Fashioning the wheel of change

Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain
July 4, 2003

In this detailed anatomy of the Social Science Association, Lawrence Goldman describes a crucial part of the social mechanisms by which the British military-fiscal state of the 18th and early 19th centuries reformed itself into the bureaucratic state of the late-19th century with which we are still familiar. The earlier state was controlled nationally by the aristocracy, and locally by the landed gentry and the church. The later state, if not quite meritocratic, was at the least enormously influenced by middle-class experts, and well on the way to universal suffrage and secular local government.

An understanding of the mechanisms by which this relatively peaceful transfer of power was accomplished during the Victorian period has long been needed, and it is clear that the SSA played a leading role. The SSA held annual congresses from 1857 until 1884 (although it was not formally wound up until 1886). It also maintained standing committees based on its specialist departments including law, education, public health, economy and penal reform. At the congresses and in the committees, politicians, reformers, experts, civil servants and so on met to discuss social reform. As Goldman shows, the SSA provided the government with the expertise it lacked. It thus played a major role in formulating and promoting reforming legislation relating, among other things, to the property rights of married women, medical reform, industrial relations (less successfully) and penal reform. This latter casts an interesting light on Victorian liberal attitudes to individual civil liberties in that the SSA supported the notion of imprisoning potential criminals before they committed a crime if they did not follow a prescribed regime.

Although the SSA sought to be politically neutral, especially by drawing on the rhetorical power of the word "science", and indeed did have a significant number of members drawn from the Tories and from the working class, such an organisation was inevitably closely related to the Whig and later Liberal parties. Those proponents of reform in the 1830s, Lord Brougham and Lord John Russell, were well to the fore in the SSA. But it also encompassed lawyers, physicians and, most significantly, women, who were active members. The SSA ensured that when secondary education was reformed, the education of girls was not neglected. As time went on, the liberal agenda meant the falling away of other groups. Thus working-class members joined the Trades Union Congress - established in imitation of the SSA.

One issue that Goldman does not discuss is the role of churches in the SSA and in particular the reform of local government, which was beginning towards the end of the SSA's existence. It is clear from passing comments that some churchmen were involved (including the usual suspects Charles Kingsley andF. D. Maurice). Since reform would diminish the power of the church, some discussion of its involvement/response to the work of the SSA would have been worthwhile and possibly illuminating as Britain became an ever-more secular state.

As Goldman discusses at the end of the book, the SSA is not widely known today and he provides a convincing account as to why this is so. However, during its nearly 30 years of existence the SSA helped bring about major change in British social policy and in converting the British state from its 18th-century form to one that is recognisably modern.

Frank A. J. L. James is reader in the history of science, Royal Institution.

Science, Reform and Politics in Victorian Britain: The Social Science Association 1857-1886

Author - Lawrence Goldman
ISBN - 0 521 33053 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 430

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