Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street 1870-1914 
by Anna Davin.
Rivers Oram, 289 pp., £19.95, January 1996, 9781854890627
Show More
Show More

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.

When Thompson declared that it was time to rescue common people ‘from the enormous condescension of posterity’, he had in mind ‘the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” handloom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott’ – all ‘lost causes’ around 1800. Their equivalents a century later would have included the sweat-shop presser, the artificial-flower maker, the washerwoman and her daughter hawking dripping door to door. And, with some help from Henry Mayhew and from modern historians like Stedman Jones, Anna Davin has indeed delivered such segments of the Late Victorian and Edwardian labouring poor from the patronage of friend and foe.

She has done so with a strong historical sympathy and a realism that focuses on ‘the daily detail of poor children’s lives’. Where snooping critics exposed dirt and disorder, waste and caprice, Davin carefully reconstructs old makeshift ways that were highly rational within the wider physical, domestic and moral economies of the time, ever pressed by penury and insecurity. She gives due weight to misery and brutalisation, not to whip up futile outrage but to elucidate distinctive patterns of expectation, laying bare the material culture of families locked into privation within a productive and reproductive system in which labour was superabundant (no contraception), wages were rock bottom and bosses called the shots. Above all, she aims, within that framework, to trace the changing role of children in the family economy.

The 19th-century bourgeoisie developed a sexual division of labour in which males monopolised paid employment in the marketplace while their wives were to serve as angels of maternal virtue at home. As Wally Seccombe writes in Weathering the Storm: Working-Class Families from the Industrial Revolution to the Fertility Decline (1993), this system (public man, private woman) spread in due course to the working classes, especially after schooling became universal and compulsory, the symbolic milestone being the Education Act of 1870. In the classic Edwardian working-class family, everyone would know their place: the husband was out at work, his wife was in the scullery and the kids were at school. Davin’s point, however, is that this new set-up was not manifestly progressive and took hold only slowly and after protracted conflict. The London working-class domestic economy long remained traditional: everyone mucked in and the earnings, however meagre, of wife and children made all the difference between surviving and starving. Through their labour in the home and beyond, for neighbours, shopkeepers and small capitalists, children kept the ship afloat.

Until the Great War, the working-class home was awash with kids: more than five was normal, more than ten nothing unusual. In the wider scheme of things, unlimited fertility cheapened the price of labour and did the poor no favours. For the Smiths or Kellys, however, many hands, while never making light work, shared the load and generated multiple sources of petty income – one child an errand boy, one doing baby-minding, another selling firewood round the streets, and several helping mother make fancy goods or stitch shirts. It was the mother’s job to ensure all her brood contributed their labour and pennies to a domestic kitty in which there was never much to spare. But ordinary people were used to scrimping and saving, scrounging bones from the butcher’s barrow, doing the occasional moonlight flit (regularly experienced by the young V.S. Pritchett) and, to escape the workhouse, relying on the kindness of relatives and neighbours – traditions of give-and-take which still survived in the postwar Bethnal Green anthropologised by Michael Young and Peter Willmott in Family and Kinship in East London (1957). Davin’s respect for the resourcefulness, grit and loyalty of these working families is clear: the streets may have been mean but the locals weren’t.

In all this the role of children was crucial. They might be called on to do a thousand demanding tasks. Within the home they looked after the younger children (a duty falling largely but by no means exclusively on girls) and helped their mothers with cooking and nursing, darning and patching (old clothes never died). Outside, they scrubbed steps for neighbours, minded stalls, gathered rags, or made up bunches of watercress like the eight-year-old immortalised by Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1861). All such work fell entirely outside the various Acts passed from the 1830s onwards regulating child labour, since these applied solely to factories and mines.

Davin documents the toll such labour took: routinely chilled, famished and exhausted, children were often also the targets of backhanders and bashings (though neighbours, she tells us, intervened to stop serious violence). Yet the signs are that children not only accepted their role within this domestic economy but were proud of the respect and autonomy that employment conferred on them. Mayhew’s Watercress Girl explained why she never squandered her pennies on sweets: ‘It’s like a child to care for sugar sticks, and not like one who’s got a living an’ vittals to earn. I ain’t a child ... I’m past eight I am.’

For all its indisputable benefits, the coming of compulsory schooling jeopardised this precarious economy. It was a threat that could be circumvented in small ways: errands could be run or lucifers sold before and after school, even during the dinner break. As school registers reveal, girls were commonly kept home on washday or when mother was sick – some teachers kicked up a stink, others were more understanding of family realities. But partly thanks to the dreaded truancy officer, the dictates of school made decisive inroads into the old family ways.

In the long run, school imposed new values; through discipline and drill it enforced public criteria for decency, obedience and not least hygiene. Board-school lessons imparted respectability, and textbooks taught patriotic and imperial tales. School was the Trojan horse through which the state entered the working-class home, stipulating new standards, pressurising parents. Mothers, for example, might be ashamed in front of their neighbours if kids were packed off to school without shoes or in grubby pinafores – or if their ‘Nitty Norahs’ came home with a red card threatening exclusion from school. (The mortification of having his head shaved for ringworm, and the ‘contempt’ other boys displayed towards him, long haunted Chaplin.) The authority of school could challenge parental power – or change parental outlooks.

At stake here – though Davin avoids reducing it to crudely conspiratorial terms – were contested models of childhood. The traditional children of the streets were honorary grown-ups, part of the family work team. School by contrast offered a vision of innocence and carefree dependency for the child of the state. ‘Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future!’ – thus Sherlock Holmes commended those bright and airy new board schools to Dr Watson: ‘capsules, with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future.’ Eyes would be opened and horizons widened.

Reformers may have wanted to ‘rescue’ children from ‘slave labour’ and the bad influences of home, perennially slovenly and suspect, but they also betrayed ‘the anxiety of adults who want children to be more childlike’. Education’s role in this taming of childhood would be reinforced in due course by further disciplines – child psychiatry, for example. And the state’s duty to save the next generation from ‘bad’ parents would be preached by eugenic and degenerationist ideologies, fearful of the litters the poor produced and the way they brought them up.

Directly, by drilling the children themselves, and obliquely, by driving a wedge into the home, school constituted a ‘civilising’ influence. Universal state education disciplined the populace, rendering it, for the next two or three generations, exceptionally integrated, law-abiding and conformist (witness the conduct of the working classes in both world wars).

And what of the children? Were they grateful for the ‘protection’ the state was offering? To Davin it’s far from clear. However arduous, work was always better than school. ‘We learn reading and boredom, writing and boredom, arithmetic and boredom, and so on according to the curriculum,’ observed the Tyneside writer Jack Common, ‘till in the end it is quite certain you can put us to the most boring job there is and we’ll endure it.’ School broke men in for the factory or the trenches and women for the kitchen sink.

Davin sticks close to her sources, and sometimes one hankers after a more speculative style. Further assessment might have been offered of the role of fathers – of Clark’s ‘misogyny and patriarchy’, and even sexual abuse. Beyond the red-leaded doorstep, more might have been said about wider influences on children: the roles of charities and churches, clubs and cheap commercial culture. Though she draws on Hugh Cunningham’s Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood since the 17th Century (1991), it is a great pity that Carolyn Steedman’s evocative Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority 1780-1930 (1995) evidently appeared too late to make a mark. Cunningham and Steedman’s reflections on the changing meanings of childhood for adults – why reclaiming ‘lost’ childhood and restoring a ‘proper’ one became so crucial for right-minded Victorians – shed further light on Davin’s waifs and strays: both, for example, offer richer cultural readings of the celebrated Watercress Girl. Yet there remains much to be said for micro-history. The one-roomed home (its children four to a bed, top to tail) made for an exceptional closeness: reading Davin offers a comparable experience – intimate, intense and often poignant.

The ‘demise of the family’ dominates the news these days; and family life is indeed breaking up fast, if what we mean by that is the heterosexual couple joined till death us do part, with its regulation 2.4 children. But the problem with the ‘death of the family’ is the assumption that the nuclear family is holy and eternal, a sacred institution existing until yesterday, when it was sabotaged (in the right-wing version) by Sixties permissiveness and what is oddly sneered at as the ‘Granny State’, or (in the left-wing account) by ‘uncaring’ Thatcherite market forces. What tends to get forgotten is that family structures always were in transition, as they responded to the ever-changing demands of the wider economy. ‘Domestic life ... must soon be at an end,’ Lord Shaftesbury said more than a hundred and fifty years ago: ‘society will consist of individuals no longer grouped in families.’ He was wrong, and today’s Cassandras will also be wrong. Families will continue, but they will assume forms we cannot foresee.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences