The Classic Slum

The Classic Slum
The Classic Slum
by Julie Lorenzen
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In his classic book, The Classic Slum, Robert Roberts answered the question of how the working class of the early twentieth century saw itself. He identified the caste system that existed amongst the proletarians in a town called Salford and explained what characteristics put a family on the top or bottom part of the stratification system.

Roberts grew up in the Salford, the same slum Friedrich Engels described in his book, Conditions of the Working Class. The Roberts family, as the author described it, was near the top of the caste system as they had “connections.” Unlike Engels, who grew in a bourgeoisie family, Roberts was a born and bred proletarian. Roberts’ background put him in position to make observations of the working class from their point of view. 

The differences in the voices of the two authors were notable. Engels’ used a passionate voice to blame the bourgeoisie for the suffering of the working class. He claimed that the proletarians should revolt to reform society in their favor. Roberts’ however, did not use his voice to blame the bourgeoisie. In fact, he indicated on page 28 that the proletarians would not revolt because they had a strong national identity. He wrote, “the class struggle, as manual workers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked up it not in any way as a war against the employers.” Further, at one point, Roberts indicated that the proletarians did not take the views of bourgeoisie such as Engels seriously.

Roberts was more objective than Engels. Instead of using a passion voice to convey his ideas of what Salford was like, he used techniques such as spatial descriptions to explain the condition of Salford society. For example, social rank, Roberts claimed, could be determined by where the proletarian lived. Those living in end housed often had special status. Depending on the street, one side or end might be classed higher than the other. 


In chapter one of The Classic Slum, Roberts revealed that there was a social hierarchy amongst the working class in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. In chapter two, Roberts elaborated more on the social hierarchy by describing how material items, cleanliness and means of accumulating wealth indicated social prestige.

In The Conditions of the Working Class, Friedrich Engels wrote about the squalid, horrible living conditions in which the proletarians lived. The way he described the landscape, it was easy to imagine that proletarians themselves were mostly dirty and had almost nothing. However, approximately sixty years after Engels wrote his book, Roberts described the working class as almost being obsessed with cleanliness. A dirty home or even a front step meant lower social status. Roberts wrote “Most people kept what they possessed clean in spite of squalor and ever-invading dirt. Some houses sparkled.” (37)

Material items such as watches, clothes, pictures for walls and musical instruments also indicated social status. Those who had more things had more status. One could wander if the significance of material things to the working class was another reason why (besides a strong British identity) they never revolted. Further, could they have realized in some way that the capitalistic society of their day was key in obtaining possessions?

Finally, in the book Private Life, edited by Michelle Perrot, it was quite evident that the middle class, made up of mostly Protestants, had a strong moral code. The morality of the working class was not addressed. However, in chapter two, Roberts, revealed the working class also embraced morality. Roberts wrote, “Prestige, however, was not automatically increased by such proofs of affluence. One needed to know how wealth had been acquired. The fruits of prostitution we condemned.” (36) Here, Roberts indicated that indeed the working class did have a moral code.

Manners and Morals

The morality of the working class extended well beyond that of how one obtained the means to buy material items. In chapter three of The Classic Slum, Roberts gave a more complete description of working class morals and explained how a violation of the working class moral ‘code’ could lower social status. Roberts was able to relate how the working class interacted by examining their moral code.

According to Roberts, gossip played a role in assigning social status amongst the working class. He wrote, “over a period the health, honesty, conduct, history and connections of everyone in the neighborhood would be examined. Each would be criticized, praised, censured openly or by hint and finally allotted by tacit consent a position on the social scale.” (42) Grandmothers had the biggest impact on social status when it came to morals and manners. The older ladies had a tremendous amount of influence in their families—unless they had to leave their homes due to illness or other reason.

Generosity was a form of social insurance. The poor helped each other out without thinking of a reward. By often helping others in the community, a family could help assure that their social status would be maintained in the future. 

Birth out of wedlock or birth resulting from incest resulted in lowered status. According to Roberts, fathers kept a close eye on their teenage daughters. He wrote, “Father fixed the number of evenings on which they could go out and required to know precisely where and with whom they had spent their leisure.” (51) Illegitimate births were done for the first decade of the twentieth century. Such moral restrictions may have been beneficial to the working class, but some may not of been.

Men were expected to do all their work outside the home. Most men, albeit a very few, did not do housework. Men wanting good social standing avoided any activity associated with women. The working class frowned on homosexuality. Anyone male interested in the arts, music or even reading was labeled effeminate. Roberts wrote “this linking of homosexuality with culture played some part, I believe, in keeping the lower working class as near-illiterate as they were.” (55) That was one example of how the moral code may have been harmful to the working class. Mostly, though, it is my opinion that the moral as a whole did not harm the working class. It could be debated as to whether or not the moral code was helpful to the working class. 

Governors, Pastors and Masters

In chapter four, Roberts analyzed the criminal justice system. Before 1900, people went to prison as punishment and for punishment. However, in 1895 the Gladstone committee on crime decided that prisoners should be treated in such a way that they were both physically and morally improved upon release.  As a result the pastor became active in every day prison life, which included prayer and chapel service. Roberts addressed the question as to whether the reform benefited society—particularly that of the working class.

Roberts thought the committee had good intentions but was skeptical on whether the reforms brought beneficial change. Roberts wrote that the committee overlooked the fact that although rules and regimens could be changed, it was far more difficult to get those running the prison system to administer the rules as intended. He wrote, “Nothing was done to educate the ignorant turnkeys or the general public. Nineteenth-century attitudes on the treatment of prisoners lingered among prison staffs and the community far into the present century and caused untold suffering.” (59)

Despite this observation, prison life did improve while conditions at workhouses stayed the same. The consequence was that men started to prefer prison to the workhouses where inmates performed the hard physical labor breaking up stones. As a result, the working class dominated the population of the prisons. 

The Common Scene

 In chapter five, Roberts wrote about the financial difficulty his neighborhood encountered in the first quarter of the twentieth century. His family, particularly his mother, experienced the financial burden of Salford firsthand because they sold food and medicine from a corner store and had to turn away many people and put others on credit. Roberts seemed to answer three questions in this chapter. Why did the working class suffer? In what ways did they suffer? How did they cope?

 The answer to the first questions was that the working class suffered because they lived on low wages or had no income at all. Many could not find work while others had jobs but were on strike in order to bargain for higher wages. Friedrich Engels had written in his book Conditions of the Working Class that part of the reason the poor had no money or material possessions was that they spent it all in the pubs on payday and then pawned everything they had to survive the week. Roberts, however, did not focus on drink in chapter five.

Little money meant fewer possessions and very little food. Roberts wrote, “the homes of the very poor contained little or no bought furniture. They made do with boxes and slept in their clothes and in what other garments they could beg or filch. Of such people there were millions.” (75) Although the Ladies Health Society formed to promote sanitary conditions provided cleaning supplies to the ‘lowest classes’, Roberts did not indicate that the upper classes helped with them food. I have read before in other sources that the very poor helped to feed those even more in need. 

In response to the second question, Roberts wrote how the children suffered.. Many infants died—at times to the relief of parents who had more children than they could feed. Some died in accidents due to a lack of supervision. Many came to school without shoes, had bowed legs from rickets (vitamin D deficiency) or had a bad, social demoting case of head lice. Further, adults often treated themselves better as was the norm for that society. They ate more food and sat in the best furniture.

Roberts family became involved when it came time for people to cope with their situation. Many would pawn their possessions to obtain money for food. However, at times of strike or no income, people would come to his mother asking for credit. In order for her store to avoid bankruptcy, she had to use exceptional judgement as to whom she gave credit. Those ‘put on tick’ generally had better social standing. If the woman (it was always the woman who asked) was turned down, then she would go from store to store. 

Food, Drink and Physic

Roberts went into more detail about food and drink in chapter six than he did in chapter five. According to Roberts, in the first part of the century before World War I, a main concern for the working class was food because it was difficult to obtain. 

Roberts’ family owned a grocery store, so his family did not have the problems getting food that others in his neighborhood did. Roberts was able to witness the problems with food that the working class had because his family lived in quarters attached to the grocery store.   Throughout chapter six, he answered many questions about the food supply for the working class. They were:  What was the quality of the food like?  Who was to blame? How much did the working class know about the quality?  What was the result of their lack of knowledge? How much did basic items such as flour cost and how much did the working class have to spend?

Roberts did not blame the struggle of the working class to get food on their employers, but he did blame suppliers and some vendors—especially when it came to the quality of food. It was common practice for suppliers to adulterate food and drink such as beer with water and more harmful substances such as formaldehyde. Some vendors (but not his mother) did not hesitate to sell the worst of the rotten meat to the poor, who as James Scmiechen revealed in British Market Halls, often went out in the evening to buy deteriorating food for lower prices. Before food quality laws and before the war, little was done to educate the poor about the quality of food and drink. As a result, the poor often suffered stomach and intestinal ailments as a result of their lack of knowledge.

Considering the wages of the day, the cost of food (and the cost of living in general) was high. Some of the poorest did not know from day to day if they would be able to eat. Fortunately, many of the problems with food were resolved as a result of the war.

Alma Matter

Roberts tackled the question of literacy in chapter seven. How literate was the working class after the Education Acts of 1870 and 1880? Did the Acts improve the rate of literacy for the poor? Roberts’ answer conflicted with that of the historians addressing the question before. He wrote, “Our modern historian writes that by 1900 illiteracy had been virtually wiped out. And another (quoted by Roberts): ‘in the last decade of our period [1890-1900] illiteracy had been razed from the map.” (129) Roberts argued that illiteracy among the poor was still a problem. He claimed the historians used faulty evidence and presented new evidence taken from his research and life experience.

In a footnote appearing on page 129 Roberts wrote that many of his contemporary historians used parish registers as evidence that demonstrated the rate of literacy. However, Roberts wrote that he learned from his experience as teacher for adult non-readers that many had learned to write their name, but were otherwise illiterate. Further, Roberts wrote that his mother, the shopkeeper, estimated that one in six people who came into her store were illiterate. She had a good idea of the literacy of her costumers, because her system of giving credit required reading and writing. Often, she would need to assist an illiterate patron.

Roberts also provided studies that demonstrated that the abolition of illiteracy was not necessarily connected to the Education Acts. He analyzed prison statistics and came up with the fact that illiteracy rates actually went down amongst prisoners before the act of 1870. He speculated that economic prosperity accounted for the increase in literacy. Roberts wrote, “It may be that the economic prosperity after 1850 brought as one of its many material benefits a startling advance in voluntary education.” (130) Further he concluded those 30 years after the Education Act, literacy rates improved by less than 15 percent. 

According to Roberts, the reason why illiteracy rates did not improve was that many working class people did not attend school and others dropped out by twelve to provide additional income for their families. Robert’s wrote, “Yet, as late as 1887 inspectors in north-east England alone reported that there were still ‘many thousands of children over vie who have never seen inside a schoolroom.” (129) Further, Roberts had an insider’s point of view as to the quality of the schools. He attended what may have been “one of the worst” schools in the areas. According to Roberts, teachers were under qualified and most likely chosen because of their loyalty to the church and willingness to spread the word of God rather than their educational background and ability.

In conclusion, the evidence from prison statistics and Roberts own life experience was credible in proving that illiteracy was still a problem for the working class. He convinced me that the Education Act of 1870 and 1880 did little to improve literacy rates. From Roberts, I gained the understanding that economic prosperity can be attributed to higher literacy rates. 


In chapter eight it seemed that Roberts addressed all the aspects of working class life that he had not examined in previous chapters. He examined how transportation, entertainment/leisure activities, and politics characterized the working class culture before World War One. This chapter disputed the notion of Engels that the working class had only sex and alcohol for entertainment. Further, unlike Engels, who mostly focused on the activity of adults, Roberts included the activities of children and young adults. Roberts argued that the culture of the working class, made the people more interesting than his contemporaries.

Tramcars, appearing approximately around 1903, made travel half as expensive and much quicker for the lower classes. The new mode of transportation made it possible for the working class to travel out of the slums and into the parts of the city where they could enjoy some quality leisure activities. Children enjoyed going to the parks while others went to museums, libraries and the theater. Also, according to Roberts, tramcars made it possible for the working class to find work beyond their immediate neighborhood.

The leisure activities of music, reading and even gambling helped to educate the working classes. The younger people, who tended to be more literate than their elders, read cheap reading material such as the stories of Frank Richards. At times their reading taught them to figure out social rules (which mostly addressed the etiquette of fighting.) In contrast, older men found incentives to read. Some learned to read so that they could make educated bets on racing horses.  According to Roberts, as with reading, the working classes learned from music and were satisfied with it as a leisure activity. Traveling by tram allowed them to compare between the good singers of professional productions to the bad singers of the local pub. The bad music, Roberts argued, was comparable to the music that was popular when Roberts wrote his book. 

In terms of politics, Roberts argued that the working class embraced the national identity of Great Britain with vigor. They celebrated coronations and obsessed about the private lives of the Royal family. As for the favored party, Roberts wrote that the working class preferred the Tories to the Liberals. “In our own constituency the liberal intellectual MP had come and gone and the Tory brewer was back in the saddle…” (184) Most of all, they were unlikely to revolt and the upper classes did not expect them too—at least not in the early part of the twentieth century. Roberts wrote, “If however, one had any secret fear that the working classes might yet rise in “unvanquishable number’ it was overlain by the conviction that, put to patriotic test, they would do precisely what their masters ordered—a belief that the first world war fully bore out.” (184)

In conclusion, Roberts revealed a great deal about the working class in chapter eight of Classic Slum. He thought that working class people of the first part of the twentieth century were more interesting than his contemporaries, but it was just an opinion. However, Roberts characterized the people of that era well. According to him, the working class people were patriotic Tories that had an obsession with the private lives of the Royal family. Further, they were an interesting and cultured people who, given the opportunity, loved to read, listen to music and discuss politics. 

The Great Release

Roberts wrote about World War I and how it affected working class society in chapter nine of his book The Classic Slum. He took a pessimistic viewpoint that was evident by the following quote. He wrote, “The first Work war cracked the form of English lower-class and began an erosion of its socio-economic layers that has continued to this day” (186) The question that comes out of this statement is: Did the working class suffer as a result of the first world war?

 It is well known that a deep economic depression put many people into poverty around the western world in the1930s, the era that followed the one Roberts described. It is also well known that the First World War, with its trench warfare and new weapons, was the worst ever fought in history. Many sons, husbands were lost or maimed. The patriotic, poor working class man, lured by the prospect of regular meals, left in mass to serve the country. While the men were gone, someone had to take their places. Some of these jobs that had been closely guarded by those who held them were now open for anyone to take. Also new American machinery made it possible for unskilled people to work jobs that previously required a great deal of skill. Those that previously held the skilled jobs had a place at the top of the hierarchy. When unskilled workers took over jobs once held by skilled people, the skilled people lost their place in society and the hierarchy was threatened. That might be one example of what Roberts meant by socioeconomic erosion.

However, Roberts’ idea that the working class suffered a socioeconomic erosion can be questioned. Roberts, himself wrote that in 1916 “abject poverty began to disappear from the neighborhood. Children looked better fed. There were far fewer prosecutions for child neglect.” (203) The conditions of the working class seemed to be improving. If this was true, how could the socioeconomic world of the middle class be eroded?

 In conclusion, Roberts argued that the working class suffered a socioeconomic erosion as a result of the First World War. However, I disagreed. He didn’t provide enough evidence to support his view. As terrible as the war was, I believe that the war may have actually benefited working class society. Roberts own quote on page 203 helped to convince me that things were better, not worse for the working class after the war started. 



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