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Books examine social order among working-class communities

Monday, March 31, 2014

LAWRENCE — The French Revolution has contributed to a lasting historical image of lower working-class groups in Europe and their involvement in riotous or revolutionary action.

But a University of Kansas researcher who studies British history says a deeper look at the dynamics of working-class communities illustrates how those groups contributed greatly to social cohesion. Yet the lower working-class groups often don’t get any credit for the “peaceable kingdom” of Victorian and Edwardian England, decades after the unrest that followed the storming of the Bastille across the English Channel.

“I’ve attempted to look at the ways in which working people have their own forms of discipline and their own order-creating mechanisms,” said Victor Bailey, the Charles W. Battey Distinguished Professor of Modern British History.

He delves into what helped establish order among urbanized working-class communities in his new book, “Charles Booth’s Policemen: Crime, Police and Community in Jack-the-Ripper’s London.” He also has collected six of his essays in “Order and Disorder in Modern Britain: Essays on Riot, Crime, Policing and Punishment.” Breviary Publications in London recently published both books.

Historians have traditionally given police and the state the credit for domestic peace in 19th and 20th century Britain, but Bailey said that leaves an incomplete picture. It also presents a valuable lesson today as many communities in Britain and the United States are seeking to reinvent themselves after losing many manufacturing jobs.

“Rather than putting the onus upon coercion or the imposition of order from above, I suggest that order is also something that is self-created,” said Bailey, who also is director of KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities. “That is, there are informal rules of discipline as well as formal forms of coercion.”

He studied the archive of Charles Booth, the social researcher who examined London’s East End, an area of poverty prone to crime that includes the district where serial killer known as Jack-the-Ripper found his victims in 1888. While Booth’s work largely focuses on the police, Bailey said he researched other aspects of community life in the area, including family life, education, charity from religious and secular sources, and housing changes, that could have helped contribute to social order as well.

“The commission and repression of crime are dependent variables,” he said. “They are linked not only to the structures of law enforcement but also to levels of community solidarity, associational life, family integration and parental authority. They cannot be understood outside the history of employment, immigration, religion, charity, housing and education.”

Britain in the late 19th century had a well-established working urbanized working class.

“Therefore, these communities developed ways of ordering themselves, ways of policing themselves,” he said. “It was not always by legal enforcement but by various cultural norms. I think communities can exert important forms of discipline, and families can impose certain disciplines.”

Other institutions also contributed, such as trade unions that were strong. And communities tended to have their own hierarchies. Women were especially important in enforcing what type of behavior was acceptable.

“It’s a very independent set of communities,” Bailey said. “They are not really influenced massively either by the churches or by elites. There is a real kind of independence and self-function in these communities.”

He said the value in studying communities deeper is evident today.

“It’s to understand better how societies function and how communities function,” Bailey said. “It allows us to really assess less the structures of a society, less the imposing structures and more the self-action.”

Like many American cities that have sought to reinvent themselves but dealt with large crime problems due to loss of manufacturing jobs, Bailey said the same thing has happened in Britain. Sheffield, much like Pittsburgh, has had to find a new destiny after the loss of steel manufacturing jobs.

As communities seek to strengthen institutional controls – like the police getting the credit for peace in Victorian England — many of the other controls have become lost.

“Looking at British society today, I think a lot of those self-controls really have broken down to the point that they are not doing the job of discipline that they once did,” said Bailey, who extended this research from his 2008 Hall Center for the Humanities Inaugural Lecture. “And hence, we are relying increasingly on force and policing to solve problems that used to be solved or at least confronted by different mechanisms.”

Bailey’s books will be on display at the Hall Center’s Celebration of Books by faculty authors from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, at the center. To RSVP, send an email to hallcenter@ku.edu.