Fighters For The Poor

Susan Cohen and Clive Fleay rediscover the forgotten lives and work of three women who sought to alleviate the plight of Britain’s Edwardian underclass.

The upsurge of social inquiry into the nature and extent of poverty in Britain from the later nineteenth-century is invariably connected with such men as Charles Booth, G.R. Sims, B.S. Rowntree, C.F.G. Masterman and Robert Sherard. What is not always apparent is the rise to prominence of women social investigators.

Before 1900 women were largely unrepresented in the published writings on the subject, although Beatrice Potter (later Webb), Octavia Hill, Clara Collett and M. Tillard assisted with the Booth survey Life and Labour of the People of London. After the turn of the century, however, women social investigators came into their own, and by 1914 they had created an important corpus of literature about the poor. Perhaps the best known amongst this group were Lady Florence Bell whose study of Middlesbrough, At The Works, appeared in 1907, Maud Davies who produced Life in an English Village in 1909, and Magdalen Pember Reeves whose Round About a Pound a Week (1913) focused on poor working-class women in Lambeth. Much more neglected has been the work of three other women social investigators Martha Loane, Olive Malvery (later Mackirdy) and Mary Higgs.

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