Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the London Poor is a much turned-to source for historians of Victorian poverty and the working classes of modern London. In this book, Thomas R.C. Gibson-Brydon turns to Booth’s lesser-studied ‘Religious Influences’ series within the survey to better understand what he calls Booth’s moral-religious sensibility in his approach to London poverty. Gibson-Brydon asserts that the consistent thread in Booth’s work was dependent on two elements: ‘commitment to the moral division of working people and an overriding concern for improperly selective charity’. Beginning with Booth’s character, the importance of religion in Booth’s personal life and world-view is examined: his belief in the self-improvement afforded by appropriately practised religion and his uncompromising stance on charity. This provides the backdrop to the urgent question at the heart of the book: ‘who hierarchized poor London?’, with the corresponding call to decide who did, or did not, deserve charity. The answer, persuasively detailed in this engaging and illuminating text, outlines the nuance of the relationships between Booth and his surveyors and those whom they surveyed. Not only did charities and philanthropists use Booth’s maps as a scientific tool to decide to whom they gave assistance, but charitable workers and members of the working classes influenced and confirmed the poverty maps’ designations. The ‘Religious Influences’ series was, above all, ‘an audit of London church charity’, covering a whole city of charitable giving through religious organisations. Gibson-Brydon’s work exposes the richness of this audit as an archive of philanthropic practice. Drawing on the 1,800 interviews conducted between 1897 and 1903 with a wide range of London’s religious and secular leaders (clergy and ministers, deaconesses, charitable church workers), Gibson-Brydon reveals the nuanced religious approaches and methodologies for the distribution of charity in London’s poorest parishes. Importantly, this includes, in Chapter Four, the role of women in religious charitable work and the co-operation that existed between men and women charity workers. Gibson-Brydon demonstrates how female workers carved out roles for themselves as experts in the classification of London’s poor, withstanding male scrutiny and putting their femininity in jeopardy. Where Booth’s men stereotyped such women as incompetent, sentimental or undisciplined—painted as amateurs to secure men’s status as ‘vocational professionals’—they often surprised the surveyors with their scientific rigour, and their close work and training with the Charity Organisation Society. While these women rarely came close to the structural causes of poverty, Gibson-Brydon shows how they demonstrated immense knowledge and the tools required to practise strict charity control, which made them everyday constructors of the hierarchy of London’s poor. The candid evidence of interviewees (and interviewers) gathered in the ‘Religious Influences’ series thickly depicts the host of characters deciding, delivering, withholding and receiving charity, from the ‘hybrid’ vicar Hugh Chapman in Bermondsey to the overly ‘professional’ Camden missioner Miss Postill. The moralistic languages which sorted and typified groups and communities into segregated and ‘scientific’ strata pervaded not only the testimony of philanthropists but members of the working class as they struggled to maintain their position. ‘Booth’s great discovery was that the vast majority of the working people in London saw themselves as either respectable or poor but respectable’ and, as such, needed to exercise their own claims to respectability and make their distinction from the unrespectable poor clear—through clothing, open antipathy towards ‘cadgers and loafers’, social exclusion and the protection of the home as private space, free from the intrusion of those assessing need and morality. Money participation was also a central method of demonstration, particularly giving to the ‘other’ poor—those in need in the British Empire. Gibson-Brydon skilfully deploys this evidence to reveal how the discourses of respectable poverty were enacted. The strong current running through the book is anxiety, from Booth’s own insecurity which fuelled his performance of the confident, manly entrepreneur, to the potent anxiety of, and around, poverty: the culture shock experienced by many of London’s clergymen, the impact of the rigours of social work on charity workers and, most importantly, on those who struggled to maintain their social status as poor-but-respectable. While Booth respected the ‘struggle for respectability’ and its ‘improving’ consequences, the stress caused by practices to improve conditions whether one was in poverty or plenty, including birth control, is evident. Gibson-Brydon demonstrates how this anxiety around position in the hierarchy of respectability and poverty caused community divisions and tensions, which challenge notions of working-class solidarity and unity. The pressures of asserting class hierarchy and improving conditions are closely detailed, as are the methods through which these pressures were escaped—religion, drink and suicide. Significantly, Gibson-Brydon positions women as the principal, or at least most visible, agents of ‘repressing and concealing from the public the anger and frustration arising out of absolute and relative poverty’. In our contemporary context of austerity, food banks, refugees and distinctions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants, this book speaks to both the individual and social costs of discerning between those who deserve and those who do not. As well as its excellent scholarship, one of the most striking elements of the book is its testament to academic community, collaboration and kindness. Thomas Gibson-Brydon was killed, along with his partner Laura Nagy, in a car accident in 2009, as he was in the process of turning his Ph.D. thesis into a book. His academic advisors and examiners agreed that his work deserved to be published, both on the strength of the research and as a form of lasting memorial. Brian Lewis and Hillary Kaell worked together to shorten, re-organise and at times rewrite the doctoral thesis into this monograph. Throughout, they ensured that the book was kept ‘authentically Tom’s’, and the result is an engaging, convincing and vivid book that asks us to look again at poverty, religion and society in the Victorian and Edwardian metropolis. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 19, 2018
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