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#1 2010-09-11 10:36:44

Kay Green
From: Hastings, UK
Registered: 2007-04-03

'Poverty amidst Prosperity' by Carl Chinn

'Poverty amidst Prosperity': The urban poor in England, 1834-1914
by Carl Chinn MBE
Carnegie Publishing

Have you ever wondered who those scary people are who are rumoured to live in inner cities and go around attacking people and destroying things? Even if you live in one of those things called 'sink estates' you probably hear about people called things like 'the underclass' or the 'excluded ones', and wonder who they are. They can't be you, you probably think, because you're just an ordinary person. Have you ever noticed that there are people lower down/further up the social scale than you are, and that they seem very agressive and cliquey, hard-headed in their views, unwilling to accept and deal with people outside their immediate circle, almost as if they were a race apart?

There are probably a couple of dozen truly dangerous, more or less unsocialised people in every community. In communities where individual families have no private space of their own, that couple of dozen are going to gather somewhere visible, and they are going to cause trouble. That must be what it looked like to the 19th century slum-dwellers. I wonder if they were aware that they were being judged, as 'a race' on the behaviour of that couple of dozen.

Can you imagine living in a twilight world, in a back-to-back house in a courtyard, the only way out of which was a dark tunnel into the next courtyard of back-to-backs which had a tunnel that led out onto the street. Can you imagine growing up in such a place, with no proper toilets, no refuse collection, a limited supply of (polluted) water and rarely enough to eat or enough fuel to be warm, and parents who, if they were lucky, worked more or less all their waking hours in an attempt to pay the rent and save up for weddings and funerals? Can you imagine how it felt to emerge from such a stinking warren into an urban world where all but your immediate neighbours thought that you were a small, pale, slum dweller because you belonged to an inferior race incapable of proper work?

That's how it was for the workforce who fuelled the so called prosperous years of 1800s England. The dark and mysterious masses of the urban workforce became an object of fear and shame to the more fortunate so, eventually, the government decided town councils should be given the option of raising a rate to spend on slum clearance and urban re-building. Unfortunately, quite a lot of councils accepted the slum-clearance bit but used the lovely new space to build those famous Victorian town halls and other sturdy civic piles, thus increasing the overcrowding in the remainder of the cheap housing. Many then blamed immigrants - the Irish or the Italians - for the resultant increase in overcrowding in the slums.

Some - probably quite a lot of people - felt sorry for the slum-dwellers and tried to think of ways of improving their lives, usually be trying to teach them morals or religion. The middle classes seemed awfully worried about the morals of the urban poor. It was not uncommon for lodging houses to be closed down because there wasn't sufficient demarcation between male and female facilities. So there goes your last desperate hope of a night under a roof - better to become a tramp and sleep under a bridge than be tempted by the sight of a person of the opposite sex slipping into their bed!

Increasing numbers of thinkers and investgators wrote about the mysteries and horrors of the urban slums. What few of them did was try to record the slum dwellers' views of their situation. Even the more sympathetic commentators such as Mayhew used up far more paper with their own interpretations and philosophies than they did on the words of their subjects of study.

All this was bugging me when I went round some museums of the industrial revolution recently. I felt their bookshops carried far, far more information about the famous names of industry and empire than they did about the people who did the work. In amongst the lauding of the leaders of empire and innovation I found a mere two books which asked why so many people had to live short, unhealthy and overworked lives to prop up the great days of British expansion, which dared to dicuss how handy it was for all those brilliant businessmen and inventors to have a pool of underemployed, desperate workers to keep wages down by standing ready to jump into each others' shoes when a job came vacant. There was the definitive, famous one - E P Thompson's "The Making of the English Working Class" - but that book's been around for a long time, and ideas have moved on since then. Most modern sociologists doubt that there ever was a working class - what has an agricultural labourer with pigs and chickens in the garden got in common with a Birmingham factory worker? How is a baker or a grocer like a tanner's shit-gatherer?

The other one was Chinn's 'Poverty amidst Prosperity'. The book isn't packed with the words of those urban poor. That would be impossible because so few people were writing their words down and most of them were too busy or too poorly educated to write their own stories but Carl Chinn has done his very best to show who and how they were. the book is full of wonderfully evocative quotes and anecdotes which paint pictures by use of such wonders as 'the green-bummed goose' - that is the goose that's up for sale towards the end of Christmas Eve, very cheap because it's starting to rot and only a clever cook would know how to get a Christmas dinner out of it. Chinn records discussions of who would, and who would not, sink to the purchase of such a creature. Also of what different families thought of each other, what the residents of different streets and courtyards thought of each other, and why - all put together withi information about health, education, living and working conditions. The text is supported, but not weighed down by, detailed contemporary information and references.

In his introduction, he expresses his gratitude to Carnegie Publishing for producing a new edition of this book. It was originally published by the Manchester University Press in 1995. They clearly didn't keep it up for long because he says it was out of print for some time before Carnegie produced this edition in 2006. Perhaps there's not much of a demand for a book like this. Perhaps there can't be, if people don't find such books about the place. To a great extent, people buy the books that are visible in book-buying places. It takes an adventurer with vision to publish books that aren't the same as the ones already out there.

I think we need such adventurers very badly at this time and Chinn's book is a good example of why I think so. Our country is, we are told, undergoing an economic crisis. There was a point in the 19th century when the same alarm bells were being rung (by rich people such as politicians) and to a large extent, people who were seen as mysterious minorities, other races almost, took the blame as well as the brunt of the economies. Sound familiar? How do they get away with it? Is it because the cliquey, divisive attitudes of the 19th century still colour our social fears? I think this is a very good time to read about green bummed geese and whether or not our problems can be blamed on immigrants and people who are 'incapable of proper work'.

I'm beginning to like Carnegie and am now off to post a piece about them in the small press section....



#2 2010-09-29 14:43:51

From: West Lindsey
Registered: 2007-04-10

Re: 'Poverty amidst Prosperity' by Carl Chinn

Library time again for me, I think!



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