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Archaeology of domestic life in early 20th century Britain

The aim of this blog is to publish data on early 20th century buildings, whilst this is still accessible. Much material of interest to the historian is being destroyed through 'home improvements' and DIY, and objects are increasingly being divorced from their context through dispersal after the death of their owners. By creating an easily accessible contextual record of material culture, it is hoped that those interested in this period of history may have a resource through which the details of domestic life might be studied.

If you have any artefacts of interest, or make discoveries during the process of your own investigations that you would like to share, please contact me!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Domesticty and the 'oucast' single parent

I've recently read a great book (In Darkest London), written in 1926, by Mrs Cecil Chesterton (sister-in-law to GK), who went undercover as an 'outcast' in 1925. I'm currently writing an article for the voluntary action history society blog - I'll post a link if & when this gets posted, which will outline the book - as domesticity is considered (within institutions such as Salvation Army hostels and workhouses), it's of relevance here.

One thing that's of interest (considering gender relationships and identities) is the fate of the unmarried mother. So here are extracts from a letter on this subject that appear within the book. It's a startling reminder of the alternatives to the Welfare State:

(Extracts from a letter sent to the Sunday Express - from a young unmarried mother who had spent time at a Salvation Army Rescue Home - ‘Home for Mothers and Babies’ - after Ada Chesterton published her account of her ‘undercover’ experiences as a homeless woman in 1925)

“There I remained for seven months, hiding from a curious and unsympathetic world, the shame I had brought on myself, living with just the sort of girl you saw at Mare Street [a Salvation Army clearing house, where, as elsewhere, the majority of women were unmarried mothers] that night, and many other sorts too ; girls taken from practically every walk of life, ex-chorus, factory, office, shop and servant girls, with here and there a waitress or a farmer’s daughter ; plenty of types, plenty of different perspectives, and always plenty of courage ; that was the most wonderful part of it all, the courage which these girls, mostly the victims of an unfortunate fate, displayed in the face of overwhelming tragedy. A hopeless. Blank future, with the added burden of an illegitimate child to support…
…Later they would return from the Women’s Hospital at Clapton, hugging tightly their precious woollen, cuddly bundle of humanity, their faces paler and manner subdued ; some were only eighteen, mostly all in their early twenties, but they had lived and seen life.
As weeks succeeded week, and the end of the six months (the ordered time to remain after baby is born) draws to a close, you would see they get perturbed. The fatal day arrives – the parting is hard, ah, how hard only God knows ! Tomorrow those arms will be empty. That baby will be in a strange foster home, that mother will be breaking her heart, working feverishly…working like grim death to kill the ache. Oh the horror of that first night in a strange bed [as a domestic servant], with no cot to rock, a nameless child, perhaps, but a mother’s baby for all that. To-day [when she leaves the shelter] as she says ‘Good –bye, girls’, she smiles, yes, even laughs outright, shrilly, and when someone says ‘ Good luck, dear ‘ the tears will trickle down her cheeks, still she smiles, waves her hand almost flippantly. ‘ The big, brown door swings on its hinges – she is gone gone – to face – what?
I have seen several of them again quite recently, those girls who shared a tragic period with me. I think they have nearly all altered, they are happy enough and quite smart, too, some of them – not all ; marvellous how it is done on, say nine shillings weekly dress allowance and pin money, for baby [to send to the foster family] and self, isn’t it?..."

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