Tag Archives: Mary Higgs

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…

Women on the Tramp: Workhouses and Shelters

Mary Higgs and her unnamed friend(s) set out to find the truth about where a woman with little money could stay while travelling looking for work. Workhouses, shelters and lodging houses and none of them nice. They never spent more than a couple of days at a time on the tramp — it was all they could bear.

They tried to dress appropriately and carried with them only a few shillings, precluding the possibility of even a small escape. You can find her background and impossibly Victorian intellectual framing of the problem of ‘women tramps’ in part one of this three part series, but here we get into the good stuff. The only thing they brought with them that the other women would not have had was plasmon, which Higgs felt made a huge difference.

Plasmon advertisement, 1902

Plasmon? It sounds like nutritional nectar capable of saving them from starvation in this account. I had never heard of it but it was big dietary news at the time — a powder, a milk albumen or kind of protein, more commonly used in biscuits, and sworn to by a fairly astonishing array of famous people: Ernest Shackleton took these biscuits with him on his arctic expedition, George Bernard Shaw ate them, actress Ellen Terry, Mark Twain, and Victor Whitechurch’s fictional vegetarian detective Thorpe Hazell.

Immediately they realised the difference between traveling as a protected middle-class woman and as a poor one, and this is one of the most revealing passages of the whole book I think:

We passed some men who were working in a barge; they shouted to us, and invited us to come to them. We walked away and took no notice, but repeatedly on our journey we were spoken to, and I could not help contrasting the way in which men looked at us with the usual bearing of a man towards a well-dressed female. I had never realised before that a lady’s dress, or even that of a respectable working-woman, was a protection. The bold, free look of a man at a destitute woman must be felt to be realised. Being together, we were a guard to one another, so we took no notice but walked on. I should not care to be a solitary woman tramping the roads. A destitute woman once told me that if you tramped, “you had to take up with a fellow.” I can well believe it.

And so we come to the first lodging-house, and it is fascinating:

So we found ourselves, between six and seven o’clock, at the door of the house, which was not bad-looking outside–an old-fashioned, roomy-looking, stone house, which might once have been a farmhouse and seen better days…

Yet it was not the place itself, but its inhabitants, that are quite unforgettable. We sat down on the wooden bench behind a table, and immediately facing us was a huge negro with a wicked face. By his side a quiet-looking woman, who had a little girl and boy, was sitting crocheting. An old woman, active and weather-beaten, was getting supper ready for her husband, a blind beggar, who shortly afterwards came in led by a black dog. A woman tramp was getting supper ready for the negro; she wore a wedding ring, but I question if she was his wife. Several young children, almost babies, were running about, or playing with the perambulator. A young man on the seat near us was tossing about a fat baby born “on the road,” whose healthiness we duly admired. It was not his own, but belonged to a worried-looking woman, who also had a troublesome boy. The next room was full of people, whom we could hear but not see distinctly. The little boy of two caused much conversation, as he was always doing something he should not, and caused disgust by his uncleanliness, freely commented on. His mother made raids on him at intervals, but neither cleanliness nor discipline was possible in such surroundings. The most striking character, next to the negro, was a girl, apparently about twenty. She wore a wedding ring, and belonged to some man in the company, but from the character of her conversation I doubt if she was married. The negro told some story, and she capped it with another; evidently she was noted for her conversation, as she was laughingly offered a pint to keep her tongue still! Her face would have been handsome, but for a crooked nose and evident dissipation. All the stories were more or less foul, and all the conversation, on every side, was filthy or profane. The negro told how he had outwitted a harlot who tried to rob him. The whole story of his visit to her house was related in the most shameless way, with circumstantial details, no one appearing to think anything of it. … The girl told, sitting on the table near the negro, how she had got her nose broken by an admirer and made him pay for it. A conversation sprang up about the treatment of wives, and it was stated that a woman loved a man best if he ill-treated her. This theory was illustrated by examples well known to the company.

It’s exactly like staring at the past through a window, and though you could wish for a slightly less prudish narrator, this is still racy stuff for the times and cracks my image of widespread repression. I’m only saddened by the confusion of abuse and jealousy with love.

The landlady told us not to mind the man who slept in the next bed, for he was blind! He slept there, and so did his dog. The other occupants of the room, who came to bed later, we could not see, but we could hear them plainly. From the conversation we think the nigger and his mistress slept just outside, and next to them (no partition) a married couple with a baby and a child. A third couple would be round the corner. The room barely held the beds and partition, with room to stand by the side; there was no ventilation but a chimney close to our bed. We could hear someone continually scratching himself, and the baby sucking frequently, and other sounds which shall be nameless.

I had to laugh at that last sentence… though I know I would never have been able to sleep in such a place. And despite the casual racism of the epithet, this is a scene unimaginable anywhere in the US at the time, there is not a sign of other boarders’ discomfort much less  of a white mob or a lynching.

By degrees, however, the noises subsided, and my companion and I fell into an uneasy slumber. I woke in an hour or two, in dim daylight, to feel crawlers. The rest of the night was spent in hunting. I had quite a collection by the time my companion woke. They were on the bed and on the partition. I watched them making for our clothes; but there was no escape till morning was fully come. Besides, my companion was resting through it all; so I slew each one as it appeared.

The morning light also showed just how filthy the place was.

Curious that here and at the workhouse where they stayed the next night, the main topic of conversation was the ‘Moat Farm Murder‘. Even more curious now that I have looked it up: Miss Holland, ‘a maiden lady of means’ and a lodger of boarding houses (though clearly of a different kind than those described here) was married by Dougal, ‘an expert in the art of sordid amours’ and within weeks murdered on the farm they bought in Essex. Whereas money clearly offered some level of protection for single women moving through a far superior set of temporary lodgings, they remained vulnerable.

This vulnerability is emphasized the following night at one of the infamous workhouses — again you feel perhaps she is being prudish, but on reflection the power relations and the powerlessness of poor women on their own must have made rape a common occurrence in these places, and this is clearly on Higgs’ mind as part of her investigations:

and then he took my age, and finding I was a married woman (I must use his exact words), he said, “Just the right age for a bit of funning; come down to me later in the evening.” I was too horror-struck to reply; besides, I was in his power, with no one within call but my friend, and all the conditions unknown and strange.

The conditions here were terrible, the food inedible, the work hard and thankless and such to ruin your clothes. She later writes:

the Tramp Ward is itself a factor in national degradation, the mockery of a provision for need; meaning often semi-starvation, weary toil and unrest. A man or woman must emerge from it more unfit for toil, and learn to avoid such a place if possible in future.

The way it stayed with her — and the lessons she learned about human dignity — are clear in her fears upon approaching the Salvation Army:

Would it be possible to escape personal interrogation? The “bullying” in the Workhouse was fresh in my mind, and in contrast with this the perfect freedom of the common lodging-house has its attractions. You may come and go, and “mind your own business.” No one has any right to interfere with you as long as you “pay your way.” I did not, of course, expect anything but kindness, but I thought I might be interrogated “personally,” questioned as to my antecedents, and possibly about my soul… In thus thinking I was probably sharing the feelings of my poor sisters (your feelings undergo a curious assimilation to those of the class you represent). Many a woman may be deterred from entering a suitable Home by fear of cross-questioning. Poor thing! The only thing that belongs to her is her past.

I actually find this strange sense of class solidarity through representation endearing (and worthy of more thought around representation itself), though I am not quite sure why. She finds the Salvation Army quarters the best of all of them, but to compare the following sentence with all of the theoretical rubbish that frames her actual experience is so telling:

But the immediate and crying need is for the abolition of an old, inhumane and insufficient provision for suppression of vagrancy, in favour of adequate provision for the modern fluidity of labour, coupled with honourable relief of destitution, neither degrading nor charitable.

I liked this also:

When shall we apply common sense to the daily matters of town life? Not till we recognise that a community is a unit, composed of many parts, but when one suffers, all suffer.

Now we come to London — even then it was more expensive and just as terrible as the conditions Higgs found up north, and this also gives a rough sense of women’s labour and how they were forced to live:

I have been deterred from specimening women’s lodgings in London by this difficulty–that one could not be sure of emerging in a fit condition to be received into the house of respectable friends.

I found that to secure a bed I must go into the men’s lodging-house and pay my money–6d.–to a man who was playing cards with several others. No rude language was used, the men eyed me, that was all. I paid and passed in next door. Upstairs was a small room in which a number of women, all with their hats on save one–the “deputy”–were sitting. Some passed in and out, but being a stranger I was not welcome, and was told to “go forward.” This was downstairs; and I found myself, after some turns I cannot remember, in a long low cellar room, with concrete floor, very dirty looking. A window at one end was half underground. A fireplace on the right had bars and hobs, but no oven or range or proper kitchen convenience. This was, however, the living and cooking room. Plenty of garments were hanging up to dry on strings. Under the tables were heaps of dirt and débris. A number of women were present sitting on forms, who seemed to be hawkers, or women gaining some scanty livelihood. The general conditions were much the same as in northern lodging-houses, where 4d. is charged for a bed, only the cooking facilities were poorer and the price was higher. I learned that in London a bed was not easily got under 6d. “It took a good bit of getting,” one woman said. The sanitary state was no better than in the north, and I was thankful I had not to stay the night.

One of Higgs’ big reform ideas was the labor colony where people would go, live, work for weeks at a time. I quite love that she actually asked people what they thought, and reported their answers faithfully:

I mentioned the Labour Colony, but though I sang its praises, it did not seem to be very acceptable, though tolerable if a step to better things.

There is such a wealth of detail to be mined here on food, clothing, customs… but my next and final post will look more at the question of labour, beginning with a lodging house for prostitutes and Mary Higgs’ ruminations thereon.

Part 1 | Part 3


Mary Higgs: Glimpses Into the Abyss

Higgs1This is the first of three posts on Mary Higgs (1854-1937), a social reformer who beyond running a shelter in Oldham actually went on the tramp in the North of England (and tested the waters in London) to better understand the conditions suffered by the poor — and particularly women — moving from town to town. Her experiences were published in a series of articles, pamphlets and a book Glimpses Into the Abyss (1906).

This was an extraordinary thing for her to do.

She is a curious mix, Mary Higgs, a woman who actually did seem able to see the conditions of the poor with a great deal of empathy, and even to listen to them. She suffered to do so — to voluntarily submit oneself to the workhouse seems mad to me even now. She cannot quite escape her middle class judgments of how people manage their poverty or Christian judgments of how they manage their morality, but her actual descriptions are for the most part fairly kind. The amount of detail provides a brilliant window into the lives of women who have otherwise been lost to us.

They stand, then, in even greater contrast to the theoretical bombast she surrounds her narrative in. I know it was the common currency of reform of the time and I have seen it raise its ugly head before, but never quite so clearly laid out as this.

First though, from the introduction, more on her background (and poverty as social disease):

Securing a lodging where a destitute woman could be accommodated, and providing cleansing and dress, she has steadily taken in through a period of six years every case of complete destitution that came to her, willing to undergo remedial treatment. The work grew; accommodation for four was provided, with two paid helpers. The small cottage used acts as a social microscope, every case being personally investigated as to past life, history, and present need, and dealt with accordingly. The writer, as Secretary to the Ladies’ Committee of Oldham Workhouse, next became personally acquainted with the working of the Poor-law and studied it by means of books also. By degrees the Rescue work came to cover Police-court and Lodging-house work, and, as there was no other Shelter in Oldham, cases of all sorts came under her notice. She thus studied personally the microbes of social disorder.

Oldham Work House
Oldham Workhouse

By degrees she came to understand the existence of certain “classes” (classifying them much as observation led her to classify objects observed in physical studies). Also, she clearly perceived that causes were at work leading to rapid degeneration, and was led to pre-suppose currents working for social destruction.

This is particularly revealing perhaps:

She reflected that exploration was the method of science, and became herself an explorer of “Darkest England.”

I am fascinated by this constant reference to the middle and upper classes ‘exploring’ and ‘discovering’ working class life and neighbourhoods through Victorian slumming, just as they ‘explored and discovered’ the colonies they exploited, just as now the ‘pioneers’ discover and expand the frontiers of gentrification. And so often it seems, it is ‘Darkest’ Africa, England, Harlem… this has been much written about I know.

So on to Higgs herself, and how she tried to initially frame the results of her experiences and her policy recommendations. It’s fairly vile and everywhere the theoretical language insults, and I am thin-skinned and easily infuriated by such vileness, but in this case I feel called to defend her to the extent that she was open enough to the reality she encountered on her tramp that it almost reads as though written by someone else, and her recommendations at the end have moved much further to understanding the structural causes of labour’s movement and respect for those needing shelter.

Still. It is good to remember what many rich people once thought of us poor people, what we white people once thought of other races, what ‘pure’ women once thought of those who enjoyed a night down the pub. Sadly we haven’t come as far in destroying this as we might hope.

A very simple theory, which will be found to accord with Plato’s diagnosis of the degeneration of a State or an individual, with Meyer’s “Disintegrations of Personality,” and with James’ “Phenomena of Religious Experience,” therefore underlies this essay; but it is apart from its objects to do more than state it. It is enunciated more fully in an article in the Contemporary Review, now out, entitled “Mankind in the Making.” It is this:

(a) The psychology of the individual retraces the path of the psychology of the race.

(b)In any given individual the  whole path climbed by the foremost classes or races may not be retraced. Therefore numbers of individuals are permanently stranded on lower levels of evolution. Society can quicken evolution by right social arrangements, scientific in principle.

(c) Granted that any individual attains a certain psychical evolution in normal development, either evolution or devolution lies before him. Wrong social conditions lead to widespread devolution. The retrograde unit retraces downwards the upward path of the race, and can only be reclaimed along this path by wise social legislation, bringing steady pressure to bear along the lines of evolution, (barring extraordinary religious phenomena, which often reclaim individuals or communities).

(d) Society has now arrived at a point of development when these facts must be recognised, and the whole question of the organisation of humanity put on a scientific basis. It will then be possible to reduce the sciences of sociology and psychology to scientific order, and our national treatment of such questions as vagrancy will be no longer purely empirical.

Words fail me here, but I am glad we have almost overcome this insane vision of evolution and racial hierarchy.

There was an odd resonance with a quote in Horne’s A Savage War of Peace in relation to the French policy of erasing Algerian resistance by destroying family structures, and a commentary that all that was left was dust. Higgs says the same thing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from an agricultural society to an industrial one dependent on free (and willing) labour:

As early as Henry VIII., 1531, we find a second class, that of the “incapable,” those who could not work, who were “licensed to beg.”

The formation of this class was accelerated by the failure of the Church to provide for the assistance of the poor, by suppression of abbeys, etc., at the same time that the abolition of villeinage, which was still recent, threw off from organised society dependents very unfit to live a self-supporting life. (See Note 2.) Thus again the drying up of means of subsistence created as it were another layer of easily drifting dust.


Since, therefore, a transition period leaves behind such a layer of social débris, it is only to be expected that we should find the third great change that has passed over society, which is still recent, namely, the change to the industrial epoch, to be productive of another layer of social débris or dust.

John A. Hobson points out (in “Problems of Poverty,” p. 24) that “the period from 1790 to 1840 was the most miserable epoch in the history of the English working classes.” It is doubtful indeed whether we have really recovered from the “sickness” of that period.

There are some familiar definitions of vagrancy, where like the poor there are the willing and the unwilling:

Vagrancy proper was the crime of individuals who dropped out of a settled, mainly agricultural, society into the wandering life. Vagrancy as induced by modern conditions may be no crime. It is not a crime for a man who cannot obtain work to migrate to find it, or for a man to return home on foot from a distance.

And here are some of the actual numbers:

So much is the tramp ward disliked, and so useless is it as a remedy for destitution, since at best it affords only a night’s shelter with poor food and hard labour, that numbers prefer to “sleep out.” The London County Council’s census of the homeless poor, Friday, 29th January, 1904, revealed 1,463 men, 116 women, 46 boys, and 4 girls walking the streets, and 100 males and 68 females sleeping in doorways, etc., a total of 1,797 homeless poor in a small area in London (from Hyde Park in the west, to the east end of Whitechapel Road, from High Holborn, Old Street and Bethnal Green, in the north, to the Thames, in the south). In the winter 1903-4, no fewer than 300 people were known to be sleeping out every night in Manchester.

And we come to the results — the terminology is cringeworthy and in itself worthy of further reflection on the way that both the processes and the discourses of industrialisation dehumanised workers. In the following posts you will be able to see just how human some (not all) of these ‘inefficients’ became to Mrs Higgs, so where then does this discourse come from? It points to the deeply problematic underpinnings of social reform, underscores where my own traditionally deep distrust of theory comes from.


We may summarise results as follows:

1. There exists at the bottom of society the hereditary vagabond or “tramp” proper. He is the remains of a vagrant class squeezed out of society and preying upon it…

2. There exists also a class of “incapables,” i.e. those infirm, old, blind, lame, epileptic, etc. These are supposed to be provided for by our Poor-law system, and should be inside workhouses. But numbers of them are allowed to wander in penury and beggary.

3. There exists a large class of “inefficients,” the special product of the Industrial revolution. It is not probable that they will disappear as a factor in social evolution, save by means of wise social
arrangements, because:

(1) They are continually renewed from the lower levels of the population, who breed quickly.

(2) The standard of industrial requirements rises, and leaves many behind stranded.

(3) Employment after middle age is difficult to obtain.

(4) The shifting of industries and changes in employment leave units unprovided for.

It is evident therefore that the whole legislation of our country must be remodelled, for it is on the social organism as a whole that social provision now devolves.

Up next — a glimpse of women’s actual lives on the tramp in shelters and workhouses, and then boarding house as brothel. Poor Mary Higgs had her horizons opened up in a hurry…

Part 2 | Part 3

Walking the Victorian Streets

1396370Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City
Deborah Epstein Nord
1995, Cornell University Press

It opens: ‘In the literature of the nineteenth-century city, the figure of the observer–the rambler, the stroller, the spectator, the flaneur–is a man’ (1). This is a study of how Victorian women, particularly literary women who were themselves observers,  walked the streets. They did so not as prostitutes, yet always their gender ensures that they are  more observed than observer and their presence in public spaces alone links them in the mind with the ‘streetwalker’ as prostitute. Nord writes:

If the rambler was a man, and if one of the primary tropes of his urban description was the women of the streets, could there have been a female spectator or a vision of the urban panorama crafted by a female imagination? And if such a vision were possible, under what conditions and with what distinctive features might it have been created? These are questions of history, about who was on the street in which urban neighborhoods and at what times of day and night, and questions of representation, about the cultural meanings ascribed to men and women in the context of urban literature and analysis (3).

What a great question, and one hard to answer, particularly going back to the 1840s through the 1880s. It’s memoirs or fiction to get any understanding at all, but as Nord continues ‘We have the overwhelming sense, however, that women alone on the street in the mid-nineteenth-century city were considered to be, as one American historian [Ryan – Women in Public Places] has put it, “either endangered or dangerous” (3).

In the introduction she captures some of the discomfort I have with the ideal of the rambler, with de Quincey and Baudelaire and similar others, so common now in psychogeography:

Whether by the anonymous and transitory act of sex itself or by the suddenness of her appearance from and evaporation into the crowd, the sexually tainted woman (or the woman found and lost) serves to represent the experience of the masculine spectator. These women themselves gaze at the crowd, Baudelaire remarks [in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’], “as at a river which reflects their own image. In truth, they exist every much more for the pleasure of the observer than for their own.” The poet, exemplifying so much of the literature of urban spectatorship, cancels out the subjectivity of the woman of the streets. Paradoxically, by suggesting that she is a Narcissus who can see the streets only as a reflection of herself, he makes her into the spectator’s mirror and the masculine observer’s spectacle (6).

For others of a different morality, such as Wordsworth, women of the street represent an alien distance, an unsettling encounter. I’ve never liked Wordsworth, but I find both of these accounts frustrating, stripping women of agency, equality and a right to freely encounter others in public space. In the late 18th century, Nord argues, the discourse shifts again to women as source of disease and contamination, and one capable of reaching the most respectable home, through Blake, Dickens and others. The main argument of the book looks at both women as writers and women as they observe the city:

the particular urban vision of the female observer, novelist, or investigator derives from her consciousness of transgression and trespassing, from the vexed sexuality her position implies, and from her struggle to escape the status of spectacle and become a spectator. The ‘respectable’ middle-class woman creating her own city spectacle had to come to terms with women’s place in a well-established literary tradition of urban description as well as with her relationship to the poor women, the female beggars, the factory workers, and the prostitutes she observed on her own very tentative rambles. Associated by gender with the very emblems of poverty, disease, and fallenness in urban panoramas created by novelists and social reformers, women writers had to contend with split identifications: they wrote with the cultural (and class) authority of the writer and with the taint of their sex’s role in the urban drama  (12).

The main sections:

  1. ‘Stroller into Novelist’: as awareness of city space shifts from the sense of stage or panorama to a social web and the city of crisis and subject of investigation
  2. ‘Fallen Women’: Focus on Flora Tristan and Elizabeth Gaskell and women as spectacle and spectator
  3. ‘New Women’: End of 1800s, rise of new possibilities for women and new social questions on their relationship to the city

So a few of the points I particularly liked, they are more or less in chronological order so here is the 1820s, city as theater:

What distinguishes the rambler’s or the flaneur’s stance from that of the social investigator or reform-minded novelist is this identification with and delight in the privileges of the poor. The flaneur sees the poor and the prostitute not as victims or objects of pity but as urban actors free from the constraints of bourgeois life (43).

Precisely what makes me most angry about some of these accounts is their inability to see structural constraints, but this is a reminder that the power of these accounts is perhaps in how they recognise agency, which is more respectful in the end than the reformer’s views. But I like too, this reminder of the ways these earlier texts did not impose narrative structure, how they employed a different set of tools in the depiction of the city that gets at some insights but clearly fails to uncover others:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

On to the 1830s, and a look at early Dickens to a sense of the growing middle-classes and their urban sensibilities:

focus on two crucial elements of the literary creation of a middle-class city: first, the continuing sense of distance from the “lower orders,” now juxtaposed with a new awareness of possibilities for sympathizing, if not identifying, with the poor; and second, the development of a middle-class discourse about the presence on the streets of the sexually tainted and victimized woman (50).

I like thinking through this idea about the nature of the city and our understanding of it (via Dickens):

Writing about the Sketches, F.S. Schwarzbach notes that Dickens’s unique contribution consists in the “unifying vision…of the urban milieu as an eternal here and now.” Invoking Carl Schorske’s notion that the modern city’s essential characteristic is a permanent sense of transience, Schwarzbach writes that in Dickens we find an early version of this distinctly modern sensibility, and that unlike Hunt, for example, Dickens embraces the contemporary city and ignores or belittles the past (58).

I’m not so sure I agree with any of that, but it’s interesting, and things I haven’t really thought through before. As is this, both in possibly disagreeing and wanting to think through:

Whereas the urban observers of the 1820s converted the everyday scene to theater, Boz transforms theater into the ordinary and unremarkable. Spectacle itself is demystified and the distance between spectator and the city diminished (63).

There follows a chapter on Dombey and Sons — which I have not yet read — and Bleak House, which I have. This is much more focused on female sexuality, and I didn’t get as much from this. This is my own failing I think, I am not as interested in more psychoanalytic approaches or sexuality and sexualisation as subjects. Though this book has convinced me (though I didn’t really need convincing) of their importance — particularly in this focus on a sexuality foisted upon women or internalised by them. I thought it possibly slightly unfair to strip any eroticism or romance from Gaskell’s writing, but I did love thinking through these intersections between gender and the city and writing.  I think Nord is right on ‘how powerful, how unavoidable, was the sexualization of woman’s entry into urban space and into the social conflicts that circulate within that space’ (176).

Both Tristan and Gaskell as subjects of the following chapters are fascinating — and finally we get to women writers! Tristan is sitting on my shelf right now, will I agree that ‘The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal (116)’? [You can read the answer here]. It is definitely curious, though to see how Nord explores the tension between writers and other women on the street.

The female social investigator or reformer finds the prostitute a particular challenge to her sympathetic eye. This is especially true for the urban spectator, the female rambler, whose street walking cannot necessarily be distinguished from that of other “public” women (123).

On Gaskell, who again, I haven’t yet read apart from a collection of short stories:

Gaskell’s was a double labour: she set out to claim as a woman the authority of urban spectatorship and interpretation and to work through the taint of exposure that was traditionally and powerfully associated with woman’s public role (138).

Gaskell took up issues of women’s labor that were a matter of public controversy and made them the subjects of her urban fiction. Responding to the sexual ideologies that inform Faucher’s and Engels’s accounts, she used her novels to ruminate on the linked potential for danger and power inherent in women’s participation in the public domain of industrial life (142).

Manchester’s streets made her a novelist not only because of what they taught her about the working people she encountered but also because of what they suggested to her about herself, her potential cultural authority, and her sexual vulnerability (144).

From the 1880s there were a host of texts I was unfamiliar with — just one of the beauties of this book!

As Woolf understood, the decade of the eighties was a pivotal time in the public lives of women, and the work they produced reflects a certain precariousness or tentativeness in their social positions and, as a consequence, in their own notions of themselves (182).

There is a fascinating period where a network of women living on their own, many of them writers, established itself. Eleanor Marx was tangentially part of it, they were connected to the Socialists and social reformers like Octavia Hill, all of whom I am still exploring. But while I knew of Beatrice Potter Webb, I had no idea of her cousin Margaret Harkness, poet and novelist Amy Levy, or novelist Olive Schreiner. I like how their works are contrasted with those by women engaged in social investigation, Helen Bosanquet, Florence Bell, Maud Pember Reeves (hey ho Lambeth!) and Mary Higgs‘s fascinating account of going on the tramp and its comparison with books by Orwell or London. A woman taking on the clothing of another class makes her more visible rather than less in a crowd, more vulnerable, more at risk…this may be first on my enormous to-read list inspired by Nord.

There is a lot more here, but I think I will end there. I am still new to thinking about this and reading these texts, but I loved this book as an introduction. This is hardly a criticism, but one thing that struck me was the presence of amazing illustrations without much critique, Dore for example, from his illustrations of his travels in London, and Cruikshank, who drew brilliant cartoons for both Pierce Egan and Dickens, as well as many well-read magazines and journals. It would be great to think through how pictorial depictions of women (and by women?) fit into all of this, working together with, and independent of, text. But that would undoubtedly be a whole new book, and possibly one already written.