Year Published: 1974
This is an important book by a marxist historian which will have a considerable influence upon the work of social historians in the future. In a number of ways, this is a pioneering work, and its use of sophisticated quantitative techniques for the dissection of urban social structures will serve as a model for subsequent research workers. It is, however, a difficult volume to read; for one thing it is awkwardly organized around the experience of three towns – Oldham, Northampton and South Shields, with the greatest amount of space and attention being given to Oldham; and for another the analysis is densely argued but discontinuous, so that one has to jump from one section to another to obtain an overall understanding of the author’s approach.
The theme of the book, in the words of E.J. Hobsbawm who contributes a Foreword “is an enquiry into certain central features of British industrial development, and into the nature of both the Victorian bourgeoisie and the working class. More generally, it is an attempt both to clarify and to provide analytical and preferably quantitative methods for investigating the concept of ‘class consciousness’.” In the author’s own words (p.1), “the main problem with which the book is concerned, [is] the nature of the change which English capitalism underwent in the middle years of the last century. Many terms have been used to describe it. It has been made to represent ‘liberalization’, the achievement of mass citizenship, the arrival of a mature industrial society. And from another viewpoint, the coming of social imperialism, the emergence of a labour aristocracy and a decisive shift within the economy from the export of commodities to the export of capital.”
The three towns he studies were chosen because they represented different forms of economic organization and a different tempo of economic and social change. Oldham, “the central town of the study”, was an important segment of the cotton industry, the earliest factory sector in the British economy:
“Politically, it had a continuing history of radical activity from the 1790s to 1848. It was one of those areas where the United Englishmen had a mass base in the 1800s and during the guerrilla campaign of 1812 it was the scene of a two-day battle between armed workers and troops. Throughout the second quarter of the century the town was more or less permanently under the control of the organized working class; much of its local government was subordinated to the trade unions, the new poor law was unenforced for well over a decade, and radicals like Cobbett and Fielden were elected as MPs. This situation did not change much until the end of the 1840s when the town moved remarkably quickly towards class collaboration and a ‘labour aristocracy’ type of social structure.” (pp.2-3)
By contrast, Northampton and South Shields, with industrial structures still for the most part technologically unrevolutionized and a range and depth of poverty greater than Oldham’s, had a working class that never achieved anything approaching the degree of radical intervention in local politics that obtained in Oldham; and Foster uses these towns as “controls” against which to set Oldham’s experience. His analysis before the late 1840s is concerned with the emergence of working-class consciousness, and its varying ideological content, and after 1850 with the argument “that liberalization was in fact a collective ruling-class response to a social system in crisis and integrally related to a preceding period of working-class consciousness” (p.3).