Lambeth Women Speak: Urban Poverty and Religion in Nellie Benson's London

By Anderson, Nancy Fix | Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Lambeth Women Speak: Urban Poverty and Religion in Nellie Benson's London


Anderson, Nancy Fix, Anglican and Episcopal History


MARY ELEANOR BENSON. Lambeth Women Speak: Urban Poverty and Religion in Nellie Benson's London. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rhwymbooks, 2001. Pp. xxv + 152, index. $25.95 (paper).

Mary Eleanor ("Nellie") Benson (1863-1890) was the daughter of the late-Victorian archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. Raised in a clerical family that valued the education of its daughters as well as its sons, Nellie was one of the pioneers of women's higher education, attending Lady Margaret's Hall, Oxford. Although also an avid sportswoman, excelling in tennis and a member of a lady's cricket team, she was not one of the notorious "new women," who challenged Victorian mores. After she left Oxford, she returned home to a conventional life in the archbishop's residence at Lambeth Palace, London. She was, her father said approvingly in a brief memoir that he wrote as an introduction to her study of the London poor, a person in whom there was "no shadow of self-assertion. It seemed as if there were no self to be asserted" (xx).

Selfless, yet needing purpose in her life, Nellie followed the acceptable Victorian lady's path of devoting herself to charity work, visiting the poor, and holding Sunday afternoon religious classes in slum areas. Keenly observant of the lives of the women whom she visited and taught, she recorded her observations in a volume originally entitled "Streets and Lanes of the City," published privately by her father after her early death in 1890. These observations are now republished as Lambeth Women Speak: Urban Poverty and Religion in Nellie Benson's London.

In the genre of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861-62), and Charles Booth's 17-volume Life and Labour of the People of London (1889), but with a more intimate approach, Benson gives voice to poor women, who are usually silent in historical records. Often using their own words in extensive, seemingly verbatim quotes, she details their amusements, social manners and networks, illnesses, old age, death, and religion (and irreligion). …

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