Poverty in the 19th Century

Life in the 19th century was hard for those who had the misfortune to live through it.  Families tended to be much larger than these times, people having ten children or more.  However, it was an accepted part of life, that some would die in their early years, from childhood diseases.

It was hard to put food on the table, for work was scarce, housing prices, ever increasing, and wages low.  Families were forced to share rooms to pay the rent.

The situation in Britain was not helped by those fleeing Ireland in their thousands, amidst their country’s potato famine, and settling here.  So the demand for work and housing grew out of control, and poverty became part of everyday life.

What didn’t help was people’s attitude to those worse off than themselves.  They believed in a state of self-help, through hard work and thrift.  If you were poor, it was your own fault, and you were to blame for your poverty…nobody else.

By the end of the 19th century, poverty accounted for at least twenty-five per cent of Britain’s population.  Most living below subsistence level, of which some ten percent were unable to afford basic necessities.  Some were lucky enough to put a meal a day on the table, whilst others went for days without food, hoping for charity from friends and neighbours.

It reminds me of a story, my mother and grandfather often spoke of.  Aunt Jane lived in Helstone, Cornwall and had ten children, during one of the worst times of this country’s period of poverty.  As the story goes to the best of my memory, if any of her neighbour’s were out of work, she would cook an extra fruit or meat pie, so they had food on the table, and the little ones would not go hungry.  It was her way of instilling charity into her own children.

In 1834, the Poor Law came into effect, it was the Victorian answer, how to deal with poverty.  It became the responsibility of parishes, to join together, creating regional workhouses, where aid could be applied for.

Civil liberties were denied, husbands, wives and children were separated from each other, and their human dignity was destroyed.  They were given unpleasant hard work, and wore uniforms depicting what they were…  The true poor often went to great lengths to avoid these places, for it was said, they were no better than prisons.

Charles Dickens father got into debt, and the family was imprisoned in one of these workhouses, and for years afterwards he became a champion for the poor.

William Booth formed the Salvation Army in 1878, which went out and administered help to the poor and needy.

Some schools provided poor and malnourished children with a free breakfast.  For a child who was hungry could not learn; that was a guaranteed way of getting pupils to attend school.

The Boot Fund was formed in 1890, a charity providing boots or shoes for poor children.

More and more people’s consciences were pinged by the sight of poor and destitute children living rough, on the streets of London.  They were forced to live by their wits, and crime was the name of the game if they were going to eat. 

Just like “Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens” and the character Fagin, who recruited children and trained them as pickpockets, exchanging food and shelter for goods the children stole.

Poverty in England has been with us many centuries, and people’s attitude towards poverty has changed over the centuries.  For in the 18th century at least fifty per cent of the population lived below the bread line, and wore nothing upon their feet.  By the 19th century it had improved, and only twenty-five per cent were in dire need.  With the coming of the 20th century, people had come to accept poverty as part of life.

If we look at the country today, we can’t say poverty has been eradicated, it has improved with the passing of each century… but it will never be wiped out in our times…

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