Wanting and having

Popular politics and liberal consumerism in England, 1830–70

Author: Peter Gurney

Nineteenth-century England witnessed the birth of capitalist consumerism. This book argues that liberal consumerism managed to steer a course between historical alternatives and helped defuse the heat generated by their clash. It shows how liberal consumerism helped maintain stability in a society that was on the brink of collapse but also what was lost in that victory for both consumers and citizens. The early to mid-Victorian period witnessed a most significant confrontation that pitted competing visions of consumption against one another. It considers the ways in which not only Chartists but also their antagonists in the Anti-Corn Law League, the vanguard of economic liberalism, made sense of hunger and mobilised around consumption. The book discusses the major scandals that rocked the New Poor Law through the late 1830s and 1840s, such as the scandal of the Andover workhouse in 1845, when rumours of cannibalism were widely circulated. An important theme that has been marginalised in recent work on the Chartist movement is the appeal of democratic discourse. The book argues for an intimate connection between popular radicalism and forms of consumer organising in the first half of the nineteenth century. While the early writings of Charles Dickens that brought immediate fame prioritised hunger and scarcity, the writer also revelled in the excesses of middle-class consumerism. The book reconnects the culture and politics of the League and the wider project of free trade, and considers how middle-class charitable initiatives tackled starvation leading to the development of the modern humanitarian campaign.

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‘Consumption and democracy are central to Peter Gurney's compelling study. His claim is that historians of popular politics and historians of consumption have failed to engage deeply with each other, distorting our understanding of Chartism, the Anti-Corn Law League, and Gladstonian liberalism.'
Brian Lewis, McGill University
Journal of Modern History

‘Excellent new book…Gurney's work is the first to demonstrate that the construction of the consumer was also an important political device from the early nineteenth century…Thoroughly researched and well argued, this book should be on the reading list of everyone with an interest in the history of consumption as well as politics and the poor in Victorian Britain…A strongly argued and original book, well grounded in extensive primary research and a thorough grasp of secondary work in the field. Professional historians and students on the nineteenth-century alike should find it illuminating and engaging…Gurney's ideas have a wider relevance.'
Jane Hamlett, Royal Holloway, University of London
Journal of Social History, Volume 50, No 2
Winter 2016

‘The book will be essential reading for historians of Chartism, free trade and the poor law in particular.'
Henry Miller
The English Historical Review

‘The intellectual breadth, the historiographical ambition and the rigorous analytical framework of this volume will ensure that no scholar of the poor law, of Chartism, of the Anti-Corn Law League, or indeed of debates about the consumer and consumption in nineteenth-century Britain, will want to ignore its insights or avoid confronting the challenges it throws down to orthodox readings of nineteenth-century society.'
Chris Williams, Cardiff University
Social History
June 2016

‘This is an important book, which makes a significant contribution to the history of working-class consumerism and its relationship to nineteenth-century popular and democratic politics…Wanting and Having is well produced, refreshingly free of typographical slips, and entertainingly illustrated by some apposite contemporary caricatures, engravings and woodcuts, woven into the narrative.'
Chris Williams, Cardiff University
Social History
June 2016

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