Monday, June 13, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Women Surviving in Poverty and Sweatshops Trafalgar Square


To the London mind nothing is more certain than that Trafalgar Square, which may be regarded as the real focus of the city, is unrivaled in situation and surroundings. “The finest site in Europe,” one hears on every side, and there is reason for the faith. In spite of the fact that the National Gallery which it fronts is a singularly defective and unimpressive piece of architecture, it hardly weakens the impression, though the traveler facing it recalls inevitably a criticism made many years ago: “This unhappy structure may be said to have everything it ought not to have, and nothing which it ought to have. It possesses windows without glass, a cupola without size, a portico without height, pepper boxes without pepper, and the finest site in Europe without anything to show upon it.”

In spite of all this, to which the pilgrim must at once agree, the Square itself, with the Nelson Pillar and the noble lions at its base, nobler for their very simplicity; its fountains and its outlook on the beautiful portico of St. Martin’s, the busy Strand and the great buildings rising all about, is all that is claimed for it, and the traveler welcomes any chance that takes him through it. Treasures of art are at its back, and within short radius, every possibility of business or pleasure, embodied in magnificent hotels, theaters, warehouses, is for the throng that flows unceasingly through these main arteries of the city’s life.

This is one phase of what may be seen in Trafalgar Square. But with early autumn and the shortening days and the steadily increasing pressure of that undercurrent of want and misery through which strange flotsam and jetsam come to the surface, one saw, on the long benches or crouched on the asphalt pavement, lines of men and women sitting silently, making no appeal to passers-by, but, as night fell, crouching lower in their thin garments or wrapping old placards or any sack or semblance of covering about them, losing memory in fitful sleep and waking with dawn to a hopeless day. This was the sight that Trafalgar Square had for those who passed through it, and who at last began to question, “Why is it? Who are they? They don’t seem to beg. What does it mean?”

The Square presently overflowed, and in any and every sheltered spot the same silent lines lay down at night along the Thames Embankment, in any covered court or passage, men rushing with early dawn to fight for places at the dock gates, breaking arms or dislocating shoulders often in the struggle, and turning away with pale faces, as they saw the hoped-for chance given to a neighbor, to carry their tale to the hungry women whose office was to wait. The beggars pursued their usual course, but it was quite plain that these men and women had no affinity with them save in rags. Day by day the numbers swelled. “Who are they? What does it mean?” still sounded, and at last the right phrase was found, and the answer came: “They are the ‘unemployed.’ There is no longer any work to be had, and these people can neither get away nor find any means of living here.”

For a time London would not believe its ears. There must be work, and so food for whoever was willing to work; but presently this cry silenced, and it became plain that somebody must do something.

Food was the first thought; and from the Limehouse district, and a refuge known as the Outcasts’ Home, a great van loaded with loaves of bread came in two or three times a week, taking back to the refuge in the empty cart such few as could be induced to try its mercies. Coffee was also provided on a few occasions; and as the news spread by means of that mysterious telegraphy current in the begging fraternity, suddenly the Square overflowed with their kind; and who wanted to work and could not, and who wanted no work on any consideration, no man could determine.

With the story of this tangle, of the bewilderment and dismay for all alike, and the increasing despair of the unemployed, this chronicle has but indirectly to do. Trafalgar Square was emptied at last by means already familiar to all. Beggars skulked back to their hiding-places like wharf-rats to the rotten piles that shelter them; the unemployed dispersed also, showing themselves once more in the files that registered when the census of the unemployed was decided upon; and then, for the most part, were lost to public sight in the mass of general, every-day, to-be-expected wretchedness which makes up London below the surface.

Scores of wretched figures crouched on the icy asphalt of the Square on a pouring night early in November, before its clearing had been ordered. The great van was expected, but had not appeared, and men huddled in the most sheltered corners of this most unsheltered spot, cowering under any rag of covering they had been able to secure. In a corner by the lions a pair had taken refuge,–a boy of ten or so, wrapped in two newspaper placards, and his bare feet tucked into a horse’s nose-bag, too old and rotten for any further service in its own line of duty; over him crouched a girl, whose bent figure might have belonged to eighty, but whose face as she looked up showed youth which even her misery could not wipe out. She had no beauty, save soft dark eyes and a delicate face, both filled with terror as she put one arm over the boy, who sprung to his feet. “I’ll not go where Nell can’t,” he said, the heavy sleep still in his eyes; “we’re goin’ to keep together, me an’ Nell is.”

“‘Tain’t the van,” the girl said, still holding him; “they tried to take him back to the Refuge the other night, and he’s afraid of ‘em. They don’t take any over sixteen, and so I can’t go, an’ he’s afraid somehow they’ll take him in spite of me. I’d be willin’ enough, for there’s no more I can do for him, and he’s too little for this sort of life; but he won’t go.”

The girl’s thin clothing was soaked with rain; she shivered as she spoke, but sat there with the strange patience in look and manner that marks the better class of English poor. “But is there nobody to give you a shelter on such a night? You must have somebody. What does it mean?”

“I had a bit of a place till last Wednesday, but the rent was far behind and they turned me out. I was home then a day or two, but it’s worse there than the streets. There was no work, and father drunk, and beating mother and all of us, and Billy worst of all; so the streets were better. I’ve tried for work, but there’s none to be had, and now I’m waiting. Perhaps I shall die pretty soon, and then they can take Billy into the Refuge. I’m waiting for that.”

“But there must be work for any one as young and strong as you.”

The girl shook her head. “I’ve walked the soles off me shoes to find it. There’s no work in all London. I can go on the streets, but I’d rather do this. My mother did her best for us all, but she’s been knocked round till she’s as near death as we. There’s no work for man nor woman in all London.”

The boy had settled down at her feet again, satisfied that no attempt was to be made to separate them, and fell asleep instantly, one hand holding her dress. To leave the pair was impossible. Other cases might be as desperate, but this was nearest; and presently a bargain had been made with an old woman who sells roasted chestnuts in St. Martin’s Lane, close by, and the two were led away to her shelter in some rookery in the Seven Dials. A day or two later the full story was told, and has its place as the first and strongest illustration of the state of things in this great city of London, where, as the year 1888 opens, official registers hold the names of over seventeen thousand men who wish to work at any rate that may be paid, but for whom there is no work, their names representing a total of over fifty thousand who are slowly starving; and this mass known to be but a part of that which is still unregistered, and likely to remain so, unless private enterprise seeks it out in lane and alley where it hides.

The father was a “coal whipper” on the docks near Tower Hill, this meaning that he spent his days in the hold of a collier or on the deck, guiding the coal basket which ascends from the hold through a “way” made of broken oars lashed together, and by means of a wheel and rope is sent on and emptied. Whether in hold or on deck it is one of the most exhausting forms of labor, and the men, whose throats are lined with coal dust, wash them out with floods of beer. Naturally they are all intemperate, and the wages taken home are small in proportion to their thirst. And as an evening solace, the father, who had once been footman in a good family, and married the lady’s maid (which fact accounted for the unusual quality of Nelly’s English), beat them all around, weeping maudlin tears over them in the morning, and returning at night to duplicate the occasion for more.

The mother had made constant fight for respectability. She did such dressmaking as the neighborhood offered, but they moved constantly as fortunes grew lower and lower, sheltering at last in two rooms in a rookery in Tower Hamlets.

Here came the final disablement. The father, a little drunker than usual, pushed the wife downstairs and their Billy after her, the result being a broken hip for the first and a broken arm for the last. Nelly, who had begun to stitch sacks not long before, filled her place as she could, and cared for the other seven, all not much more than babies, and most of them in time mercifully removed by death. She was but twelve when her responsibility began, and it did not end when the mother came home, to be chiefly bedridden for such days as remained. The three little boys were all “mud-larks,” that is, prowled along the river shore, picking up any odds and ends that could be sold to the rag-shop or for firewood, and their backs were scored with the strap which the father carried in his pocket and took out for his evening’s occupation when he came.

The mother, sitting up in bed and knitting or crocheting for a small shop near by, fared no better than the rest, for Billy, who tried to stand between them, only infuriated the brute the more. The crisis came when he one night stole the strap from his father’s pocket and cut it into pieces. Nelly, who was now earning fair wages, had long thought that her mother’s life would be easier without them; and now, as Billy announced that he had done for himself and must run, she decided to run too.

“I told mother I’d have a bit of a room not far off,” she said, “only where father wouldn’t be likely to search us out, and I’d do for Billy and for her too what I could. She cried, but she saw it was best. Billy was just a bag of bones and all over strap marks. He’d have to mud-lark just the same, but he’d have more to eat and no beatings, and he’d always hung to me from the time he was born. So that is the way I did, and, bit by bit, I got a comfortable place, and had Billy in school, and kept us both, and did well. But then the wages began to go down, and every week they got lower till, where I’d earned twelve shillings a week sometimes, I was down to half and less than half that. I tried stitching for the sweaters a while, but I’d no machine, and they had more hands than they wanted everywhere, and I went back to the sacks. And at last they dismissed a lot too, and I went here and there and everywhere for another chance, and not one,–not one anywhere. I pawned everything, bit by bit, till we’d nothing left but some rags and straw to sleep upon, and the rent far behind; and then I went home when we were turned out, and that father took for his chance, and was worse than ever.

“And so, when there was no work anywhere, though I was ready for anything, I didn’t care what, and I saw we were just taking the bread from mother’s mouth (though it’s little enough she wanted), then I told Billy to stay with her, and I went out and to the Square and sat down with the rest, and wondered if I ought to sit there and wait to be dead, or if I hadn’t the right to do it quicker and just try the river. But I saw all those I was with just as bad off and worse, and some with babies, and so I didn’t know what to do, but just to wait there. What can we do? They say the Queen is going to order work so that the men can get wages; but they don’t say if she is going to do anything for the women. She’s a woman; but then I suppose a Queen couldn’t any way know, except by hearsay, that women really starve; and women do for men first anyhow. But I will work any way at anything, if only you’ll find it for me to do–if only you will.”

For one of the fifty-three thousand work and place have been found. For the rest is still the cry: “I will work any way at anything, if only you’ll find it for me to do; if only you will.”
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon

It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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