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Introduction to Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870

Introduction to Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870

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Introduction to Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870, number 26 in the series Perspectives in Economic and Social History. Published by Pickering & Chatto
Introduction to Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870, number 26 in the series Perspectives in Economic and Social History. Published by Pickering & Chatto

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Published by: Pickering and Chatto on Apr 04, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Historians are agreed that in the last two hundred years there has been a trans-ormation in social relations: in the late eighteenth century, lie was lived largely in public outside the home, and this was especially the case in plebeian neigh-bourhoods in cities. Neighbours depended upon one another in the struggle tomake ends meet, lending, borrowing and sometimes simply giving and receiving assistance; subsistence was a collective endeavour. Reputation in the neighbour-hood was crucial, and neighbours judged one another constantly; being thoughtrespectable was the key to various kinds o assistance. Te ocus was generally  very short-term; the ability to get through the next week was oen the crucialconcern. Finally, there was a greater tolerance o violence, both interpersonaland against animals. Since the eighteenth century, home has become a sanctuary and a main locus o leisure time. Families no longer regularly rely on neighboursin trying to maintain subsistence: men and women are meant to make ends meetthrough their own good eorts. Respectability has been redened and no longerrests primarily on the judgement o neighbours. Te ocus has become muchmore long-term, and violence is thought shameul and is requently hidden,especially i it occurs within the amily. As well as the widespread agreementthat such shis have occurred, there has also been consensus that in the nine-teenth century the middle and upper classes promoted such shis, especially or plebeian women and men, and that demands or the adoption o new codes o behaviour and habits o mind were couched in moral terms. It was thought nec-essary, in short, or plebeian men and women to undergo a moral reormation.Tere has been much less agreement concerning the timing o such shis,however. Robert Shoemaker, one o the most trenchant, and certainly one o themost prolic historians ocusing on these changes, has argued in a series o arti-cles and in his book,
Te London Mob
that by the end o the eighteenth century there had been signicant changes in plebeian behaviour. He says street disputes,both physical and verbal, lessened over the course o the eighteenth century, andthe importance o reputation diminished. Shoemaker links these shis to new notions o masculinity and emininity that downplayed violence or the ormerand encouraged passivity or the latter; to the growth o politeness – especially 
 Respectability and the London Poor, 1780–1870: Te Value o Virtue
signicant or the middle and upper classes; and to an increasing desire or privacy that lessened the signicance o the streets or sociability. Most o all,however, Shoemaker posits the changing relationship between the individualand the community as the crucial actor in lessening interpersonal confict and violence. He says that or all but the very poorest,
 What one said or did in public, or what others said about you, became less importantthan what happened behind closed doors, or indeed one’s own individual sel-exam-ination. Increasingly, the individual was able to shape his or her own reputation without reerence to the wider public …A more modern notion o the individual developed … in which identity wasdetermined by the inner, ‘true’ sel, regardless o public opinion.
Shoemaker concludes that as distinctions between the public and private spheresbecame more rigid, reputation less important and the neighbourhood ability to police it less e cacious, the street crowd ‘lost its central place in London publiclie’, so that ‘By the end o the eighteenth century the age o the mob was over’.
 Underlying these shis was urban growth, which, according to Shoemaker, ‘radi-cally altered patterns o public social interaction in eighteenth-century London.Owing to the rapid pace o population growth, economic change and socialmobility, a new kind o urban environment was created in which relationshipsormed in neighbourhoods and on the streets became less important than thoseorged in less public contexts’.
In concentrating on various kinds o street activities occurring throughoutthe century, Shoemaker brings his readers close to the tenor o plebeian lie.
Healso insists, quite rightly, that plebeian Londoners were not mere passive recipi-ents o new cultural notions and values trickling down rom on high.
Tat said,however, there are some undamental problems with the trajectory he describes.First, or all he insists that all classes contributed to shaping the cultural shishe identies, it is oen not clear in the book which class Shoemaker is discuss-ing – generic Londoners appear regularly. Nor, as Nick Rogers has noted, doesShoemaker adequately explain the plebeian agency he posits. As Rogers pointsout, ‘Gestures toward the decline o neighbourhood and its consequent eectupon public reputations remain gestures. o make the case a richer social geog-raphy o London is required’.
Finally, the evidence does not seem to bear outclaims that these shis had taken place or most plebeian people by the end o the eighteenth century. John Carter Wood has studied particular aspects o these shis, and thetimerame he posits diers rom Shoemaker’s. Focusing especially on plebeian violence in nineteenth-century England, Carter Wood charts the ways in whichtwo dominant mentalities o violence interacted through the century: what heterms the ‘civilizing’ (language idealizing ‘rationality and sel-restraint’) and the
‘customary’ (‘Originating in an older social context, legitimating direct physicalconrontation, appealing to less restrained notions o propriety
). According toCarter Wood these mentalities became identied respectively with the middleand working classes, although by the 1870s, he says, all but the roughest sectionso the working class had ‘adopted various elements o Victorian respectability’,
 resulting in a wide penetration o the ‘civilising’ ethos, as Jon Lawrence put it inhis review o the book.
Lawrence criticizes Carter Wood or being overly sche-matic, particularly in overemphasizing the hegemony o the civilizing mentality in the middle class. For all its sensitivity to customary culture and the impor-tance o spatiality, Carter Wood’s book inadequately explores the ambivalences,adaptations and instances o resistance in various sectors o plebeian London to what been called the middle-class civilizing mission.
One o his most impor-tant infuences is the work o Norbert Elias,
whose notion that social changebegins at the top o society and then trickles out and down through subordinateranks seems to deny agency to the majority and does not adequately recognizethat adoption, co-option, adaptation or rejection o new codes o behaviourmay result at least in part rom actors internal to subordinate classes. In Elias’s version o change, when the majority does reject elite discourses, it seemingly becomes little more than a retrograde orce blocking the path to civilization.Tis diminishes the humanity o the majority and runs counter to the wholeimpetus o social history in the past our or ve decades. For all these reasons,then, Elias’s analysis seems rather a poisoned chalice or historians, in spite o thenuanced attempts by people like Carter Wood to use it.
A third period on oer or the transition rom customary codes o behaviouris the decade o the 1930s. During this ten-year span more than a million ami-lies moved rom inner-city neighbourhoods to the glory o home ownership inthe suburbs. A recent BBC Four documentary, relying on the work o MartinPugh and Richard Overy among others, echoed the claims historians have madeor the late eighteenth century and the 1870s: in the 1930s ‘Daily lie becamecentred on the home and amily rather than on the street and the extended com-munity’.
Indeed, salient eatures o the customary neighbourhood were still tobe ound in some 1950s neighbourhoods – Willmott and Young’s examinationo Bethnal Green being the best-known study o these – and Philip Abrams’s work on even later decades still ound in places a ‘densely woven world o kin,neighbours, riends and co-workers, highly localised and strongly caring withinthe connes o quite tightly dened relationships’.
Clearly there is no consensus concerning the timing o this shi that in thelong run all agree took place. Tis study argues that in many sectors o plebe-ian London, customary orms o thought and behaviour persisted ar longerthan oen supposed; that neighbourhood reputation upon which respectability rested remained crucial; that collective resources or maintaining subsistence

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