Tag Archives: fashion

Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)

I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:

My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)

The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)

Running through it is this sense of fabric, of fashion, of the cut and weave of things we wear and the pleasure we find in them. They are things we want, we feel good in as much as things that mark our place in life. So many parts of this reminded me of two dear friends who had been pattern makers and seamstresses in LA’s garment industry. Both exploited in very similar ways. Both would occassionally touch a sleeve and give it a price, run a finger along something with admiration.

From a cotton town, my mother had a heightened awareness of fabric and weave, and I can date events by the clothes I wore as a child, and the material they were made of. Post-War children had few clothes, because of rationing, but not only scarcity, rather names like barathea, worsted, gaberdine, twill, jersey, lawn … fix them in my mind. The dream of the New Look must have taken place during or after the summer of 1950, because in it I wore one of my two summer dresses, one of green, one of blue gingham …(31)

And a view into the factories still hard at work in the 1950s:

Sometime during 1950, I think before the summer, before the dresses were made, I was taken north to Burnley and into the sheds, where one afternoon my mother visited someone she used to know as a child, now working there. The woman smiled and nodded at me, through the noise that made a surrounding silence. Afterwards, my mother told me that they had to lip-read: they couldn’t hear each other speak for the noise of the looms. But I didn’t notice the noise. The woman wore high platform-soled black shoes that I still believe I heard click on the bright polished floor as she walked between her looms. Whenever I hear the word ‘tending’ I always think of that confident attentiveness to the needs of the machines, the control over work that was unceasing, with half a mind and hands engaged, but the looms always demanding attention. When I worked as a primary-school teacher I sometimes retrieved that feeling with a particular clarity, walking between the tables on the hard floor, all the little looms working, but needing my constant adjustment.

The woman wore a dress that seemed very short when I recalled the picture through the next few years: broad shoulders, a straight skirt patterned with black and red flowers that hung the way it did – I know now – because it had some rayon in it. The post-War years were full of women longing for a full skirt and unable to make it. I wanted to walk like that, a short skirt, high heels, bright red lipstick, in charge of all that machinery.

This was the first encounter with the landscape of my mother’s past. (32)

Who could not love such a view in the world of capable, beautiful women at work? But a world of complexity, limits and everyday cruelties as well. These religious divisions I find so hard to understand but more importantly I suppose, the role of women in speaking them.

At the back of the house, through the yard to the lane, the lavatory was perched over another stream; you could see the water running past if you looked down. In this back lane I played with another child, older than me, she was four: Maureen. She was a Catholic, my grandmother said, but I could play with her, she was a nice little girl, but they weren’t like us: you could tell them by their eyes. It was the women who told you about the public world, of work and politics, the details of social distinction. My grandmother’s lodger, the man who was to become her third husband when his wife died ten years later, stayed self-effacingly in the background as she explained these things. Anti-Catholicism propelled my mother’s placing of herself in a public sphere. A few years later she often repeated the story of Molly, her best friend at school, the priest beckoning to the Catholic child from over the road, furtively passing a betting slip; the strain of the penny collections at church with a dozen
mouths to feed at home. (33)

And I wonder how all of this fits with the older histories of Burnley and Pendle Hill, have been reading Ainsworth and cannot quite make it match.

She talked to me about witches, now and often before. The one book she carried from her childhood was Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches, in an edition of the I 830s. She’d walked by Pendle Hill she said, to dances in the 1920s, by the place where Mistress Nutter met her fellow witches, and where the witches were later burned. I found the book in the house after her death, remembered my terrified reading of it at the age of ten, convinced that the mere opening of its pages brought the devil forward. (140)

Nor does it match my immense love of Lowry, and I resonated with this puzzling over what hs paintings meant to those tiny figures who hurried through streets to the mill.

As I went out, past the shrouded furniture in the front room (things made ready these ten years past for the move that never came), I saw hanging over the mantelpiece a Lowry reproduction that hadn’t been there on my last visit. Why did she go out and buy that obvious representation of a landscape she wanted to escape, the figures moving noiselessly under the shadow of the mill? ‘They know each other, recognise each other,’ says John Berger of these figures. ‘They are not, as is sometimes said, like lost souls in limbo; they are fellow travellers through a life which is impervious to most of their choices … ‘ Perhaps, as this commentary suggests, she did buy that picture because it is ‘concerned with loneliness’, with the ‘contemplation of time passing without meaning’,5 and moved then, hesitantly, momentarily, towards all the other lost travellers. … Where is the place that you move into the landscape and can
see yourself? (142)

That last line gives me shivers.

We come to a beautifully detailed history/political economy of Burnley — again a return to the landscape, the context, the material surroundings of town, home, work, income, the complexities of divisions between skilled and unskilled, I have put that at the end. It feels indulgent to have copied it so wholescale but I did. But first a short section drawing from this particular history of liberal Burnley that would make of it a seat for political radicalism — I didn’t know.

Political radicalism, defined as both ‘a vision and analysis of social and political evils’, developed in the period 1770-18 50. ‘It was,’ observes Gareth Stedman-Jones, ‘first and foremost a vocabulary of political exclusion whatever the social character of those excluded. ’29 Its rhetoric framed the demands of the Chartist movement, and as a tool of political analysis and a language of political expression, it became more and more the proJ’erty of working-class people as the century advanced. (118)

Radicalism asserted the rights of the individual in conflict with privilege, privilege being seen particularly as the twin-headed hydra of Church and aristocracy. Its notable feature as a means of analysis was that its rhetoric allowed the tracing of misery, evil and unfairness to a political source, that is to the manipulation by others of rights, privileges and money rather than attributing such perception to a shared conciousness of exploitation. It was a coherent device both for understanding the ordering of the world in a particular way, and for achieving that understandmg without direct experience of exploitation, or of a particular organization of labour, or of the viciscitudes of the labour market. This is by way of contrast with theories of classconsciousness which often do draw on such personal and direct experience, though not a lways explicitly. 32 (119)

she notes then, that for all of its place in radical history, there remains much untouched:

Burnley is a much-investigated town, and a great deal is known about political movements within it and the shaping of its political allegiances. However, two factors have been left out of the story so far. The first is any reckoning with the presence of so lage a number of women in workforce, except as adjuncts to the male story of trade unionism, or in terms of a developing suffraggette movement. The second mission factor is any discussion of how a political culture might affect children growing up within it. (120)

I end this second post with my typical self-indulgence, copying wholesale Steedman’s own short history of Burnley. One of my housing apprentices was from there, worked there. I went twice to meet with her in the glorious times before lockdown and quite loved it, though like Rochdale and Wigan it shows all the rough edges of austerity-driven desperation. I love this history of it, and the thought that I will carry it with me when I go back, especially the idea of Burnley as a ‘Radical hole’.

In the late nineteenth century, Burnley, by way of contrast with neighbouring Blackburn, still possessed a local landowning gentry which played a prominent and traditional part in local life. 15 The most important local family were the Roman Catholic Townleys (the bluebell wood with the little stream, where I remember her last day of happiness, was Townley land), but there were others too, and their social presence in the town prevented the rise of an industrial
middle class to gentry status.16 The social rulers of Burnley were then, the traditional ones, figures of the conventional class romance; and this conservative romance and its representatives were distanced from the culture and politics of daily life: Burnley was known as a “Radical Hole” a Liberal dominated mill-town where land and business kept their distance.’17

Cotton owners remained distinct from the town’s social elite, and this separation of trade from land provided a free arena for economic enterprise.18 The establishment of a weaving business was in any case a smaller and cheaper undertaking than the setting up of a spinning shop, and since the 1850s in Burnley it had always been feasible for a cotton worker with savings to set up on his or her own. A local economic practice, which was the easy availability of rooms to rent with power for machinery thrown in and the much-publicized facilities for saving in the town – for ‘getting on’ – made the possibility of rising part of its social and political landscape. 9

Beneath the traditional form of social government represented the separation of land and trade, a less rigid social structure pertained in Burnley when it is compared with other cotton towns. It is the argument of one historian of the town that this ‘fostered greater, not less discontent, as inter-group comparisons and a wider range of reference groups became adopted’. 20 Yet within this framework and within a social structure that allowed for individual
advancement and the telling of social fairy-tales about people making good, the Burnley working class at the turn of the century seems to have shown a greater division between skilled and unskilled workers than was usual in cotton towns. This separation showed itself in the low incidence of residential contact and marriage between the two groups. 21 Burnley, then, in the early decades of this century, presented the picture of a culture in which individual aspiration and success were allowed to express themselves within the broader setting of a traditional form of
local government.

The town expanded rapidly at the end of the nineteenth century, later than the other cotton towns, with the population more than doubling between 1871 and 1891.22 Any family established during those years and maintaining a household into the new century, as did my greatgrandmother, would have experienced a cycle of depression and boom. Many of my mother’s uncles and aunts left the town for Fall River, Massachusetts, between the two severe depressions of 1903/4 and 1908/9, and my grandmother,
age twenty-two and five-months pregnant with my mother, married my grandfather during the good year of 191 3. Burnley experienced a final period of boom at the end of the First World War, before entering catastrophic recession in 1921.23

Through all these fluctuations in the economy, Burnley women worked: in 1911, 56 per cent of females over ten years of age were at work, most of them in the weaving sheds.24 Work at weaving was understood as a source of pride for women, and Patrick Joyce has speculated of Burnley that ‘the principal threat to the [male] weaver was perhaps that to his family authority, in work and at home … ’25 Yet, as has already been indicated, there were many
ways in which gender divisions were maintained within the factory (particularly by the simple device of men tending a larger number of looms than women) and men received more money for work that was f ractically identical to that of their female fellow workers. 2

My mother’s experience of households largely supported and maintained by women was given dramatic emphasis by the death of her father at the Somme in 1916. The depression of 1921 and its aftermath changed the climate of expectation for working-class girls in the town: like many in her age group my mother did not do now, in the late 192Os, what she would have done ten years before, and go into the mill on leaving school. Her own mother stopped working in the sheds at this time because there was very little work to be had. (115-117)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.


Salford in Robert Roberts ‘The Classic Slum’

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.

Class Structure

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)

Still from short film: Mitchell and Kenyon 20: Howarth’s Egerton Mill, Orsdall Lane, Salford, 1900
produced by Mitchell and Kenyon (London, England: British Film Institute, 1900

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)

Possessions

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 ([1971] 1990) The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. London: Penguin

Arsenal’s Peter Simpson in a ‘kit for the future’ (Favourite World Cup Moment #4)

So, I know this isn’t actually a ‘World Cup 2018’ moment, but Sean found it and posted it today in honour of football more generally and it is an amazing thing. I mean, after you’ve got over the shorts (actually, you will never get over the shorts), you’ve also got the lace. Peter Wyngarde, eat your heart out.