15.1. The Underclass

There is still another adjustment to be made to the calculation of average wage increases. Up to this point we have not been able to construct the picture of “cotton mills, children badly treated, and very low wages”, since this does not fit with the fact of the general increase in wages. Following we will comment the picture of “Dickens’”, which also does not fit with the figures.

We have here people who do not earn wages, cannot find a job, do not have a home, and do not eat normal quantities of food. A certain percentage are criminals or prostitutes. They do not exist arithmetically, because they do not have normal lives, and are not known to the authorities (except possibly the police). These men, women and children in London are the counterparts of “Les Misérables” in France. 

The important point arithmetically about these people for our argumentation (although the moral side cannot be forgotten), is that if their proportion of the population increased from 1800 to 1840 or to 1860, then the idea of general improvement is not necessarily valid. We were perhaps supposing that 100 % of the population (heads of families) had incomes, and the average of these incomes increased from 25 Pounds to 30 Pounds annually. But if these “Misérables” were 10 % and changed to 20 %, and their income was close to zero, then the average of incomes in the country moved from 22.5 pounds to only 24 Pounds.

We do not know if the percentage of these people increased, but it is certainly probable. There are no official information or comments by visitors about this matter from 1800 to 1840, although obviously there were poor people in London during this period. Reports by professional people who wanted to make changes started about 1840. At the same time the “Novels about the Condition of England” began to appear. These novels by Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, and Benjamin Disraeli had as their background the horrible working and living in the industrial towns and in London. To be more exact, the novels about the industrial towns in the North started about 1830, and those about the underworld in London about 1840. 

What we should now do is: a) try to quantify the change in percentage of the poor from 1800 to 1860, b) try to find an economic/social reasoning, why the general improvement in this period was accompanied by a probable increase in very poor people, and c) what happened person-by-person, that is, how a poor person in 1800 had a grandson in 1860 who was very poor.

There are no contemporary (or present!) estimations of the percentage of very poor in Charles Dickens’ time, but we can decide on a probable maximum, using three unofficial surveys of homes from the end of the nineteenth century. One was organised by Seebohm Rowntree in York in 1899, visiting all those people who did not themselves have domestic servants. It gave a figure of 27 %of the total population of York, who either had incomes insufficient to cover their minimum necessities of food, rent, and clothing, or had incomes slightly above this “poverty line”. A survey of large parts of London was carried out by Charles Booth in 1886-1891, which showed that 30 %of the inhabitants of London, and 35 %of the East End, were “poor” or “very poor”. He presented a street map, with colours reporting the income/social level; the first two stages were “Lowest class; vicious, semi-criminal” and “Very poor, casual; chronic want”. The third investigation was carried out by Fred Scott in the poorest parts of Manchester, i.e. Ancoats and Salford, in 1899, and reported to the Manchester Statistical Society. He found that 21 % (Ancoats) and 40 % (Salford) did not have regular work. 

It may however be the case that the percentage of the very poor in England (and especially in London) increased from 1850 to 1900. 

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