‘The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feelings of stagnant meaningless decay.’ Those were the words of George Orwell in his hugely influential social survey, The Road to Wigan Pier, when recounting the bleak realities of life amongst the industrial working class in 1930s Britain.
Over the past month, in light of Channel 4’s Benefits Street, similar language has dominated the nation’s press and social media. However, whilst Orwell’s objective was to enumerate the unjust squalor and deprivation suffered by the impoverished, the James Turner Street documentary has largely perpetuated modern day ridicule of the poor – a derision which is evident throughout history.
Mass repression of the lower classes can be traced back so far as the High Middle Ages. The expansion of population in Europe – from around 35 million to 80 million – between the years 1000 and 1347, witnessed the growth of a rural peasantry which accounted for 90 per cent of the continent’s inhabitants. Due to the developments in agricultural techniques, most peasants were no longer located in isolated farms, but had assembled in small communities.
However, as subjects to the nobility, commoners were obliged to pay rents and labour services – this quickly evolved into a system of exploitation. Despite not owning the land outright, the feudal system ensured that the nobility were granted rights of income – hence preserving their own position and continuing to confine those below.
As a result, economic and political tensions gripped England, culminating in the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt – often referred to as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion. Attempts by royal officials to collect unpaid poll taxes led to widespread violent confrontation across rural society. The rebels pursued a reduction in taxation, the cessation of serfdom, and elimination of the King’s senior officials and law courts. In June of that year, the dissenters, upon entering London, attacked the gaols, destroyed the Savoy Palace and the Temple Inns of Court, set law books alight, and killed any person allied with the royal government.
Manifestations of cynicism toward brutally exclusive institutions in Medieval England were promptly stifled by way of military overpowering. By the end of June 1381, over 4,000 troops were deployed to restore order and quash resistance from below. Historian, Michael Postan describes the uprising as a ‘passing episode’ – the restoration of the normal processes of government, soon after, illustrated the preservation of control over a peasantry which was rendered feral and unknowing.
Throughout the ages, the lower classes have found human progress, and social betterment, to be two very distinct processes. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution, whilst transforming Britain in the late-18th Century, encompassed dramatic social and economic changes for enormous sections of the populace. Mass-production methods demanded the migration of thousands from the countryside to new industrial cities – colossal changes in lifestyle ensued.
Textile factories, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were characterised by the deplorable conditions, long working hours, and low pay, which were enforced upon the labourers. Children, some as young as 5 years old, were made to work shifts of up to 16 hours per day; earning as little as 4 shillings per week. Moreover, the squalid living conditions of the workforce, who were left in crude shanties and shacks, were in stark paradox to the splendour of the homes of the industry owners.
The backstreets of Manchester, and other mill towns were documented by Friedrich Engels in his 1844 study, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels observed that the industrial workers had lower incomes than their pre-industrial peers; and were forced to live in graver conditions – noting that mortality rates in English industrial cities were 4 times higher than in the surrounding countryside.
90 years on from Engels’ writings on the slums of the Industrial Revolution, Orwell was in search of Wigan Pier. Of course, as Orwell knew, as he trudged the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the ‘pier’ had never existed. A coal jetty once mistaken in the blotted landscape for ‘Wigan Pier’ had become local folklore. For Orwell it was a metaphor: for the decay of British society in its abandonment of the poor.
Over the past month, at 9pm on Monday evenings, the 21st century incarnation of poverty in Britain has been played out to millions. Yet, today prejudice towards the deprived is extensive – shows, like Benefits Street, follow a predictable formula. In a stampede for scapegoats, modern day Britain has left the impoverished isolated and marginalised. How they could do with an Orwell, or an Engels, now.