By Laura Fitzpatrick.
Laura has recently graduated from Liverpool John Moores where she completed a dissertation on the Victorian circus and freak show performer. From next year she will be joining the University of Manchester where she plans to research disability, lesiure and performance in the 19th and 20th Centuries. She blogs here: lauralouisefitz.wordpress.com
During the final year of my undergraduate degree I choose to take Victorian Cities, a module that exposed students to the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation on life in nineteenth-century cities. Not only was the subject material extremely interesting, the assessment methods were enormously creative and stimulating. The final piece of assessed work allowed us to create an output that could be, well, whatever we wanted! The most intriguing lectures, for me, was on slums, slum travellers, and social investigators. Consequently, I created a mock diary primary source as my output in the vein of works similar to that of Mary Higgs’ A Tramp Among Tramps (1904) and primary extracts in Ellen Ross’ Slum Travellers (2007).
Simon Gunn has argued that ‘slums’ were the ‘ideological construct of outsiders’ such as ‘journalists, sanitary inspectors and philanthropic visitors’ (Urbanization in Chris Williams, 2001). The aim of my primary source output was to construct an unwitting testimony that explored how the middle class imagined and understood the slum. I was also intrigued by Gunn’s claim that the obscurity of the slum was to be ‘illuminated by the author.’ In order to push the notion of the ‘imagined slum’ forward in my ‘primary source’ I produced diary entries that were written around 1880 by ‘Bessie,’ a fictional middle-class lady, who, while slightly snobbish, was also appalled by the state of London’s slums. I used existing primary source material to gather accounts that reinforced the middle class detachment from the slums and had Bessie state that she had ‘heard stories’ and ‘read articles’ on the conditions of London’s poorest areas.
The primary sources I used ranged from accounts in the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG) and I extracted figures from the tables in J. A. Yelling’s Slums and Slum Clearance (1986) to add authenticity of unwitting testimony to my primary source. Some statements in my diary entry such as ‘I had heard that these refuges offered hot water, bread, and a comfortable bed to rest in,’ were influenced by an article from the 15th November 1888 copy of the PMG that discussed the condition of a refuge in Whitechapel. Some of the language and phrases used in the same article, such as ‘alleviate some of the misery,’ ‘doss-house,’ and ‘footsore tramp,’ influenced the way in which I wrote as Bessie. As aforementioned, the figures and tables provided in Yelling’s book meant that I could describe Bethnal Green, the place in which Bessie was visiting incognito, as one of ‘the most overcrowded’ areas in London, and the phrase ‘the artisans and labourers cross paths so regularly and their lives overlap’ was paraphrased from Yelling.
I wanted to reiterate the ignorance of the middle class. Joanna Brück (2013) has discussed how outbreaks of disease threatened the health of the middle and upper classes as well as their economic well-being. Once more, this was a worry that I wanted to clearly come across in the diary entries and was done so by incorporating lines such as ‘I can only hope that I do not return from this epidemic street with a contagion…’ My ‘primary source’ highlighted the insecurities of the middle and upper classes as it addresses the theme of nineteenth-century hierarchy. The character of Bessie also exchanges a few words with Ann, a silk weaver living in the house she is staying at. This conversation was influenced by the Greville Diaries in the collection by Hilda Kean and Bruce Wheeler. I chose to incorporate this as the ‘weaving community’ was rife in the slum areas of Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, the heart of the silk weaving trade in the nineteenth century. By embedding my diary entries in this history, it legitimises its authority through other complementary primary source material. This assessment therefore allowed me to explore how primary sources should be used.
Moreover, this assessment allowed me to really engage with primary source material in a new way. Mary Higgs’ A Tramp Among Tramps was a prominent primary source for. The language helped me to create an authentic nineteenth-century diary, while also acknowleding that Higgs’ account provoked real empathy. What stuck me most, and what I found most intriguing about using primary sources in such a raw way, was the emotion conveyed by Higgs. I was also able to engage with themes that are of particular interest to me, including class, society, and urbanisation. This was an account that gave me the response I wanted to recreate with my diary and, overall, this assessment made me a more conscientious researcher.
Finally, the creative process of this assessment provided a welcome break from the uniformity of essay and dissertation writing. There are very few moments in the study of History where one can relive the long forgotten days of art classes, and I took time to make my diary look physically convincing. The physical composition of nineteenth-century diaries seemed not dissimilar to modern day scrapbooks and, of course, they were often discoloured. After washing out the tea stains from my fingers, I pasted a sketch of ‘picturesque’ Whitechapel from the Illustrated London News onto one of the diary pages. To provide legitimacy and in keeping with other Victorian diaries I had examined, Bessie may have really believed that the slums were ‘picturesque.’ I also handwrote the diary in the most legible calligraphy writing I could, including some crossings out and ink blots to the pages. The overall experience of actually creating the diary was exciting and allowed me to reimagine the way in which I had explored my own personal historical interests over the three years of study whilst stimulating new outlooks on research. The skills I have gained in completing this assessment will no doubt be crucial as I progress on to postgraduate study and I can confidently say that my appetite for research and historical inquiry has only been fuelled.