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Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society

Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society

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Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship Between Classes in Victorian Society

3/5 (6 ratings)
626 pages
9 hours
Aug 19, 2014


In the second half of the nineteenth century, Victorian middle and upper classes felt increasingly threatened by the masses of “outcast London.” Gareth Stedman Jones, working from a mass of statistical and documentary evidence, argues that after 1850 London passed through a crisis of social and economic development. Outcast London is a fascinating and important study of the problem at the center of the crisis: the casual poor and their fraught relations with the labor market, with housing and with middle-class London.
Aug 19, 2014

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Outcast London - Gareth Stedman Jones



In the second half of the nineteenth century, Victorian civilization felt itself increasingly threatened by ‘Outcast London’. Stripped of the mythology which surrounded this phrase, ‘Outcast London’ symbolized the problem of the existence and persistence of certain endemic forms of poverty, associated together under the generic term, casual labour. London represented the problem of casual labour in its most acute form, and the fears engendered by the presence of a casual labouring class were naturally at their greatest in a city which was both the centre and the symbol of national and imperial power. Such fears permeated conservative, liberal, and socialist thought alike. This study is an attempt to explore both the fears of various classes aroused by the phenomenon of casual labour and the economic and social reality that constituted its material basis. Before defining the economic roots of the casual labour problem, it will first be necessary to sketch the wider social and intellectual context within which the problem was posed. Such an analysis, it is hoped, will also help to explain why the 1860s have been chosen as an appropriate starting point.

It has long been recognized that the late 1860s and early 1870s marked a decisive turning point in the development of English economic theory.¹ This has usually been discussed simply in terms of the displacement of the classical economic system by the marginal utility theory. While this theoretical innovation was of course crucial, it is more important here to stress the broader and more basic changes in the character of the liberal social theory that underlay it.

It is generally agreed that English economic and political thought in the period 1820–70 was overshadowed by what might be loosely called the Ricardian economic system.² The principal components of this system were the Malthusian population theory, the labour or cost of production theory of value, the wages fund theory, and the Ricardian theory of rent. The whole system was held together and imbued with logical plausibility by a hedonistic psychological picture of social action.³

In the course of the half century after 1820, many modifications and elaborations were made within this system, and it is certainly not intended to suggest either that political economists were a homogeneous group, or that there was not room for substantial disagreement within the general limits set by this complex of ideas.⁴ Nevertheless, it may be maintained that the classical framework prescribed a certain community of shared assumptions about the nature of the economic process and the scope for human progress. Progress, in the eyes of Malthus, Ricardo, Senior, and the two Mills, was seen, either as impending deterioration or else as a movement towards a stationary state. For the earlier generation, human advance was ever more threatened by pressure of population, decreasing returns to the effort to increase the supply of food and rising rents in land. John Stuart Mill later modified this system to the extent of thinking that the working class could overcome the Malthusian threat by birth control: therefore capital might accumulate faster than population and a moderate degree of prosperity might be anticipated. But even he had little faith in the future development of the productive forces of capitalism,⁵ and he retained the idea of ‘the stationary state’, not only as an analytical tool, but as a concrete historical prophecy. The terrors of the Malthusian and Ricardian ‘stationary state’ were transformed by Mill into a vision of relative comfort and the idea of a world freed from ‘crushing, elbowing and treading on each other’s heels’.⁶ But this rather prosaic forecast was hardly a Utopia. Mill’s attitude towards the future was characterized more by resignation than optimism. Progress was seen, not as an infinite Theodicy, but rather as a limited and gradual development towards a finite state.

These negative or at most very modest visions of human progress were generally reflected in the attitudes of political economists on the question of the prospects of the working class.⁷ The earlier generation of political economists were frankly pessimistic. Working-class advancement was limited by shortage of capital and threatened by Malthusian pressures; combinations of workers were pointless, if not destructive, because at most, they could only affect the mode of distribution of a previously allocated wages fund.

John Stuart Mill somewhat lightened this picture. His conviction that the Malthusian problem might be overcome enabled him to conceive of certain possibilities of working class advance. But, even in the 1860s, his writings remained equivocal on this point. Emigration and free trade, he wrote:

have granted to this overcrowded country a temporary breathing time, capable of being employed in accomplishing these moral and intellectual improvements in all the classes of the people, the very poorest included, which would render improbable any relapse into the overpeopled state. Whether this golden opportunity will be properly used, depends on the wisdom of our councils; and whatever depends on that, is always in a high degree precarious.

Again, it is significant that although he eventually dropped the wages fund theory, he never modified the Principles in the light of this concession, since he considered it, ‘not yet ripe for incorporation in a general treatise on political economy’.⁹ In fact Mill never seriously tried to escape the general categories of Ricardian economics, and this had important implications for the scope of his social theory. In effect Mill’s retention of the Ricardian economic framework meant that the question of the future of the working class could not be posed within the central theoretical core of the Principles, but was instead relegated to an addendum¹⁰ whose categories of analysis were not those of classical economics, but rather depended for their validity upon hopeful but untheorized notions of moral change through the medium of education, co-operation, and profit-sharing. Thus, the whole question of the prospects of the working class came to revolve around the ‘degree in which they can be made rational beings’.¹¹

Set in this context, the judgements of the last major proponents of classical economics were considerably more pessimistic than that of Mill himself. According to Henry Fawcett, writing in 1870, although free trade had initially generated prosperity,¹² ‘unhappily in this prosperity there were the germs of future poverty. The people did not become more prudent; the additional wealth which was then obtained did not generally lead to more saving; a greater amount was spent on drink, and the number of marriages rapidly increased.…’ Finally, J. E. Cairnes in 1874, in what was to be the epitaph of classical economics, examined the possibilities of working class improvement through co-operative production, but concluded that such betterment would be impossible without substantial changes in the moral character of the working class. This he considered extremely unlikely, and his diagnosis of the working class situation was as bleak as anything to be found in Malthus:¹³

The margin for the possible improvement of their lot is confined within the narrow barriers which cannot be passed, and the problem of their elevation is hopeless. As a body, they will not rise at all. A few, more energetic or more fortunate than the rest, will from time to time escape, as they do now, from the ranks of their fellows to the higher walks of industrial life, but the great majority will remain substantially where they are. The remuneration of labour, as such, skilled or unskilled, can never rise much above its present level.

It is worthwhile setting beside this statement the view expressed by the young Alfred Marshall in 1873; for it stands in the strongest possible contrast to it. Marshall debated,¹⁴ ‘whether progress may not go on steadily if slowly, till the official distinction between working man and gentleman has passed away; till by occupation at least, every man is a gentleman.’ His conclusions were optimistic:¹⁵ ‘All ranks of society are rising; on the whole they are better and more cultivated than their forefathers were; they are no less eager to do, and they are much more powerful to bear, and greatly to forbear.’ Behind Marshall’s confident prognosis lay the important political and intellectual changes of the 1860s. The major landmarks of the 1860s were the attainment of Italian independence, the American Civil War, and the Lancashire cotton famine, the slump of the mid-1860s and the Second Reform Bill. In general, the decade was marked by a certain faltering among the established liberal intelligentsia. Apart from Mill, the sombre warnings of Ruskin and Carlyle received much attention; and in different ways Arnold, Bagehot, and George Eliot expressed doubts about the extent to which any sector of the working class could be assimilated within the pale of the existing constitution. To this situation, the intellectual challenge to orthodox Christianity had added a further focus of uncertainty. Popular historiography normally attributes this religious crisis to Darwin. There is little doubt however that in the 1860s, it was the ‘higher criticism’ represented by Strauss and the Essays and Reviews that posed the most immediate threat to the unity of reason and faith.

But where the older generation envisaged pessimistically a resurgence of class war and the spread of religious and cultural anarchy the new generation saw signs of hope. The slump of the mid 1860s was followed by a phenomenal boom which lasted until 1873; fears of an insurgent working class receded as skilled and ‘respectable’ working men got swept up in the tail of the Gladstonian Liberal party; fears about the triumph of ignorance were mollified by the 1870 Education Act; and in place of the initial negativity of religious doubt, there was a growing conviction among a significant sector of the intelligentsia of the possibility of reconciling a modified form of Christianity with science and progress. In this context, perhaps the most significant product of the 1860s was Seeley’s Ecce Homo,¹⁶ an attempt to construct a broad church theology ‘impregnable to the assaults of modern criticism and science’.¹⁷ The central thesis of Ecce Homo was that:¹⁸ ‘The Christian moral reformation may be summed up in this—humanity changed from a restraint to a motive … the old legal formula began, thou shalt not and the new begins, thou shalt…. Christ’s biography may be summed up in the words, he went about doing good; his wise words were secondary to his beneficial deeds.’ Seeley’s book was the first to assert confidently the equation between religious feeling, active self-sacrificing philanthropy, and science—a triad which was restated more subtly by T. H. Green and his followers, and lay at the basis of much middle class social involvement in the following two decades.¹⁹

Thus, the gulf between the statements of Marshall and Cairnes did not simply reflect two differing estimations of the possibilities of working class progress; it in fact symbolized the gulf between two distinct systems of thought. Although it was Jevons who first devised the marginal utility theory, it was Marshall more than any other economist of his generation who symbolized the freeing of liberal economics from its Ricardian moorings. Two major features distinguish Marshall from his classical predecessors. Firstly, in place of Mill’s ideal of a ‘stationary state’, he substituted progress, an incessant evolutionism which he regarded as an a priori good, since it represented the progressive realization of the value system immanent in free enterprise. Secondly, Marshall substantially rejected the hedonism that had been inherent in classical economics. Marshall’s economic man, Talcott Parsons has remarked,²⁰ ‘is by no means rational only for prudential motives. He has rather an ethical obligation to be rational.’ In the same way, Marshall’s economic man did not experience labour as necessary pain, but rather as a creative activity in itself, the result of which was to develop ‘character’.

From a different epistemological basis, a similar shift can be detected in the idealism of T. H. Green and his disciples. Green explicitly repudiated hedonism. Society was not held together by the chance harmony of egoisms, but on the contrary by solidarity and morality. Similarly, Green’s conception of progress was boundless and beneficent. History was the progressive unfolding of²¹ ‘the idea of good, suggested by the consciousness of unfulfilled possibilities of the rational nature common to all men’. The telos of man was the realization of the universal society based on reason and morality.

What was common to both Marshall and Green was the stress upon a moralized capitalism through which the highest potentialities of mankind were to be developed. Both relied upon some conception of evolution as a central explanatory mechanism in their systems. They were thus able to escape the problem that had so baffled Mill—that is, how men will come to strive for the higher rather than the lower pleasures. For these new thinkers, history itself solved the problem. Both Marshall and Green saw history not only as a transition from status to contract, but also as a transition from self-interest to self-sacrifice and altruism. Thus Marshall was able to characterize the hedonistic interpretation of labour, in which effort decreases as reward increases, and the product of labour is only sustained by Malthusian sanctions, not as universally valid, but only true as a special feature of²² ‘the more ignorant and phlegmatic of races and individuals’. Freed from the debilitating effects of custom, modern man ‘whose mental horizon is wider’ and who is possessed of ‘more firmness and elasticity of character’ has effectively escaped the Malthusian cycle and the backward-bending labour supply curve associated with pre-industrial societies.

This important shift in the character of liberal thought²³ is clearly revealed in the attitudes of its main proponents towards the prospects of working class improvement. The former generation of economists and social thinkers had been haunted by memories of Speenhamland and Chartism. Their fears were fairly summed up by Macaulay in his speech rejecting the Chartist petition in 1842,²⁴ ‘How is it possible that according to the principles of human nature, if you would give them this power, it would not be used to its fullest extent?’ But perhaps the most formative experience of the new generation was the behaviour of the Lancashire operatives during the cotton famine. This exemplary display of self-control in the interests of higher morality served as a touchstone of the new liberal conception of the working class. The cotton famine was indisputable evidence of moral and political maturity. Set in an evolutionary context beside signs of increasing thrift, sobriety, and rationality, exemplified by the growth of co-operatives, penny savings banks, and friendly societies, the prospect of working class improvement was seen as infinite. Arnold Toynbee, a disciple of T. H. Green, noted that²⁵

those who have had the most in experience in manufacturing districts are of the opinion that the moral advance, as manifested, for example in temperance, in orderly behaviour, in personal appearance in dress has been very great … the number of subjects which interest workpeople is much greater than before, and the discussion of the newspaper is supplanting the old foul language of the workshop.

and Marshall put the new liberal position very clearly in 1885.²⁶

Economic institutions are the product of human nature, and cannot change much faster than human nature changes. Education, and the raising of our moral and religious ideals, and the growth of the printing press and the telegraph have so changed English human nature that many things which economists rightly considered impossible thirty years ago are possible now.

The evolutionary explanation provided by Marshall for modern man’s escape from Malthusianism was paradigmatic of the new liberal characterization of the working class. As modern society freed itself from the vestiges of ‘feudalism’ and ‘custom’, so the working class would grow more mobile,²⁷ more rational, more able to acquire and conserve property; in effect, it would increasingly become like a middle class in working class dress. Marshall noted of artisans,²⁸ ‘how all are rising, how some are in the true sense of the word becoming gentlemen’, while Green described how,²⁹ ‘in the well paid industries of England, the better sort of labourers do become capitalists to the extent often of owning their own houses and a great deal of furniture, of having an interest in stores and of belonging to the benefit societies through which they make provision for the future.’ Toynbee took this position to its logical conclusion:³⁰ ‘not only has the law given to workmen and employer equality of rights, but education bids fair to give them equality of culture. We are all now, workmen as well as employers, inhabitants of a larger world; no longer members of a single class, but fellow citizens of one great people …’ Even independent working-class institutions which had once served to divide class from class, now fulfilled the elevated function of inculcating thrift, self-help, mobility of labour, and class harmony. Advanced liberals vied with each other in heaping praise on the principles of co-operation, and the change of front was even more pronounced in the case of trade unions. Classical economists had been hostile or at most indifferent towards the trade union movement, but the new generation, freed from the impasse of the wages fund theory, attributed to it an important civilizing function. As in the case of Malthusianism, the idea of trade unionism as a conductor of class conflict was relegated to a more primitive stage of human development. According to Marshall,³¹ ‘in many of the smaller unions there remains to the present day much of the folly and ignorance and selfishness, and a little of the violence of earlier times. But we may trust that those faults which are not now found in the largest and best managed unions will with the course of time and the diffusion of knowledge disappear altogether.’ Similarly, Arnold Toynbee³² situated the idea of trade unionism as class conflict in ‘the feudal stage’. With the advent of democracy, man had entered ‘the citizen stage’ and class conflict—‘the gospel of rights’—would be transcended by citizenship—‘the gospel of

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