‘Hardworking families’ is one of those phrases we hear a lot as politicians jostle for our votes. Each of the main political parties is keen to be seen as the true representative of this mythical group. In the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, however, similar language was used by ordinary men and women seeking to establish their claim to be represented at all. In Georgian Britain, property was the source of power, but as the century drew to a close, those excluded from the franchise began to seek an alternative source of political legitimacy. Property was a stake in the nation’s wellbeing, a guarantee of the voter’s responsibility, but, as one group calling for reform contended, ‘it is not a general test of moral rectitude.’[1] A more accurate reflection of virtue could be found in the family, through the care and affection shown by a man for his dependents, whatever his financial means. New ideals of sensibility, which lauded displays of feeling, also encouraged a focus on family ties. Poor men and women seeking relief from the parish already drew on the regard in which the institution was held by emphasising the image of a ‘family in distress’ in their pleas for assistance.[2] Calls for political representation drew not just on emotional appeals but on a tradition of political thought in which the family was a microcosm of the state, with the father exercising the power of a king within his own home.

At first glance this conceptualisation of a patriarchal state seems like an idea which might exclude women. However political appeals based in family feeling offered women an opportunity to speak out about their own experience and aspirations. Although only a minority of men or women explicitly sought female suffrage in the late Georgian period, women vocalised their grievances as part of the call for the rights of their husbands, fathers and brothers. They described ‘the feelings of a mother, when she beholds her naked children’, and blamed the fate of their ‘forlorn and destitute families’ on ‘the misrule of a profligate system of government.’[3]

The testimony of distressed families was important because it served as a criticism of a government which exercised parental authority without providing parental care. During an 1817 attempt to petition the king for political reform, one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Blanketeers’ declared ‘we will apply to our noble Prince as a child would to its father for bread.’[4] Yet the refusal to even consider the petitioning of his dependents marked the king out as an unnatural father of the nation, rejecting the basic ties of familial affection. A political pamphlet by a young woman named Elizabeth Salt, written a year later, scornfully insisted that the average working man was ‘not yet monarch enough to receive and enjoy the cries of his famishing children, or the tears of his grief-worn wife’.[5] The suggestion was that perhaps the working man who was a caring father might take better care of the national family too.

While the disenfranchised attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the establishment, their opponents tried to discredit advocates of political reform by claiming that attempts to overturn tradition in the state would lead to chaos in the home too, with men separating from their wives over ‘every little bit of tiff’.[6] Good, honest people could get on, it was only ‘lazy drones, that sit by the fire, smoke their pipes, and read the news’[7] who struggled. People who had time to complain just weren’t working hard enough. Therefore the lengthily-titled Society for Bettering the Comforts and Improving the Condition of the Poor advocated poor law reform to ‘improve the application of parish relief, and thereby to give the objects of it more comfort and advantage, and to prevent the idle and vicious from wasting that food, which ought to go to the support of the industrious and well-disposed.’[8] This is rhetoric which bears a striking similarity to that of today’s benefit cuts, pitting the ‘strivers’ against the ‘skivers’. The problem with using the industrious family as the model for the political establishment is and was that it excludes those who do not fit a particular prescribed model of respectability.

In late Georgian England, as now, people lived in a whole range of family forms. Some remained single, some cohabited, some separated from their partners or were abandoned, many conceived children outside marriage and many lived with wider kin, with friends or even with strangers. Sentimental depictions of the family also masked a range of problems that could seethe below the surface, such as domestic violence, cruelty, and the struggles of providing for larger families. The hegemony of the idealised patriarchal family restricted the ability of reformers to call for wider social changes which might help address these concerns and benefit working families as a whole and women in particular. While the nation-as-family model enabled women to enter the political arena, the experiences they recounted fit within the accepted ideas of what family could be. Some reformers did call for changes to the institution of marriage, such as more easily soluble matrimonial ties, and wider education on contraception. However, these often met with criticism not just from the establishment but also from within reforming circles, as it was feared that such moves confirmed accusations of immorality from their opponents. The structural problems of poverty and more widespread inequalities could be obscured by the need to appear respectable to be deemed worthy of political representation. Late-Georgian ‘hardworking families’ of political rhetoric, just like those of modern debates, were emotive figments of the imagination which implied that the basis of equal rights was morality, not humanity, and could be earned by lifestyle choices rather than by life itself.

                                          

 

[1] Meeting of the London Corresponding Society, 17th September 1795, in M. Thale, Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society (Cambridge University Press, 1982) quoted in A. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the making of the English working class (University of California Press, 1995), p.144.

[2] J. Bailey, ‘Think wot a mother must feel’: Parenting in English Pauper Letters, c.1760-1834’ in Family & Community History, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2010), pp.5-19.

[3] ‘Female Reformers of Blackburn’ and ‘The Manchester Female Reformers’ Address’ in Political Women, 1800-1850 edited by R. & E. Frow (Pluto Press, 1989), pp. 22-24.

[4] R. Poole, ‘French Revolution or Peasant’s Revolt? Petitioners and Rebels in England from the Blanketeers to the Chartists’ in Labour History Review, Vol.74, No.1 (2009), p.15.

[5] The National Archives, HO33/2/17 f.64-68. E. Salt, To all persons desirous of, and friendly to, establishing an union on legal principles, for the purpose of supporting the innocent mothers, wives & children, of such persons as are, or may hereafter be suffering, under want of a just remuneration for their Labours (Manchester, 1818), p.6.

[6] H. More, Village politics. Addressed to all the mechanics, journeymen, and day labourers, in Great Britain. By Will Chip, a country carpenter. Second Edition(London, 1792), p.14.

[7] Anon., The Opinions of John Bull, comprised in an address to his wife and children; with his counsel and advice for their future conduct. Adapted to every Capacity, and proper to be read in all Families. (London, 1792), p.9.

[8] Anon., Information for Cottagers, Collected from the Reports of the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. And Published by Order of the Society. (London, 1800),p.6.

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