Controversies among English historians may appear to the world arid or comical affairs, but in fact they are the signs that we know something about a subject but that we don’t yet know quite enough. The combatants throw up enormous banks of material and at first the divide between them seems unbridgeable. Sometimes the digging by rival groups is so intense that the ground of the debate shifts, as happened over the commutation of labor services in the system of land tenure called feudalism, and is happening now over the famous dispute about the gentry in the early seventeenth century. At other times the chasm between the two sides gets filled in by the bulldozers—sometimes indeed by the work of one man, as when Father David Knowles put an end to the debate about the dissolution of the monasteries with volumes of such dispassionate erudition that the exchanges a generation previously between G. G. Coulton and Cardinal Gasquet looked absurd.

One controversy in which the bulldozers are still hard at work centers upon the effect of the industrial revolution upon the standard of living and quality of life among the poor. It has been going on for more than fifty years since John Clapham first took J. L. and Barbara Hammond to task for being so indignant about the degradation and poverty of the industrial and agricultural laborer. Since then gangs of historians have been at work, some stressing how benevolent and humanitarian, others how callous and self-interested, the legislation of those days was, some arguing that despite the trade cycle real wages were rising, others that the pool of desperately poor people was always being replenished by the increase in the population. Here, however, is a fine book based on the reading of the by now vast secondary literature, which helps immensely to fill in the ground between the two sides and make the reader conscious of how complicated a matter the idea of poverty is. Gertrude Himmelfarb has written more than just another contribution to the controversy. Her book says something important about the feelings and ideas of our ancestors—and about our own.

She begins by asking a simple question. What did people in the past mean when they spoke of the poor? Who did they think they were? Were they those below a certain level of existence? Or were they merely those who were incapable of earning a living—cripples, orphans, and the aged? Did government, central or local, have a duty to relieve them? At what level should such support be? Should any distinction be made between the deserving and undeserving poor? Were there two nations as Disraeli said? Or were there different tribes of poor, some in recognized occupations, others comparable to Mayhew’s street folk or Max Stirner’s Lumpen?

In answering these questions Gertrude Himmelfarb pays a singular compliment to England. Christendom had always made charity a virtue: “Ye who now shall bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.” But from the end of Elizabeth’s reign onward England had a law which made the poor the concern of the state. Relief of the poor was not an emergency measure or to be left to private charity. It was to be organized as a compulsory system, which fell on the taxpayer and lasted, with many amendments, until the end of the Second World War. By the eighteenth century England had become a byword in Europe for its hospitals and almshouses, and for the taxes imposed on the rich to help the poor. Nor did this diminish private charity, which flourished even when public relief was at its height.

But ideas about poverty do not resemble an escalator. They are more like a pendulum. In Elizabeth’s day the sturdy beggar was to be whipped as a punishment for idleness, but no attempt was made to find him employment. By Locke’s time mercantilist doctrine made Locke regard the poor as a drain on scarce resources and he advocated putting them in labor camps. This Defoe opposed not because it was wrong but because it was impractical. He approved Locke’s addition of productivity to the Puritan virtues of temperance, prudence, and industry. The pendulum swung still further when Mandeville wrote his infamous Fable of the Bees (1714) decrying charity schools and arguing that the best society was that in which large numbers of the population were both poor and ignorant. People were alarmed by the rise in poor relief. In a country of only five and a half million people its cost rose within twenty-five years to over £2 million a year by 1710. Was it not time, Mandeville suggested, to dismantle the system?

But the pendulum had not swung that far. Mandeville’s book, so far from being applauded, was denounced. Both the requirement of benevolence as a matter of good form, as advocated by the Earl of Shaftesbury, and counterculture piety as promoted by John Wesley, rejected his principles. Both Shaftesbury and Wesley denied that people were poor because they were idle. At this point Gertrude Himmelfarb’s hero appears, Adam Smith advocated a market economy because it made a moral economy that much easier. Unlike Hume he believed in high wages and opposed high profits; and he contrasted England’s prosperity and its high wages to Scotland’s weak economy with its low wages. Mercantilism was not only wrong but immoral because it encouraged businessmen to be deceitful and selfish. Adam Smith would have been skeptical of trade conventions or publishers’ fairs. “People of the same trade,” he wrote, “seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or some contrivance to raise prices.” The individual should pursue his own interest: in doing so “he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”


But, Gertrude Himmelfarb argues, that did not mean that the interest of society was identical with that of individual interests. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was the equivalent of Hegel’s “cunning of reason,” which made individuals serve a larger purpose than their own. Smith did not denounce the Poor Law except in one respect. The Act of Settlement after the Restoration had made it illegal for the very poor to move from one parish to another. This, said Smith, violated individual freedom and reduced the mobility of labor. He wanted state aid for education, high taxes on luxury goods to finance poor relief, correctives and palliatives for inequality; but he did not believe in some sweeping reform or other to abolish it.

In the hard times that followed the Napoleonic wars, the pendulum began to swing back again. Burke was the first to treat labor solely as a commodity, and he made a distinction, which had not been made before, between those who worked and were poor and those who could not work, such as the sick, the elderly, or orphans. Malthus made poverty still more ambiguous. In his famous treatise misery was bound to increase as the population increased because the supply of food would not increase fast enough and hence more and more workers would fall below the level of subsistence. The growth of industry might improve the wealth of nations but it would not improve the wealth of the poor.

These new ideas were at work when poor relief got out of hand. The magistrates of Speenhamland had decreed that at a time of high bread prices poor relief should be paid not merely to the unemployed but to those laborers who were being paid less than subsistence wages. The policy was merciful but it was an open-ended and inflationary proposal. As this practice spread to other parishes, it became clear that some reform of the Poor Laws was needed. What emerged was a system that created two separate classes of poor. It stigmatized paupers by sending them to the workhouse, and in so doing it stigmatized the poor as a whole.

The Poor Law report of 1834 has been denounced by succeeding generations as a cruel, vindictive piece of class legislation; and Gertrude Himmelfarb does not spend time defending it. She succeeds, however, in depicting the sense of bewilderment that men and women of the 1830s and 1840s felt when they contemplated the problem of the poor. No one except the utilitarians had a good word to say for the new system, which, Disraeli said, made poverty a crime. But no one could devise a set of principles on which alternative legislation could be framed. Cobbett, that curious reactionary radical, demanded a return to the principles of the Speenhamland magistrates, but no one in any position of influence or authority could endorse the old system which had become hopelessly extravagant. To Carlyle the new Poor Law was another example of the tyranny of the cash nexus and the horror of utilitarianism, but he also ridiculed the old system as putting a premium on idleness and bastardy.

One of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s most effective historical points is her account of this bewilderment. So far from being complacent and heartless or avaricious and dogmatic, people became obsessed by the problem of poverty. New political issues arose almost overnight such as universal suffrage, child and female labor, factory acts and safety regulations, sanitary laws, royal commissions, temperance, emigration, education, and the family. Surely the vulnerable should be protected from careless employers; but how far did factory acts impair the sense of moral responsibility that laissez faire had restored to a community of free individuals? It was not fear of Chartism and revolution, as Engels claimed, so much as a bad conscience that made the upper and middle classes attempt to mitigate hardship by legislation and regulation, even though such measures conflicted with the principles of the free market economy and of individual moral responsibility. By the 1850s when times were more prosperous people doubted whether the quality of life—the social and moral condition of the poor—was improving even though their own standard of living had risen.


And yet, just at this time when the poor were beginning to recover from the stigma of pauperism, the division between the deserving and the undeserving made by the new Poor Law received confirmation from a curious source. Mayhew’s inspired reporting of the conditions under which the poor in London lived differentiated between their occupations. But the differentiation he made was between the poor who worked by choice if they were able and the street poor who worked, if at all, spasmodically and who preferred idleness, crime, and a nomadic existence to regular hours of labor. Mayhew, more than Marx, popularized the image of the Lumpenproletariat. Although every so often Mayhew reminded himself that he was portraying the “two nations” and tried to utter words of compassion about the street folk, time and again he lapsed into the language of horror and alarm when he depicted what, after all, was in France a sizable part of the mob that had terrorized society and manned the barricades.

Mayhew, Gertrude Himmelfarb says, made poverty “a form of social pathology, a cultural rather than an economic condition.” So, of course, had Dickens. No other novelist showed greater compassion toward the poor. But none drew a clearer division than the one between Bob Cratchit and Bill Sikes or between the Toodles family and the crossing sweeper Jo. Not that Himmelfarb stops at Dickens. As important in their way, she argues, were the now forgotten writers such as William Ainsworth and G. W. M. Reynolds, and the authors of broadsheets that sold even more copies than Dickens’s novels. The cult of the criminal was thought by Thackeray to be so dangerous that he criticized Oliver Twist for making the characters in the thieves’ kitchen so riveting; and Ainsworth was blackballed from clubs when a criminal named Courvoisier confessed that he had planned to murder his master after being lent Jack Sheppard by a valet of the Duke of Bedford.

The poor did not form in people’s minds again as a single entity until Charles Booth, in his Life and Labour of the People in London, introduced around the turn of the century the notion of a statistical line that defined poverty and abolished the definition by which poverty depended on whether or not you worked. This sober statistical inquiry, so unlike Mayhew’s muddled figures, still differentiated between the poor and the very poor, but Booth placed both below his poverty line and reestablished the class of the deserving poor—deserving now not because they were not a burden upon society, but because they deserved assistance in the form of old age pensions and national insurance against unemployment. In one of her many clever observations Gertrude Himmelfarb recalls how as a young member of Parliament Attlee misread Booth and imagined that he had shown that most of the people were below the poverty line. In fact Booth showed that 70 percent were above it; but that misreading helped form the idea of the welfare state of 1945—a state that provided not relief from poverty but services for everybody whether or not they were poor. The new criterion was to be a standard of welfare (not the one proposed by the Webbs but the one proposed by William Beveridge in his plans for social insurance drawn up during World War II). The standard of need was no longer to be a standard of poverty.

Or was it? Gertrude Himmelfarb, who will explore in a second volume the idea of poverty since 1880, remarks that no sooner is a standard of poverty or a pauper class defined out of existence than it sidles in by the back door, wringing its hands. Soon social scientists were calling for “supplementary benefits,” a modern word for relief. Not only were they discovering pockets of poverty in England. Poverty was next said to be indivisible—all over the world there were poor people, far poorer than those in England; surely they should qualify for aid. The rigorous analysis of relative deprivation by W. G. Runciman became in the hands of the Labour party sociologist Peter Townsend a means of reinterpreting poverty. Your sense of being poor, according to Runciman, was conceived with regard to the people who were a little better off than yourself. Townsend suggested that you were poor if you did not get a hot breakfast, or a birthday party, or a holiday, or if you did not dine out.

There are two lessons to be drawn in Britain today from this tale. The first is that reformers should be rigorous in their definition of poverty and should be skeptical of plans to abolish it based on large general principles. In recent years social scientists have been confusing poverty with inequality. They have also displayed astonishing arrogance in recommending remedies. By the end of the Sixties the people who managed and administered the welfare state had a disagreeable question put to them. They were asked, “Why are you such a shit?” A team of social investigators would inquire into some evil, such as battered wives or truancy or juvenile crime or racial discrimination. Having analyzed the problem, they would then recommend the spending of a few millions of public money to “cure” the disease. If those responsible said they could not persuade the government to give it, still worse if they said that the action proposed would not cure the evil and might even intensify it, they were told not to prevaricate. The problem had been “thoroughly researched.” The conclusions were inescapable. As for the money, what were a few millions compared with the expenditure on defense? To say you could not persuade Government to part with its money was to join the conspiracy of Government against the people. This evil was so stark that any man of good will would want to cure it. If you, the person in authority, did not act on the report of the researchers you showed you were callous and responsible for prolonging the evil.

This assumption—that all that is needed to remove not just poverty or even inequality but any social malaise and unhappiness is to spend public money and enlarge the bureaucracy—has had a dire effect on the prestige of the social sciences and, far more important, upon the public concern with poverty. Paradoxically it has encouraged the intellectuals of the right to pin their faith on an economic theory that is as rigid as the utilitarianism that inspired Chadwick’s Poor Law. It has also made it possible for the modern Mandevilles in the British Conservative party to take the line that since public expenditure has to be cut, the purposes for which it was given do not really exist. Sweep poverty under the bed and enjoy ourselves on top of it.

The second lesson seems to be this. Economists have been determined to get rid of the subject once called political economy and substitute for it a scientific mathematical discipline, “something above and outside current controversy as far from politics as physiology is from the general practitioner,” as Keynes said in praise of Alfred Marshall. All the same Keynes criticized his old teacher for being “too anxious to do good”; and he in turn was criticized by the University of Chicago economist Harry Johnson for distorting a scientific subject by his delight in paradox and power and concern for unemployment. And yet the more rigorous the principles on which the relief of poverty is designed, the more likely they are to be wrong; and, equally, the more the principles are inspired by utopian notions of abolishing poverty the more likely they are to bring relief into contempt. For centuries the English have put a premium upon ameliorating poverty, and they are at their best when they reject those who call poverty something else such as inequality or idleness. Each generation produces its own definition of poverty and ways of palliating it.

But if it cannot be abolished there is no reason why it should not be diminished or in hard times alleviated. The Victorian novelists Gertrude Himmelfarb discusses accepted the harshness of capitalism because they judged that, whatever way society was organized, there would always be poor people and the very poorest would probably be much the same people who were the poorest then. Nor did they hesitate to portray the villainous poor as villains. What few of them were prepared to accept were the scientific apologists who justified the harshness of capitalism, such as the utilitarians or Ricardo, Malthus, or McCulloch. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s admirable book is a timely reminder that the English judge their statesmen and thinkers by their concern for the poor and also by the effectiveness and humanity of the means they employ to diminish poverty.

This Issue

March 1, 1984