Tag Archives: British history

David Roberts PATERNALISM IN EARLY VICTORIAN ENGLAND

1979, 278 p

One of the frustrations that I’ve faced in trying to understand Judge Willis has been to try to understand his mindset. Why did Port Phillip society of the time find him so unacceptable and demand his dismissal? Was he too radical? Was he too conservative? Was he neither of these things? This book focusses on early Victorian England which, although a hemisphere away from Port Phillip, was the milieu that informed the thinking of colonial judges and civil servants and was the lens through which their patrons and superiors back in the metropole viewed their actions.

In this book, Roberts attempts the heroic in trying to define and illustrate the workings of an unnamed-at-the-time set of varying beliefs and attitudes which he, along with other 20th historians, identifies as ‘paternalism’. He argues that, bolstered by Romanticism and literature, paternalism reached its apogee in 1844. It’s a slippery concept, though, despite his attempts to pin it down through analysis, for example, of the backgrounds of the contributors to the major ‘paternal’ journals and quarterlies of the day, or by the speeches and voting patterns of ‘paternalist’ MPs in the 1840s. He divided these parliamentarians into 6 categories: the Romantics, The Peelites, The Churchmen; the Country Squires; The Whigs and the Anglo-Irish, but even he admits that there is no consistency between their espoused position in speeches, and their actions. Paternalism, it seems, is only one of several influences. In fact, his concept is so hemmed in by qualifications and disclaimers that you start to wonder if what he is describing exists at all.

But, despite his difficulties in defining it, he posits that after 1848 ‘it’ was no longer functional: rendered less relevant by the rise of urbanisation, a self-conscious middle and working class and the mid-century intellectual developments of science, rationalism, empiricism and belief in progress.

I’m not sure that this book has taken me much further in understanding Judge Willis. It’s interesting that his major patrons are categorized as either Peelites or Whig paternalists- but I’m not really sure yet what, if anything, that means.