Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

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