Labour History Review

Urban Elites, Socialists and Notions of Citizenship in an Industrial Boomtown: Coventry, c.1870-1914

Labour History Review (2004), 69, (1), 3–18.

Abstract

The emergence of social citizenship schemes between 1870-1914 have largely been explained through the urban elites' increasing anxiety over poverty in the late nineteenth-century city. However, it is argued here that historians should reconceptualize social citizenship within broader parameters than have hitherto been set. This article will argue that in boom towns such as Coventry, schemes of social citizenship were developed to civilize a ‘new’ type of worker who exhibited rather different characteristics than the traditional urban poor. According to some observers, the ‘new’ industries nurtured a semi-skilled worker who had little pride in his work or in civic affairs, was relatively affluent and consumption driven. The urban elite and socialists found common ground in their criticism of this ‘new’ worker and offered distinct schemes of social citizenship as a solution to the ‘problem’. The cultural construction of the ‘deviant’ worker also proved a useful deflection from the urban elites and socialists own deficiencies, particularly in their inability to engage in any meaningful way with the citizens they had endeavoured to ‘improve’.

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Earlier versions of this paper were read at the Economic History Society Conference, St Catherine's College, Oxford, March 1999, The Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, November 2001 and the Hawaiian Conference on Social Sciences, June 2003. Our thanks to those who participated in the lively discussions. We have received funding for this project from The British Academy, and the Universities of Portsmouth and Massey. The late Professor Robbie Gray provided helpful comments and encouragement on earlier drafts. Our thanks also to Drs Ken Lunn, Donna Loftus and the anonymous referees who also commented on the article. For a more in-depth analysis of leisure and citizenship see B. Beaven, The Pleasure Seekers: Male Working-Class Leisure and Citizenship in Britain 1850-1945 (forthcoming, Manchester, Manchester University Press). Google Scholar

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Author details

Beaven, Brad

Griffiths, John