The Moral Mapping of Victorian and Edwardian London
Charles Booth, Christian Charity, and the Poor-but-Respectable
Thomas R.C. Gibson-Brydon
Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.
Paperback. xii+215 p. ISBN 978-0773546875. $(Can)34.95 (Cloth, $100)
Reviewed by Ginger Frost
Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama)
The story behind the publication of this book is a tragic one. Thomas Gibson-Brydon and his partner, Laura Nagy, both died in a car crash in 2009 before the former could complete revisions on his 2007 dissertation. Two of his advisors, Brian Lewis and Hillary Kaell, have edited his manuscript for publication, leaving as much of his original voice as possible. The resulting volume shows the promise of his academic career, and a welcome analysis of religious influences both on charity and on the early development of sociology. It also demonstrates the importance of context and using a variety of sources in making wide-ranging conclusions.
The book concentrates on Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (1886-1903), particularly the seven volumes devoted to “Religious Influences,” published 1902-1903. These volumes are the least popular part of the series for historians, but Gibson-Brydon argues that they are central to understanding Booth’s views of poverty and his influence in his own time. The author asserts that Booth was no proto-socialist, and his disagreements with the Charity Organization Society (COS) have been overblown. Instead, Booth’s classifications of different types of poverty led him to support helping only one class (“Class C”), the poor but respectable. He was as authoritarian and morally disapproving of Classes A and B as the most self-righteous Victorian; he believed “criminals” and “loafers” needed coercion to make them engage in the morally-uplifting struggle of work. In this, he was in agreement with the COS; both opposed sentimental, amateurish giving that, in their views, did more harm than good, and both based these convictions on their religious beliefs, i.e., that struggle and suffering led to salvation.
The purpose of the “Religious Influences” volumes was to examine charitable giving from various religious bodies in London. Vicars and curates were untrained in social work, and some had difficulty coping with the needs of populous parishes. Their anxieties about their position tied into broader challenges to liberalism (e.g. feminism, socialism) at the turn of the century. Still, many clergymen agreed with Booth on the need for “scientific” giving and “practical” Christianity; otherwise, parish poor boxes were soon empty. If church leaders did give freely, they focused on the next generation rather than the parents, to avoid rewarding “vice.”
Gibson-Brydon’s analysis reaches its climax in a chapter on the views of the working class itself. Arguing against E. P. Thompson, he insists that no “working-class community” existed. Instead, the poor divided against themselves, always trying to find someone lower on the scale against whom to elevate themselves. Those in Booth’s Class C were especially censorious over their “loafer” neighbors. The prevalence of bigotry and conflict in the working class, in his opinion, shows a lack of community interests. Indeed, many adopted middle-class notions of respectability and domesticity, went to church, and voted Tory. The poor, like the pastors, were driven by anxiety about their status, thus their periodic releases through drink or, at the other end of the spectrum, ecstatic religious experiences.
The major arguments of this book are thought-provoking, and I welcome any historian who takes religious belief seriously rather than a sign of mental impoverishment or desperation. Gibson-Brydon makes a good case on the near unanimity of disapproval of the casual poor amongst his major players. Nevertheless, this book has a number of analytical flaws, mostly related to its source base, which is too limited to support the large claims of the author, and to lacunae in the secondary literature. In the first place, few historians in recent years argue for a simplistic Marxist analysis of class; the fact that Gibson-Brydon has to reach back to Thompson (who wrote over fifty years ago) as a foil is a sign of this. The division between skilled and unskilled, rural and urban, unionized and non-unionized, north and south, men and women, and respectable and rough are all so common as to be clichés. Few social historians will be shocked to learn that the poor were bigoted against workhouse inmates, people of color, or illegitimates. Gibson-Brydon probably knew this, but he still failed to engage fully and carefully with family historians, who have mapped these differences and sought to understand them.
Furthermore, does the presence of these divisions necessarily mean the working class did not have community? Gibson-Brydon asserts, rather than proves, this. For one thing, these divisions are more a version of Freud’s narcissism of minor differences than fatal flaws. The use of such differentiation, according to Freud, actually promotes cohesion, binding the larger community against the “outsiders”. Thus, the dynamic sometimes split the working class, as with the division between respectable and rough, but also bound it together at other times, against harsh laws or unreasonable employers (as for instance when the East End Jewish community aided dock strikers). The process of division and cohesion, in other words, was much more convoluted than indicated here. For another thing, the examples the author gives in this chapter are almost entirely from “pink” areas–neighborhoods that were in transition from unskilled workers to skilled working-class (and even some lower middle-class) residents. These people were by far the most likely to distinguish themselves from their neighbors and to make these differences known to middle-class observers. They were also the most likely to go to church and to be anxious about their status. They cannot, then, stand for “the working class” in London any more than Thompson’s radicals can. In short, the fact that the aspiring working class disapproved of casual laborers does not necessarily invalidate ideas of a working-class community at the lower levels. Finally, even these skilled working-class interviewees likely tailored their answers to curry favor with the investigators (and potential helps in time of trouble). Their disapproving remarks, then, may have been instrumental rather than sincere (or a mix of both). The author does not correct for this bias in the sources, or the absence, by and large, of voices from “blue” or “black” streets.
Gibson-Brydon’s work also lacks a careful analysis of gender, substituting instead a single chapter on women as investigators. Booth belittled or ignored his women investigators and regarded women as “unscientific” givers, despite much evidence to the contrary. This is a point worth making, but more attention could have been paid to gender in regard to working-class values. Working-class women were the moral arbiters in many neighborhoods; they, then, made the decision to ostracize “rough” neighbors, alcoholics, or unwed mothers. Given their own low standing in Victorian England, this is not surprising; such divisions gave them status and power. But was this also true of their husbands, who already had status as breadwinners? Were women or men more prevalent in complaints about drunken or feckless neighbors? And, whoever was most disapproving, did he or she complain more about drunken, violent men (or women) or sexually loose women (or men)? Perhaps these gendered divisions were not reflected in the reports; if so, it points out once again the unspoken biases of Booth’s investigators, and the limited nature of this source.
Divisions amongst the poor certainly existed, but no truly poverty-stricken family could survive without cooperation for many reasons. Tenements, lodgings, or back-to-back houses required it, and neighbors were vital resources for survival in any case. Most important, many working-class women lived near kin, meaning neighbors blended into family. Partly as a result, attitudes towards the unrespectable were complex amongst the poor, not simply moralistic disapproval or open acceptance. Most fell along a spectrum of choices that were seldom predictable. For instance, reactions to cohabiting couples varied by the area (rural or urban), the reasons for the cohabitation, whether or not the couple was flagrant about its status, and many other factors. Another example concerns illegitimacy; for every autobiography of an illegitimate child who was shamed and disgraced, another tells the story of a child whose status barely impinged on his/her life. Robert Roberts’s The Classic Slum, which Gibson-Brydon quotes as an example of the moralistic poor, is just as contradictory, saying the matriarchs of his neighborhood shunned unwed mothers, but, a few pages later, claiming they accepted those “living tally” without criticism (though these couples’ children were also illegitimate). In other words, Booth’s work must be used only in the context of many sources on the poor, as one source rarely shows the complexities involved. In the same way, Booth’s London-centric study means that his work cannot stand in for all of Britain. Strong working-class communities in the north of England, Wales, and Scotland are all absent by definition. Many of these are, not coincidentally, areas of strong Liberal-Labour support, and, possibly, a less divided working class.
Gibson-Brydon shows clearly that Booth did not intend to support socialist ideas with his works, but this does not mean that Booth did not influence and help that movement. Once his work was published, he could not control how people used it. His volumes, after all, demonstrated that a majority of the poor lived at or under the poverty line; disaster loomed whenever illness, untimely death, business failure, or old age intervened. His academic tone in relating this information may well have made the case for national health or old age pensions more persuasively than any emotional rhetoric could have done. And once these benefits existed for one group, expanding them for the rest became much easier.
As this review makes clear, Gibson-Brydon’s work will be controversial and thought-provoking for many historians. It is most successful in its reassessment of Charles Booth and in highlighting of the work of his investigators. It also puts religion back in a central place both in the history of charitable giving and the birth of sociology. What is most striking to this reviewer is the longevity of the division of the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving,” categories that reached from the Elizabethan age to contemporary political debates. Brydon-Gibson had a bright future; had he been able to re-write his dissertation thoroughly, his impact would have been even greater. As it is, his book will act as a stimulant to further debate on the lives of the working class in Booth’s London.
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