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.

White’s book is primarily based on the oral testimonies of 16 former residents of Rothschild Buildings, who lived in these seven-storey, barrack-like dwellings from the late 1880s to the 1910s. The buildings, he explains, were ‘the ugly offspring of a reluctant paternalism’, the outcome, on the supply side, of redevelopment which took place in the area, made possible by R.A. Cross’s Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875, and made more urgent as a result of the Ripper murders. On the demand side, this particular tenement building, largely financed by the Rothschilds, became home to poor, artisan Jewish immigrants, fleeing by the thousands from the pogroms which were widespread in Eastern Europe in the 1880s and 1900s. Indeed, by the turn of the century, of the thousand-odd people living in the Rothschild Buildings, over 95 per cent were Jewish.

Although White devotes some space to explaining the genesis of this building, his chief concern is to people it with faces from the past. So we are given a careful, detailed tour of the two-roomed homes which predominated in the buildings, with their overcrowded rooms, their carefully-tended window-boxes, and their samovars for making Russian tea on special occasions. Of necessity, the shared experience of persecution and flight, the common language and lowly status of the occupants, and their residential propinquity, forged a strong sense of community. But at the same time, there were countervailing – if weaker – tensions, engendered by excessive proximity, the competing loyalties of Eastern European nationalities, and the inevitable inequalities of work and income. At one level, White explains, there was a co-operative struggle for collective independence, which found expression in strikes and flirtation with socialism; but at another, there was a competitive struggle for individual independence, as some artisans became and remained more equal than others.

This ambiguous sense of solidarity is further explored by an analysis of the adjacent areas of casual labour more typical of ‘outcast London’. The other end of Flower and Dean Street, with its lodging-houses, prostitutes, criminals and gang warfare, is described through the eyes of the residents of Rothschild Buildings, as is their necessarily ambivalent relationship with it. This surging, sinister swell of Gentile poor was both a threat and an affront to the proudly respectable Jewish community: but it also provided an indispensable supply of casual labour to relieve overworked Jewish mamas of some of the more tedious and time-consuming domestic chores. Indeed, for the women as for the men, it was work which dominated their lives – whether running the household, in an emphatically subordinate wifely role, or working 12 hours a day in the clothing trade, the tobacco industry, boot and shoe-making or the furniture business.

Much of this would have been familiar to Arthur Harding, whose tape-recorded reminiscences, made by Samuel between 1973 and 79, are largely concerned with his life in nearby Bethnal Green in the years before the First World War. He was born in 1886, and was one of the last inhabitants of ‘the Nichol’, ‘the most famous criminal slum in London’, located to the north of Spitalfields, and immortalised by Arthur Morrison in The Child of the Jago (1896). Harding’s life divides into three distinct phases, the first of which, lasting until the turn of the century, was growing up as a deprived child. His mother was a cripple who drank; his father an idler who beat her. The family frequently moved houses, its accommodation was always overcrowded, and it was only sustained by the earnings of Harding’s elder sister. Apart from a spell in Dr Barnardo’s, Harding’s schooling was limited, and as a young boy he learned how to steal from the market and pinch goods from shops. He tried his hand at cabinet-making, and even enlisted in the Army when still too young. But the pattern of his life was set when, in 1902, he first got into big trouble with the police.

The second phase of his life – criminal, violent, and interspersed with spells in prison – lasted until the early 1920s. During this period, Harding moved from the petty crimes of thieving, pilfering, snatching and pickpocketing to more violent robbery, gang warfare and protection rackets, which culminated for him in two long spells in prison in the 1910s. Thereafter, despite occasional brushes with the police, he began to go straight. He married in 1924, and returned to the cabinet-making trade. When it seemed threatened by the slump, he moved into the old clothes business, and in 1932 began but the old gold and silver. Insofar as the ‘urge of excitement’ remained, it was no longer indulged by criminal activities, but by organising strike-breaking convoys in 1926, and in supporting Oswald Mosley after the war. Finally, in the 1930s, Harding and his family quit Bethnal Green for Leyton. ‘All my family,’ he concludes, ‘was brought up here. They changed from Bethnal Green kids to something a bit selecter.’

No brief summary can adequately convey the richness of this text, peopled as it is with astonishing characters: some crooked, violent and brutal, others brave, compassionate and stoic, most an uncertain mixture of both. Above all, it is the contradictions of working-class life which emerge most forcefully, through the contradictions of Harding’s own experience, outlook and character. He was a violent, dangerous and brutal man, yet he prevented prostitutes ‘being interfered was, despised men who lived on immoral earnings, and condemned some of his neighbours for living like savage animals. He was a criminal who hated the police as corrupt, and who fought on several occasions (not always successfully) to prevent them framing him with false charges. But, at the same time, cordial relations with the force were an integral, indeed a vital, part of underworld life. And although for much of his life he was a threat to law and order, Harding’s political opinions were essentially the conservatism of those who claim to have no politics.

Both of these books excel in presenting ‘the real-life experience of the people themselves’, raw, naked, vivid and brutal, and as such they exemplify the weaknesses as well as the strengths of their genre. In the case of White’s book, for instance, it is exceedingly difficult to know what to make of the material he presents – 16 oral accounts of life in a building whose inmates numbered over a thousand. Are they typical or not? We have no way of knowing, and little is said to reassure us on this point. There is also too much extended quotation, as points are needlessly laboured, repeated and rehearsed. By comparison, White’s other work, on Campbell Bunk, much shorter in length, and with the evidence more thoughtfully and completely integrated into the text, is more vivid, immediate and evocative, rather than less. It is perhaps a pity that the author, on his own admission, succumbed here to the ‘indulgence of inch-by-inch reconstruction’.

The necessary consequence of this is that no effort is made to place this material in any context which would make clear its intellectual significance. No real attempt is made, for example, to relate it to the recent work which has been done on Jewish immigrant communities, on the late 19th-century philanthropy movement, on the problems and reforms of working-class housing, or on the conservative culture of the London working class. The author may feel that it is up to his readers to contextualise and evaluate this material, to provide their own framework within which to assess its novelty and significance: but he is surely the best qualified person to do this, and it is much to be regretted that he does not. As a result, a whole variety of important questions go unanswered. Why, for instance, has White assumed his subjects to be primarily working-class and incidentally Jewish, rather than the other way round? Why should his chapter on community, which constantly hints at great ambiguities, have no conclusion? And why was no attempt made to explore the long-term disintegration of the community, for which, presumably, the evidence is more abundant?

These same difficulties recur, in a more exaggerated form, in Samuel’s book. As autobiography, it is gripping: as history, it is unfathomable. Time and again, the reader is left wondering what to believe and what to doubt, and how to reconcile the contradictions with which the text is riddled. (We are told, incidentally, that all will be revealed in a companion volume: but at the moment, this is all we have to go on.) The same events are given different dates, the same episodes are recounted in completely contradictory ways: even assessments of the same people are bewilder-in inconsistent. When the footnotes are consulted, doubts only increase, as they regularly admit that stories cannot be verified, individuals cannot be identified, and incidents cannot be traced: ‘there is no record of ...’, ‘it has not been possible to identify ...’, ‘I can find no reference to ...’ On some occasions this must mean that it is the records, rather than the text, which are imperfect. Of course, memory plays tricks on any old man or woman, especially when recollecting a life as eventful as this over so long a period of time. Undeniably, some of the contradictions merely reflect with accuracy the contradictions in Harding’s own class position. But it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that a character so well accomplished in deceit and fantasy may have been editing and embellishing his story for the benefit of a wider audience.

Although these difficulties are in part the result of these particular and peculiar historient enterprises, they are also symptomatic of the very real problems which arise in any attempt to write ‘people’s history’ in this way. As Eric Hobsbawm explained in a recent issue of this review, when discussing volume six in this series, on methodology, all too often people’s history ‘sacrifices analysis and explanation to celebration and identification’. When taken to this extreme, excessive reliance on fallible and unrepresentative oral testimony, the cult of ‘experience’ for its own sake, and the belief that amateurs write history better than the professionals, can lead to a finished product which is, ironically, exceedingly old-fashioned in its form and limitations and which embodies many of those very drawbacks which the workshoppers find so objectionable in bourgeois history.

For these two books must be seen as historical documents rather than as works of history, and as such, they are as vulnerable to criticism as any medieval charters published by Victorian clergymen. What is the justification for printing such documents? How should they be evaluated? What is their intellectual – as distinct from experiential – significance? What general historical problems and issues do they shed light upon? The fact that the publishers of these documents are socialists in the 1980s rather than clergymen in the 1900s does not release them from their necessary intellectual obligation to confront these questions. Moreover, while it may be inadequate to study working-class life through the biased eyes of middle-class observers, it is also unsatisfactory to study it exclusively through the equally subjective eyes of the working classes themselves.

Politically, the antiquarianism of the left may be preferable to the antiquarianism of the right: but historically, professionally and intellectually, there is no more to be said for the one than for the other. Indeed, the fact that these two books both exemplify ‘working men and women writing their own history’, should warn us to be on our guard. For that is just their problem: it is the authors’ history of themselves, but no more. It is the history of persons (in this case, 16 Jewish elders and one London criminal, whose ‘experience’ can be of little ‘relevance’ to any contemporary reader of whatever social background), rather than the history of people. Moving, immediate, zestful it may be, but intellectually it has no revealed significance beyond itself.

Ironically, people’s history as exemplified in these two volumes must face many of the same challenges as bourgeois history. If it is to be of wide appeal, it must be concerned with general problems and big questions as much as with particular episodes and evidential richness. Indeed, if the ‘programmatic’ editorial to the first volume of their journal is any guide, the workshoppers realise this only too well. History, they point out, needs to be enriched by ‘a more complex understanding of historical processes, more caution in handling the sources, more boldness in extending the boundaries of enquiry’, and ‘a greater effort to achieve clarity of presentation’. Few historians – proletarian or bourgeois, socialist or capitalist – would contest the truth of this. But on the basis of these two offerings, the workshoppers themselves have only really made a significant contribution to the third of these aims. Perhaps that is the price you pay for letting the manuscript crawl up the stairs.