Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain by Jeremy Seabrook

Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain by Jeremy Seabrook

Author:Jeremy Seabrook [Seabrook, Jeremy]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Hurst
Published: 2013-11-05T00:00:00+00:00

7

THE ENDURING IMAGE OF POVERTY

The industrial town

The iconography of the nineteenth century industrial poor persisted well into the twentieth century; their suffering left deep scars on the consciousness of Britain. Only in our time have the echoes of these, the reproachful or indignant poor, people moved to righteous anger by social injustice, begun to fade and lose their power. The intelligence of generations was stifled by poverty and lack of educational opportunity, despite the rich instruction many garnered from industrial life. Many of these poor devoted themselves to the uplift, material and moral, of the people. They worked for the education and political understanding of neighbours and friends, often with limited success. They were a considerable leaven in a working class which, however perversely it pursued its own way, looked to them for assistance in an adversity which was as familiar as it was persistent. Among these poor were trades unionists, office holders in the Labour party, secretaries of workers’ educational associations, collectors for friendly societies and burial clubs. These ‘grass roots’ have now, like so much of the countryside where they delighted to cycle, discuss and picnic, been covered with concrete. They were affected, if distantly, by the great myth propounded by Marx, but more immediate influences were Robert Blatchford, William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party, H. G. Wells, Vera Brittain and Rebecca West, and the novels of Charles Dickens. They had humanity and humour; they saw the pathos of lives dominated by labour, pub and pawn-shop, the pooling of meagre resources, the spontaneity of mutual help, fear of the workhouse, women who concealed the growth in the stomach or the lump in the breast until it almost killed them, neighbours who took in the children of the woman who put her head in the gas oven, the woman who voluntarily got into bed with the dying so they should be less alone, the organisers of street parties and celebrations; they spoke for the poor, and came as close as anyone to representing the (now eroded) sensibility of industrial poverty. They showed that to be poor was not to be without dignity. It was, of course, a male-dominated culture; but male strength was all that stood between families and destitution; and the work of women, in softening the harshness of want and hunger, was scarcely an ignoble undertaking.

The combined effect of growing popular intolerance of poverty and the prudent actions of government to alleviate the worst of it, created a sense of continuous ‘progress’; and people did not compare their lives with those who had so much more, nor even with what might have been possible, but with the even more desperate want of previous generations. This kept alive a hope of sustained improvement.

My own early memories were overlaid by those of the Edwardian childhood of my mother and her sisters: their stories were so vivid I felt I was present in them. I saw the naphtha flares on the market stalls late



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