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The self-making of the British working class

Through self-education and political struggle, the 19th-century working class found its voice.

Helene Guldberg

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Emma Griffin’s Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy provides a rich and detailed account of the lives of working-class men and women in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It is also a testament to their determination, autodidacticism and striving for political freedom.

Griffin analyses almost 700 autobiographies – two thirds written by men and one third by women – all born into impoverished working-class families between 1830 and 1903. The writers were not entirely representative of the working class in Victorian and Edwardian Britain – not least by virtue of having written autobiographies – but their books do provide insights into the nature of work and home life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They allow us a glimpse of the relentless toil and poverty of working-class life in 19th-century Britain. But they also show us moments of joy and glimmers of light, provided mainly by encounters with what English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold described, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), as ‘the best which has been thought and said’.

The restricted nature of working-class women’s lives

Despite Britain’s economic expansion during the 19th century, with wages doubling and gross domestic product (GDP) trebling, not to mention a ‘series of extraordinary inventions’, from trains to lightbulbs and telephones, working-class life was hard. ‘Large cities with their trams, railways and modern civic buildings might have signified the march of progress’, writes Griffin, ‘but they also housed large slum populations living in appalling squalor’.

Life was particularly precarious for working-class women. If they entered the labour market, their wages were rarely sufficient to live off. Most women were entirely dependent on the men in their lives – either their fathers or husbands. While many boys saw the end of schooling as a new and exciting chapter in their lives, it was very different for girls. ‘A girl of 12 or thereabouts knew enough about the world to know there was little but housework awaiting her outside the school gates’, writes Griffin, ‘and a sizeable minority of the female authors had viewed further schooling as their one and only hope for a more interesting life’.

Many working-class girls entered domestic service, which was sometimes unpaid. As late as the 1860s, girls as young as eight were working away from home in exchange for food and lodging. But even when they did receive a meagre wage, it came at a price. ‘In those days you just seemed to belong to the people you worked for and you did whatever they wanted,’ one former servant noted. Many domestic servants only got a half-Sunday off a week. Even then, some employers sought to dictate how and where that time should be spent.

Women also worked in the manufacturing sector. But apart from the textile industries in Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire and Scotland’s Central Belt – where for historic reasons women often operated the power looms and were paid on a par with men – many were not given the opportunity to operate complex machinery. ‘Elsewhere women were employed in box-making, packing and sorting, tanning yards and factories producing foodstuffs such as chocolates, sweets and pickles – all low-skilled and low-paid work’, Griffin writes.

As well as unrewarding paid work, working-class women were left with the drudgery of housework – ‘a daily round of collecting water, purchasing and preparing food, lighting and clearing fires, cleaning and repairing clothes and looking after children’. The one area where women were able to exercise some control and autonomy was in the budgeting and general management of domestic affairs. Trade-unionist David Kirkwood recalled his mother turning over her husband’s pay in her hands: each week, ‘she counted and took care of the scanty wages’. From that meagre sum, she ‘planned out the week’s need’. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of their mothers’ housekeeping was a regular source of pride for many autobiographers.

But no matter how good they were at budgeting, women were at the mercy of their husband’s ability and willingness to provide for the family. Some were engaged in seasonal work and faced long spells without employment. Others suffered from bad health, or had sustained horrific workplace injuries, and were unable to work. Socialist Arthur Collinson’s father had worked as a coach-builder until he lost his eyesight when Collinson was five years old. His family quickly descended into abject poverty. Other fathers blew a lot of their money on alcohol, depriving their families of enough to feed themselves.

Reform League supporters pull down the railings round Hyde Park, London, after the gates were closed to prevent them holding a meeting, 23 July 1866.
Reform League supporters pull down the railings round Hyde Park, London, after the gates were closed to prevent them holding a meeting, 23 July 1866.

Charlie Chaplin was someone whose childhood was blighted by parental neglect. His alcoholic father abandoned the family not long after Chaplin’s birth, and his mother suffered from recurring bouts of mental illness. ‘In his sixth year, as [Chaplin’s] mother sank further into hopelessness, poverty and depression, she took the decision to enter herself and her two boys into the workhouse. Thus began a decade of regular moves in and out of different Victorian institutions – workhouses, asylums, orphanages – for all three.’

Griffin explores Victorian commentators’ condemnation of the prevalence of heavy drinking among the urban poor. And she does draw attention to some of the failings of Victorian and Edwardian parents, but not to condemn them. Rather she wants to ‘open a space for reflecting upon the myriad difficulties they faced’. She adds: ‘Of course, some men and women struggled against the odds to provide a warm, safe and loving home for their families, but others did not.’

Love in the time of Victoria

In her 1991 book Love in the Time of Victoria, Francoise Barret-Ducrocq draws attention to Victorian middle-class prejudices about working-class ‘licentiousness,’ ‘heavy drinking’ and ‘moral depravity’.

Victorian London was primarily a port city and a centre of administration and culture, rather than a site of heavy industry and factories. Barret-Ducrocq writes: ‘Most members of the better-off classes – businessmen, financiers, merchants, rentiers, civil servants and members of the liberal professions – had only the most tenuous direct link with the working-class population.’ They saw the working-class districts of London as ‘festering dens of filth, crime and debauchery’. The ‘miserable and depraved mob’ was viewed as a ‘shame to the world’ and a ‘compromise to the civilising mission of the Empire’. The sections of society highlighting the ‘barbarism of the masses’ were philanthropists working for charitable organisations, agents of the state – health officers, Poor Law officials, and education commissioners – and ‘social observers like novelists, essayists, sociologists and journalists’, Barret-Ducrocq writes.

Barret-Ducrocq’s research drew on a wealth of private archive material, including love letters and testimonies, stored at the London Foundling Hospital. These sources had been provided by working-class women applying to place their infants in its care, and provide an insight into their mental torment. They knew they could not raise a child on their own. But a successful application would entail an agonising – and in the vast majority of cases, permanent – separation from their infant.

The admission procedure at the Foundling Hospital was draconian. Mothers of illegitimate children needed to show that they had become pregnant either through the use of physical force or had ‘given way to carnal passion’ only after a promise of marriage. The woman would have to supply evidence in the form of notes arranging trysts, love letters and farewell letters, and had to supply the names of relatives, employers, family doctors and parsons to corroborate their stories.

There were instances where domestic servants had become pregnant after being attacked. ‘The culprit might be a naval officer staying with friends’, Barret-Ducrocq writes, ‘a brother visiting his sister’s house, a nephew in residence for the holiday’, or indeed the master of the house. But the sexual relations between middle- or upper-class men and working-class women did not always include coercion. Many of the domestic servants were young, naive, isolated and lonely, and could be easily swept off their feet. ‘Walking in St James’s or Regent’s Park on the arm of a well-turned-out gentleman, getting love letters, being desired when you were really everyone’s slave’ might have been exciting enough to forget the risk of pregnancy, notes Barret-Ducrocq.

However, the bulk of the archive material shows that many women had ‘lovers of much humbler social background’. Most had consented to sexual relations after an extended period of courtship, and their stories are full of ‘small joys and great hopes, of wild laughter, impertinent pranks, silly deceptions’. Their life stories show ‘small oases of joy and relaxation which – however limited they may have been – modify the unrelieved miserabilism of our received image of the Victorian proletariat’. Victorians saw the ‘sexual depravity’ of working-class Londoners ‘as a threat to the moral, and potentially political, order’. But the voices ‘recorded in the Foundling Hospital’s faded blue files, the voices of the women applicants and their associates, sound with an entirely different resonance’.

Working-class women’s political activity

Despite the ‘oases of joy’ that could be found in young working-class women’s lives, housekeeping and motherhood dominated most women’s lives. In Bread Winner, Griffin quotes James Brady reflecting on the closed world of his mother, who rarely ventured beyond their immediate neighbourhood: ‘The cobble-stoned cul-de-sac, with its squalid row of shared privies in the middle, was her world from Monday to Sunday, a grey world of hard times and hard work, bringing up a family of five on a purse forever running empty.’ Another writer observes that, thanks to housework and the repeated cycle of pregnancy and childbearing, his mother had ‘slowly faded into a grey domestic drudge’. Many note that their mothers’ only regular outing was church on a Sunday evening.

By contrast the women who became involved in politics and self-education often stressed ‘how much the experience had done to broaden and add interest to their otherwise very restricted lives’, writes Griffin. Mrs Smith, a miner’s wife in the Rhondda Valley, lamented that the women in her village ‘feel sometimes that we are not living but just existing somehow’. However, finding opportunities to attend ‘beautiful lectures’ organised by the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which was established in the late 1800s to organise educational classes and political campaigns on women’s issues, including suffrage, ‘seems to uplift us and help us to carry on’. Another autobiographer, Mrs Layton, said the guild ‘brightened [her life] to such an extent that everything seemed changed’.

Nevertheless, a range of barriers existed that made it far harder for women than men to become politically active or engage in intellectual pursuits. ‘Low female wages coupled with the widespread need for domestic labour within families’, writes Griffin, ‘left women without the time, money or right to pursue their own interests and activities’. Cultural assumptions about women’s roles within the family made it harder for women to spend any time or money on themselves, and many were made to feel that pursuing their own interests was tantamount to taking food out of the mouths of their children.

Match-girls at Bryant and May's shortly before their famous strike, circa 1888.
Match-girls at Bryant and May's shortly before their famous strike, circa 1888.

However, some of the female writers in Bread Winner describe finding paid work, which opened a new and exciting world for them. Hatter Nellie Scott recalled the conversations she had with fellow workers. In one place, she worked with ‘a Conservative, an Irish girl, and some Radicals and Socialists and we used to have full dress debates. When we began someone would call “Parliament is now sitting”… and we would discuss everything.’ Another writer, Alice Collis, became involved in a strike over pay, winning herself and her fellow workers a 50 per cent pay rise, at a printing firm. ‘When we had fully recovered from the surprise of our success’, wrote Collis, ‘we formed a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers’.

Almost all the politically active female autobiographers relied on the active support of their already politicised fathers, and sometimes mothers. ‘Without family support, the extent to which work facilitated entry into the political sphere was much more limited for women than men’, notes Griffin. Only 13 per cent of the women autobiographers reported having been involved in some form of political activity, compared to 25 per cent of men.

Male political activism and autodidactism

Male adulthood meant economic and residential independence from parents. Work provided a gateway to the public sphere, introducing adolescent boys to new political opinions and ideas. Trade-unionist and MP Frank Hodges, for example, recalled the lengthy conversations he had enjoyed with one of his older workmates, ‘a geologist, a mining student, and a keen mathematician’, as well as the owner of a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Through their long conversations, Hodges found himself ‘undergoing a mental revolution’.

Such experiences awakened in many a desire for further learning. Labour politician Herbert Morrison spent his Saturday afternoons in second-hand bookshops searching for ‘cheap copies of works on ethics, history, economics, and sociology’. Many autobiographers recalled attending night classes. ‘Indeed, it would be hard to exaggerate the significance of night schools, which were mentioned over and again by the male autobiographers’, writes Griffin. Most saw their elementary education as dull and irrelevant. ‘In their eyes, the end of school meant the start of work, and the true beginning of a man’s education.’

The ‘swinish multitude’

In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke warned against the ‘dire consequences’ of mass education: ‘Learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude.’

However, in A People’s History of Classics, Edith Hall and Henry Stead show that many British people with minimal formal education found numerous ways of accessing and engaging with the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Hall and Stead draw upon working-class memoirs, autobiographies, trade-union book collections, factory archives and documents in regional museums to provide a detailed account of the influence of the classical past on working-class lives.

‘In the 18th century’, they write, ‘some autodidacts in lowly occupations succeeded in learning classical languages against the odds, while others accessed classical authors via increasingly abundant translations’. With the expansion of literacy and the growth of inexpensive publications from the late 1820s onwards, access to the Classics expanded very fast. Leeds-born Chartist Joseph Barker started work as a spinner at the age of nine. He would prop up books to read while he was spinning and, at 16, he started teaching himself Latin and Greek. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was particularly treasured among working-class readers. A young miner from Northumberland who was killed by falling coal in 1899 died with a copy in his pocket, the page turned over at Pericles’ famous funeral oration.

Hall and Stead are in no doubt as to the importance of the Classics for working-class men and women:

‘The classical world aided their careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organise trade unions, join debating societies, read the Gospel in the original or question the existence of God altogether.’

A familiarity with the Classics even deepened people’s sense of freedom. ‘To stay free’, write Hall and Stead, ‘requires comparison of constitutions, fearlessness about change and critical, lateral and relativist thinking across time and different cultures’.

Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as well as Penny Magazine and Cassell’s Popular Educator, come up again and again in workers’ accounts of the first serious books and publications they read. Before the 1870 Education Act, which established compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and 13, workers were mainly educated through non-Conformist and Dissenting Sunday schools, Mutual Improvement Societies, Methodist and Quaker ‘Adult Schools’, Mechanics Institutes and trade-union colleges. Museums in Britain, which were visited by a far wider cross-section of society than in the rest of Europe, provided important inroads into learning about the Greeks and Romans.

A People’s History of Classics overlaps in its use of sources with the groundbreaking 2001 book by Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. Rose shows that the books recommended by the intellectual elites ‘brought aesthetic joy, political emancipation, and philosophical excitement’ to ‘readers farther down the social scale’, such as ‘colliers and millgirls’. Take Will Crooks, a Fabian and trade-unionist, who grew up in extreme poverty in east London. He came across a second-hand copy of Homer’s Iliad and was inspired: ‘What a revelation it was to me! I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land. It was a rare luxury for a working lad like me just home from work to find myself suddenly among the heroes and nymphs of ancient Greece.’

A London family with all their possessions in the street following eviction, circa 1901.
A London family with all their possessions in the street following eviction, circa 1901.

Like EP Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, Rose explores the relationship between the evangelical movement and working-class self-education. ‘Though autodidact culture was nurtured by the evangelical revival’, he writes, ‘it also presented a challenge to evangelical ideology’. Evangelical Christians emphasised the Protestant outlook of the absolute authority of the Bible and humans’ direct relationship with God. Nonconformist sects ‘encouraged close reading, interpretive analysis, and intellectual self-improvement’. The expansion of literacy and critical engagement with ideas opened a new world for many. Circuit preacher Joseph Barker, born in the early 19th century, found – after his intellectual appetite had been whetted by non-Conformist teaching – that ‘theology simply could not compete with Shakespeare’. Shakespeare in turn spurred his love of poetry. Byron ‘intoxicated’ him, and Milton, Hobbes, Locke and Newton made him ‘resolved to be free’. ‘The measure of bondage’ placed on him by Methodism, Barker explained, ‘began to be exceedingly irksome to me, and I felt strongly inclined to throw off the yoke and to assert my liberty’.

The liberating power of culture was recognised by many workers – even those who were ‘badly or barely educated,’ Rose writes. The most pervasive form of mutual education ‘was, quite simply, reading aloud’. In many workshops one labourer would read aloud while the others divided the share of his work. Shared reading was also common in many working-class homes. One Welsh miner described with awe one workmate’s ‘impressive library of classical music’. These working-class intellectuals were ‘glowing with pride’ after having ‘drunk the wine of knowledge,’ he wrote. They felt as if they had been ‘exposed to something extraordinary’.

The contradictory nature of male employment

Like Griffin in Bread Winner, German mill-owner, philosopher and communist, Friedrich Engels, also explored the stultifying, but potentially liberating, nature of male industrial employment in the 19th century. In The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845), based on Engels’ first-hand account of life in the slums and mills of Manchester, he wrote that working people’s quarters were ‘wretched, damp and filthy’, and ‘consequently no comfortable family life is possible’. In such dwellings individuals were ‘robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically’. ‘The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, taken from old, often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then, often half decayed.’

But in England’s large industrial towns, Engels also saw the birthplace of the labour movement. The ‘mightiest result’ of the Industrial Revolution was the emergence of a politicised working-class capable of transforming what Percy Bysshe Shelley – a poet much loved by working-class autodidacts – called ‘this wrong world’. It was in industrial cities that workers ‘first began to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it’, Engels wrote.

‘Working men appreciate solid education when they can get it unmixed with the self-interested cant of the bourgeoisie’, continued Engels. Frequent lectures on scientific, aesthetic and economic subjects ‘are well attended’, he wrote, adding: ‘I have often heard working men, whose fustian jackets scarcely held together, speak upon geological, astronomical, and other subjects, with more knowledge than most “cultivated” bourgeois in Germany possess.’

During the early 1800s, working men, through strikes and lockouts, fought for wage rises and better working conditions. But their battles were not just confined to the workplace. They also demanded political reform and an extension of the franchise. It was during this time that Engels met Chartists who challenged the idea that it was the lack of working-class morals that led to their misery. Instead, as Chartist David Ross argued in 1842, it was ‘bad laws’ that have ‘effected this’. The Chartists campaigned for universal male suffrage and greater democratic accountability. The only solution to devastating poverty and hunger was the ‘attainment of the Charter’, Ross argued. It is only with more democratic say and accountability, he argued, that ‘labour will have its protection’.

The re-emergence of elitist ideas

In recent decades, a similar elite disdain to that shown by Victorian and Edwardian middle and upper classes towards the working class has come to the fore. There is little attempt by academic or cultural elites to understand ordinary people’s concerns and aspirations, or to recognise that working people have complex internal lives – just like themselves.

Admittedly, working-class people are no longer called ‘filthy barbarians,’ or the ‘swinish multitude’. Instead, they are described instead as ‘uneducated bigots’, who tend towards racism, misogyny and homophobia. Many who see themselves as liberal and open-minded have gone as far as trying to overturn Brexit, a democratic vote, on the basis that the working-class ‘did not know what they voted for’.

Yet, as Griffin, Hall and Stead show, like Rose and Thompson before them, it was through access to culture, autodidacticisn and gaining a voice in the political realm that workers were able to ‘live’ rather than ‘just exist’.

As Griffin puts it:

‘There is clearly something to celebrate in the enormous achievements of the working-class men and women who, despite being born to a class that was neither expected nor encouraged to contribute to the nation’s political life, overcame the odds and managed to do precisely that.’

Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, and Just Another Ape?. Visit her website here.

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy, by Emma Griffin, is published by Yale University Press. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939, by Edith Hall and Henry Stead, is published by Routledge. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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