As this analysis and generalized topical summary of “The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century“ by Robert Roberts attempts to examine, Roberts systematically redefines the way we think about Engels’ version of the “classic slum” by exposing the ways Edwardian lower class society was highly complex, stratified, and organized. Although essentially, the nature of slum life was quite dismal, especially by modern standards, it should be remembered that there also some less grim aspects, particularly after the First World War.
As this summary of “The Classic Slum“ by Robert Roberts suggests, this does not depict a low class stratum of society that was entirely destitute morally, but one that had its own system of self-regulation. “The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century“ by Robert Roberts also does not depict a large underclass bent on revolt or chaos, but one that had involved political and religious beliefs that did not jibe with expectations that they would be morally and political destitute. In summary, “The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century“ by Robert Roberts reveals that the lower classes, a large part of the English industrial population, were a vital force that could not be identified simply in the terms granted to it by Engels or the fictionalized representations put forth by Dickens. It is certainly not a romanticized portrait of slum life in Edwardian England, but it does present a deeper understanding of the causes as well as outcomes of many of the problems which included extreme poverty, lack of employment, illiteracy, ill health, and other social maladies.
The nature of life in a slum such as that of Salford was harsh and constantly changing. One usually was not sure whether or not there would be enough money left for food from day to day. The employment situation was grim and while some could find work that might last for an extended period, they could expect to be terminated and unable to find employment elsewhere at some point. Since the cost of living, which included mostly food, was so high, families often did not have many luxuries and many homes were almost bare since there was not money for anything except sustenance. Roberts writes in “The Classic Slum” in one of the important quotes from the book, “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).
It is striking to realize that there were literally millions of people in such a category and at one point, Roberts figures that 50 percent of the population in industrial cities were this class of destitute unskilled workers (13). Aside from general employment and financial problems, the health of people living in Salford was terrible and before the Great War, there was the widespread practice of selling rotting meat for cheaper prices and thinning out beer with water or worse, formaldehyde. For infants and children, life in slums was especially rough. The mortality rate for newborns was dismal and sometimes this would be an opportunity for relief as opposed to sorrow since parents often could not afford to feed yet another child. Furthermore, children were often not supervised and died in accidents or had deformed legs from rickets. These children were often poorly clothed and suffered from lice and other diseases as a result of poor hygiene and unsanitary living conditions.
Interestingly, as this summary of “The Classic Slum” by Robert Roberts notes, while these health problems plagued those living in the slums, these people were not as filthy as one might imagine and were, in fact, quite committed to cleanliness. Roberts states in one of the important quotes from “The Classic Slum” that , “Most people kept what they possessed clean in spite of squalor and ever-invading dirt. Some houses sparkled” (37). One must remember througout this summary of “The Classic Slum” by Robert Roberts that this need for cleanliness was before the obsession about germs pervading houses and instead came from the desire to appear clean and respectable to the neighbors. In summary, while many of those in slums lived in abject poverty and squalor, one must not think that they did not care about how they were perceived.
In fact, as the summary of “The Classic Slum” wishes to point out, Roberts details at the length the sociology of these slums and reveals that there was a complex social hierarchy that all, no matter how poor or miserable, sought to uphold and abide by. In “The Classic Slum” author Robert Roberts illustrates his point about the class structure by stating in one the quotes from the book that, “Each street had the usual social rating; one side or one end of the street might classed higher than the other” (17). Although one might typically think that Engels’ all-encompassing definitions of slum life that are relayed in the first chapter of the book are correct, Roberts demonstrates how Engels overlooked the social and class hierarchy both in terms of its meaning within the slum and in its relation to upper class Edwardian society. One particularly memorable example is his statement about class mobility in the slums. Roberts notes in one of the quotes on this topic, “Before 1914 skilled workers generally did not strive to join a higher rank. They were only too concerned to maintain position within their own stratum.
Inside the working class as a whole there existed… a stratified form of society whose implications and consequences have hardly yet been fully explored” (13). Part of the reason for this “acceptance” of social class and unwillingness to think beyond it is briefly but succinctly defined by the author in terms of “nature.” For instance, Roberts’ explanation of this seeming acceptance is that, “Class divisions were of the greatest consequence, though their implications remained unrealized: the many looked upon social and economical inequality as the law of nature” (18). In summary then, if it was the “law of nature” that they should be a subjugated class then it would only be natural for them to be content and get by as best as they could. This might be an explanation for why they did not wallow in their poverty—it was merely nature’s plan that they were a part of and they had to survive and be faithful both to themselves and the institutions that implicitly promoted such an outlook. While this theory will be explored in following paragraphs, it is useful to think about at this point as we move forward to examine the underclass relationship to imperialism and the upper classes.