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Thursday, 8 September 2011

“The Ignorance that Prevailed was Lamentable…” Or: Moral Statistics – A Guest Post by Douglas Brown:

I’ve always wondered what working for the office of national statistics must be like. I enjoy statistics – it’s one of the enjoyable things about the work of people like Mayhew, the pages of statistics included in his work.
Where I work, I make my own statistics; I record the volume of work processed by my department every day, and make a monthly total. At the end of the year, when things die down a bit toward the end of December, I use this information to make a scatter graph. This isn’t part of my job; I just do it because I find it interesting. (formulate your own opinions on that...)

When I approached Doug about doing a guest post, I left the subject quite open. I expected something about workhouses, but was far happier with what I actually got, which was a study of Victorian statistics and some attitudes toward them: 

Moral Statistics
Douglas Brown

Nineteenth-century statisticians were easy to parody. Take, for example, a report of the first meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything. Appearing in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany in 1837, the association was an invention by Charles Dickens skewering a contemporary preoccupation with scientific progress.

MR. X. LEDBRAIN read a very ingenious communication, from which it appeared that the total number of legs belonging to the manufacturing population of one great town in Yorkshire was, in round numbers, forty thousand, while the total number of chair and stool legs in their houses was only thirty thousand, which, upon the very favourable average of three legs to a seat, yielded only ten thousand seats in all. From this calculation it would appear,– not taking wooden or cork legs into the account, but allowing two legs to every person,– that ten thousand individuals (one-half of the whole population) were either destitute of any rest for their legs at all, or passed the whole of their leisure time in sitting upon boxes.

The discipline of statistics – literally ‘things about the state’ – was in the mid-nineteenth century characterised by collecting and discussing information about aspects of life. Its practitioners did describe it as a science but it was not, as it has become, a mathematical science of data. A glance at the contents of the first volume (1838) of the Journal of the Statistical Society of London – which later became the Royal Statistical Society – shows just how broad were the subjects statisticians investigated. 

A short sample: Pauper schools, the progress of the nation, the state of poor families in the Miles Platting district of Manchester, strikes in the Potteries in 1834-36, copper mines in Cornwall, poor families in Bristol, agriculture in Bedford, the police in London, amputation mortality rates, the Welsh flannel trade, suicides in Westminster between 1812 and 1836, passenger numbers on the Brussels & Antwerp Railway, pulmonary consumption and diseases of the heart, endowed charities in Cornwall, the poor in Glasgow, agricultural labourers’ earnings in east Anglia, the coronation expenses of George IV and William IV, the population of New Zealand, collieries in Durham, education in New York State, agriculture in Northumberland, Prussian corn prices, the trade in foreign wheat, trade in France in 1837, turnpike roads, and the ‘moral statistics’ of several parts of Britain.

‘Moral statistics’ is an eye-catching phrase. Many social commentators identified links between poverty and moral dissolution: The poor – or a certain class of the poor – were often seen either to be poor as a result of moral laxity, or to be in particular danger of falling into it as a result of their poverty. (This is a well-rehearsed topic so I won’t dwell on the wider context, except to say that this was by no means a universally held opinion. And even among those who did see a link, there was little uniformity in conclusions about how to address the problem.)

The subjects of some of those journal papers reveal an intertwining of the concern for morality with a statistical approach to social investigation. In one article the Rev. Edgell Wyatt-Edgell, a rector in Kent, compared the moral statistics of three parishes in Westminster: St James, St George and St Anne Soho. He was a member of the society’s education committee, which had recently published a report on the schools in those parishes. Having investigated the children, he had been led to consider the ‘state of the parents of those children, and the general religious and moral condition of the poor population of the district’.

First, religion. Wyatt-Edgell tabulates the names and capacities of the places of worship in the area, split by denomination: Church of England, Scotch [sic] Church, French Protestant, Wesleyan, Bible Christian, Independent, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Jewish. There were 10,930 seats in all. He adds a table showing the locations of other prayer meetings and those of temperance societies (seven each). Then he suggests that ‘a better insight into the religious feelings of the poor than can be obtained from either of the above enquiries, would result from an investigation into the number of children who are brought up by their parents with the habit of saying their prayers’. 

Of 138 children interrogated, 21 demonstrated a fluency which ‘must have been learnt from their parents at home’. 60 repeated prayers they had probably learnt at school, ‘shewing that the practice had originated with the child and not with the parents’. 36 children said they said their prayers but their ‘manner and hesitation’ indicated they did not. The remaining 21 said they did not say prayers, or did not understand the question. Wyatt-Edgell makes no comment; readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

We might, by today’s standards, consider his premise unsound, the methodology doubtful and his inferences suspect. But contemporary investigators tended to put themselves into their inquiries in a way that we could describe as journalistic. Wyatt-Edgell wants to know how many children could say their prayers, so he asks them then reports the result.

Then he turns his attention to the reading habits of the poorer classes. Men’s reading, he suggests, is confined to newspapers, and women and young people have ‘little opportunity’ of obtaining books ‘except through the medium of the cheapest circulating libraries’. Domestic servants ‘very seldom’ use the libraries belonging to their masters and mistresses ‘from supposing them to contain none but “good” books, or from having too much other employment’. There were 38 small circulating libraries in the district, and Wyatt-Edgell inspected their catalogues and shelves. He made a detailed analysis of 10 of these libraries:

Number                                          Percentage                                       Proportion

Novels by Walter Scott, and Novels in imitation of him; Galt, &c. 
                                                             166                                                  7.57

Novels by Theodore Hook, Lytton Bulwer [sic], &c. 
                                                              41                                                   1.87

Novels by Captain Marryat, Cooper, Washington Irving, &c. 
                                                            115                                                   5.24

Voyages, Travels, History and Biography 
                                                            136                                                   6.21

Novels by Miss Edgeworth, and Moral and Religious Novels 
                                                            49                                                     2.27

Works of a good character, Dr. Johnson, Goldsmith, &c. 
                                                            27                                                     1.23

Romances, Castle of Otranto, &c. 
                                                            76                                                      3.46

Fashionable Novels, well known 
                                                           439                                                     20.0

Novels of the lowest character, being chiefly imitations of Fashionable Novels, containing no good, although probably nothing decidedly bad  
                                                         1008                                                     46..0

Miscellaneous Old Books, Newgate Calendar, &c. 
                                                            86                                                       3.92

Lord Byron’s Works, Smollett’s do. [ditto], Fielding’s do., Gil Blas, &c.
                                                           39                                                        1.78

Books decidedly bad
                                                           10                                                        0.45

Total                                    2192                                                     100.0

Wyatt-Edgell makes no comment on the tabulated data. The reader, presumably, already knows whether Washington Irving, Henry Fielding and Theodore Hook will tend to corrupt. But he adds:
In one instance only, and this is worthy of remark as reflecting great credit on the parties who keep and use these small circulating libraries, were any books of an immoral character found; and in the case of this exception, the books were kept on a separate shelf and not intended for general circulation, but, as the person who kept the shop stated, “for the use of the waiters of a neighbouring hotel, who were sent out for them by the gentry attending the coffee-room.”
Contemporary data sets are great – when the data are reliable. The thought that Wyatt-Edgell collected the details of books in circulating library catalogues and then aggregated them by moral character is a bit painful. Anyone interested in reconstructing the data would have to look for similar catalogues at the British Library.

The library catalogue table is followed by another listing the numbers of periodicals found in coffee houses, public houses and eating houses in the area. The newspapers most frequently found in coffee houses appear to have been the Sun (43 instances), the Times (40) and the Weekly Dispatch (37). In public houses, however, the Morning Advertiser was the most widely found (248 instances) followed by the Weekly Dispatch (189). It’s an interesting table, but it presents some difficulties. What was the methodology? Were they periodicals supplied by the establishments or brought in by the patrons? How many establishments were visited? Wyatt-Edgell doesn’t comment on the moral nature of the publications. But he does mention that the data on public houses was obtained ‘with great difficulty from the publicans; nor would it probably have been obtained so correctly, but through the perseverance of a very zealous agent’. If I could get a research grant for investigating reading material in London pubs, I’d be very zealous too.

The final section of Wyatt-Edgell’s report concerns criminality, tabulating literacy levels among those arrested for various types of crime. In the area in question, 31.5 per cent of those arrested could neither read nor write and 48 per cent could only read or could read and write imperfectly. 18 per cent could read and write ‘well’ and 2.5 per cent ‘had received a superior education’. The last two categories were over-represented in the area compared to the rest of the Metropolitan district, where those figures were 9.4 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively. Wyatt-Edgell explains: 
This difference… occurs almost wholly among the cases of common assaults, wilful damage, disorderly characters, and drunkenness, to which offences educated persons are most addicted, who, from their superior circumstances in life, are generally removed from the temptations to commit more serious offences.
Is it fair to criticise Edgell Wyatt-Edgell and what we might now see as his scientifically dodgy methods and prejudices? We can’t hold him to the standards of a discipline which is not the same today as it was in 1838. But we can use the same criticisms as contemporaries might have employed: What is the use of knowing how many seats there were in churches, without any context or analysis? Why simply list the names of newspapers and journals found in pubs and coffee houses? Are fashionable novels a good or bad thing? We can see why Dickens was scornful of the tabulations read at statistical societies.

But I don’t think we should be too harsh. His work reflects his interests and his methods were no different to those of his peers. In fact, inquiries of that kind continued for decades. Some ten years later an investigation into the poorer classes of the London parish of St George in the East was published in the same journal. The authors had far greater resources than Wyatt-Edgell, having been given at least £35 towards their work, and their report was accordingly more wide-ranging. It was also not specifically interested in ‘moral’ statistics. The authors list the occupations of heads of families, the heights of rooms, the weekly rents, the wages, the numbers of families per dwelling and the sanitary arrangements. But they also provide tables showing which newspapers were read by the families they visited, the pictures on their walls and the numbers and types of books they owned.
People in Mudie's Lending Library - But are they borrowing the 'right' books?
Only 58 books were found to be theatrical, while 5,791 are classed as serious… It is more than one-fourth of the houses which are without “serious” books, under which name are generally included the Holy Scriptures and books of prayer; and to what extent these are really used it must be impossible to ascertain statistically, but it would be very important to determine whether or not they appeared to be most used in the houses where they were accompanied by an equal or perhaps greater proportion of miscellaneous books.
The classification of books, say the authors, is that adopted by similar previous inquiries. This tells us that Wyatt-Edgell was by no means the only person to make moral judgments based on reading material. And who doesn’t try to get insights into the personalities of people whose houses we enter by glancing at their bookshelves?

Here’s Dickens and the Mudfog Association again – and bear in mind this was published a year before Wyatt-Edgell’s article and eleven years before the St George report:

MR. SLUG stated to the section the result of some calculations he had made with great difficulty and labour, regarding the state of infant education among the middle classes of London. He found that, within a circle of three miles from the Elephant and Castle, the following were the names and numbers of children's books principally in circulation:-
            Jack the Giant-killer……………..........7,943
Ditto and Bean-stalk……………….....8,621
Ditto and Eleven Brothers….................2,845
Ditto and Jill……………………….....1,998
Total        21,407

… The ignorance that prevailed, was lamentable. One child, on being asked whether he would rather be Saint George of England or a respectable tallow-chandler, instantly replied, “Taint George of Ingling.” Another, a little boy of eight years old, was found to be firmly impressed with a belief in the existence of dragons, and openly stated that it was his intention when he grew up, to rush forth sword in hand for the deliverance of captive princesses, and the promiscuous slaughter of giants… A Member strongly deprecating the use of all the other books mentioned, suggested that Jack and Jill might perhaps be exempted from the general censure, inasmuch as the hero and heroine, in the very outset of the tale, were depicted as going UP a hill to fetch a pail of water, which was a laborious and useful occupation,– supposing the family linen was being washed, for instance.

MR. SLUG feared that the moral effect of this passage was more than counterbalanced by another in a subsequent part of the poem, in which very gross allusion was made to the mode in which the heroine was personally chastised by her mother
“For laughing at Jack's disaster;”
besides, the whole work had this one great fault, IT WAS NOT TRUE.

For all the problems with statistics and statisticians, an evidence-based approach to social conditions did have its uses, even if the immediate conclusions of people like Edgell Wyatt-Edgell were censorious. Statistics were not only used by the government to classify and control the poor: High death rates from poor sanitation could cost civic officials their jobs. And statistics were a medium through which the poor became visible in a new way to those higher on the social scale.

Thanks to the Amateur Casual for lending the space. A guest post can be a risky proposition, especially when the blog is popular and highly regarded. All faults with this post are mine, not his.

Thanks for taking the time to write a super article, Doug, and kicking off the guest blogging!


  1. Thank you, Douglas! I didn't know that statistics has such a funny past.

  2. Statistics are often seen as dull, but when presented like this are extremely entertaining, a great post.

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