Fighters for the Poor

By Cohen, Susan; Fleay, Clive | History Today, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Fighters for the Poor


Cohen, Susan, Fleay, Clive, History Today


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.

Miss Loane was the most prolific female social investigator in Britain before the First World War, publishing six full-length books between 1905 and 1911 and scores of articles based on her penetrating observations as a Queen's Nurse among the `respectable poor' in London, Derbyshire and Portsmouth.

The daughter of a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Martha Loane was born in 1852 and at the age of thirty four began nursing training at the Chafing Cross Hospital, London. In 1893 she enrolled as a probationer with the Queen Victoria Jubilee Institute for Nurses, which promoted the education and maintenance of nurses for the sick poor in their own homes. In this capacity Loane had an unrestricted opportunity of observing the working classes in a way denied other commentators.

Loane's most important period of service lasted from 1897 until 1905 when she was Superintendent of Queen's Nurses in Portsmouth. Her duties included running the district nurses home and accompanying each of her Nurses (there were fifteen by 1903) once a fortnight on a complete round of duty. She also published five nursing handbooks during her demanding tenure. As a Queen's Nurse Loane was obliged to keep detailed records, including a case book and a register of cases. With her half-sister's assistance this material was later incorporated into Loane's social commentaries about the poor.

Like many other social investigators of the time Loane avoided statistical and categorical apparatus. Her position as a Queen's Nurse gave her privileged access to the poor where a climate of trust developed, enabling her patients to speak frankly and expansively. This authentic and revealing anecdotal evidence both underpinned and enlivened her texts.

Loane's commentaries (The Queen's Poor was the first of six) are detailed doorstep accounts of the daily trials and tribulations of the `respectable poor', whom she defined as those who managed to keep even the `most painfully poor and crowded home together'. Women and children dominate her books, probably because they represented the majority of Loane's patients. Her works examined almost all aspects of poor working-class life and provided informed insights into their beliefs, attitudes, language and behaviour. She raised her readers' awareness of the complexities of poverty in Edwardian Britain and left them in little doubt how material want dictated the ways people behaved.

As a result of illness Loane was forced to retire from nursing. Later, she converted to Roman Catholicism, which alienated Alice, her half-sister and writing partner, and no further works under the name of M. …

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