Monday, 19 March 2012

Thomas Holmes & the London poor

The Victorians had an obsession for collecting and classification. The rural curate with too much time on his hands scouring the countryside with a butterfly net  is something of a stereotype. And the social do-gooders of the age tended to be all too-similar. 

Henry Mayhew's  definite survey of the London working class is a masterful piece of work - but it is also strangely lacking in affection and human warmth. I don't know about Mayhew specifically, but I suspect that like the naturalists - or the enlightened imperialists of the age of the 'white man's burden' - many of these philanthropists regarded the poor as a different species to be studied, pitied and possibly helped -  but still essentially different.

I've just been re-reading a very different kind of late Victorian social commentary - Thomas Holmes' 'London's Underworld'. By a strange quirk, in the last years of Victoria's reign,  Holmes lived in Tottenham only a couple of streets away from where I am now. Then it was not the  inner city area it is now but a new suburb for the emerging lower middle class - often clerks working in the City. Holmes himself was a crime reporter and perhaps it was this not-quite-respectable job that drew him to the poorer sections of London's working class (and he used 'underworld in the sense of the under-class rather than of a criminal network). He certainly writes about them without the condescension of other do-gooders.

In fact his writing shows genuine affection for the chancers, wide-boys and scammers who would have horrified many who considered such types the 'undeserving poor'. He even has admiration for the ingenuity and invention  of  the con-artists who he was frequently taken in by himself. And far from standing aloof and disapproving from his subjects, he often invited them into his home  maintained friendships with them for years and even lent them money with little hope of repayment.

Most significantly he had no time for the 'self-help' schemes of the moral-improvers and temperance factions - who all wanted to make the under-class respectable. Nor did he have much truck either with philanthropists and charities - including the Salvation Army. In fact in an early glimpse of the welfare state, he argued that all charities should be combined into a single entity run by the government. 

I can't find anything that connects Holmes to the pioneering socialist or labour movements of the time - and he did have some fairly odd ideas about 'incorrigible tramps' and compulsory boarding schools for the bright children of the poor - but he is definitely worth a read.

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