls, sporting events, excursion trains, silent films and, above all, new and more attractive public houses with their bright lives and vast expanses of plate glass and mirrors. Within these new ‘pubs’ there was a definite decline in heavy alcohol consumption, particularly in spirits, and, from 1900, in general drunkenness. This marked a clear break with the past but so, too, did the increase in cigarette smoking. Charles Booth wrote of these changes as he observed them in London:

There has been a great development and improvement upon the usual public-house sing-song as to the low character and bad influence of which there are no two opinions. The story of progress in this respect may be traced in many of the existing places which, from a bar parlour and a piano to an accompaniment on which friends “obliged with a song”, have passed through every stage to that of music hall … The audiences are youthful. They seek amusement and are easily pleased … The increase in the number, as well as size of halls, has been rapid. … The taste becomes a habit and new halls are opened every year…

More importantly, the same schools’ medical inspector who had found high levels of malnourishment in Lambeth, Dr Alfred Eicholz, reported in the next year, 1904, to the Committee on physical deterioration, that on his ‘special visits’ to West Ham, Manchester, Salford and Leeds that:

In the better districts of the towns there exist public elementary schools frequented by children not merely equal but often superior in physique and attainments to rural children. And these schools seem to be at least as numerous as schools of the lower type. … All evidence points to active improvement, bodily and mental, in the worst districts, so soon as they are exposed to better circumstances, even the weaker children recovering at a later age from the evil effects of infant life. Compulsory school attendance, the more rigorous scheduling of children of school age and the abolition of school fees in elementary schools have swept into the schools an annually increasing proportion of children during the last thirty years.

Dr Eicholz explained this difference between districts by commenting on the importance of elementary education in determining opportunities in relieving deprived areas:

Elementary education has contributed to the stratification of the large urban population into a distinct series of social levels. There is an upper class, well-to-do and well cared for, to whom our methods afford every chance of mental and physical improvement … At the other end of the scale, we find the aggregations of the slum population ill-nourished, poor, ignorant, badly housed, to a small extent only benefited by our methods of training ...

Housing problems – Overcrowding & Sanitation:

The first Town Planning Act had been passed in 1909, and the more progressive municipalities, stirred by its apparent opportunities, undertook local surveys. For example, in the spring of 1913, Birmingham City Council instituted an enquiry to ‘investigate the present housing conditions of the poor’. It found that, of the 175,000 dwellings in the city, fifty thousand, though occupied, were unfit for habitation; forty-two thousand had no separate water supply, no sinks or drains, and fifty-eight thousand had no separate water closet, the closets being communal and exposed in courts. These conditions were matched by any great English city, and in Scotland, living conditions were, if anything, even worse. But not only were the dwellings of a very large proportion of the working class dilapidated and unsanitary; they were also overcrowded. In 1911, over thirty per cent of the population was living under conditions of more than three persons per two rooms. In the same year, an average group of a hundred people was living as twenty-three family units. These were the two main social evils of the pre-1914 period; gross overcrowding and filthily squalid accommodation. But some of the overcrowding was also eased by the preference for smaller families which began to spread to certain sections of the working classes before the First World War. At the same time, however, the rates of natural increase continued to rise due to improvements in medical and maternity services, old age pensions began to be paid by the state at the beginning of 1909 and health and unemployment benefits were introduced in 1913.

The second major housing evil of pre-1914 days was tackled with far fewer measures. In 1911, it was not uncommon to find in many cities that as many as a third of dwellings were so obsolete and unsanitary that they were unfit for human habitation. Despite the introduction of ‘revolutionary’ standards for new housing in 1918, only about a third of a million of the millions of squalid dwellings that existed in 1911 had been demolished by 1939. The rest were still in occupation, and some four million people were living in dwellings built before the 1860s. Despite patching and ‘modernisation’, sanitary conditions remained primitive and amenities were rare. In the same year, Manchester’s Medical Officer for Health officially condemned over a third of the city’s housing as unfit for habitation. In Birmingham, after surveying the third of a million dwellings in the city, the City Engineer found that sixty-three thousand of them, almost twenty per cent, were so dilapidated and insanitary that they were due to be condemned immediately. Fifty-two thousand of these still had no separate WC and fourteen thousand had no separate water supply. Conditions were even worse on Tyneside, and in 1939, some of the Scottish slums matched and often plumbed the depths of 1911. A report of the Department of Health for Scotland described the 1939 conditions as follows:

Damp was present everywhere, the walls and ceilings of a large number of houses being literally soaking. Everywhere we noticed an almost total lack of sanitation, conveniences being few and for the most part out of repair, and even in some cases leaking downstairs and into the houses. Practically every property inspected was absolutely bug-ridden. The food itself will not keep owing to the damp and verminous conditions of the holes-in-the-walls in which it is kept. … We found lice, rats in great numbers, mice and cockroaches.

This was Spon Street in Coventry in 1957. The courtyard area was then considered a slum, but the street, containing many medieval half-timbered houses and shops, gathered from various of the city’s streets, is now a tourist attraction. Many of the city’s medieval ‘slums’ were destroyed in the Blitz of 1940, but many others were cleared in the late 1930s, like those from Butchers’ Row, pictured below (from the Coventry & Warwickshire Collection).

That these conditions still existed in some parts of the United Kingdom thirty years after they were first reported is evidence of how retarded progress in housing and welfare reform was in the inter-war period. For almost forty years, the pioneering work of Booth in London (1889) and Rowntree in York (1899) served as the brilliant but almost solitary guide to those who wished to realise, with precision, what was the exact extent of poverty in Britain, what its causes were, and what might be done to relieve it. In 1912, new material was provided by a team of researchers at the London School of Economics, who carried out a series of restricted but comparable studies into poverty in various small towns in the North-West and Midlands of England. Poverty was still endemic and alarmingly extensive in 1914, despite the positive efforts made to alleviate its effects by the extension of elementary education. It remained so for more than thirty years, primarily due to the poor nature of Britain’s housing stock.

Writing for the Fabian Society in 1945, Mark Abrams pointed out that, also by 1914, the first beneficiaries of free, compulsory education had grown up and produced their own families for whom full-time and everyday attendance at school until adolescence was accepted as normal; the schools had already started to participate in some of the traditional parental responsibilities such as feeding, medical care and job-selection. Abrams commented:

A citizen from our own day moving in that world of a few years before 1914 would have found in every context almost everything which has come to be regarded as distinctive of the culture of the inter-war years. He would have found civil servants administering schemes of old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and minimum wages. … The visitor from today would have found, already fully established, the precarious and crowded ladder which enabled a handful of working-class children to enter secondary schools and enabled a fraction of these to proceed to universities. He would have seen a rapidly increasing number of junior technical schools training the clerks and technicians needed by modern business and industry.

… The visitor would have found – at least in the more prosperous parts of the country – public medicine and sanitation based firmly on the work of Pasteur and Lister, and yielding rapidly falling death rates. … In most areas he would have visited public, i.e. rate-supported, parks, libraries and swimming baths. On the public walls of lavatories … he could have read the advertisements for contraceptives manufactured by firms who claimed, in neo-Malthusian language and argument, hundreds of thousands of customers among the “respectable poor”. … For his further relaxation he could have joined a crowd of forty thousand on a Saturday afternoon and watched Wolverhampton Wanderers defeat Aston Villa or Jack Hobbs score a century… In the evening, … he could have gone to the cinema and seen Chaplin and Mary Pickford.

… In many households, the family budgets made provision for holidays at the seaside, and for payments to the building society; some were already grappling with the problems of the upkeep of the motor car. No middle-class home was complete without its bathroom … The houses were lit with electricity, and many were equipped with telephones and gramophones. The cooking was done on gas stoves, and the first dwellings were being equipped with refrigerators.

The ‘Pinch of Poverty’ & Passage to Canada:

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The picture above is a classic encapsulation of northern working-class life captured by a press photographer covering an unidentified industrial dispute shortly before the war. Clogs, cobbles, and shawls are manifest in a street of narrow terraced houses dominated by factories and chimneys. The women and children wait, each with a jug, to collect soup from a communal kitchen, their only hot meal of the day. The ‘pinch of poverty’ was found pencilled on the back of the photograph, an apt caption applicable to the daily scene in a score of towns at a time when working people never did have butter for tea. In 1914, those who had passed their thirtieth birthday, and spent the formative years of their life in the intellectual atmosphere and physical environment of the revolutionary Edwardian decade. It was a revolution that still needed to be consolidated which, due to two world wars and a decade of economic depression and unemployment, could not be achieved for another thirty years and more. Nonetheless, it was a social, cultural and political revolution that had already produced distinctive patterns which set up trends in British life that were clearly visible throughout the inter-war years, and in the welfare policies of the 1940s.

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In this photograph, fifty-two boys, each clutching a new sixpence, stand before their top-hatted benefactors at a boys’ emigration party given by the Lord Mayor of Manchester on 14 April 1910. ‘Culled’ from the poor law unions of Charlton and Salford, Strangeways gaol and charitable refuges, they passively await departure for their long sea voyage to Canada and their destiny as cheap labour for the farms around Ontario. While, for nearly forty years, some trade unions, like the agricultural workers’ union (NALU) had actively participated in family emigration schemes, reasoning that it would lessen the evils of unemployment, some municipalities backed it because it would lessen the burden of the ratepayers. The Mayor explained that the Manchester community benefited economically from emigration. The twelve pounds steerage passage was all that had to be paid for each boy compared with the cost of keeping them for several years.

Thomas Ackroyd, the Hon. Secretary of Refuges, pointed out that they recognised the importance of keeping healthy and honest children at home and preparing them for work in their own country. It was the ‘waifs and strays’, the very poor and sickly that would benefit by being rescued from degrading and dangerous surroundings, saved from a drunken and vicious future and at the same time save Britain from overcrowding. Contradicting himself somewhat, however, he also claimed that it would supply the colony with one of their greatest needs, healthy honest labour. No doubt many found kindly homes and grew in strength and maturity away from the mills of Lancashire, and the slums surrounding them. Some of them, as young as six, however, were bound to work in the fields, putting in a full day’s work for no wages, completely in the power of their new masters. The Lord Mayor exhorted the boys to be true Britons, true Christians, show your colonial brothers that Manchester boys will do honour to their native city. Looking at the apprehensive figure of the little lad on the extreme right of the front row, wearing a charitable overcoat a few sizes too large, we can only speculate as to the effect of those ‘stirring’ words from the spokesman of the Empire’s second city. They were words that continued to identify the amelioration of unemployment and poverty at home with the use of Britain’s Dominions to absorb, in the words of Malthus via Dickens, ‘the surplus population’.


John Briggs & Ian Sellers (eds) (1973), Victorian Nonconformity. London: Edward Arnold.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs (ed) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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