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Trevelyan: English Social History: Commentary

Here Trevelyan openly proclaims his romantic and nostalgic vision of pre-industrial rural England. He recognises that the towns could provide more financial security – that was the reason for moving to them in the first place – and that country life could be grim: the old country cottages were often ‘picturesque but ruinous and insalubrious’, with leaking roofs and rickety windows and the poor were dependent on poor relief, which usually took the form of handouts administered by the parish. However, he sees a deeper, more intangible value in the old ways, ‘a humane background and an age-long tradition’ which enabled even the poorest to survive and to find happiness. In keeping with the literary arrangement of the book, Trevelyan illustrates his point with a quotation from Wordsworth, who had himself lamented the loss of the old country ways and the spread of the industrial towns. Trevelyan has little time for the towns: not only are they full of slums, but people are ‘dumped down’ there in ‘neglected heaps’, which leaves them open to inflammatory revolutionary ideas – that is what lies behind the reference to ‘highly combustible matter’. He is equally scornful of the sort of social housing being erected for workers by local authorities in his own day: it is impossible to bestow affection on a ‘model workman’s flat’.

This is a very rosy picture of agricultural life before the Industrial Revolution. It is not unfair to point out that it was easy for Trevelyan to talk of people having affection for tumbledown cottages because he never had to live in one. While it is undoubtedly true that traditions and customs can retain strong affection and that rural communities could and did rally round to support their weaker members, Trevelyan’s image is a highly paternalistic one, which few modern social historians would accept. It is, perhaps, the image that Trevelyan and his readers wanted to believe in. Moreover, it is unnecessarily scornful of the communities that were soon establishing themselves in the towns. The move was certainly a difficult break with people’s previous lives (though there was more fluidity than Trevelyan allows for, as people, at least in the early days of industry, moved between work in the countryside and in the towns) but it was not long before urban workers too were developing their own customs, communities and culture.

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