What did the Victorians ever do for us?

There is a debate underway about Victorian philanthropy and whether we would benefit from its revival in the twenty-first century. Where to start? Perhaps with a comment that this is not new.

The Victorian era seems to have fascinated the British ever since it finished. The following was written in the swinging sixties: “For some years now the economic trends of the late nineteenth century in Britain have caused acute controversy. They have been examined not only as features of a particular economic situation but also in the hope of throwing light on the sources of our more recent discontents …” (Ashworth, 1966).

In short, economically the mid 1800s in Victorian Britain saw a very high rate of economic growth, but this rate had considerably slowed down by the late 1800s and was followed by the Depression in the 1920s.

There is also a lot of published work on the role of the workhouse during the Victorian period and how it replaced the Elizabethan Poor Law which had codified outdoor relief, which roughly we might call care in the community, 1600s style. The workhouse also led to some of the early general hospitals as a form of spin-off, and increasingly the workhouse population was the elderly poor until the first general pension was introduced in the early 1900s.

In current political thinking we see the start of the welfare state as 1945 onwards with the birth of the NHS, however some academics would go back further to the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 introduced by Lloyd George. However, our current political discussions seem to separate out the NHS from welfare benefits.

Of current note, the state pension in 1908 was only paid to people over 70 years of age.

Perhaps less explored is the area where our Victorian forebears wrestled on the interactions between the private and the public sector. For example, the Victorians effectively nationalised the utility companies, taking them under municipal control initially, and later consolidating these into national boards. The logic for this legal shift was the inefficiency of private sector utilities.

Another example: the regulation of banks and of limited companies, where various scandals and bubbles brought the wilder excesses of the private sector under control. Similarly scandals in the running of workhouses, such as people being so deprived of food that they ate rancid horse bones, led to social reforms with national inspectors for minimum welfare standards.

Lastly, English Heritage would not appreciate a return to Victorian values. The Victorians were ruthless developers, demolishing the medieval heart of many towns and cities, putting up new buildings and roads left, right and centre.

Is there a conclusion to this question? Perhaps only that the economics, politics and social conditions of Victorian Britain were just as complicated as they are today, with no simple answers but with many useful lessons to be found within the detail.

The Late Victorian Economy, by W. Ashworth, in Economica New Series, Vol. 33, No. 129 (Feb., 1966), pp. 17-33
Published by: Wiley
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2552270

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