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Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Victorian poverty

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From the BBC we hear that teachers are concerned about Victorian poverty in our inner cities.

Teachers say they are seeing "Victorian conditions" with pupils arriving at school hungry and not wearing the right clothes needed for the weather.

"Children in 2015 should not be hungry and coming to school with no socks on and no coats - some children are living in Victorian conditions - in the inner cities," said one unnamed teacher.

It is not easy to be sceptical about hardship even when we know how often it is used to press home a political agenda, even when the story emerges within weeks of a general election. As a society we have largely expunged the unemotional in favour of the emotional - hence the exaggeration. 

So here is a description of genuine Victorian poverty from a writer who actually knew.

Starving boys and girls lurked among the costermongers' barrows, and begged piteously on pretence of selling cigar-lights and comic songs. Furious women stood at the doors of public-houses, and railed on their drunken husbands for spending the house-money in gin. A thicker crowd, towards the middle of the street, poured in and out at the door of a cookshop. Here the people presented a less terrible spectacle—they were even touching to see.

These were the patient poor, who bought hot morsels of sheep's heart and liver at a penny an ounce, with lamentable little mouthfuls of peas-pudding, greens, and potatoes at a halfpenny each. Pale children in corners supped on penny basins of soup, and looked with hungry admiration at their enviable neighbours who could afford to buy stewed eels for twopence.

Wilkie Collins – The Fallen Leaves (1879)

7 comments:

Sam Vega said...

I think the main difference between modern and Victorian conceptions of poverty are that ours are essentially about relative poverty, whereas Victorian poverty was frequently absolute. However they spent their money, they could not maintain good health. There are children who are freezing and malnourished today, but I would like to know whether their parents are spending their money on inessentials.

Demetrius said...

Odd that, I picked up some lamb's liver from Waitrose yesterday, at rather more expense. The poor are at other stores buying packaged food at even more expense. To judge from the number of betting, booze and such advert's on the telly what has not changed is what you might call the moral deficit.

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes, I find it difficult to believe that parents are not spending money on inessentials. In a few cases it will be the case, but not many I suspect.

I've been told that absolute poverty largely disappeared after the seventies.

Demetrius - I agree, packaged food is poor value. We buy a certain amount for convenience, but we can afford it.

Flyinthesky said...

Demetrius, The missing element in the equation is "required effort"
You can buy enough liver is Tesco or Asda for about £1-20 for a meal for four people, with a few potatoes and some seasonal veg for less than a fiver.
Quite often, carefully adorning tin hat, the people who put the least effort into living are often the same people who don't want to expend effort cooking.
As our host suggests "packaged food is poor value" not only is it of poor monetary value the nutritional value is in the same ball park.
Part of the solution would be to reintroduce cookery for both sexes on the national curriculum.
My youngest daughter spent more than an entire term in home economics or food technology, whatever the fashion is to call it nowadays, designing a snack bar wrapper!!

A K Haart said...

Flyinthesky - blimey, she just designed a snack bar wrapper?

I agree with you about cookery lessons. With all the cookery shows on TV I'm surprised it isn't on the national curriculum. There is a fair bit of science, economics and nutritional information to be learned apart from producing good food.

Michael said...

My great-uncle lived in Guildford, and used to be a member of a church which distributed food and essentials to the needy at Christmas in the late nineteenth century. They were like that in those days, and many people were involved.

On one visit, he and his wife looked into the house through the window, before knocking on the door, and saw the entire family kneeling at prayer around the table.

When they entered the house, they found that there was absolutely nothing to eat anywhere.

Now that's poverty.

A K Haart said...

Michael - important memories aren't they? They give us a perspective which we seem to have lost.

My great-uncle spoke of catching sparrows for food and my father-in-law spoke of sharing a boiled egg with his brother and sister.