The Causes Of Poverty

Throughout the 1880’s, the Victorian authorities had been grappling with the problem of how to deal with the huge numbers of poverty-stricken town and country dwellers that were to be found all over the country.

Newly implemented methods of agricultural production, for example, had lead to mass unemployment in the countryside. Many of these unemployed workers had drifted to the big cities – and London, being the biggest of the big cities had taken the biggest influx of migratory workers.

In addition, pogroms in Eastern Europe had also seen a huge influx of immigrants into England, and many of these had settled around the ports at which they had landed – once again, London being the place where many of them had settled.

A group of homeless men gather in the Salvation Army yard.
Homeless Men In The Salvation Army Yard.


This mass migration had coincided with a trade slump that had led to mass unemployment in the very cities to which the distressed unemployed had headed. Consequently, competition for any available jobs was intense and, by 1888, the authorities were becoming alarmed by the fact that a massive underclass was developing in the more poverty-stricken quarters of Britain’s largest cities.

Homelessness had achieved almost endemic proportions, and this, in turn, was being seen as a possible reason for the increase in lawlessness that was gripping large parts of the country, and the East End of London in particular.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the Jack the Ripper murders had such an impact on society as a whole, was because the crimes confronted people with the reality of daily life in one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the country, about which social commentators had been warning for several years.

Many newspapers, throughout 1888, were commenting on the problems of poverty, unemployment, drunkenness and crime, and numerous solutions were being put forward on how to tackle it.

An illustration showing homeless people in Whitechapel in 1888.
The Homeless of Whitechapel. From The Illustrated London News, 13th October 1888. Copyright, The British Library Board.


However, one thing that many of these articles agreed upon was that, before you could deal with the poverty problem, it was first necessary to understand its causes.

The following article appeared in The Western Times, on Wednesday, 7th March, 1888, and, whereas the article was about distress in Bristol, it was equally applicable to the East End of London, where the poverty, unemployment and distress were as bad, if not worse than it was in Bristol.


“So much has been said and written lately on the distress which exists through the inability of many artisans and labourers to obtain employment that any reference to the subject may appear like the thrice-told tale which vexes the dull ear of the drowsy man.

So long, however, as there are hundreds of families who do not know where or how they will obtain the next day’s breakfast there need be no apology for once more drawing attention to the condition and prospects of the unemployed.

How is it that year by year relief funds have to be raised in Bristol and some other large towns? Have we to deal with chronic poverty which intensifies as the winter approaches, or are we passing through a period of depression which, although it has extended over several years, is not to be regarded as permanent?


In either case, the claims of the unemployed cannot be dismissed with mere subscription to a relief fund.

There are social reformers who have remedies for all the ills that society is heir to.

One of these recently estimated that there is so much capital in the country, and suggested that if this were equally divided everybody would be fairly well-off. Propositions of this kind allure the uninformed away from the true remedies. They are the Utopian dreams of a class of thinkers who are splendid theorists, but who utterly fail when they are desired to suggest anything practical.

Neither is there anything comprehensively beneficial to be obtained from the schemes of those who advocate a universal remedy.


The causes of poverty are innumerable,  and it is just as futile to expect one medicine to cure all diseases as to rely on one remedy for all forms of poverty.

Emigration is suggested by some as a specific for distress arising from lack of employment.

But this is a remedy which should be resorted to only when others have failed, and, in many cases, it is utterly inapplicable.

A group of men on a bench on the Embankment.
Rough Sleepers On The Embankment


The truth is that the remedies must be as varied and numerous as the causes of the social disease that has to be dealt with.

There is distress arising from pure misfortune, from the change of fashions, from the introduction of labour saving methods of production, from the competition of workers from other countries. There is also distress which arises from accidents to the breadwinners, from disease, and death.

Another class become poor through their own lack of energy, or their neglect of habits of thrift.

There are others who are too lazy to work, too much addicted “drink” to care what becomes of their families.

The remedial measures must take cognisance of these and other causes of poverty.

To meet all the necessities of the complicated demands for assistance neither the State, the municipality, the Poor Law organisation, the benevolent and philanthropic institutions, nor individual action is alone to be relied on.


There must be combination as far reaching as the sources of the evil that has to be eradicated or modified.

The State can probably do more than it does; and the same may be said of the local government, the Poor Law guardians, and of voluntary effort.

If we search for the primary cause of the poverty which arises from lack of employment, what is it but excess of competition? The labour market is too crowded. The effect of this excess of labour is to be seen any day in all our large centres of population.

Is it possible to reduce this competition?

An image from Punch showing a knife-wielding ghoulish figure.
The Punch Cartoon The Nemesis of Neglect


A very large proportion, what is called the surplus labour, is forced into the towns through the inability of working agriculturists to find employment. And this dearth of employment in country districts arises from the antiquated methods of utilising the land.


Lord Derby once said that this country could far more than sustain the present population if cultivation were carried to its fullest limits.

But what is our actual experience?

We paid in 1886 thirty-six millions sterling for foreign meat, butter, cheese, and eggs only; our total expenditure for foreign produce in that year having exceeded 112 millions sterling.

Twenty years ago about half this sum sufficed to meet the cost of imported food.

In other words, while the population has increased from thirty millions to about thirty-seven millions, the expenditure on foreign produce has doubled.

Is there any reason why we should pay France a million a year for eggs?


The State can make the land more accessible to small cultivators, both through the allotment system and by the removal of many of the restrictive arrangements which prevent the land from affording employment for the largest number.

If the agriculturists who now swarm into the towns to compete with the town labourer were retained as cultivators, a portion of the competition with the town labour market would be removed, the nation would be benefited by the change, inasmuch as the healthy occupations of country life would help counteract the deteriorative influences of sedentary employments on the general health.


The State might also afford fuller information for emigrants and encourage organisations for transferring labour from the centres in which it is in excess, to the colonies, where it is needed.

These are fundamental remedies which can be supplemented by local authorities.

The Poor Law must, of course, deal with the helpless poor; bat even here there is room for improvement.


The saving of expense is not the summum bonum [the highest good] of administrative government.

The special distress which has been experienced in this city is not among the class who habitually seek help from the Poor Law guardians, but among artisans and labourers who have been temporarily deprived of employment.

Considering the proved extent of the distress, the subscriptions to the relief fund have been quite inadequate, and suggest that something more might be done on such occasions by the Corporation.

The fall of snow was a source of employment, the expense being borne by the Sanitary Authority.

Upwards of a thousand pounds was spent in this way.

Is it not desirable that, during periods of distress that is temporary in its character, larger use should be made of the power which the Corporation possesses, and which was partly exercised after the snowstorm?


It was repeatedly stated by the representatives of the unemployed that the men wanted work, not relief without work. And it is certain that there is no better form of relief than that which is given payment for work done.

But even when the State and the local authorities have done all that can be expected from them, there will always be room for the aid of the philanthropic acting organised bodies, and for individual benevolence.

It has been a source of complaint that the appeal of the committee in Bristol did not meet with such a general response as was expected, and this has suggested that as an extension of such employment as was found clearing away the snow would cause all to contribute, that method of affording relief under exceptional circumstances is deserving of more consideration than it has yet received.


Then there is something to be expected from the action of the unemployed themselves when they again obtain employment.

The experience of this class has been very trying this winter, and it is likely to have its influence producing, some extent at least, habits of greater self-reliance.

The facilities for thrift are numerous.

There are workmen who contribute to societies from which they derive benefit during sickness; there are others who contribute to widows’ and orphans’ funds; and others who pay for assistance when they are out of work, or when they are too old to work.


All these plans are in operation, and the benefits to be derived from them are by no means exhausted.

If workmen were to take advantage of the existing thrift organisations more generally than they do we should still have exceptional poverty to deal with, but it would not extend over the same area as is now covered by the poverty which has recently been revealed.

The remedies for distress are, as we have said, numerous, and the full application of them calls for combined action.

To prevent distress occurring is as important a duty as the relief of distress, and the remedies should operate in both directions.”