I did not have enough respect for nettles. I do now, and will for the next hours and days if my hand keeps itching.
I actually enjoy weeding, particularly when it is half spent listening to Welcome to Night Vale (which makes time speed quickly by and I highly recommend), and half listening to bird song. Most of all, I enjoy it when I look back and see a wide swathe of weed-free earth.
I have not yet conquered my fear of the gander, but I will. As apparently he himself respects a big stick.
I do not have enough endurance when it comes to scraping paths clear. But we scraped them. They are nice to look back on as well, once you have managed to fully straighten up.
Calendulas are some of the most beautiful things in the world.
And finally, I am so glad we have weekends free. Though tonight I am learning how to milk the goat!
I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!
Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).
One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:
As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.
…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…
On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.
By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.
Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.
Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.
On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”
I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.
One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.
I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.
There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.
We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–
“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”
There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!
By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:
The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”
So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:
The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!
Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.
‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:
The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.
She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.
For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.
The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.
This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.
This 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.
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
(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.
Mord Em’ly is fierce and funny through poverty and misfortune, and this little history of her life stands in very enjoyable contrast to heavier, more moral works of reform from the turn of that century. And she will insist you pronounce her name correctly, which I particularly love.
From London Peculiar and Other Non-fiction by Michael Moorcock:
Its author W Pett Ridge was the most famous literary Londoner of his day. He walked everywhere. He knew the city from suburbs to centre. He knew everyone, an energetic social reformer, he was a good friend of HG Wells, JM Barrie, WS Gilbert, Jerome K Jerome, E Nesbit and many contributers to the Pall Mall Gazette, The Idler, Westminster Gazette, journals of what we’d today call the moderate left. All testified to his experience and talent. ‘There is nobody else in London,’ said JM Barrie, ‘with his unique literary ear.’ (52-53)
Like many of his contemporaries from poor backgrounds, he educated himself at the Birkbeck Institute’s evening classes. (53)
Mord Em’ly was his best loved book. A silent film. From IMDB:
A Cockney thief reforms, her ex-convict father kills her mother, and she weds a boxer.
I suppose there could be worse summaries.
As Moorcock suggests, Pett Ridge is able to capture some of the joys of working class life, the freedoms it offers to women for possibly the first time:
All the members of the Gilliken Gang possessed the privilege which the London girl demands–that of having their evenings for their very own. Some were engaged in a large mineral water factory in Albany Road; two walked over Blackfriars Bridge to the City every morning; the remainder did nothing of a definite character (loc 226).
And after having read a great number of moral literature and studies written by reformers (see Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Harkness, Mary Higgs, and I will include W. Somerset Maugham in this dour list of tales of the working class’s feckless improvidence, dull capacity for suffering and dire poverty):
Pandora Buildings, despite its bare passages and blank, asphalted yard and drafty balconies, all suggesting that it was a place where people were sent for some infraction of the law, was, nevertheless, for its inhabitants sufficiently cheerful, and there were very few of them who were not happy. To understand this fact it was necessary to become an inhabitant in Pandora, and not merely to come down on a hurried visit, as lady philanthropists did, and sniff, and look sympathetic, and tell each other that it was all quite too dreadful. Nothing privately amused Pandora more than the visits of these people, and Mord Em’ly gained much applause by her very faithful imitation of one of these visitors.
“Oh, the poor, dear creatures!” Mord Em’ly would look at the diverted women on the landing with half-closed eyes and a glance of condescension. “How do you do, my poor women! What do your poor husbands do for a living, pray? Dear, dear! what dreadful occupations, to be sure! I’d never really heard of them before. And the poor, dear children–I do so hope you look after them. Our country’s future, you must remembers, lies in their hands, and — This is my daughter, Lady Ella. She, too, is going to be so interested in the poor. In fact, I may tell you that she is going to play the zither at a concert near here some evening.
“Ah, Mord Em’ly!” The women would laugh and wipe their eyes with aprons exhaustedly. “You can take the toffs off to a T.” (loc 239)
Speaking geographically, there are some brilliant summaries of how place and class intersect in here, like this description of New Kent Rd:
At the Paragon end of New Kent Road she stopped to take breath. There is a decorum about New Kent Road, with its tree-bordered pavements and calm dwelling-houses, that constitutes a silent reproach to its noisy, restless, elder relative, and even on this Saturday night it was not without repose. Middle-aged couples, out for the purpose of buying forage for the home, and accompanied by the newest baby in order that it might thus early study economy, were going east to Old Kent Road, or went to the Elephant, as their fancy or their traditions dictated (loc 71).
But above all come the marvelously satirical descriptions of the three sisters living on their own at 18 Lucella Rd, Peckham Rye where Mord is taken on as a servant at the age of ‘firteen’. Pronunciation corrected
No. 18 was precisely like No. 17, and like No. 19, and like every other number in Lucella Road; the lace-curtained bow-windows, the ventian blinds half-way down, the row of yellow pots on the edge, the glimpse of oval mirrors and draped pianofortes within (loc 196).
‘This, dears,’ said the youngest sister, ‘ is the little girl who has come after the place. She looks willing, and my idea is that we might take her for a month, at any rate. Her mother is a good worker.’
‘I expect Letty is right,’ said one of the elder sisters. ‘ What is your name, my girl ?’
Name interpreted by the youngest sister.
‘Oh, you must really learn to pronounce distinctly. You should say Maud, and then wait for a moment, and then say Em-ily.’
“All very well,’ said Mord Em’ly, ‘ if you’ve got plenty of time.’
“Are you a hard worker, my girl ?”
“Fairish, miss. I ain’t afraid of it, anyway.”
“I think we shall decide to call you Laura if you stop with us.”
“Waffor?” demanded Mord Em’ly.
“We always call our maids Laura,” explained the eldest of the ladies complacently. “It’s a tradition in the family. And my youngest sister there, Miss Letitia, will look after you for the most part. My other sisters are engaged in — er — literature; I myself; if I may say so without too much confidence, am responsible for”–here the eldest sister looked in a self-deprecatory manner at the toe of her slippers–“art.” (loc 312)
“My sister Fairlie,” went on the eldest lady in a lecturing style, and pointing with her forefinger, “writes under the pen name of ‘George Willoughby’ and has gained several prizes, some of them ammounting to as much as one guinea. My sister Katherine pursues a different branch. her specialite, to use a foreign expression, is the subject of epitaphs–queer epitaphs, ancient epitaphs, pathetic epitaphs, singular epitaphs, amusing–”
“Speaking about epitaphs,” interrupted Mord Em’ly, “how much do I get a year for playing in this piece?”
And the banter — the banter is marvellous. At no point is Mord bested in banter. The perspective of Mord allows Pett-Ridge to get more sharp observations of the regulated, restricted and repressed nature of middle-class life:
It seemed to Mord Em’ly that the people in the road led lives that were ordered by some precise and stringent Act of Parliament. By half-past eight in the morning every man in every house had come out, had pulled the doors to, and had run off to catch the train to the City, an exodus which also used to take place (at an earlier hour) at Pandora Buildings; but, whereas there is signalled opportunity for free conversation, in Lucella Road it seemed that the women-folk remained indoors, and kept themselves in rigid seclusion; when they did come out, they wore, Mord Em’ly noticed, a reserved air, which they put on for out-door walking, and they looked up at the sky with an air of disparagement, as though it was not at all the kind of sky that they had been accustomed to before they were married, and they sneered at the pavement; the other houses seemed to excite in them a feeling of boredom and contempt; their manner generally was that of people who are by no means pleased with the world. There were no disputes in Lucella Road; nobody came home late and noisy; it appeared to mord Em’ly that everybody carefully abstained from giving entertainment. (loc 406)
This is compared to the life and vibrance of Walworth Rd and the Music Hall:
…with the barrows stacked with yellow Lent lilies and scented violets, and giant bundles of wallflowers tied with twigs round their thick waists; pyramids of oranges, too, and huge cliffs of sweets, and men and women, their owners, exultantly calling attention to them; the slow crowd on the pavement stopping now and again to haggle, and, at infrequent intervals, to buy. There were two butchers with their shop fronts afire with red joints; the men were chaffing each other, and each shouted his opinion of the other man’s face. The drapery shop, selling off because it had nearly had a fire, or because its premises were not coming down, or on some other excuse, was frantic with placards; it had bargains in pale blue blouses and in gay bunches of linen flowers, that demanded attention, and would take no denial. In the roadway, the yellow and scarlet trams sailed along, with passengers continually boarding them and passengers continually disembarking; ‘buses rocked about and played games of cup-and-ball with their passengers, or danced recklessly over the roadway. On the other side of the road, in Princes Street, a piano-organ was playing, and two ridiculous men were waltzing and behaving to each other with preposterous courtesy. Through Princes Street, and there, with four white globes, arch-fashion, over its entrance, was the Mont.
Mord Em’ly gave a quick gasp as she thought of the Mont.
You paid twopence to an old lady seated in a little sentry-box, and you went through a passage which had swing-doors at the end, and on the walls of the passage there were portraits and a poster of a very fine lady in fleshings, called Miss Flo Macgomery, also known as Britain’s Brilliant and Beautiful Brunette. You could hear faint music before you reached the doors opening into the rear of the long hall, and when you pressed open one of these, the singing and the music boxed you on the ears in rather a jovial, agreeable way. You were at the very back of the hall, but the floor sloped a little, and, away through the smoke, and over the heads of people, you could see, on the stage, Mr. Pat Foley, who was Ireland’s Brightest Gem, and who, in view of that fact, might well have provided himself with a complete dress-suit, but had, up to the present, succeeded in obtaining the necktie only, and wore tweed trousers and a double-breasted jacket. No song of what is called questionable character was ever sung at the Mont., because the Mont.’s patrons had no appetite for that sort of thing; to vulgarity they had no deep-rooted objection, but even of this they desired less than did their similars in the West-end. They would always rather see a man dance intricate steps than watch furious whirling by girls; and damsels at the Mont. who kicked high and kicked often, and made themselves breathless in the effort, found their last ambitious skip received with casual interest; the hall allowed them to go in glum silence, with sometimes a few derisive whistles.
This is, you see, a most enjoyable read about a smart and confident heroine who makes her own way in the world — and even though it ends with marriage and emigration, you hardly feel that Mord’s independent spirit will be slowed down, much less broken by that.
Russell Brand suggests New Era estate’s victory is the start of revolution: ‘There’s a little of this spirit in all of us and it’s beginning to awaken’…the New Era estate’s ‘victory’ represents ‘the start of something that will change our country forever’.
Wouldn’t that be nice? Unite the Community Lambeth hosted the meeting, and Lambeth Housing Activists were there as well to build the momentum for the ongoing housing campaigns here in Lambeth.
Some pearls of campaign wisdom from Lindsay Garrett, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari, who didn’t at first know much about campaigning:
Their objective was clear, they knew that they were going to fight the whole way. The only way the company was going to get them out of their homes was to physically drag them and their children out of the doors.
So much of this was about people being able to stick together. They worked hard to make sure everyone was up for it. They let everyone know exactly what was happening, putting leaflets under doors, holding meetings, posting notices on letter boards, talking over what these evictions really meant with other tenants. They created a tenant association, had house reps for each block, developed networks to keep people informed.
They knew their targets — they sat and made a list of everyone who could be pressured, from the owners to the investors to local Councillors and MPs and Cameron himself. They were up for it.
They dug the dirt — like the numbers behind the millionaire MP Richard Benyon who was the first to try and evict them, his own publicly funded house could have house everyone on the New Era Estate with room to spare
They knew it was not about legal rights, it was about moral rights
They looked for help and solidarity. This came from organisations like Hackney Digs (doing some awesome campaigning around renters rights) and Unite, local institutions and businesses (schools and local shops and cafes and such), and of course the local and national press. Celebrities don’t hurt at all.
They certainly brought inspiration to the hall. One of the key questions they answered was about how they managed opposition and apathy on the estate.
They didn’t find much opposition, but a lot of people didn’t want to know or think about what was happening, just wanted to bury their heads in the sand. So a few key people had to take the lead, be the public face for the campaign.
They spoke out, but never without letting absolutely everyone know exactly when and where and what was happening. The more people could see that they were making a difference, the less fear they had about joining in.
Other tenants just didn’t believe they could win. Now, of course, they do.
This still isn’t true of all the tenants on the Guinness Trust Estate here in Lambeth. Residents spoke out about the difficulties they are having keeping their own campaign momentum going as they face eviction due to regeneration. Calls for support will be going out as they continue their campaign.
After a series of marches and a Question Time session with housing experts and local Councillors, on Wednesday they are returning to the full council meeting to present the Save Cressingham petition a 2nd time, because the council has failed to acknowledge the petition handed over by the resident delegation in December.
They’re asking for people to come for at least the photo shoot on the steps of the council. (6.40pm at TownHall)
Residents of the Knights Walk Estate were also present, facing their own issues of regeneration.
The other speaker of the evening was Adam Lambert from a labour campaign at St Mungo’s (you can read about their campaign here).
He made the important point that as Housing Associations lose what ideals they had to become ever more like corporations paying their directors six-figure salaries, workers as much as tenants are getting screwed.
They themselves are often tenants of social and other at-risk housing, and should be part of these campaigns as both workers and residents.
An RMT member emphasised the similarities between councils running down housing in order to then argue that it is beyond repair so they can sell it off — another connection between work and housing.
A number of people expressed frustration with political parties who refuse to put social housing on the agenda.
There was wide agreement that bigger and broader actions and marches need to happen, people need to keep coming together. Tenants from New Era, workers from St Mungo’s and many of those present in the hall were all planning on attending this Saturday’s March for Homes.
March For Homes, Control Rents, Hands off Council Housing; Affordable and Secure Homes for all
Saturday 31st January 12 noon
St Mary’s Churchyard, SE1 6SQ (near Elephant & Castle)
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.
The 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.