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NEEDLES AND PENURY IN 19TH CENTURY LONDON: THE DIARY OF A POOR QUAKER SEAMSTRESS Trudi Abel* In 1833 a Quaker seamstress in London began a journal in which she recorded aspects ofher life as a worker in the East End. Though the journal spans only seven months, it provides much useful material to social historians, since it illuminates well the life ofa workingclass woman. For Friends the journal serves as a reminder that not all Victorian Quakers were as prominent or well-to-do as Elizabeth Fry, Elisha Bates, J. J. Gurney and John Bright. It also presents important insights into how Quaker meetings looked after the welfare oftheir poor members, and in doing so gives us a new perspective on the Victorian life of not-so-prominent Quakers. By the time thejournal was donated to the Quaker Collection at the Haverford Library in 1903, the identity of the writer was lost. The small manuscript was then entitled, "Diary of a Poor Quaker Seamstress , 1833-1834, being a pathetic record of monotonous penury," but who was the "Poor Quaker Seamstress?" The diary yielded clues which were decisive in determining the identity of the author. The first set of clues was a collection of place names which indicated that the diarist had lived near Bethnal Green, and it was therefore obvious that the manuscript had originated in London.' The other clues, which the diarist provided were the month and day of her birth and of her father's death.2 Most important, the diarist recorded: *Trudi Abel is a student of Modern European and British history and is at present pursuing her graduate studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. In submitting the article she stated: "Much of the genealogical information that I collected was gathered with the assistance of the British press, for articles about my research appeared in several county newspapers. As a direct result ofthis assistance, I have collected information within this essay that does not lie in libraries, but rather in the hands of such kind individuals as Bevan and Sheila Browett. To the Browetts and Malcolm Thomas of the Friends' Library, London, I owe my gratitude. To Dr. Lynn Lees of the University ofPennsylvania, I wish to give special thanks for her advice and encouragement which led me to write this article." 1.Browett, Elizabeth MS Diary of a Seamstress, in the Quaker Collection, Haverford College Library, Haverford, Pennsylvania. Entries: 12th 11th Month 1833, 25th 12th Month 1833. 2.ibid., 27th 12thMonth 1833 Father's Death, 16th4th Month 1834 Elizabeth's Birthday. 102 The Diary Of A Poor Quaker Seamstress103 . . . have felt a great deal in my mind about my Dear Mother who died 8 years ago to day3 Through extensive research begun at the Friends' Library, London , with subsequent examination of a multivolume set of death registers covering London up until the year 1837, several candidates were discovered who had died on the 13th 4th month 1826. On examining Quaker birth and marriage records of London and the provinces, the choice for the diarist's mother narrowed to one woman, Hannah, whose husband, Joseph, died and whose daughter, Elizabeth, was born on the dates which the diarist mentioned. All clues led to the conclusion that it was the Quaker seamstress Elizabeth Browett who wrote this journal which affords us a unique glimpse of the impoverished existence of a single working-class woman. The diary is significant because it graphically portrays the standard of living of a seamstress, a woman who was engaged in needlework, the most common occupation for women in the nineteenth century other than domestic service. Through herjournal one gets a sense of Elizabeth's values and beliefs, in particular a feeling that her relatives, friends, religion, and writing meant very much to her. In addition the diary details how essential Elizabeth's friends and the Quaker community were. Early Life So it was that in 1788 in the county of Buckingham, England, a daughter, Elizabeth, was born to a Quaker tailor Joseph Browett and his wife Hannah. A variety of Quaker records indicate that Elizabeth 's life was from start to finish a difficult one. She was, according to Quaker...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 102-114
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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