Tag Archives: industrialisation

Rackham’s History of the countryside

I’ve been wanting to read Oliver Rackham‘s History of the Countryside since my smallholding adventures. Now comes springtime, my upcoming birthday, finally a day to breathe after possibly the most punishing period of my working life…

I miss my blog so much.

Reading Rackham I am filled with such a glorious and enormous weight of knowledge, centuries of human activity intertwined with these myriad ecologies of soil, water, rock, flora, fauna. The ability (still untested of course) to better read a thousand years or more in the landscape. This is mostly just a collection of delightful facts which are rather better interwoven in the book. But this is much shorter.

First, this delightful thought.

Insights may also come at random from travels made, or documents read, for some quite different purpose. I went to Texas to discuss Cretan archaeology, and what I saw made me revise my views on hedges.

Another — the argument for history’s continuity over brutal violent change, the roller coaster of civilization and darkness we were once taught:

Many recent excavations reveal a gradual changeover with little apparent effect on the landscape; sometimes, as at Rivenhall (Essex), it is not easy to tell at what point the Roman Britons turned into Anglo-Saxons. The ecological evidence strongly favours continuity. When the curtain is raised by Anglo-Saxon documents, much of what we now regard as the ‘classic’ English landscape was already there, had already acquired its regional differences, and as far as we can tell was not new. It increasingly seems likely that, at least since the Iron Age, every inch of the British Isles has either belonged to somebody or has been expressly set aside for communal use. Not just main roads but wide areas of fields and lanes are Roman (or earlier) antiquities, and survived the Dark Ages almost intact. (xiv)

He divides the lowland English & Welsh landscape into Ancient Countryside and Planned Countryside, with various uplands (where I live now) — I find this transforms how I see countryside and England itself. So it’s not just a string of delightful facts after all.

Modern Differences

Ancient Countryside

Hamlets & small towns

Ancient isolated farms

Hedges mainly mixed, not straight

Roads many, not straight, often sunken

Many public footpaths

Woods many, often small

Pollard trees, if present, away from habitation


Many antiquities of all periods

Historic Differences

Open field either absent or of modest extent and abolished before c 1700

Most hedges ancient

Many though often small woods

Much heathland

Non-woodland trees oak, ash, alder, birch

Many ponds

Planned Countryside

Villages

18th & 19th C isolated farms

Hedges mainly hawthorne, straight

Roads few, straight, on surface


Few footpaths

Woods absent or few & large

Pollard trees (except riverside willows) absent or only in villages

Antiquities few, usually prehistoric


Strong tradition of open-field beginning early and last into Enclosure Act period

Most hedges modern

Woods absent or few & large

Heaths rare; little bracken or broom

Non-woodland thorns and elders

Few ponds

I quite love these, simple, quite obvious ways of reading the landscape and of course they explain so much. The ridge and furrow I loved — not as old as I thought, went tearing through ancient landscapes and over burrows and standing stones…maybe I don’t love them quite as much. I can’t decide.

He challenges accepted views of deforestation with two quotations, one from John Evelyn talking about the ways that the new voracious Glass and Iron-works have destroyed the woods and another from Defoe about the inexhaustible woods all around. He writes

Unfortunately many historians confine themselves to the written word or, worse still, to the literary world; they are reluctant to put on their boots and see what the land itself, and the things that grow on it, have to say. (6)

It turns out that most of the iron- and glass-works managed for hundreds of years on coppiced woods and that in truth, there was no great loss of woods at this time. The woods that were lost were lost primarily to agriculture. This is a constant theme, that it is all well and good to write histories of what people thought about the landscape, but ‘let us not confuse this with the history of what people did with the landscape, still less with the history of the landscape itself or of what the landscape did with people‘. (23)

He describes the Anglo-Saxon charters, the perambulations used to delineate the boundaries — they are amazing. He gives this example:

First up from the Thames along the merfleot [=boundary creek]; to the pollard stump; so to Bulung fen; from the fen along the old ditch to Cowford; from Cowford up along teobern [the river Tyburn] to the wide army-road; from the army-road to the old post-built St Andrew’s church; so into London fen; along the fen south to the Thames to mid-stream; along the upstream by land & shore back to the merfleot. (from the year 959)

The wide-army road is High Holborn, the fen around Fleet Street. These details give me such happiness, seeing old lines of water and earth beneath the city I know so well.

He talks of the rural maps of the 1860s and 70s, ‘which attempt to record every hedgerow tree and the details of every building…the zenith of rural mapmaking in Britain and perhaps in the world‘ (19). Notes the various traditions of preserving the boundaries, like Great Gransden where they dug a hole in a certain spot and held the Vicar’s head in it. There is so much to love about England.

There is also a real sense of how much has been lost by the rise of mass agriculture of the 1950s and 60s — he writes of four kinds of loss.

There is the loss of beauty, especially that exquisite beauty of the small and complex and unexpected, of frog-orchids or sundews or dragonflies. The loss of freedom [of highways, movement across the landscape]…The loss of historic vegetation and wildlife…the loss of meaning. The landscape is a record of our roots and the growth of civilization. Each individual historic wood, heath, etc. is uniquely different from every other, and each has something to tell us. (26)

All due to big agriculture, ‘the makers of chemicals, fertilizers and machinery‘. I sometimes worry about the touches of nostalgia to be found here, but he’s not wrong about this. He’s also quite entertainingly curmudgeonly. Like his footnote complaint about the historical accuracy of producers of historical films: ‘they do not allow Charles I to fly in a plane, but they do let him ride among Corsican pine plantations or Frisian cattle!‘ (31)

There is a list of extinct animals — the aurochs, sad they are gone, and wolves. Even sadder. But this is fascinating:

In Anglo-Saxon times, unpersons (!) and men on the run were declares wulvesheafod (wolves-head) and if caught ended on a wolves-head tree. (34)

Werewolves!

Then there is this partial list of what Henry III had for his Christmas dinner — him wot finished off the last of the wild swine in England (his demands for immense amounts of all kinds of things we no longer eat recur throughout the book, though at times contrasted with similar if not such extensive demands of lesser gentry)–200 wild swine from Dean and 100 from Pickering–he ordered the last remaining wild swine, found in the forest of Dean, killed for a friend (what a friend!) in 1260.

The polecat was also known as the foulmart. Amazing. Except that it is not actually a cat, though it is cute and endangered.

There is also the remarkable information about rabbits, but I might do a separate post about them. I had no idea rabbits were so interesting.

Another fabulous footnote (though you know I disagree utterly):

The horse-chesnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is quite unrelated (and poisonous) introduced in the sixteenth-century from Albania. It is still unmistakenly exotic and has not become wild. It is a sad example of a once glamorous species, associated with oriental romance and spectacle, being deprived of its meaning through being made the universal tree of bus-stations. (54)

God I know so much about woodland now. Also forests, which often had no trees at all, only deer. I know about coppicing, pollarding and all things brilliant about managing woods as a renewable resource. This chart, ah this chart:

The first evidence (he says in the world but I am not holding my breath) for woodsmanship — those amazing early Neolithic causeways across the Somerset levels, oak structures with underwood poles of ash, lime, elm, oak and alder. The causeways…my heart beats faster, wooden walkways across the fens now buried but how I wish I could have seen them.

Some lovely stuff about the local vernacular of building, the differing fashions not always dependent on local materials — thus Cambridge built primarily in wood (apart from the colleges) despite the presence of easily worked stone. He writes

‘The only generality is that, where a region has not much timber building, it will be urban…Timber was an architectural medium: a ‘wealth of exposed beams’ looked picturesque and expressed prestige; it was not necessary to hold up the structure’. (86)

And was of course plastered over again as fashion changed. He continues:

Most medieval buildings are made from large numbers of small oaks; ever timber, large or small, is made from the smallest tree that will serve the purpose. The carpenter chose trees of the sizes required and squared them up, usually leaving the corners rounded (‘waney’). Oaks, then as now, were crooked and carpenters made ingenious use of the irregular shapes into which they grow. This was from choice: carpenters could saw big oaks lengthwise into several beams when they had to….(86)

Again we return to errors of economic historians, who describe woods destroyed for fuel, particularly for the iron industry between 1550 and 1700. But it didn’t happen, they never touched timber trees only underwood, and drew this from their own woods managed over long periods of time. He even describes the ways that merchant ships were built of timber, but HM Navy preferred to scrounge from the wood-pastures. He writes ‘H.M.S. Victory, built 1759-65, is ingeniously put together from great numbers of the smallest, and therefore cheapest, practicable oaks (91).

The myth evolves from the big shift in rural society and economics — when wood became understood as primarily timber and not as energy. This shift, partly due to the rise of cheap coal, is is when the sustainable management and harvesting of woodlands shifted to purely timber production. And oh the damage that that has caused.

I hadn’t realised that most older woods will have earthworks along their boundaries, built to keep animals out and protect tender young shoots and leaves. These remain, though sometimes they have been overtaken by secondary wood expanding outwards and across the boundary. Things to look for I never knew to look for. And a splendid note: ‘(no Forest was complete without a resident hermit).’ (147)

We come to older ways of parceling out and working the land. Reaves…I had never heard of reaves, yet my love of Dartmoor is great.

Reaves tell a story of country planning on a gigantic scale: of an organization able to parcel out tens of square miles as it pleased, and which set its rules of geometry above the practicalities of dealing with gorges and bogs…(156)

They seem to have been in full use from the Bronze Age — and similar systems have been found elsewhere, including Nottinghamshire and Berkshire. Splendid.

This chart that shows how lynchets are created, some of them from the neolithic:

So after all the open fields, and the effect they had on the landscape aren’t quite as exciting as I once thought. Still, they do reflect a degree of collectivization of land and organisation of labour, which makes them really interesting. Rackham describes 7 cardinal features:

  • Divided into a multitude of strips, with each farmer’s strips distributed regularly or randomly throughout the field
  • These strips aggregated into furlongs and those into fields. All farmers grew the same crop in each furlong, each 3rd field left fallow
  • Animals of all farmers released to graze the stubble and the fallow field
  • farmers shared in labour of cultivating each others strips
  • Hedges few, and no enclosed circuits
  • Strips ploughed to form ridge-and-furrow
  • Regular meetings held to decide cultivation practices, fine dissidents

There is so much there to love.

Along with this diagram of how ridge and furrow are made:

Interestingly enough there’s no clear date for when it started. Some believed the Anglo-Saxons brought it with them, but there is apparently no evidence in Germany that it was in existence there earlier than in England. Some date it to after the Norman conquest. The largest concentration of them is at Uffington Scarp, and Rackham argues that attention to the Anglo-Saxon charters shows convincing evidence that the open-field systems existed at the time — and therefore this distinction between planned and ancient countryside already existed — through their descriptions though there is no specific reference to open-fields. He also notes that similar systems can be found in Scandinavian, Welsh and Gaelic cultures in the UK and French, Germanic, Slavonic and Greek cultures in Europe.

He writes ‘Open-field, with its rapid spread, has all the marks of a Dark Age invention.’ (178) I don’t know why, but wondering just how that happened gives me chills.

We go on to hedges. I love them. There is some evidence of the Roman management of hedges of hawthorne and occasionally they were given names in the Anglo-Saxon records (ealden hegestowe – old hedge-place). Lovely.

Not so lovely, the great enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries required so many plants it became a big business and initiated the founding of several nurseries. They mostly used hawthorne and only hawthorne for speed and cheapness, unlike earlier hedges planted with various trees and shrubs.

I love, of course, the knowledge that hedges can be dated fairly well by identifying the number of species of plant present there — from among a certain list of plants. Some have been identified as 1000 years old, with up to ten of these present. He gives a number of exceptions as well, so you always want your hedge to match clues from the surrounding countryside.

A wonderful chapter about individual trees, in farmyards, villages, woods. Trees with names. The splendid black poplar which I shall seek out. The long life of stag headed trees.

Another chapter on Elms — there are more elms than we have name for as they primarily reproduce through suckers but occasionally something new altogether is produced through seed. He writes:

Without the restraining influence of sex on evolutionary change, elms (like dandelions and brambles) have produced a multitude of different forms. The taxonomist, devising Latin names, cannot keep up with this process). (232)

I quite love that.

Highways — and not modern car-filled horrible highways, but the ways that people cross the land. He contrasts England with Greece and writes

The much more stable road system of Britain is partly the consequence of our climate and multitude of rivers, which require paths and roads to be structures and not mere routes; it also reflects English and Welsh, rather than Scottish or continental, attitudes to rights of way. The idea that ownership of land includes rights to keep the public off it and to be rude to well-behaved trespassers is partly due to the general increase in landowners rights in the last 200 years; but traces of this idea can be found in documents from earlier periods and in the landscape itself. (248)

Again, a fascinating mention of the wooden trackways across the Somerset levels, but not enough. A bit about Roman roads — like they weren’t all completely straight, just the ones the army was building. Though they are mostly straight, to be fair. I love the idea of traveling old roads.

A little about purprestures — or people building into roads. A little about the trenches of Roman roads and the trenches and open spaces built along medieval roads to stop the predations of highwaymen. All of these histories can be seen now in varying forms — primarily the alignment of current roads, fields and parish boundaries. The formation of heath, with its stripes and polygons, and of moors and grasslands.

The fact that moles were once called moldywarpes.

There is more documentation of villagers coming together to undertake the work of irrigating meadows — not as at home to water them primarily, but to carry fertilizer in the form of calcium leached from the springs. Curious. A whole section on ponds, dells and pits. I was losing steam a bit at this point, but when I next encounter such a thing I shall remember. Or know where to look. Like marshes, fens and the sea.

There is so much more of course, a splendid book.

Mills, mills the very first mills

76aPublications_Books_DVMComsI’ve said before, it is so hard to believe that a significant part of what we call now the industrial revolution started in these beautiful valleys and hills — and for that reason the Derwent Valley is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A copy of the book that was published based on the application to UNESCO was sitting on our shelf in the cottage — not the most gripping of styles but the content was quite fascinating none the less. Especially as one of these opening quotes is undoubtedly true:

The Arkwright system substituted capital for labour, machines for skill, factory for home, and mill discipline for family work routines. (15)
— David Jeremy, 1981.

This is where so much that now shapes modernity started, as strange as it seems in such beautiful surroundings. Cromford Mill was the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill, built between 1771 and 1790 by Richard Arkwright.

It was expanding on the technologies to be found down the road in Derby. In 1721 the opening of Lombe’s Silk Mill:

brought to England technology developed in Italy which enabled silk to be thrown on machines driven by water power. This important step towards full scale factory production did not on its own trigger rapid or widespread economic investment in mechanised production, but its influence on the later developments in the cotton industry which took place a few miles to the north, at Cromford, is now widely recognised. (15)

We spent more time in the country and at Arkwright’s showcase Masson Mill so didn’t explore too much this larger central complex, but it is impressive:

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It was always more than buildings or machinery however, but also a whole new organisation of work, method of management, and also control over labour. Cromford became essentially a company town, with mill workers living in the housing that Arkwright built, shopping in his stores, and we heard, spending company scrip.

Cromford was relatively remote and sparsely populated, and Arkwright could only obtain the young people he required for his labour force if he provided homes for their parents. In Cromford, there emerged a new kind of industrial community which was copied and developed in the other Derwent Vallet settlements (15)

This system in its entirety was soon copied, and several other mills used ‘pauper labour’, building dormitories for large numbers of children. It is curious being outside this complex as it is so obviously built for security, with thick high walls, gates and no windows at ground level — so these copies emerged through industrial espionage or after the patents on the system had expired by 1785.

Arkwright’s associates Jedediah Strutt, Thomas Evans, and Peter Nightingale all became themselves mill owners — by 1788 there were over 200 Arkwright type mills established in Great Britain. For the first time I heard of ‘Traitor Slater’ or Samuel Slater, who apprenticed with Strutts in Milford and took technologies with him to US to found a new cotton weaving industry there along these lines. Johann Gottfried Brugelman pursuded a number of workers to move to Ratingen and installed the system in Germany.

Capital and technology crossing borders, expanding across the world. Somehow it is so poignant to see it here move so quickly, become so complete. This story embodies Marx’s theories about technology and competition, as Arkwright’s system composed of machinery and power transmission, the buildings, the production systems and labour management were all taken on in their entirety and then efforts made to improve on them.

New Lanark’s initial buildings developed with exactly this system, and Owens did not start working to change it along more philanthropic lines until 1799 — I’ve only just realised we went there while I had stopped blogging for a while, but it is an amazing place.

As the mill system outgrew the Derwent Valley, with its steep hills and limited room for expansion both in terms of space and labour, mill owners looked to move their operations. Cotton’s new centre moved to Manchester, leaving these mills preserved (sometimes falling down).

The money that was made here was evidenced by Arkwright’s private residence — Willersley Castle c 1790 — we only caught a glimpse of it through trees and had a laugh at its sign: Afternoon tea available all day!

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Also St Mary’s Church, built 1797, his private — and very large — chapel:

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He (in partnership with others) built the Cromford Canal in the early 1790s. Originally intended as a through route between the mills and Manchester, it was soon replaced by the Cromford and High Peak Railway built between 1824 and 1830s.

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I so love canals, I am glad they have brought back this one, and are looking to connect it once again to the canal network.

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This is Leawood pumphouse 1849,  which housed a steam pumping engine to increase supply of water to the canal:

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We also walked down (well, up and up and up some more first) to Lea Bridge and Smedley’s (formerly Nightingale’s) Mill. It was built in 1783 by Peter Nightingale — Arkwright’s financier and landlord in Cromford — and Benjamin Pearson, a formerly trusted employee. It was built in anticipation of the patents expiring, and must have been the source of no small amount of social tension and generated a lawsuit. In 1818 John Smedley took over. Smedley’s is still running and much expanded, newer building having surrounded the old mill which they say still remains at the core. They continue to be a major employer in the area.

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Florence Nightingale was one of these Nightingale’s, Peter being her great-uncle, and she spent quite a lot of time here, so there is a community hall named after her.

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More on the inside of the mills with the obscene amount of amazing photographs from Masson Mill, built by Arkwright as a showpiece and consolidating everything he had learned from the earlier buildings and operations. But later.

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The Early Desperation of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch

Perhaps no city in the world presents more desolate a spectacle than the parishes of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch, which together contain 70,000 people. A large part of the land here has retained its original name of gardens, where landlords and speculators have raised a multitude of wooden shacks. mostly of one storey, for housing poor families. The appearance of these gardens is indescribable: there are no streets or drains running between the miserable hovels surrounded by their rotting wooden fences; the ground has not even been Ievelled; in some places there are mounds of earth and piles of rubbish, in others there are hollows full of stagnant water; heaps of pig manure lie in front of the hovels; there is nothing but filth, stench and decay everywhere. The abominable quarters are abandoned without protection or surveillance. The city authorities do not reach this far: in fact they are nowhere in evidence. The hovels are crumbling and rotting away; there is no drainage, no lighting, no regular collection of rubbish – in short, not a sign of urban civilisation. It is the supreme example of laissez faire! This quarter is totally outside the law, outside humanity; none of the rules and regulations of civilised society apply here!

These are the words of Eugène Buret, a French journalist and economist, and the essay they are found in (later made into a short book) won a prize for best research paper from the Academy for Moral and Political Sciences in Paris. I myself found them as extensive quotation in Flora Tristan’s London Journals, but Marx also quoted from them in his 1844 Manuscripts, apparently without citation.

”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for "More Revelations of Bethnal Green" in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)
”A back garden in Nichol Street, Bethnal Green” illustration for “More Revelations of Bethnal Green” in The Builder, vol. XXI, no. 1082 (31 October 1863)

Thy embody for me a whole host of issues that the social writing of this period put forward most starkly — the level of horror to be found in the conditions in which people lived, the judgmental gaze of the reformer that placed these ‘hovels’ and people within them ‘outside humanity’, the challenge that I think this raises for people working along more Foucauldian lines that does not erase the evils of surveillance and inspection, but points to the fact their absence might be worse. How then do we ensure no one ever again is forced by poverty under capitalism to live like this?

To quote from ‘Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green’, in The Illustrated London News, 24th October 1863:

That public attention has at last been directed to the condition of the poorer neighbourhoods of Bethnal-green is attributable to the evidence of the medical officer who, at an inquest held on the body of a child, declared that death had been caused by “blood-poisoning,” through the impure state of the dwellings in a certain locality. That a wide and populous district has for years been subject to all the foulest influences which accompany a state of extreme filth and squalor may be due to the fact that private moneyed interests have had little to fear from parochial authority, even when they have not been represented by the same individuals…But “threatened men live long;” and even now the owners of the putrid sties in the purlieus of Friars-mount, in Thorold-square, in Twig-folly, and other centres of pestilence may well believe that neither board, nor commission, nor sanitary officer will trouble them if they can only let inquiry itself die, and so contrive to hush up the whole matter until the passing excitement is directed to some new object.

Eugène Buret’s words are so eloquent I have quoted as much as Tristan quotes (that things have not changed by 1863 you can see from reading the whole article in The Illustrated London News), and my heart breaks for those who suffered the ravages of the Industrial Revolution without the protection of industrial action and unions.

It is on record that many workers in the manufacturing towns of England do not attend church because they have no clothes.

On 31 May 1840 I visited the district of Bethnal Green in the company of the parish officers responsible for distributing relief
in this part of the city of London….

Among the wooden hovels scattered all over the “gardens”  we noticed one which stood out from the rest by reason of its even more wretched appearance. It might have been taken for a pile of rotting timber thrown upon a dunghill; the fence separating it from the other hovels consisted of broken planks interspersed with scraps of iron and metal all in an indescribable state off filth  and dilapidation. In one room on the ground floor – the only room in the house – with its floor a few inches lower than the pile of rubbish in the yard outside, lived a family of ten. This hovel which measures less than ten feet square by seven feet high has a rent of 1s. 6d a week. It is even more difficult to convey an idea of the state of the family than to describe their dwelling. The man, the head of the family, was shaking with fever; illness and hunger had reduced him to extreme emaciation, and nothing about him seemed alive except his gaze. transparent and animated by the heat of his fever; it was impossible to endure his anguished expression. This man, thirty-seven years of age, English by birth and a silk-dyer by trade, told us that he could earn up to 15s. a week when employed, but that he had been unable to find work for five months. The relief officer confirmed that he had always been of good character, and that neither laziness or vice had brought him to this state. His wife, crouching by the broken hearth, held an infant to her breast, and three more barefoot young children were outside. Their father confessed to us that the other children had gone out “In the hope of finding something, either by begging or otherwise”. For five months he had had no other means of existence than what the parish allowed him and what the children brought home. Despite the extreme destitution of this family, they refused to take refuge in the workhouse.

In another yard of this abominable quarter we found a family which seemed to us even more wretched than the first, if that is possible. They were living in one upstairs room. quite spacious and light. but approached by a dark and dirty staircase where every stair shook beneath our feet. This family consisted. of eight people, all present at the time of our visit. The head of the family was a weaver of velvet, still young and English by birth. He earned 7s. 6d per week, but he was not continuously employed. His lodging cost him 2s. 6d. per week, and for nearly two months he had been unable to pay his rent. The only article of furniture in the room was his loom; there were no chairs, no table, no bed. In one corner was a big heap of straw, half hidden by a scrap of cloth, and in it were buried three children, stark naked like animals, with not a single rag between them. The woman had her back turned to us and was vainly trying to fasten about her what remained of her clothing so that she would be fit to be seem. The man was wearing a blue coal with two or three shining engraved buttons still on it; he had no shirt. He received us with courtesy, and sadly yet calmly told us the full horror of his plight. When we entered he was holding a Bible, and when the parish officer asked him why he did not go to church, he pointed to his bare chest, to his wife standing motionless with shame in the comer, and his children hiding one behind another to avoid our gaze, and replied that soon he would not even be able to go out looking for work. This family was accounted honest and the officer had already distributed clothes to them several times, but lack of work had forced the father to trade these gifts of charity for bread. And this is not the only part of London privileged to suffer such wretchedness. Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell, St Giles and St Olaf would provide us at every step with scenes similar to those we have just described.
Eugène Buret – De la misère des clases laborieuses en Engleterre et en France (Paris, 1840)

As always there is the uncomfortable clarity of the reformer’s distinction between deserving and undeserving poor — where it seems to me the undeserving poor were simply those who did not allow themselves to die slowly and without murmur or fight. The limitations of parish relief and ‘charity’ are clear. Even at this extreme, families refused to resort to the Workhouse. Mary Higgs writing sixty years — and a number of reforms — later of the terrible conditions offers a good understanding of why in the very practical sense, giving explanations of how the workhouse might kill you even faster than starvation in the open air, without even taking into account pride or lack of space.

Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place. The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.
Room occupied by a military tailor and his family, at No. 10 Hollybush-Place.
The Illustrated London News, 24th October, 1863.

Reading such things I am always made so furious, it is so vital we never look back on these times as the good old days. Looking at Bethnal Green and especially Shoreditch now, I also wish there were some memory preserved of so much misery and death that formed part of the construction of these picturesque narrow alleys and quaint old corners and buildings. That this translated into a commitment to maintaining a large portion of these areas as quality social housing so that our society might reflect a vision of neighbourhoods and the conditions of the people living within them improved over time, rather than an improvement of infrastructure that forces people out.

There is a lot more written about Bethnal Green, especially the Old Nichol, of course, to be explored further.

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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

More on similar stories…

Ford, and confusion in right wing rhetoric

Even among the many books on economics and transnational corporations that I do not agree with, there are some among them that are at least rationally argued and relatively factual. But I rather enjoy when they are not, it allows me to stay awake through the boredom, mumbling angrily at the page and marking exclamation points and question marks in the margins. And their own contradictions and prejudices always come to the fore…a few choice quotes from my recent favourite:

Ford also expanded mechanical parts manufacturing in the United Kingdom (such activities are less sensitive to labor disruptions) and body and assembly in Germany, where the work force was more efficient.

Ah, racial…er…national profiling? Grand generalizations? You have to love them, especially when they’re tossed into the argument like olives of unknown provenance into a greek salad.

Increasingly, these disagreements within the US Big Three made it difficult for the US government to intervene effectively in their bargaining with the Mexican government.

Long live free trade! I wonder who was more vexed, the big three or the US government?

The UAW’s failure to negotiate better with the auto makers that had recently established in the United States also accounted for the disadvantage that the US Big Three face vis-a-vis their foreign rivals…

Is this the present or the past, who can tell? One thing I know is that it’s those damn unions again, always letting the home country’s corporations down…but I suppose if you can’t blame the workers for not kicking some Japanese ass, who can you blame for the American corporation’s failure?

The maquiladoras became the most visible symbols of the threats that low-wage countries could pose to jobs…

Again, if you can’t blame those greedy low-wage countries for the threats against jobs, who can you blame? Oh wait…

US government policies that fostered automotive production in maquiladora plants also altered the negotiating dynamic between the Mexican government and the US vehicle producers. The US auto makers learned about the low costs and the high quality of automotive production in Mexico, and the Mexican government learned about the benefits of rationalizing Mexican automotive production on a North American basis.

This is an extraordinary thing to say by any standard (unless you’re a patriotic elementary school teacher reading directly from a company brochure). It is especially extraordinary if you’re aware of the fact, as the author states earlier in the book, that Ford opened its first Mexican factory in 1925 and GM and Chrysler in 1935. And all of them had been operating there continuously for decades.

Sadly enough, the ongoing silliness of this right-wing hodgepodge of contradictory imperialist and free-trade theories  kept me entranced until the very end! So I have now read a book in its entirety that I can never use as a source in good conscience, though I shall certainly find some of the original sources useful. I could have just read the bibliography…I suppose I know who has had the last laugh.