Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Victorian Culture: The Victorian Safety Net



Image of a Victorian Slum

Victorian writers from Charles Dickens to Karl Marx paint vivid pictures of the sufferings of the poor (and see Emile Zola’s work for a French perspective). There was nothing like the 20th century welfare state; the first social security system was created by Bismark in Germany, and English-speaking countries didn’t rush to imitate it. So what happened to the poor? If a man lost his job, did his family face a choice of the workhouse or starvation?




Busy street in the industraial East End of London

Actually, there were more options than that. A substantial amount of aid went to the poor – but not much of it was by way of the government. Churches ran relief programs, as the Mormons or the Salvation Army still do. Private charities operated on a large scale for the first time. In addition, on of the customs of the time was that the wealthy should spend part of their money on helping the poor; going out to call on poor families was part of many rich woman’s weekly or monthly routine.




Street scene in Northern England

In the United States, another source of aid was Civil War pensions. These were originally modest, but year by year, amount increased, and eligibility widened. Eventually nearly everyone who had fought on either side was enrolled, making this an unofficial welfare program under a more palatable name.



Poor women in an English workhouse

Finally, the poor did a fair amount to help themselves. This was the great age of lodges and fraternal organizations. One function of these organizations was to provide for their members: to help them find jobs if they were out of work, to support them if they were too sick to work, to bury them when they died. In an age with relatively little public assistance, fraternal societies were not a casual social activity, but served vital practical functions.



Children in an orphanage in London

Ironically, a major barrier to assistance was the unwillingness of the poor to accept it. In the first place, not being self-supporting was seen as shameful, and many men and women were reluctant to admit their poverty. In the second place, aid to the poor often had unpleasant side effects, ranging from the harsh conditions of the work house, to condescension and meddling from one’s “betters”. (Charity Organizations Services, a private charity, was nicknamed “Cringe or Starve.”) The desperately proud poor man or woman is an archetypal character of the era.



Poor farmers eking out a living in the countryside

Stoddard, W.H. (2000) - Gurps Steampunk, pg. 26, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]

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