Poverty from Workhouse to the Welfare State.

 In 1909 Beatrice Webb produced a controversial report which proposed abolishing the stigma and penury of the Poor Law and its workhouses. James Gregory argues that this plea for a less judgemental approach to poverty created the foundations of the modern Welfare State.

Part of Booth's map of Whitechapel 1889. The red areas are "well-to-do"; the black areas are "semi-criminal".In the late 1880s, the great social investigator Charles Booth (1840-1916) set about mapping the streets of London, with the assistance of his researcher, radical reformer Beatrice Webb (1858-1943). Booth's aim was to understand the extent and causes of the great concentrations of poverty that had arisen in Victorian London. What he found shocked him: a 'submerged tenth', a 'population sodden with drink, steeped in vice, eaten up by every social and physical malady'.

Today, a hundred years later, official and learned discussions about the poor no longer refer to a 'social residuum'; one of the many memorable phrases attributed to Booth. But the anxiety and imagery that his findings evoked remain potent. It is difficult to pick up a tabloid newspaper and not find almost exactly the same description, not of a submerged tenth perhaps, but of an 'underclass' of 'feckless scroungers' (Sunday Express, March 19th, 2008), with drugs added to the Victorian mix of drink and vice.

To continue reading this article you will need to purchase access to the online archive.

Buy Online Access  Buy Print & Archive Subscription

If you have already purchased access, or are a print & archive subscriber, please ensure you are logged in.

Please email digital@historytoday.com if you have any problems.



Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week