Mayhew’s Poor: A Problem of Identity

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "Mayhew's Poor: A Problem of Identity." Victorian Studies 14, no. 3. 1971.


THE CONDITION OF THE PEOPLE” WAS AS MUCH A SET TOPIC FOR VICTORIANS as it has since become for historians.’ It was the subject of Royal Com- mission Reports and parliamentary debates, statistical analyses and sensationalist tracts, sermons, articles, novels, even poems. The historian would seem to be well served by this abundance of material. Yet he would be wise to approach it warily, not only because of the usual doubts about its accuracy, consistency, and bias, but also because it is not al- ways clear what this evidence is about and what it was meant to elucidate. The variety of titles under which the subject was discussed is itself suspect; in place of “the People” one may read “the Labouring Population,” or “the Labouring Poor,” or “the Poorer Classes,” or “the Working Classes,” or, more grandly, “England.”2 Contemplating these alternatives, the historian may find himself attending less to the question of the Condition of the People than to the question of the identity of the People who were so variously and, as it appeared, synonymously de- scribed. And the question of identity, in turn, raises that of image. Was there a common image that would account for the assumption of a com- mon identity? The questions are of some importance, not only in defining and clarifying the subject of the Condition of the People – what condi- tion and which people – but also in understanding what was or was not being done about that Condition and those Peo

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