How the Poor Live

The Unknown Mayhew

by Eileen Yeo, by E.P. Thompson
Pantheon, 489 pp., $12.95

The historiography of the industrial revolution in Britain is worth a book in itself. At the beginning of the twentieth century historians at last became aware that the most striking of all the revolutions since 1789 was not any of the willed political revolutions but a process beyond human control which was beginning to transform life and to produce a totally new set of relationships between human beings.

According to their fashion historians tried to describe and account for it; and perhaps more than any others it was J. L. and Barbara Hammond who in their books on the working class in town and country at the beginning of the nineteenth century illuminated the full horror of the change that took place in the lives of the working class. The population explosion, which created heavy unemployment in the countryside, led in turn to mass emigration to the new towns where machine industry was able precariously to establish itself by drawing upon this vast supply of labor, to whom it paid starvation wages. A society was produced in which a new dimension of grinding hardship, poverty, squalor, and misery became the rule for millions in both towns and countryside as the economy became converted over the years into a full-fledged capitalist system. It was this society that the Hammonds unforgettably described.

The reaction against this impassioned version of social history soon came about. Historians such as J.H. Clapham by amassing statistics sought to prove that, however great the hardship was, real wages tended always to be rising and hence the plight of the working class could be said to be less bad than it might have been had the industrial revolution not taken place.

Since those days, our knowledge of economic and social conditions in Victorian England has vastly increased. But there is still no single interpretation of those extraordinarily complex processes that can be said to be acceptable to the majority of those who study the period, if only for the reason that people still ask, as they did 150 years ago, who was responsible for this misery and what should government and the ruling classes have done done about it.

Many economic and social historians who will not be accused of lack of sensibility or compassion, such as G. Kitson Clark or W.L. Burn, have rightly pointed out that the problem of overpopulation and rapid urbanization was certain to prove too much for a ruling class who were bred as country landowners and for an administrative machine which had changed little since the days of Thomas Cromwell in the middle of the sixteenth century. Time throws such long shadows over the scene, even over its most sordid corners, that the observer looking at it later is almost bound to reflect that, as always in the annals of the human race, the impersonal forces of history prove too much for the imagination and resourcefulness of even the most public-spirited and noble-hearted creatures alive at the time—particularly since …

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