Listen to this article
The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010, by Selina Todd, John Murray, RRP£25, 464 pages
The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family, by Richard Benson, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 544 pages
Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford, by Richard Mabey, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99, 240 pages
The Gardens of the British Working Class, by Margaret Willes, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$40, 388 pages
The readers of Selina Todd’s new book The People have been optimistically positioned in her publishers’ publicity material as fans of Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife – the idea presumably being that the British are so obsessed by both nostalgia and class that they will fall eagerly on any representation of these combined subjects in any form. Yet Todd, a historian and fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, argues that the 20th-century working classes, depicted so rosily in these television programmes, have in reality been betrayed and dispossessed. So blinded are we by such versions of a “golden age” of working-class culture, with its up-by-the-bootstraps wholesomeness, that we have overlooked how working-class lives have been derided and diminished.
The People is a passionately argued, if somewhat tub-thumping, chronicle of hopes dashed. Apart from a brief period in the 1970s, argues Todd, the British working class has been abandoned by successive governments for a century. She kicks off with the Insurance Acts of 1911, which gave workers some protection against illness and unemployment, and which laid the foundations of what we now call the welfare state. Todd describes a class growing in political confidence but up against the vested interest of an entrenched elite. Post-first world war promises of a new world were smashed by economic depression and unemployment and the old world came crashing back again: by 1931, there were more girls employed as servants than there had been in 1900. Through to the 1950s and visions of a New Jerusalem were blighted as the best social housing went to white-collar workers and the poorest were stranded on sink estates. Hope flickered in the 1970s but was dashed by Margaret Thatcher and her fight with the unions; the working class has been living with that legacy ever since.
Todd’s argument is interwoven with interviews and autobiographical extracts to demonstrate how lives changed – and also how they did not. She is very good on how the blandishments of consumer goods have become a substitute for real power; she is also interesting on how the mid-century promotion of images of a working-class culture of dance halls, pubs, seaside holidays and Workers’ Educational Association classes were used to distract from the truth of mass unemployment and poverty. Along the way, there are moments that jolt into life – such as the description of hundreds queueing in the cold for a copy of the 1942 Beveridge Report. At intervals, the book recounts episodes in the life of Vivian Nicholson, who won the pools in 1961 and whose wild spending kept the tabloids agog until she was declared bankrupt in 1965.
The People is impressively researched but it sweeps a lot of detail out of the way as it rushes past. Anecdotal examples seem often to have been squeezed to fit the author’s argument: the politics and motivations of the working-class Conservative-voter, for example, are barely touched on and viewed as a compass error. The middle class is not entirely the monolith of defensive self-interest that is described here. Individuals and their inconsistencies are not so easily cut to shape: Nicholson’s ricocheting fortunes sit awkwardly here when they are clearly intended to be representative of a wider picture.
A less tidily compartmentalised picture emerges in Richard Benson’s remarkable book The Valley, which traces the lives of four generations of his family in a Yorkshire mining community. Benson, whose previous book The Farm (2005), examined his father’s family through their farm, quotes as an epigraph the words of a former miner interviewed by Raphael Samuel in 1981: “it’s this manner of carrying history, of awakening a deep curiosity in it, setting the starting blocks of learning, which is truly the miner’s history”. Benson’s book is a masterpiece of empathetic imagination, a narrative of refracted images, of stories told and retold through the generations, of tragedies, relationships, squabbles, disappointments, triumphs and secrets.
The Valley opens in 1907 in the mining village of Shirebrook, Derbyshire, where young Walter Parkin and his future wife Annie are attending a seance. We move with the Parkins to South Yorkshire, to the Dearne Valley, where the family still lives, and follow their descendants through wars, pit closures, industrial action and social changes both wide and particular. Benson’s account of the miners’ strikes, through the memories of his uncle Gary and his wife, is searing.
His method is to look at events without judgment and from all angles so that each account feels prismatic rather than flat. He writes entirely without sentimentality and with exquisite tenderness – but the book is underpinned by close research that puts individuals in their wider historical context. Spiritualism is a refrain through the generations (as inevitable in the valley as socialism, is how one person remembers it); a great uncle goes out for a drink to celebrate the birth of his baby and doesn’t return for three days; a shiny new wireless and a picture of Dorothy Lamour sit next to a coal-fired grate; a great grandmother wears a rosary made of Whitby jet. Selina Todd has written powerfully about young girls such as Benson’s grandmother Winnie, forced into domestic service during the depression of the 1930s. What Todd doesn’t mention is how often working-class parents such as Winnie’s refused to let their daughters work in factories or mills, thinking them “brash”.
Benson’s method of slipping between times and perspectives, sometimes appearing in his own narrative and sometimes standing outside it, would have been appreciated by the author Flora Thompson. In Lark Rise to Candleford, her celebrated account of a late-Victorian poor, rural childhood, published as three novels during the second world war when Thompson was already in her sixties, she employed these techniques herself. Thompson was a reticent figure – what we know of her is gleaned from her fictional alter-ego Laura, through whose eyes we see life in the hamlet of Lark Rise.
Although her book won popular and critical acclaim, Thompson has over the years been consigned to that section of the library shelf marked “rural authenticity”. In Dreams of the Good Life, his new book about Thompson, Richard Mabey remarks that working-class writing is often, like outsider art, viewed as a thing of wonder: “We like the idea of a hedge-scribe – whose words pour out as instinctively as birdsong.” The truth is that Thompson spent years struggling to be a writer. She was not, as so many accounts had it, an unsophisticated countrywoman married to a controlling husband who had burst into miraculous late-life song; she was an ambitious working writer who, with effort and discipline, educated herself. Thompson’s is, writes Mabey, “a story of roots, aspiration and escape”.
She was born in 1876 in Juniper Hill in north Oxfordshire but spent much of her adult life as a postmistress in Hampshire. Thompson married a postal worker, became a career writer and had two sons. Born into the rural working class, she ended up, as Mabey puts it, a “class border-hopper”. She was an example of how education blurred the margins of class affiliation: she made friends through books, literary circles offering a space where social background mattered less than a passion for words.
Because Thompson’s trilogy was based so closely on her early life. it is impossible to read without feeling the weft of real experience. It is her close and unsentimental observations of the natural world, as well as of people and custom, that makes Lark Rise so compelling. Her description of the “noisy, bloody” killing of a pig, for example, by a pig sticker working by the light of a lantern, is unsparingly vivid with its “mud and blood, flaring lights and dark shadows”. No detail of the way things look and feel escapes Thompson’s curiosity in material life.
Grayshott, the small Hampshire town where Thompson was postmistress at the turn of the last century, had become a commuter town by the 1890s, fringed by new villas. Cottage industries had by then been largely replaced by piecemeal waged labour and domestic service. Grayshott was also a centre for bohemians looking for the pastoral good life within easy reach of London. Edwardian urban intellectuals were avid for “folk”, for rural communities, songs, dances and stories, most of them at least part invented and tidied up, which spoke to a fractured industrial society of its archetypal primal past. It was a vision of belonging, of the clean and uncorrupted air of authentic natural living.
Mabey has many perceptive things to say about such historical moments, when British society hungers for the rural. Partly it is about maintaining social order: clog dancing being considered healthier for the working people than hanging around pubs, talking politics. But it is also about national identity, about rural life as the embodiment of a world worth saving.
Juniper Hill, the original Lark Rise, was, like so many communities, marked indelibly by the enclosure of common lands. In 1847, Cottisford Heath, where the villagers grazed their cattle and collected firewood, was put under an enclosure order. The inhabitants of Juniper Hill tore down the enclosure notices and dumped the surveyor’s theodolite in the scrub. For six years they occupied the heath in squatter camps.
Margaret Willes’ excellent book The Gardens of the British Working Class demonstrates how enclosure was a defining point in the British attitude to land, community, self-reliance and ownership. Willes, author of several books on garden history, begins in the 15th century but her book really takes off when the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century set in train a systematic destruction of strip cultivation in common ownership in order to maximise agricultural yield.
The plot of land became a symbol of resistance both for the dispossessed rural poor and paternalistic philanthropists. It was a keystone of the philosophies of the 19th-century Garden City movement and lay behind the ideal workers’ villages established by enlightened industrialists such as Lord Lever and Matthew Boulton. In the tradition of the 17th-century Diggers, who had built a squatter community on enclosed land in Weybridge, there were radical experiments in communal living on shared land by, for example, the Chartists at Heronsgate in Buckinghamshire and at the Whiteway colony in Gloucestershire. Industrial cities such as Sheffield and Nottingham were fringed with allotments, strip gardens and patches of cultivation, often given to their workers by factory owners, or simply claimed in patches between developments.
Willes writes fascinatingly of an upsurge of working-class gardening clubs that promoted gardening not only as a means of supplementing a meagre diet but as a source of delight in both competition and the beauty of flowers. An astonishing expertise in cultivation was the result: on windowsills, in soap boxes and in lightless courtyards. The gardens of the urban inner-city poor were gradually squeezed out by development and pollution during the mid-19th century and the middle-class suburbs, with their greenhouses and herbaceous borders, became the new home of the flower show and the horticultural club.
If there is a common theme underlying the recent cultural history of the working class, it might be the cultivation of these commonly owned pockets of land. They feature prominently in the mining villages of Richard Benson’s Dearne Valley and in the scrubby common of Flora Thompson’s Juniper Hill. The allotment, so often now consigned to the cosy suburbs, is in fact a potent symbol of defiance.
Lucy Lethbridge is author of ‘Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain’ (Bloomsbury)
Get alerts on Books when a new story is published