William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

7
UNEMPLOYMENT AND THE UNEMPLOYED

I

By far the most important of Beveridge's activities in the 1900s was his involvement in schemes for the relief of the unemployed. It was in promoting new policies for unemployment that he saw most clearly the possibility of making Toynbee Hall an influence in national politics. After he left Toynbee it was on the theme of unemployment that he tried most systematically to educate public opinion through the medium of the Morning Post. And it was in the empirical and theoretical study of unemployment that he hoped to make a reputation as a professional economist.

The unemployment problem in East London centred chiefly upon the phenomenon of casual labour -- of men hired by the day or by the hour, who were the first to be dismissed when trade was slack and who even in prosperous times could never be sure of a continuous week's work.1 As Charles Booth had shown some years earlier, poverty and destitution in the dockland boroughs was inextricably bound up with these chronically irregular patterns of employment. Ever since the 188os there had been numerous schemes for assisting the East End unemployed -- labour colonies, emergency relief funds, local authority public works -- but these had scarcely scratched the surface of the problem of casual labour. Trade was slack in the Port of London in the post-Boer War recession, and early in 1903 there had been serious unemployed riots in the East End -- evoking the customary response of ill-planned relief schemes and panic-stricken charity. When Beveridge arrived in Whitechapel several months later, Samuel Barnett was already searching for some more permanent and systematic remedy for widespread economic distress among London's casual work-force.

Barnett's first action was to convene a conference of settlement residents to plan 'a really sensible and non-philanthropic way of dealing with the problem and abolishing street processions' and to find work for the unemployed outside the overstocked labour-market of London. At this conference he outlined a programme for relieving distress in the coming winter, which he

____________________
1
Gareth Stedman Jones, Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society ( 1971), esp. ch. 5.

-138-

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