Poverty amidst Prosperity


The urban poor in England, 1834–1914

This book is the ideal introduction to those seeking to understand poverty from the grassroots. Its wide range of evidence, clear analysis and strong argument stress the importance of communities and give a voice to those whom traditional history has marginalised.



See also They Worked All their Lives: Women of the Urban Poor by Carl Chinn. An excellent companion volume.

The upper and middle classes of Victorian England were marked out by their confidence: they boasted that the sun never set on their Empire; they believed they were destined to lead other nations; and they bragged that their civilisation was pre-eminent. Their self-belief was assured because they lived in a country that had become rich through industrialisation. But amidst great prosperity there was also much poverty. Deprivation and distress were widespread and obvious. In towns and cities, grand public and civic buildings were surrounded by poor dwellings later known as ‘slums’. The poor crowded into these insanitary districts; they rented badly built dwellings with inadequate facilities; they did the dirtiest, hardest and most dangerous jobs; they ate the worst food; they suffered ill health and early deaths. Poverty blighted their lives.

Many observers asserted that many of the poor were thriftless and feckless. They stated that the muckiness of the poor districts was caused by dirty people who did not wish to raise themselves out of the mire. Gradually, however, social investigators began to question these scathing generalisations, arguing that poverty was usually the result of economic conditions over which individuals and families had little or no control.

Poverty amidst Prosperity focuses on the urban poor themselves, and explains their way of life from within. Using working-class autobiographies and other evidence from working-class people themselves, Carl Chinn shows how people reacted to poverty, and brings to the fore their strategies for coping with their situation. He highlights the way in which poorer people forged strong neighbourhoods through the powerful links of neighbourliness, extended family networks and ‘matrilocality’, links which were strengthened by crucial facilities such as corner shops and local shopping thoroughfares. In an invigorating approach, the people and communities of places like The Nichol in London, Hope Street in Salford and Summer Lane in Birmingham are given back their dignity and humanity. Despised by so many as a lesser race living in the slum or abyss, the urban poor are revealed to be hard-working, resourceful, supportive of each other, dogged, determined and imbued with the belief that sharing and helping out were the right things to do. The urban poor were not passive victims of external circumstances; they fought back against poverty and their dreadful urban environment.

This book is infused with a sense of social justice and is deeply affected by Carl Chinn’s own background. The families of both his mother and father come from tough working-class streets in Birmingham which were marked out by their ties of kinship and neighbourliness as much as by their bad housing and inadequate sanitation.

  • Author: Professor Carl Chinn MBE
  • Binding: paperback
  • ISBN: 978-1-85936-126-9
  • Pages: 176
  • Illustrations: 12 old photographs
  • Date of Publication: September 2006
  • Dimensions: 234 × 156 mm


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