Saturday, 17 July 2010

Death, Community and the rhythm of Working-Class life

This post will be using a short story by D. H. Lawrence, 'Odour of Chrysanthemums', to discuss some of the fundamental aspects of late Victorian working-class life.

Here is a link to an online version of the story:

Lawrence himself, born in 1885, grew up in the Nottinghamshire town of Eastwood, a community almost completely dominated by mining. His father was a miner, but his mother was a former schoolmistress. Class is a very problematic set of categories and Lawrence, with his mixed background and subsequent success, is too complex to simply label working-class. Much of his work did deal with working-class themes and life however, especially one of his earliest works Odour of Chrysanthemums, which was published in English Review in 1911.

Odour deals with a mother, Elizabeth Bates, and her children waiting for the return of the father, Walter, from the pit, the mother first speculating on his flaws and the problems within their marriage, and then her emotional response to the return of his dead body, covered in coal dust, from a pit accident.

Julie Marie Strange has already explored the themes of death and dying in her work so its not my intention to cover that here. Instead we'll examine Lawrence's short story to see what it can tell us about life in an Edwardian mining community as well as keeping an eye out for some of the dangers in using fiction in historical work.

What struck me first was the arrival of the woman's father on the steam engine. Geographical mobility was often limited in mining communities, leading to at least one child growing up in a Welsh mining town in the Edwardian period recalling to the historian Max Arthur that a social reformer had come to their house to urge their mother to move her children out of the valley to prevent inbreeding. Whilst fears of inbreeding were probably unfounded, census work shows that many working-class families did live in close proximity to their extended family. The father in Odours appologises for not coming to visit on the Sunday, implying he lives close by. It is difficult to tell how true to life this is however, as the family of railway workers could often suffer disruption and upheval caused by the demands of running engines across the country at all hours. What is left in Lawrence's work is a profound sense of isolation on the part of Elizabeth.

Her husband, she suspects, is down at the pub. The Prince of Wales seems an unwelcoming place to Elizabeth and the audience despite its warm and bright windows. 'No, you didn't like [to go in to find Walter] - it's not very nice' agrees Mrs Rigley, the woman who Elizabeth turns to for help in finding her husband. The public house in Lawrence's work appears to have been a male dominated domain. To what extent this was true amongst working-class communities is hard to say, as information on working-class culture is often slim. Middle-class reformers certainly dissaproved, yet the staunchly pro-temperace Seebohm Rowntree, investigating poverty in York in 1899, pointed out that the 'fact of their social attractiveness struck..[me]...very forcibely'. The pull for many working-class men and women, with few other spaces available for social interaction, must have been greater still. The public house was Walter's venue of choice, and whilst there is a tangible sense of suspense as the family wait for his return, there is also a tired resignation born out of familiarity with this behaviour.

Finally, there is a palpable sense of rhythm in the working-class world Lawrence portrays. It is one inhabited by miners tramping back from work, and then later from home to the pub, and of trains thundering past to and from the colliery. This sense of repetition is, I think, an important part of working-class life in the Edwardian age, and one which extended beyond the mining towns of the age. The social commentator Thomas Wright, writing in the 1860s, recalled how he would wake early and freezing on a winter's morning to join the steady trudge down his London street to the factory. Yet this simple schema of work and rest is not the only rhythm present in Lawrence's work; Walter's death, whilst jarring, feeds into a wider pattern of life and death which underlies the unnamed mining community. In the story's final lines Lawrence speaks of the inevitability of death:
'She knew she submitted to life, which was her immedeate master.
But from death, her ultimate master, she winced in fear and shame.'
Lawrence's work has been fundamental in fostering a picture of the bleak and inescapable toil of mining communities that was built upon in Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier. I wonder to what extent the majority of those living in such communities shared these opinions, and whether they felt their lives were dominated by an inexorable pattern of toil followed by death. This is one of the fundamental problems of using literature in history, it is sometimes impossible to know whether the author's views were shared by wider society, especially those which, like working-class communities, leave few sources behind.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Working-Class Lodger

Hello and welcome back. Deadlines and re-writes have taken up a lot of my recent time, but with apologies we now resume our schedule with a look at the elusive figure of the lodger in late Victorian Britain.
Dudley Street in Seven Dials by Gustav Dore
During the course of my research into the working-class home the lodger/boarder has always been a mysterious figure, evading an easy definition. They would have been a common sight in nineteenth-century cities however. 'Going on the Tramp' or 'Tramping' looking for work was an accepted part of many trades, even the engineer turned social-commentator Thomas Wright admitted unashamedly that he had travelled across the country seeking employment in his youth. Although the seasonal pattern of working on the harvest in the summer and returning to the city for labouring work during the winter was dying out by the late Victorian era, it remained a crucial aspect of the lives of many poorer groups such as newly-arrived Irish immigrants.
These groups found accommodation ranging from the Casual Ward of the Workhouse to common flop houses to sleeping rough. This post will concentrate on trying to look at those we can trace through sources - those taking up private lodgings in working-class homes. In attempting to examine them we will use three cases from the Old Bailey Online resource:
To access the cases simply enter into the 'Reference No.' section on the right the following numbers:
t18800112-116 (which should lead to George Barrett - Breaking the Peace - Wounding)
t18900623-520 (Edward Clowes)
t18931016-912 (Thomas Greenwood)
Lets start with the earliest case - that of George Barrett. Seemingly Barrett was obsessed with his former landlady Eliza Alabaster and when his advances were turned down became violent. Sliding up behind her he asked 'when may I know you?' having wanted 'improper intercourse' with her for some time Eliza claimed in her statement. Edward Bagely, brought to the scene by one of Barrett's daughters found Eliza dazed and bleeding after Barrett had shot at her. On his way to the Police station Barrett was heard to bemoan the fact that Eliza's two new male lodgers meant she no longer wanted him.
Whilst Barrett was clearly unhinged, two points of the case raise interesting questions about the nature of lodgers in the home. Barrett claimed in his statement that he had been driven to despair after Eliza had 'refused to renew' her intimacy with him. If they had indeed been in a relationship before he moved from the house, then Barrett's concern over Eliza's new lodgers seems more understandable. Also of interest is how Barrett obtained the gun - his workmate and employer's son had given it to him broken and apparently un-fixable, yet Barrett, out of sight of any of his employers/friends/family/fellow lodgers etc had managed to fix the gun to a reasonable standard, an impressive feat given how overcrowded and overlooked Victorian dwellings could be.
The second example demonstrates that violence was a two-way street for many lodgers. Edward Clowes, found guilty of stabbing his landlord George Crouchman with a fork, claimed that Crouchman himself was a violent man who had struck the first blow, coming into his room and attacking him (see Clowes' final statement in italics before the verdict). In countering this Crouchman emphasised (see the re-examination) that he had come up to see what all the shouting was about, and Clowes had just given his wife 'two black eyes' before he turned on him. Lodgers were obviously a disruptive influence in some homes - Crouchman had attempted to break up the domestic dispute because the noise was disturbing both his family and other lodgers in the house. Lodgers could obviously be a disruptive and potentially dangerous presence in the working-class home.
The third case, however, mentioning lodgers only peripherally, shows the positive benefits they could bring. Accused of neglecting his child, Thomas Greenwood claimed that he could not afford food as he was out of work and relying on the income from a lodger, who had yet to pay this week's rent. Greenwood's case demonstrates just how crucial a lodger could be to staying afloat as a family.
One thing to remember when using Old Bailey accounts is that these are Criminal records. The lodgers who appear in them, if not causes of crime themselves, can sometimes become tainted in our minds with their unpalatable surroundings. Whilst Greenwood's lodger may or may not have let him down, many other families relied on the income provided by lodgers to stay above the poverty line. For those interested in family history or the history of child-care there is a considerable amount of peripheral information on the census about lodgers. One interesting one, which I think challenges our pre-conceived notions of what a lodger is, is the position of 'child nurse' noted down as an occupation for children with different surnames (or sometimes nephews/nieces of the head-of-house) on the census. These were children taken into working-class homes to help around the house and with smaller children. In return they received food and accommodation, and sometimes a chance to go to school.
Further Reading:
Raphael Samuel - Comers and Goers in The Victorian City by Jim Dyos and Michael Woolf.
Samuel's article is one of the few that tackles the question of itinerant workers in the Victorian City.
Tom Crook - 'Accommodating the Outcast: Common Lodging Houses and the limits of urban governance in Victorian and Edwardian London' Urban History 35:3 for those interested in the lodging house aspect.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Charles Booth and 'Life and Labour of the People in London'

I can't think of anywhere better to start this blog than a discussion of a man whose work is chronically unknown outside of academia, Charles Booth.

His father was a corn merchant, and showing a keen interest in mathematics young Charles was soon apprenticed into a shipping firm. By the age of 22 he and his older brother Alfred started out on their own, founding the Booth Steamship Company in Liverpool. A fascination with how statistics could be used in society, as well as his Unitarian upbringing, helped convince Booth to undertake some sort of study of social conditions. The 1880s were a time of severe trade depression and were accompanied by shocking reports in the press of the depths of poverty throughout London. Most historians now reject the idea that Booth was spurred to action by the Social Democratic Federation Chairman H M Hyndman, who claimed that 25% of Londoners were living in poverty, but for whatever reason he had assembled a team of researchers to begin a initial survey of Tower Hamlets in 1887 that would then spread across London, lasting 15 years and being published in 17 volumes as Life and Labour of the People in London' in 1902.

On to the sources.

Booth and his team of researchers, which compromised a veritable stellar array of people later destined for important careers in social research and politics such as Beatrice Potter (not the Peter Rabbit lady), Gerald Duckworth, David Schloss and Clara Collett, walked every street in London and graded it on a number of criteria to assign it a level of poverty. These were colour coded onto a map showing the spread of poverty across the capital, and its these maps which make up the most striking part of Booth's work.

As you can see, not only were these sources incredibly detailed, but showed at a glance the geographical distribution of poverty, especially its relationship to the wider physical environment. Note for example the line of poor houses top centre running along the edge of the gas works, or the pocket of dark-blue and black in the bottom centre near the Docks.

The LSE, which holds these documents, has made huge efforts to put them online and the results can be found here:

What we'll concentrate on are the 'Police Walks', which were the notes of one of Booth's researchers accompanying a local policeman around a few streets to assess the poverty of the area. Specifically we'll look at a walk George Duckworth made with PC Cockett around parts of Deptford on July 27th 1899 (its B367 for you reference fans). Here's the link to follow as we go -

One of the fantastic things about the Booth notebooks are the sense we get of late 19th century London street life. If we move on a page to 70-71 using the arrows at the top of the screen we find that 'Deptford Park in the centre is a broad open flat green space. Full of children this afternoon, hardly anyone there above 12 years of age except the police men and care taker'. Usually the streets visited by Booth and his investigators swarmed with children at certain times of the day, but here they've taken advantage of a green space to spend their time.

If we move over the page I hope you get the sense of moving through the streets of Deptford. Remember these notebooks are a record of a circular walk (see map on p. 69) and as such offer us a unique eye-level experience of late Victorian London. It is also, importantly, a sensory one; Trundleys Road has on the west side 'a bone boiler and animal charcoal maker; smell awful'. The smells of industry would have permeated 19th century city-life much more than they do now, and the smells of noxious industries would have determined a lower-class area, as those who could afford to moved out of range.

Turn over the page again (to pages 74-75) and we can see Booth's colour coding at work. Windmill Lane is 'less good' than preceding streets, which are of a comfortable working-class standard signified by pink on the map. Windmill Lane has slipped down to a mixture of light blue and purple, signifying a poorer class of residents.

If we move on to pages 76-77, which is the following days walk, we can see an example of the criteria that Booth's researchers looked for. In Staples Rents we can see the pencilled comment 'children dirty'. This was taken by Booth's observers as one of the marks of a respectable and financially stable working-class family, and is repeated throughout the notebooks. It is also a reminder however, that although a brilliant resource, we are looking at the world through a middle-class set of eyes. Although many working-class families would have agreed that a clean appearance was a indication of a child from a good family, many children were expected to fetch and carry for their parents, not to mention the dirt they would have picked up playing in the streets, and with bathing a time-consuming activity for working-class families we must take the vague label of 'children dirty' with some caution.

Thankfully Booth himself was aware of these problems, and conducted extensive interviews with local clergymen, police, charity workers, and some working-class people. These haven't been digitized but are available in the LSE archive.


Rosemary O'Day and David Englander - Mr Charles Booth's Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London reconsidered, 1993 and Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840-1914 1995. These are the definitive works on Booth's survey of London, with the former relating in brilliant detail how it came into existence and was conducted, whilst the latter constitutes examples of how it may be used in a wide-range of historical fields. Plus Rosemary is one of my supervisors and both a great historian and a lovely lady.

The ever-good Spartacus offers an overview of the background of Booth and his contributors as well as their context.

And here's the link to LSE online again if people have missed it which has an extensive further reading list.

Thanks for reading - this has been the first post (obviously) so any feedback on style or content would be appreciated. Also suggestions for the next post would be welcome!


Hello all and welcome to my new blog!

First of all, a little about me. I'm a research student at the University of York looking into the working-class home between 1870 and 1914, and so spend much of my time in archives scanning through a variety of documents hoping to piece together the realities of working-class life in the final decades of the nineteenth-century and the beginnings of the twentieth.

Since a very early age I've been fascinated by not just history, but telling others about it in exorbitant detail, as my long-suffering family and friends will probably attest!

This blog is an attempt to marry my current research interests with my desire to bring the incredible details of the past to as many people as possible. Basically each week or so I'm going to feature a historical source which can be accessed for free on the internet, offer a bit of context and analysis, and give a few useful links and suggestions for further reading. I'm hoping that this will interest family history enthusiasts, fans of the Victorian period, and generally anyone with an interest in social history!