- Growing Up Poor: Home, School and Street in London 1870–1914
Given current fashion among social and cultural historians, it takes courage to privilege “experience” over “representation.” Anna Davin has done just this in Growing Up Poor, and most readers will be grateful for her decision.
As the title of her book suggests, Davin examines the overlapping realms of home, school, and street through which working-class children in London passed on their way to adulthood. Just as clear is the monumental body of primary source evidence undergirding Davin’s account. If anything, the author is too modest. She scrupulously cites the best work on proletarian life during the late-Victorian and Edwardian era: the names of Ellen Ross, Jerry White, David Rubinstein, Thea Thompson, and Standish Meacham pepper her endnotes. Yet the original research—especially the oral testimony recorded by the author herself—was gathered over more than twenty years. In some cases it was Davin who helped the experts just mentioned to unearth obscure sources or to refine research questions. Growing Up Poor, then, is the result of a deep immersion in the particularities of working-class family life. That Davin offers “uneven” (7) conclusions about the experience of poor children is reassuring, for at her finely detailed level of analysis, individual exceptions are bound to confound the easy generalizations so often advanced about ordinary people.
Davin’s discussion of working-class “respectability” shows how the historian’s microscope, properly focused, can enrich our understanding of what it meant to be poor in the London of Charles Booth. Although a “rough-respectable dichotomy was widely recognized,” (70) Davin allows, the signifiers of good repute could vary not merely over time and place, but literally between one slum court and the next. For example, a girl wearing boy’s boots might, depending on her family’s local status, reflect badly (or not at all) on her mother. Similarly, resort to the pawnshop may not have stigmatized a family as “rough” if pawning followed from a careful maternal calculation of household need. Like Ellen Ross, Davin emphasizes the extent to which maintaining neighborhood respectability fell to the materfamilias . Linking this reality to the dynamics of domestic work, Davin goes on to show how the weight of keeping up appearances bore more heavily on girls than boys. From child-minding to washing-up to running “errands,” these higher expectations of home help not only narrowed girls’ personal freedom but also sabotaged the formal equality of educational provision. As Davin pointedly argues, “the term ‘children’ denied difference.” (199—200)
There can be little doubt about the author’s allegiance. She feels scant sympathy for the “civilizing glare” (133) of compulsory elementary education, whereas instances of working-class mutuality receive warm recognition. Still, Davin is too judicious to let personal values paper over cracks in the critique of middle-class officiousness. Her concluding chapter, “Children, National Identity and the State,” explicitly rejects the simple-minded assumption that support for embryonic “welfare” programs, most notably the provision of school meals, divided neatly along class lines. More broadly, Davin’s passion for concrete detail reminds us of what George Orwell once termed the “complicated meanness” of poverty. Complexity abounds in her account of the mundane. How, exactly, did [End Page 214] a family of six arrange to sleep in a one-room dwelling? Why did school authorities’ campaign against headlice stir such resentment among laborers? What did contemporaries really mean when they complained of a neighbor’s child “running wild”? When science began to be taught in London elementary schools, how was this new subject viewed as differentially useful for boys and girls? For these and many other questions the book provides lucid answers.
At the core of Growing Up Poor lies evidence gleaned from school log books, working-class autobiographies, and oral interviews. Although Davin is surely among the most sophisticated sifters of such material, one might wish for a more explicit statement of research methodology. To the challenge, “How many...