Darkest London/east end history/8jul13/rennie
The job of a middle class female in Victorian London was straightforward. To marry, to bear children and to maintain unimpeachable standards of behaviour and sexual continence. Divorce (even when it became legal) meant banishment from society. An education? That was for men.
But the straitened, buttoned-up Britain of the latter 1800s didn’t just march to one beat. It was an industrial age that was creating huge poverty and slums just as it was making many very rich. A time of social ferment and new political ideas, with the fight for socialism and universal suffrage. And that created a new kind of woman. The feminist, educated, independent career woman appeared in the novels of Henry James, in the plays of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, in the suffragette movement — and in a battalion of independent-minded women who took on poverty and social injustice in the East End.
Margaret Harkness was a typical New Woman. She had been born at Upton-on-Severn in Worcestershire, on 28 February 1854, the daughter of a conservative clergyman. Her first decision, to train as a nurse, was challenging enough for her parents, though acceptable. Soon enough she would marry a wealthy man and settle into domesticity. To their horror, though, she made it clear she had no interest in marriage, deciding to stay single and work as a freelance journalist.
Her first works were rather dry histories on Egypt and Assyria, but by the early 1880s she had been captured by stories closer to home… though a million miles from the rural peace of the Malverns. She began writing for socialist paper Justice on the scandals of child poverty and malnourishment in the East End. And as a social reformer she was becoming increasingly involved, rather than simply observing and writing. She moved to the East End, into a little flat into the newly constructed Katherine Buildings, the first project of the East End Dwellings Company, which would move hundreds of East Enders out of slum tenements and into their vast red-brick blocks, the so-called ‘Red Cliffs of Stepney’.
The EEDC was unusual among the new ‘model dwellings’ companies in that it allowed casual and day workers (among the poorest and least secure of employees of course), and Margaret particularly wanted to observe and write about them. As so often with Victorian philanthropists working among the East End poor, there was a sense of missionary amid a foreign race, even a different species. The EEDC also, uniquely, eschewed strong-arm rent collection methods, instead copying the model of Octavia Hill, and so using female rent collectors. Katherine House had been named for one of the first of those, Catherine [sic] Potts. Catherine was Margaret’s second cousin, and another toff who had come to the East End, going to work with Toynbee Hall founders Samuel and Henrietta Barnett.
Catherine and her sister Beatrice (the future Beatrice Webb, who would go on to found the LSE and be instrumental in the establishment of the Fabian Society) became part of Margaret’s East End circle, along with Eleanor Marx and Annie Besant. Now the young journalist was becomingly increasingly politically engaged, joining the Social Democratic Federation and helped mediate in the 1889 East End Dock Strike.
But it was an experiment with her writing where Margaret made her mark. The ‘Condition of England’ novel was a genre in itself, with notable entrants such as North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations. And writers had drawn on their journalism to create them, famously Charles Dickens with Hard Times. But a woman living in the East End and novelising the scenes she saw around her was unique. And blurring the lines between journalism and fiction also let her create her own blend of socialism and feminism — her main concern, in truth, was the lot of East End women, and she tackled their social and sexual oppression head on in her first book A City Girl.
The eponymous heroine is young East End seamstress, Nelly Ambrose, seduced by a West End middle-class radical, Arthur Grant, treasurer in the local hospital for poor women and children. It caught the eye of Frederick Engels, who had seen at first hand the horror of the workers’ lot during his days as a young manager in a Manchester mill firm. He liked her novel, but criticised her inability to give it a socialist core. He famously went on to berate the East Enders for their lack of revolutionary fervour. ‘Nowhere in the civilised world are the working people less actively resistant, more passively submitting to fate, more bewildered than in the East End of London.’
Set in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1887) Out of Work, a year later, describes poor carpenter, Joseph Coney, who comes to London from rural England to seek employment. He gets casual jobs at the East End Docks, is often hungry and unemployed, and laments: ‘I guess I ain’t wanted. There are too many of us poor folks, and not enough work for us to do.’ Finally, in perfect melodramatic Victorian style, he becomes alcoholic, destitute and returns home to expire on his mother’s tomb. Harkness reflected that in years to come, the ‘chain’ system of the casualised docks would be looked back on in horror.
In A Manchester Shirtmaker, Margaret moves the action to the horrors of the sweatshop, with its internecine battles between English, Irish and Jewish workers; and to the workhouse, appalling industrial accidents and inevitable death. True to form, the heroine poisons her baby with opium, is sent to the lunatic asylum and strangles herself to death.
But it is in her fourth, and most successful novel, In Darkest London, that Harkness really found her voice. She seems to have become disillusioned with socialism, and been attracted by the social activism of the Salvation Army. The novel follows the travails of Captain Lobe, as he works to bring relief to the ‘down-and-outs’ of the East End slums. The title references both Stanley’s famous travel narrative, In Darkest Africa and William Booth’s In Darkest London and the Way Out, which revealed the moral problems of poverty in England. Some of the colour in the book could only have come from a journalist ‘reporting’ from the scene:
“Whitechapel Road is ‘the most cosmopolitan place in London…a grinning Hottentot elbows his way through a crowd of long-eyed Jewesses. An Algerian merchant walks arm-in-arm with a native of Calcutta. A little Italian plays pitch-and-toss with a small Russian. A Polish Jew enjoys sauerkraut with a German Gentile. And among the foreigner lounges the East End loafer, monarch of all he surveys…it is amusing to see his British air of superiority. He is looked upon as scum by his own nation…he has a mind, although he does his best to destroy it by narcotics and stimulants.”
She wryly notes the morbid fascinations of the locals. There are echoes of Orwell, 50 years later, whose overwhelming impression of the East End was that very little of interest happened in a very grey world:
‘The only things in which East End people take much interest are murders and funerals. Their lives are so dull, nothing else sets their sluggish blood in motion. But a murder gives them two sensations. Was the person poisoned, or was his throat cut? Did the corpse turn black, or did it keep until the nails were put into the coffin?’
Margaret would leave the East End and travel the world, before dying in Italy in 1923, largely forgotten. The irony? In her 1880s and 90s heyday, those seminal novels would be published under the pseudonym ‘John Law’. A feminist and radical writer she may have been — but London still wasn’t ready for such works from a woman’s pen.