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Books Review: The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts and Not Like This by Jane Walsh

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We’re heading into tough times. Everyone knows this, despite the high hopes of those who thought we come to view the “end of history”, the capitalist cycle of boom and bust has gone into yet another deep and dreadful bust. So what’s been like in the past?

I’ve recently been reading two books that helped answer the question. I’ve forgotten now which writer led me to seek out Jane Walsh’s Not Like This, for she’s certainly little-known these days, with only a handful of copies on the work on abebooks, but I’m glad she did, for this is certainly one woman writer whose work and experiences deserve to be better known.

The other work is by the much better-known Robert Roberts, who had the advantage of being male, of a slightly higher class background, and the professional opportunity to thrive in the BBC and universities. The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter Centuryy is available in Penguin Classics and I picked it up in the People’s History Museum in Manchester (which ironically is now under threat from the coalition cuts).

Walsh was born in 1905 into the worst part of some of the worst slums of the northern mill town of Oldham, the third of six children. In her early years she moved often but at the age of seven family moved into a quarter condemned houses and they stayed there until 1939 when it was finally cleared away.Her family was blighted by alcohol, but above all by uncertain employment and income.

Roberts explains how his own situation was little more complicated:

“Our own family was in the slum but not, they felt, of it: we had connections. Father, besides, was a skilled mechanic. During the 60s of the last century his mother, widowed early with four children, had had the foresight to bypass a mission hall near the alley where she lived and send her three good-looking daughters to always Wesleyan chapel on the edge of a middle-class suburb. Intelligent girls, they did their duty by God and mother, all becoming Sunday school teachers in each in turn marrying well above her station, one to a journalist, and other traveller in tobacco and the third a police inspector — an ill-favoured lot the old lady, grumbled, but you can’t have everything… My father, years the junior, stayed working class; it was in fact always harder for a man to break into the higher echelons.”

One of the striking things about both of these accounts is how hierarchical life even at the bottom society then was. Walsh says that the absolute top person in the court where she spent most of her childhood was the Corporation Dustman: “He had wage of 35 shillings a week, and in spite of the fact that he had a family of five we all thought that he did very well, and raise the tone of the place by his steady and respectable job.”

And Roberts talks about classes also guarded their privileges, in echoes of the middle class today, and how the system exploited young cheaper workers, then spat them out (ditto).

“Before 1914 apprenticeships of any kind were not generally open to the children of the labouring poor. One had to be “spoke for” and usually tradesmen spoke only for the sons of trademen. Well before they left school most boys of the undermass had been working part-time in shops restrict trade is some short sort… Part-timers in shops lucky enough to be taken on fully after leaving school often enough put in a 74-hour week, which allowed them, late Saturday evening, to bring home five or six shillings grateful parents… In more modern, Americanised factories mass producers had quickly seen the advantages to be gained from the use of juvenile labour. Some shops ran almost entirely on young teenage workers: one notorious sewing machine factory managed to turn out its wares with only four or five skilled adult workers to every hundred adolescents, all of whom were sacked for reaching 20. There were innumerable other jobs besides in foundry, Ironworks and shipyard, all of which led youth nowhere except a dismissal on approaching manhood and a place among the mass of unskilled labourers find the jobs of any sort in the industrial maelstrom.”

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.