Poverty In London February 1888

One of the things that the Jack the Ripper murders were used to highlight was the amount of poverty and destitution that existed in London in 1888.

I say, “used to highlight” because for many years prior to the onset of the Whitechapel atrocities, socially aware commentators had been attempting to draw public attention to the plight of the poor in the Victorian metropolis.

However, there had also been a consensus that simply tackling the symptoms was not sufficient. Indeed, a huge number of commentators were pointing out that, if poverty was to be got to grips with it was necessary to attack the causes of poverty.


The famous Punch Cartoon that shows a knife wielding phantom drifting through the slums of London's East End.
The Nemesis of Neglect.

The problem was that people tended to disagree on exactly what the causes of poverty actually were.

On Thursday, 2nd February, 1888, The Scotsman published the following article that raised many issues about poverty and its causes. It is a depressing article in so many ways, not just in the historic arguments and sentiments expressed, but also in the fact that we are still having many of those same arguments today, and this article could so easily have appeared in one of our modern 21st-century newspapers:-


“A deputation waited upon Lord Salisbury yesterday in reference to the poverty in London. There is, they say, an increasing amount of poverty, and it cannot be met by the ordinary Poor Law methods.

There does not seem to have been, on the part of the members of the deputation, much effort to grapple with the question they brought before the Premier. One had one suggestion to make, and another another; but there is very little indication that anybody had faced all the real difficulties of the subject.

Some of these were faced by Lord Salisbury in his reply; but he did not enter as fully as he might have done into the facts and causes of the problem he was asked to solve, or help to solve.

A portrait of Lord Salisbury/
Lord Salisbury.


One thing is clear – there must always be an actual increase in the poverty of London, without taking into account abnormal causes.

The population of the English metropolis is always increasing; there is nothing like its increase e in the annals of great cities of modern times. Even if there were a fully corresponding increase in the employment which London affords, and the wages it pays, there must, unfortunately, always be an addition to its poverty.

For breadwinners die, or are stricken with disease, and fall into poverty.

The larger the population, the greater will be the number of these weaklings deserving and requiring all the sympathy and aid that can be given to them.


But in addition to this normal increase of poverty, there are, in the case of London, other causes. Men and women crowd there in search of work and wages which it cannot find for them, and they fall into poverty.

Again, London is attractive to the loafer and to the preyer upon society.

Finally, foreigners have discovered that the poor among them will be freely admitted to London as to other ports of Great Britain, and they are crowded in to contend with the British workman or labourer for employment, and to swell the ranks of the poverty-stricken.


How can a Government grapple with all these causes of poverty and want of employment?

For the first cause there is, or ought to be, a kindly administration of the Poor Law.

But what of the others?

Cardinal Manning, whose ideas on the subject seem to be clear enough in one sense, wishes for relaxation of the Poor Law administration, and he said he thought that there should be wage work at such a time as the present for the deserving unemployed, test work for the undeserving, and penal work for the dishonest who would not work at all.


It is difficult to conceive suggestions less likely than these to have the desired effect.

Suppose the Poor Law administration were relaxed to the point which the Cardinal plainly has in his mind, so that all the poor who came to the gate should be relieved.

Would that lessen the amount of poverty, which is the true object to be aimed at?

Would it not be another inducement to poor people to crowd to London?

Would it not be a premium on loafing, and laziness, and all the evils which follow from idle hands?

Then, as to the provision of wage work for the deserving unemployed. Either the work must be useful, or it must be a sham. If it be the latter, it speedily reduces the labourer to the loafer. If it be the former, it must be in competition with some private producer, and must, to the extent to which it is carried on, lessen work elsewhere.

In either case, it aggravates the evil, and, in the end, increases the number of the unemployed.


Yet Cardinal Manning’s remedies arc precisely the same in kind as most of those which kindly but thoughtless people so frequently propose.

They see only the necessity of relieving poverty; they never think of looking for the causes of that poverty, and of trying to remove them.

Yet it is to this point that all true philanthropists will turn their chief attention.

If they do so, they will discover that the worst of all ways to reduce poverty is to make it attractive to any class or any individuals in the community.

If they take upon themselves as to children the duties which the parents of those children ought to perform, they do but encourage the parents in misdoing and in neglect.

If they give relief indiscriminately, they inevitably increase the number of beggars.


Let no one suppose that this is said with the slightest desire to chill true charity.

Where there is actual destitution, let it be relieved by all means; but take care that the relief does not become something upon which reliance can always be placed by those who are ready to accept aid without effort.

The harm done by the dispensing of indiscriminate alms is incalculable: and it is not mended by the comfortable glow of self-satisfaction, which the distributors feel when they have given their alms.


In the case of London unemployed, there is one direction in which the Government might take action.

It might consider how far it is possible to check the immigration of destitute foreigners.

Lord Salisbury seems to think that the evil is not so great as it is said to be.

Perhaps not; but ought there to be any such evil?


There is no need here and now to enter upon the wide question of prohibiting the importation of labour; that is not the question which is raised. It is whether we ought to prohibit the importation of pauperism.

At present, there are methods by which one part of the country can, if it chooses, protect itself from the pauperism of another part. Might not the principle be carried a little farther as to foreign paupers, and their landing be absolutely prohibited?


This, at least, is a practical question to which the Government might turn its attention with possible benefit to the community.

If pauperism generally is to be lessened – and everybody ought to make what effort he can in that direction – it must be by looking to the causes and not to the consequences.

There is little use in putting a patch on a sore, and doing nothing to remove the evil that creates the sore.”