Down and Out in London

David Cannadine

  • Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block 1887-1920 by Jerry White
    Routledge, 301 pp, £11.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0603 9
  • East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding by Raphael Samuel
    Routledge, 355 pp, £11.50, April 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0725 6

One of the most spectacular examples of embourgeoisement in the 1970s was the transformation of the history workshops held at Ruskin College, Oxford from ephemeral, marginal, near-clandestine activities into a permanent, recognised and well-publicised part of the contemporary historical scene. The most significant evidence of this development was the appearance of the History Workshop Journal, the first issue of which has already become something of a collector’s item, and the launching of the History Workshop Series, of which these books are, respectively, the fifth and seventh to appear. With two such flourishing enterprises under way, with several of its most illustrious comrades established among the ivory towers and high tables of Oxbridge colleges, and with Raphael Samuel providing indefatigable leadership in inimitable style, the history workshop movement seems set fair to follow the path already blazed by that earlier enfant terrible, Past and Present, from mutinous opposition to respectable dissent.

Nevertheless, as befitted their rebellious origins, these two publishing enterprises were boldly prefaced by impassioned, strident, messianic manifestos, explaining and celebrating the work which was to be done under this new and committed banner. In the best tradition of scholarly revolutionaries, they were full of righteous indignation against the historical profession. ‘History,’ we were informed, ‘is too important to be left to the professional historian.’ Instead, ‘working men and women’ should be encouraged ‘to write their own history’. The subject must be made ‘more democratic’, and brought ‘closer to the central concern of people’s lives’. It should concentrate on ‘the real-life experience of the people themselves’, and thereby be ‘the record of resistance to oppression’, rather than be written ‘from the vantage-point of those who have had the charge of running other people’s lives’.

In short, the output produced under the history workshoppers’ auspices was to be (among other things) feminist, radical, socialist, committed, supportive: history of the people, by the people, for the people. If those who undertook it had to pay their own way, did not have an academic job, and had been denied a grant by the SSRC, so much the better. ‘The manuscripts,’ we were warned in a sentence at once florid, disconcerting and obscure, ‘line the passage ways, crawl up the stairs to sleep at night, and invade the children’s bedroom.’ This was not social history as defined by Trevelyan: the history of the people with the politics left out. Rather, it was socialist history: the history of the people with the politics put back in – provided, that is, that the politics were of the appropriate kind.

If we assume that this is a road which it is possible and worthwhile for historians to travel, then both of these works must be applauded for taking us some way along it. Unlike the previous volumes in the series, they are each devoted to a single subject and are written by a single author. Both are concerned with working-class life in that area to the north and east of Liverpool Street Station, extending in an arc from Bethnal Green via Spitalfields to Whitechapel, famous in its day for such do-badding criminals as Jack the Ripper, and for such do-gooding enterprises as Toynbee Hall. More precisely, White’s volume recovers the fabric of Jewish life among those immigrants who lived in one East End tenement block, while Samuel’s puts between hard covers the ordered reminiscences of Arthur Harding, a man described to the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Police in 1907 as ‘a most slippery and dangerous criminal’. In their way, both books are irritating, inadequate, even incoherent: but they also give a vivid, horrifying, unforgettable picture of what it was like to be down and out in London in the early decades of this century.

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