Victorian London - Education - Education for the poor - working girls clubs

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The Informal Education Archives 
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    THERE was a time when I thought of working girls as a class. Now I am more inclined to think of young ladies as a class, and of working girls as individuals.
    There is a refreshing reality about the working girl. She says what she means. You know when you have "got" her. She refuses to be bored for the sake of appearances.
    A friend of mine was telling the girls a story one night at our club. The story was a little bit over the heads of the audience. One of the girls slipped away to see if she could find something more exciting going on out-side. She came back—put her head through the door — "Come on, girls I" A moment more, and the whole audience vanished.
    The working girl, however, does not object to a "jawing," if you can strike straight home. If you are right, she will own up. If you are wrong, she will tell you of it.’
    One Sunday the writer of "Life in West London" was giving us an address from the text "Whatsoever things are pure—whatsoever things are lovely—think on these things"—a talk on the influence of a pure imagination. And the verdict, free and open, was—" He don’t know nothing about nothing." For the girls thought he must be ignorant of the conditions of their lives, or he could not have spoken of fair vision and pure imagination as things within their reach. They have found out since then that life may be for them even a thing divinely beautiful.
    The working girl is a born philosopher. She can put up with every kind of luck. She can live day after day when work is slack on a cup of tea in the morning with one piece of bread and butter, and can come smiling to musical drill, and you will never guess it; she will stand to her work through the long hot days of summer and never complain, as she will suffer discomfort, hardship, or pain, as a matter of course.
    I knew of a girl who kept her family all through the winter. She was the only one in work, and her work was scrubbing floors; and all the while she had a sprained thumb and came to the club in the evening with her right hand in a sling.
    Faithful she is too. Loyal and true to the core is the heart of the working girl to those she loves.
    Her ideas of sticking to a "pal" are rooted. It is a distressing fact that a girl will sometimes deliberately throw herself away, and tread in the hard way of the transgressors, because her friend has chosen to walk in that path. If she sticks to her she may save her, if she forsakes her she is sure her friend will go altogether to the bad. The argument that she may lose her own soul in a bootless attempt has no weight with her. If it is to be, it will be, she says with pagan acquiescence to fate. The working girl has not yet realised the supreme importance of getting her own soul saved! So when she has a pal, she will stick to her through thick and thin, she will make nothing of gifts and services; she will refuse pleasures offered to her alone, and through good or evil report she will fulfil to the utmost the demands of friendship. She has the same dogged loyalty with regard to her own family, and will lie freely, rather than "show the game up," when her mother gets drunk or her father ill-treats her.
    Of course you have to understand her. And to understand people is, generally, to love them. There are so many things that have to be rightly judged. Dulness and apathy are not attractive; but when you find out that they spring from semi-starvation or want of sleep, you can be very patient. Many a girl who works hard all day can never get to rest early, because she has to wait till all the family go to bed. She does not know what it is to have a solitary or quiet half-hour. She lives in a chronic condition of nervous exhaustion.
    On the other hand, wildness and unruliness and boisterous spirits may be the direct outcome of a despair with which no young heart ever ought to be acquainted. Coarse gesture, or noisy laughter that is not merriment, may be repulsive, but when you know that a girl lives in a street where you would hardly venture after dark, and remember that as a little child she used to be left out at all hours of the night, while her mother went off on the drink, you can only wonder that she has kept any place at all in her soul for purity and goodness.
    While you feel for the girl who has grown up in the atmosphere of the slum, living her real life alone,—the girl who, with no inspiration from the outside, has yet remained heroically pure and good,—a reverence which gives a new faith in the divine humanity that dwells amongst us, I know many who have achieved this conquest. I know, too, that to such as these the daily life of factory and home is an actual martyrdom, inconceivable to anyone  who is not intimate with the under-side of an advanced civilisation.
    Perhaps, before passing to a more general survey of the girls’ club movement, which has extended so rapidly in our great cities and throughout the country, it might be well to give a brief account of the club I know best, having worked in it myself for seven or eight years.
    When my friend Mary Neal started the club amongst the girls in the neighbourhood of Euston Road, W., and I came to share the work, it was with the first idea of making the club the home, where all who came would find welcome and sympathy and companionship as well as interest and amusement. We opened it nearly every night of the week from 8 to 10 o’clock. One evening every week was set apart for a singing class, another for musical drill, another for games, or sewing or cooking, the programme, of course, being varied to meet the tastes of the majority.
    We wanted to put as much happiness as we could into the two hours spent together, and we hoped to build up in the club human relationships that would influence and uplift the rest of the life.
    But we found that we could not close the doors on the world outside, or forget its facts in the charmed circle about the fireside. There were twenty-two hours every day to put’ against the two hours spent in the club. The conditions, not only of the home, but of the factory or workshop, had to be taken into account. It became our business to study the industrial question as it affected the girls’ employments, the hours, the wages, and the conditions. And we had also to give them a conscious part to take in the battle that is being fought for the workers, and will not be won until it is loyally fought by the workers as well.
   
It was not easy at first to arouse their interest in these industrial questions, for here again the working girl is fatalistic. But when they saw that a real grievance could be reported to the proper authority, and could be set right without any retribution following to the girl who had been the first to speak, without anybody being able to trace the source of information, their interest grew, and they began to see how many matters could be set right by the workers themselves if they would only take a little trouble to understand the laws passed for their protection. One object-lesson is more effective than any amount of exhortation or argument.
    One evening in the week is kept free for lectures or for informal talks. The simplest economic axioms, and the most ordinary commercial terms have to be constantly explained and illustrated. As the interest is awakened the intelligence, is quickened, and they begin to watch and; compare, and draw conclusions from their own experience’ of life.
    We occasionally meet in debate the members of the St Christopher’s Boys’ Club in Fitzroy Square, which has sprung up and developed beside us. The debates have proved very interesting, and much sound wisdom has been given from both sides of the table. The girls and boys appreciate this opportunity of discussing together. One of the girls’ said in a vote of thanks: "We are glad you men are begin-fling to talk these things over with us; what is good for a man is good for a woman, I say. But it’s not very encouraging for a woman when you men come home from your Trade Union of an evening, and we show a little interest, and ask where you ‘ye been to, and you say, ‘You shut up; that ain’t none of your business! ‘"
    The story of the industrial co-operative movement cannot be too often told to show how largely it is in the power of a disciplined and self-controlled working-class to better their conditions, and the principles of co-operation cannot be too often put in practice in a small way in the club.
    Perhaps the brightest bit of our history as a club is our co-operative summer holiday. The fortnight we have spent together every year in the country and by the sea has done more than anything else, perhaps, to weld the members together; and it has given us an insight into the lives of the girls, and a knowledge of their character that we could not have gained in any other way.
    The country holiday evolved out of the idea with which we had first started—the idea of sharing our best pleasures with the girls. When we talked of the delights of our childhood, and brought back flowers and reports from a day’s tramp, they were naturally not satisfied. The story only made them want to have the experience.
    The first experience was certainly not a success. We often laugh over it now. One of the girls was over-worked and ill, and, after great efforts to scrape the money together (for in those days the club was very poor, and had fewer friends than it has now), we managed to send her away into the country of which she had heard so much. She wrote back to say how she was longing for the fortnight to be over—but "I am going to bear it for your sake."
    But now, not only in the summer, but also at Easter, at Whitsuntide, and even at Christmas, we must arrange to get them away to "Mother Earth," or to "Father Sea," or they are not satisfied; and the love of trees and grassy places has become in some almost a passion.
    We talk about all sorts of things when we get away together and have nothing else to do; and of course we dream all sorts of dreams, and make all sorts of plans. It was thus we dreamed of a workroom of our own, which has become now an established fact.
    The idea was started as we talked, giving rein to our fancies, of a life lived together far away from the city, as we drew idyllic pictures of the co-operative dairy, or fruit-farm, or jam factory we would have some day.
    We sighed, for it was only a dream after all; and the turmoil of the city and drudgery of the workshop were realities with which the next week would bring us face to face.
    And then came the question. If our lives must be passed in the workshop, why should we not have a workshop of our own, and bring in conditions which should make work itself a happy part of life? This seemed a dream too.
    But years after we had first talked of it, the dream came true.
    These girls who, when they came to us, were children of fourteen and fifteen were children now no longer. Most of them had been engaged since they left school in the West End dress trade. The aggravation of the poverty problem in West London is the season trade. The dress trade is the worst in this respect; high pressure of demand in summer, suspension in the winter, bringing all the evils of such fluctuation. I do not know which is worst, the driving over - work and worry of the season, or the anxiety and semi-starvation of the slack time. We saw in the girls, as years went on, the effect of this continual strain; their youth seemed likely to be all too short, and when your youth is over you are done for in the London labour market. We faced their future for them, and we felt that something further must be done.
   
Much public interest had been aroused by the publication of Mr Sherwell’s "Study of Life in West London," where the conditions of the dress trade are specially dealt with; and we felt that the hour had struck to initiate the experiment of a dressmaking business managed in the interests of the workers on practically co-operative lines. We felt that with such a business we should be able to answer the continual question put by women of means. "What is the use of talking to us about the conditions of working women unless you can suggest what can be done at once by individuals who want to get out of participation in the evil ?"
    To answer this question we issued a circular on the 17th May 1897, drawing attention to a new business undertaking which was to be started upon principles which we believed to be sound commercially, and inherently just and fair, and a business in which the workers should enjoy conditions which would change their life of drudgery and uncertainty into one of glad service and security.
    The following are some of the conditions :—The working hours eight a day (45 hours a week); the minimum wage fifteen shillings; the workrooms bright, comfortable, and well-ventilated; books, wage-sheets, etc., open to inspection, and accounts audited by chartered accountants. We started with five girls in the workroom; as I write we are nearing the end of the first twelvemonth, and our working staff has increased steadily month by month, till to-day we are twenty; and still we must increase to meet the growing demand. We have not had any slack time at all since we opened. We have met with unlocked for response and great sympathy on all sides. The first year proves the experiment a financial success, and I think much more than a mere financial success. It has met the felt need of the present hour, and though it is such a small scheme at present, it may be the thin end of the wedge which will ultimately lift the intolerable burden from the shoulders of the working girl. For if one experiment succeed, others will certainly be tried, and new developments will be made. And we have called our business house (155 Gt. Portland Street) Mason Espérance, because we feel the great hope that lies in it for the future of working girls.
    At present, I believe, this industrial extension in connection with a girls’ club is unique. But I hope it will not remain solitary. I see no reason why other clubs should not carefully study the conditions of the trade special to their own locality, and consider how the welfare of the workers can be most effectively secured; and I see no reason why, if they cannot influence the employers in their locality, and bring them into line with their own ideas, they should not develop in that trade an industrial enterprise on co-operative lines. Such an enterprise would give the club a local standing, and an influence with local employers that nothing else could give. As an object-lesson to outsiders, as well as an education for the girls concerned in the business, and for all connected with it, it would be invaluable. But the subject is too far-reaching to come within the scope of this chapter.
    Every club will have an individuality of its own, and will develop strongly on its own lines; but I want to take a glance of the movement as a whole, and rightly estimate its very great importance in this transition stage of our social development.
    Let us see what the influence of the girls’ club actually is on the lives of those working girls whom it touches;   and let us consider in what directions it might develop and become of yet greater influence and social significance.
   
I. The club stands to the girls for "the home."— Our cities have taken away "the home" from the workers, they have crowded out everything that links that word with sweet association or with sacred influence. This is obviously true in London, where 20 per cent. of the whole population live in overcrowded slums, and where even the well-to-do artisan has to pay a third of his income for decent living space.
    The children’s playground is the street, and when girls grow up and go to work, their evening recreation ground is the street, unless they can afford to go to some cheap place of amusement. Their room is wanted at home, and not their company.
    It is here that the girls’ club can come in to-day, and can do something to supply the working girl’s need; for surely the girl of fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years needs the happy shelter of home with its individual care and sympathetic companionship. Every girls’ club can he that to its members. Every club I know has its "Mother," who is always at home there, and whose special work is the knowledge of the girls, individually, through sympathy, resource, and patience.
    But, of course, the members need more than individual sympathy. They need the interest and mental stimulus and good comradeship of the happy family circle. They need to have their latent faculties developed, their imagination widened, their capacities for enjoyment encouraged; and many an educated girl coming into the club for even an hour a week is doing the part of the elder sister by giving of her very best to the girls, whether the gift be laughter or learning.
   
II. The club stands to its members for the realisation of their womanhood. In our overcrowded cities ~‘ we have crowded out womanhood. We have choked up the religion of life at its source. What the real meaning of the slum is few know or imagine. I doubt if many of us are great enough in heart to have it revealed. I know .that moral miracles happen, that purity and virtue can survive in the most infected atmosphere, and can be the stronger for the resistance to evil; but the average man is such as his environment makes him, and the average factory girl does not hold a higher standard than that she sees adopted by her neighbours. Even where the conditions of life are very much better, where the imagination and feeling are not vitiated, the working girl is generally quite untrained to any thoughtful apprehension of life: She grows up unguided, into irresponsible and unguarded womanhood, and unready to hold the keys of a future destiny—the woman’s most sacred trust. And in the club a high standard is being lifted, it must be lifted, otherwise the club not only misses its opportunity, but is in danger of becoming a positive evil. It can be lifted, because there is nothing a girl’s heart more quickly expands to than the idea of womanhood dignified in its consciousness of duty. There are endless opportunities and ways of teaching, and, on the whole, the more indirect and artistic the method, the better. Precept, too often repeated, becomes mere commonplace. The spirit of beauty and purity is vital, and must have vital expression. Song, story, human friendship, "Mother Nature," herself, are influences that go a great deal deeper than any moralising, and they will  all strengthen the straight word that must at times be spoken.
   
III. The club stands to its members for the first training ground for the social organisation of women. —Women’s Trade Unions have been hitherto a comparative failure, for women have never been trained in the discipline of associated interests, they have never yet had a chance of grasping the idea of duty that goes beyond the personal demand. But the working girl of today is unconsciously absorbing broader ideas that may help to change her attitude to life, as her interests and energies become absorbed in the club, and her latent faculties become active in working for its development. For the club is a voluntary association, the continuance of which depends on the concord of wills, and on the understanding that there is a common good and a general interest to which personal claims must give way. And as the whole club is ready to stand by its members who are in trouble or in difficulty, so the members learn that pride in their club that makes small sacrifices easy, and binds them together in mutual loyalty.
    The possibilities of the further usefulness and influence of the working girls’ clubs seem to be in three main directions—social, industrial, and educational; and I have described the social mission that the girls’ club is achieving to-day. That is its first and most obvious usefulness; and its influence on the members’ individual and social life must be guarded and strengthened, and the club itself must develop more and more to this end. But just in proportion as this individual and social influence is attained will be the possibility of yet further issues.
    I believe the girls’ club, or for that matter the boys’ club, may greatly influence the adjustment of industrial questions in the near future. The club leaders have a unique opportunity of getting at the facts, they have sources of evidence which it is exceeding difficult for the factory inspector to touch They know, too, what the workers want, which is often more than either the, workers themselves or their rulers know. They know, too, what the employer wants—character and conscientiousness—and they can supply him with it; the good employer wanting good material to work good reforms with, will ‘, find his best ally in the good club leader. And it is open to the club that despairs of finding the right employer to plunge into the heart of the industrial system, and to organise on the lines of the enterprise I have alluded to the industrial life of its own members. And the possibilities of its educational usefulness tend towards its close alliance with our educational and municipal institutions. On every School Board or committee of management there ought to be at least one representative of the girls’ clubs in the district; and we in the club ought to work side by side with the evening continuation schools and with other councils and boards of technical instruction. And in other ways we ought more and more to become the necessary link between the people, and the protection and provision that are theirs. We, who have the welfare of the working girl at heart, and understand her needs, must be prepared to represent her on the vestries, and keep her sufficiently in touch with sanitary and industrial authorities.
    The aim in the clubs must be to make good citizens; and our present endeavour to represent the rights and claims of the young, until they have entered into their citizenship. By an actual knowledge and experience gained in direct contact with the people, we are fitted to become their voice, and to give utterance to their claim upon society, for a life that is worth the living.

Emmeline Pethick, in University and Social Settlements (ed. W.Reason), 1898