28 July, 2008

Victorian Cities

I broadly agree with the thrust of this article but I get very annoyed when people abuse Victorian cities.

Yes, compared to today, they weren't fantastic places to live. I mean, you could smoke in pubs - how backwards is that?

But we seem to have the idea that the slums were the worst places to live. Again, fine, they weren't Victoria Park or Chelsea and Kensington, but they weren't as bad as, say, the countryside. Or Ireland.

There's a good reason why, despite people knowing that the cities were pretty grim, that they still migrated from the country and from places such as Ireland to work there. That's because life was better.

Even working in a factory for 12 hours a day, you would live longer and have (marginally) better health. You were paid (as opposed to living from the land), you had a far wider variety of foods to choose from than in the country, there was almost limitless entertainment on offer for you and inequality was far less entrenched in the cities than in the countryside (the factory owners were new money - unlike the landowners - and there was far greater opportunity to say, set up small shop or similar than just gleaning).

Of course, the pictures that writers such as Engels draw for us of places like Little Ireland (situated in the area just south of what is now Oxford Road Station in Manchester) are of esperate poverty. What should concern us more is how bad that makes the country.

So why do we persist in thinking the cities worse? For to main reasons: firstly, because of an anti-capitalist agenda/pro-back to nature agenda (modern day environmentalists?) but secondly because the poverty in the cities was more noticeable because it was on your front door.

When there was famine in an area of the country, you'd read about it in the paper, but itw ould be a distant place. When the supply of cotton was ut off because of events elsewhere, the factory workers were laid off and would starve to death on your door step (even I'll concede that the cotton famine years quite possibly brought the standard of living down to that of the country). Then, the poverty wsa noticeable.

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