Two approaches seem to characterize the second half of the 19th century: on the one hand, a Victorian philanthropy, designed essentially to reward those worthy of salvation and, on the other hand, a movement away from assistance towards self-help, the Cooperative Movement, Friendly Societies including Oddfellows, Trade Unions…
Charity was widespread during the 19th century though the actual amount distributed is difficult to estimate. It is claimed by William Howe, who produced surveys of London charities, that "the income of the London charities… (reached)… £2,250,000 in 1874-75 rising to £3,150,000 in 1893-94". This was approximately one third the figure spent by the Poor Law authorities at the time.
There have even been claims that charity exceeded State expenditure on the poor. Of course not all charitable donations were intended for the poor. Middle class philanthropy was sometimes to be found in certain employers who attempted to look after the welfare of their workers: Cadbury in Birmingham, Lever on Merseyside, Colman in Norwich are examples of this. In 1869, the Charity Organization Society (C.O.S.) was set up to organize charities in order to maximize the charitable effects and to minimize any demoralization of the poor, through encouraging undeserving people to remain recipients of relief.
One of its leading lights was Octavia Hill, a leading housing reformer. Beneficiaries of church-sponsored charities would be expected to attend church or to send their offspring to Sunday School in exchange for help. Many poor people resented this dependency culture and preferred to remain defiantly independent yet in need.
When one mentions "self-help", one thinks immediately of Samuel Smiles : the moralizing concept of "self-help" seemed to be a value prized by the mid-Victorian middle class. "Self-help" strengthened the individual whereas help from outside enfeebled him or her. Extending the notion of self-help to the working class lifted a load from the shoulders of the middle class, letting them rest easy with the fruits of their own achievements. It was thus up to the working class to make provision for their own welfare.
The Cooperative Movement began in Rochdale (near Manchester) in 1844 and was initially a trading association which provided goods (and later services) at a reasonable price, with a dividend paid to the members of the "co-operative".
Friendly Societies were also attempts at creating groups of like-minded friends, neighbours or work-mates who would pool a certain amount of money, on a weekly basis, and thus have a reserve fund in case of unforeseen disaster. Membership reached 925,000 in 1815. The Manchester Unity of Oddfellows was the largest Friendly Society.
During the first half of the 19th century, it was often claimed that poverty was the result of an individual’s inability to cope with life, linked to some defect, like laziness or alcohol dependency. It was felt that the deserving poor should be encouraged to help themselves out of their predicament through hard work, abstemious behaviour, thrift and godliness.
The role of Government was limited: doling out large sums of relief to the poor would only have the perverse effect of encouraging poverty, especially among the undeserving. The second half of the 19th century saw other ideas about poverty come to the surface.
Henry Mayhew (London Labour and the London Poor, 1851) wrote newspaper articles describing the abject living conditions of some of the more colourful characters among the London poor. It appeared to him that those living on or below the breadline were not all guilty of some moral defect.
Many were simply unable to find sufficiently well-paid employment. Whether his investigations were seriously carried out or whether he was prone o exaggeration and partiality, the results of his work were read by many and brought to their attention faces of poverty formerly unknown to them. Writers such as Dickens were influenced by Mayhew.
Progress towards the idea of "human rights" and the role of the state in the well-being of the individual was slow. The familiar question was how to balance the uplifting of the poor with the distribution of material relief; which might be seen to reward those unwilling to make efforts themselves. And within the working class itself, even if the moral dimension was often absent, there was still a feeling on occasions that industrious workers should not have to subsidize lazy, marginal characters. Progress was made however in the field of trying to get rid of worker exploitation, where all workers could unite to oppose the attitude of some unscrupulous employers.
Awareness about poverty in late Victorian Britain was helped by Seebohm Rowntree‘s study of poverty in York in 1899 (Poverty: A Study of Town Life, 1901): he pointed out that the majority of the working class could expect to experience poverty a number of times in their lives, when young children, when having children and when old (life-cycle poverty). Drink and gambling were seen to exacerbate the problems and survival was conditional on workers avoided these traps.
Rowntree defined the poverty line as "a standard of bare subsistence rather than living". According to him, 10% of the population lived in "primary poverty" and another 18% earned more, but wasted their extra money on wasteful vices. A major problem concerned large families who had only a relatively low amount of income. The more children they had, the more they were penalized.
William Booth (In Darkest England and the Way Out, 1890), the founder of the Salvation Army, also made a distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, though he recognized that was secure from being drawn in to poverty. He refers to "Darkest England", composed of 3 concentric circles, sodden with drink: the outer one inhabited by the starving and homeless; the middle one by those who live by vice; the inner one, by those who live by crime.
Another to point out the plight of the poor at this time was Charles Booth (The Life and Labour of the People in London, 1902): he had noticed an "arithmetic of woe" with over 30% of the population of London living in poverty.
Charles Booth did not agree with the idea that the poor were totally responsible for their predicament. He carried out a careful classification of the population and his findings showed that problems linked to employment were at the heart of poverty – rather than any innate immorality.
At the end of the 19th century it was clear that although it would be wrong to claim that the majority of the population lived in absolute poverty, the majority of the population lived in the shadow of poverty. They had little in the way of savings or insurance to protect themselves from any sudden disaster (illness, death, loss of employment…) which could tip them over the precipice.