‘Rome and her rats are at the point of battle . . .’ There were moments when late 19th-century London bore a close resemblance to the Rome of Coriolanus, torn by class conflict and watched by waiting enemies; and Victorians were brought up on Livy and Plutarch. As the great empire-builders of modern times they could hardly help remembering how while the Roman empire expanded it decayed at the heart, and the people of Rome turned into an unruly mob. Rome had no regular troops close at hand, London not very many, and in any case it would compromise the dignity of the imperial capital if the army had to be called in there. More to the point by the 1880s, the National Congress was coming into existence in India, with a native press quick to seize on any symptoms of weakness in the imperial masters. Early in 1886 London’s rats emerged in force from their East End sewers. A meeting of unemployed led on to rioting and looting, and there was panic for several days. ‘London was visited by something akin to the grande peur.footnote1 About the economic and social background of all this, the accumulation of half-employed, half-starved casual labour in the East End, Gareth Stedman Jones has written a remarkable book, a combination of sympathetic insight with exact investigation.footnote2 He has sifted a massive collection of printed volumes, official and unofficial, and his sources include unpublished material, especially from the records of the Charity Organisation Society and district relief bodies. Much of this work of interpreting the imperfect statistics available is technical, and only experts in such matters will be competent to assess it. The more general bearings of the subject lie within the reach of all of us. It is a book that opens up vistas in the history of London a century ago, and through this of human history, like the broad roads driven by Victorian planners through obscure slums, and is highly readable in spite of an intricate factual framework. It is enlivened by innumerable fragments of contemporary comment of every kind, and a set of illustrations helps to call a lost generation back to life from its pauper grave. There is a haunting contrast between two faces close together in a photograph of Providence Place and its denizens, a small girl’s still young enough for a naïve self-conscious smile and a middle-aged woman’s all grey stolid resignation. This is a work that ought to be read by every Londoner, by everyone with an interest in the problems of industrialism, or English social history, or the sour story of woman. In fact it is hard to think of anyone who ought not to read it.

London is placed here in the setting of the England of the industrial revolution. This ‘revolution’, the first of its kind, unfolded sluggishly, meanderingly, anarchically, with a minimum of social planning. Free enterprise excelled at seizure of short-term chances of profit—as it is now snatching at North Sea oil—with reckless disregard of everything else. The erratic pace of change allowed old ways and institutions to straggle on, with adjustments every now and then: gradualness came to seem to Englishmen the norm of all human progress, and a positive virtue in itself. London never became the hell that Paris was in June 1848 or in 1871, but for too many of its inhabitants it was an unending purgatory. Foreigners whose circumstances brought them into contact with the East End, like the poorer political refugees, were shocked.footnote3 Rumours of this Waste Land in the country so fond of boasting its wealth and modernity were wafted abroad. Frenchmen were discovering the seamier side of Paris from writers like Zola, Russians learning from Tolstoy of the abyss under their own two capitals; London’s far greater size, if no more, gave it a bad pre-eminence.

Pre-industrial London was strong in consumer trades, and shipbuilding, sugar-refining, silk-weaving and many other skilled crafts flourished. All this was crippled by ‘the traumatic impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the older industries’ (p. 145). Silk-weaving failed to adapt itself to machine methods, shipbuilding to steam and iron, engineering too petered out; other old businesses removed further away. ‘By the 1880s, the inner industrial perimeter, once the focal point of London manufacture, was fast becoming an industrial vacuum’ (p. 154). But while occupations flagged, the human beings who lived by them stayed behind, in numbers swelled by fresh immigrants drifting in from the countryside, and from Ireland, and in a minor way from the ghettoes of eastern Europe; an immobile army of misery refuting the economists’ easy assumption that labour would flow with the same quicksilver readiness as capital to wherever there was opportunity. Stedman Jones supplies a clear analysis of the reasons, which went for long unrecognized. Casual workers had to be within walking distance of whatever odd jobs might turn up; their wives had to be able to pick up work too; as newcomers to another district they could not hope for credit from shopkeepers (pp. 81 ff.). Huddled in their ragged heaps they could keep going ‘a robust if sometimes elementary working-class culture’, with street stalls and rat-baiting and public-houses of their own, and a feeling of community (p. 173).

This industrial revolution in England accentuated ‘pre-industrial characteristics’ in London (p. 26). At the social apex London preserved amid the swirl of change a good deal of the flavour of a Residenzstadt, a town existing because a prince held his court there. Below this level, but no more completely cut off from it than from the famishing multitude at the bottom, were skilled artisans of the old sort, the fine flower of the pre-machine labour world which came to full bloom just as history was about to blight it. It was a class, as Stedman Jones says, intensely political, with a social and mental life centering on trade society and coffee-house (pp. 338 ff). But it was rapidly eroded by the new industrialism, submerged in a struggle for bare survival with no wider politics than those of the sweatshop. A legion of tiny enterprises clung to what trades remained, like furniture-making and clothing, and tried to fend off factory competition by submitting to its living standards which the petty masters themselves often had to share. Primitive techniques were kept alive by ‘a cheap, overfilled, unskilled labour pool of women and immigrants who were prepared to work at sub-subsistence wages’ (p. 22). A great deal of work was done at home; a return to the cottage-industry of early capitalism. As old employments vanished the docks became the common, though very niggardly, refuge of all who could find nothing better, and therefore stood out disproportionately as the heart of the casual labour problem. Men hung about at the gates like Italian farm labourers standing in the village square in hope of being hired for the day. Often those lucky enough to be taken on had eaten nothing since the day before, and had to knock off work and leave the docks as soon as they had earned enough for a meal, which gained them a reputation for laziness (p. 93). Their children at school could often learn nothing because they were crying with hunger (p. 96). Around a tenth of London’s population, 400,000 people, had no regular work; ‘It was a basic precondition of the casual labour market that supply should be permanently and chronically in excess of demand’ (p. 67).

Stedman Jones with his usual alertness to the interacting cross-currents that combined to make life so much the more precarious shows how ‘harsh winters were a much more common occurrence in the 19th century than in the 20th’ (p. 44). It is to the well-clad sheep that the wind is tempered. Casual labourers shared with the countryman long spells of enforced idleness and dependence on sun, rain, wind, and underwent all the severities of the Nature so much worshipped by prosperous Victorians, while exiled from its charms.

At times casual labour seems to be presented in this book too exclusively as an outcome of London’s predicament, in this particular epoch. It certainly had features of its own there, of kind and of degree. But London’s dreadful size by comparison with any other European city, which invested all its evils with a dimension of the grotesque, was no new thing. Hamlet’s mind was in London, not Elsinore, when he called the world a foul and pestilential congregation of vapours. London had never been without its sediment of down-and-outs, the discarded servants, younger sons, decayed ostlers whom Falstaff dismissed so scornfully, ‘cankers of a calm world and a long peace’,footnote4 as if war were the right besom to sweep them away. Shelley’s vision of London as the maelstrom perpetually sucking in fresh lives, that ‘Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more’, was an old nightmare. To all good Englishmen, as to Cobbett, London was an abomination, a Great Wen. But it was not always taken for granted that this invertebrate, unproductive monster would always retain its lead in numbers. The opening of the Manchester Ship Canal induced predictions of Manchester and Liverpool growing into one vast whole, outstripping London in population and as commercial metropolis of the globe.footnote5

Destitution in the capital drew more, though still very inadequate attention, but insecure employment, with too few jobs to go round, was a ruling feature of all 19th-century England. Stedman Jones’s remark that ‘casual labour can be seen as only the most extreme point of a continuous spectrum of degrees of under-employment’ (p. 53), is not relevant to London alone. It is not indeed relevant only to the working class; professional groups had to bear the same cross, as we may remind ourselves by thinking of Conan Doyle sitting in his surgery waiting for patients, or the briefless barrister in Trial by Jury. We have a harrowing picture in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists of housepainters starving for work in a small town not far from London, where Stedman Jones notices this as one of the least organized, most exploited of trades (p. 60). In mentality, as well as in conditions of life, the gulf lay not so much between these unfortunates and the millworkers, as between them and the departing race of skilled artisans. Tressell’s painters are hopelessly impervious to ideas. A new labour aristocracy might grow up to succeed the artisans, but a labour intelligentsia such as they were, political to the fingertips, has never been born again.