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Shifting Attitudes Toward The Poor In Victorian England History Essay

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Shifting Attitudes toward the Poor in Victorian England. The 1880s have "usually been described in terms of a rediscovery of poverty and a decline of individualism" in the public conscience of Victorian England despite more than a century of unparalleled commercial progress. The publication of Henry George's Progress and Poverty in 1881 opened a period characterised by books and surveys which focused public attention on the problems of poverty and squalor by providing compelling numerical justification for more collectivist and socialist government policies. Even Gladstone openly acknowledged in his 1864 budget statement that the "astonishing development of modern commerce" under free trade was insufficient to remove "an enormous mass of paupers" who were "struggling manfully but with difficulty" to avoid pauperdom. Throughout the 1880s, it was clear even to the most steadfast upholder of the individualist ethic that not everyone was able to practise the virtues of self-help or to benefit from them. Through a combination of what Derek Fraser identifies as "'podsnappery' ('I don't want to know about it')" and the seemingly infinite capacity of the economy to generate wealth, the real facts of continuing poverty were obscured from a large part of Victorian society until the investigations and statistical proofs from social reformers such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree garnered gradual acceptance for the notion that poverty was the consequence of complex economic and social factors beyond the control of the individuals. This shift in popular attitude marked the foundation of the modern welfare state in Britain that would take shape throughout the twentieth century under the Labour party. In this paper, I want to argue that the change in attitudes from the idea of pauperism as social inefficiency that could be dealt with privately to poverty as an issue of physical inefficiency that could be solved publicly was a direct result of the failure of self-help to alleviate the plight of the working class and the poverty studies spawned in the wake of such a realization by social reformers in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.

A social philosophy emerged in the beginning of the nineteenth century in response to the explosive economic and social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Between 1820 and 1870, English economic and political thought was "overshadowed by… the Ricardian economic system… the Malthusian population theory" and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). [6] A laissez-faire economic policy developed that called for free trade and free economic forces to work within a free market with free competition. The individual was to be allowed "to fulfill his true potential unrestricted by the trammels of unnecessary restrictions and regulations which were infringements on his liberty." [7] The nature of behaviour in human society was closely related to the economic role performed, and so ideas about the structure and function of society emerged as a social adjunct of economic theory. Laissez-faire society emphasised individualism, utilitarianism, and self-interest. By mid century, the virtues of the capitalist middle class that had produced the calm and prosperity of the second quarter of the nineteenth century "were elevated into a moral code for all [that became] almost a religion." [8] The social philosophy of Victorianism crystallised into "four great tenets: work, thrift, respectability, and above all self-help." [9] 

Self-help became the "supreme virtue" [10] that underpinned Victorian society. The success of England by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 was credited with Smith's ideal of individuals pursuing their self-interests. The open, competitive society with its enormous opportunities enabled all to rise by their own talents, unaided by government agency. Man, in the Victorian era, was master of his own fate and could achieve anything given initiative and industry. Samuel Smiles defined self-help in his book of the same title published in 1859 as "the root of all genuine growth in the individual" [11] because it encouraged individuals to work to achieve their full potentials since "whatever is done for men… to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance… the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless." [12] Failure to govern oneself appropriately "from within" in order to improve one's situation was a result not of external factors but of internal deficiencies such as "moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice." [13] Although the self-help ideology was essentially of middle-class origin and application, its impact was society-wide and spread upwards toward the landed aristocracy as well as downward to the property-less and working class. [14] Throughout the nineteenth century, self-help became viewed as the best help for the poor and institutions of self-help were developed to assist the working class to educate and ameliorate the lives of the working class.

Perhaps the most important of the philanthropic organizations to "lift the masses from the depths of despair" [15] was the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.) founded in London in 1869 where poverty was most severe. Aside from promoting and helping the working classes realize self-help, Victorian charity was also guided by a genuine and persistent fear of social revolution that benefactors hoped "siphoning" [16] off some of their wealth avoid. The C.O.S. was a federation of district communities that aimed to "harness charitable effort more effectively in tackling the perceived moral causes of social distress" [17] and "impose upon the life of the poor a system of sanctions and rewards which would convince them that there could be no escape from life's miseries except by thrift, regularity, and hard work." [18] The society was a pioneer in developing professional social work but its social philosophy was "rigorously traditional… [and it became] one of the staunchest defenders of the self-help individualist ethic." [19] To C. S. Loch, General Secretary of the C.O.S., charity "'had nothing to do with poverty... [but] social inefficiency.'" [20] The problem was pauperism - the failure of a man to sustain himself and his dependants - a situation for the pauper was guilty of moral failure, self-indulgence, and complacency because he was ultimately responsible for creating his own circumstances. The solution and mandate of the C.O.S. - in the words of Bernard Bosanquet, the main intellectual champion of the charity organisation movement - was to "'awaken the moral potential… in all people'" [21] and reform the character of the poor by helping individuals understand their own personal strengths in overcoming adverse circumstances.

Despite the work of organizations such as the C.O.S. in the 1880s, there was an increased realisation that the environment, social and physical, played a part in determining men's lives that was beyond their control. The C.O.S. acknowledged that men might need charitable help but were convinced that the amount of poverty was limited and could be handled privately without the need for legislation. The accumulated statistical evidence did not yet exist to disprove the society's contention and it was in this ignorance that Charles Booth began his work. Booth, a Liverpool merchant, was concerned about the sensational reporting of individual cases of hardship and wished to ascertain the validity behind the cases through a scientific inquiry. [22] He later said, "The lives of the poor lay hidden… behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures: starving children, suffering women… giants of disease and despair. Did these pictures truly represent what lay behind, or did they bear… a relation similar to… [the] booth at some county fair?" [23] To locate the reality of poverty and distinguish between the emotional superstructure and the statistical basis, Booth launched two pilot studies in 1886 in Tower Hamlets, and again in 1887 in East London and Hackney using the latest statistical and quantitative techniques. Over the course of career, he extended his research over all of London and published his results in seventeen volumes between 1889 and 1903 under the title Life and Labour of the People of London. Booth found that almost one-third of the population in London lived at or below the poverty line of 18 to 21 shillings per week for a moderate family. [24] About 1.2 million Britons lived above the poverty line and were "'at all times more or less in want.'" [25] For contemporaries, Booth's conclusion that 30 percent of London's population lived in poverty "confirmed that the problem was far beyond the scope of private charitable benevolence" [26] and provided the statistical incentive needed for practical solutions.

Advancements in parliamentary democracy in late Victorian England gave the population political influence. Gradual enlargement of the franchise meant that numbers were beginning to count, and this fact was not lost on politicians who realised the need to placate voters. Gareth Stedman Jones summarizes the increased attention paid to the fear of the chronically poor that began to emerge in the 1880s as a neglected and exploited class that might retaliate and contaminate civilised London. [27] The anxiety which prompted members of the respectable working and middle classes to agitate for government action resulted in a "mass of detailed legislation" [28] which dealt with social problems like public health, education, working conditions, and housing. Socialism, in its broadest sense, as "a willingness to consider with favour interventionist policies intended to benefit the masses" [29] dominated legislation passed after 1880. Socialist organisations, such as the Fabian Society, the Social Democratic Federation, and the Independent Labour Party, exerted tremendous influence on a wide range of domestic political questions and swelled in popularity, eventually producing a Labour government in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The British government undertook a markedly more serious role in the public dispensation of aid to the poor beginning in 1886 with the Chamberlain Circular. Following the alarming riots by unemployed London workers on February 8, 1886, Joseph Chamberlain, President of the Local Government Board in Gladstone's third Liberal ministry, issued a circular in March to authorise the arrangement for municipal public works to relieve unemployment. After thorough investigations into the plight of the working classes, the Local Government Board, according to Chamberlain, found "evidence of much and increasing privation" [30] making the creation of public works necessary to prevent "large numbers of persons ... [from being] reduced to greatest straits." [31] Aside from authorizing the work projects, Chamberlain takes pains to prevent those who truly needed assistance from experiencing "the stigma of pauperism" [32] and to make it as easy as possible for those who "do not ordinarily seek poor law relief" [33] to receive help. Chamberlain made it clear for municipal governments to respect the "spirit of independence" [34] of the working classes and not to add to their already "exceptional distress." [35] Chamberlain painstakingly explained to the municipal authorities that the working class were not lazy, but simply unfortunate because of severe weather problems and cyclical economic downturns. He went so far as to praise the habitual practice of the working class "to make great personal sacrifices" [36] than receive government alms. The circular significantly reveals the shifting attitudes in Victorian Britain towards redefining poverty as a result of personal deficiencies to external factors beyond one's control. As a result of revelations made by Booth and a realization that reliance on the notion of self-help is insufficient, Chamberlain cautions authorities from looking down on the poor as not working hard to improve their own situations. Implicit in the circular is an admission that self-help and the charity organizations have failed and the municipal governments must treat the working classes as "deserving the greatest sympathy and respect" [37] because they would help themselves if they could had formidable external factors not made it imperative for the government to step in to alleviate the dilemma of the working classes. The Chamberlain Circular established the principle that "unemployment was in the last resort the responsibility of the whole society and was inappropriately dealt with via the Poor Law." [38] The spirit of the Chamberlain Circular culminated in the passage of the Unemployed Workmen's Act in 1905 that acknowledged that poverty had economic causes and was not necessarily the result of moral degeneracy.

At the turn of the century, Seebohm Rowntree, inspired by Booth, conducted a survey of York that revealed almost one-third of the population of York lived in poverty. [39] Rowntree's picture of poverty was near enough to Booth's to be mutually reinforcing and to suggest that "approaching a third of the urban population of the whole country was living in poverty." [40] Following in the footsteps of Booth and Rowntree, surveys were conducted throughout Britain and added to the "rediscovery of poverty" [41] that produced social programs such as the Old-Age Pension Act (1908) and the National Insurance Act (1911), which paved the foundation for the modern welfare state in Britain in 1946. [42] 

Late Victorian England was a period of rapid transition and change. Before 1880, self-help was the virtue that supported Victorian social philosophy. Derived from a faith in human nature and its possibilities, Victorian society demanded self-reliance because it deemed that at the root of a person's circumstances laid an almost limitless moral potential which could be aroused to overcome the worst environmental adversity. Pauperism was seen as a moral failure and paupers as social inefficient and morally degenerate people. Leading philanthropic organisations like the C.O.S. held poverty to be the result of self-indulgence and complacency and tried to use charity as a means to create the power of self-help in the poor. Beginning in the 1880s, the reality of the growth of abject poverty in the midst of plenty shocked Victorian society. A generation of self-help had not produced a better life, and work by men like and Rowntree forcibly made society aware of the penury within it. The notion that poverty could be the result of complex economic and social factors beyond the individual's control became accepted, and with the expansion of the franchise, social welfare became a fundamental response to democratic demand. As working class consciousness developed and as institutions of working class organisations, such as trade unions, formulated labour demands it became increasingly important for governments to respond. The more the poor acquired votes in the wake of suffrage reform, the more domestic issues dominated the political arena. As democracy broadened, so, too, did the working class aspirations for social betterment.


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