This passage has been excerpted from the introductions and other editorial matter in John Burnett's superb collection of working-class life-histories, The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974. GPL.

Untitled illustration from Gustave Doré's London

One of the most remarkable characteristics [of Victorian working-class autobiographies] is the uncomplaining acceptance of conditions of life and work which to the modern reader seem brutal, degrading and almost unimaginable — of near-poverty and, sometimes, extreme poverty, of over-crowded and inadequate housing accommodation, of bad working conditions, periodic unemployment and generally restricted opportunities, and of the high incidence of disease, disablement and death. Yet most of those who experienced such conditions are not, in their writings at least, consciously discontented, let alone in a state of revolt. There is a sense of patient resignation to the facts of life, the feeling that human existence is a struggle and that survival is an end in itself. Especially is this so in relation to the early death of wives or children — a fatalistic attitude that 'God gives and God takes away', and that although one may mourn, one does not inveigh against the Fates which, to us, seem to have treated some so cruelly. Such resignation was, in part, the product of a long history of deprivation and suffering by which, for generations past, working people had been accustomed to poverty, personal tragedy and limited expectations; for some it was reinforced by the religious teaching that this world was, in any case, a vale of tears, and that happiness could only be expected in the life to come. These attitudes are true of the great majority, though not of all. In a few who are politically motivated or involved in trade union activities . . . the resentment against misery and exploitation is open and expressed, and it is noticeable that a more critical tone develops over time. [14]

The picture which emerges from these writings is of men and women who are materially very poor by contemporary standards, who are uncomplaining in their poverty, who lead lives of hard work but rarely expect to find fulfilment from it, and for whom the family, interpersonal relationships, and relationship with God are centrally important. Their intellectual and cultural horizons are strictly limited: very few concern themselves with national events or politics, even with local trade union or labour movements; they are uninterested in material acquisition or achievement as such; they are not socially mobile and barely conscious of class beyond a recognition that the 'masters' constitute a different order of society into which they will never penetrate. Their aspirations are modest to be respected by their fellows, to see their families growing up and making their way in the world, to die without debt and without sin. Such happiness and satisfactions as life has to offer are to be found in social contacts within groups — the family, the work-group, the chapel or, for a few, the public house; here meaningful relationships can be made, experiences exchanged, joys and sorrows shared. [18]

Last modified December 2001