Thursday, 10 November 2011

One Hundred Years of Misery

A few years ago, my elderly mother got a call from a man called Steve who told her he was distantly related to her, and had discovered her name and address in connection with research he had done into their family background.  He asked if he could come and meet her and her family, bringing with him his Aunt Sue - a cousin of my mother's whom she had not seen since their youth.  There followed a rather nice reunion: my mother and her sister were able to reconnect with their cousin after many years; and we all met our "new" cousin who had made the call, and of whose existence none of us had been aware before.

Both cousins have since died - Steve rather tragically young.  But his gift to us was the fruit of his detailed research into my mother's ancestry, which he presented to us in the form of a carefully arranged dossier, and whose details he had linked and highlighted with his own narrative.  I took it home and read it.  Now I know other people's family histories are not guaranteed to fascinate (unless, I suppose, you're famous - like the subjects of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?) but perhaps you will bear with me for a sentence or two.

It took me the best part of a day to read the dossier in the untroubled environs of my warm and comfortable central London apartment.  When I had finished it, I poured myself a glass of rather nice claret, and wept.

Now, I had known my mother's family were from Bethnal Green (in London's East End) and, having heard tales of her own childhood at my grandmother's knee, I had known they were poor. But, until I read Steve's history, I had not realised how poor.  They were abjectly poor.  They were poor in a way and to an extent that, even as I read about it, I struggled to grasp.  They had come to London from Suffolk in the late 18th century.  They had been active in the wool trade, and were tolerably prosperous.  Then, with the industrial revolution, came the enclosures of common land and the collapse of the agricultural economy.  Huge numbers migrated from the countryside into the cities in search of a livelihood, creating what we now call the industrial working class.

The 19th century was, for this branch of my family, 100 Years of Misery. The dossier told of childhood death, disease, petty crime, violence, cruel misfortune, workhouses, and deprivation of every kind. It was as though I was reading a sensational Victorian novel.  And indeed, so notorious was the Old Nichol - the slum quarter in which my ancestors lived (if that is the word) - that it was the subject of just such a novel.(1)  Victorian philanthropist Charles Booth identified the Old Nichol as having the "blackest streets" - the worst poverty in London.(2)  So shaming was the Old Nichol's existence that the first act of the newly created London County Council in the 1890s was to demolish it and replace it with Britain's first council estate.  You get the picture.  In fact here is a picture:

Old Nichol Street, Shoreditch
I won't labour it further.  Suffice it to say, within two generations of coming to London from Suffolk, these people had gone from relative riches to the most ragged of rags - and stayed there for nigh-on 100 years.  At the other end of the 19th century, my maternal grandmother was duly born into pretty much the same poverty in 1903 in Bethnal Green.  Two generations later: one of her grandchildren is a doctor, one is an oil company executive, another is a priest - etc, etc.

I went for walk around Bethnal Green recently - ironically perhaps, it's within walking distance of my present home.  The area is still mainly "social" housing; the population largely Muslim.  The streets were quiet, even sedate. It was a lovely autumn day, and I took some photos.  I went into the parish church of St Matthew, where many of my forebears had been baptised, married and buried, and lit a candle for them. I prayed for Steve Abbott, whose work had shone a light into a very dark corner of my family history.  And I gave thanks for my utter good fortune.

(1) Morrison, Arthur: A Child of the Jago (Academy Victorian Classic)

(2) Wise, Sarah: The Blackest Streets (Vintage) 

1 comment:

  1. “Once poverty is gone, we'll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They'll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society - how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.”
    ― Muhammad Yunus, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism