Monday, 14 April 2008

Nineteenth century society in context

The concept of Victorian Britain brings to mind a whole series of popular images. The Thatcher government of the 1980s spoke repeatedly of a return to 'Victorian values': self help; a market-oriented, laissez-faire economy; the role of the family in social control; and national self-confidence, patriotism and pride forged through war, either directly as in the case of the Falklands or indirectly in government belligerence over the European Union. This still remains a leit-motif in government with Gordon Brown recently writing an introduction to Gertrude Himmelfarb's study of the Englightenment and the dominance of the market in government thinking.  This contemporary perception of 'Victorian values' is, in many respects, simplistic and creates stereotypes that represent neither the complexity of Victorian Britain nor the diverse impact they had on regions and individuals. The context for Nineteenth century society will be approached by examining a series of claims historians can make about Britain after 1832.

Claim 1: Britain had undergone an industrial revolution by 1830

The dominant image of the Industrial Revolution is one of 'the landscape of fire'. Blackened tubs of coal clanking to the pit-head and tipping into wagons and barges; brooding factories shrouded in steam and smoke and echoing with the clang and clatter of machines; bales of cotton piled high in warehouses and swung down into the holds of high-masted sailing ships[1]. Although this is not an altogether misleading picture, it fails to capture the complexity -- the multiple histories -- of industrialisation. This image of dramatic, revolutionary change fired the imagination of many contemporary writers but it needs to be treated with some caution.

  1. Many of the changes that occurred in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were, in many senses, remarkably traditional.
  2. Most historians now agree that industrialisation was a long-drawn-out process and that it is inappropriate to think of it as a cataclysmic transformation. 'Change in slow motion' is currently the orthodox view of the industrial revolution.
  3. The idea of an 'industrial revolution' only became commonplace during the 1830s and with good reason. Even with an exaggerated definition of 'revolutionised industry' only one worker in five was employed in those branches as late as 1841. Most were concentrated in a narrow band of counties and in those areas many industries were reliant on the strength and skill of the individual worker rather than the repetitive movements of machines. The factory worker was in a minority.
  4. Most work took place in small workshops or in the home by workers who used traditional manual machinery rather than new technology. In these industries women retained an important economic role while in the so-called 'revolutionised industries' their role was marginalised and the better-paid jobs monopolised by men.

This means that we have to revise our 'heroic' assumptions about the industrial revolution. Take, for example, the place of the steam engine in the transformation of the cotton industry and its role in manufacturing industry more generally. For A.E. Musson the 'steam revolution was predominantly in cotton' but even here the frontier moved slowly. By 1879 steam engines supplied 97 per cent of power in the cotton industry and 85 per cent in the woollen industry. Yet the textile industries accounted for nearly half of all manufacturing steam power. Most manufacturing operations were still unmechanised and whole areas of the industrial economy remained far from the advancing frontier. As mechanisation proceeded, it did not so much push back the boundaries of manual labour as create new relationships and dependencies between hand- and steam-powered technologies. This was therefore combined but also uneven developments. What we have are parallel and interlocking systems of manufacture. Some industries were revolutionised, while others remained largely unchanged. Some regions saw revolutionary changes in the nature of work while others did not. The British economy in the eighteenth century was already highly integrated, a process brought to a peak by the emergence of railways as a rapid integrating transport system. However, behind this was an intricate and changing mosaic of economic interdependence, a patchwork of distinctive local and regional communities.

Claim 2: Between 1830 and 1890 there was both stability and change

Queen Victoria's long reign [1837-1901] provided underlying continuity to profound economic and social changes. The country had largely recovered from the effects of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars [1793-1815] and, with the exception of the Crimean War [1854-56] which claimed 25,000 British lives and cost about £70m, Britain remained free from conflicts in Europe until 1914. Elsewhere, with the exception of some 'colonial' wars and the Boer War [1899-1902], Britain remained at peace. This almost unparalleled period of peace and Britain's dominance as a world power created stability that assisted economic growth and social change.

This sixty-year period was one of almost continuous national economic growth. This wealth was, however, unevenly distributed between regions and social groups and, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century Britain's economic and imperial power began to be called into question. Carefully prepared political propaganda and improving standards of living persuaded most social classes in Britain to share these beliefs and values. The materialism that underpinned mid-Victorian prosperity was tempered by a set of religious and moral values that both legitimated the accumulation of wealth and, in some at least generated a moral consciousness that contributed towards nineteenth-century social reform. Yet this deceptively reassuring framework was shot through with changes, challenges and contradictions that substantially altered the social and economic geography of Britain.

There was an increasing democratisation of society. Parliamentary reform led to the progressive extension of the right to vote. The Reform Act 1832 retained the principle that property was the main qualification for the vote and increased the total electorate by only some 217,000 males, less than a 50 per cent increase. There was, however, a significant redistribution of parliamentary seats: 43 new boroughs, most northern industrial and commercial towns, gained MPs in Parliament. The Second Reform Act further extended male franchise in England in 1867 and Scotland the following year. Although the total electorate -- still entirely male -- was under 10 per cent of the population, together with a further redistribution of seats towards large urban centres, the political voice of the middle classes and some of the skilled working class was strengthened. The secret ballot was introduced in 1872 reducing opportunities for intimidation and further Reform Acts in 1884 and 1885 extended the vote and redistributed more seats to industrial towns. By the 1890s

  1. A significant proportion of men had the opportunity to express their views through the ballot box.
  2. The economic and demographic structure of Britain had been reflected in a redistribution of parliamentary seats.
  3. National politicians were beginning to realise that the views of an increasingly working class electorate should be taken seriously.

Changes and challenges were stimulated by urbanisation and economic expansion. Urban growth and industrialisation had a major impact on all regions and all strata of society. Though women and many ordinary working men were excluded from the effects of parliamentary reform, all were affected by the massive economic and social changes. But the effects were contradictory

  1. Economic growth offered new opportunities and opened new horizons.
  2. Economic growth provided new constraints and condemned many to poverty and hardship in rapidly growing industrial towns.

Victorian economic development is epitomised by the growth of the railways. They offered new and growing opportunities to move between regions, to travel long distances for business or pleasure and cheapened the movement of news and goods. However, not everyone benefited from the growth of railways. Railway construction extracted a substantial toll of misery and death; the growth of new routes quickened rural out-migration and assisted the long-term decline of many communities; in towns it led to extensive demolition of houses, increased overcrowding and contributed to an increasingly noisy and polluted environment. Many people were simply too poor to benefit from the railways. The social effects of the Victorian economic 'miracle' were complex, unstable and uneven.

Changes in attitudes and values created greater national uniformity while perpetuating regional and local diversity. Attitudes to Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics had gradually become more tolerant during the late eighteenth century but they remained barred from public office. Anglicanism or the Church of England, the official state religion, dominated England and Wales despite substantial Nonconformist and Catholic minorities.

  1. In 1828 the Test and Corporations Acts that discriminated against Nonconformists were repealed and in 1829 the Roman Catholic Relief Act achieved Catholic emancipation.
  2. In theory Catholics, Nonconformists and Anglicans should have had equal opportunities from the 1830s onwards.

The effects of these acts varied considerably from region to region. While Nonconformists were readily accepted into society, perhaps because many were in the successful middle classes, Catholics were often discriminated against. This especially occurred where the Catholic threat was perceived to be significant, or where Catholicism was equated with other negative things, such as immigrant Irish communities. Sectarian violence and discrimination was common in Glasgow, Liverpool and other industrial cities in the nineteenth century. Discrimination was not confined to religion. The small population of Blacks in Victorian Britain, concentrated in London, Bristol and Liverpool, was discriminated against far more severely than even the Irish. Jews, migrating in substantial numbers from Eastern Europe from the 1880s, encountered similar segregation and racism. Victorian Britain was also male-dominated and sexism was commonplace in all aspects of economy and society.

In other areas of national life, however, there appears to have been some convergence of values. The dominant vision of self-help is said to characterise Victorian attitudes to work, thrift and community life. In reality a vast range of popular institutions such as co-operatives, working men's clubs and friendly societies implemented these values in different ways in difference communities. Despite the gradual movement towards a national system of education, there were great variations in the quality of schooling and in the level of attendance in different localities.

Between the 1830s and the 1890s significant changes were projected on to a backcloth of apparent national stability and security. There was not one Victorian Britain but many. Trends towards greater uniformity at the national level was paralleled by an increasing diversity in the ways in which these trends worked in particular communities.

Claim 3: From the 1890s there was increasing social instability

At home traditional political values were challenged by the rise of the labour movement. Social and cultural values were questioned by the rise of secularism. Progressive involvement of women in work and in politics and the development of state welfare transformed society; and the effects of depression and competition rocked the economy.

  1. Economic challenges. The tide of the international economy was turning against Britain. From the 1880s imports of both foodstuffs and manufactured goods increased rapidly and the balance of trade worsened despite the upturn in economic growth between the 1890s and 1914. Competition for markets in textiles was inevitable once major importers like North America, India and the Far East began to supply their own home markets and to compete internationally. By 1914 Britain was second best to the USA and Germany in steel making and some of the new industries -- electrical and precision engineering, many branches of the metals and chemical industries -- and trailed the USA in the assembly industries, especially automobiles.
  2. Political challenges. Political initiatives for social reform during the nineteenth century and influences from the rest of Europe led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. By 1906 the newly formed Labour party had 29 seats in Parliament. This combined with the increasing membership of trade unions resulted in the growing politicisation of the working population and posed a challenge to the existing political structures.
  3. Challenging values. Victorian social values were challenged on a number of fronts after 1890 and in some cases led to significant legislation. Most importantly the role of women in society changed. Although economic opportunities for women were beginning to broaden in the late nineteenth century, in 1914 there were still only 212,000 women employed in engineering and munitions industries, 18,000 in transport and 33,000 in clerical work and Victorian domestic slavery still dominated. Attitudes to women gradually changed and, following energetic campaigning by the Pankhursts and others, the franchise was extended in 1918 to include some women.

It was to take the First World War [1914-1918] for these challenges to have their full impact but between 1890 and 1914 they were clearly evident and beginning to confront existing perceptions.

Claim 4: The diverse challenge of change must be seen in the context of the culture of continuity.

Change and continuity were perceived and experienced by people living in different parts of Britain whose activities and cultures helped create regional diversity and distinctiveness. The outlook of businessmen and workers in Liverpool, Birmingham or Glasgow was different from that in London. The view of change and continuity from Scotland, Wales or North East England was quite distinct from that in rural South East England. Within the national framework strong regional distinctiveness was based on persistent cultural and economic differences: Scotland and Wales had strong cultural and linguistic identities while the English regions had cultural characteristics that transcended successive economic and social changes. To be born and bred in, for instance, Cornwall or Yorkshire was important for people of these counties and ever-increasing internal migration did not destroy such loyalties.

Perceiving self? For many people between 1832 and 1914 the most important region was that of their own locality. They identified with the neighbourhood, locality or village where they had been born, worked, raised their own families, had their friends and lived out their lives. These home areas were, however, perceived differently by people of different age, gender, class and race. Irrespective of where they lived an active adult travelled more widely round a town or through the countryside than a child or an elderly person whose sense of place was constrained and who identified mainly with the home and street rather than a larger region. Most women lived more circumscribed lives than men. Even when they worked outside the home, extra burdens of childcare and household duties meant that their time was more home-centred: the region or locality with which they identified was often smaller than that of their male counterparts. Lack of income constrained mobility for most people, regardless or age or sex.

Two nations? The forces that produced structural and regional imbalances in contemporary Britain were apparent by the mid-nineteenth century. Divisions were not only geographical but also social, reflecting the varying degree to which people of different gender, class and race benefit from the opportunities in their localities. Some groups within society were consistently disadvantaged in all regions.

  1. Migration shifted the younger and more skilled workforce to areas of economic growth, so regions of economic decline, particularly the old industrial districts of northern and western Britain, were increasingly marginalised.
  2. During the nineteenth century structural imbalances not only produced variations in regional prosperity, but also equally marginalised certain sectors of the population. Contemporary commentators were well aware of the disparities between the rich and poor as characterised in Disraeli's 'two nations' of 1845 -- one rich and one poor, one privileged and one underprivileged -- and Mrs Gaskell's North and South of 1855 -- the one industrial, the other rural.
  3. Disadvantage in Victorian Britain was at least as complex as that existing today. Mid-eighteenth century agricultural wages were highest in southern England, but by the mid-nineteenth century commercial and industrial growth led to generally higher wage rates than those in southern England. In the 1830s wage rates for printers -- a high status, skilled, artisan occupation -- varied between 30 shillings per week in London to 18 shillings per week in Scotland.

A matter of language. Where cultural identity is associated with the protection and promotion of a minority language, distinctive linguistic and cultural regions may be identified. The most distinctive minority languages of nineteenth century Britain were Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. Dialects also had distinct cultural associations. In regions such as South Wales, the Black Country, Lancashire, Yorkshire, North East England and London, they were reflected in contemporary social and political comment as shown in the work of the many dialect poets of the industrial regions.

Administrative regions. The administrative geography of nineteenth century England familiar to most people was still the parish and the shire. The parish provided the social and cultural focus of the church and chapel; the framework within which locally raised poor relief was dispensed; the body through which the roads were maintained; and via the parish vestry the means through which most aspects of rural life were regulated. The shire was the link to national frameworks of civil and, in times of emergency, military organisation of the region. The county sessions reflected their place in the administration of justice; the offices of Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant provided links with central government and the Crown.

  1. By the 1850s these older administrative geographies were beginning to change in response to the new demands of an industrialising society.
  2. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 amalgamated parishes to create Poor Law Unions for the administration of the Poor Law and the provision of workhouses.
  3. Reform of urban administration, begun in 1835, progressively replaced ancient town and borough councils by municipal corporations.
  4. That process was not completed -- and then ineffectively and at the expense of separation of increasingly interrelated urban and rural areas -- until the Local Government Acts of 1888 and 1894

The result of these developments was the creation of a multiplicity of administrative boundaries created for different purposes -- health, education, housing etc. -- that actually had meaning for the people that lived within them. The extent to which this was the case is, however, a matter of some debate.

The economic and social developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have to be seen within a framework of diverse lives and experiences. Neither change nor continuity was uniform.

Claim 5: The issue of sources

Britain has some of the best historical data in the world, most statistical time-series and archival sources, whether relating to national and regional trends or to particular sectors of the economy and society. However, there is often a lack of continuity of material and sources are often based on different, often non-comparable, criteria. As a result many of the key questions about the social transformation of Britain after 1832 can only be partially answered. Before 1830 there are considerable difficulties with many sources. Parish registers from 1538 provide one means of reconstructing vital trends but there are particular difficulties in their use. There are few precise and continuous statistics on particular sectors of the economy. Information on occupations, for example, was collected only in a rudimentary form in censuses before 1841.

In contrast to the pre-1830 paucity of statistics, the Victorian Age was obsessed with numbers. Problems of urban government, working conditions and the results of trade fluctuations for the nation's economy and people led to a growing number of enquiries by Parliament, local government and trade and welfare organisations. The setting up of the Statistical Society of London in 1834 -- it later became the Royal Statistical Society -- epitomises the Victorian's attitude to issues ranging from demographic trends to international trade, and from individual industries to crime and education.

  1. The main agency of investigation was government. The need for fuller knowledge of population led to the establishment of civil registration in 1837 and of the office of Registrar General in England and Wales and in Scotland in 1855. Much fuller censuses from 1841 and the compulsory civil registration of births, deaths and marriages gave the basis for a much better understanding of both national and regional trends in population and economic activity. However, the opportunity to gather census data on production units was lost, despite some figures on the size of farms and industrial workplaces in 1851. So too was the chance to investigate systematically cultural and social trends, apart from the never-repeated censuses of education and religious observance in 1851.
  2. The picture of industry remained fragmentary until the first Census of Production in 1907. Concern about basic reserves of coal, iron and other metals was reflected in annual figures of output from 1854 and in the number and size of coal mines from 1864. But major sources of information on key industries can be found in the enquiries of Select Committees and Royal Commissions often generated by problems in working conditions or fear of decline due to recession or falling resources. Similar concerns over working conditions led to the setting up of the Factory Inspectorate, which produced annual figures of employment and power from 1838.
  3. Agriculture was regularly reported on. This occurred notably in a series of essays on the farming of individual counties in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society between 1843 and 1878 and in other individual studies such as James Caird's letters to The Times in 1850-51 or Rider Haggard's survey of rural England in 1902. The first systematic statistics awaited the annual 'June Returns' from 1866. Gathered from farms throughout the country they record parish details of crops and livestock and are an essential complement to the frequent Parliamentary Committees on agriculture especially the Royal Commissions of 1881-2 and 1894-7.
  4. Rural distress attracted much attention in these and in evidence to and Reports of the two great Poor Law Commissions of 1834 and 1905-9. However, the major focus of social, environmental and health investigations was the towns. Cholera and other epidemics, the scandal of poor sanitation, poor water supply and housing drew government into a wide range of surveys and subsequent legislation. Some investigations were the work of individuals like Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of 1842 or the great surveys of London and York by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in 1890-1903 and 1901 respectively.

There are problems with using any of these sources that historians have to keep in mind. It is, however, valid to argue that these sources do provide an unparalleled archive from which to draw and a means of effectively analysing nineteenth century society, its concerns, perceptions and the problems it faced.

[1] On the iconography of industrialisation see Asa Briggs Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace: Impact and Images of the Industrial Revolution, Thames and Hudson, 1979 and Francis Klingender Art and the Industrial Revolution, 1947, revised edition, 1975.


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Unknown said...

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