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  • Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London
  • Lydia Murdoch (bio)
Seth Koven , Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004), xvii + 399 pages, illustrated, hardback, £18.95 (ISBN 0 691 11592 3).

In the late 1870s the evangelical child philanthropist Thomas Barnardo sat for two photographic portraits during a feud with his East London rivals in reform work, Frederick Charrington and Reverend George Reynolds. The images illustrated how charitable service drew on traditions of performance and how sexuality often intermingled with the daily work of earnest do-gooders. In the first carte de visite, which a [End Page 364] dissatisfied employee stole from Barnardo's office to give to Reynolds, Barnardo is dressed for the streets. Pictured standing with a somewhat aggressive expression, his eyes engage the viewer directly, and he crudely holds a walking stick across his body so that it protrudes from his groin and rests in his left hand. When Reynolds reproduced this image and placed it for sale in local East End shops beside a 'carefully executed' portrait of Charrington, Barnardo bemoaned the 'miserable photograph', that 'wretched caricature' (104-5). He quickly produced and distributed a more suitable portrait of himself, this time posed asa respectable charity worker rather than a flâneur: seated, wearing spectacles, looking off to the side.

Barnardo had good reason to be so upset over the distribution of the unflattering portrait. Although Barnardo's organization continues to this day to be one of the most successful children's charities in the UK, his career reached a low point in the summer of 1877 when Reynolds and Charrington, with the support of the Charity Organisation Society (COS), raised charges against him that resulted in a court arbitration. This conflict is one chapter in Koven's superb new study of 'slumming' in Victorian London. Barnardo did his best to control his image, but the charges against him clearly played on fears that his philanthropic work went hand-in-hand with immorality. His rivals accused him of consorting with a prostitute, falsely using the title Doctor, misappropriating funds, and abusing the children in his homes. They also reproached him for creating 'artistic fictions', staged 'before' and 'after' photographs of needy children as ragged waifs transformed (sometimes on the very same day) through philanthropic intervention into respectable workers. The court arbitrators dismissed all of the charges except for Barnardo's use of staged photographs. But in his excellent analysis of the arbitration and Barnardo's images of ragged youths, Koven also draws on never-before-discussed archival materials suggesting that immorality may have been for a period endemic to the institution. The COS kept its own records on the arbitration, including letters accusing Barnardo's employees of drunkenness, adultery, and providing such poor supervision that a boy inmate claimed to 'have criminal intercourse' with a teacher, Mrs Waller, and was also found 'in the fact of Sodomany' with another boy in the homes (109).

Barnardo's case is the most blatant and, because of the involvement of children, the most disturbing instance of sexuality fusing with philanthropy that Koven examines. Slumming surveys the work of a wide range of late-Victorian philanthropists, including some who are well known already: the journalist James Greenwood who wrote 'A Nightin a Workhouse' (1866) detailing his experience in the Lambeth male [End Page 365] casual ward; the female novelist Vernon Lee, author of Miss Brown (1884), a philanthropic romance set in East London; and Henrietta and Samuel Barnett, the founders of the settlement house Toynbee Hall. The slums proved to be an important training ground for many middle-class intellectuals, providing a meeting place for early defenders of homosexual rights such as Edward Carpenter, Charles Ashbee, and John Addington Symonds, as well as middle-class women and politicians such as Lloyd George, who made a point to tour the East End whenhe arrived in London to join parliament in 1890. Neither 'saints' nor 'hypocrites', these individuals, Koven argues, approached the slums as 'sexed spaces' in which they could experiment with sexual and gender identities while devoting energies to helping the poor (3, 273).

Disguise was often central to the...


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pp. 364-369
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Archived 2009
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