Necessity may well be the mother of invention but, in dynamic and expanding economies, no sooner are people’s immediate needs satisfied than they want still more. It appears that the wider the differential between the rich and the poor, the greater is the incentive both for the poor to work ever harder to emulate those better off then themselves, while the rich have to strive even harder if they’re not to lose out on their new-found gains.
England in the 1870s was just such an economy; the country was booming as no national economy had ever boomed before. There was plenty of work for everyone though a continuously rising population meant that wages for most manual workers were kept depressingly low. The value of U.K. foreign trade exceeded that of France, Germany, the United States and Italy all put together. This nation of thirty-two million people traded as much as did the hundred and forty-four million people in the other four countries combined1. While agriculture was still the largest employer, with textiles in second place, all this was starting to change as the inventions of Henry Bessemer transformed the age of iron into that of steel2. This so revolutionised the ship-building industry that within twenty years ninety percent of the world’s ships were British built; lift the hatch of a steamship engine room anywhere around the globe and shout “Mac” and nine times out of ten an oil-stained chief engineer with a Glasgow accent would emerge.
Wealth inequality was probably greater then than at any other time. Seven hundred of the richest men in England owned a quarter of all the land; ten percent of the population owned ninety-two percent of the national wealth, yet only twelve percent earned more than a hundred and sixty pounds a year (the salary of a middling shop keeper). A third of London’s population were defined as poor for they had to live on twenty-one shillings a week (sixty pounds a year), and three percent were paupers living in workhouses.
There was no more acerbic critic of the Victorian industrial economy than Charles Dickens3 as he observed the impact of all this on the working people of England. As a youngster he had grown up amongst the underside of Victorian society and worked in a glue factory. Looking out further across the contemporary landscape Dickens admitted that while the creation of wealth was a social good, it was morally ambiguous, claiming and promising ever more out of life, while corrupting what he saw as decent human values. This creed was summed up in the voice of Pancks in ‘Little Dorrit’: “Keep me always at it, and I’ll keep you always at it, keep somebody else always at it. There you are with the whole Duty of Man in a commercial society”. School was too often a sad place. “Now, what I want is, Facts”, declared Mr. Gradgrind in ‘Hard Times’ “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. Stick to the Facts, sir!”
It wasn’t just school that was largely boring for the ordinary person, even more so was employment in a mill, factory or mine. It was a soul-destroying way of life, recognised by more than one hundred thousand people who, on average, emmigrated from Britain every year ─ a million people in total over ten years, more than eleven million in the nineteenth century4. It was a curious cross-section of society that emigrated, made up of both those who had nothing further to lose, and those who thought they had everything to gain. By seeking their fortunes overseas they deprived England of their skills, but by helping to create energetic colonies they created further markets for British goods5. It was a win/win situation.
It was the opening up of these new markets overseas that created more space for the grandsons of the earlier Victorian industrial entrepreneurs, brought up on the country estates created by their fathers, to prove their worth. Mix their classical public school education and evangelical zeal to spread the Christian Gospel with the entrepreneurial fervour of those other men escaping from the working classes and, inspired by the entrepreneurial gospel of Samuel Smiles, and you have the energy to create a ‘Greater Britain beyond the seas’6. There were fortunes to be made and no exams stood in their way. Suddenly for three and more generations, the expectations of ordinary Englishmen were no longer constrained by the restrictions of their tiny island.
It was an historically unique experience, and one which Englishmen still harp back to when wondering how to direct the energy of adolescence into exciting and worthwhile activities that appear to be missing from formal schooling. Even if there was an eventual limit to the prairies, or the trade potential of Africa, here was an immediate alternative to employment in an English factory. The prospect of empire filled the minds of countless young people7. Like no other generation before or since each saw that they had a destiny ─ if they were bold enough to seize it ─ that meant they need not go down a Welsh coal mine, work in a Lancashire cotton mill, herd cattle in Devon, toil in a London office or grow corn in Tipperary.
Thesis 51: 24th August 2006