Saturday , April 13 2024
Two books about life in the early 20th-century British northern slums are a powerful warning about the need to provide genuine anti-poverty measures today.

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

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.”

Comparing these two books, Jane is certainly more personal, Roberts more overtly analytical. Jane has a few anecdotes about politics in the institutional sense; Roberts is carefully analytical about the region from which he came:

“Our district voted solidly Conservative except for once in the famous election of 1906, when a fear that the Tories’ reform policy might increase the price of food alarmed to the humble voter. A Conservative victory, it was widely bruited, would mean the ‘little loaf’, a liberal win, ‘the big loaf’. These were politics the poor could understand! They threw out Michael Brewer, the long-established representative, in favour of the Liberal. Men like my father, he revered Lloyd George, free-trade-minded shopkeepers and a few artisans around were delighted – until the next election! The overwhelming majority of unskilled workers remained politically illiterate still. The less they had to conserve, the more conservative in spirit they showed themselves.”

But Jane’s personal account is hugely telling about the damage change petty bureaucracy and casual slights can do to the poor. Seeking to buy a school uniform for a smart oldest daughter, she’s almost pitifully grateful for an education authority grant of £10. But when she takes it to the shop at which must be spent, far posher than her usual haunts, she is treated with contempt and publicly humiliated as the assistant that the discusses the details.

“She took up the phone on the end of the counter, and, having got through to the person she wanted, disgusted the top of the voice, waving my credit note in his free hand.
By this time every I was on the; every year with listing.
I felt awful; but when I looked down at my poor little Margaret her bottom lip was trembling.
I said no more, but quietly had my parcels wrapped up and we left the shop. It took to two choc ices and all my tact, plus a reassurance that I would get her uniform before she went to school, to erase the unpleasantness from her mind.”

Of course the poverty in material terms was greater then than many experience now – the absolute basics of food and clothing taking up much effort (and desperate dreaming time). Of course that’s far less uncommon in Britain today than many realise, and we’re fast heading down the social track of America, where 17 million children live in food-insecure households. Many of the problems evident in the story that I’ve linked to about the present day were present a century ago.

Roberts says: “In the poorest households, through lack of knowledge and utensils little cooking of any kind went on, except to the grilling on a fork before the kitchen fire bits of bacon and fish. Many never cooked vegetables, not even potatoes.”

What’s most evident through both of these books, however, is the sheer human waste of lives of poverty that force great effort and intelligence to be directed simply to achieving the basics of survival. Walsh in her own life is telling example of this – she’s an elegant, intelligent writer, who wrote columns and clearly would have had more potential given the chance. Roberts’ mother was clearly another such woman.

There’s much here that we should not, must not, go back to. A lesson for us all…

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.

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