Abundant poverty: the urban poor in late Victorian era


Abundant poverty: the urban poor in late Victorian era

In the 1980s, in Beaumont, a young man named Sid Coser ate his hunger by stealing fruit from the vegetable basket. Louis Strade grew up in the slums of the historic city of Bath and was used to foraging in the gutter. Joseph Sharp of Derbyshire is so poor that he can only “barefoot” and live on “tea dregs and batter”. Coser, Slade and Sharp are just the tip of the iceberg of poor children in late Victorian England. The girls huddled together around scarves, and the boys’ wandering eyes were full of fatigue, showing the living conditions of the urban poor in Victorian times.

Why are these people so poor? Britain is already very rich. At the end of 19th century, great inventions such as asphalt road, harvester, toilet and telegraph completely changed every aspect of daily life. At that time, Britain was almost synonymous with progress and prosperity, but social observers such as Charles Booth and Henry Rowntree found that British workers’ families were increasingly trapped in Gothic nightmare poverty. What happened?

Emma Griffin’s new book Bread Winner aims to explore this issue, which is both meticulous and sincere. Instead of looking for answers from charts or histograms, she chose to directly ask people and “abnormal” people who live in poverty in the richest countries in the world for help. Her original data is 662 life histories, most of which were written in 1970s and 1980s, and kept in local archives or published by small socialist publishing houses. The reason for this choice is not that Griffin thinks that the authors of these memoirs can provide macroeconomic analysis in the late Victorian era, or even that they can hand over clear and complete family accounts. She asked about a series of feelings caused by the family’s economic situation and its composition: how did my father hide the money he earned in his socks; How distressed my mother is to receive a lot of mending work from others; How can a big sister who has just found a full-time job go home and praise her new clothes? All this is not a simple anecdote. Griffin believes that it is this kind of evidence that gives us a glimpse that “economic life has profound humanistic characteristics.”

A breadwinner
At first glance, it is not clear how Griffin extracted a coherent pattern from this pile of noise. Each story seems to be independent: some mine in Lancashire, some farm in Cambridge, and some work as tailors in London-the conclusion shows that 20% of memoir writers say that their father’s salary actually started to increase during this period. However, instead of widely improving the family situation, the salary increase has become the first sound of burying family happiness. For example, john murphy recalled that the overtime pay my father received in the 1890s “didn’t bring much benefit to my family”. On the contrary, drinking on weekends and rushing to pay off old debts have become the norm. Joseph Sharp mentioned bitterly that his father’s new income was used to feed his pet dog, and the children didn’t get any benefit.

If the mother can control the situation and get her increasing share of national wealth, the irresponsible father will not completely screw things up. But Griffin has repeatedly found that women’s wages are only nine Niu Yi hairs of men. No matter how many clothes you mend and how many houses you clean, you can’t earn enough, let alone support your family. It is impossible to leave your husband, because it means that the children will be in a difficult situation and your support may be deprived.

Griffin’s point of view is not to demonize working-class men, but to show that the role of “breadwinner” can form a channel to oppress men in a sense, which is similar to those who rely on him. Many memoir writers say that when fathers are under great pressure-the death of their children, work accidents or local economic recession-they will become more and more addicted to alcohol. Griffin is also keenly aware that the memoirist may not care about mentioning his father’s drinking experience, but he will still be ashamed to talk about various changes in public. And those mothers who went to or were sent to shelters, or had illegitimate children with tenants, rarely had the opportunity to share their experiences, let alone the touching stories written by


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