As Eric Hobsbawm reminds us, the government of Victorian England did not protect English men, women, and children from the personal economic disaster created by unemployment. Unlike citizens of modern industrialized nations, the Victorian who lost his or her job did not receive any help from government. In an economic world just a little removed from a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist one in which traditional relations between master and worker were the norm, no government, or representative of government, provided paid unemployment allowances, gave assistance in securing another job, or arranged and funded job retraining:

When workers lost their employment-- which they might do at the end of the job, of the week, of the day or even of the hour — they had nothing to fall back upon except their savings, their friendly society or trade union, their credit with local shopkeepers, their neighbours and friends, the pawnbroker or the Poor Law, which was still the only public provision for what we now call social security. When they grew old or infirm, they were lost unless helped by their children, for effective insurance or private pension schemes covered only a few of them. Nothing is more characteristic of working-class life, and harder for us to imagine today, than this virtually total absence of social security. [133]

The perilous condition of the working classes explains why William Hale White, Frederich Engels, Charles Kingsley and many others all compare their existence to a shipwrecked sailor trying to keep his head above water — alone, without help, without hope. Such lack of adequate sources of assistance in times of economic crisis also explains the intense middle-class fear of becoming bankrupt.

Of course, as Hobsbawm makes clear, however much unemployed workers lacked governmental support, they did have some assistance in the form of networks of family and friends, pawnshops, private charities, credit with shopkeepers, unions, and similar organizations. Why do you think Victorian workers did not have access to pension funds, annuities, or unemployment insurance? Why did it take so long for the English government to assume responsibilities for workers and other individuals? What fundamental social, political, and even religious attitudes had to change before the national government would consider involving itself in such forms of social welfare?


Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

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Last modified 11 October 2002