I so enjoyed The Classic Slum, wish very much I could have met Robert Roberts. Funny that I remember buying this book in North Hollywood in my favourite used bookshop, the Iliad. Over a decade ago. I was curious about just how LA compared, those far away days now of tenant organising filled with rats and roaches and chinches and slumlords and lead poisoning and amazing amazing people still in my heart. Maybe I didn’t actually want to think more about slums just then. Never got around to reading it, never expected I might work in Salford, come to know it so well. Though it is not the Salford that Roberts described of course, not the Salford of the Lowry paintings I love so much. We have left that behind.
I left all my books behind there too, in LA, left almost everything. I only occasionally miss any of it, maybe simply because I have managed to collect new shelves upon shelves piles upon piles of books. I missed this though. Had to order it again, another copy of the Classic Slum, an orange binding rather than blue this time. He writes as his place of beginning:
This is a book made much from talk, the talk first of men and women, fifty or more years ago, of ideas and views repeated in family, street, factory and shop, and borne in mind with intent! The corner shop, my first home, was a perfect spot for young intelligence to eavesdrop on life. Here, back and forth across the counters, slide the comedy, tragedy, hopes, fears and fancies of a whole community: here was market place and village well combined… Then, and for long afterwards, I mixed with people, adult in Edwardian and Georgian days, who had lived out their time in ghettos spawned by the industrial revolution. Many among them, shrewd and thoughtful, could not only recapitulate experience, they knew how to assess its value in relation to their lives. Men discussed, argued, reminisced: I listened and remembered. To them all, many long gone now, I am indeed greatful for what they taught. (9)
I love this opening so much.
Roberts was born in Salford, grew up in these streets ‘behind a general shop in an area which, sixty years before, Frederick Engels had called the ‘classic slum’, I grew up in perhaps an ideal position for viewing the english proletarian caste system in its late flower’. (13)
I keep his chapters, so much thought goes into organising thoughts, ideas, memory. Yet I realise as a reader I often don’t even notice, I will do better. This is, as always, a hodge podge of what I found most interesting in excruciating detail. Part 1.
We start with class, and quoting Engels himself? From several decades before Roberts’ birth.
All Salford is built in courts or narrow lanes, so narrow, that they remind me of the narrowest I have ever seen, the little lanes of Genoa. The average construction of Salford is in this respect much worse than that of Manchester, and so, too, in respect to cleanliness. If, in Manchester, the police, from time to time, every six or ten years, makes a raid upon the working-people’s districts, closes the worst dwellings, and causes the filthiest spots in these Augean stables to be cleansed, in Salford it seems to have done absolutely nothing.
This is saying a lot if you’ve read all that he says about Manchester.
I am always fascinated by understandings of boundaries, communities, where a neighbourhood ends and another begins. Especially here in the UK and Europe where a weight of history sits so much more heavily on the urban form and how people understand their place within it and how that connects to the rest of the world. Roberts writes:
Every industrial city, of course, folds within itself a clutter of loosely defined overlapping ‘villages’. Those in the Great Britain of seventy years ago were almosy self-contained communities. Our own consisted of some thirty streets and alleys locked along the north and south by two railway systems a furlough apart. About twice that distance to the east lay another slum which turned on its farther side into a land of bonded warehouses and the city proper. West of us, well beyond teh tramlines, lay the middle classes, bay-windowed and begardened. We knew them not. (16)
And ah the details, the familiar environmental justice issues raised by the presence of industry and pollution, both industrial and animal.
Over one quarter of a mile industry stood represented by a dying brickworks and an iron foundry. Several gasholders on the south side polluted the air, sometimes for days together. Little would grow; even the valiant aspidistra pined.* We possessed besides two coal yards, a corn store, a cattle wharf and perhaps as closed an urban society as any in Europe.
In our community, as in every other of its kind, each street* had the usual social rating; one side or one end of that street might be classed higher than another. Weekly rents varied from 2s 6d for the back-to-back to 4s 6d for a ‘two up and two down’. End houses often had special status. Every family, too, had a tacit ranking, and even individual members within it… (17)
The footnotes, as they so often are, are brilliant. On aspidistras
*To encourage the Adam in us our local park sold ‘garden soil’ at a penny a bucket. At home, expending twopence, we once trried a window box ‘for flowers’ in the back yard. A few blooms struggled up then collapsed. ‘So!’ said my mother, loud in her husband’s hearing, ‘you can raise a child, it seems, on coal gas, but it does for geraniums!’
And footnote 2 on land ownership — curious to me though why ownership should be relegated to a footnote, surely it is part of the crux of the matter? And to all that happened later.
*The railway company which owned most of our streets kept its houses in a moderate state of disrepair. Two workmen haunted the properties, a crabby joiner and, trailing behind him with the handcart, his mate, a tall, frail, consumptive. This pair were known to the neighbourhood unkndly as ‘Scrooge’ and ‘Marley’s Ghost’. (17)
I love the workmen. I confess, though, I really struggle to understand the depths of self-imposed hierarchy that I have seen described elsewhere — Morrison in Tales of Mean Streets writing about East London most memorably, but that is not the only place. It is such an ugly head to rear up, and it saddens my heart.
The real social divide existed between those who, in earning daily bread, dirtied hands and face and those who did not. …
These division could be marked in many public houses, where workers other than craftsman would be frozen or flatly ordered out of those rooms in which journeymen foregathered. Each part of the tavern had its status rating; indeed, ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ stood as a common slur. (19)
I might start using ‘he’s only a tap-room man’ though, I rather like the phrase when mis-applied. These distinctions of skill, wage and dress were as present among women. Carolyn Steedman writes of fashion and class with such heart-breaking eloquence, but here it is in different form.
Many women and girls in the district worked in some branch of the textile industry. Of these, we accepted weavers as ‘top’ in their class, followed by winders and drawers-in. Then came spinners. They lacked standing on several counts: first, the trade contained a strong Irish Catholic element, and wages generally were lower than in other sections. Again, because of the heat and slippery floors, women worked barefoot, dressed in little more than calico shifts. These garments, the respectable believed, induced in female spinners a certain moral carelessness. … Clogs and shawls were, of course, standard wear for all. … So clearly, in fact, did headwear denote class that, in Glasgow, separate clubs existed for ‘hat’ girls and ‘shawl’ girls. (20)
Along with my ubiquitous people at the bottom of every hierarchy. I suppose the move to America rather than Manchester allowed us to be hat girls. Another footnote returns us to Engels on the Irish question:
Engels pointed out how, in the 1840s, the million or more britalized Irish immigrants pouring into English slums were depressing native social and economical standards. Little integration, however, seems to have followed upon the influx. Even up to the outbreak of the first world war differences in race, religion, culture and status kept English and Irish apart. The Irish poor, already of course deeply deferential to the Church, remained, in sobriety, even more than their English counterparts, respectful to the point of obsequiousness to any they considered their social superiors. (23)
In sobriety might be the key phrase? Still, this saddens me of course, surely there was some smouldering rebellion? It will not be found in these pages, nor anywhere in these streets. At least not at this time he describes. There are some fantastic descriptions of Marxists though.
The class struggle, as manual wokers in general knew it, was apolitical and had place entirely within their own society. They looked upon it not in any way as a war against the employers but as a perpetual series of engagements in the battle of life itself. … Marxist ‘ranters’ from the Hall who paid fleeting visits to our streets and insisted that we, the proletariat, stood locked in titanic struggle with some wicked master class. We were battling, they told us (from a vinegar barrel borrowed from our corner shop), to cast off our chains and win a whole world. Most people passed by; a few stood to listen, but not for long; the problems of the ‘proletariat’, they felt, had little to do with them.
Before 1914 the great majority in the lower working classes were ignorant of Socialist doctrine in any form, whether ‘Christian’ or Marxist. (28)
There is sadly no footnote about the Hall from whence these ranters emerge. But there is a tragedy of a message of hope and fury not coming through.
Meanwhile, though the millenium for a socialist few might seem just around the corner, many gave up struggling. The suicide rate among us remained pretty high. (29)
This chapter resonated so brilliantly with so much I have been reading — climate change, sustainability, the need for us (the Western, more wealthy us who have lots of stuff now) to give up a great deal of our things, our consumption and desire to possess. But also with the more abstract relationality of things, object oriented ontology and etc. My own childhood where possessions were so few and so precious.
The social standing of every person within the community was constantly affected by material pressures, some of the slightest, and the struggle for the acquisition and display of objects seened fiercer than any known in Britain now for cars, boats or similar prestige symbols. For many of the lowest group the spectre of destitution stood close; any new possession helped to stifle fear.
To stifle fear. What a shiver. I know that is part of the appeal of buying new things for me, even with destitution left far behind.
One scrimped and saved to get a new piece of oilcloth, a rag rug, the day at Southport, a pair of framed pictures — ‘Her First Singing Lesson’ perhaps, with ‘Her First Dancing Lesson’. Pictures, in a society far from wholly literate, were especially esteemed.(32)
A list of material possessions that seem, as he says even from his time of writing, ‘pathetically modest’. My grandparents had some of these pictures.
I sit in such comfort. Nothing like this, though the damp of this old Victorian row house gives me some inkling of how terrible and cold cold cold damp and cold it might have been.
In general slum life was far from being the jolly hive of communal activity that some romantics have claimed. They forget, perhaps, or never knew of the dirt that hung over all, of the rubbish that lay for months in the back alleys, of the ‘entries’ or ginnels with open middens where starving cats and dogs roamed or died and lay for weeks unmoved. They did not know those houses that stank so badly through an open doorway that one stepped off the pavement to pass them by. That people stayed scrupulously clean in such surroundings–and many did–only proves the tenacity of the human spirit. (49)
Governors, pastors and masters
Ah, the patriarchy.
Round parents the houshold revolved, and little could be done without their approval. Espoecially was paternal consent needed. In compensation, perhaps, for the slights of the outside world, a labourer often played king at home. (50)
Another kind of hierarchy, male from top to bottom.
He notes the preference of ‘vagrants’ (when did we shift terminology from vagrant to homeless?) for prison rather than the workhouse, and unsurprisingly that the numbers of those sent to prison were in proportion to those unemployed
The Common Scene
This then, forms the common scene of 1900-1910. It is so grim, from every angle. The ‘1906 Board of Trade figures showed half the women in industrial Britain earned under 10s for a week’s work of seldom less than fifty-four hours’ (76). A world of endless work and its reward only enough for bare life. Charity stepping insultingly into the void, and so ‘The Ladies’ Health Society’ goes along visiting women together with the ‘Sanitary Society’ to sell carbolic soap and powder. Women who often wrote and described all they saw like Margaret Harkness and Maud Pember Reeves, and they are valuable records I suppose, but leave a bad taste. They would not write this way.
So our neighbours, and many like them, in this ‘thrice happy first decade’ fought on grimly, certainly not to rise, but to stave off that dreaded descent into the social and economic depths. Under the common bustle crouched fear. In children — fear of parents, teachers, the Church, the police, and authority of any sort; in adults — fear of petty chargehands, foremen, managers and employers of labour. Men harboured a dread of sickness, debt, loss of status, above all, of losing a job, which could bring all other evils fast in train. (88)
And despite all of this workers still strike. To have strikes shattered by troops recently returned from fighting in Egypt and elsewhere. For Empire. How far removed this feels from Empire and yet it is at its heart.
Food, Drink and Physic
To return back to this role of Empire, yet another brilliant footnote
Some families who dealt with us had male members (all unskilled workers) who had soldiered in the outposts of empire during the late ninteenth century and after. Their experience seemed to have gained them litle beyond a contempt for lesser breeds, a love of family discipline and passion for hot pickles. (105)
Not much of physic though, and a very different attitude towards death.
Knocks, bruises, ailments one accepted stoically enough. Death, after all, called often. Children made a common habit of visiting a house wgere someone had just passed away to ask reverently to view the body, a request that was never refused. one friend of my youth boasted of having seen thirty-seven corpses over a wide area. (124)
So much unrelenting poverty. But all on the cusp of a change.
Roberts, Robert ( 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin