English Villages as Imaginary Edens, c. 1900

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 1392-1423:

Many social reformers of the turn of the twentieth century, Dr Barnardo among them, abhorred the demoralising and alienating effects of industrialisation and found a solution in the ideal of the healing hierarchies of a rural paradise lost, the essence of England. If housekeeping inculcated the discipline of thrift and the battle against waste, mass production was the very agent of superfluity and excess. The pre-industrial utopia was enshrined in another kind of social ecology, and at its centre was the mutual dependency that had existed between the classes in the imagined manorial village of the past. ‘The village is the expression of a small corporate life,’ wrote Sir Raymond Unwin, the architect of the garden cities of Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, ‘in which all the different units are personally in touch with each other, conscious of and frankly accepting their relations, and on the whole content with them.’

In the new garden cities, lych gates, mullions and gables jostled together in harmonious asymmetry, in contrast to the hastily erected tenement sprawls of industrial cities. Alfred Lyttelton MP hailed the garden city as the model of a community in which ‘the squire and the parson and those who clustered round the parsonage or the mansion lived together harmoniously with no sign of tyranny or patronage on one side, or of servility or loss of independence on the other’. The garden city was a vision of a very English Eden, both radical and reactionary, espousing the ‘practical socialism’, the ‘muscular Christianity’, of its founders, yet at its heart deeply paternalist: it was a heaven of many levels, where public service flourished at the top only if nourished by the wholesome craftsmanship and service of those at the bottom.

In fact, although the English landed estate still exercised considerable rural influence, the English village was already more often than not a hybrid community of cottagers, landlords and incomers. Three miles south of Farnham, Surrey, is the scrubby heathland landscape of a small community known as the Bourne, the subject of George Sturt’s 1912 book Change in the Village. Sturt was a wheelwright by trade and his book describes vividly a world in which the traditional communal economy had been replaced by a commercial one. This had brought, wrote Sturt, a creeping loss of self-respect in the villagers: ‘inferiority had come into their lives’. The Bourne was not an ideal village as the garden-city reformers might have imagined one: there was no benevolent manor, no village green for dancing round a maypole; there was little indication in the Bourne of the happy hierarchies so beloved of the celebrators of ‘Merrie England’. The old crafts and skills of the past had been gradually replaced by piecework for minimum wages which left the villagers too exhausted for the traditional rural festivities that well-meaning outsiders wished them to enjoy. They were resolutely unsympathetic to the ‘self-conscious revivals of peasant arts which are now being recommended to the poor by a certain type of philanthropist’, wrote Sturt.

The greatest visible change in the Bourne during the early years of the twentieth century was the proliferation of suburban villas that had sprung up on the edge of the village. In the new economy of rural life, it was very often the new villa on which village livelihoods now depended. These middle-class households had gardens that needed tending and ‘even the cheaper villas . . . need their cheap drudges’. Other traditional sources of income were increasingly insecure: machinery was gradually replacing labourers; large laundries were replacing washerwomen working at home. In villages like the Bourne, where there was no big-house tradition, poorly paid and unprotected drudge work was the only domestic service available. Sturt tells of a struggling farm labourer whose daughter paid half the family’s rent from her earnings as a servant girl in a villa. To the argument that working in a middle-class home raised the servant’s aspirations, Sturt had a brisk retort: ‘The truth is that middle-class domesticity, instead of setting cottage women on the road to middle-class culture of mind and body, has sidetracked them – has made of them charwomen and laundresses, so that other women may shirk these duties and be cultured.’

Some dynamics haven’t changed much over the last hundred years.

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