Education, Travel and the “Civilisation” of the Victorian Working Classes
Michele M. Strong
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Hardcover. viii+243p. ISBN 978-1137338075. £55.00
Reviewed by Jules Gehrke
Saginaw Valley State University (Michigan)
Michele Strong’s study introduces workingmen's tours of the mid- to late nineteenth century as forums in which workingmen (and some of their wives) were introduced to the values and complexities of continental travel at a time when key middle-class interests advocated moral and intellectual self-improvement among the “responsible” working classes. She sees workingmen's tours as important sites for defining the nature of the modern educational tour – and, in fact, the nature of “study abroad” in the twentieth century – and draws upon critical archival and published sources associated with Thomas Cook & Son (including its publication The Excursionist), the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU), the Society of Arts (SA), and The Young Men’s Christian Institute (later, the Regent Street Polytechnic, now Westminster University). Strong’s research and analysis are sustained through four chapters focused on workingmen’s tours, as well as a fifth chapter focused upon the travel initiatives of the Polytechnic. This fifth chapter readers may identify as closely following work she has published elsewhere on the topic.(1) In her conclusion, Strong addresses the significance of financial barriers preventing many among today’s working poor from attaining the status of “global citizens,” particularly as, she argues, educational environments are increasingly dominated by a "neo-liberal" agenda. This conclusion, a sharp critique of the framework within which many working-class students see their chances for travel abroad limited, obscures a sustained analysis of her primary research by zeroing in on a contemporary era of study abroad. Such a stark and charged characterization of the current state of educational travel might be better off as a more fully developed contribution in another forum. Yet, in her book overall, Strong’s intensive use of archival resources offers a significant contribution to understanding the international experiences of working-class travelers from Britain who, through their travels, continued to reassess rapid social and industrial change at home.
In Chapter 1: ‘ "A True Agent of Civilisation" : Travel and the "Educational Idea," 1841-1861’, Strong analyzes the degree to which travel came to be idealized as purposeful and improving in mid-century Britain. She emphasizes not only the increasing enthusiasm for travel among self-improving groups of workingmen, but also among their liberal supporters anxious to foster proper decorum, cultural interests, and a commitment to the principles of the modern capitalist state. Strong sets her initial discussion in the context of Piers Brendon’s study of the travel pioneer Thomas Cook who, with working-class roots of his own, promoted touring he believed would expand the educational horizons of his customers (in addition to making a profit).(2) Strong argues Cook had an understanding of the struggles of working-people to save and a religious commitment to see moral reform among those classes he believed too wedded to drink. Organizing both early day trips by rail and, later, more extended excursions, Cook sought to broaden cultural and international understanding in an era of widening democracy. Some among the upper classes protested the tumult they believed would follow in the wake of expeditions of unrefined workers, but Strong suggests Cook – and the example of the 1851 exhibition – effectively argued against them. Strong hints that in initiating a new era of travel, the Great Exhibition was kicking off an era in which working-class interests in travel would not be so easy to control. This new era of travel would take a step forward with Cook’s efforts on behalf of the “London Committee of Workingmen” who organized a Whitsuntide excursion to Paris for the 1861 exhibition. Backed by liberal enthusiasts (including the radical liberal Austin Henry Layard), the tour sought to familiarize British workingmen with French culture in an era of increased trade between their two nations. At issue, as well, was counteracting a group of Army Volunteers who, it was feared by some, would create a disruptive effect in the French capital. The tour, though affected by a few planning mis-steps by Cook, came off well and heightened interest in further Anglo-French exchange that would come in 1867.
In Chapter 2: ‘Turning the Educational idea on Its Head : The Lib-Lab Alliance and the Organization of the Working Men’s 1867 Exhibition Tours’, Strong sets the stage for the substance of her archival research as she investigates the organization of the workingmen’s tour to Paris just six years later. Plans for the 1867 exhibition emerged from the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) which, while representing specifically working-class (and in the eyes of many middle-class observers, potentially disruptive) interests, made cause with the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union (WMCIU) in organizing the trip. The WMCIU, originally founded as a social club with a middle-class leadership, reflected some of the paternal interests that had been instrumental in its founding, and tensions between it and the IWA were not unknown. Yet, the WMCIU had the skills necessary to carry out the planning and implementation of the trip. In constructing the 1867 Exhibition experience the WMCIU had a separate set of barracks constructed (setting aside their initial cooperation with Thomas Cook) which Strong writes made the workmen as much a part of the Exhibition as other displays. In the physical construction of the barracks, Strong finds an opportunity to renew her use of Foucault and his ideas of “governmentality.” Yet, as she remarks, although middle-class promoters such as Henry Cole, Austin Henry Layard, and George Holyoake were enthused with the potential for workingmen’s gain in visiting the Exhibition, these workers were often to draw quite different lessons than those the middle-class promoters had hoped to impart.
In Chapter 3: ‘ "The Lessons of Paris": The 1867 Working Men's Exhibition Tours and the Artisan Imagination’ Strong taps the rich vein of her archival material, analyzing the accounts of working men who set off by train in June 1867 under the auspices of the WMCIU. The framework of the expedition had been crafted by those who hoped to broaden the outlook of working men, giving them a chance to assess their craft and industrial skills as well as identify areas of shared interest with their French counterparts. This, they hoped, would be accomplished without engaging in the type of internationalist rhetoric that sharpened divisions between classes. Recognizing that program organizers saw the trip in paternalist terms, and viewed its mission as one of enlightenment and improvement, Strong turns to the accounts of the workers who reported on the event. She provides a rich bed of theoretical analysis in her discussion, offering what seems a confident, fluidly written and intricate analysis of the workers' accounts that stops short of over-stating the implications of any one worker's contribution. Admitting that, "Reconstructing workers' impressions of their tours is a challenging task" , she has drawn instead upon the accounts of "reporters" sponsored by the Society of Arts (SA) who traveled to the Exhibition on WMCIU tickets and, in fact, lived with the wider group of WMCIU travelers. She cites Georgis Varouxakis’s work on Anglo-French exchange in the nineteenth century, in which British intellectuals sharpened their understandings of their own world by comparing it to that of the French ("complementarity").(3) Yet, she suggests that it was not restricted simply to public intellectuals and that, "…the idea circulated more widely than his study would suggest….The idea of complementarity, therefore, was part of Britain's cultural climate, and informed workers' approach to their Paris tours even if some were unaware of the formal arguments surrounding the concept" [68-69].
Empowered by the sponsorship of the SA and the information on the city provided at the Workmen's Hall, the reporters resembled journalists who crossed London in the late nineteenth century combining tourist accounts with social investigation and calls for reform. Identifying a number of them as "artisan flâneurs," Strong notes that some of them indicated they had difficulty with the process of producing their narratives but nonetheless were able to comment on issues as diverse as comparative standards within their own trades, women's roles in industry (and in the domestic sphere), traditions of work on Sundays, and nuanced assessments on English and French commitments to "liberty" and "equality." Strong spends a later portion of the chapter reviewing the account of a carpenter, Charles Hooper, who, while writing very little on his own trade, instead produced a 25-page account including an extended section on how France offered an admirable model for public interaction of workers with those of higher social distinction. In his account, Hooper drew attention to the ways in which he believed English workmen were misled about the morals, habits, and living conditions of the French and how the ease of social interaction between classes offered a healthier social environment for workers. Ultimately, however, Strong concludes:
Hooper's report and those of the other artisan reporters articulated a range of political and social beliefs and values, as well as national, gender, religious, and class identities. These workers' Paris tours had thus shown them an alternative reality to what they knew in Britain, or better still, a new authoritative language in which to express their desire for reform. The contradictory ways they chose to interpret the French landscape, however, indicates that there was no clear consensus on how to construct a Britain that could achieve a balance between liberty and social justice, and between government intervention and personal freedom. 
In Chapter 4: ‘ "High Attainments" : The Artisan Exhibition Tours and the Campaign for Technical Education, 1867-1889’, Strong shifts gears to examine the arguments for technical education that emerged in the late nineteenth century as the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 highlighted the challenges Britain would face in strengthening its technical education. The SA and the DSA (Department of Science and Art – attached to the Board of Trade and formed after the 1851 exhibition) took the lead in encouraging technical education in the 1850s and 1860s. They made only piecemeal progress, hemmed in as they were by the concerns of those who sought to protect traditional methods of knowledge, by the concerns of others that relations between masters and apprentices could be overturned, and even the fears of some employers that trade secrets would be revealed in the classroom and then lost to competitors. Nonetheless, the 1867 Paris exhibition had been a wake-up call for many who pointed out that Britain earned only ten prizes among ninety available classes .
Strong returns to the SA artisan records, but now accesses them as a resource in understanding how the SA saw the recruitment of artisan journalists as a component in its efforts to better educate workers and raise the profile of technical education in Britain in the late nineteenth century. She extends her analysis beyond the 1867 Paris Exhibition to include artisan travels to Vienna in 1873, and Paris in 1878 and 1889. The structure of chapters 3 and 4 is somewhat awkward, as Chapter 3 focuses upon the 1867 journals to provide first-hand accounts of the WMCIU tour, whereas Chapter 4 re-focuses upon workers’ accounts to demonstrate how the SA used their observations in emphasizing the significance of technical education. Strong outlines the rigorous process of selecting SA artisan reporters which, with subsequent tours, was increasingly determined by representatives of workers. Yet, she remarks, "Given this process, the reporters largely represented Britain's artisan elite: literate, industrious, and respectable" . More specifically, "Ambitious, civic-minded and, over the years, progressively educated in new technologies related to their trades, the artisan reporters epitomized the value of modern education in maintaining Britain's industrial supremacy" . Until 1889, when passage of the Technical Instruction Act blunted the imperative of pressing for strengthened technical education, Strong notes that the SA representatives often chose to speak out forcefully against an educational system they thought had hamstrung workers. "Articulating and circulating the goals of the educational reform movement in their reports, they sustained a two-decades-long polemic against a class system that neglected workers' intellectual, cultural and vocational development – the failure of a liberal state that, they argued, boded ill for the economic and social stability of Britain's future” .
In Chapter 5: ‘Class Trips and the Meaning of British Citizenship: The Regent Street Polytechnic at Home and Abroad, 1871-1903,’ Strong assesses the role of the Young Men's Christian Institute (YMCI), otherwise known as the Polytechnic, in fostering international engagement by working-class, and some middle-class, students in the late nineteenth century. In the context of this monograph, the chapter may seem for some readers an addendum to the previous four chapters focused specifically on workingmen’s responses to international exhibitions. Yet, it helps to draw the reader through Strong's broader narrative of educational travel. She delineates how the Polytechnic, led by Quintin Hogg, encouraged travel abroad as a means of building upon technical skills at home with a broader commitment to knowledge and the appreciation of other cultures that could strengthen young men as British citizens. She outlines the founding of the Polytechnic and examines Hogg's commitment to both encouraging students to venture abroad during and after their studies and establishing the Polytechnic Touring Association (PTA) to assist in planning for groups of students. Connections with Polytechnic alumni around the world were key in assisting traveling groups to feel at home and cementing ties of loyalty over the years. Through networks of correspondence between those who had departed the institution, those engaged in travel, and those planning for it, a tradition of traveling was firmly embedded at the Polytechnic. "The centrality of travel and tourism at the Polytechnic, therefore, not only produced institutional, civic, national, and imperial identities but appeared to realize the progressive ideal of an organic common culture and community," Strong writes . Yet, the Polytechnic's travel programs were not uncontested as disputes arose about costs that were prohibitive to many of the poor, and debates about the limitations on female participation in Polytechnic programs included discussions of limitations on their travel.
In the final pages of Chapter 5, Strong begins to build a bridge between programs established by the Polytechnic and study abroad programs at universities in the twentieth and twenty-first century, which have sought many of the same goals as the Polytechnic. She draws the reader toward an understanding of how the efforts of travel programs initiated by the Polytechnic were among the early components of international study and exchange programs that would have increasingly high profiles at universities. In her Conclusion, ‘Goody, Gordon, and Shilpa Shetty "Poppadom": The Politics of Study Abroad from the New Liberalism to New Labour,’ Strong argues that “neo-liberal” social and economic policies have continued to underfund education and, in particular, limited the ability of working class youth to participate in study abroad, now seen as a hallmark of the new "global citizenship." She examines the story of Britain's reality TV star Jade Goody, and argues that in her life, which was marked by mocking of her working-class roots and lack of geographic knowledge before her death, Goody, "…was all too aware of the structural inequalities that precluded full citizenship" . Emerging from the archives of her Victorian working-class travelers, Strong argues that the escalating costs of study abroad and the increasing weight of debt upon students from working-class backgrounds discourages travel abroad by many students of limited means. Moreover, not only have the neo-liberal policies of the post-Thatcher era sanctioned the re-creation of a bifurcated Victorian environment in which travel abroad has become a privilege reserved for the elite, “but they have also fostered an era in which “the demonization and dehumanization of the working class has become normalized” .
Strong’s arguments regarding international experiences that are increasingly the preserve of a social and economic elite will gain sympathy from many, though others will find her wider condemnation of “neo-liberal” social and economic policies of the past 30 years – responsible, she argues, for a willingness to de-humanize the working class and by implication, to write them off as worthy of investment – as an ideologically charged salvo directed at the wider target of social stratification in Britain. In a more limited sense, Strong's criticism of the state of educational travel in the early twenty-first century could better sustain itself if backed by a fully developed analysis of the evolution of educational travel in the twentieth century. Many historians of the Victorian era, having followed Strong through five chapters analyzing working-class accounts of international travel, will yearn for a natural conclusion in which she offers a more detailed review of her work and key conclusions regarding working-class demands for inclusion in the nation. Thus, as it stands, her conclusion is both provocative and problematic. Nonetheless, in its overall quality of research and writing (and with a text that seems nearly free of grammatical or technical errors) this monograph should continue to be of interest for scholars of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain interested in international travel as envisioned and experienced by members of the working classes and liberal reformers.
(1) See Strong, “Class Trips and the Meaning of British Citizenship : Travel, Educational Reform, and the Regent Street Polytechnic at Home and Abroad, 1871-1903”. Journal of British Studies 51-1 (January 2012) : 102-131.
(2) See Piers Brendon, Thomas Cook : 150 Years of Popular Tourism. London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1991.
(3) See Georgis Varouxakis, Victorian Political Thought on France and the French. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
☞ Illustrated version on The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/education/strong.html
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