TUNE in to BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday and you will find York – and the Blue Bell pub in Fossgate in particular – taking centre stage in a new modern history series.

In the first part of The Making Of Modern Britain, TV journalist and former BBC political editor Andrew Marr visits the city – and the pub – to find out about Seebohm Rowntree’s pioneering work on poverty.

It is no exaggeration to say that when Rowntree’s book, Poverty - A Study of Town Life, was published in 1901 it rocked Victorian society.

Based on a detailed study of York’s working classes, the book drew attention to the conditions of shocking poverty in which many people in late Victorian Britain were living. Seebohm coined the term “poverty line”. And his research revealed that more than 20,000 people in York – almost half the working class population – were living in poverty.

It was the detail that was so shocking.

Rowntree found two main reasons for poverty. In a quarter of cases, the chief wage-earner of the family was dead or unable to work due to age, disability or unemployment. However, in more than 50 per cent of cases, the breadwinner was in regular work: his wages were simply too low to meet his family’s needs. Unskilled Labourers earned roughly 90 to 100 pence a week in York in 1899, yet Rowntree estimated that at least 120 pence was needed to keep a family with three children out of poverty.

The belief that a man could provide for his family if he was thrifty and hard-working was shown to be false.

Some examples from the notes reveal the human tragedy beneath the statistics. They include:

• Labourer, Foundry. Married. Four rooms. Four children. Steady: work regular. Man has bad eyesight, and poor wage accordingly. Family live in the midst of smoke. Rent cheap on account of smoke. Rent 3s.

• Spinster. One room. Parish relief. Seems ill for want of proper support. House as clean as a sick woman can make it. Shares a water-tap with eleven other houses, and a closet (toilet) with three others. Rent 2s.

In a poignant passage in the book, Rowntree makes clear that the wages paid for unskilled labour were not enough for a moderate-sized family to survive on.

Even families who could manage to barely survive, he went on, “must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus.

“They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage… The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles, or sweets... Finally, the wage-earner must never be absent from work for a single day.”

Among those shocked by Rowntree’s findings was Winston Churchill. After reading the book, he commented: “For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers”.

The work of Seebohm Rowntree, and of his fellow pioneer, Charles Booth, who published a study of the London poor, led to the Liberal reforms of 1906-1912, and ultimately to the welfare state.

So it is entirely fitting that a series on how our modern nation was made should start with this great son of York.