The making of modern Britain

The Quaker who told it like it was

Slum children in York, 1900. Their plight was highlighted in Seebohm Rowntree’s report Poverty revisited in the programme. | Photo: Photo courtesy the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Television: The Making of Modern Britain BBC 2. When Victoria died at the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘New Dawn’ thinking was inevitable. Great Britain was about to undergo traumatic changes. One was a shock to the empire, when it took Britain two years to defeat not very many Afrikaners in the Boer war – a hint of the strategy of guerrilla warfare that was to become so successful in battle right up to the present. Britain introduced a new phenomenon to the world – concentration camps, in which thousands of Boer women and children died. And then there was Seebohm Rowntree.

In his new series the broadcaster Andrew Marr quickly moved to the shoeless children of York and the revelations of poverty that horrified Victorian Britain. The Quaker Rowntree woke the country up with statistical analysis – facts so awful that denial was never an option. Winston Churchill, on reading the 1901 edition of Rowntree’s Poverty, said: ‘For my own part, I see little glory in an empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers’. He was later to admit that the book ‘fairly made my hair stand on end’.

What had Seebohm Rowntree, son of the famous chocolatier, done to give the establishment such a fright?

His inspectors looked at the poor of York. They investigated their circumstances; they looked at the dirty flock mattresses, the sixteen families to one outside water tap with excrement filling up the drain beneath. They calculated what the very minimum income was to keep a family alive and concluded that many people were not reaching it, however hard they worked.

This was the most galling fact for establishment thought to absorb: the notion that poor people brought poverty on themselves was shown up as a myth. Rowntree spelled it out – people who were in work had wages too low to support them and their families. Being thrifty and hard-working by itself did not ensure survival.

Rowntree said: ‘the wages paid for unskilled labour in York are insufficient to provide food, shelter, and clothing adequate to maintain a family of moderate size in a state of bare physical efficiency’. That meant: ‘a family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage.’ The list went on, painting a picture of a drab and colourless life.

Unfortunately, in a brief search through the TV reviews on the following day, Seebohm doesn’t seem to rate a mention. Critics homed in on Joseph Chamberlain, David Lloyd George, Marie Lloyd, Alfred Harmsworth (the press baron who brought us non-boring newspapers), and Francis Galton (he brought us eugenics, which we conveniently forget stirred the Nazi phenomenon) in the Marr cast list of Victorian/Edwardian leading players.

We have five more programmes to watch the lively Marr pirouette through our modern history, so who knows what other Quakers he might alight upon. But as Alfred Harmsworth pointed out, the new democracy does not want heavy stuff (‘Do we want to read boring letters from bishops? No!’ ‘Do we want to read boring reporting with no pictures? No!’) and so there may be a lesson here for Friends everywhere. Be eccentric by all means, but if you want to reach the popular heart, do it with style.

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.