Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Poor Always Amongst Us

by Phillip Brown

The nineteenth century saw a huge growth in the population of Great Britain.

By the end of the century there were three times more people living in Great Britain than at the beginning. Families were getting larger, children began to survive infancy better and immigration, particularly from Ireland swelled the inner cities.

[Seven Dials, London]

In the cities, jobs were scarce. Large numbers of both skilled and unskilled people were looking for work, so wages were low, barely above subsistence level. If work dried up, or was seasonal, men were laid off, and because they had hardly enough to live on when they were in work, they had no savings to fall back on.

In his book The Victorian underworld, Kellow Chesney gives a graphic description of the conditions in which many were living:

‘Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure
misery, make up a substantial part of the, metropolis … In big, once handsome
houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room.’

As the century progressed the middle and wealthy classes, through a mixture of fear of the underclass (sounds familiar today) and genuine compassion founded numerous societies to give aid and help, particularly to the ‘deserving poor’. A popular hymn still showed the distance to be travelled though:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And order’d their estate *

*[This is the third verse of the hymn All things bright and beautiful, which was first published in 1848 in Hymns for little children, by CFH (Cecil Frances Humphreys), (London: Joseph Masters, 1848). In modern versions of this hymn this verse is omitted.]

[Hungry street-children are given bread and a hot drink by volunteer charity workers]

Typically in earlier periods, Victorian artists had portrayed the poor of the countryside (where in reality starvation was a shadow that stalked many rural workers, hence the flight to the cities) in rather a jolly way.

[Rustic Civility – William Collins 1833]

But by the 70’s and 80’s, more realistic portrayals began to emerge in response to Dicken’s and other writers who were more hard hitting. Even in From Hand to Mouth — He Was One of the Few Who Would Not Beg by Thomas Faed, you still felt that people knew their place, and of course such pictures were intended for the middle class patrons, who didn’t want poverty on their walls in its utmost reality.

But at least the subject was being discussed and portrayed and a few artists like Luke Fildes went as far as they dared.

[The engraving of this hung on many Victorian Doctor’s wall.]

And through the reforming journal The Graphic (edited by the social reformer, William Luson Thomas) believed strongly that art could bring about social reform. John Millais recommended him to Dicken’s who used him to illustrate Edwin Drood.

“A brilliant morning shines on the old city. Its antiquities and ruins are surpassingly beautiful, with a lusty ivy gleaming in the sun, and the rich trees waving in the balmy air. Changes of glorious light from moving boughs, songs of birds, scents from gardens, woods, and fields - or, rather, from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time - penetrate into the Cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm; and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings.”
Edwin Drood

And William Powell Frith in 1888 portrayed what is almost a photograph of a typical London street, where the rich and poor did intermingle freely.

While Herbert von Herkomer (born in Bavaria but settled in Bushey, Hertfordshire where he built Lululaund – named after his third wife – that was important in the British film industry) captured the real rural poor.

Though in the later Eventide: A Scene in the Westminster Union (1878) the finished picture was carefully ‘polished’ to show the old age paupers happily drinking tea and content.

Domestic labour is seldom seen in Victorian art, though photography picked it up, particularly the fascinating if bizarre work of Arthur Munby, here photographing his future wife Hannah Cullwick as a scullery maid.

A governess was in an awkward position in the Victorian household, neither quite a servant nor a member of the family. As a sign of this social limbo, she often ate in isolation. She had a middle class background and education, but she was paid and not really part of the family. Being a governess was one of the few legitimate ways an unmarried middle class woman could support herself in that society. Her position was often depicted as one to be pitied.

[The Governess by Rebecca Solomon]

Bordering constantly on poverty (and by popular repute prostitution), the over worked seamstresses who were the next level down if education did not allow a Governess position. After several reports distressed seamstress became something of a cause celebre. The public was barraged with newspaper articles, pamphlets, novels, short stories, poetry (the most famous of which is Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt" - 1843)

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the "Song of the Shirt."

[Song of the Shirt – Anna Blunden 1854]

Popular literature was full of stories of a happy, healthy and virtuous young woman leaveing her home in the countryside to become a seamstress in the big city where she encounters an evil employer and/or seducer, and begins an irreversible decline leading to death and/or prostitution.

This brings me to the last and perhaps the best of the great Victorian painters who dealt with the final end of such women. (Charles Dickens wrote The Chimes to highlight the issues.)

[Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts 1867]

This was by no means uncommon. Newspapers listed drowning’s from London bridges each morning.

And I could go on, the Past and Present triptych of Augustus Egg and the
importance of photography in documenting what is to us now a vanished world.

[Fleet Street before the motor car but still so busy.]

For anyone wanting the feel of the poor of London just read Dickens or Henry
Mayhew’s (the founder of Punch) London Labour and the London Poor.


  1. I feel such a connection with the poor and wish more stories were told from their perspectives!

    Thanks for the information and images. The frequent drownings were particularly tragic.

  2. These pictures and your commentary give such a poignant look at what London and England were like for the majority of its inhabitants. Thanks for the post!

  3. Fascinating article with very moving illustrations.

  4. Thank you for this excellent article on the plight of the English poor in the nineteenth century. It remineds me of some of my experiences as a young woman when I lived in Europe for a year and a half in a tiny studio apt with a hot plate and a matress on the floor. But, I enjoyed one very great blessing; I always had money for food, however scant. These stories of the English poor that are so heart-wrenchingly portrayed in Dickens works just tear at my heart. At present I am watching the new mini series of LIttle Dorrit with Matthew Macfayden. This is the best one I've seen. I recommend it to those who would like to see more of what this era was like.

  5. I love reading your historical commentaries!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.