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The squalid myth of Dickensian London Despite the popular image of callous workhouses, life was vastly improved during the Industrial Revolution

It wasn't all bad. Photo: Columbia/Getty Images)

October 28, 2019   6 mins

People in the past were of course poorer than we are. Certain periods and certain societies in history were richer than others, however, and some were richer (or less poor) than some societies in modern times. England has throughout its history been relatively well off: in the late 15th century, it was around three times as rich as Africa at the time, and comparable with India and China even in the 1990s.

Yet even with these variations, the overall story is plain. Average living standards (in terms of food consumption, ownership of goods, and life expectancy) improved very slowly, if at all, over the millennia; any fluctuation around that relatively low level was due to climate, disease, population growth and political conditions.

A historic change came only with the Industrial Revolution, the shift from an “organic” to a “mineral” economy — from one reliant on muscle, wind and water to one using the power of coal and later oil — that raised global living standards at a previously unimaginable rate, with the good and bad consequences that we know.

Pioneering this change was early Victorian or “Dickensian” England, and so one might think that we would remember it as a time of epoch-making success: instead I don’t think it is controversial to say that we generally think of it as a time of grim suffering and oppression.

Historians have long been aware of a paradox: that while productivity rose over the crucial period of the Industrial Revolution, living standards did not. Working hours greatly increased. Women and children worked more intensively. Yet real wages barely shifted — by only 4% between 1760 and 1820. Food prices rose and diet deteriorated. Health and hygiene in industrial cities worsened. Infant mortality was high, and life expectancy low, and both actually deteriorated. In 1841, average life expectancy at birth was 41.7 years — comparable with much of Africa in the 2000s.

People’s physical condition as measured by their heights fell to one of its lowest ever levels, and showed marked difference between classes – over 5 inches difference between rich and poor boys in 1790. It would seem that industrialization amounted to stunted and damaged lives for generations of ordinary people.

This could of course be explained by assuming that the new industrial working class was simply exploited and downtrodden by a combination of a ruthless landowning ruling class and a hard-faced capitalism. Traditional rights had been lost, and with them status and culture: craftsmen ruined by mechanization, cottagers deprived of their access to common land. The new towns were vast slums, where small wage increases were offset by disease, overcrowding and unstable employment.

This grim image was perpetuated over the generations. Blake bequeathed a memorable if inscrutable phrase: “dark satanic mills”. Tory democrats, most famously Disraeli in Sybil: or the Two Nations (1845), were not far behind: in his lawless and savage fictional town of Wodgate, “swarming thousands lodged in the most miserable tenements in the most hideous burgh in the ugliest country in the world”. Dickens himself left perhaps the most memorable vignettes, such as Coketown in Hard Times (1854).

Friedrich Engels wrote in the 1840s a harrowing account of The Condition of the English Working Classes, published in English only in the 1890s, when it had a powerful impact on early socialist historians such as Barbara and Lawrence Hammond, who popularized a dark vision of what they called “The Bleak Era” in which the poor were trapped in “smoke and squalor” by means of a “class war” fought against them by the rich. In the 1960s, E.P. Thompson, in perhaps the most influential single work of English history of modern times, similarly dramatized the tragedy of “the English working class”.

Is this, then, the truth about “Dickensian poverty”? Is our grim collective memory simply a reflection of reality?

There are some fundamental retouches that need to be made to the picture. The population of Europe was rising at an unprecedented rate, and that of England rose fastest of all, from 8.6 million in 1801 to 17 million in 1851 — an increase of 98%, with the highest ever recorded growth in 1811-21 (16% in a decade). Around 40% of this population was under 15, comparable with much of Africa today. The total urban population, already the highest in Europe, increased three-fold.

London more than doubled, making it by far Europe’s biggest conurbation. In the 1820s alone, Manchester grew by 47%, West Bromwich by 60%, and Bradford by 78%. In any previous age, this would have led to a catastrophic fall in living standards. But in Dickens’s time it did not, even by comparison with poorer parts of the world in our era: GDP per head in Britain in 1840 was 50% higher than in Africa in the early 2000s.

A growth in productivity and new industrial employment prevented disaster: if living standards hardly improved, they did not collapse. English wages, already very high by world standards, remained so. In most of continental Europe, where living standards did indeed deteriorate as the population boomed, real wages dropped to half or a third of those in England. The visiting French liberal Alexis de Tocqueville thought that “the English poor appear almost rich compared to the French poor”.

But what about living conditions? Were they not appalling? Given the explosive growth of the towns and cities, some were. But Engels’s famous denunciation of the filth of Manchester, which he described as the “degradation” of a new industrial proletariat, was in fact something quite different: the overcrowded slums of pre-industrial Manchester failing to cope with an influx of Irish refugees.

What Engels was really describing was what poverty would be without an industrial revolution, with Irish refugees living in conditions more like rural poverty. Of course, his aim was political, as was that of the Hammonds, who blamed the ruling class for the sufferings of the poor: “the disinherited peasants that are the shadow of its wealth … the exiled labourers that are the shadow of its pleasures … the villages sinking in poverty and crime and shame that are the shadow of its power and pride.” Thompson’s sympathies were similar.

So to a degree were those of Dickens. But again, if we take a comparative view, it is hard not to conclude that Dickens’s contemporaries were less heartless and incompetent than he shows them. Infant mortality in 1839 was 151 per 1,000 in England (comparable with that of Afghanistan in 2010); but in France it was 160, in Belgium 185, and in southern Germany 285.

So is there another vision of Dickensian poverty? Yes, if we look more carefully. The industrializing economy coped with huge population rises, and from around 1850 there were substantial increases in real wages and mass consumption. The exploding towns were unhealthy (though so were ancient cities), but less so than elsewhere. The British state, contrary to conventional assumptions, was unusually interventionist in sanitary and workplace regulation.

Most important of all, poorer people were helping themselves, in families, workshops, neighbourhoods, churches and pubs, where friendly societies and trade unions were born, and where a new society and culture was being created. The real place on which Disraeli based his hell-hole Wodgate was Willenhall, a Black Country lock-making town. But Disraeli, drawing on an official report, left out the Sunday Schools and chapels, and the finding that despite industrial pollution “the inside of the poorest houses is [often] perfectly clean”.

Poor people also had rights to financial help under the Poor Law, and were quick to stand up for them by applying to Overseers of the Poor and, if dissatisfied, appealing to the magistrates. Tocqueville was scandalised to see old men, unemployed labourers and pregnant girls doing so unblushingly before the Justices of the Peace.

Poor people themselves did not necessarily share the pessimism either of contemporary upper-class commentators or of later historians. The rural poor, especially young people underemployed in over-populated villages, found in towns and factories an escape from dependency, chronic poverty and exclusion from adult life and marriage. However risky and accident-prone, a move to town meant more regular work, money in their pockets, freedom, the chance of family life, and exciting new social and cultural opportunities. Judging from their own writings, many working people felt not only that they were living in a rapidly changing world, but that it was changing for the better.

Typical was a Wiltshire carpenter, John Bennett, looking back later in life on his rural childhood in the 1790s: “what troublesome times we had during my bringing up,” whereas today “the working classes in my opinion, was never so well off”.

There was, however, a bitter irony. The traditional and relatively humane Poor Law, which has been described as the biggest system of wealth redistribution in the world, was slashed by reformers in 1834. This caused huge suffering and discontent, memorably evoked by Dickens, but the authors of this disaster were not black-hearted Tory reactionaries, but high-minded Liberal modernisers — brought to power by the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Professor Robert Tombs is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and the author of The English and Their History

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