Sunday, 20 October 2013

Coping with Change: British Society, 1780-1914


There are many parallels between Britain today and Britain during the ‘long’ nineteenth century.  Both societies were coping with substantial and sustained population growth and the tensions this creates between different ethnic groups.  Both had to cope with profound changes.  Our current fixation with the environment was paralleled by the Victorians who sought, and largely failed, to take remedial action necessary to counter the impact of industrial change and urban growth on society.  Education, crime and the nature of leisure are equally issues on which the attitudes of Victorians have much in common with our anxieties today over educational standards, knife-crime and binge-drinking.  We are still almost as psychotically fixated with our position in society as Victorian working men and women and those from the middle- and upper-classes.

Coping with Change 

Victorian preoccupations with how to manage the problems created by economic and demographic change were largely unresolved by 1914.  There may have been some improvements in people’s quality of life but these were small and unevenly distributed.  For most people, life remained a constant battle for survival to keep above the poverty line especially for the very young and the old.  The ‘arithmetic of woe’ was all-pervasive.  Only through hard work, self-help and a modicum of luck could most people maintain any semblance of quality in their lives.  The fear of poverty and yet the recognition that poverty was inevitable at some stage in the individual’s life was ever-present.  Today, in an increasingly digitalised society, it is not difficult to find similar circumstances.  Poverty has not been eliminated; in fact, if anything, in the last two decades it has worsened with growing concerns about a ‘benefit culture’, ‘fuel poverty’, the problems associated with an increasingly aging population and the economic crisis of ‘credit-crunch Britain’ and fear of austerity and recession.  The poor it appears are getting poorer and the rich richer, a return to something like the ‘two nations’ of Disraeli’s England.   In many respects, the social and political agenda thrust on to the Victorians remains unresolved.  Statements about a ‘broken society’ that periodically punctuate contemporary political debate would have been familiar to many Victorian social commentators. 

Coping with Change examines the changes that occurred in Britain during the late-eighteenth, nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The economic revolutions that began in the mid-eighteenth century, especially an inexorable rise in population, marked the point when Britain began the often painful process of change from an early-modern to a modern society.  Many of the structures and ideas in which society was grounded were challenged by this process as society navigated its transition to ‘modernity’.  This book examines how that occurred as people, as individuals and groups, sought to make sense of the changes that occurred and what those changes meant to them in terms of challenges and opportunities.  This was something that lasted throughout the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the 1780s through to the outbreak of war in 1914.  This substantial volume is divided into twenty-four chapters that look at different aspects of those changes and takes account of recent thinking on the subject:


1. A contextual overview

2. An industrial revolution

3. Agriculture and industry

4. Communications

5. Birth, Marriage and Death

6. Regulating work

7. Urban growth and housing

8. The public’s health

9. Poverty and the Poor Laws

10. Voluntary action

11. Literacy and schooling, 1780-1870

12. A state system of education, 1870-1914

13. Crime

14. Punishment

15. Policing

16. Leisure

17. Government

18. Churches under pressure

19. Religion in decline?

20. Class

21. The working-classes

22. The middle-classes

23. The upper-classes

24. The end of the nineteenth century

Further reading


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