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The British Union After Brexit: Issues of Sovereignty and Identity

“Human Derelicts” and the Deterioration of the Nation: Discourses of Identity and Otherness in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (1860s-1910s)

« Épaves humaines » et détérioration de la nation : discours de l’identité et de l’altérité dans la Grande-Bretagne victorienne et édouardienne (1860-1914)
Alice Bonzom

Abstracts

In the second half of the Victorian period, and even more so at the turn of the century, fears for what was considered the health of the nation started to grip Britain. The second Boer War (1899-1902) shook the already eroding self-confidence of an Empire that was preoccupied with what was described as the fitness of the race. Scientists joined the heated debate, some arguing that the British stock was deteriorating. The other, the alien element, in this discourse, was not necessarily a foreign man or woman; the outsider was coming from within the nation. This paper explores this altering discourse as well as the development of a counter-discourse that was carried by sociologists keen to reintegrate those who were stigmatised into the nation, eager to highlight environmental factors and social injustices and reluctant to oust some citizens from the community. It seeks to question and shed historical light on the construct that is Britishness in the context of raging debates on identity and nation in post-Brexit Britain.

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Introduction

  • 1 Theophilus Nicholas Kelynack (ed.), Human Derelicts; Medico-Sociological Studies for Teachers of Re (...)

1As fears for the health of the nation swept through the country in the late Victorian period, a discourse on the nature of British identity emerged. Preoccupied with the so-called fitness of the race, several scientists, government officials and reformers argued that the British stock was deteriorating. “A grave national danger” threatened the nation, asserted a contributor to a 1914 volume tellingly entitled Human Derelicts.1

2The alien element was not necessarily a foreign man or woman; the outsider was coming from within the nation. A rhetoric of exclusion drew lines preventing those deemed unfit – the residuum, the unemployables – from belonging to the nation. A biological element seeped into the definition of British character.

3By erecting boundaries between a superior British character and a corrupted and corrupting other, this debate stoked the embers of nationalist and imperialist sentiments. Middle-class and upper-class politicians, doctors, government representatives and journalists sought to isolate and incapacitate these “human derelicts”, producing ever-higher piles of official and unofficial reports, articles and essays.

4Yet, this paper also intends to study a parallel – but not necessarily incompatible – counter-discourse that was carried by more optimistic reformers and social investigators who believed education and state action – an interventionist approach – could bring those deemed unfit back into the fold of the fit.

5How much did national identity rely on genetics, on the biologising of Britishness? How did (pseudo)scientific discourse shape the conceptualisation of British identity? How could this discourse be congruent with a more sympathetic approach to the alleged deprived residuum and the so-called unemployables?

6This paper will first explore the construction of Britishness as biological fitness through the discourse of national degeneration & eugenics, then discuss the solutions of the most pessimistic thinkers to improve national efficiency before focusing on the concurrent and yet more welfare-inclined solutions of social investigators.

The discursive construction of Britishness and un-Britishness: the “fit” and the “unfit

The deterioration & degeneration of the nation

  • 2 Arnold White, “The Cult of Infirmity”, The National Review, 34: 200, 1899, pp. 236‑245, p. 245.
  • 3 Ibid., p. 237.

7For the present we are safe from attack by barbarians from without”, claimed journalist, Liberal imperialist and eugenicist Arnold White in 1899.2 He went on to warn his educated middle-class readers about the barbarians from within, those who were “enfeebl[ing] the British race, deteriorating [the] nation, and menacing the future of the Empire”.3

  • 4 Geoffrey Russell Searle, Eugenics and Politics in Britain, 1900-1914 (Leyden, Noordhoff Internation (...)

8As the second Boer War (1899-1902) was shaking the already eroding self-confidence of an Empire that was preoccupied with the fitness of the British race, fears of national degeneration spread like wildfire4.

  • 5 Dégénérescence was conceptualised in France by Bénédict-Augustin Morel and refined by Valentin Magn (...)
  • 6 Between 1850 and 1899, the word “virago” was used more than 150 times in 25 London papers in a judi (...)

9The embers of a nationalism based on mental and physical fitness were stoked by advocates of the French theory of dégénérescence.5 The degeneration of the British stock was an ill-defined idea precariously poised between hereditary and environmental factors. Paupers bred paupers, criminals bred criminals. The cause and symptoms of the unravelling of the fabric of British identity lay, supposedly, in the poor health of military recruits; the seemingly free-falling birth-rates; the spiralling reoffending rates in allegedly criminogenic cities filled with criminals often portrayed as savage. This is evidenced, for instance, by several press reports published in proto-tabloids like the Illustrated Police News and emphasising the dangers of “viragos” biting policemen.6 Those articles could convey the impression that female serial biters were a real threat. Behaviours deemed un-British or, at least, un-English by the press and by judges differed based on gender: un-British women were often portrayed as masculine, violent, vulgar and unable to resist a drink, while un-British men were lazy, dishonourable and cowardly. The Irish tended to be the scapegoats of the English, Welsh and Scottish: if being seen as an inebriate woman made you a deviant, being an Irish inebriate woman often made you an incorrigible deviant.

  • 7 “Physical Deterioration Report Vol. I.” (Parliamentary Papers [PP], 1904), q. 436, p. 20 and HM Pri (...)

10This impression of doom and gloom ran along gendered lines: the parliamentary committee on physical deterioration of 1904 argued that “the laziness of the women, coupled with drink, [was] at the root of many evils of degeneracy”. There was a black list of habitual drunkards in which women featured prominently, many female petty criminals incurring repeated sentences for being drunk and disorderly like Martha Kent who was sentenced 31 times in 7 years (once for begging and thirty times for being drunk and disorderly).7

  • 8 Richard Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-cen (...)
  • 9 Arnold White, “The Cult of Infirmity”, The National Review, 34: 200, 1899, pp. 244-245.

11All seemed to suggest that the British character was caught in a “downward slope”, as historian Richard Soloway suggests.8 Spurred on by Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism, the harbingers of national deterioration pointed their fingers at philanthropic and state intervention. “Heedless pity” for the “unfit” was to be stamped out to “preserve the vigour of the race, and to raise the practicable ideals of the Anglo-Saxons”, urged Arnold White. “Patches of barbarianism within require not pity but the knife”, he added.9

Eugenics and the feeble-minded

  • 10 Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848– c.1918 (Cambridge, Cambridge Unive (...)
  • 11 “Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded” [“RCCCFM”], Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 3 (...)

12According to Daniel Pick, this discourse of evolutionary anthropology “functioned not only to differentiate the colonised overseas from the imperial race, but also to scrutinise portions of the population at home: the ‘other’ was outside and inside.”10 It also served as a “go-to” explanation for Edwardian Britain’s military, economic and social hardships. Military metaphors reinforced this idea: the nation was jeopardised by “armies of loafers, tramps, paupers, drunkards, prostitutes, criminals […] who keep up the miserable breed”, according to the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded, which published its lengthy report (3,757 pages in total) in 1908.11

  • 12 Jose Harris, “The Liberal Empire and British Social Policy: Citizens, Colonials, and Indigenous Peo (...)
  • 13 Theodore Porter, Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity (Princeton, Prince (...)
  • 14 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883) & Franci (...)
  • 15 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883), p. 14

13New scientific developments by Mendel, combined with an “orgy of public recrimination about links between defective social welfare provision, ‘national inefficiency’, and ‘racial deterioration’” became grist to the mill of eugenicists.12 Francis Galton, credited – and now blamed, as historian Theodore Porter puts it – as the founder of eugenics, only invented the infamous term in 1883.13 Yet, in the 1860s, he was already intent on fostering the multiplication of the “fit” and their “hereditary talents” (positive eugenics) as well as keen to check the multiplication of “undesirables” (negative eugenics).14 He even set about creating “composite portraits” of both the unfit – the criminal type, in particular – and the fit, the “worthy”. He based this portrait on Royal Engineers and privates of “British descent”, equating Britishness with “vigour, resolution, intelligence and frankness”.15

  • 16 Karl Pearson, National Life from the Standpoint of Science (London, Adam and Charles Black, 1905) [ (...)

14Galton’s disciple, Karl Pearson, who worshipped statistics and pioneered “biometrics”, argued in National Life from the Standpoint of Science that the “flesh, blood and sinews of a nation” lay in “commercial supremacy”, “mineral wealth”, “size and armament and material prosperity” as well as “hardihood, bravery and endurance”.16 He cast the British nation as a biological organism whose “complex nervous system” can only rely on good “stock”. The moral and the scientific overlapped.

15Nationalist discourse was articulated around biological notions and irrigated by ideas of imperial grandeur, adding a scientific veneer that led to the exclusion of part of the British population.

16The concerns that stemmed from recidivism were compounded by these eugenics-fueled fears. Several middle and upper class politicians, scientists, doctors, reformers and journalists warned against a growing proportion of mentally deficient individuals held to suffer from defective genetics. These were the “feeble-minded”, biologically deficient, and often considered endemically criminal.

17As far as women were concerned, prostitution and feeblemindedness were often considered synonymous. Feeble-minded women were believed to be more fertile than other women, so the problem looked as if it was getting worse, especially since it was feared feeble-mindedness was hereditary. The national narrative paired courage, vigour, honour and economic independence with healthy male Britishness while it associated meekness, motherhood and sexual purity with respectable, quintessential female Britishness.

  • 17 “RCCCFM”, Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 61.
  • 18 Ibid., q. 10577, p. 611.
  • 19 Ibid.

18The evidence of Mary Dendy to the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded puts across this point with striking clarity: “if a woman comes into the workhouse with an illegitimate child it should be considered evidence of weakness of mind; there is certainly weakness of moral fibre”.17 The superintendent of a medical retreat located in York insisted on associating feeble-mindedness in girls with children born out of wedlock; having a baby but no husband led many to think a woman had a body but no mind of her own, or no sound mind at least: “it appears clear that a considerable number of feeble-minded girls and women have illegitimate children”.18 Stigmatising physical and mental disease worked hand in hand as the same superintendent argues that “an undue proportion” of “the women who are admitted with venereal diseases” were “of deficient intelligence”.19

19Feeble-mindedness was a nebulous notion that, albeit presented as scientific, gravitated around class and gender prejudice. Eugenicists hopped on the train of feeble-mindedness panic, giving credence to the belief that the nation was jeopardised and that Britishness was at threat from un-British British people.

Improving national efficiency: solutions to control the unfit

  • 20 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883, p. 1.

20Galton believed that it was possible to “produce a highly-gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations” – his brand of eugenics has been described as positive, meaning that he meant to foster the breeding of “fit” elements (as horse or dog breeders would).20 But several eugenicists favoured so-called negative eugenics: the so-called undesirables had to be neutralised to prevent national decay, to preserve, in a way, the pseudo-biological construct that was British identity.

Debating sterilisation

  • 21 It was reissued eight times during his lifetime and it served as a medical textbook. See Mathew Tho (...)

21Dr Alfred Frank Tredgold was a famous psychiatrist who took part in the Royal Commission on Mental Deficiency. His 1908 book on the question was a best-seller.21 Lumping together what he called “the worst elements: the insane, the feeble-minded, the diseased, the pauper, the thriftless”, he equated medical disabilities with socio-economic difficulties. He regarded idleness as a symptom of imbecility, revealing the extent to which productivity was key to a prescriptive British male character. The less productive, the more dangerous. There was a mental association between supposed proper female character and honesty; improper character and deceit.

  • 22 Alfred Frank Tredgold, “Eugenics and Future Human Progress”, The Eugenics Review 3:2, July 1911, p. (...)
  • 23 Alfred Frank Tredgold, “Eugenics and Future Human Progress”, The Eugenics Review 3:2, July 1911, p. (...)

22He was concerned with the “whole parasitic class of the nation”: an organic image which transformed the nation into a body, riddled with disease. The anti-British “bacteria” was imported from the outside (he did target foreigners, describing them as the “scourings of Europe”, “immeasurably inferior to the British people whose place they fill”).22 But this was also an auto-immune disease, the nation being corroded from the inside. Tredgold believed that the “bad seed” reproduced “with unabated and unrestricted vigour” while the “right seed” refrained from having children.23

  • 24 Robert Rentoul, Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates: An Appeal to Asy (...)
  • 25 Robert Rentoul, op. cit., 1906, p. 8 & p. vii.
  • 26 See Dan Stone, “Race in British Eugenics”, European History Quarterly 31:3, July 2001, pp. 397-425. (...)

23Yet, Tredgold tread carefully and never promoted forced sterilisation, unlike Dr Robert Rentoul, the author of Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates (1903) and Race Culture, or, Race suicide? A Plea for the Unborn (1906).24The pure river of national health” was being polluted, he wrote, by “criminals, neurotics, erotics, inebriates, drug habitués, kleptomaniacs, drunkards, borderland cases, ‘failures in life,’ and children who are mentally backward, mild epileptics”.25 Race here is to be understood as British (oftentimes English) superiority.26 He described the racial threat in those alarmist terms:

  • 27 Robert Rentoul, Race Culture, or, Race suicide? A Plea for the Unborn, (London, Walter Scott, 1906) (...)

We may compare race culture and race suicide to a river, at first pure, clear, and health-giving. We begin to foul the pure condition by adding gross impurities to it. Day by day, hour by hour, and year after year we add diseased humanity – the children begotten by the diseased, idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the insane, deformed, and those contaminated by venereal and other diseases. All these contaminating influences go on permeating, causing more disease, so converting the river into a cesspool, until it, ever widening and deepening, overflows, saturates and inoculates everything within its reach.27

  • 28 Arnold White, “Eugenics and national efficiency”, Eugenics Review 1:2, 1909, p. 107.

24Rentoul demanded forced sterilisation in the name of humane treatment. So did Arnold White, for the sake of “national destiny”.28While boasting of the finest horses, sweet-peas, delphiniums, bull-dogs, and grass-fed beef in the world, we have hitherto left to chance the future of our own race”, he regretted, listing a heteroclite hotchpotch of Britain’s greatest accomplishments.

  • 29 “RCCCFM”, Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 512.

25But the voices of sterilisers, though loud, were not heeded. Some eugenicists rejected the idea as barbarian, unchristian and only a step removed from “lethal chambers”; others feared that it would lead women to become more promiscuous and dissolute.29

Segregating the “unfit

26If the debate around sterilisation never led to legislation, the problem of the unfit remained. Scientific discourse could be used to curb the definition of British identity in the name of national efficiency; it led to the segregation of those labelled as mentally deficient and those categorised as inebriates.

  • 30 David Barker, “How to Curb the Fertility of the Unfit: The Feeble-Minded in Edwardian Britain”, Oxf (...)

27As historian David Barker puts it, segregation was a “time-honoured method of dealing with a number of other problem groups (the insane, criminals, inebriates, epileptics)”.30 Backed by the findings of the Royal Commission for the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded, the champions of segregation won the day with the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913. Only three MPs voted against it. Josiah Wedgewood was its most vocal opponent – going as far as suggesting that Keir Hardie would risk being institutionalised under the provisions of the Act.

  • 31 Mental Deficiency Act, 1913, 3 & 4 Geo. V, c. 28, 1(a)-1(d).
  • 32 Jan Walmsley, “Women and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: Citizenship, Sexuality and Regulation”, (...)

28The Act provided for the forced institutionalisation of four categories of mental defectives: idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons and moral imbeciles.31 The definition of mental deficiency, while seemingly scientific, medical and legal, actually hinged on social and moral judgments. “Moral imbeciles” were defined as individuals with “strong vicious or criminal propensities”, whether or not they had ever been convicted. At its peak, 65,000 people were placed in various institutions.32

  • 33 Ibid.

29As historian of health and social welfare Jan Walmsley puts it, this piece of legislation “deprived those caught up in it of their political, social and economic claims to citizenship”.33 The act had gender and class biases; in the name of care, it led to increased control of both institutionalised people and their families.

30The so-called feeble-minded, the immoral or even criminal residuum were excluded from the main narrative; their segregation reveals an attempt to construct a monolithic identity based on certain economic and gender preconceptions and a rose-tinted vision of Britishness as a superior race.

Improving national welfare: social investigation and state intervention

  • 34 Representation of the People Act, 1918, Section 41 (5) & Mathew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Defi (...)

31As historian Mathew Thomson puts it, “it would be wrong to present the 1913 Act as a crudely deliberate attempt to establish a new biological definition of citizenship”, although it is worth noting that, as per the terms of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, being a resident of an asylum (or prison) disqualified inmates from voting.34 Once released, they were able to vote.

Social investigation: sympathy for the poor, rejection of purely biological explanations

32It is key to further stress the limits of the biologising of what was constructed as British character and the pathologising of the lowest stratums of society. Some social reformers (not always but at times advocates of eugenics) insisted on the role played by environmental factors, shifting the focus from purely biological genes to economic means. This discourse sought to rehabilitate the loosely-defined residuum, the underclass, often referred to as the unemployables by Edwardian social reformers. Terminology is key: while it is imbued with moral and economic judgment, it is relatively free of the biological baggage of the word “unfit”.

  • 35 John Thomson & Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London (London, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivin (...)

33While the Victorians had long endeavoured to stamp out pauperism and its vice, regarded as hereditary or not – drunkenness, vagrancy, gambling, and so on – in the last quarter of the 19th c., this moralistic approach was tempered with a more hygienist, pragmatic and sympathetic (albeit patronising) vision of the poorest. In the 1870s, urban explorers penned stories of their journeys in the “abyss”, describing the “underworld” in maudlin and sensationalist tones. The titles of these slumming narratives are quite telling: worth mentioning are The Bitter Cry of Outcast London, Five Days and Five Nights as a Tramp amongst Tramps, London’s Underworld or The People of the Abyss. Photojournalism also intertwined moral judgment with a compassionate tone, as the pioneering work of John Thomson and Adolphe Smith suggests.35

  • 36 José Harris, ‘Between Civic Virtue and Social Darwinism’ in David Englander & Rosemary O’Day (eds), (...)
  • 37 Charles Booth, “The Inhabitants of Tower Hamlets (School Board Division), Their Condition and Occup (...)

34Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (1889-1903) tackled head on issues of poverty, employment and social class. While his work was used by eugenicists to promote the segregation of the unfit, it was actually built on the belief that circumstance and environmental factors trump biological explanations. In his study of the underclass concept, historian José Harris points out that Booth valued instead the development of prudence, moral character and citizenship.36This is a serious state of things,” he wrote, “but not visibly fraught with immediate danger”.37

  • 38 The modern-day Joseph Rowntree Foundation was born in 1904. Its headquarters are still located in Y (...)
  • 39 Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London, Macmillan, 1901), p. 367.

35Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York, Poverty, A Study of Town Life, published in 1901, was also very influential, notably in terms of New Liberal reforms after 1906. Seebohm was the second son of famous cocoa and chocolate manufacturer Joseph Rowntree. A Quaker like his father, he became both a businessman and a sociologist. The whole family built a reputation for its industrial and social welfare pioneering ideas.38 At times, however, Rowntree’s writing is very much reminiscent of eugenic prose: there are “persons who,” he explained, “although not imbecile or infirm, nevertheless belong to the class of the ‘unfit.’” “Some are feeble-minded and dull-witted”, he added.39 Yet, despite the occasional eugenic rhetoric, he firmly believed that environmental and structural factors accounted for inability to be productive. Unemployment, inadequate wages, poor housing, illness, old age, large families: these were the causes put forward by Rowntree to explain poverty. It was, therefore, a structural issue and not a personal moral failing. It could be tackled (and should be tackled).

36These sociological studies, while at times subscribing to the discourse of national efficiency and biological fitness, tended to rehabilitate the “unfit” or at least to make their reincorporation into the nation possible. Rather than degenerates, they mainly appeared as victims of poor education and dreadful living conditions and legitimate members of British society.

Welfare solutions; further intervention

37Eugenics was not the preserve of conservative politicians and reformers; however, socialist eugenicists tended to offer different solutions to the problem of “national deterioration”. Writer George Bernard Shaw and sexologist Havelock Ellis, for instance, insisted that free love and the end of class distinctions would help regenerate the race.

  • 40 Sidney Webb, The Decline in the Birth-Rate (Fabian Tract N°131) (London, The Fabian Society, 1907),(...)
  • 41 Sidney Webb & Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy (London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1897) and The P (...)

38Other politicians, social reformers and government officials pushed forward welfare-inclined solutions. Socialist Sydney Webb, for instance, borrowed heavily from Karl Pearson’s work: in a 1907 Fabian tract, he claimed that “degeneration of type” could lead to “race deterioration, if not race suicide”.40 But Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s rhetoric of the residuum and the unfit was overlaid with a call for state action; they believed in education, sanitation, decent wages and leisure as solutions to the problem.41 While discursive strategies coincided, they differed in their solutions.

  • 42 Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, 7th ed. (Lo (...)
  • 43 Ibid., p. 269.

39Pessimistic discourse also did not always percolate through official royal and departmental commissions. The 1904-08 Report on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded contrasts in its doom and gloom with the findings of the 1904 Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. The report raises doubts about Pearson’s theories on the hereditary nature of physical and mental deficiency. It emphasises the social causes of deterioration like urbanisation, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, poor schooling and, in particular, alcoholism. The debate took on gender-biased undertones: it pointed the finger at drunken mothers and put forward an agenda of manliness for boys and men. Scouting for Boys by Baden-Powell, published in 1908, associates courage, rigour and imperialism with virility and “the true spirit of patriotism”.42 He urged men not to be “disgraced like the young Romans” who lost their Empire because they were “wishy-washy slackers”.43 For Baden-Powell, citizenship was a matter of bravery and virility; belonging to the British race meant being ready to defend it, if the need was to arise:

  • 44 Ibid.

So if you scouts want peace for your country, you must each be prepared at any time to stick up for it. Don’t be cowards and content yourselves by merely paying soldiers to do your fighting and dying for you. Do something yourselves, learn marksmanship and drilling, so that as men you can take your place with the other men of your race in defending your women and children and homes, if it should ever be necessary.44

  • 45 Ibid., p. 229.
  • 46 Thomas Holmes, London’s Underworld (London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913), p. 181.
  • 47 W. H. Beveridge, “The Problem of the Unemployed”, The Sociological Review 3:1, 1906, p. 327.

40To become valid, apt, proud citizens, drink was to be avoided as it made men supposedly unfit to work and a back-to-nature attitude was to be fostered.45 Rowntree also promoted contact with nature and new towns as a means of reintegrating citizens deemed unfit into the nation. Police court missionary Thomas Holmes called for parks and manly games for poor boys “for it will pay the nation to give Tom, Dick and Harry healthy play”, he wrote in 1913.46 Welfare-inclined discourse could thus be suffused with eugenically-inclined rhetoric. Even Beveridge called, in 1906, for “unemployables” to undergo “the complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights-including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood”.47

41The key difference was a belief in state action through, for instance, labour exchanges or unemployment insurance. This explains how eugenics could endure in the early 20th c. even as Liberal Welfare Reforms were enacted: in 1906, free school meals; in 1908, old age pensions and in 1911, national insurance.

Conclusion

42Several discourses on what it meant to belong to the British nation coexisted between the end of the Victorian era and the eve of the Great War. They tended to put forward the idea of a residuum of people made up of unfit members of the Empire. Belonging to the nation could then become conditional on social behaviours deemed properly British, such as courage, self-reliance, productivity for men and maternity for women. Being unproductive and poor could lead to being labelled unfit.

43Refusal or inability to adopt these attitudes could hence result in exclusion, rejection and even institutionalisation. Nationalistic discourse was then articulated around biological notions, adding a scientific veneer that reinforced the exclusion of ethnic minorities but also of the less privileged British-born. This rhetoric, largely spread by eugenicists and their alarmist speeches, was irrigated by ideas of imperial grandeur and competitiveness with Europe and the United-States.

44Yet, a counter-discourse promoted solutions to reintegrate these unproductive members of society. While it was more optimistic, it did lead to increased intrusion in the lives of the poorer working classes and further marginalisation for those who refused to be under scrutiny.

45Perhaps worth exploring as well would be the reaction of the “unfit”: how was this antagonising discourse received by those it targeted? Did it increase conformity or lead, for some, to distrust of the elites and the sense of a disunited kingdom?

46Those questions highlight that Britishness was constructed and “gatekept”. It could rely on the exclusion of the “born and bred” British people that defied social, gender, and economic rules, separating the “deserving” from the “undeserving”. This can invite researchers and observers to look at the internal causes of the current British identity crisis rather than international scapegoats like the European Union.

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Soloway, Richard, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-century Britain (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990).

Stone, Dan, “Race in British Eugenics”, European History Quarterly 31:3 (July 2001), pp. 397-425.

Thomson, Mathew, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy, and Social Policy in Britain c.1870-1959 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998).

Tredgold, Alfred Frank, “Eugenics and Future Human Progress”, The Eugenics Review 3:2 (July 1911), pp. 94‑117.

Walmsley, Jan, “Women and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: Citizenship, Sexuality and Regulation”, British Journal of Learning Disabilities 28: 2 (2000), pp. 65-70.

Webb, Sidney, The Decline in the Birth-Rate (Fabian Tract N°131) (London, The Fabian Society, 1907).

Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice, Industrial Democracy (London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1897).

Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice, The Prevention of Destitution (London, National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution, 1911).

Welshman, John, Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000 (London, Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

White, Arnold, “The Cult of Infirmity”, The National Review, 34: 200 (October 1899), pp. 236-245.

White, Arnold, “Eugenics and national efficiency”, Eugenics Review 1:2 (1909), pp. 105-111.

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Notes

1 Theophilus Nicholas Kelynack (ed.), Human Derelicts; Medico-Sociological Studies for Teachers of Religion and Social Workers (London, Charles H. Kelly, 1914), pp. 7-8.

2 Arnold White, “The Cult of Infirmity”, The National Review, 34: 200, 1899, pp. 236‑245, p. 245.

3 Ibid., p. 237.

4 Geoffrey Russell Searle, Eugenics and Politics in Britain, 1900-1914 (Leyden, Noordhoff International Pub., 1976), pp. 22-23; Richard Soloway, “Counting the Degenerates: The Statistics of Race Deterioration in Edwardian England”, Journal of Contemporary History, 17: 1, 1982, pp. 137-164 and Philippe Chassaigne, Ville et violence : tensions et conflits dans la Grande-Bretagne victorienne (1840- 1914) (Paris, Presses de l’Université Paris Sorbonne, 2005), p. 66.

5 Dégénérescence was conceptualised in France by Bénédict-Augustin Morel and refined by Valentin Magnan in the 1880s.

6 Between 1850 and 1899, the word “virago” was used more than 150 times in 25 London papers in a judicial or penal context (versus only 53 occurrences of the term between 1800 and 1849).

7 “Physical Deterioration Report Vol. I.” (Parliamentary Papers [PP], 1904), q. 436, p. 20 and HM Prison Holloway, Prisoners’ Records, Record of Convictions, CLA/003/PR/01/001 (1910-1917), London Metropolitan Archives.

8 Richard Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-century Britain (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p. 46

9 Arnold White, “The Cult of Infirmity”, The National Review, 34: 200, 1899, pp. 244-245.

10 Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848– c.1918 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 39.

11 “Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded” [“RCCCFM”], Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 333.

12 Jose Harris, “The Liberal Empire and British Social Policy: Citizens, Colonials, and Indigenous Peoples, circa 1880-1914”, Histoire & Politique. Politique, culture, société 11, May-August 2010, pp. 1-3.

13 Theodore Porter, Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 223.

14 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883) & Francis Galton, “Hereditary Talent and Character”, Macmillan’s Magazine 22, 1865, pp. 157-66, 318-327.

15 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883), p. 14

16 Karl Pearson, National Life from the Standpoint of Science (London, Adam and Charles Black, 1905) [1st ed. 1901].

17 “RCCCFM”, Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 61.

18 Ibid., q. 10577, p. 611.

19 Ibid.

20 Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London, Macmillan, 1883, p. 1.

21 It was reissued eight times during his lifetime and it served as a medical textbook. See Mathew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy, and Social Policy in Britain c.1870-1959 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 25.

22 Alfred Frank Tredgold, “Eugenics and Future Human Progress”, The Eugenics Review 3:2, July 1911, p. 111. According to Daniel Kevles, “racism figured much less markedly in British eugenics” than in other countries. He added that “while British eugenicists talked of the threat of immigrants from Ireland and the Continent, they fretted a good deal more about the threat to the national fiber arising from the differential birth rate and the consequent weakening of their imperial competitive abilities in relation to France and Germany”. Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), p. 76.

23 Alfred Frank Tredgold, “Eugenics and Future Human Progress”, The Eugenics Review 3:2, July 1911, p. 115 & p. 111.

24 Robert Rentoul, Proposed Sterilization of Certain Mental and Physical Degenerates: An Appeal to Asylum Managers and Others (London, Walter Scott Pub. Co., 1903) and Robert Rentoul, Race Culture, or, Race suicide? A Plea for the Unborn, (London, Walter Scott, 1906).

25 Robert Rentoul, op. cit., 1906, p. 8 & p. vii.

26 See Dan Stone, “Race in British Eugenics”, European History Quarterly 31:3, July 2001, pp. 397-425. On methods of sterilisation, see David Barker, “How to Curb the Fertility of the Unfit: The Feeble-Minded in Edwardian Britain”, Oxford Review of Education 9:3, 1983, pp. 201-2.

27 Robert Rentoul, Race Culture, or, Race suicide? A Plea for the Unborn, (London, Walter Scott, 1906), p. 7.

28 Arnold White, “Eugenics and national efficiency”, Eugenics Review 1:2, 1909, p. 107.

29 “RCCCFM”, Vol. 1 (PP, 1908), p. 512.

30 David Barker, “How to Curb the Fertility of the Unfit: The Feeble-Minded in Edwardian Britain”, Oxford Review of Education 9:3, 1983, p. 202.

31 Mental Deficiency Act, 1913, 3 & 4 Geo. V, c. 28, 1(a)-1(d).

32 Jan Walmsley, “Women and the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913: Citizenship, Sexuality and Regulation”, British Journal of Learning Disabilities 28: 2, 2000, p. 65.

33 Ibid.

34 Representation of the People Act, 1918, Section 41 (5) & Mathew Thomson, The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy, and Social Policy in Britain c.1870-1959 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 54.

35 John Thomson & Adolphe Smith, Street Life in London (London, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1877).

36 José Harris, ‘Between Civic Virtue and Social Darwinism’ in David Englander & Rosemary O’Day (eds), Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840–1914 (Aldershot, Scolar Press, 1995), p. 81. See John Welshman, Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000 (London, Hambledon Continuum, 2006).

37 Charles Booth, “The Inhabitants of Tower Hamlets (School Board Division), Their Condition and Occupations”, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 50:2, June 1887, p. 375.

38 The modern-day Joseph Rowntree Foundation was born in 1904. Its headquarters are still located in York, where the family was based, and it is still committed to understanding, tackling and solving poverty in the UK.

39 Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London, Macmillan, 1901), p. 367.

40 Sidney Webb, The Decline in the Birth-Rate (Fabian Tract N°131) (London, The Fabian Society, 1907), p. 19. 

41 Sidney Webb & Beatrice Webb, Industrial Democracy (London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1897) and The Prevention of Destitution (London, National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution, 1911). See John Welshman, Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000 (London, Hambledon Continuum, 2006), p. 22.

42 Robert Baden-Powell, Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship, 7th ed. (London, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd, 1915), p. 20. Scouting was promoted by Tredgold himself for less severe cases of mental defectiveness.

43 Ibid., p. 269.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., p. 229.

46 Thomas Holmes, London’s Underworld (London, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1913), p. 181.

47 W. H. Beveridge, “The Problem of the Unemployed”, The Sociological Review 3:1, 1906, p. 327.

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References

Electronic reference

Alice Bonzom, “Human Derelicts” and the Deterioration of the Nation: Discourses of Identity and Otherness in Victorian and Edwardian Britain (1860s-1910s)Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVII-2 | 2022, Online since 15 June 2022, connection on 26 September 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/9360; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.9360

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About the author

Alice Bonzom

LARHRA, Université Lumière Lyon

Alice Bonzom is a lecturer at Lyon 2 Lumière University. Her PhD, entitled “Between criminality, insanity, deviance and defiance: Victorian and Edwardian women in the London carceral net (1877-1914)” and defended in 2019, received a prize awarded by the Francophone Institute for Justice and Democracy. Her research focuses on British carceral and penal history, gender, criminology, eugenics and alcoholism.

Alice Bonzom est maîtresse de conférence à l’Université Lumière Lyon 2. Sa thèse, soutenue en décembre 2019 et récompensée par l'Institut Francophone pour la Justice et la Démocratie en 2020, s’intitule « Criminelles ou rebelles, déviantes ou démentes : femmes victoriennes et édouardiennes dans l’univers carcéral londonien, 1877-1918 ». Ses recherches se concentrent sur l’histoire pénale et carcérale, le genre, la criminologie, l’eugénisme et l’alcoolisme.

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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