Tag Archives: Victoriana

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.

plasmonnytfull3
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

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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.

VIII. SUMMARY OF RESULTS OF INVESTIGATION.

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

Victorian Gas Works

Gas lighting transformed London, it is hard to imagine now just how much. I think the only way to begin to understand it, as much as we can from this vantage point, is through literature.

1305530Flora Tristan’s London Journal is wonderfully evoctive of the beauty of gas lighting, the magical effect it had on London:

But it is especially at night that London should be seen: then, in the magic light of millions of gas-lamps, London is superb! Its broad streets stretch to infinity; its shops are resplendent with every masterpiece that human ingenuity can devise; its multitudes of men and women pass ceaselessly too and fro. To see all this for the first time is an intoxicating experience. Then again, in the daytime, the beautiful streets, the elegant squares, the austere iron gates which separate the family mansion from the common run of humanity, the vast expanse of gracious rolling parkland, the beauty of the trees, the number of superb carriages and magnificent horses which parade the streets — all this seems magical and blurs the judgment, so that no foreigner can fail to be entranced when he first enters the British capital. But I must warn you that the spell fades like a fantastic vision, a dream in the night; the foreigner soon recovers his senses and opens his eyes to the arid egotism and gross materialism which lurk behind that ideal world (17).

I’m not sure that something hasn’t been lost now, the texture of the light changed and the last remaining shadowy places illuminated with electricity. There are still a few streets where you can experience gas lighting, you can find them here. It’s something well loved and well studied, a short description of how and when it came to illuminate London’s streets can be found here, or more at length in Liza Picard‘s work on Victorian London. The way it transformed how people could walk through the city at night, especially women, is so self-evident yet often forgotten.

Gas_Light_&_Coke_CompanyAlso often forgotten, I think, is the labour and technology that made is possible. One of the most powerful passages of Tristan’s journal describes the gasworks at Horseferry Road. There is nothing at all left to show that a gas works once stood here but a plaque.  Tristan’s words give a vivid sense of the working conditions:

One of the largest gas-works is in Horseferry Road. Westminster; I have forgotten the name of the company. You can not visit it without a ticket of admission: In this palace of industry the abundance of machinery and iron is quite overwhelming; everything is made of iron — platforms. railings, staircases. floors, roofing etc.; plainly no expense has been spared to ensure that buildings and equipment alike are made of the most durable materials. I saw cast-iron vats with the dimensions of a four-storey house. I wanted to know how many thousand tons they hold, but the foreman with me was just as uncommunicative as the foreman at the brewery, and preserved an absolute silence.

We went into the big boiler-house: the row of furnaces on either side were burning brightly; the scene was not unlike the descriptions the poets of Antiquity have left us of Vulcan’s forges, save that the Cyclops were animated with divine activity and intelligence, whereas the black slaves of the English furnaces are sullen, silent and impassive. There were about twenty men present, going about their work in a slow, deliberate fashion. Those with nothing to do stood motionless, lacking the energy even to wipe away the sweat streaming down their bodies, Two or three turned their blank gaze towards me; the rest did not even raise their heads. The foreman told me that only the strongest men were selected as stokers; even so, they all developed chest diseases after seven or eight years of the work, and invariably died of consumption. That accounted for the misery and apathy depicted on every countenance and apparent in every movement the poor wretches made.

This language is so emblematic of the odd politics of her solidarity with, and yet low opinion of, the working classes. She is offhand about their early deaths, but it breaks my heart to think of it.

The work demanded of them is more than human strength can endure. They wear nothing but cotton drawers; when they leave the boiler-house they merely throw a coat over their shoulders.

Although the space between the two rows of furnaces must have been fifty or sixty feet, the floor was so hot that the heat penetrated my shoes immediately and made me lift up my feet as if I had stepped on live coals. I stood upon a large stone slab, but even this was hot, although it was well off the ground. I could not stay in this veritable hell; the heat was suffocating, the smell of gas was making me dizzy and my chest felt as if it would burst. The foreman took me to a gallery at the end of the boiler-house where I could see everything in relative comfort.

We made a complete tour of the establishment; I was lost in admiration for all the machines, for the meticulous care that marks every stage of the work; but in spite of all precautions there are frequent disasters in which men are injured and even killed. 0 God! Can progress be bought only at the cost of men’s lives?

She is not, and I could hardly expect her to be, interested in the geographies of light, that this is gas produced to light up the expensive shops of the West End at the cost of workingmen’s lives and environment:

The gas produced at this factory is taken by pipes to light the Oxford Street area as far as Regent Street.

The air is horribly tainted: at every instant you are assailed by poisonous fumes. I emerged from one building, hoping to find the air purer in the yard outside, but everywhere I went, the foul exhalations of gas and the stench of coal and tar pursued me.

Not only is this killing the men who work here, it surely must also be killing all those who live around it, albeit more slowly. Her lack of interest in how this is affecting the poor people and dock workers living in the area is in its own way a testament to what communities fighting for environmental justice have been able to achieve.

It also makes me wish that she were not writing from such a position of privilege, that she had trudged here from wherever she was staying, for surely then the effect of the fumes and the housing of the workers would have also figured in this description. As it was, Tristan was there only briefly and already felt dizzy and sick. Odd then, and oddly Victorian, that she focuses in on the dirt.

What is more, the entire premises are very dirty. The yard — with its pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish — testifies to a total neglect of hygiene. It is true that the materials used to produce gas are of such a nature that it would require vigorous measures to keep the place clean, but two men would be sufficient for the task, and for a trifling increase in outlay, the entire establishment would be healthier.

Returning once more to the working conditions suffered:

Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866
Retort House, Great Central Gas Works, Bow Common, London. It was here that Croll introduced the burning of incandescent coke as fuel immediately it had be taken from retorts. 10% saving. Wood engraving, 1866

I was on the point of suffocating and could not wait to escape from such an evil-smelling place when the foreman said, ‘Stay a moment longer, there’s something very interesting for you to see; the stokers are just about to remove the coke from the ovens.’

I returned to my perch in the gallery; the sight that met my eyes was one of the most appalling that I have ever seen.

The furnaces are above ground level. with a space below to catch the coke. The stokers, armed with long iron rakes, opened the ovens and raked out the coke, which fell in blazing torrents into the chamber below. Nothing could be more terrible or majestic than the sight of so many mouths all pouring forth flames, nothing more magical than the cavern suddenly illumined with living fire, descending like a waterfall from a rocky height, only to be swallowed in the abyss: nothing more terrifying than the stokers, their bodies streaming as if they had just emerged from the water, lit on both sides by the dreadful braziers that thrust out their fiery tongues as if to devour them. Oh, no! a more frightful spectacle it would be impossible to imagine!

South Metropolitan Gas Company's works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke.
South Metropolitan Gas Company’s works, East Greenwich, London: Quenching coke, wood engraving published Paris, 1891.

When the furnaces were half empty, men perched on vats in the four corners of the lower chamber threw water on the coke to extinguish it. The scene changed; there arose a dense hot whirlwind of black smoke which ascended majestically through the open skylight. Now the furnaces were visible only through this haze, which made the flames seem even redder and the fire more menacing; the stokers’ bodies turned from white to black, and the unfortunate wretches were swallowed up like demons in some infernal chaos. I was caught unawares by the smoke, and barely had time to make a hasty descent.

I awaited the end of the business, anxious to see what would become of the poor stokers. I was astounded that not one woman appeared. Dear God! I thought, have the men no mother, sister, wife or daughter waiting at the door as they emerge from that hell, to wash them in warm water, to wrap them in shirts of flannel; to give them something nourishing to drink; to greet them with friendly words that would give them heart and help them to endure their cruel lot? I was in a fever of anxiety; not one woman appeared. I demanded of the foreman where these men, soaked in sweat, would go to take their rest. ‘They’ll lie down in this shed.’ he replied, quite unconcerned, ‘and in a couple of hours they’ll go back to their stoking,’

I find this simultaneously horrific in what men were forced to suffer to earn a wage, and almost laughable in terms of her horror at the absence of women occupying such middle-class Victorian roles as mopping their husband’s brow and inspiring him with hope and bringing him nourishment. I imagine these wives, sisters and daughters were all both hungry and hard at work themselves keeping households together or taking in laundry, cleaning the homes of the wealthy, working in factories themselves.

But again, we return to another of the reasons men died so quickly in this work:

This shed, open on all sides to the wind, was really no more than a shelter from the rain, and inside it was as cold as ice. A sort of mattress lay in one corner, almost indistinguishable from the coal around it. I saw the stokers stretch out on their stony bed, with no covering but a greatcoat so stained with sweat and coal-dust that it was impossible to tell its original colour. ‘There,’ said the foreman, ‘that’s how these men get consumption; they don’t look after themselves, going straight from the heat into the cold like that.’ (72-75)

You like Tristan better when she says she left in a huff after that remark.

A few more things on gas — in A Match to Fire the Thames, there is a brief description of the workers organising for the first time at the Beckton Gas Works — owned by the same company — under the leadership of Will Thorne. They won an eight hour day (it is impossible to imagine working in these conditions at all, much less from 10 to 14 hours), with fewer retorts to fill and all for the same daily wage. Long live the union.

"Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)" by Willem van de Poll - Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Watson House, Gas Light & Coke Company in Londen (1933)” by Willem van de Poll – Nationaal Archief. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other is that in addition to the poisoning of air and ground, the construction of gas works was also a part of the steady destruction of gardens supplying the city, from Old and New London: Volume 4:

The works belonging to the Gas Light and Coke Company, which occupy a considerable space of ground between Peter Street and Horseferry Road, stand partly on the site of what was, at the beginning of the present century, the residence of a market-gardener, known as the “Bower” ale-house and tea-gardens—a name still perpetuated in that of the adjacent public-house—”The White Horse and Bower,” in the Horseferry Road. These gasworks (one of the three earliest stations established by the first gas company in the metropolis, which received its charter of incorporation in 1812) owe their origin to the enterprise of a Mr. Winsor, the same who, on the evening of the King’s birthday, in 1807, made a brilliant display of gas along the wall between the Mall and St. James’s Park. It may be worth while to note here that the general lighting of the metropolis with gas began on Christmas Day, 1814. A branch establishment in connection with these gas-works has since been erected further westward, close by Millbank Prison, and more recently a larger establishment has been opened at North Woolwich, where the works henceforth will mainly be concentrated, so that latterly very little business has been actually carried on here.

The later history of these gas works is also rather fascinating, and described on the Subterranea Brittanica site:

The ‘Rotundas’ consisted of three buildings, two of three storeys and one of two (originally five), all linked together and occupying a site in SW1 bounded by Great Peter Street to the north, Marsham Street to the east, Horseferry Road to the south and Monck Street to the west. The site had previously been occupied since c.1877 by the gas works of the Gas Light and Coke Company. The two gas holders were demolished in 1937 leaving two very large circular holes in the ground. During the blitz a large bomb fell on the gas works which blew four workmen into these holes, unfortunately only two survived.

A government contract was issued to construct various protected buildings in London, these included Montagu House in Whitehall for the War Office, Curzon House in Curzon Street for the Army, The Admiralty Citadel on Horseguards for the Navy and the Rotundas, all designed to withstand the impact of a 500lb bomb. With their 12 foot thick concrete roof the latter complex was equipped to house several thousand Government officials in complete safety from enemy attack for up to three months.

The Rotundas were built in the holes left by the gas holders, each of three storeys with one and a half floors above ground and the same below. They were identified as the North Rotunda at 59-67 Great Peter Street, the South Rotunda at 18/19 Monck Street. The complex was completed by the five storey Steel Frame Building, with one level below ground at 17 Monck Street. The upper three stories were later removed.

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The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

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Field Lane and larceny, then and now

Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:

Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.

The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).

I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):

Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)
Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)

What Was Field Lane

Near Field Lane c. 1844 Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding (Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)
Near Field Lane c. 1844. Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding
(Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)

They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.

Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:

By John Rocque (John Rocque's 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By John Rocque (John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But these were to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 09.05.25

Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.

What Was Field Lane
And it feels part of the City, the banking industry and corporate London has ever been a hotbed of crime I think.

Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:

What Was Field Lane

What Was Field Lane

I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing,  or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.

People with money desire curious things.

For more on Victorian cities or Dickens…

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Flora Tristan’s London Journal

1305530Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.

When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:

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.

I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:

I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).

A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.

She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:

However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).

I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:

England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).

What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)

This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:

In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).

There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:

Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).

Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):

In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).

Old_House_of_Commons_chamber,_F._G._O._Stuart
House of Commons; A. D. White Collection of Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library (Accession Number: 15/5/3090.01024)

 

Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:

I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).

We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:

Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).

A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark
A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark

But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):

Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).

Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.

Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:

So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)

Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.

Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.

([1842] 1982) Virago Press

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Gissing’s Camberwell

Having just read In the Year of the Jubilee (there is some repetition here between posts, apologies), I thought it might be fun to wander over from Brixton to Camberwell and to see just how much was as Gissing described, how much had changed. Brixton these days smells much more of fried chicken or curry than fried onions — for someone like myself who gave up the fried chicken I love to avoid industrially raised chickens, rancid oil and a growing waistline, this is fairly tortuous it must be said. I don’t know where Beatrice lived when she moved off on her own, sadly for me, but I do love Coldharbour Lane, and I think it still has much the same feel of picturesque, somewhat industrial decay as it long ago did due to absentee landlords (now cashing in of course):

Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed.

IMG_9938 IMG_9948 (you can tell I need a new lens as this falls out of focus sometimes, but that will have to wait until the long-awaited day when this PhD pulls me a job instead of poverty)IMG_9947 IMG_9951

Arriving in Camberwell I am always happy to see this:

Gissing's Camberwell

and then we arrived at this particular corner, which is worth a smile:

Gissing's Camberwell

And finally back to Gissing, as we came to De Crespigny Park, one side of which is still full of homes ‘unattached, double-fronted, with half sunk basement and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance’. I also now have proof that those regularly-seen tall arched spaces that are almost always bricked up were actually once windows.

Gissing's Camberwell

Gissing writes:

De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).

But now the south side is part of the massive complex making up King’s hospital — and some buildings to the north as well, breaking up the solidly respectable line of homes that once stood there. This lead to Grove Lane, where Nancy lives and of which Gissing says:

Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls.

It was difficult, no, impossible, to take decent pictures, I’m afraid. Some of what was there when it was described this way is, I think, gone, but it has retained that piecemeal feeling of Gissing’s Camberwell which is fairly charming.

Gissing's Camberwell

We walked up Grove Lane to the top of Champion Hill: ‘From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.’

No longer I’m afraid, but it is a lovely view:

Gissing's Camberwell

And Champion Hill remains fairly ‘aristocratic’. We started back down the LaGissing's Camberwellne’s ‘more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove’, finding fairly terrible decorative statues and much larger homes. While some sections had clearly been built by a single builder here, there was still  a great deal of difference — no real jerry builders were allowed up here. Perhaps the nicest thing to find on this road was council housing — Lettsome Estate for example. The dream of neighbourhoods containing people of all income levels living side by side and enjoying the amenities of beauty and elegance is one of my favourite post-war efforts to make a reality.

Gissing's Camberwell Gissing's Camberwell

We followed Camberwell Grove back down to Camberwell’s centre, where we sought out the new abode of the Barmby’s:

Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).

Gissing's Camberwell
A  nice street. Writing this I’ve realised there must be an immense respectability that comes with half-sunk basements as Gissing never leaves that out of his descriptions. Best of all to see, though, was the new vibrance and color infused into what can only be described as a once stifling middle class area (because my god the Barmby’s, horrible people):
Gissing's Camberwell
And that was the end. It was very cold and so we did not linger. It was probably the cleaning-out-the-canal work I did a couple of days later that has bequeathed the terrible cold I am currently suffering (this one is already at two-tissue-box strength), but I might still blame it on Gissing because he’s rather a miserable bastard after all. Still, I enjoyed this walk a great deal.

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Margaret Harkness: Out of Work

margaret harkness, out of workJohn Law (really Margaret Harkness, 1888)

Spoiler alert — and the biggest spoiler perhaps is that as fiction this book is actually, and so sadly, really terrible. Except for the accidental hilarity of some of the prose. Stolid, worthy, and yet also raising all of my class hackles. And I mean ALL of them. But she’s a Victorian woman living on her own in the East End and writing about it, which makes her interesting.

margaret harknessThe excellent introduction from Bernadette Kirwan gives what background we have on Margaret Harkness, a distant cousin of Beatrice Webb Potter, born in 1854, her father a rector from Upton-on-Severn in Worcerstershire. She moved to London in 1877 and trained as a nurse, but soon changed to a literary career, writing articles for various publications and three novels of East End life of which this is one. The first was A City Girl, criticised by Engels for not being realistic enough and portraying the working classes as too passive. The third, Captain Laboe: a story of the Salvation Army. She was also a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), and Beatrice Webb Potter noted her utopian ideals and impatience with theory, making this a fraught political relationship. It could not have been too much of a surprise when she later moved closer to the Salvation Army and then dropped out of political organising (and our view) completely.

The novel opens in a Wesleyan Chapel, and this strange thread of religion continues through the book — highly descriptive and very judgmental, yet I don’t think the judgment is quite the same as my own nor altogether negative. What I loved about this book are the details that are surely drawn from her observations (mostly after her own judgments have been expunged), like this verse from the service:

God, the offended God, most high.
Ambassadors to rebels sends
His messengers His place supply,
And Jesus begs us to be friends.
While the wicked are confounded.Doomed to flames and woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded,
O God of love! (9)

I couldn’t make that kind of terrifying religious view up. Nor this other kind of view of Whitechapel streets from a middle-class perspective:

They went through back streets, full of trucks covered with unwholesome looking fishes, fishes whose names are unknown in polite society, whose huge heads and minute bodies are only appreciated in Whitechapel. Tubs of pickled cucumbers stood on moveable tables, and by these were stalls covered with cockles, pigs’ feet, and large tins of eel broth. The inhabitants of the slums were holding a Sunday picnic, indulging in dainty East End dishes,which they bought at low price, and washed down with draughts from a neighboring public house.

“Hokey-pokey! who’ll buy it?” cried a man. He was wheeling a tin down the middle of the road, a tin full of ice, cut in squares and wrapt in paper. The ragged boys and girls flocked round him, for they enjoyed ice-cream more than sour cucumbers, and hokey-pokey seldom made its appearance on week-days, but always came on Sundays to furnish a dessert to the picnic, an “end-up” to the out-door repast. How the dirty little feet danced! How the grimy little hands clapped! (21).

Ice-cream called hokey-pokey! There is also this splendid view of their lodger, Mr Cohen’s shop. He is a barber, dentist and purveyor of cosmetics, and beneath the bust of Gladstone hangs this verse which he wrote himself (and I can’t help but think somewhere there must have been a barber just like this one, who did in fact write this fabulous verse):

Heads of great men all remind us
We can make our heads sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Headprints on the sands of time (33).

The home of the protagonists is a mark of their status — one that keeps the mother aloof even from other church people. Mrs. Elwin keeps a tidy house of up to twelve lodgers and one maid servant for them all, whose sad life is spent dreaming of aristocrats in romance, even though her own ‘short stout figure seemed made to carry buckets’ (27).  Again, the house seems to be one Harkness has seen (or a composite thereof). It’s decorated with wax flowers, oil paintings of Mrs Elwin and her dead husband facing each other, and most astonishingly, the skeleton of a dead cat on top of the bookshelf.  The best mouser she’d ever had. A later description of it also offers a taste of the diversity of the East End at the time, the way that so many different kinds of people lived alongside each other (though immigration as a problem runs throughout the commentary given by open-air speakers and reported conversations, along with the need to send people ‘back where they come from’). This is Mrs. Elwin to a man from the church she wants to marry her daughter Polly:

I’ve often asked myself whatever would become of us…I’ve had so many Jews here at once, that one of my rooms has been made into a synagogue without my knowing it. I’ve had six Mohammedans standing their feet in tubs of water at the back, because they couldn’t say their prayers till they’d done their heathen habits. I’ve had black men, what have run up and downstairs in nothing but their night shirts. I’ve civilised many of em…. (147)

In her descriptions, Margaret Harkness certainly provides a number of details on the geographies of class and status:

People who live in Shoreditch, or St-George’s-in-the-East, are apt to be confounded with their poorer neighbours by the uninitiated, although the initiated know that there is a greater distance between a dressmaker and a charwoman than between a countess and the wife of a successful merchant (42).

And the Methodist ‘heroine’ Polly Elwin dreams only of a little house in Hackney with regular visits from the butchers. Harkness later describes her: ‘Natures like hers are incapable of deep feeling; they always love their fellow-creatures in a qualified manner. They vacillate from pillar to post; and stay longest at the point where they discover their own interest’ (151).

It’s clear that Harkness can see no humour, no promise, no real dreams in the people she describes. Of one of the regular open-air speakers from the Mile End waste near the People’s Palace (what’s left of it incorporated into Queen Mary University where I’m now working), she writes:

That man had a very barren mental history. He was one of the many people crushed out by our present competitive system…His crude, narrow ideas were fast crystallising…His brain was losing its power of gathering from fresh sources, beginning to exercise itself upon the small stores of knowledge stowed away in its cells. Personal experiences had made him bitter (59).

This after describing a tiny room he inhabits with his wife and baby daughter, with walls blackened by smoke and smuts blackening the face of his wife and his only reading the torn pages of books he has rescued from rubbish. To her they are very less than human, even as she acknowledges it is environment that has made them that way (the man above could have been a judge she says, if only things were different).

The hero — whose quest for work gives the title, the moral and the bulk of social commentary to the novel, is a young man named Joseph Coney (‘he looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39)).  Describing Jos’s descent from recently arrived country carpenter looking for work and renting a room from the Elwins to his forced move to a common lodging house, to his first fatal taste of gin to the doss house to the workhouse, there’s stuff like this:

It is commonly supposed that men of his class feel a sort of general spooniness, mixed with a good deal of animalism, for their sweethearts (106).

I’m not even sure what that means, this book is full of stereotyped visions of the working classes with some checks given by the reality she observes, but not very many. Class permeates this book and how she sees things. There’s more of the city when Jos heads down on his first day to work at the docks — a position so low it is impossible to return from it, a last hope for the money needed to stay alive:

Half-past six o’clock the following morning found Jos at Fenchurch Street station. Half-past six is an unpleasant hour in that part of the city. The streets look greasy. There are not enough people about to enliven the houses. Shops have shutters up; untidy girls are scrubbing doorsteps; no one is there, except men on their way to work, old women going to market, and that scum of the populace who sleep in any hole they can, and live in any way they may; bleating sheep and lowing cattle are being driven along by butchers; yawning policemen are talking over a suicide here, a murder there; lean dogs are acting as scavengers, ragged children are seeking breakfast in dust heaps and gutters. The damp morning air is adding to the unpleasant smells in the atmosphere.

Little wonder that public houses entice customers! (126-127)

Her descriptions of the doss house and all of its characters, including Squirrel, a little ‘foreign’ girl who takes care of Jos, seem drawn from observation, as does that of the workhouse. Jose is set to break granite and he can’t do it, instead injuring himself as a splinter of stone injures his eye and seals his fate. Polly marries her Methodist class leader while Jos walks home to his village and dies of starvation on top of his mother’s grave. Squirrel jumps into the Thames, unable to bear London without Jos. It is one hell of a morality tale.

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Imperialism at Home

6591131Meyer, Susan (1996) Imperialism at home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

This was interesting, and read just fine, but didn’t really ask the questions I wanted it to ask, it didn’t dig deep enough. I’m not sure how much insight fiction can yield, but felt there must be more. The first chapter is titled ‘Race as Metaphor’, and is the argument of the book:

This book will argue that, on the contrary, a close study of the fiction of novelists of the nineteenth century, and a close attention in particular to the use of metaphor in that fiction, reveals that, since the gender positioning of British women writers required them to negotiate an association with ‘inferior races,’ their feminist impulses to question gender hierarchies often provoked an interrogation of race hierarchies. To say this is not to contend, with the optimistic idealism of the feminism of an earlier era, that an awareness of gender oppression has historically given women an easy, automatic comprehension of oppression on the basis of race or class…An attention to their fiction reveals that their gender (and in some cases, class) positioning produced a complex and ambivalent relation to the ideology of imperialist domination, rather than an easy and straightforward one. It was precisely the gender positioning of these women writers in British society, in combination with their feminist impulses and their use of race as a metaphor, that provoked and enabled an (albeit partial) questioning of British imperialism (11).

So for me this study becomes muddied between what in an author’s work is intentional, what reflects their unconscious, and where that comes from. I was reading and kept reacting as a writer, knowing sometimes metaphors are very deliberate but just as often they are not. Other times I reacted as a reader, someone who loves Jane Eyre — and though I know how problematic it is, I still didn’t buy all of these critiques — and really didn’t like Wuthering Heights when I read it so many years ago. Though this might have convinced me to read it again, and better understand why I identified with Heathcliff and despised Catherine with every ounce of me. This looks at George Eliot’s and Daniel Deronda as well, which I am curious about now. But they are so damn long.

So just to pull out a few things I found interesting. In the opening chapter drawing the literary links made between women and slaves or colonised populations, she looks at Anthony Trollope’s ‘Miss Sarah Jack of Spanish Town, Jamaica’ and Dickens Mystery of Edwin Drood and writes:

In both narratives, also, the English house or home has a greater than literal status. The image of the house at once evokes the literal dwelling, the lineage of the family that inhabits it (as in the phrase ‘the house of Cumming’), and the entire Anglo-Saxon race. The domestic space of the home is at once an individual domicile and suggestive of the domestic space in a larger sense, the domestic space of England. In neither narrative is the space of domesticity separate from the concerns of imperialism. The Trollope text, in particular, strongly suggest that what happens in the home is both parallel to and necessary for the construction of empire. (7)

I feel this connection between home and empire — and white men the master of both — is so important.

I also loved reading about the Brontë sisters, the imaginary and colonial worlds they created, how they read chapters to each other as they were writing them. I suppose this is common knowledge amongst English majors, but I had no idea.

I really liked this quote from Thomas McLaughlin’s “‘Figurative Language’ in Critical Terms for Literary Study”, and want to think more about it in terms of what we can learn from literature about these systems of thought, often opaque to those who use them:

‘If figures of speech rely on an accepted system of thought, they also reveal to the critical reader that it is a system, that it is not a simple reflection of reality…Figures of speech, especially spectacular ones, are potential weaknesses in the system, places where the workings are visible, places that remind us that our truths are not self-evident.

There is also a quite extraordinary quote from George Eliot, whose Middlemarch I read too long ago to remember it very well at all. The quote is on race and submission — which figure prominently in this discussion — and interestingly, the art of writing itself and crafting a story. It comes from Notes on “The Spanish Gypsy.”

A tragedy has not to expound why the individual must give way to the general; it has to show that it is compelled to give way; the tragedy consisting in the struggle involved, and often in the entirely calamitous issue in spite of a grand submission. Silva presents the tragedy of entire rebellion; Fedalma of a grand submission, which is rendered vain by the effects of Silva’s rebellion. Zarca, the struggle for a great end, rendered vain by the surrounding conditions of life.

Now, what is the fact about our individual lots? A woman, say, finds herself on the earth with an inherited organization; she may be lame, she may inherit a disease, [34] or what is tantamount to a disease; she may be a negress, or have other marks of race repulsive in the community where she is born, etc. One may go on for a long while without reaching the limits of the commonest inherited misfortunes. It is almost a mockery to say to such human beings, “Seek your own happiness.” The utmost approach to well-being that can be made in such a case is through large resignation and acceptance of the inevitable, with as much effort to overcome any disadvantage as good sense will show to be attended with a likelihood of success. Any one may say, that is the dictate of mere rational reflection. But calm can, in hardly any human organism, be attained by rational reflection. Happily, we are not left to that. Love, pity, constituting sympathy, and generous joy with regard to the lot of our fellow-men comes in—has been growing since the beginning—enormously enhanced by wider vision of results, by an imagination actively interested in the lot of mankind generally; and these feelings become piety—i.e., loving, willing submission and heroic Promethean effort towards high possibilities, which may result from our individual life.

Sometimes I marvel at just how deep racism goes, that easy assumption of white privilege, even recognising the oppression of gender.

There was one other interesting historical tidbit that stood out:

In an intriguing historical parallel, the social standards that mandated the voluminous clothing of mid-Victorian women also provided a significant stimulus to the textile trade: eighteenth-century style was revived in the enormous hoop skirts and numerous petticoats that came into fashion in the early 1850s, reaching their largest circumference in 1860, the year in which The Mill and the Floss was published. Eliot’s mockery of earlier women’s styles also involving colossal quantities of cloth is part of her quiet resistance to the commercial economy of 1860 (152).

Hm. I’m not so convinced this is part of a quiet resistance but maybe. Still, Meyer goes on to say ‘The novel seems to be facing the existing social organization as one might face the fact of mortality: it is an unchangeable but regrettable fact, and the mature thing to do is to accommodate it’ (156).

God I hate accommodation. Good thing the struggle has moved on.

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary 2

detail_256_William_morris150(Part 1 here)

Into the nitty gritty of Morris’s role in Socialist/Anarchist/Marxist Politics! I make that sound exciting, but it’s really not, and this post is way too much of a summary because I am just starting to get my head around these early radical politics. For a while these were contained within many of the same groups, and at least remained talking to each other — I had always thought the definitive split came with the end of the International Workingmen’s Association, aka the First International. Of course, I had forgotten first that people don’t work like that and definitive splits are usually mostly theoretical, but also the later dates of the IWA. It started long after 1848 — in 1864 — and only fell apart in 1876. Morris and Marx (1818-1883) didn’t miss each other by much, and that thought makes me sad. Hyndman met with Marx, however, and attempted to claim his blessing for his leadership of the Democratic Federation (DF) founded in 1881.  Thompson describes a period of widespread agreement on what socialism was, based on Marxist principles. Here is a quote from a letter from Morris: ‘our aim, to be always steadily kept in view, is, to obtain for the whole people, duly organised, the possession and control of all the means of production and exchange, destroying at the same time all national rivalries’ (334). Of course, the principal leaders in London — Joynes, Bax, Aveling ( and Eleanor Marx, not included in this list to which she has more right than her husband I think), Hyndman, Shaw and Morris himself — were all middle class, and so the ‘masses’ who would carry out this appropriation meant different things and carried different levels of intelligence and agency for each. The DF would split in 1886, and it arose from both personal mistrust of Hyndman and his motives, but also around tactics of partial reform as opposed to total. Familiar, all too familiar.

After Marx’s death Engels busied himself with putting his papers in order, an old man himself by then, and Eleanor Marx’s biography shows most sympathetically what personal tragedies he was suffering through this time. But Thompson’s account  draws on many of his letters to better understand the complexities of the discussions and in-fighting, and Engels appears very much a cranky old man on the sidelines sniping at almost everyone. Not that he wasn’t right about their ultimate ineffectiveness.

I like Morris so much in this account though, perhaps to be expected. Possessed of an explosive temper he still worked as peacemaker, attempting to keep people working together towards a common goal despite personal and strategic differences. The DF became the the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) and declared it’s goals:

‘The Socialization of the Means of Production, Distribution and Exchange to be controlled by a Democratic State in the interests of the entire community, and the complete Emancipation of Labour from the domination of Capitalism and Landlordism, with the establishment of Social and Economic Equality between the Sexes’ (345).

For its programme that of the Labour Emancipation League to draw them in:

  • Equal direct adult suffrage
  • ‘direct legislation by the people’
  • a National Citizen Army in place of the standing army, and the people to decide on peace or war
  • free secular education
  • free administration of justice

They didn’t take on the sixth, so I don’t what that was. Not too shabby, Hyndman was displaced as President, but with all the egos in the room this was not enough to hold things together. The SDF at this time was about 400 strong, almost entirely based in London: Battersea (with John Burns), Clerkenwell, Marylebone, Croydon, tottenahm, Hammersmith. The Labor Emancipation League under Joseph Lane centered in the East End. A group in Birmingham, another in Edinburgh, but slowly it grew until the split in 1885. Thompson describes how this should have been around issues of strategy, but instead was primarily personal, and left Hyndman in a position of strength as head of the SDF which retained most of its membership as Morris left to form the the Socialist League with Edward Aveling, Eleanor Marx, Lessner, Bax, Mahon, Lane, Kitz and others.  The last two represented some of the strong anarchist streak in the League.

They were focused on open air propaganda, speaking on street corners, trying to convert the masses and fighting to protect the right to free speech, which the government had begun to repress. This was interesting:

And this is the reason why the Socialists, if they were to become a force, had no alternative but to defy the police and stay in the streets in the face of intimidation. The resulting struggles, which continued in London and the provinces until the end of the decade, were the most important form of advertisement for Socialism at this stage of the propaganda (393).

Morris continued this work — while still running his business and continuing work on a number of projects and editing the organisation’s newspaper Commonweal. To his old friend Georgie Burne-Jones, worried about his health, he wrote something I love:

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism, nay worse…is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it — on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now…(424)

So the League lumbers on. They write a preposterous letter to Northumberland miners on strike in 1886, telling them the strike will bring misery and be hopeless, they need to fight for revolution instead. Thompson writes ‘soon the League was back to its old exhortations — Utopian in form, but in actual effect and tone defeatist’ (437). More wrangling, discussions, infighting, decisions between parliamentary and revolutionary strategy, splits. A great quote from Engels: ‘No movement absorbs so much fruitless labour as one which has not yet emerged from the status of a sect’ (454, Engels to Sorge, 4 June 1887). True then, and I am so sad to say it feels true now. Morris’s own position, in contrast to that of Shaw and the Fabians, was that the League needed to remain outside of parliament, but supportive and working with those inside — ‘Increasingly between 1887 and 1890 he came to see the role of the League as being educational and propagandist within a larger Socialist movement’ (460). Yet really it was ever more isolated from the ‘masses’.

Then Bloody Sunday. Another Bloody Sunday — the first? There have been so many. 13 November 1887. The police bloodily cleared protests in Trafalgar Square using batons and horses. Morris writes of the need for organisation in the face of this kind of repression:

All that our people could do was to straggle into the Square as helpless units. I confess I was astounded at the rapidity of the thing and the ease with which military organization got its victory. I could see that numbers were of no avail unless led by a band of men acting in consent and each knowing his own part (490).

He also wrote poetry and songs, to inspire and to raise money for the survivors of the dead.

1887Linnell

With this started a period of increased rebellion. In News From Nowhere, Morris’s utopian vision of the future, the events in Trafalgar Square actually become a turning point in the march towards Socialism, even though they were crushed.  But 1889 and 1890 saw strikes by the Bryant and May match girls, tram workers, seamen, dockers. The Paris conference founding the Second International took place with Morris in attendence. H.G. Wells was running around London meetings, W.B. Yeats, Malatesta and Kropotkin. Thompson has no kindness at all for the anarchists, blaming Morris’s lack of leadership for allowing them to get the upper hand and destroy the league, ‘make it rotten’. Harsh words that seem highly debatable, but the League certainly fell apart. Morris wrote in his farewell article ‘Where are We Now’ published in Commonweal, 15 November 1990:

Our business, I repeat, is the making of Socialists, i.e. convincing people that Socialism is good for them and is possible. When we have enough people of that way of thinking, they will find out what action is necessary for putting their principles in practice. Until we have that mass of opinion, action for a general change that will benefit the whole people is impossible. Have we that body of opinion or anything like it? Surely not…Though there are a great many who believe it possible to compel their masters…to behave better to them, and though they are prepared to compel them…all but a very small minority are not prepared to do without masters. They do not believe in their capacity to undertake the management of affairs, and to be responsible for their life in this world. When they are so prepared, then Socialism will be realized; but nothing can push it on a day in advance of that time (576).

I love this faith, and believe ultimately this is true. Like Thompson, and later Morris himself I am skeptical that this ‘making of Socialists’ can happen independently of struggle, outside of the worker’s movement (or other movements). But he then believed it was all or nothing, requiring a purity of revolutionary intent that did not work towards small victories like the eight-hour day (!). This argument continues its life in left discussions.

Morris would go on to retire, and in his retirement found the Hammersmith Socialist Society with those of the SDF who had left with him. He also began work on Kelmscott Press in earnest — and I have a special love for any press, but Kelmscott produced such beautiful things. There is very little here about the press itself, so disappointing and again a place where Thompson and I part ways — instead there is much more about Morris’s continuing work on translating Icelandic sagas in his free time (! I am certain that he had more hours in the day than I do).

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By 1894 Morris had moved away from the purism of his earlier stand:

Thus Socialists were set (Morris wrote) a twofold task. First, they must provide the theory of the struggle: if they failed in this, they were abandoning their duty of giving direction to the spontaneous movement of the workers. Second, they must participate alongside the workers in all forms of the labour struggle, including parliamentary and municipal elections:

“It is certainly our business, then, to make that struggle as strenuous as possible, while we at the same time hold up before the workers the ideal that lies ahead of the present days of conflict” (613)

He thus came around to the idea of creating a strong party, electing delegates to the House of Commons, but a parliamentary party subordinate to party as a whole. He continued active right up to the end, through illness and tiredness of age, and died in 1886. After coming so far with him you mourn, and I love this obituary by Blatchford in Clarion.

Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike at him where you would, he rang true.

The book doesn’t end there, but with his views on art and work, and his contribution to political though. His legacy. Thompson finds Morris important as a political theorist in two ways: ‘one of the earliest…most original and creative thinkers within the Marxist tradition in England’ and second, as ‘a pioneer of constructive thought as to the organisation of social life within Communist society’ (682). I love that he spent time imagining the future society as a refuge from his present. Yet still Morris writes:

for no man can really think himself out of his own days; his palace of days to come can only be constructed from the aspirations forced upon him by his present surroundings, and from the dreams of the life of the past, which themselves cannot fail to be more or less unsubstantial imaginings (685 – ‘Socialism: It’s Growth and Outcome’).

This, and: ‘The only safe way of reading a utopia is to consider it as the expression of the temperament of its author’ (693 – ‘Looking Backward’).

Also this, on how he disagreed with the Fabians and many another:

Morris, alas, would not have rested content with the “Welfare State”: when the “ideal” was set before him of the “capitalist public service…brought to perfection”. he merely remarked that he “would not walk across the street for the realization of such an “ideal” (727).

But I shall end with some of his quotes on what he loved, his art and his work:

neutrality is impossible in man’s handiwork…a house, a knife, a cup, a steam engine…anything that is made by man and has form, must either be a work of art or destructive to art. (646 – ‘The Socialist Idea in Art’)

His precepts of art, summarised through quotation by Thompson:

  1. Art is Man’s expression of his joy in labour
  2. Nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers
  3. the only healthy art is ‘an art which is to be made by the people, and for the people, as a happiness to the maker and user’

William Morris writes:

Yet I have looked at this claim by the light of history and my own conscience, and it seems to me so looked at to be a most just claim, and that resistance to it means nothing short of a denial of the hope of civilization.

This then is the claim:

It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall he worth doing, and be of itself pleasant to do; and which should he done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome nor over-anxious.

Turn that claim about as I may, think of it as long as I can, I cannot find that it is an exorbitant claim; yet again I say if Society would or could admit it, the face of the world would be changed

The whole of the text on ‘Art and Socialism’ is here, and reading it over I rather think it deserves its own post. So just one more quote from elsewhere:

The arts are man’s expression of the value of life, and also the production of them makes his life of value (656, letter to May Morris).

There is so much of value here, I have barely scraped the surface. So I will be coming back.

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