Oliver Betts, How Civilized Were the Victorians?: A Reply

Oliver Betts is Research Fellow at the National Railway Museum in York. Having completed his PhD on the working-class idea of home 1870-1914 at the University of York, he is now writing a history of the interplay between railways, society, and human geography in South London 1850-1940. He tweets at @DrOliBetts

This post responds to Peter K. Andersson’s Journal of Victorian Culture article ‘How Civilised were the Victorians’. This article can be downloaded here.

Great Western Railway staff pose with maids whilst on a works outing c.1900, photographer unknown, with kind permission of National Railway Museum.
Great Western Railway staff pose with maids whilst on a works outing c.1900, photographer unknown, with kind permission of the National Railway Museum.

Working in a National Museum with extensive, but critically under-used, collections of Victorian material, it was with enthusiasm that I read Peter K. Andersson’s recent article in the Journal of Victorian Culture. ‘How Civilized Were the Victorians?’ asks some searching questions of the discipline, calling for a retreat from the restrictions of theory and ventures into fields and sources new. Victorian Studies has, he argues, tended towards a myopic focus on the middle-class, at the expense of wider society, and:

Unless Victorian scholars do some soul-searching concerning their reliance on metropolitan, elitist, and, not least, exclusively British sources, this discipline will keep presenting a biased picture of a historical period.[1]

It is a thought-provoking charge. Yet it is also a piece that, in advocating a new course, in fact threatens further division, potentially limiting, rather than opening up, studies of the working class in the period.

Andersson’s vision of the current state of Victorian Studies is incisive. An over-concentration of theory-driven readings, he argues, has led to the neglect of alternative sources and approaches in favour of a concentration on those literary sources that support a civilising vision of the Victorian age. There is no denying that this blend of Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias, as he observes, has led to scholarly neglect of source material that does not fit these theoretical toolsets.[2] I am always struck by how little attention scholars pay to the work of Charles Booth.[3] The material basis of the Booth archive, hand-drawn maps and impressionistic notes taken by middle-class perambulators, must surely excite even the most panopticon-loving theorist. This is the problem; as Helen Rogers has explored in her laudable Writing Lives project, we are chiefly beset by a lack of knowledge of where potential sources are or how to tap them.[4] The collections of the NRM remain, largely, an unexplored treasure-trove of Victoriana, from foot-warmers to safety tokens to staff magazines. We must, as Andersson charges, do more as a discipline to draw ourselves together and promote as wide a source-base as possible.

The biggest problem with Andersson’s proposal, however, is his vision of how studies of the Victorian working class might develop. In seeking to throw off the civilising narrative, he argues that we should instead turn to alternate sources. ‘The monographs on Victorian domesticity, fashion, novels, and courtesy’, he observes, ‘thus eclipse the books we could have had on street fighting, barn dancing, or woodcarving’.[5] But this simply exchanges one vision for another. There is no reason, necessarily, to assume that street fighting, dancing, or woodcarving, were more important to the working class than domesticity, fashion, novels, or courtesy. This is not a direct criticism – such analysis is complex. In my own work on the home I approached the material aware of the problems of Foucauldian notions of space, but was struck by a reality still more complex. With children sleeping by the kitchen fire, lodgers eating with the family, and the backyard a workshop that commandeered the hallway for goods transit (with front door permanently removed), I had to jettison any concept of room-delineation. Yet, at the same time, the proliferation of domestic advice columns in popular newspapers indicated that the concept of a defined “kitchen” was not wholly alien to the working-class. To understand I needed to contextualise.

This becomes most problematic in the reading of photography – Andersson’s specialty. In the photograph above, from an office scrapbook, the clerks surround the young maids. Hands on shoulders. Arms linked. It could be familiar or over-familiar. Yet all smile for the camera. How one reads such an image without supporting context is unclear, but the class contact is key.[6] Whilst Andersson’s analysis of the pictures in his article is masterful and intriguing, his approach, if not carefully considered, threatens to isolate the working class. To separate the classes, as his approach threatens to do by calling for a move away from such traditional Victorian sources when considering ‘women’ and ‘workers’ (rather than the discursive ‘class’ or ‘gender’), skates over the processes whereby such groups formed their identities through contact with extant middle-class ideas and cultures (and visa-versa). Presenting them as their own group, with attendant sources and methodologies, threatens to isolate the working-class, undoing more recent work that has bridged the existing divide.[7] Consulting a mixture of source material, can often prove how complicated working-class culture could be.[8]

Thus whilst I welcome his call for new material and new approaches, such potential must be pursued in tandem with existing scholarship. For, if such an image proves anything, it is a potent reminder that the world of working-class society and that of the supposedly hegemonic middle-class frequently overlapped, informed, and reinforced one another.

Additional responses can be found here:

Sophie Franklin, ‘Beyond the Civilising Process: A Response to Peter K. Andersson’s ‘How Civilised Were the Victorians?

Lucinda Matthews-Jones, What is Victorian Studies for?: A Reply to Andersson’s article.

[1]Peter K. Andersson, ‘How Civilized Were the Victorians?’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 2015’, 13-14.

[2]Andersson, ‘How Civilized Were the Victorians?’, 14.

[3]Despite the best efforts of Rosemary O’Day and David Englander, Mr Charles Booth’s inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London reconsidered. London: Continuum, 1993, and Rosemary O’Day and David Englander (eds.). Retrieved Riches: social investigation in Britain, 1840-1914. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 1995.


[5]Andersson, ‘How Civilized Were the Victorians?’, 8

[6]E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, London: Penguin Edition, 2002, 8-9

[7]See, for example, Holmes, ‘Accommodating the Lodger’, and also Lucinda Matthews-Jones, ‘I still remain one of the old Settlement boys’: Cross-class Friendship in the First World War Letters of Cardiff University Settlement Lads’ Club’, Manuscript Submitted for Publication, 9-13.

[8]Compare, for instance, the reading and fighting discussed in Florence Bell, At the Works: A Study of a Manufacturing Town, London: Virago Edition, 1985, 146-162, and David Taylor, ‘Conquering the British Ballarat: The Policing of Victorian Middlesbrough’, Journal of Social History, 37, 3, (Spring 2004), 764-767