Bone grubber

I am publishing through August on Pandaemonium a series of extracts from my books on the theme of historical fears of the masses and of democracy. This second extract (the first is here), from The Meaning of Race, is not about democracy as such but about how the Victorian elite saw class in racial terms (I have not included full references here, but they are in the book). When I wrote The Meaning of Race, I wanted to challenge conventional ways of thinking about the historical roots of racial ideas, and to demonstrate how much of racial thinking originated not in the context of perceptions of non-Europeans but to a large extent at home out of the relationship between the elite and the masses. And that is what makes this material important in thinking about contemporary discussions of the working class. Today, elite views of the working class are rarely racialized, at least in an overt fashion.  Yet, many of the themes, especially about the character of the ‘unrespectable’ working class, remain, though they necessarily have to be expressed in a different language. What is of interest here is to understand what has changed as well as what remains the same in thinking about democracy and the working class.


Race and Class in Victorian England
From The Meaning of Race, pp91-98

Today, the concept of race is so intertwined with the idea of ‘colour’ that it is often difficult to comprehend the Victorian notion of race. For the Victorians, race was a description of social distinction, not of colour differences. Indeed, the view of non-Europeans as an inferior race was but an extension of the already existing view of the working class at home and took a considerable time to be established as the normative view. Douglas Lorimer’s study of Colour, Class and the Victorians, provides considerable evidence that until the middle of century black people were treated according to their social status rather than the colour of their skin:

Like their eighteenth-century forebears, the mid-Victorians accepted an individual black according to his ability to conform to English social conventions. A dark complexion did not inevitably signify lowly social status… In spite of theories claiming the Negro was inferior, the variable conduct of the English at this time showed that these racist assumptions had not sufficient support to influence patterns of behaviour. In the absence o any consensus over the significance of racial differences, mid-Victorians simply treated each individual black according to their evaluation of his social standing.

As the idea of the permanence of social hierarchy took hold within liberal circles, however, commentators became increasingly sceptical about the idea of blacks aspiring to high social status. As a result, observes Lorimer, ‘the conventional norms about correct bearing towards one’s social inferiors, whether black or white, were extended to include all blacks regardless of an individual’s character or background.’…

Mid-Victorian perceptions of colour and class are well illustrated by the debate on the relationship between American slavery and the English factory system. When it was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (subtitled Life Among the Lowly) created a considerable furore in Britain, because of the comparison it drew between American slaves and English workers. In the novel, slave-owner Augustine St Clare justifies slavery on the grounds that the condition of his slaves is no worse than that of factory operatives in England:

Look at the high and the low, all the world over, and it is the same story; the lower classes used up, body, soul, and spirit, for the good of the upper. It is so in England; it is so everywhere; and yet all Christendom stands aghast, with virtuous indignation, because we do the thing in a slightly different shape from what they do it.

English commentators angrily rejected the comparison at the time, arguing that slavery was a denial of human rights and morally reprehensible whereas the exploitation of workers through the factory system was an unexceptional fact of life. An article in British Mother’s Magazine argued that though both American slaves and British paupers lived in a state of degradation, the slave’s condition was an enforced one whereas the condition of the English poor was ‘to a large extent their own fault’. Another writer argued that if American slaves truly lived in the same condition as English workers, then slavery would be defensible, Few thought that blacks should be treated differently from white labourers…

Street seller of bird's nests

This hostility to slavery on the part of English liberals demonstrated their unwillingness to forgo entirely the universalistic ideas that had been forged in the eighteenth century and their sensitivity to the notion that inequality at home was not natural but socially enforced like the enslavement of African-Americans. An underlying belief in equality remained a central feature of the liberal outlook. Yet, if most British writers rejected the comparison between slavery and the factory system as a justification of the treatment of American negroes, most were equally willing to justify class distinctions in England. A vignette in the Saturday Review of working class life is typical of English middle class attitudes of this era:

The Bethnal Green poor… are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact. And although there is not quite the same separation of classes or castes in the country, yet the great mass of the agricultural poor are divided from the educated and comfortable, from squires and parsons and tradesmen, by a barrier which custom has forged through long centuries, and which only very exceptional circumstances ever beat down, and then only for an instant. The slaves are separated from the whites by more glaring… marks of distinction; but still distinctions and separations, like those of English classes which always endure, which last from the cradle to the grave, which prevent anything like association or companionship, produce a general effect on the life of the extreme poor, and subject them to isolation, which offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.

This separation of the classes was important because each had to keep to their allotted place on the social ladder:

The English poor man or child is expected always to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin which God has given him. The relationship in both instances is that of perpetual superior to perpetual inferior, of chief to dependent, and no amount of kindness or goodness is suffered to alter this relation.

Class division denoted the relation of ‘perpetual superior to perpetual inferior’, a distinction that to the Victorians was every bit as visible as that between black and white. We can see here how the gap between an abstract belief in equality and a society built on social distinctions created the space for a racial view of the world. Social rank, for the Victorians, was the consequence of individual achievement and aptitude. Yet it was clear that individuals largely occupied the same rank as their parents. The son or daughter of a factory hand or a farm labourer rarely became a philosopher or a factory-owner. This seemed to suggest that differences of class expressed hereditary distinctions. As John Stuart Mill was to complain, social commentators ‘revolved in their eternal circle of landlords, capitalists and labourers, until they seemed to think of the distinction of society into these three classes as though it were one of God’s ordinances.’

Sewer hunter

The idea of the permanence of social divisions was strengthened by the belief that social fluidity would undermine national cohesion. The fact that the rank order in society appeared to be ‘one of God’s ordinances’ combined with a feeling that that the social structure needed to be static to create a racialized view of social difference. Hence while most English commentators were opposed to forced enslavement, they nevertheless considered the class system to be as permanent as any racial distinction. For Victorian liberals it was the only way to understand social inequality in their society.

Journalist Henry Mayhew, the discoverer of urban poverty in mid-Victorian England, set the tone for the discussion of social divisions. In his study of London Labour and the London Poor, Mayhew divided humanity into two sorts:

Of the thousand millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are – socially, morally and perhaps even physically considered – but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz.,the wanderers and the settlers – the vagabond and the citizen – the nomadic and the civilized tribes.

Every society, wrote Mayhew, had its citizens and its vagabonds. London ‘street-folk’ were the vagabonds of England, and were in every way a ‘race apart’:

The nomad then is distinguished from the civilized man by his repugnance to regular and continuous labour – by his want of providence in laying up store for the future – by his inability to perceive consequences ever so slightly removed from immediate apprehension – by his passion for stupefying herbs and roots, and, when possible, for intoxicating fermented liquor – by his immoderate love of gaming , frequently risking his own personal liberty upon a single cast – by his love of libidinous dances – by the pleasure he experiences in witnessing the suffering of sentient creatures – by his delight in warfare and all perilous sports – by the absence of chastity among his women and his disregard of female honour – and, lastly, by his vaguer sense of religion – his rude idea of a Creator, and utter absence of all appreciation of the mercy of the divine spirit.

Mayhew’s ‘vagabonds’ did not encompass the working class as a whole but were studies of the outcasts of society – what one London magistrate called a ‘race lower than any yet known’… Nevertheless… the relationship between ‘outcast London’ and ‘respectable society’ provided the model for understanding social stratification in the rest of society.

Mayhew’s writings (which have since become a major source for historians and sociologists) demonstrate clearly the Victorian view of race as signifying social as opposed to colour distinctions. Racial divisions existed not so much between different societies as within each society. Mayhew’s work also shows the nineteenth-century tendency to elide social, moral and physical distinctions into a single racial hierarchy. This elision allowed Victorian writers to view social and natural problems in the same terms. Gertrude Himmelfarb, in a discussion of an official report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, notes that the same words – ‘residuum’, ‘refuse’, ‘offal’ – were used to denote the sewage waste that constituted the sanitary problem and the human waste that constituted the social problem. In the positivist outlook that defined mid-century society, natural waste and human waste were thought susceptible to similar treatment.

8276.e.55, vol. 2, f. 136

The naturalization of social or moral attributes was underscored by the insistence that physical distinctions were outward manifestations of inherent moral differences. Mayhew himself considered that the nomadic race was distinguished by a ‘greater relative development of the jaws and cheekbones’ and ‘broad lozenge-shaped faces’, indicating an enlargement of ‘the organs subservient to sensation and the animal faculties’ and giving rise to ‘distinctive moral and intellectual features.’

Other racial scientists attempted to be more precise in their delineation of the racial hierarchy. Otto Ammon devised ‘Ammon’s Law’, which stated that urban populations were more highly dolichocephalic, or long headed, because this racial type showed ‘a stronger inclination to city life and a greater aptitude for success there’ than brachycephalic, or broad-headed, people. Further, added Ammon, ‘the upper classes in the cities are the most dolichocephalic of all’. William Ripley concurred that ‘there is some characteristic of the long headed race or types, either their energy, ambition or hardiness, which makes them peculiarly prone to migrate from the country to the city.’ English psychologists WED and CD Whetham, on the other hand, thought that those who migrated to the cities were inferior to those who remained in the country…

The difference between the views Ammon and Ripley, on the one hand, and of the Whethams on the other , demonstrates different political needs. Ammon and Ripley wanted to show that immigrants to the USA at the end of the nineteenth century, who were largely from the Mediterranean countries, were of inferior stock to those already settled in America. The Whethams wanted to prove the inferiority of the urban working class in Britain. The contrasting theories show that what was important in Victorian society were not the facts of racial difference but the existence of a hierarchy.

It is in the context of such a hierarchy that arguments for the inferiority of non-white races became part of mainstream scientific and social thinking… The social elite in England now measured non-white races by the same yardstick that it had previously used to demarcate itself from the ‘lower orders’ at home. ‘The English governing classes in the 1860s’, Bernard Semmel observes in his book on the Governor Eyre Controversy,

regarded the Irish and the non-European native just as they had, quite openly, regarded their own labouring classes for many centuries: as thoroughly undisciplined, with a tendency to revert to bestial behaviour, consequently requiring to be kept in order by force, and by occasional but severe flashes of violence; vicious and sly, incapable of telling the truth, naturally lazy and unwilling to work unless under compulsion.

The descriptions of Africans and negroes were strikingly similar to those of the ‘residuum’ at home. This was how one colonial administrator described the typical black African:

[A] happy, thriftless, excitable person, lacking in self-control, discipline and foresight… His thoughts are concentrated on the events and feelings of the moment, and he suffers little from apprehension for the future, or grief for the past… [H]is own insensitivity to pain, and his disregard for life – whether his own or another’s – cause him to appear callous to suffering… He lacks power of organization, and is conspicuously deficient in the management and control alike of men or of business… He is prone to imitate anything new in dress or custom.

It might have been Henry Mayhew describing his London streetfolk.

Street seller of nutmeg graters

The so-called ‘Governor Eyre controversy’ of 1865 brought out well the commonality of outlook towards blacks and the working class. In October 1865, a local rising by peasantry in Jamaica was put down by the island’s governor, Edward John Eyre, with the utmost ferocity. Eyre’s actions created much debate in England. Many of those who defended him did so by comparing the negro to the English worker. ‘The negro’, observed the writer Edwin Hood, ‘is in Jamaica as the costermonger is in Whitechapel; he is very likely often nearly a savage with the mind of a child.’ The Saturday Review suggested that the ‘negro is neither ferociously cruel nor habitually malignant. He often does cruel and barbarous things; but then so do our draymen and hackney-coachmen and grooms and farm servants through want of either thought or power of thinking.’

The Daily Telegraph, on hearing reports that the pro-independence Jamaica Committee planned a counter-rally to a banquet in Eyre’s honour in Southampton was moved to comment that ‘there are a good many negroes in Southampton who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is a proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party’. In fact, as Douglas Lorimer observes,

the Daily Telegraph’s ‘negroes’ were… the very English and very white Southampton mob who thronged the streets outside the banquet hall, while their more respectable working class colleagues attended the largest popular meeting in the city’s history to protest against the official reception given to Governor Eyre.

The Southampton incident reveals both the elite view of blacks and English workers as being part of the same ‘tribe’, and the fact that, even a late as the 1860s, there remained considerable working class sympathy for, and identification with, the plight of blacks in the colonies. This caused immense concern at home and the elite view of the inferiority of non-white races was to a large extent driven by domestic considerations. ‘We do not admit of equality even amongst our own race’, observed Commander Bernard Pym in a speech to the Anthropological Society in the wake of the General Eyre affair. ‘To suppose that two alien races can compose a political unity is simply ridiculous.’ To admit to black equality would be to undermine the idea of inequality at home. As the historian VG Kiernan observes in his book The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age, ‘discontented native in the colonies, labour agitator in the mill, were the same serpent in alternate disguises. Much of the talk about the barbarism or darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe’s mission to rout, was a transmuted fear of the masses at home.’


The images are all from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and are courtesy of the British Library.


  1. Nicholas

    Very interesting read. I remember thinking when Jade Goody was involved in the ‘Big Brother’ racist debacle which involved Shilpa Shetty , that it seemed to me that Goody had been subject to classist abuse which nobody seemed to recognise or care about. I’ve noticed it again and again over the years. Funny how meanings change. Thank you .

  2. nannus

    Very interesting! Do you see the colonization of the Americas playing a role in the shift from a class- or cast-based concept of race to a “color”-based concept? The first settlers of Virginia, for example, seem to have been mainly landless members of the English gentry, second sons who could not get their own land in Britain and so went to the colonies. The first generation of workers there were British lower class people being brought there as indentured servants, being treated like slaves although the indenture system meant they would become free after a certain time, like seven years (if they survived). They could then themselves become land owners. So this system allowed them a way of moving up in the hierarchy. Later, British indentured laborers were replaced by African slaves. However, taking land in North America meant removing the former inhabitants. By adopting the idea of equality, but limiting it to a newly defined “white race” and at the same time using a color based concept of race to justify the expulsion or killing of native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, this process might have contributed to the shift from a class-based to a color based concept of inequality. Such a process might also be seen later in the 20th century in Britain when the economic situation of workers improved, enabling them to claim equality while shifting to a color based concept of race turned against colonized people.

  3. I know you reject Burkean/conservative thought but I’m currently exploring it (as an antidote to a personal feeling that a liberal society is nihilistic to its core).

    Within the ‘conservative’ article below there is a depth and an eloquence which seems to adequately explain why there is so many prejudices within our societies today; prejudices which have been historically created by an ‘urban’ liberalism and by extension an ‘urban’ individualism, echoes of which, as you point out, find form today.

    Historically, these prejudices arose when one set of ‘privileged’ subjectivities perceives itself as morally and socially superior to another set of ‘underprivileged’ subjectivities. Within the modern context, the echoes of these older sets of subjectivities are now differentiated as advantaged and disadvantaged. In other words, there appears to be a historical continuity by which a liberal social hierachy persists which as it did then still determines the distribution of collectively produced wealth and resources.

    Within much of paleoconservative thinking, including Burkean conservatism, it is the presence of this liberalized and individualized urban social hierarchy that morally debases societies and in turn pits the ‘morally sophisticated’ capitalist class as superior to the ‘morally devoid’ labouring classes within a historical context or within the modern context, pits the ‘expert’ technocratic class as superior to the ‘stupid’ labouring classes, both of which generates the view that universal sufferage is a dangerous and ill-conceived concept.

    Therefore from a paleoconservative point of view, it is the ‘corrupt’ liberal values (which disconnects individuals from an integrated and moral sense of community) that leads to the sorts of moral impoverishment and alienation that cultivates prejudices.

    In this respect, the superiority/inferior complexes that were embedded in liberal urban social hierarchies were easily transferred from the labouring classes to non-european ethnics simply because traditional moral order had given way to an order that locates itself on material wealth and an aptitude for technological and social progress.
    Moreover, tbe nihilism of liberalism means that the same hierachical constructs that are inflicted upon the labouring classes meant that they in turn could position themselves as superior to non-european ethnics.

    But what is important in the modern context as it was in the historical context, in my mind at least, is not only the superiority/inferiority echoes, but the resource and wealth distributions that goes with these hierarchical constructs. Simply put, from the labouring classes point of viee, the perception and the reality of outsiders/strangers/immigrants taking jobs and housing, jumping the queue for social service provision, congesting services etc is an affront to the social hierachy which the urban elite liberals simultaneously reinforce through resource and wealth distributions but at the same time pretend to deconstruct through equality measures in order to position the labouring class as hostile, prejudiced and inferior and themselves as superior moral guardians.

    Within this complex reality of hierachically induced resource scarcity for the labouring classes whether in the form of better paid work, affordable decent housing, responsive vocational education, welfare benefits, fulfilling economic relations or access to quality cultural experiences, the labouring classes are being forced to highly compete with immigrants and so it is not surprising resentment is high.

    And so whilst I agree immigration is but a symbol rather than the cause for the scarcity of resources and the social hierachies that underlie resource allocation, considering that it is unlikely that liberal elites are going to redistribute collectively produced wealth anytime soon, then the fact of the matter is that immigration is compounding the scarcity experienced by the labouring classes rather than reducing it. In the main, it is the CHOICE of immigrants to create this compounding of scarcity, not the elites and not the labouring classes. So whilst it can be argued that the dislike of immigration is more a symbol of labouring class dissatisfaction with scarce resource provisioning and their inferior positioning within the liberal social hierachy, the dislike also reflects the lack of responsibity shown by immigrants in their blind ahistorical and blind asocial pursual of liberalised individuality. In this respect immigrants makes themselves targets for the repressed anger of the labouring classes by not acknowledging and taking responsibility the increased difficulties their presence exerts on their lives.

    Of course, it is convenient for the superior liberal elites who gain wealth through immigration, to use the opportunity to condemn the labouring classes and to echo their past disenchantments with the labouring classes as being morally devoid which in the modern context equates to being morally ill-equipped to exercise their democratic vote. In this respect, the liberal elites are relying upon their constructed social hierachies to maintain their own position and to maintain the status quo.

    So for me, the symbol argument is not so clear cut when duties and responsibilities are taken into consideration since if immigrants choose to insert themselves into preformed and established social hierarchies without acknowledging the effects of their decisions on the labouring classes whilst at the same time allow themselves to be used by the liberal elites to reinforce their superior position then in many ways they only have themselves to blame.

    Moreover, for me these duties and responsibilities extend beyond taking account of the social and economic conditions of the labouring classes before immigrants choose to inhabit their communities but also include the ecological conditions too since more immigration means less green infrastructure which means higher levels of food imports which means an increase in demand for green infrastructure outside of the nation, which invariably leads to corporate land-grabbing and the eviction or forced relocation of rural communities which forces an increase in urbanization and an increase in poverty in both absolute and relative terms which creates the need for more economic growth, more environmental degradation, more climate change and so on so that the cycles of impoverishment go on and on until social hierarchies are deconstructed. All because millions of migrants want a wage increase!

    Therefore, going back to paleoconservatism, ‘deep’ integration, if duties and responsibilities are to be included, also requires a reflexive attitude on the part of everyone as to whether causing social change is in the interests of socio-ecological communities from the local to the global. Within this highly liberalised individuated world, it could be argued that reflectivity is not very high on the list of priorities for either immigrants or liberal elites.

    However, from a more paleoconservative perspective, these sorts of considerations are integrated rather than blindly rejected, in order to create a true sense of community or communitas (i.e true integration) rather than the superficial sense of community or integration that results from liberalised individualism whether social embedded or not. This is because in the former, individuals need to realise that sacrifice is necessary in order to create and protect the social and ecological integrity of a community but not a sacrifice that renders a person subservient to another but a sacrifice that renders a person subservient to the mysterious purpose of LIFE. When a collection of individuals share this same sense of reverence for LIFE then they are in communitas and they are integrating. When they do not, they are simply a collection of individuals competing to have their equal rights satisfied within liberalised social hierarchies. In this respect, mutual reverence for LIFE is the true basis of community, not a social embedded squabble for individuality and resources.

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