In Robert Roberts’ part-autobiographical, part recollection of village life, and part social history narrative, The Classic Slum, we see how life appeared in the slums of Salford during the early decades of the twentieth century. Roberts places all his knowledge within the context of the times, which saw people living out their days in “ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution” 1 in Britain.
Essentially, Roberts’ work shows that before the First World War, unskilled labouring classes in Britain’s industrial slums resided in a working-class caste structure which enclosed them in a separate social world and left them without hope of ever going beyond it. This social world that Roberts depicts consisted of overlapping villages where industrial labourers, shopkeepers, and destitute people struggled to achieve and maintain respectability in the slums.
The Classic Slum tries to deromanticize the Edwardian period; Roberts’ asserts that “slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. “3 To understand how the British working class of the early twentieth century saw itself and why a social hierarchy emerged within their social world we must examine Roberts’ book, which looks at the fine grained distinctions made among these poor slum residents, the characteristics which put a family on the top or bottom part of the stratification system, and their desires to be self supporting, a central social value of the proletariat.
Roberts’ book, on the whole, shows a culture that was devastated by lack of knowledge, monotony, repression and a crushing social stratification all which restrained the working classes will to rebel. Some of Roberts’ most compelling evidence for such fine grained distinctions between the working class comes from the early part of this book which describes the divisions made among the poor in Salford; there were people with regular work and people who were periodically destitute, people who lived above their means, and people who were persistently in trouble.
According to Roberts, an enormous effort was made by almost everyone in the slums to keep up the appearances of the family honour and its ability to afford what must be spent. Not all people succeeded and unfortunately, these were the rigid standards against which everyone was subject too and judged by. Roberts elaborates more on the social hierarchy by describing how material items, cleanliness and means of accumulating wealth indicated social prestige. Roberts described the working class as almost being obsessed with cleanliness.
A dirty home or even a front step meant lower social status. Roberts wrote “Most people kept what they possessed clean in spite of squalor and ever-invading dirt. Some houses sparkled. “4 Furthermore, material items such as watches, clothes, pictures for walls and musical instruments also indicated social status. Thus, those who had more things had more status and the “social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures. “5 In fact, as Roberts notes, “any new possession helped to stifle fear”6 possibly of being relegated lower in the caste.
The morality of the working class extended well beyond that of how one obtained the means to buy material items. In chapter two, Roberts reveals that the working class did in fact embrace morality and he confirms this by saying that “Prestige… was not automatically increased by such proofs of affluence. One needed to know how wealth had been acquired. The fruits of prostitution we condemned. “7 Thus, the working class did have a moral code and this meant status had to be obtained legitimately.
In chapter three of The Classic Slum, Roberts gives further evidence to support morality in working class when he explained how a violation of the working class moral ‘code’ could lower social status. Therefore, Roberts was able to relate how the working class interacted by examining their moral code. Furthermore, men were expected to do all their work outside the home. Most men, did not do housework since the work of women was heavily associated with homosexuality, which the working class frowned upon, thus men wanting good social standing avoided any activity associated with women.
Anyone male interested in the arts, music or even reading was labelled effeminate and according to Roberts “this linking of homosexuality with culture played some part… in keeping the lower working class as near-illiterate as they were. “8 Thus Roberts gives us one example of how the moral code may have been harmful to the working class. Upon reflection, possibly the significance of material things to the working class was a main reason why (besides a strong British identity) they never revolted. The capitalistic society of their day seems to have been important in obtaining possessions.
Roberts’ confirms this idea by saying that: Some historians have discerned… a proletariat ripe at last for revolution… I believe they have seriously misunderstood the mind and temper of the working men of the time. Whatever their quarrel… the ultra-patriotic mass remained intensely loyal to the nation and the system as a whole. 9 Roberts therefore argues that the working class embraced the national identity of Britain with vigour. They celebrated coronations and obsessed about the private lives of the Royal family. 0 As for the favoured party, Roberts wrote that the working class preferred the Tories to the Liberals. According to Roberts, it seems that the people were unlikely to revolt and the upper classes did not expect them to, at least not in the early part of the twentieth century.
In addition, Roberts wrote, “If however, one had any secret fear that the working classes might yet rise in ‘unvanquishable number’ it was overlain by the conviction that, put to patriotic test, they would do precisely what their masters ordered-a belief that the first world war fully bore out. 11 In addition, the desire to be self supporting, a key idea for poor working class in these times, probably helped keep these people in their place. Thus, the discipline and control applied in the slums such as Salford was self imposed, thereby again showing how the moral code and social hierarchy were harmful to the working class. Roberts asserts that the working class being “ignorant, unorganized, schooled in humility, [that] they had neither the wit nor will to revolt”12 As a contrasting book on the same topic, my attention turns to Friedrich Engels.
Roberts’ book seems to takes its cue from Engels, whose book Conditions of the Working Class, placed judgment on Manchester, and depicts the classic type of a modern manufacturing town. But, unlike Engels, who was concerned with relations between classes and on external conditions of housing, Roberts instead focuses his attention on his belief that inside the working class as a whole there existed “a stratified form of society whose implications and consequences [had] hardly yet been explored. 13 The book is important because not only is it an examination of Engels’ “classic slum” but also because it gives us a detailed social history from the author’s experience of having grown up in one of the worst parts of Salford. Interestingly, Roberts’ position to make observations of the working class from their point of view becomes valid as he too was a born proletariat. The difference in voices of the two authors is notable as Engels claims that the proletarians should revolt to reform society in their favour; Engels blames the bourgeoisie.
But, in The Classic Slum, Roberts’ indicates that the proletariat wouldn’t revolt because they had a strong national identity and that people felt that “the problems of the proletariat… had little to do with them. “14 As well, Roberts seemed to be more objective than Engels writing on the same topic. In The Conditions of the Working Class, Friedrich Engels wrote about the filthy, horrible living conditions in which the people lived. The way he described the landscape, it was easy to imagine that proletarians themselves were mostly dirty and had almost nothing.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, when Roberts describes the working class, they try to keep what possessions they have clean from all the squalor. In fact, Roberts asserts that women “wore their lives away washing. “15 It seems that Roberts tries to correct the view of the lower working class as a single stratum with ambitions and social change as Engels depicts. In contrast, Roberts uses descriptions of living conditions to illuminate the working classes social world not as a reason for revolt.
Roberts says that “one or two proletarian authors, writing about these times… appear to me to sentimentalize the working class: even worse, by too often depicting its cruder and more moronic members they end by caricaturing the class as a whole”16 Perhaps Roberts is commenting on Engels, but nevertheless, he is tries to correct a view of the Edwardian working class that the considers to be wrong. In Conclusion, Robert Roberts’ book The Classic Slum, provides great insight into life during the later half of industrialization in Britain.
This book enables an analysis of urban working class life because Roberts clearly identifies the caste system that existed amongst the proletarians in Salford and explains exactly what characteristics determined where a family would fall into the stratification system. As well, by comparing the differences in Roberts and Engels, Roberts’ writing was insistently against the romantic myths of the proletariat. He saw the working class as docile as they accepted “a steady decline in living standards and went on wishing for nothing more than to be ‘respectful and respected’ in the eyes of men. “