Looking at poverty through the ages

By Daniel Cossins, 9 October 2009 - 2:53pm

Earlier in the week I was teaching a course about the history of poverty in North-West England between 1600 and 1900.

The wealth of material which we could use to investigate the subject was impressive – quarter sessions records, the account book of overseers of the poor, official reports, contemporary newspaper reports, oral history and autobiography, workhouse papers and much more.

It was fascinating to see how attitudes towards the poor, and the issues that poverty raises, are surprisingly unaltered, though of course the circumstances of poverty (and the definition of what it meant) changed radically over the period, Certain groups, in particular unmarried mothers, were always the target of condemnation.

There were always fierce arguments between those who believed in economy and cutting public expenditure, and those who approved of higher levels of spending. There seems always to have been heated disputes about who ‘deserved’ assistance and who was a feckless workshy scrounger… it had a curiously familiar ring. And then there were the statistics.

Today we’re bombarded with figures, numbers, charts, graphs, and the commentators and the analysts love statistics in all shapes and sizes. Two hundred years ago there were few such possibilities, but once the national census began in 1801, and the social reformers began to collect evidence about poverty from the early 19th-century onwards, the love affair with numbers began.

It’s great to have statistics – how many people, what percentage, what was the trend, did it increase? But many of us felt that numbers dehumanise the story of poverty, and reduce the harsh experience to a dispassionate measure.

Nothing, we concluded, can substitute for the eyewitness description or, even more powerful, the personal testimony of the poor themselves.  

Alan Crosby is editor of The Local Historian

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