The Victorian city is often painted as a place of squalor and misery for the working class, where hordes of downtrodden workers were crammed together in dehumanising conditions, lacking the proper freedoms that modern people have come to expect from metropolitan living. Emma Griffin, author of Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, published by Yale University Press, investigates the reality of Engels’ assertion that working class life in a newly industrialised Victorian city was ‘Hell Upon Earth’. By contrasting the common experience of urban life to the reality of the rural struggle that migrants left behind, Griffin discovers that the city offered its inhabitants a host of opportunities, securities and freedoms that the countryside simply couldn’t.
Victorian cities have received a very bad press. Take Dickens’ famous creation, Coketown in Hard Times – a mill-town set in the north of England and probably inspired by a visit to Preston. Coketown was depicted as a miserable place filled with identical and uninspired brick buildings, all covered with soot, thanks to the coal burned in its many factories. Engels’ account of mid-nineteenth-century Manchester was even more uncompromising: a place of dirt, squalid over-crowding, and exploitation. The historic heart of Manchester he described as a place of ‘filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness’, adding that it was hard to describe ‘the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation and health … which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants… If any one wishes to see in how little space a human being can move, how little air – and such air! – he can breathe, how little of civilisation he may share and yet live, it is only necessary to travel hither’. It was, quite simply, ‘Hell upon Earth’.
Yet in their haste to describe the drawbacks of urban living, historians have arguably overlooked the advantages that living in the city offered, even to those who lived in the slums. A remarkable collection of autobiographies written by working men and women in the nineteenth century provides a very different slant on city life to that offered by such iconic writers as Dickens and Engels. These writers do not mention ugly buildings or soot. Nor do they describe their cities as ‘hell upon earth’. They present them as places of social and intellectual freedom. It may jar with what we think they ought to be saying, but it is a verdict that we ought at least to consider.
In order to understand the positive light in which workers portrayed cities, it is helpful to begin by thinking about the places from which they came. Despite our tendency to romanticise the rosy cottager, living conditions in many rural areas were abysmal. Certainly, population density was low, but houses were nonetheless very small, so the overcrowding experienced by families was already significant. Rural homes lacked clean water and sewage disposal, so there was nothing new about this aspect of slum life either. In the agricultural districts, wages were low and there was little to do in the hours after work anyway, so the opportunities for entertainment or self-improvement were very limited. Autobiographers were rarely nostalgic about life on the land. As one told his employee when a chance to work on the railways came his way, he did not know where he would go, only that ‘I can’t stand this any longer’.
The urban scene was far more diverse. Nineteenth-century cities offered opportunities for education and improvement. Cities had a range of schools offering classes in the evenings and on Sundays, often at no or very little cost, which held out the promise of an education to those who had missed out during childhood. Most cities hosted a lively mutual improvement scene – clubs in which members purchased, shared and discussed books and newspapers. Some even had Mechanics Institutes as well. These various organisations helped to improve literacy which paved the way for men to get involved in other clubs and societies. And as most of these small clubs and schools were also run by their members, they also helped to teach vital skills in the ways of running an organisation. Several of the autobiographers indicate that the skills learned as a treasurer or secretary were at least as important as anything they learned in their lessons.
Cities helped to improve the education and skills of workers, but this was not all. They were also environments in which individuals could get involved in political organisations, regardless of whether they conflicted with the views of the employers. Rural communities were small and enclosed. Employers sometimes even housed their workers; they certainly knew everything about their whereabouts and interests. As there was usually too little work to go around, masters also held a very strong hold over their employees. In such a context, landowners could expect their workers to sit on the pews of the parish church each Sunday and to refrain from any political activity of which they disapproved. Failure to comply would meet with immediate dismissal, a very serious threat in a community with no alternative forms of employment.
The situation in rapidly expanding cities could hardly have been more different. Here the demarcation between work and leisure was much clearer; once a man left work, what he got up to was no business of his employer. He could worship at one of many churches, join the Chartists, the Anti-Corn-Law League, a union – there was a wide range of causes to get involved in and no-one to stop him. In any case, workers were in demand. An employer might sack a worker for religious or political views of which he disapproved, but workers did not respond by concealing their views in order to stay in work – they simply found another employer, which in the rapidly growing new cities was a relatively straightforward matter.
In all then, workers did not find city life as grim as middle-class observers have generally assumed. This is certainly not to deny that the rapidly growing towns could form dismal and unhealthy environments. It is simply to suggest that if we listen to the words of the working poor themselves, we find that they did not dwell too long on these drawbacks. In their eyes, cities represented the opportunity for personal and political freedom. Little wonder then that throughout the nineteenth century, so many flocked towards the new cities, and so few ever returned.
by Emma Griffin, the author of Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution