A Week in the Future, by Catherine Helen Spence

Chapter iv

Wednesday

Childhood and Education

My programme for Wednesday was to observe and study the development and training of children in the nursery, in the home, in the school, in the playground, and in such apprenticeship to industrial life as was required in the society of the future. In this Mrs. Oliphant was my guide for the earlier part of the day.

When associated homes were first started, the idea that each home should contain school-rooms and have teachers was held in great favor, but the difficulty of grading the limited number of all ages made this too costly for anything but elementary or early education. The State provided free schools with trained teachers, but did not take children under eight years old. I objected to this that it must be impossible for all people everywhere to live in associated homes. In remote districts there must be solitary shepherds, herdsmen and fishermen, able to earn a livelihood, but unable to combine with others. I was told that in cases where I should have thought it quite impossible, two, three or four families joined in housekeeping and divided the duties amongst them. Economy and comfort led to this organisation. Even where there were solitary families, the parents had all received sufficient education to teach their children what was necessary to fit them for the public schools.

In the school-rooms belonging to each home the children of the associated families received instruction in reading, writing and simple calculation, and above all in knowledge of things as distinguished from knowledge of words. The nursery teaching was thoroughly natural and delightful in the manner in which each lesson in knowledge and in skill was felt to be learned as much by the learner’s own intellectual or artistic effort as by the teacher’s guidance. I could see how early the lesson of bearing and forbearing, of respect for the rights of others, was inculcated without needing any severe punishment or risking any nervous shock to the delicate organisation of a young infant or little child.

In the nursery stood a baby prison-house. It was a good sized circular basket, weighted so that it could not be overturned, and softly lined and cushioned. A baby creeps to some forbidden place, inconvenient to others and dangerous to himself. He is gently removed. He creeps there again and again. The nurse lifts him quietly and gently, places him in the basket and gives him toys. There he remains till the impulse to disobey has worn itself out; the attraction has been forgotten. The child of two, flings his ball in baby’s face, and though conscious of the wrong-doing, persists in the amusement. He is firmly placed in the basket, where he lies down to kick or scream till he is tired or contrite. When these children pass out of the nursery their nerves are healthy and strong. They know no craven fear, for gentle kindness has formed the moral atmosphere they have breathed. They are trained to docility and prompt obedience, and understand perfectly the simple principle that if they abuse liberty, their liberty will be abridged. They are sensitive in a high degree to affection, for love has surrounded them, and from the very dawn of consciousness formed the one stimulus to painful effort, and to successful effort the natural and abundant reward.

“From our very birth, you see,” said Mrs. Oliphant, “we are hemmed in by authority which, though it does not repress spontaneous action, checks all encroachments on the rights of others. There are very few forbidden things in this nursery, nothing too fine to be touched, and very early children are given things to play with that they exercise their activity in.”

“Like what we had in the Kindergarten system,” said I.

“Yes, modified and amplified. The very first lesson in morals they learn is kindness to animals. It is surprising how much a sympathetic mother or nurse can inspire, but some masterful children have their longest experience of our basket prison and similar punishments to check their disposition to play too roughly or cruelly with the kitten, or to take off the wings of flies.”

“With so many children grouped together in a common nursery, I should fear that personal rights of property would be rather hard to understand and enforce.”

“We do not live in such a community as this. As we have our own apartments, and our own clothes and furniture, so the children in this common nursery have their own property, even though some out-grown toys descend. Some things are no doubt for common use, and children have their turn, but most of the toys, such as dolls and balls, and bats and tops, are private property which the other children may borrow with consent of the owner, but must not touch without it. Of course you see how important it is that this lesson should be taught early. All the advantages of Associated Homes, and of the Co-operative system generally, can only be enjoyed by keeping up constant respect for each other’s rights and feelings. And this lesson is continuously taught, not only in the nursery and the home, but in the school, on the playground, and in the workshop and factory”

“My experience was that there was one discipline for the school, another for the home, and another for the playground, but all too much on the basis that nothing succeeds like success, the race to the swift, and the battle to the strong. The church was weak as against this teaching. Can you possibly equalise human conditions when human beings are so unequal?”

“We can smooth away all artificial causes of disparity. We can make the race one in which all can win something, and that which is won, not taken from the losers. We can give a new reading to that hard old text, that from him who hath not, shall be taken away that which he hath. That is, we deprive of liberty our moral failures. The power of doing mischief, where the nature is so depraved as to be irreclaimable, must be taken away.”

I watched the two nurses in charge of about thirty children under fourteen; half of them went to the State school. This looks a small proportion of children for twenty families, and for some children of attendants besides, some of whom included, like Mrs. Carmichael’s three generations, but in her case there were no young children at all, and this was the case with several others; and no family is allowed to exceed three children. One of the nurses was the teacher of the younger children. There were only two babies in the Owen Home, and the elder children seemed to be very fond of them.

I have seen Kindergarten teaching, but this was more varied and on the whole more useful. The use of the hands was taught before the little ones learned to read, but the education of the eye and of the ear, was earlier still. In the walks which the children took in the garden, and in the nearest park, they were taught to look out for beautiful things, to watch the plants grow, and the flowers expand, to note the changes in the sky, and the ripples in the lake, to be observant of the ways of the dumb animals, to learn what these liked, and if possible to please them, to help each other, and to trust each other. Fear, the mother of falsehood, was absent from their training, but the playful sallies of a child’s imagination were not repressed. The perfect justice and fairness, with which the children were treated, gave little occasion for jealousy and envy; the education of the feelings was carried on constantly, directly, but far more indirectly.

I saw now clearly, how much the militant spirit had penetrated society. Even in my own day, when we professed to be a peace-loving Christian nation, and also an industrial community, it had lived in trade in its fierce competition — it had lived in sport, in the slaying of innocent creatures for pleasure, and in the gambling and betting upon every kind of contest of strength and skill in men or animals; it had lived in school life through the prize system and competitive examinations, and had been feebly repressed by the best home influences, and the highest religious ideals.

In this society made up of equals, two children belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Cox, who were the resident attendants bound to sleep on the place, were, with the children of the members of the home, on exactly the same footing, as well as four young children belonging to other employés, who were at the Owen Home during the day, but went to other homes with their parents at night. The whole force of public opinion, which is really the collective conscience, and has varied according to the degree of civilization the community has arrived at, was brought to bear on children and young people with an even and uniform pressure. It was held that not to be a productive laborer in one form or another was a disgrace, instead of, as in my own childhood, that respectability, gentility, or whatever other word might be used to distinguish the status of the better classes, demanded our being absolved from all manual labor. Sensible as my mother was, sensible as I thought myself, the society of the leisured and educated classes was so much pleasanter than that of the toilers who produced the wealth and comfort that others lived in, that, insensibly, we looked down on the latter, or rather we expected them to look up to us. There was much kindly feeling towards them, and a great desire to better their condition, but not that respect humain that permeated all society a hundred years after my day. Their betters were to teach them, to help them, and in various ways to patronise the lower orders, and, no doubt, that was an important transition stage from the earlier and harsher — to “exploit” them as the feudal born did his serfs, the planter his slaves, the mill-owner his hands, for his own convenience and profit only. But the patronage was unluckily often full of suspicion on one side, and tempted to falsehood, exaggeration, and dissimulation, if not hypocrisy, on the other. How often have I in despair thought that charity was the most difficult of the virtues to practice, and the most dangerous of virtues to society. That it needed more of the wisdom of the serpent than of the harmlessness of the dove, for unwise charity often proves the most insidious kind of cruelty. What we held as the playful sketch by Praed of the kindly cynic Quince,

Who held a maxim, that the poor Were always able, never willing; And so the beggar at his door Had first abuse, and then a shilling. Asylums, hospitals, and schools, He swore, were only meant to cozen; All who subscribed to them were fools, And he subscribed to half a dozen

was foreign to all the feelings and principles of the twentieth century. The poor man, i.e. the working man, would be as much insulted by the shilling as by the abuse, and would condone no abuse for any amount of money. The asylums, hospitals and schools, which existed still, were supported by the community with even and not fitful “liberality”, instead of being a heavy burden on the benevolent portion of the public. A Scrooge, if any such existed, could not now excuse himself from payment of the general burden by saying that he paid compulsorily to maintain the work-house, for that institution no longer existed.

From the nursery lessons I went on to the State school, at which children attended from the age of eight till the age of 14. Here all classes are mingled even more than in the homes, where affinities generally made people of hereditary culture join in housekeeping, especially at the date when most of the associated homes were founded. In 1900 there were much greater differences between the professional classes and the manual workers than in 1987. In the schools, the most perfect equality prevailed; boys and girls were taught together, which I had always approved of, as it makes them quicker and brighter and more courteous. The literary education seemed to me to be less extensive than in our better schools, but the education in science was much more thorough, and both boys and girls learned the use of their hands; so that a young person of 14 was not as raw a hand for industrial life as the child of 13 out of board schools, nor had he or she the same objection to manual labor which our present bright scholars show. The great proportion went at once to work, but in the abundant leisure there was plenty of opportunity for continuing education, and there was help offered on every hand in the pursuit of knowledge. A taste for reading was very general, but it was not universal. I could not, however, fancy lads and girls leaving the teaching of the nursery and of the National school without a taste for something more than amusement.

School hours were not over long, and school duties were not made irksome and anxious by the constant effort to turn out show pupils on the one side, and on the other to impart the required minimum of instruction to reluctant and recalcitrant children. School holidays were few and short compared to those of our time, when the hard-working teachers and pupils needed long holidays. The lazy and indifferent abuse them, and especially in the case of boarding schools the idleness and license of long holidays often made parents dread them. Boarding schools were now altogether exploded, and the continuity of instruction and discipline was not rudely broken several times in the year. There was little harshnesss in school management, and children were expected to occupy themselves, and not make themselves an infliction during the short holiday time, in the twentieth century. When pupils did wrong, the teachers assumed that it arose from ignorance of what was right or from weakness of self-control, and every encouragement was given that might strengthen the conscience and rightly direct the will. The idea of breaking a child’s will, such as good Susannah Wesley and thousands of other parents thought the first duty towards it, was absolutely repugnant to parents, nurses, teachers, and preachers now-a-days. The will is the character, the very ego of each individual; it can be influenced by love and by reason, but it must be held sacred from violence and arbitrary power. In the school playground, I noticed that the pupils themselves elected their monitors and prefects, who kept order. The teacher was the last resort, but was seldom called in. As the National school had no infant teaching or elementary teaching, the requirements were high and not wasted. I did not see the Continuation schools for myself, but these were so largely carried on during leisure hours by voluntary efforts on the part of teachers and taught, that they did not cost the State much. There were a few advanced schools where parents paid for special training. Through one of these Florrie Oliphant had passed, and she was now going on with her studies at the University where she had met with her fate in the person of Fred Steele.

She was qualifying herself for teaching in the National schools — perhaps she was ambitious of rising to higher walks, but that would be attained by private study. Her lover was to be an engineer, and had to go through a good deal of hard practical work as well as the University training. I went to the London University, which was no longer an examining body merely, but a teaching body as well, and saw the mixed classes of youths and maidens, or what would have been maidens in our time. But I learned that Florrie’s case was not exceptional, but that many marriages took place in student life — perhaps, on the whole, a better arena for matrimonial choice than the ball room.

At the university I observed that though the masters and mistressses, the professors and lecturers, male and female, were supreme in all that regarded instruction, they resigned authority to the young people themselves, not singly, but in their corporate or collective capacity to regulate conduct and to discipline the turbulent elements within their circle. The students elected conducted committees from their number, and these committees were generally warmly supported. If at any time they were felt to be faulty, over-harsh or over-lax, next year’s election made a change in the personnel, which, besides, changed as the students left the university and entered the world. Youthful public opinion in both school and university was enlisted and exercised for the protection of the weak and the maintenance of good order. The youthful generation thus learned practically the science of sociology before they took their active part as adults in the business of the world.

The prizes at school, like the prizes of life, used to be won from defeated and mortified competitors. Over and over again I have seen boys, and girls too (though not quite so markedly in their case) work for prizes at school, carry them off, and then forget all the knowledge which such prizes had been held to be the only means of making them acquire. In the schools and universities which were now under my eye, the love of knowledge, the desire for skill, the delight in observation, furnished a motive power which surprised me. The prayer of the intellect — which is attention — was answered by the highest of intellectual pleasures — the conquest of a difficulty. Every new acquisition of knowledge was welded into previous knowledge and linked with it so that it never could be forgotten. Combined with this was the real liking that subsisted between teachers and pupils, leading to the mental effort which the system of punishments and prizes only succeeded in stimulating in a few who might have made it without. Sir Walter Scott says:—

You call this education, do you not? Why, ’tis the forced march of a herd of bullocks Before a shouting drover. The glad van Move on at ease, and pause a while to snatch A passing morsel from the scanty sward! While all the oaths, blows, imprecations, Fall on the head of the unlucky laggards That cripple in the rear.

I saw that children were much dearer to their parents when there were fewer of them. They were not felt as the burden and anxiety that they were in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Parents, not overworked or over anxious, could give and did give a great part of their leisure to their children, but neither father nor mother lived altogether in the nursery. Mrs. Oliphant said that while her children were young she undertook less professional work, and shut off her outside interests in a great measure, and that the happiest hours of her life had been spent with the little ones and her husband in a family life as perfect as could be enjoyed at any time. The grandfather and grandmother often joined them and had perfect liberty to have the children’s society for certain hours of the day in their own apartments, but only when they wished it.

“I think,” said she, “that the walks we had with the little ones were as helpful to them as any of their school lessons. You know what a gardener and florist Mr. Oliphant is. My turn is for animated nature, so the children learned from us much about plants and animals.”

“Parents now-a-days seem never to ask the anxious question: What shall we do with our boys? What shall we do with our girls?” I said.

“Why should we?” said Mrs. Oliphant calmly. “The boys will fill their fathers’ places, the girls lead the same life as their mothers — that is, with reasonable allowance for difference of temperament and abilities. Florrie prefers teaching to medicine — considers medicine is a profession that is on the decline, so I do not object. My son, who is travelling, is picking up information and ideas which will make him useful on the staff of the Daily News— and it is his wish to be a journalist. His elder brother had not any taste for that line of life.”

“Of course,” said I, “the smallness of your families is the cause of your ease in the present and your ease for the future. When a man saw four sons growing up to compete with him in industrial pursuits, lowering the wages beyond what would maintain a family, so that even married women had to leave young children to eke out the family income, things were very different. I have heard a woman, not unmotherly, but schooled by such hard facts, say, ‘I have a long family, but, thank God, the church-yard has stood my friend. I had only six that lived to be doing for themselves.’”

“We like to keep all our children alive,” said Mrs. Oliphant.

“Your young people are, I hope as eager in their play as in their studies,” I said.

“I think they are. It is curious that the only thing that competition enters much into is athletic sports. It is still a pride and triumph to run faster and farther, to jump higher, to wheel faster than our compeers, and to win games and matches in bodies and clubs.”

“I see your young people are very well and evenly developed. The race, generally, seems taller and heavier since I saw the world.”

“Yes, it is. Statistics prove this, not only from the dying-out of the old, ill-fed, hereditary poor, but even those who correspond to the middle and upper classes, who, if you recollect, were so much larger than their ancestors that mediaeval armour could not be worn by the average Briton at the Eglinton tournament, are still larger and finer.”

“But you have no field sports such as developed these classes in my day.”

“Not connected with killing, certainly,” said Mrs. Oliphant.

“The Briton, young or middle-aged, in want of a sensation used to say: ‘Come, let us kill something,’ and certainly, his own health was the better for the enforced fatigue and hardship of many field sports, hunting, coursing, deer-stalking and the like.”

“Sports which are pursued on horseback are out of date now, as too costly for our social condition, but every home by the sea or near the river can maintain a boat — and boating is a most popular exercise. Cycling is quite within our means and is universal. The old games of cricket and football and tennis still exist with some modifications, and a dozen new games of skill and speed have been invented for boys and girls, sometimes separated, sometimes mixed.

“Saturday afternoon is the great recreation time. We have the cheapest trains running, and towns folk go to the country and country folk to towns to try each other’s mettle.” “Have you any horse races now? Is the Derby day a thing of the past?”

“It is.”

“The racecourses of England, of course, were the outcome of a wealthy and luxurious people, and a great competition between them was a spectacle even for poorer folks.” “Say of a gambling people,” said Mrs. Oliphant.

“Without the bets the interest in the noble animal would have been limited to a few.”

“But in America the popular races were trotting matches, which Dr. Holmes used to call the ‘sport for a democratic people’— a good trotter was useful, a racehorse was simply ornamental.”

“We are too democratic for even trotting matches.”

“But people in my day betted on everything. The horse race was, certainly the most organised of betting rings, with the bookmakers always contra, and the gudgeon public always pro, but every contest lent itself to gambling.”

“Where the gambling spirit is, it finds outlets everywhere, no doubt,” said Mrs. Oliphant.

“Is it dead now? That is impossible!”

“Well, it seems as if it was perishing of inanition. When society was reconstructed, bookmakers and other vermin who preyed on the weakness and the credulity of society were dealt with as rogues and vagabonds. Many of them were driven into industrial life, many, indeed, had talents which, rightly directed, were useful.”

“The difficulty of getting a living by regular work, and the easiness of getting a better living without it, tempted not only the vicious into evil ways,” said I.

“When you extirpate the professional gambler you do a great deal to discourage the amateur. The security and permanence of our social system work steadily against the gambling spirit.”

“But, the Stock Exchange — the Corners — the Time Bargains! — all these were arenas for gambling in a large way.”

“You would not know the Stock Exchange again. Mr. Oliphant would tell you better than I can how the direct method of buying and selling cuts off not only the profits of the middlemen, but those of the speculator.”

“No doubt your system of training and education succeeds splendidly with the average, but what about your failures? While human nature is so mixed and complex, there must be failures. You make short work with one class, the congenital idiots, but these are few.”

“Very few. Healthy parents rarely have idiot children, and teething rarely causes brain diseases of permanent type.”

“Then the old pauper class?”

“Has died out with the system which gave it birth. The adults were incorrigible, but we struck at the roots and determined that no child should be brought up a pauper.”

“That work was begun in my day,” said I. “I took an active part in it in my corner of the world, and was surprised at the success of training against heredity. But heredity left some failures with us, and must have left more in such a country as England.”

“They drifted into vice and crime here and there, but while we were training the young we stopped the demoralising relief for the older. The progress of Society made it more and more difficult for a criminal career to be carried on — detection became more and more scientific and more certain. The stupid criminal was easily caught and reformed, if possible, by being taught an honest calling.

“The clever baffled us longer, but the pauper sui generis, who would contentedly live in idleness on the earnings of other people was what society could not and would not tolerate. He was made to work for the whole of his maintenance, if he sought shelter in the work-house, and he preferred to do this at liberty.”

“Then your criminals —?”

“When our children of all classes had received the careful training and education which we consider best fitted to draw out the higher, and to repress the lower nature, then, and not till then, do criminals stand out convicted of moral insanity, and thus, too, not a first or a second lapse into crime. A large proportion are saved to society by the probation system, but the residue are dealt with like other dangerous lunatics, fed, clothed and employed, even amused, but not allowed to prey on society or to perpetuate the species. In direct contrast to mediaeval celibacy, which prevented the parenthood of some of the sweetest and wisest of the race, the mischievous and morally diseased are debarred from it.”

“You will then have a decreasing rate of crime.”

“Yes, and of lunacy as well. So many of the predisposing causes of crimes are removed in the rewards of honest industry being so certain. Lunacy is not fed by intemperance, prostitution and gambling, or by the fierce alternations of fortune. A man does not work at his desk till he drops in order to add thousands to his already large capital, or to keep thousands from being lost for want of the present vigilance which was required. The struggling tradesman used to have as hard a fight to hold up his head against fierce competition; the artisan or laborer was liable to weeks or months of the year of no employment, the community losing what he might have produced, and he, meanwhile, living or half starving on his savings, which ought to have been kept for the time when he was past work, or on charity. Life is now so much pleasanter and more secure that lunacy is rare, and suicide is almost unheard of, except in cases of lunacy, when it is never interfered with after hope of recovery is over.”

“Many of the best institutions of my time seem to be extinguished as well as the worst. Where are the orphan asylums?” said I.

“We do not need orphan asylums where families are so small and the average life so long. When there chance to be real orphans, uncles and aunts generally adopt them, or they are eagerly sought for by childless parents. Sometimes they are laid hold of by the home in which they were born, and belong to the twenty families collectively, who, if no sufficient means have been left by parents, contribute for their maintenance.”

“Then the countless asylums for old people in almshouses and hospitals?”

“These are still less needed. It is the universal custom which has all the force of law without its harshness to make savings for old age, though not for children as able and as willing to work as their parents. The reciprocal duties of children to parents are expressed by public opinion as strongly as the primary duty of parents to children, so that the failing health of old people receives personal attention, though their own friends provide for their support.”

“Are there no hospitals now?”

“Certainly, for some acute and severe illnesses and for accidents; we have hospitals in towns and cities, but as you may see the Associated Home has in it sufficient appliances for tending most of the sicknesses to which humanity is now subject. I rarely have to send a case to the hospital, but I consider my hospital practice of use to me.”

“The list of diseases used to change in my time. Some old scourges were stamped out, or in process of being so, but new maladies, chiefly, I think, nervous, became more and more prevalent. In my day we heard first of cholera in Europe, and diphtheria (if not the same as the old putrid sore throat), was a new disease and a fatal one.”

“On its preventive side I think medicine has made most progress of all,” said Mrs. Oliphant. “Cholera and small-pox are extirpated as well as scarletina (sic), measles and whooping-cough. And hygiene and sanitation have put an end to typhoid and allied fevers.”

“I am not surprised to hear you say that your profession is declining. It has been too clever for its own interests.”

“Instead of sickness being a costly and often unprepared-for contingency, it is now reduced to a matter of sheer calculation and included in the expenses of the associated home. The contribution for each family is so small that it is felt no burden, while it takes off the pressure on the suffering individual.”

“This is an extension of the old Friendly Society or Lodge in which all prudent artisans insured against sickness. Only if he was out of work, and as they called it, bad in the books— in arrears with his weekly shilling or sixpence, he lost all benefit from his past payments. Of course a sick person loses his wages for his maintenance, and may fall into arrears in his payment for board and maintenance in his home.”

“The same spirit of collectiveness and mutual assurance runs through all our social system. Very rarely does sickness come when there are not sufficient savings to meet it, and if not the arrears are made up afterwards. It is, of course, my interest as well as my pleasure to keep down the rate of sickness in the houses I contract to attend. My modest income is not swelled by protracted illness, nor by ministering to the fancy of rich malades imaginaires.”

Returning to the matter of education, I found the nation paid all the cost of primary education out of national revenues. It also supported the universities, but I was surprised to find that the continuation schools, the link between the public schools and the university, were attended mostly by people engaged in bread-winning occupations, and taught by others similarly engaged. An intelligent community furnished enough of recruits eager to learn and eager to teach. Science had made great strides both in the hold it had taken on the general intelligence and in the discoveries and applications of specialists.

I asked Mrs. Oliphant if education, given by the State, was free, compulsory and secular.

“It was free, no fees were demanded of any one, it was compulsory without the aid of law because public opinion expressed it. As to its being secular, the education of the conscience and the feelings was so continuously carried on that nothing seemed secular which concerned the duties and the happiness of ourselves and our fellows. The lessons of the school coincided with those of the home and of the church, but religious or scriptural education was carried on by other agencies.”

I asked my informant, “How do you inspect and prove the teaching which is thus paid for by the nation? Is there not a risk of the uniform-teaching system becoming, if it has not already become, a dull mechanical drill?”

“The national inspectors who are needed to keep well-paid employés up to their duties require results but do not prescribe methods, so that the modes of imparting knowledge and drawing out intelligence are various, and this makes school-work more interesting. If you had seen the early teaching at the Ossulton Home you would have found it different in many points from that of the Owen Home, but the children leave these with the beginning of your old three R’s taught them, able to sing and to dance, accustomed to drill, to obedience, order and good manners.”

“I am much struck with the good manners everywhere,” said I, “especially those of the young to the old. I feel a little ashamed of myself because I objected last week to joint housekeeping for the sake of economy, because, though I might like the lady herself, her nephews and nieces were objectionable to me, and some of her friends were, what is called, bores. How do so many families live together without friction, and so many generations of the same family, which is, perhaps, more difficult still?”

“We had to make rules as to intrusion on privacy of strangers, and these were found to be equally important for blood relations, and for relatives connected by marriage.”

“Then relationship in the twentieth century is not considered to confer prescriptive rights over the time, tastes, and associates of those connected with us?”

“Certainly not; but, within these limits the family bond is real and affectionate. To read old books, one would believe the mother-in-law was a Gorgon. You may see how much respectful consideration my husband pays to my mother, and how she regards his opinions, and admires his abilities.”

We dined together at a restaurant in town, near the University, and thus missed dinner at the Owen Home. When I returned I found Mrs. Carmichael had found something among her possessions that she was sure would interest me. It was an old copy of Children of Gibeon which had belonged to her grand-mother, and had on the fly-leaf —

FLORENCE HENDERSON. (From her Aunt), EMILY BETHEL.

and the date of the birthday, which was the last of hers, I could see.

“Have you read it?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes, long ago. I thought it interesting, but so strange. I have been glancing through it again to-day. The book has a special interest to us, as the author took so large a part in the founding of the People’s Palace, and also, I think, had sound views on the population question.” Here my kinswoman showed a little confusion of ideas.

“With your Associated Homes you are not so much in need of the Palace, which was such a desideratum when Besant wrote this book and All Sorts and Conditions of Men— in which his impossible hero and heroine build a Palace of delight in the East End.”

“Oh, it served a good purpose, then, and continues to do so. In the neighborhood of the Palace were the first Workmen’s Associated Homes, built much more cheaply than those you have seen, because they did not need such large public rooms, or so many of them. This gave the artisan and laboring class an introduction to the benefits of associated living. You will still find that near such large public Palaces — as they are called — the poorest of the people congregated, and in all large towns there are still social and musical centres, as well as educational; for in these are held the evening continuation schools, which form the main link between the common school and the university. There are few of our young people who do not try to carry their instruction further in their leisure, even though they do not care to go to the university.”

“But the Melindas, and Lizzies, and Lotties of to-day; what is their condition?”

“If you can spare an hour, this afternoon, you can go with me to see them in the flesh; I want to go to the co-operative needlewomen and dressmakers, in the next street, to pay for the new dress I got for Florrie’s wedding. You will see rosy cheeks and bright eyes, and happy marriages, instead of the semi-starvation and the terrible temptations of the régime of elevenpence half-penny, or what Mr. Besant calls ‘the minimum day’s wage on which women could subsist.’”

“Do people not make their own clothes now?”

“Many prefer to do it; I always make my own underclothes, or part of them; but I like to give out my dresses, and the dear friend whom we expect home to night — whom Mr. Oliphant calls St. Bridget — makes my bonnets and caps.”

“Do your co-operative workers give hand or machine work?”

“Machine, of course, when the work is paid for; no one could afford to give the value of hand work.”

“I suppose then that the typical Irish hand-made night dress — with a hundred tucks, and yards on yards of stitching and feather-stitching and embroidery let in for two shillings and twopence (a clever girl, working long hours, managing two weekly)— is a thing altogether of the past.”

“Altogether exploded,” said Mrs. Carmichael, laughing, “Our people don’t work long hours, and not for your four-and-fourpence a week. My underclothes are all machine-made, and made to last; girls, in their leisure often put special work in their own clothes, especially for a trousseau, which is as often made after marriage as before it; but Florrie has used her leisure otherwise, and her engagement has been very short, so her father and mother gave her her clothes, which have been made at the same place as my gown — which you see is very simple, as we could not afford to pay for the machining and trimming of such a dress as you wear, for you say your crape is expensive and perishable. It would take four women two or three days to make it; mine, as you see it, can be made by machine in equal to a day and a quarter of one woman’s work.”

When we reached the co-operative workrooms, I found that machinery had taken more and more into its iron hands since my time, and what a wonderful six hours’ work could be turned out. At this establishment they worked in two re-lays, one set beginning at seven and working till one, the other beginning at one and working till seven. Melinda, Lizzie, and Lottie, too, so long as her health permitted, worked from daylight till nine or ten and then sallied forth into the lighted streets, where alone they could see the life and stir of the world, could meet their friends and their lovers — resist or yield to temptations which beset those who have only the streets at night for their sole recreation ground. I could see a Melinda in the girl with the firm jaw, the resolute eyes, and the slightly disdainful carriage, sitting at a machine. “Was she married?” “No! but about to be.” “Could she tell me what she did with her leisure?” “Oh yes! she made her own clothes, and those of her mother and grandmother. She had no sister, but two brothers — one of them was an enthusiastic naturalist, and she went excursions with him, and helped with his collections. She also had a taste herself for physiology, and attended the lectures on that subject at the People’s Palace.” There was one like Lizzie, with lovely eyes and a yielding expression, but a better-fed, better-clothed and better-taught Lizzie. She had married at sixteen — which was too early, even for the twentieth century — a lad of eighteen, and had not got on well with her husband; incompatibility of temper, and general discordance of tastes led to a divorce — after sufficient time given to consider the step — and she had married again an older man, with whom she seemed very happy. Here, too, was a Lottie — at least she had a pale face and a weak back, so that she could not work the sewing machine, but she had great taste in designing new styles, and in trimming; she lived in the same Home as the other two girls, in which she had every comfort, and her day’s work was not too much for her. The three girls seemed to be good friends, but were not so absolutely dependent on each other as in the times when they had to club together to pay the rent for a single room, and sleep together in the same bed. Opportunities for heroic self-sacrifice were no longer open to the exceptionally generous, but opportunities of neighborly kindness, and sharing of thoughts and ideas were still given.

I noticed that the trousseau which Florence Oliphant received from her parents — though she was satisfied and delighted with it — compared very poorly with what her ancestress, my Florrie, got in 1886. It was neither so abundant nor so elaborate. Belle’s fad for hand-made underlinen, her love of the best article, her appreciation of the finest of embroidery and of lace — as well as her general desire to eclipse the trousseau of a certain Miss Jones Smith — had loaded Florrie’s trunks and lightened her father’s pocket. I fear Belle would have looked on the modest belongings of her descendant as the outfit of a housemaid — and not very smart at that; not a scrap of real lace, but a pretty veil and bonnet of machine lace. Such a thing as a bridal veil of fine Brussels lace, which cost £500 two years’ back, and the worker’s eyesight, was relegated to the Dark Ages. As for Mrs. Carmichael’s simple grey dress, it was slightly modified from her husband’s original design, as years advanced. The cap was St. Bridget’s masterpiece, so that, as Florrie said, “Grandmother would look so lovely at the wedding that nobody would look at herself, but perhaps Fred, a little.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30