Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-1886

Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-1886

by M. J. D. Roberts

Campaigns for moral reform were a recurrent and distinctive feature of public life in later Georgian and Victorian England. Antislavery, temperance, charity organisation, cruelty prevention, 'social purity' advocates, and more - all promoted their causes through mobilisation of citizen volunteer support. This book sets out to explore the world of these volunteer… See more details below


Campaigns for moral reform were a recurrent and distinctive feature of public life in later Georgian and Victorian England. Antislavery, temperance, charity organisation, cruelty prevention, 'social purity' advocates, and more - all promoted their causes through mobilisation of citizen volunteer support. This book sets out to explore the world of these volunteer networks, their foci of concern, their patterns of recruitment, their methods of operation, and the responses they aroused. In its exploration of this culture of self-consciously altruistic associational effort, the book provides the first systematic survey of moral reform movements as a distinct tradition of citizen action over the period, as well as casting light on the formation of a middle-class culture torn, in this stage of economic and political nation-building, between accepting a market-organised society and unease about the cultural consequences of doing so.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Roberts has performed a valuable service...[A] solid, stimulating book..." T.L. Crosby, Wheaton College, CHOICE

"...this study is an important exploration of a form of civic engagement, outside the organized structures of government but within the wider polity." - American Historical Review, Penelope J. Corfield, University of London

"This is an extremly fine and thoughtful book, based on an impressive range of sources...It is bursting wiht ideas and information based on a colossal amount of reading and research." Victorian Studies Susan Mumm, The Open University

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Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories Series, #2
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Making English Morals
Cambridge University Press
0521833892 - Making English Morals - Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-1886 - by M. J. D. Roberts


A history of moral change is, to a certain degree, a history of everything. This book is of more limited scope. It aims to explore the history of English moral reform - that is, of self-conscious, organised efforts by groups of concerned citizens to change moral values and to modify patterns of behaviour associated with them. It is argued that 'moral reform' as a category of social action was a particular preoccupation of the period between the Revolution Settlement of 1688-9 and the turn of the twentieth century and, more distinctly still, of the hundred years between the 1780s and the 1880s.

Moral reform identified

How is moral reform to be identified? It may help to begin with an attempt at definition by an actively engaged contemporary. In 1852 the British Temperance Advocate published an article: 'What the Temperance Society is NOT'.1 In this article the author compared the work of a temperance society with the work of four other types of volunteer action. A temperance society was 'not a charitable institution' - though it helped to teach 'the true charity which restores to sound moral habits, to virtuous self-help and self-reliance'. Nor was it 'an educational society' or a 'sanitary association' - though its encouragement to self-management would assist members towards accumulation of the resources and will-power needed to raise their educational and environmental goals. Finally, it was not 'a political union' - though its members, by their self-control, proved themselves fit for recognition as citizens. In the context of its era a fifth distinction might have been added - a temperance society was not (yet) an organisation for religious evangelisation - though the majority of its members would have some link with a church or, more likely, a chapel.

Why, then, this anxiety to establish a distinct identity? Why was such a distinction valued? As this survey of voluntary action develops, a cluster of explanations will become apparent. The most significant link moral reform to, and distinguish it from, the activities of organised religious evangelisation, of charitable relief-giving, of party politics and of public administration. Thus one of the reasons why moral reform and religious evangelisation remained distinguishable (if sometimes overlapping) activities during this period was that moral reform had the potential to avoid sectarian disputes about the type or extent of belief in a particular form of Christianity. Again, one of the reasons why moral reformers preferred to distinguish their mission as one of encouraging 'true charity' was that it distanced them from stereotypes of religion-based relief-giving which, in an age of political economy, were vulnerable to charges of encouraging habitual ('demoralising') dependency. The key reason why moral reformers invariably felt unease at becoming too closely associated with a political party or pressure group was the fear that this would run the risk of subordinating goals perceived as altruistic to goals perceived to be tied to sectional self-interest. And a major reason why moral reformers usually retained a strong commitment to voluntary status when they became associated with the development of schemes for the 'reclamation' of the young or undersocialised or the victims of cruelty and injustice was that it helped them to retain a living sense of personal responsibility for those they perceived as 'less fortunate' than themselves - a sense which most of them envisaged as difficult to preserve if the work was entrusted to professional or official agency.

If this was, broadly speaking, the rationale of moral reform, what of the objectives falling within its scope? Here, temperance gives us only one illustration of a complex and mutating range of concerns. Activists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attached the moral reform label from time to time to everything from repression of the profanation of the Sabbath to the encouragement of pure literature, from the suppression of the slave trade to the prevention of cruelty to animals and children. Temperance, charity organisation, prison reform, the abolition of capital punishment, reclamation of 'fallen women', promotion of 'social purity', all fell within the category for some or all of the period explored here.

In this they reflected changing practical priorities: the discovery of one form of moral depravity often led to the discovery of another. They also reflected changing perceptions of the moral sphere and its boundaries. That is, moral reform depended on a set of culturally evolving assumptions about the responsibility of individuals for their own actions - about their capacity to choose between vicious and virtuous conduct. Obviously a religious culture expressing its values in terms of sin and salvation will define this responsibility in terms distinct from the terms employed by secular utilitarians. A society which respects hierarchy and inherited rank will have a set of moral values which distinguishes it from one which promotes individual autonomy and freedom of contract. The extent of specialisation of professional knowledge will also have a bearing on expectations of moral responsibility, as will the degree to which a society endorses a specialisation of gender roles. All this makes a difference, and unavoidably did make a difference to the goals which moral reformers set themselves over the period between the later eighteenth and later nineteenth centuries. During this period, as we shall be acknowledging, debate about moral values, about moral standards of behaviour, was therefore constantly entangled with debate about religious belief and organisation; philanthropy, education and the legitimate scope and goals of public administration; labour management, work discipline and public order; family structure, gender roles and the socialisation of the young. At core it became a debate about the cultural control of the 'animal appetites' - greed, lust, violence and (if it counts as an appetite) indolence - all human propensities which have the potential to disrupt the fulfilment of social obligation to family, employer, neighbours, civil authority and God.2 In a phrase, the limits of the moral are culturally determined in complex ways.

Beyond the issue of identifying certain values and patterns of behaviour as objects of moral reform concern, of course, lies the further question of agency. Whose culture did the determining of moral boundaries, and by what mechanisms?3 Without attempting to foreclose too much future argument, the finding of this survey is that moral reform cultural elites can be most readily located among 'the middling ranks' of English society. Sometimes the influence of these elites was powerful or persuasive enough to recruit support from the world of the landed, titled and fashionable, and sometimes also from the world of the labouring classes, especially skilled and semi-skilled tradesmen. As noted above, the world of the middling ranks was not always (or even usually) a culturally homogeneous world, and part of the appeal of moral reform was its potential to build experimental bridges of co-operation across the chasms of regional, occupational, gender and religious difference.4 Yet, in one respect, it was united - united in commitment to a belief in the utility and acceptability of volunteer association as a means of mobilising support and taking public action. The tradition of clubs and societies in English life was by no means a new one.5 And the uses to which volunteer association might be put were equally available for the pursuit of projects of unvarnished self-interest (regional, occupational, political) and for the promotion of projects of claimed communal altruism. The tradition of moral reform, as it emerged, however, was firmly based on a collective belief in the possibility - and desirability - of disinterested service in the cause of human moral improvement. Whether that improvement was envisaged as a 'reformation' towards the retrieval of a purer moral order allowed over modern times to decay, or as a 'reform' towards the creation of a more modern, more rational, refined and evolved set of cultural relationships, remained an ambiguity to be resolved over time.6

Perspectives on moral reform

Meanwhile, moral reform as it developed also became subject to evaluation by people other than its supporters. Not all of these were prepared to take moral reformers' declarations of altruistic motive at face value and, as we shall see in chapters to follow, there were moments when sections of the moral reform project came under direct challenge. Such was the heat released that when, at the end of the nineteenth century, a first generation of professional historians began to record the achievements of moral reform activism, their attempts at evaluation were themselves coloured by awareness of its contested reputation. It is to these and following attempts at contextualisation of moral reform that we must now turn.

Broadly speaking, we can identify three approaches - three framing narratives - into which the English volunteer moral reform tradition has been inserted over the last hundred years. The first of these approaches is probably still the most widely recognised. This is the presentation of moral reform as an aspect of the history of the development of capitalist industrial society. In this approach, campaigners for moral reform make their appearance as either the knowing or involuntary articulators of the new standards of labour discipline required by that circumstance. The primary goal/function of moral reform, the argument goes, was to break in a 'pre-industrial' population to the 'methodical way of life of industrial capitalism'. 'The pressures towards discipline and order extended from the factory, on one hand, the Sunday school, on the other, into every aspect of life: leisure, personal relationships, speech, manners', explains E. P. Thompson in his depiction of the era of 'Pitt's moral lieutenant, Wilberforce'.7

Thompson's critique of the coercive and disciplinary agenda of moral reform was, in fact, a mid-twentieth-century reworking of a long line of moral criticism of moral reform. Marx, in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, had identified 'economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind' as incurable agents of the exploiting classes 'desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society'.8 Before Marx, the defender of the leisure pastimes of the free-born Englishman, William Cobbett, had also identified moral reform as the prop of an exploitive social order: faced with the prospect of enforced departure to America in 1818, he had welcomed (rather prematurely) the opportunity of moving to 'a free country [with] No Wilberforces!'9

By the time self-consciously professional historians began to create the story of 'the English industrial revolution' in the early twentieth century the perspective had changed, though not the generally negative evaluation of moral reform. What had infuriated Cobbett and drawn the contempt of Marx now drew the puzzlement mixed with hindsight-assisted disapproval of the Webbs. Moral reform was recognised as a precursor of social reform and therefore acknowledged as a legitimate field of activity, but it was evaluated negatively for being a conceptualisation of issues which was both unscientific and pre-modern. As the Webbs summed up the moral reform activists of the 1780s, these were people unable to distinguish between class interest and wider community need:

There is, to our modern feelings, something unsavoury in this combination of concern for the spiritual welfare of the poor and for the security and profit of the rich, especially when it led merely to attempts to deprive the lower orders of their margin of leisure and opportunities for amusement.10

And because moralising volunteers were so unwilling to subordinate self-interest to scientific evaluation of outcomes, they had continued to play an ambivalent role in the development of a coherent, uniform, professionally administered and adequately resourced set of national social policies designed to achieve 'the prevention, not directly of pauperism but of destitution itself'.11 As this approach makes clear, for the Webbs, as for many labour historians after them, the chief analytical failing of the moral reform approach was that it privileged motive over outcome. Moral reform was tolerable as a way of muddling through a transitional stage of social development, but an impediment to the achievement of citizen social integration and material well-being when it continued to value status-driven volunteer 'amateurism' in an age with the resources and knowledge to do better.12 The future lay with the democratically legitimised, expert-advised, centrally organised state.

The Webbs, of course, had their own political axes to grind and it has been noted that a certain amount of their 'historical' work was in fact material originally drafted for purposes of political persuasion.13 That does not of itself, however, invalidate what they, and others in their tradition of interpretation, were arguing in the case of moral reform. Nor does it undermine the claim of a major segment of early twentieth-century educated opinion to be making a professional evaluation of the significance of past 'experiments' from the viewpoint of 'present knowledge' as it existed at the time of writing.14 If material well-being and social efficiency were the assumed ultimate objectives of society, then class-based volunteer initiative was bound to be both inefficient and oppressive in its impact. Voluntarists were wasting scarce resources. Moral reform voluntarists were inappropriate, insensitive and counter-productive sponsors of cultural change in a society based on a principle of equality in citizenship.

Yet, from the hindsight view of a later generation, two major blind spots limit the persuasiveness of the 'labour discipline' approach to moral reform. The first is its limited range of curiosity about moral reform goals: these goals were assumed to be the thinly disguised expressions of material class interest and, if they resisted this classification (as antislavery appeared to some to do), then they became examples of selective conscience or even of 'false consciousness'.15

The other question which a labour discipline approach tended to sidestep was the question of who represented the exploiting classes in moral reform movements - the question of distribution of power within property-owning ranks. Once again, it was Evangelicals such as Wilberforce ('Pitt's moral lieutenant') who posed the most obvious problem, both because of their strangely yoked priorities and because of their willingness on occasion to criticise vested interests and to alienate 'official opinion'. Yet, at various stages of the narrative of modernisation, the same could also be said of secular moral reformers - administrative and professional elites in particular. Why, in addition, were captains of industry so modestly represented in moral reform leadership? Eventually, a revaluation of the relation between (and relative importance of) economic structure and cultural superstructure would emerge to encourage labour historians to take culture as a variable in its own right,16 but by that stage the emergence of the working classes was not the only narrative of interest to historians of culture change.

A second framing narrative with implications for the history of moral reform movements has been one starting from the assumption that what most needs explaining in modern national experience is not the history of conflict, but of conflict successfully mediated or resolved. Once again, there is a sense in which this narrative is a recycling of the world-view of a section of Victorian society itself - the personal responsibility-taking, respectability-seeking section of that society - and it is therefore no surprise to find the classic presentation of this viewpoint in a work retrieving for a mid-twentieth-century audience the world of nineteenth-century temperance. This is Brian Harrison's study of Drink and the Victorians, first published in 1971. The cultural underpinning of that concern with the evolution of stability and consensus, however, spread further than an attempt by a new generation of professional historians to demonstrate their technical skill by the interpretation of the fossilised remains of extinct cultural species.17

One context prompting revaluation was the increasingly anomalous national experience of English society itself by mid-twentieth-century standards of comparison. By rights, the 'first industrial nation' should have led the way in resolving its class conflicts in favour of the working classes. Yet the historical record seemed, instead, to indicate a remarkable story of class politics deflected.18 In addition, the prestige of state-sponsored solutions to issues of class exploitation had, by the 1960s, sunk; the reputation of the 'Fabian orthodoxy' as developed by the Webbs and others had been damaged by exposure to the realities of state totalitarianism of both radical right (by then defeated) and Soviet communist left (still 'flourishing').19 In its place a new post-war generation of young historians was moving, sometimes rebelliously, to identify not with the managers and policy elites of societies past and present, but with 'ordinary people' as the shapers of their own cultural worlds.20

One logical outcome of this broadening of interest from state to society, and from labour relations to culture, was a new-found interest in voluntary association generally. It became relevant to study the ways in which 'community' was formed on bases of religious, geographical, ethnic, age-group and gender loyalty as well as of class. It became relevant as well to investigate cultures of consumption in their own right rather than as facets of the problem of labour discipline. As mentioned above, the pioneering case study of this approach was Brian Harrison's Drink and the Victorians. Harrison was soon to use this case study as a strand in studies of 'moral reform' voluntarism as a general phenomenon of public life in 'post-industrial revolution' Britain.21

Harrison drew several deductions from his studies of moral reform efforts. First, moral reform motive could not be reduced to economic self-interest alone. Some of it clearly was so reducible, but much of it (including the impulse to control alcohol consumption) was a response to a variety of pressures, cultural and psychological as well as economic (some of which could be seen to have outlasted the industrial phase of capitalist society itself ). Thus, while some labouring people sometimes opposed moral reform as a form of class oppression, others actively co-operated with the propertied classes through voluntary movements such as temperance and antislavery, even Sunday observance. Such 'working-class co-operation', while it clearly aided 'long-term [cross-class] co-operation', was not usefully interpreted 'as an example of "false-consciousness" ' - rather as 'an important stage in the growth of working-class consciousness' as it fostered both organisational self-help and 'articulateness'.22

The problem, therefore, for Harrison, as he ultimately formulated it, merged into an aspect of a general quest for 'the sources of social and political cohesion in Britain since the industrial revolution', and Marx's denigration of moral reform movements as vehicles of class manipulation became a function of his own 'peculiar perspective': '[Marx] rightly saw that they were blurring class divisions; but because he foresaw an era of mounting class conflict, he underestimated their historical significance.'23 Their fully restored historical significance was that they assisted the establishment of a pattern of integration of outsiders into a tradition of public debate about values which was accepted as normal and serviced by 'political mechanisms [to] bring the idealist into regular contact with the pragmatist'.24 'Nonconformists, women and articulate working men' in turn challenged the status quo to educate and be educated in turn about the practicalities of power. The outcome was a 'Peaceable Kingdom' of citizens with the 'highly original quality . . . of not killing one another'.25

If this was a class struggle minimising revaluation of moral reform, an alternative line of revaluation developed in parallel over the period aimed to solve the puzzle of 'stability achieved' not so much by investigation of relations between classes as by exploration of the power relations between status and occupational groups within the morality-sponsoring middle class itself. Once again, the starting point was a recognition that class loyalty was more complicated, more culturally conditioned, than attribution based on economic self-interest alone could explain.

A series of case studies of the dynamics of middle-class interaction in the archetypal commercial centres of the north of England (and of Scotland) during the formative decades of the industrial age gave strong clues. Most fully developed among these studies was that of R. J. Morris on Leeds.26 The Leeds middle class of the 1830s and 40s, by occupational criteria and by patterns of religious and political behaviour, Morris noted, was far from the monolith of economic self-interest steadfastly pursued which orthodox Marxists might hope to find. Indeed, virtually the only area in which class co-operation of any reliably predictable sort could be located was that of voluntary association. Voluntary societies, Morris argued, gave urban elites faced with the challenge of establishing their authority in an era of dislocation a way forward. It was a way forward which avoided reliance on the state (which they distrusted as deficient in moral legitimacy). It was a way forward which allowed community-based co-operation to take place between citizens of otherwise antagonistic religious allegiance. It was also a move which sidestepped the immediate need to resolve cultural tensions within propertied ranks about the relationship between the laws of the market and the laws of God. In this way voluntary societies (often presented as having a moral reform purpose) became the early nineteenth-century 'basis for the formation of a middle-class identity'.27

As this line of argument indicates, Morris retained some of the labour history tradition of interpretation of moral reform as a project of class self-interest. The term 'class', however, is a much more culture-linked one than it once was, and the term 'self-interest' now embraces fully self-conscious class awareness of the need to preserve moral legitimacy. Volunteer subscriber-based association thus gives the key to explaining the successful stabilisation of early urban industrial society. And the documented dominance of commercial and professional men in voluntary associations gives the clue to urban middle-class priorities - not profit maximisation but 'a stable and moral order' in which 'market structures' are 'manipulated' to legitimise middle-class claims to civic leadership.28 In this sense, the middle class becomes an 'elite-led class', with the elite proving its credentials by its energy and skill in hierarchical but community-based voluntary activity.29

These 'stability-explaining' approaches to moral reform certainly refine the 'labour discipline' interpretation. They also help to resolve issues which that interpretation was inclined to ignore or to present as paradox. From one direction they make sense of the range of moral reform enthusiasms - not just the enthusiasms focused on labour discipline but the 'consumption-disciplining' and 'citizen-training' ones as well. From another direction, they are able to give a plausible explanation for the dominance of cultural rather than economic elites in moral reform mobilisation.

These are major insights, both of them persuasive as far as they are developed. They do, of course, rest on their own assumptions - as all arguments must - and in this case the assumptions include a willingness to believe that, in English public life, cultural conflict has proved an educative experience because conflict has, broadly speaking, been a stage in a process of negotiated compromise.30 As we shall see, not all observers of moral reform in its more coercive phases have been able to agree with this, and some would argue that the ghost of a Cromwellian seventeenth-century 'rule of the saints' took longer to exorcise than might have been hoped.

© Cambridge University Press

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