I ain’t a child

Roy Porter

  • Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street 1870-1914 by Anna Davin
    Rivers Oram, 289 pp, £19.95, January 1996, ISBN 1 85489 062 X

Anna Davin has risen admirably to the challenges facing the historian of working-class life in London. Dealing with the documents is daunting enough. To begin with, there are 17 volumes of Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London, published between 1889 and 1903. For all its faults it is the first survey of outcast London that can be described as social science and it remains a unique quarry of ‘statistics of poverty’, recording how much (or little) Whitechapel widows got paid for glueing a gross of matchboxes or how they fed a family of 14 on a few coppers a day. There is also the more personal testimony, essential for any historian concerned to capture ‘experience’ but hard to handle: nostalgic autobiographies like Charlie Chaplin’s and novels like Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets (1894) or Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto (1892). These and a multitude of other sources, especially school records, have been meticulously sifted by Davin. Associated from its conception with the History Workshop Journal, she is a fine oral historian; her tapes go back to the Seventies – one of her interviewees was born in 1882.

The mass of evidence is only the beginning of the problem: the real trouble lies in attitudes and approaches. Historians are born bourgeois: how then can they escape ambivalence towards the masses? And this is a difficulty compounded by the fact that so much of the documentation of proletarian life stems from sanitary inspectors, settlement workers, lady visitors and other philanthropists whose self-appointed mission to darkest London was to help the poor to become clean and decent, regular and respectable, and who, for that reason, saw them as unkempt, ungodly and unwashed, recklessly filling the world with screaming brats destined to turn into bare-footed and light-fingered street arabs whose Eliza Doolittle chirpiness barely masked a savage degeneracy that threatened race and nation. These ingrained victim-blaming stereotypes, resurfacing in the contemporary demonisation of single-parent families, easily colour historians’ readings.

The other temptation is equally strong – to romanticise the metropolitan masses as Cockney sparrows or street-wise, bolshie rebels, engaged in an endless rearguard action against exploitation and embourgeoisement. Vindications of working-class ‘honour’ along these lines used to be uncomplicated, drawing as they did on the Marxist scenario of class struggle – Gareth Stedman Jones’s classic Outcast London (1971) was significantly subtitled ‘A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society’. Traditional labour history had no doubts who the heroes and the villains were.

Things are no longer so simple, however, thanks to the advent of feminism, identity politics and the new spring-traps of political correctness. Studies like Joanna Bourke’s Working Class Cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity (1993) have highlighted the experiences of working-class women, ethnic minorities and other ‘outsiders’. The result is a toppling of traditional heroes. Within the genre of ‘people’s history’, Anna Clark’s The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (1995) puts the legendary working-class male who stars as the heroic protagonist in what she calls E.P. Thompson’s ‘melodrama’ firmly in his place: ‘the fatal flaws of misogyny and patriarchy,’ she concludes, ‘ultimately muted the radicalism of the British working class.’ The old idols are not all they seemed and the vicarious sympathies of impassioned academics may have to be redirected from dockers and draymen to their long-suffering and long-silenced wives.

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