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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!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Ada Chesterton on workhouses and gender in the 1920s

Workhouses for heroes: Ada Chesterton on gender imbalance and social care in the 1920s

Ada Chesterton muses on the imbalance of workhouse provision in 1920s London: ‘The accommodation offered to women by the Metropolitan Board of Guardians is extremely limited. In the whole of London – North, South, East and West – there is but one casual ward where the destitute female can find a bed. The reasons for this limitation are interesting. Since the war, women’s casual wards have been handed over to the other sex.

Paddington was a last female trench ; now this has gone, and only Southwark remains. It follows, therefore, that to get a bed you must often – indeed, most frequentlytraverse the length and breadth of London. For how shall it profit the outcasts at Highgate to know that on the other side of Lambeth Bridge a cubicle awaits them?

This male invasion of casual wards, intended for women, is an outcome of the fear of the authorities that an ex-service man should be discovered bedless and starving in the streets. This would arouse a very general indignation, and a steady fire of middle class, far more than the Socialist or Communist groups, that authority always fears. Were a man, who had fought in his country’s cause, found on the Embankment in the last stage of exhaustion, letters to the Press would rain down from all parts, the whole question of unemployment would be raised, and the old taunt of ingratitude flung in the teeth of the particular Cabinet responsible at the time.

There have been very few cases reported of ex-soldiers and sailors driven to the last gasp of endurance ; and in order to prevent, so far as possible, such a contingency, the women’s wards of the workhouses have been taken from them. I want to make it perfectly plain that I, for one, would not take any beds from the men who fought for England. But why should the women, wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts, of those same heroes be flung to the street in order to save the authorities from well-merited attack? The plea, that an old soldier must not starve, does not and cannot justify the callous indifference shown to a woman homeless and hungry.

There is no question of charity involved in the matter of the casual ward. The workhouse is kept up out of the rates, and every citizen, male and female, has the right to claim the shelter thus provided. [more about caring & govt. Responsibilities]...This is not the only penalty exacted from my sex. The men in the casual ward have hot tea every morning ; the women have the dregs of their teapots and hour later. This, at least, was the state of things at Southwark Workhouse where I spent a night in the casual ward. Following my revelation of this cruel custom in a Sunday newspaper, the Boar of Guardians gave instructions that Southwark should be provided with a gas stove whereon an urn could sit, in which the tea could be kept hot.

As well as the superior accommodation of male public lodging houses, and the unfair division of the casual wards, the authorities rightly afford opportunity for an out-of-work, or a destitute man to to make good. The master of every workhouse is instructed particularly to note those male casuals who have been in the Army or the Navy ; those with any trace of education ; those who have average abilities. These men when they leave the ward are given an order of admission to a hostel in Holborn, where they stay, free of charge, for a week. The conditions of life there are quite human ; they have good food, decent beds, rooms for recreation and free tobacco...During the week's stay all efforts are made to find him a job, and he is allowed to come and go in his search for employment without let or
hindrance...But why, because an outcast is a woman, should she be debarred from opportunity to make a living ? does not matter what happens to the woman derelict ; the policy seems to be that the sooner she dies of starvation and exposure the better for society.

There is no need, human or economic, to salve her. She is of no account. But save the man ! Use the casual wards. Inspect the lodging houses. Throw open the kindly doors of comfortably equipped hostel, and the Govt shall escape the castigation they merit. Apart from the Salvation Army, and one or two other bodies, the woman outcast in the London streets to-day is a derelict as the woman of Hood's great lines... ’

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