This article reconsiders the nature and novelty of social reform in Britain during the early Victorian period. Historians have long ceased to debate the period in terms of a ‘revolution in government’, or the beginnings of a welfare state. Instead, the current consensus presents a picture of only modest, fitful change. Neither the state, nor the overall ideological landscape, was radically transformed. This article seeks to reinject a sense of transformative change back into these decades. It does so by examining a neglected facet of this otherwise richly served period of social reform: the formation and functioning of a series of self-styled ‘model’ institutions that spanned the fields of education, prisons, housing, and sanitation. In particular, what the use of these model institutions brings into sharp focus are the radical changes that occurred in the geography of social reform, which at this point began to develop according to multiple spatial relations, extending at once within and beyond Britain. Between them, they helped to engineer a truly cosmopolitan culture of social policy-making, which was both multi-directional – policies flowed outwards and inwards – and composed of multiple relations, national, imperial, and transnational.
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