Seeing the Slum in Social Exploration – Jack Dolby

Southward from Great Ancoats Street lies a great, straggling, working-men’s quarter, a hilly, barren stretch of land, occupied by detached, irregularly built rows of houses or squares, between these, empty building lots, uneven, clayey, without grass and scarcely passable in wet weather. The cottages are all filthy and old, and recall the New Town to mind. The stretch cut through by the Birmingham railway is the most thickly built-up and the worst. Here flows the Medlock with countless windings through a valley, which is, in places, on a level with the valley of the Irk. Along both sides of the stream, which is coal-black, stagnant, and foul, stretches a broad belt of factories and working-men’s dwellings, the latter all in the worst condition.

–           Engels, F., The Condition of the Working Class in England

 

Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was a German philosopher, social scientist, journalist, and businessman. He and his friend Karl Marx were the founders of Marxist theory[1]. In 1842, at the age of twenty one, Engels left Germany and settled in England for two years, working in a cotton firm in Manchester. During this time, he was gathering information for a book on the British proletariat[2]. In popular imagination in the nineteenth century, areas such as the East End of London had been seen as a kind of earthy hell. It was viewed as a site of poverty, misery, crime, and degradation[3]. Manchester was no exception. In his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels painted a sickening picture of the inhuman living conditions in Manchester[4]. Engels was not the only person to document and write about the living conditions in Britain in the nineteenth century. There were many novels released such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1889), and Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894) which all dramatized the condition of those living in poverty.

The terrible condition of the ‘slums’ in Victorian Britain was something that only few in the middle and upper classes believed in the nineteenth century. This meant that it was important for people to understand and see what condition the impoverished people of Britain were actually living in. Intellectuals such as Friedrich Engels travelled to England to observe and document the condition of Britain in the Industrial Revolution[5]. Also, writers such as Charles Dickens and George Orwell described poverty life in novels. These novels lacked fact but were based upon the real situation in Britain. Orwell did not only document slum life in novels, but also through autobiographical journalism[6]. Justyne’s depiction of Industrial Manchester above supports Engels’ descriptive passage about the industrial sector of the city. Artwork was one of the only other ways that people could view the slums in the early-mid nineteenth century due to the lack of photography. Engels’ rhetoric about living conditions in British cities was not something that the Victorians took kindly too.

The Victorians viewed themselves as unique in the World due to their liberal heritage as they believed that their society was based on ‘Anglo-Saxon liberty’ and the ‘politico-economic doctrine of laissez-faire’[7]. Engels writing was critical of British labour, and he grew frustrated at how capitalism stilled the development of the labour force in Britain[8]. This meant that reforms such as the New Poor Law act of 1834 were widely disliked as the Victorians refused to believe that there were problems in the great empire, So reforms such as the New Poor Law act of 1834 were widely disliked, hence the need for intellectual reports to inform the public and members of the British government of the severity of the problem[9]. The labour force in Britain was in poor condition due to the working class being malnourished and their living conditions seriously ailing them. Engels used his writings and descriptions of living conditions of the labour force in Britain to set the foundation for the Marxist appraisal of Chartism[10]. Chartism was a working class movement, which emerged in 1836. The aim of the Chartists was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes.

The living conditions had serious impacts upon the British labour force that the government had to address. The social order in Britain had been subjected to immense strains by the processes of urbanization and industrialization at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution[11]. Intellectuals such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree produced geographic and demographic style maps that provided a convenient and graphic means for novelists, journalists, reformers, and social theorists to portray the alarming consequences of the spatial separation and cultural independence of the poor[12]. British society was being put under immense strain by the moral issues that had been raised by the slums. Many of the contemporaries, from the right wing to the left wing, such as Martineau, Marx, Engels and Eldon believed that such poor conditions in Britain could have led to a revolution, or even the collapse of the capitalist state[13]. This was hugely significant for the British government as foreign influences and the spread of socialist ideas was an extremely worrying thought. There has been a general agreement that the isolation or segregation of the poor from the apparently civilizing influences and opportunities of the remainder of society has perpetuated in slum areas a different style of life which to some authorities is distinctive enough to be described as a separate culture[14].

Attitudes toward the slum had changed throughout the period thanks to the intellectual reports and books that were being published. Writings about the slum went from being a dramatization in novels to being realistically portrayed by intellectuals to bring to light the severity of the issue. It was not until after the Boer War that the British government really began to make severe social reforms. This was due to the poor condition of conscripts from the working class. They provided meals in schools so that those in the working class could be fed. This meant that their physical condition would improve and they would not be malnourished from a young age despite the conditions they lived in at home[15].

George Orwell’s writings around slum life did not come forward until the early to mid-twentieth century. The dehumanizing effects of poverty are the primary themes of nearly all of his books and his political journalism[16]. However, in terms of intellectual debate, Orwell’s writings were not taken seriously and were sources of considerable speculation due to his background as a preparatory school boy that had dropped out due to bullying[17]. Orwell’s selection of the theme of poverty as the initial outlet for his creative aspirations might be viewed as a logical consequence of his early literary interests. He seemed to derive his early knowledge of human nature from literature[18]. Many narratives of slum life were being drawn up in the nineteenth century that described the living conditions in Britain. These narratives also aided in social reforms and political ideas, not only in Britain, but elsewhere in the world as well. The descriptions and reports allowed the public and the government alike to see and imagine the slum and the living conditions there for what they actually were.

Images

Figure 1: Justyne, Percy William, Manchester, 1840 (engraving). Available online: https://www-bridgemaneducation-com.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/en/asset/447313/summary?context=%7B%22route%22%3A%22assets_search%22%2C%22routeParameters%22%3A%7B%22_format%22%3A%22html%22%2C%22_locale%22%3A%22en%22%2C%22filter_text%22%3A%22Industrial+Manchester%22%7D%7D (Accessed 08/12/16).

 

Bibliography

Beadle, G. B., ‘George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 188-201.

 Cowden, M. H., ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labor’, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March, 1963), pp. 34-52.

 Engels, F., The Condition of the Working Class in England (Otto Wigand, 1845)

 Goodlad, L. M. G., ‘Beyond the Panopticon: Victorian Britain and the Critical Imagination’, Special Topic: Imagining History, Vol. 118, No. 3 (May, 2003), pp. 539-556.

 Gorst, J. E., ‘Physical Deterioration in Great Britain’, The North American Review, Vol. 181, No. 584 (July, 1905), pp. 1-10.

 Justyne, Percy William, Manchester, 1840 (engraving). Available online: https://www-bridgemaneducation-com.ezproxy.derby.ac.uk/en/asset/447313/summary?context=%7B%22route%22%3A%22assets_search%22%2C%22routeParameters%22%3A%7B%22_format%22%3A%22html%22%2C%22_locale%22%3A%22en%22%2C%22filter_text%22%3A%22Industrial+Manchester%22%7D%7D (Accessed 08/12/16).

 Swafford, K., ‘Among the Disposable: Jack London in the East End of London’, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 48, No. 2 (2015), pp. 15-40.

 Thompson, F. M. L., ‘Social Control in Victorian Britain’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1981), pp. 189-208.

 Ward, D., ‘The Victorian Slum: An Enduring Myth?’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June, 1976), pp. 323-336.

 

 

[1] Cowden, M. H., ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labour’, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March, 1963), pp. 34-52., p. 34.

[2] Cowden, ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labour’, p. 34.

[3] Swafford, K., ‘Among the Disposable: Jack London in the East End of London’, The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 48, No. 2 (2015), pp. 15-40., p. 15.

[4] Cowden, ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labour’, p. 38.

[5] Engels, F., The Condition of the Working Class in England (Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 72.

[6] Beadle, G. B., ‘George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), pp. 188-201., p. 188.

[7] Goodlad, L. M. G., ‘Beyond the Panopticon: Victorian Britain and the Critical Imagination’, Special Topic: Imagining History, Vol. 118, No. 3 (May, 2003), pp. 539-556., p. 540.

[8] Cowden, ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labour’, pp. 35-36.

[9] Goodlad, ‘Beyond the Panopticon: Victorian Britain and the Critical Imagination’, p. 540.

[10] Cowden, ‘Early Marxist Views on British Labour’, p. 38.

[11] Thompson, F. M. L., ‘Social Control in Victorian Britain’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May, 1981), pp. 189-208., p. 189.

[12] Ward, D., ‘The Victorian Slum: An Enduring Myth?’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June, 1976), pp. 323-336., p. 323.

[13] Thompson, ‘Social Control in Victorian Britain’, p. 189.

[14] Ward, ‘The Victorian Slum: An Enduring Myth?’, p. 323.

[15] Gorst, J. E., ‘Physical Deterioration in Great Britain’, The North American Review, Vol. 181, No. 584 (July, 1905), pp. 1-10., p. 1.

[16] Beadle, ‘George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England’, p. 188.

[17] Beadle, ‘George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England’, p. 188.

[18] Beadle, ‘George Orwell’s Literary Studies of Poverty in England’, p. 189.

 

 

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