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18 September 2014
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Victorian Britain

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Laissez-faire and the Victorians

By Professor Eric Evans
Locating the problems

'Punch' cartoon depicting industrialists as 'smoke-makers'
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Important meeting of smoke makers 
It was industrialisation that did more than anything to develop state involvement in what Victorians called 'the social question'. The Industrial Revolution meant much bigger towns and huge population increases. Britain's population was almost twice as large in 1800 as in 1700, three times as large by 1850 and more than five times as great by 1900. By that year, it had reached 37 million.

Urbanisation and population growth combined to produce social problems on an unprecedented scale. As early as 1832, a doctor working in Manchester, JP Kay, graphically illustrated the key problems.

'The state of the streets powerfully affects the health of their inhabitants ... Want of cleanliness, of forethought, and economy, are found in almost invariable alliance with dissipation, reckless habits and disease. The population gradually becomes physically less efficient as the producers of wealth ... Were such manners to prevail, the horrors of pauperism would accumulate.'
'A debilitated race would be rapidly multiplied. Morality would afford no check to the increase of population: crime and disease would be its only obstacles ... A dense mass, impotent alike of great moral or physical efforts, would accumulate ... They would drag on an unhappy existence, vibrating between the pangs of hunger and the delirium of dissipation - alternately exhausted by severe and oppressive toil, or enervated by supine sloth.'

Published: 2004-11-04

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