The Inconvenient Problem of the Poor

Today, I’ve invited my friend Virginia Heath to my cozy drawing room to share a bit of early 19th century history with you. Prior to her current career as a Regency romance author, Virginia was a history teacher. So pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in. Class is in session. Take it away, Virginia.

The ladies and gentlemen of early 19th century had a problem- extreme poverty amongst the labouring classes. A problem which was getting bigger with each passing year and one which they would prefer to ignore. Unfortunately, no matter how hard they tried, those pesky poor people were becoming a noisy, angry, organised mass who were buoyed by the recent successes of the French and American revolutions. It made the ruling classes have to listen, even if they were not prepared to make a great many concessions and created a climate of acute nervousness in the homes of the great and the good throughout Britain. It is this nervousness which I would like to explore here today.

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Cartoon by John Leech for Punch Magazine. 1846 Courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

First of all, you need to understand the mind-set of the average English aristocrat at this time. They did not have the plucky pioneer spirit of the Americans, where a new nation was forged from scratch in a relatively short space of time, and where industry, fortitude and self-made men ruled. In the New World, anything was possible. Such radical ideas were simply not British. The concept of society being rigidly structured was ingrained; the feudalism from medieval times was still very much alive- although undisputedly not very well. Two bloodless British revolutions had seen to that.

The Agricultural Revolution saw thousands displaced from their tiny holdings with the Enclosure Act of 1773, so that efficient modern farming techniques could be implemented. The fact that this also served to render thousands incapable of eking out their own meager living was by-the-by.

To compound the misery of these faceless, voiceless individuals further, by the early 1800s the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, making the rich richer and Britain great. Those polluting, soul-destroying factories needed legions of workers and it was those on the bottom rung of the ladder who were forced to swarm to the newly expanding industrial towns like Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and London to get work.

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Sheffield from the Attercliffe Road c. 1819 Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The rich both feared and despised these people and tried to categorize them in order to understand them. By the Victorian era, they had even coined particular phrases to separate the wheat from the chaff. The ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The deserving consisted of anyone who slaved away in a menial, poorly paid job, former soldiers injured in the service of the nation, certain old people who could no longer work and foundling children who needed to be institutionalised to save their souls. Such people were romanticised to appear almost noble, like the flower seller in Francis Wheatley’s ‘Cries of London’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in the 1790s. These were the sort of people the aristocracy wanted to rule over.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ‘undeserving’ were vast, and seen as drunks, layabouts and criminals. Those without the means to feed themselves, those forced into prostitution or into begging were not to be helped. These people were a plague which needed to be eradicated. Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ shows the typical stereotype fervently believed by the rich to avoid having to face up to the issues they themselves created.

The horrific conditions the poorest were made to work and live in do not bear thinking about, so that is precisely what the well-heeled gentry at the time did. Not think about the poor. Ignore them. Segregate them.

The city of London is an excellent example of how they did this. Here is a typical map of the capital city from 1817.

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As you can see the old city followed the route of River Thames. But so did the rigorously structured population. The river flows west to east, eventually out into the Thames Estuary and the sea beyond. The further west you were, the less smelly and polluted Father Thames, therefore it is no accident that the wealthy neighborhoods, like Mayfair and Kensington, sit in the West End of the city. This engraving of Berkeley Square shows the typical paved splendour of the affluent.

Berkeley Square, London

Berkeley Square c.1816

The dregs got to live close to the flow of effluent and toxic waste dumped in the river in the East End. And they lived in over-crowded squalor far away from the genteel sensibilities of their rulers.

This was also the perfect place to put the docks. Although foreign trade was essential for Britain’s power and commerce, those ships brought other undesirable things into the capital which the rich did not wish to rub shoulders with: sordid sailors from around the world, immigrants. Nasty diseases. The merchants and tradesmen tended to live in the centre of the town, the part now known as the City, within easy reach of both their wealthy clientele and the imported stock they sold them. These industrious men were partially tolerated in society because they provided the essential status symbols, however they were looked down upon. They might wish to shop in Cheapside, but Heaven forbid they should have to live there!

However, as the century progressed, the population of these industrial towns soared and the problems they created multiplied. John Thomas Smith wrote an impassioned tome on the subject in 1817 entitled ‘Vagobondiana’. He complains “Beggary, of late, has become so dreadful in London, that the more active interference of the legislature was deemed absolutely necessary, indeed the deceptions of the idle and sturdy were so various, cunning and extensive, that it was in most instances extremely difficult to discover the real object of charity”.

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Massacre at St Peter’s by George Cruickshank Courtesy of the British Library

Imbued with a new sense of political purpose the labouring classes began to organise. The Corn Law riots, Spa Field riots and Peterloo Massacre are pertinent examples of how the British government tried to keep the poor in their proper place. Violent clashes where blatant, unpatriotic insubordination was dealt with harshly by the authorities. The aristocracy ardently supported this. They wanted the inconvenient problem of the vocal, terrifying battalions of potential usurpers to simply go away.

Yet the poor just kept on complaining, and growing in size, to such an extent that in the 1830s a French-style revolution was only narrowly avoided with some minor concessions from parliament. However, the chasm between the ruling and the working classes was now to wide to be breached and only became wider with time.

A Bit About Virginia Heath:

When Virginia Heath was a little girl it took her ages to fall asleep, so she made up stories in her head to help pass the time while she was staring at the ceiling. As she got older, the stories became more complicated, sometimes taking weeks to get to the happy ending. Then one day, she decided to embrace the insomnia and start writing them down. Her first Regency romance, That Despicable Rogue, is available now but it still takes her forever to fall asleep.

If you want to find out more about Virginia and her books, check out www.virginiaheathromance.com. You can also follow her on Twitter  and on  Facebook.

One thought on “The Inconvenient Problem of the Poor

  1. It is worth pointing out that as most of the British weather arrives from the west, being in the east end of town would mean the wind would blow offensive smells from you to the east. Also Westminster where Parliament is located is to the west of the city.

    Liked by 1 person

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