‘The weakness of the dangerous classes’: attitudes to poverty are at the heart of my teaching this term

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This week I will begin teaching my third year module at Northampton which focuses on the Whitechapel Murders and East End society in the 1880s. 

It is going to be different this year: with a full national lockdown in place all of my classes will be remote, online. The way we do this at Northampton University is to host online teaching sessions – live, not recorded (although there is always plenty of pre-recorded content for students to access before and after sessions). So I will be in my ‘virtual classroom’ with my normal seminar group, who will all be tuning in from their homes.

It isn’t ideal, it makes discussion harder, but not impossible. There are the inevitable tech problems, and issues with WiFI and simply having a suitable space to study. I’m lucky, I have a home office and a decent chair and desk; some of my students are using the kitchen table in their parental home, with parents trying to use the internet to work, while their younger siblings are home schooled. 

But this is a national (an international) emergency and needs must. As Tony Soprano would say, ‘what a ya gonna do?’ 

This week we will start by looking at the East End through the maps of Charles Booth, who mapped poverty in the capital in the 1880s and 1890s. He famously colour coded individual streets according to their levels of wealth or deprivation: black or dark blue for the ‘worst’ parts, red or yellow for the ‘best’. Much of Whitechapel, Stepney, and Bethnal Green was black or blue. There were red streets – signifying commercial or middle class relative affluence – but these tended to be along the main thoroughfares (like Commercial Road/Street or the High Street). The very heart of the ‘abyss’ (as the American writer jack London later termed it) was very dark and here poverty was endemic. 

Charles Booth undertook his investigation into poverty as a result of what he thought were spurious claims, by the socialist leader Henry Hyndman, that poverty was rife in the capital. In fact he discovered the situation was much worse than even Hyndman had alleged. 

Alongside Booth’s maps my students will study contemporary accounts of poverty and the very many views of the ‘the poor’ expressed by (mostly) middle-class ‘well-to-do’ (to borrow a phrase from Booth) commentators. 

These are revealing because they show us what some middle class people felt about the inhabitants of the East End; it reveals their prejudices, their fears, and how these all came together to shape their thoughts about what could be done about poverty. For example, one report – in the Pall Mall Gazette from January 1888 – of an interview with the Rev. G. S. Reaney is illuminating. Reaney had run the Stepney Congregational Church in the East End for six years by 1888, and was leaving the church for pastures new.  He was both ‘hopeful and hopeless’ about the people he was leaving behind. 

One section of the populace, the native Londoners of the East End, he described as ‘a hopeless class’. He had no idea how they managed to survive the poverty that engulfed them. ‘I imagine they eat a great deal less than we think necessary’, he told the Gazette as he continued packing up his effects to move. ‘I think they occupy very little house room’ and ‘by constant flitting [i.e. moving at night when they were in rent arrears] they escape a good deal of rent’. 

‘They have so little character’, he continued, and were ‘the most drunken and dissolute class of people’. In fact, ‘were it not for their physical and mental feebleness they would form a dangerous class’. 

This gets to the heart of one of the themes I explore with my students: the threat posed by endemic poverty in the late nineteenth century, as seen by the wealthy and elite. Should a state intervene to help these people out of poverty, help give them the ability to support themselves, educate them, pay they better? Or was it hopeless to even try? Would the provision of state support undermine their independence, and help create a dependence culture? 

These continue to be questions we ask today. 

The Rev. Reaney – a Christian man we must assume – suggested that while the ‘hopeless class’ of the East End was possibly beyond saving we might take away their children (following the example of the ‘splendid’ Dr Barnado) and provide them with an education, preferably a long way from the slums of the East End.

Reaney, not surprisingly, had more faith in religion to change society than in politics. Socialism was on everyone’s lips in the 1880s, Marx was in London and the waves of central European immigrants that arrived in the East End brought radical political beliefs with them. These are also things we discuss in the module. 

Perhaps this year, with everyone suffering in so many ways under this pandemic, the struggles of ordinary people in the 1880s will chime more loudly than they normally would. Hopefully, our discussions and debates, albeit fractured by the difficulties of the online platform, will be even more focused and interesting than they usually are. 

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday 4 January 1888]

One thought on “‘The weakness of the dangerous classes’: attitudes to poverty are at the heart of my teaching this term

  1. I guess many students will feel short-changed by having to learn online – but assuming they manage the technology and have the necessary apparatus, how fortunate are they to do so at all. It was not a route open to so many, ever before, I would suggest. Not as good or exciting as actually attending seminars, mixing with friends, but better than never being offered the chance to do so – which was certainly the case for my father, grandfather, and especially of course, grandmother.

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