Monday, July 25, 2005
William J Fishman - East End 1888
1888 was a monumental year for East London. It was the year "Jack the Ripper" brutalised prostitues and brought the eyes of the world on an impoverished region and it was the year of the "match girls strike" which ushered in New Unionism and changed forever the battle between employer and employeed.
But William J Fishman's excellent work doesn't simply dwell on these famous events, rather he weaves those stories into a well researched and thoughtful account of what life was like in East London. In doing so, he illuminates both the world of Jack the Ripper and his victims and helps us understand why young girls would be employed in matchmaking and why they would strike in their hundreds.
Along the way we meet many famous people. Dr. Thomas Barnardo, William Morris, William Booth, Annie Besant and many others. Some of them deserve to be remembered, but not all. Dr. Barnardo shouldn't be considered a saint for helping children, but a man who would rather rip children from their roots and ship them off to work for a pittance in Canada, rather than attempt to solve the real causes of their poverty.
But the real heros have left precious few words for Fishman to quote. Rarely could the poor of East London read or write, and for his accounts we often have to rely on police and court reports, or statements of officals from the workhouse.
Life in 1888 for someone in East London was short and difficult. Housing was over expensive, crowded and unsuitable. Work was short, badly paid and the hours were long. For those who had no other option, the last choice was often the workhouse - were officials often treated you as the underdeserving poor, rather than the victim of circumstance.
Many people tried to challenge this poverty - some motivated by religious ideals, some by simple humanity, some for political reasons. There were those who campaigned against charity - both from the right and the left - and those who tried desperately to make a difference.
Fishman has to cover a lot of ground and in places you feel that you have only had a glimpse of what he could have said, the chapter on politics feels in my opinion very short. Though in Fishman's defence I should point out that his companion book, that I blogged about elsewhere, covers at least some aspects of this in far greater details.
But Fishman's work brings that year to life. Often what shines through is that the poorest of the poor in East London often had more morals and more solidarity than their "betters". The match girls who collect money to help one who has fallen on even harder times, the bystanders who help an escapee from the workhouse.
I'd recommend anyone interested in the real history of London, not that of Kings and Queens, to read this. After all, for all that has changed in East London, overcrowding, unemployment, poverty and the need for solidarity haven't entirely disappeared.