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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006, 13:08 GMT
What were real Victorian values?
By Lee Jackson

Queen Victoria
She would not be amused
The Tories have revisited the Victorian values debate. Child labour, workhouses - are the values of that time really something worth reviving?

Our Victorian forebears were positive, moralistic, upstanding... right? If only we could more like them today. The shadow attorney-general Dominic Grieve claims that Victorian society was one where "a sense of moral values and of the responsibility people owed to each other did seem to be pervasive".

It was a time, so he would have us believe, when hard-working families took responsibility for their children's wrong-doing, and when neighbours could be relied upon to intercede in muggings or cases of vandalism, giving children a proverbial clip round the ear without fear of prosecution.

In a sense, of course, he is quite correct. There was a culture of deference, based on class, and a middle-class gentleman would no more be prosecuted by police for physically reprimanding a young rough than for crossing the road.

But this was also a society in which child "mudlarks" spent hours knee-deep in the Thames scratching for waste pieces of coal; in which teenage girls "of loose character" openly touted for business; and in which penniless widows would do hours of debilitating needlework for a handful of pennies, rather than starve or be accommodated in the dread workhouse. Not the ideal society, by a long chalk.

Seen not heard?

But did Victorian parents really take greater responsibility for their children? Possibly. I cannot help but think that Mr Grieve puts himself in the slippers of a well-to-do West End paterfamilias rather than, say, the boots of an penniless dock casual on the Isle of Dogs.

Of course, there were many close-knit, hard-working families amongst the poor; but also alcoholism, broken relationships, children neglected and left to fend for themselves on the streets - not too different from modern society's ills.

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Jack the Ripper's murder most horrid
One need only read the full life histories of Jack the Ripper's victims - that's the real story of the Victorian East End. It's not a uniform history of a shared moral values and responsible parenting.

As for community spirit - again, one wonders whether slums like St Giles (today's Covent Garden) were crammed full of good neighbours. Certainly, the Victorian slums had their share of young criminals - boys of whom James Greenwood, a popular journalist of the day, wrote in 1869: "They are impregnable alike to persuasion and threatening. They have an ingrain conviction that it is you who are wrong, not them."

No shame there about any transgressions. Another popular writer of the time, Clarence Rook, published a series of interviews with a teenage petty criminal who carries a "chopper", ready for fights between rival gangs. His 1899 book, The Hooligan Nights, is a tale of delinquent youth that could stand up with any modern case history.

So has nothing changed?

Not at all. The Victorians transformed the world a good deal, with better housing for the poor, through both charities and local government. They fostered the beginnings of the trade union movement. They began regulation of factories and workplaces. And they introduced public education and countless public health measures.

All contributed to a better society. But I am not sure that the Victorians knew how to deal with crime, any more than we do today. I'm inclined to believe that we are better off without flogging, the death penalty, the suicide-inducing "separate system" (tantamount to solitary confinement for every prisoner) and transportation.

Perhaps those charged with our moral welfare should try looking forward, as well as back?

Lee Jackson is a historical novelist and author of A Dictionary of Victorian London.


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