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Introducing ‘The House’


Post by Jenny Hughes

I have been working with Carran Waterfield from Triangle Theatre, to begin to develop ideas for a solo piece of performance (to be devised and performed by Carran, with a premiere in October 2015). We’ve provisionally entitled this ‘The House’. The performance will make use of the research materials explored on this blog, and other stories gathered from researching the place of women in welfare and community development, historically and currently. So, we’ll be drawing on historical sources relating to poor women in the 19th century workhouse as well as selected contemporary sources. For example, ‘Down poorhouse lane: the diary of a Rochdale workhouse’ (edited and introduced by John Cole and published in 1984) reproduces the diary kept by successive workhouse masters and matrons of Spotland workhouse in Rochdale between 1836 and 1844. It’s an amazing book produced by a fantastic local historian, and gives a great insight into the difficult conditions of those living (and working) in the workhouse. As Cole points out, it also repeatedly evidences the care and concern for the poor of those responsible for running the workhouse.

The diary also features many female characters coming and going in and out of the workhouse, from mothers and grandmothers in trouble but also many ‘dangerous, verey idle, verey saucy, filthy wretches’ (spelling as in original) who seemed to have caused a lot of trouble. Women, especially the ‘nasty Ladies’ (the sex workers of their time, I guess) in the diary often come in for extra censure, having committed the triple offence of being in need of poor relief, sometimes being sick and therefore costing more, and offending against (or revealing the hypocrisy of?!) the moral values of the time.

We’re not sure at present, but contemporary sources that we may draw on include development initiatives that focus on fostering the participation of women as ‘change agents’ – poor women as playing ‘catalytic roles’ in contemporary poverty reduction initiatives in the global South for example.

Taking all this together, the poor female is at once the cause of poverty, an emblem of the undeserving and debased poor, and a force for self-help. Which adds up to a lot of contradictions, tensions, pressures, convolutions to navigate as you make your way through life.

Here are some of the questions being used to stimulate the performance project:

• What can be learnt about the challenges of representing poverty from a creative exploration led by a solo female performer?

• What new understandings emerge from a performance project exploring techniques of self-presentation developed by poor women in the workhouse which reproduced, tricked, exploited and exposed the regulatory discourses that called them into appearance?
• How are poor women ‘named’ (as poor, degenerate, needy, deficient or responsible for helping themselves) historically and currently, and what are the implications of this naming for those seeking to make a living in constrained circumstances?

So far, we’ve looked at a range of material on the workhouse and the poor law, and have started to identify a number of themes and sets of materials that might be explored in the first phase of practical research happening in September. For example (and in no particular order):

• The workhouse as institutional care – with the shift from the smaller workhouses to the large workhouse in Rochdale, as the Guardians gave in (to some extent) to the poor law, moving from a system where the poor were known and familiar (where one master referred to his ‘family’ in the workhouse) to a system of control of an unknown, fearful ‘mass’.

• The figure of the abandoned or foundling child that resonates through fairytales, perhaps arising from high death rates in childbirth, and which give rise to a number of other motifs such as ‘wicked’ substitute parents (stepmothers, poor law Guardians, apprentice masters) and ‘rags to riches’ narratives.

• Fairytales as having ‘thresholds’ that characters pass through and are transformed by; the workhouse having a ‘threshold’ that is repeatedly passed through by some (the ‘ins and outs’, who never progress), and represents a ‘Bastille’ for others (who enter and stay forever, are forgotten) – entrance to ‘The House’, therefore, as a threshold that promises something other than the ‘transformation’ of a fairytale.

• The workhouse as a place that has sanctioned procedures for entrances and exits (going in involved undressing, bathing, giving up clothes and possessions, separation from loved ones, shaving of heads, wearing of uniform clothing; coming out involved the return of these markers of identity).

• The place of the imagination – as in songs, storytelling for example – as a place of escape from but also comment on and critique of reality (as it was in the chapter in the remarkable Indoor paupers by one of them, published anonymously in 1885, which describes songs sung and stories told on a workhouse ward in the evening, beyond the surveillance of workhouse staff (find out more about this publication here – http://www.workhouses.org.uk/IndoorPaupers/).

• The prevalence of song in workhouse entertainments, and in the ‘associational cultures’ of the industrial districts of the 19th century, especially in the North and Midlands. Some songs are ‘recycled’ with an ironic commentary (such as Bishop’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ glee, written in 1821, recycled as ‘The New Poor Law’ in the 1830s, written by someone who had experienced the workhouse in Farringdon (see ‘Songs and recitations in the workhouse 2’ blog post). Was song, the choral – a place in which a critique of authority might take place as well as ‘respectability’ of the pauper and labouring class exhibited?

• The records of the poor – in workhouse minutes, scraps of material left with abandoned babies at Foundling Hospitals (as documented in the very moving book Threads of feeling by John Styles, 2010), lists of requirements by workhouse masters (for blankets, sugar, meat) – versus the ‘realities’ that these represent, that often – because of a lack of voices of the poor in the records – has to be imagined. The dissonance between record and reality, imagination and experience.

• The role of the researcher in this – with its precedents in the slum tourism of the Victorians, as well as ‘urban explorers’ such as James Greenwood and Mary Higgs – what motivates research into poverty? What is the relationship between voyeurism, discovery, personal history, and the motivation to make a difference through research?

• The resiliencies and resources that help a young person navigate poverty – feistiness, a sense of humour, access to a reliable adult, preparedness to fight back, access to things that provide solace (such as an alternative friendship network or religious and political beliefs).

• The stigma of poverty, as something that might be experienced when living on benefits, being in care, but also by how you feel in your own skin as well as by your appearances – what you look like, what you wear, not being able to afford to participate in activities, ‘going to the social’ to get money for the bus fare home, speaking with a consciousness of being in a different register to others, and with a sense of unease.

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