A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.
I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.
So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press, bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.
The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.
Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).
I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:
There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).
The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:
the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)
The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:
TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.
At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.
They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).
The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).
The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).
The description of the study, and social experiment, is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:
A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).
As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:
It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).
And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):
the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).
There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:
Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).
And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:
The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).
There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:
At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).
It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:
The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).
I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:
strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).
That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.
I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:
Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).
The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).
I quite loved this:
If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).
I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:
if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).
There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):
She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)
It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:
Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).
It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.