From Artisans to Paupers: Economic Change and Poverty in London, 1790-1870.
The social effects of early industrialization have been one of the great issues that divided contemporaries as well as modern scholars. However sound the evidence of medium- and long-run gains in living standards, the heavy human costs of factories and industrial environments pose complex moral dilemmas, which have not disappeared. The changing role of the artisan, posed so dramatically by the Hammonds and Edward Thompson, has yet to be fully understood, given the longevity of that status and its integration into other modes of production. The pessimists' case for decline gets additional ammunition from David Green's book, From Artisans to Paupers: Economic Change and Poverty in London, 1790-1870. Green takes a strong stand, linking economic change in the capital to a "rising tide of pauperism" that overwhelmed the ability of local administrators to cope with it effectively. His subject is the relationship between economic change, poverty, and the provision of welfare in the British capital during the early industrial period, a time when London became not only the largest city in the world, but the hub of the world's trading and financial system. He asks his readers, as did Friedrich Engels, to look behind elegant squares, ships, and banks to consider back alleys and their inhabitants where, he argues, conditions were getting worse, rather than better. Green's argument is a simple one: artisans and laborers in several important sectors of the London economy found that market-driven changes in production lowered incomes and increased their insecurity during the first half of the nineteenth century. As industries moved out of central and eastern London, their workers were left behind, and social segregation within the metropolis intensified. Particularly during the period between 1825 and 1860, stagnation or decline in major industries combined with harsh winters to increase unemployment and pauperism. Effective responses to these problems were difficult, however, because of London's size, its divided government, and the nature of workers' organizations. Neither public policies nor collective action by artisans produced enough redistribution of funds to shelter thousands of workers' families from poverty. He sketches a dual process of urban agglomeration and social dissolution for much of central and eastern London. Green places both the social separation of rich from poor, as well as the creation of middle-class fears of outcast London, firmly in the first half of the century, challenging the timing of Gareth Stedman Jones' analysis.
Green has chosen to look at industrialization from the standpoint of a metropolitan economy. London's primacy in the world of trade, banking, and administration did not translate automatically into industrial primacy during the early industrial era, when coal-based sources of power privileged sites near the mines and when the attraction of low rents and cheaper labor tempted entrepreneurs to move to outlying or provincial locations. Moreover, seasonal fluctuation in demand undercut the advantages to workers of relatively high metropolitan wages and diverse employment options. Not only did multiple bidders for land keep rents high, but the demand for manufactured goods could easily be satisfied by imports from the countryside or abroad. Restructuring and increased division of labor saved manufacturing jobs, but the pressure to lower labor costs fell directly on the artisans. Not only did their wages decline, but many jobs were lost to cheaper workers. Particularly in the clothing trades, sweated workers, many of them female, produced lower quality goods for less money. Green's book provides evidence to corroborate the picture of the London economy sketched by Henry Mayhew in the pages of the Morning Chronicle.
But if Green's territory reminds the reader of Mayhew and Engels, his methods do not. He is a geographer who skillfully uses quantitative sources to anchor a story of economic transformation in a particular spatial setting. Censuses, wage and price data, demographic statistics, and production data are his raw materials, which provide a wealth of useful information on the mid-nineteenth century metropolitan economy. By disaggregating economic performance into industries and by charting fluctuations, Green deftly reconciles evidence of overall economic growth with that of decline in specific sectors and periods. He then maps the geography of London manufacturing, showing the differential impact of changes in inner and outer districts. Green locates an economic transformation of central London during the 1830's and 1840's. Calling London, "the fragmented metropolis," he probes spatial differences in modes of production, in gendered divisions of labor and indexes of poverty. Challenging Schwarz's thesis of gradual change, Green points to "catastrophic" changes in watch making and in silk weaving, and documents how the feminization of the clothing trades and intensified divisions of labor undermined artisanal methods of production in the West End, as well as in eastern districts.
The major characters in the book are the artisans, who have lost control of the labor process and whose unions are ineffective in combating change. Green argues for their relative loss of power through two types of evidence: measures of labor organization and strike data. Green uses the regional distribution of friendly societies, of union meeting houses, and of regular meetings as a proxy for the strength of labor mobilization, which was not even throughout the metropolis. Green's structuralist argument has weaknesses, however. His measurements do not take relative size or relative effectiveness into account. It is quite possible that differences in attendance or in activity could compensate for small differences in the incidence of meetings or in the number of registered societies. Moreover, even if the East End had less than its share of meetings or meeting houses, its absolute number of each was higher than that of Central London or the West End. His quantitative data, while suggestive, miss much of the texture of labor activism.
Using newspapers primarily, Green has compiled a list of almost 300 strikes that took place in London between 1790 and 1870, which he divides by industry, by aim, and by year. Green argues for a sensitive use of the strike as a weapon: claims for rises during upturns of production and prices, defensive strikes during times of heavy employer pressure and wage cuts. Overall, he sees a collapse of labor militancy during the difficult years between 1825 and the late 1840's. Since he presents aggregated data, rather than individual cases, it is difficult to judge the specificity and the sensitivity of his sources. Much rides on his interpretation of the aims of the strikers. The largest share of the conflicts seem to have been about wages. Yet as Green points out, wage issues can mask many other concerns. Strikes are complicated events in which trust on both sides has broken down. Particularly in a period when strikes were developing as a tool of mobilized workers, it seems difficult to reduce such conflicts to one clear-cut issue.
About a quarter of the strikes are linked to issues of the labor force or labor control, whereby artisans struggled to keep out less skilled workers and to block changes in the production process. Green presents this set of problems largely from the male artisans' standpoint: he sees male skilled workers' welfare as being undermined by the "freeing of market forces," and he points to their organizations as barriers against the changes that drove them into poverty, one of which was certainly the feminization of the clothing labor force. Working women's interests get short shrift. Since women had few alternatives other than domestic service, itself a low-wage, overstocked sector, no wonder women clamored for manufacturing jobs. But artisans identified women as part of the problem, rather than as co-workers who had needs similar to their own. As Anna Clark demonstrates, attitudes toward gender relations shaped political responses to capitalism.(1) Artisans, by rejecting a cooperative stance with women in the workplace and in unions, turned toward a patriarchal construction of class and family that diminished their radicalism and blunted their organizing power.
An analysis of London poor relief completes Green's story. He does an excellent job of outlining the consequences of the New Poor Law in the capital and the financial constraints under which local administrators operated. Reliance on workhouses and the strict construction of relief policies followed from the heavy financial burden on the irremovable poor, which was far heavier in eastern than western parishes. The combination of a socially segregated population with decentralized administration and locally raised taxes for poor relief meant that parishes with the fewest resources had the highest welfare costs. Coming to terms with the mobility of an industrial population eventually meant changing the rules of taxation and the structure of welfare institutions. Green's judgment that areas of the capital with an artisan population at high risk of pauperism were "locked into an expensive and inappropriate system of relief" captures the intimate linkage between welfare dependence and economic change not recognized by the New Poor Law. Green not only helps to explain the changes in poor-law financing and in implementation that took place in the later 1860's and 1870's, but also lays bare some of the heavy human costs of a national welfare regime designed for the rural poor.
Lynn Hollen Lees University of Pennsylvania
1. Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the English Working Class (Berkeley, 1995).
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|Author:||Lees, Lynn Hollen|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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