Four Nations Poverty

Four Nations Poverty

This week, Dr Oliver Betts (National Railway Museum, York) advocates writing a history of the poor and poverty simultaneously through a four nations approach.

At its heart the approach to Four Nations History outlined in J.G. Pocock’s 1973 lecture is about identity. The need to reinvest British history ‘with meaning’, as Pocock saw it, depended on a re-examination of the balance between peoples and spaces within the British world. ‘These are’, he wrote, ‘the problems of men living in history’.[i]

It is a concept that resonates, particularly for the historian of poverty who reflects on E.P. Thompson’s serious charge to rescue the poorer people of the past from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.[ii] Yet the use of such a quote also reveals the structural fault lines within such a history. Any four nations study that attempts to engage with the concept of poverty must first address the problem that such questions of identity are in their essence two-fold, for histories of poverty revolve as much around who the poor were as they do around what poverty is. Traditionally treated as related but distinct questions, it is important for wider histories to weave the two together. The history of poverty is the history of who the poor are and, just as significantly, a documentation of how the two have been identified.

When Seebohm Rowntree laid out his vision of poverty in 1901 it was on a grand scale. Despite the humble title, reflecting very much the reflective young Quaker’s personality, Poverty: A Study of Town Life was at its heart a radical document, espousing a widespread history of poverty. It was not a four nations approach in the sense later espoused by Pocock; there was no comparative consideration of Scotland, Wales or Ireland in relation to England, for Rowntree was convinced no comparison was needed. ‘Having satisfied myself that the conditions of life obtaining in my native city of York were not exceptional’ wrote Rowntree, they could reasonably stand in for ‘many, if not most, of our provincial towns’. With Charles Booth’s monumental Life and Labour of the People in London already having addressed the capital, Rowntree felt assured that York could offer a representative picture of poverty in his age.[iii] It was not an argument that endeared him to critics. Helen Bosanquet, one of the leading lights of the Charity Organisation Society, took him to task in an increasingly sharp exchange across the letters page of The Times. The ‘exceptionally bad’ sanitation of York, and its incompetent and badly-run Poor Law Authority, she pointed out, meant that it could never be a national model of poverty as Rowntree intended.[iv] What followed was a deluge of localised studies of towns and cities that built upon an already established body of Royal Commissions, newspaper reports, and charity records that fragmented poverty in late Victorian Britain into a patina of local case studies.

For the historical identification of poverty, these texts have been invaluable. Ian Gazeley has, both in collaboration with Andrew Newell and alone, focused on the comparative nature of poverty in the Edwardian period, comparing the statistics collected by the myriad of social investigators into a national study.[v] James Vernon’s powerful Hunger: A Modern History takes a related, although more wide-ranging approach, branching out over the ways in which Imperial Britain shaped concepts of hunger in the modern era. Rowntree is covered, and York receives its provincial attention, but the debate moves well beyond it, from New Zealand to India to Peckham and beyond.[vi] Whilst not directly a history of poverty, it encapsulates in its approach to its identification of modern notions of hunger, that instinctive turn from Britain to the Anglophone world that Pocock called for. [vii] In short, histories of poverty have taken on a broader comparative approach.

The same cannot be said for histories of the poor. The very nature of such primary sources has pushed studies of the poor to become more fragmented. My own PhD, as an example, examined just three neighbourhoods across urban England in intense detail. Wider-ranging attempts come with their own set of problems. Selina Todd’s recent The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010, has seen much skirmishing and debating throughout academia and the wider literary world over its treatment of the source material of the poorer section of society.[viii] The book’s tripartite structure, Servants-The People-The Dispossessed, leaves the reader in no doubt regarding its focus on the lower orders of society. Yet the working class was not the poor.  The terms overlap but are not, crucially, synonymous. To think such is to ignore the very human nature of poverty, its relative value to individuals throughout history, sometimes regardless of their relationship to the material calculation of want, and how this may inform historical study.

The only way around the historical impasse is to write the history of poverty and the poor simultaneously. The resulting studies will be messy, sweeping intense local case studies into broad thematic approaches, and will demand historians become masters of the broadest possible range of skills and sources. But it must be done. A four nations approach provides a framework in which to pursue such analysis, allowing for a careful and comparative consideration of both the practicalities and the meanings of poverty for men, women, and children throughout the British Isles and beyond. Bringing these disparate case studies into a framework that does not ignore Pocock’s ‘celtic fringe’ and its very different conceptions of chronic need, is vital to understanding both the nature of poverty in the past and why investigators such as Rowntree felt that one northern English town could be substituted for the whole. Understanding both poverty and the poor together is the only way to understand the societal attitudes and impulses in which they exist.

The more we fragment the history of the poor, and the more the history of poverty progresses without it, the more we separate the two. Artificially. Harmfully. Irrevocably. Whilst, for example, many may feel that the ‘distressed gentlefolk’ provided for by the United Kingdom Benefit Association were not really ‘the poor’, they were still poor. As a small piece in the Irish Times in 1906 used to drum up funds made clear, they considered themselves poor.[ix] If we cannot move beyond the local to the wider scale, pairing up again the statistical and the human sides of the analysis, historians will turn their backs on the poor. We will, if not careful, condemn them to the neglect of posterity.

[i] J.G.A Pocock, ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, in Pocock, The Discovery of Islands, (Cambridge, 2005), 35.

[ii] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (London, 2002 Edition), 12.

[iii] Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: The Making of Town Life, (London, 1901), vi-vii.

[iv] The Times, 4th October 1902.

[v] Ian Gazeley and Andrew Newell, ‘Poverty in Edwardian Britain’. Economic History Review.

64, 1 (2011), 69. Ian Gazeley, Poverty in Britain 1900-1960.(London  2003), 1-64.

[vi] James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History, (London, 2007), 3.

[vii] Pocock, 40-41.

[viii] See for instance Ross McKibbin’s review, Twentieth Century British History, 25, 4, (2014) and David Kynaston’s review, The Guardian,

[ix] The Irish Times, 10th June 1906.

Dr. Oli Betts is the Research Fellow at the National Railway Museum in York. His PhD compared social investigation of poverty with the lives of the poor across late Victorian England. He is currently researching a project marrying the human and transport histories of South London 1850-1940. You can find out more about his work here or follow him on Twitter @DrOliBetts.


2 thoughts on “Four Nations Poverty

  1. Really interesting post and one that I really enjoyed reading. I have two (rather rambley) questions. One of my questions, how does the local fits into a Four-Nation approach?, emerges from an earlier post that was published here by Neil Evans. I wondered if Oliver would be interested in reflecting some more about this geographical relationship, especially as many poverty studies in the Edwardian period were confined to the local sphere. Finally, how do should we understand the terms ‘poverty’ and the ‘poor’? My research into University and Social Settlements in the late-Victorian and Edwardian has found that in these terms were not confined solely to economic definitions and that they were used to describe social and cultural deprivation that could incorporate a wider body of the working classes. Recently I’ve been thinking about how we should incorporate other meanings into the terms ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ and wondered if Oliver had any thoughts.

  2. I’d like to thank Lucinda for such a kind response! When one puts such manifesto-esque posts out, one does not always expect a reply, and it is gratifying to know that someone has digested your rambling thoughts.

    If I could answer the questions in reverse…

    I think, really, that the definition of poverty grows more and more detailed each year in the historiography. The work of Ian Gazeley especially, building on previous historians, has done much to push us to question our casual assumptions that the definitions (and in some cases the simple calculations) of social investigators such as Rowntree and Booth are accurate. My concern is that these offer a largely economic measure divorced from the human experience of being poor. Combining the two requires marrying this work with a more socio-cultural approach.

    Avoiding any arbitrary definition based on social class requires some other yardstick. It is possible to follow the definitions offered by contemporary experts. Rowntree, particularly, became very interested in the idea of moral/spiritual/social poverty in his old age, an avenue under explored by historians but of huge relevence both then and now (with modern ideas of deprivation). Beneath these headline acts, moreover, lies an enormous body of local authorities whose expertise on poverty is under-consulted by historians. As Lucinda herself has shown, her University Settlement workers arrived “knowing” where to find the poor, although not always finding them there…

    The most important way of incorporating the swirl of contemporary ideas about who the poor were and what poverty was in the Late VIctorian and Edwardian periods, to my mind, is a geographical approach. My own PhD examined areas that were identified as “slums”. Many residents lived in poverty. Some considered themselves poor. Many outsiders considered them poor. The gaps in between, I quickly found, were the most fascinating.

    This is where a Four Nations approach comes in. As Lucinda has noted, so many responses to poverty in this period were localised and parochial. These offer us, if consulted carefully, our geographical focus. There are multiple ways of encompassing this geographical focus into a Four Nations framework. Institutions, both Government and philanthropic, were spread across all parts of the United Kingdom. Poor Law Unions, for instance, were under the nominal direction of the Local Government Board but in reality operated with considerable leeway when it came to defining those “in need”. So far histories of these groups have clung to the regional or national studies rather than taken up the challenge of the wider Four Nations context.

    Neil Evans’ suggestion, however, offers perhaps the most exciting idea. Can a history of poverty be told from a geographic centre emanating out? Any attempt to break the primacy of the East End of London over studies of poverty would be a breath of fresh air, but where would the focus be? Liverpool, as Evans points out, was an epicentre. Manchester, with the dark visions of Engels so prominent in many accounts, could be another nexus point.

    In front of me, currently, is a Salvation Army pamphlet for emigration schemes to South Africa. Cheap tickets are offered to the poor to allow them to start a new life. The question that suggests itself from this extended musing is where, in the late c19th-early c20th, must a Four Nations approach to poverty end? With Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and English migrants fleeing these shores for new lands and new opportunities would any geographic approach to poverty and the poor need to extend into the wider Anglophone world? Where are the boundaries of the Four Nations?

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