An etching of a “mud-lark,” one of those small children who searched the banks of the Thames for pieces of coal, wood or metal, which could be sold in the streets. They comprised one of those small communities, separate and apart, which made up the sum of London’s heterogeneous life.
It is generally supposed that London is, or was, a male city. Phallic symbols of copper alloy have been found beneath Leadenhall Street and Cheapside, and phallic sculpture in Coleman Street. The great phallus-like erection, Canary Wharf Tower, now dominates all of London; it is also a symbol of successful commercial speculation, thus displaying the twin poles of London’s identity. The buildings close to that tower have “wrap-around sheaths” of sandstone, yet another example of the penis in stone. London has always been the capital of masculine fashion, its structures of power characteristically dominated by men. Rivers are normally feminine deities, but London’s river is known as “Old Father Thames.” Yet there is a strange ambiguity in all this imagery. The Monument rises erect by London Bridge, and upon its base London is depicted as a weeping woman. In its fall, through fire, it changes its gender.
In the early written records women acquire status and identity only through their commercial dealings. The role of medieval London widows, for example, is indicative of a world in which trade, matrimony and piety were thoroughly mingled. On the death of her husband, the widow was allowed a half-share in his goods and, unlike civic law in the rest of the country, was permitted to occupy their joint house until the time of her own death. She could become a freewoman of the city, and was expected to continue her husband’s old trade or business. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the known widows of artisans, for example, all continued with their husbands’ businesses. The continuity of trade was important to the civic authorities, but these arrangements also suggest the formidable position which women could assume in the city. They could also join the guilds or fraternities and there is a record, from the fraternity of the Holy Trinity in St. Stephen’s, Coleman Street, of a charity box “to whiche box eche brother & sister schal paie eche quarter a peny.” There were also rich widows who played a large part in city life, but they were in the minority. In another context there are references in fourteenth-century records to “the female practitioners of surgery.” Certainly there were “wise women,” who fulfilled a role as doctors within certain London parishes, but we may also find women in the trades of haberdasher and jeweller, spice merchant and confectioner. For every twenty or thirty men paying tax, however, only one woman appears in the fourteenth-century records.
The general images of order and subordination, of decency and seemliness, were of course applied to the women of the city. For many centuries unwed women went bareheaded, while married women wore hats or hoods. Wife-beating was acceptable, while the ducking of “scolding” wives was on occasions deemed a fit punishment. The ecclesiastical authorities often condemned women for wearing red antimony and other “make-up” upon their faces, for curling their hair with tongs of iron, and for wearing finery; they had, as it were, taken on the unnatural colours of the city. In contrast, the presence of the great convents in London, up to the time of the Dissolution, offered an image of women who had retired from the world; theoretically, at least, they were part of the city of God rather than the city of men. A general portrait of London women might, therefore, be constructed along familiar lines as the subordinate elements of a hierarchical and patriarchal society; in a city of power and of business, they retain a supportive invisible presence.
Yet the women of London were also distinguished by other characteristics. The daughters of wealthier households, together with some of those from the merchant class, were sent to elementary schools; we may presume that a significant number of women could read and write, or owned manuscripts, and might deal with the males of the household on terms of practical if not theoretical equality. A study of wills and testaments, Medieval London Widows, 1300–1500, edited by C.M. Barron and Anne F. Sutton, describes them as “verbose, bossy, disorganised, affectionate and anecdotal” with a concern for distant relatives and distinct expressions of affection for household servants. They also reveal “networks of female friendships and loyalties” which stretched across London.
Most of the early descriptions of London women, then, suggest that they were very much part of the city. One German traveller of the fifteenth century entered a London tavern and a woman, presumably the landlady, kissed him fully on the lips and murmured: “Whatever you desire, that we will gladly do.” This is not quite the docility and propriety expected of women of a patriarchal culture, but it supports evidence from other sources of women who seem to be filled with all the energy and licentiousness of the city.
Representations of women in drama, from the scold to Noah’s wife, display characteristics of aggression and violence. As mentioned earlier, in the Chronicles of London for 1428, there is recorded the fate of a Breton in London who murdered a widow “an as he wente hys wey where as he hadd i-do this cursed dede, women of the same parissh come owte with stonys and canell dong, and there made an ende of hym in the hyghe strete, so that he wente no ferther notwithstondynge the constables and othere men allso, the wiche hade hyum undir gouernans to condite hym forwarde; ffor ther whas a gret manye of them, and no mercy ne no pity.” This scene, which was “without Algate” and thus on the site of the present Whitechapel High Street, is of some interest. A large party of women, aroused by the murder of one of their own, overpower or intimidate a group of men surrounding the murderer; then they stone him to death. This is not a city of order and subordination, but one in which some communal or egalitarian feminine spirit seems to be at work. The women were also without “mercy ne no pity,” which in turn suggests that they were in some sense brutalised or rendered callous by their existence in London.
In an early sixteenth-century account it is revealed that “the women have much more liberty than perhaps in any other place.” The same foreign observer reports that “they also know well how to make use of it, for they go dressed out in exceedingly fine clothes, and give all attention to their ruffs and stuffs, to such a degree indeed that, as I am informed, many a one does not hesitate to wear velvet in the streets, which is common with them, whilst at home perhaps they have not a piece of dry bread.” There was a sixteenth-century proverb that England, for which we may safely substitute London, was hell for horses, purgatory for servants but a paradise for women. One of the central images of the age is that of Dame Alice More berating her husband, Thomas More, for his stupidity in resisting the king’s will. Her remarks to him were often sharp and occasionally sarcastic, but he received them cheerfully enough. Perhaps only in London could that intense spirit of equality be sustained.
Of course such treatment was the prerogative of rich or well-connected families; the notions of liberty, on the streets, meant different things. So the same foreign observer suggested that “many witches are found in London, who frequently do much mischief by means of hail and tempest”; he seems here to be invoking an irrational fear of women, a disturbance which the experience of the city itself appears to engender. Records of the seventeenth century suggest that the troubling spirit was not curbed. One stranger to London wrote that he had sometimes met in the streets “a woman carrying a figure of straw representing a man, crowned with very ample horns, preceded by a drum and followed by a mob, making a most grating noise with tongs, grid-irons, frying pans and saucepans. I asked what was the meaning of all this: they told me, that a woman had given her husband a sound beating, for accusing her of making him a cuckold.” That example of violence can be followed by another, when “some of our party saw a wicked woman in a rage with an individual supposed to belong to the Spanish embassy. She urged the crowd to mob him, setting the example by belabouring him herself with a cabbage stalk.” And, again in another report, “the English seem to fear the company of women.” The women of London “are the most dangerous women in the world.” This may or may not be accurate, but for all the harshness there was also gaiety. Another traveller noted “what is particularly curious is that the women as well as the men, in fact more often than they, will frequent the taverns or ale-houses for enjoyment. They count it a great honour to be taken there and given wine with sugar to drink: and if one woman only is invited, then she will bring three or four other women along and they gaily toast each other.”
There were less happy circumstances. For every engraving of a matron, or merchant’s wife, there are pictures of women who are almost literally slaves of the city.
It was the tradition that women sold perishable goods, such as fruit and milk, whereas men customarily sold durable or solid articles; perhaps it was an obscured representation of the fact that, in the city, the women themselves were more perishable. The street-sellers depicted by Marcellus Laroon in the 1680s form a remarkable collection of urban types. A seller of strawberries, wearing a loose hood, looks curiously pensive. A crippled woman selling fish has an unutterably weary face, although Laroon’s editor and commentator, Sean Shesgreen, remarks that she is “dressed in an eccentrically stylish way … careful and even fastidious about her appearance”; it is a curiously London mixture of theatricality and pathos. The seller of “great Eeles” is lively and more alert, with an expression so quizzical and yet so wary that she might be ready to see, or hear, anything as she made her way through the streets. Single women were certainly vulnerable to every kind of attention and even molestation. The female seller of wax is “a study in melancholy, she wears an impassive almost stupid look and walks with a wooden gait.” Her clothes are “tattered and run-down, patched in various places and eaten away at the sleeves.” Here is a woman brutalised by the city into a state of indifference and neglect. The seller of apples has a peculiar sneer upon her face, as if demonstrating her contempt either for her customers or for her calling. The “merry Milk Maid” is anything but merry. The female mackerel-seller, an ancient creature with palsied face and puckered eye, is a definite urban type, the image of London marked upon her visage. So too is the seller of cherries whose intelligent expression suggests that she manoeuvres successfully through the streets and markets of London.
Another urban type, endlessly displayed in chapbooks and upon the stage, was the female innkeeper immortalised by Mistress Quickly but endlessly renewed ever since. “At every review in Hyde Park these trollops are certainly in a hackney, will stop the coach to drink pint glasses with ‘em at Phillips, yet wonder at the liberties some women take, and tho’ they are ready to eat every fellow they see, can’t believe any of their sex virtuous but themselves.” This is entirely characteristic, and in the writing of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there seems to be a consensus that the city tends to harden, or sharpen, female perceptions.
London wreaks transformations—the angry become docile, the querulous resigned—but in terms of women it was generally believed that there was a downward draught. London was not a suitable place for women. Those who made a pact, or compact, with it were regarded as fallen; the earliest actresses upon the stage, for example, were considered as “brazen and tarred.” Certainly this was true of Eleanor Gwynn whose “pert vivacity,” to use Macaulay’s phrase, recommended her to Charles II. She was a genuine London type, “frank, unsentimental,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography. Her behaviour was considered “unedifying,” while her remarks were often “sharp and indecent.” “I am the Protestant whore,” she once declared and there is a famous scene of her cursing upon the stage at the spectacle of an almost empty house. She was “indiscreet” and “wild,” and “her eyes when she laughed became almost invisible.” And she, a seller of perishable goods like other women, herself perished young.
Mary Frith, otherwise known as Moll Cutpurse, again became a figure symbolic of London itself; she was born in the Barbican in 1589, and quickly acquired a reputation for violent eccentricity. Her portrait became the frontispiece of Middleton’s and Dekker’s The Roaring Girle, a true story of city life, and depicts her in male clothes complete with pipe and sword. In fact she generally dressed as a man, and was well known for her stentorian voice. In the twenty-first century this might be seen as a token of sexual identity; in fact it was a token of urban identity, her behaviour manifesting one of the most complicated but significant aspects of female life in the city. By dressing in male clothes she understood where the power of London lay; that is why she became more ostensibly masculine than any male. Yet there may be anxiety, or misery, involved in that pursuit. Mary Frith declared that “when viewing the Manners and Customs of the Age, I see myself so wholly distempered, and so estranged from them, as if I had been born and bred in the Antipodes.” This strangely reflects the words of Aphra Behn, who died in a garret in 1689 not far from where Mary Frith was born, and who declared that “All my life is nothing but extremes.” She is now considered to be a harbinger of feminist consciousness in literature, having written novels, plays, pamphlets and poems on an heroic scale, but, as the Dictionary of National Biographysuggests, “She attempted to write in a style that would be mistaken for that of a man.” Hence she was accused of “uncleanness,” “coarseness” and “indecency.” But there was no alternative; it was the style of the city. They had to become “unruly women,” in the phrase of the period, in order that their identities or gifts might survive.
The fate of ruly women in London did not materially alter during the eighteenth century. They were servants of the city in an almost literal sense, since it has been estimated that approximately one-quarter of all women in work were engaged in domestic service. Others were employed in clothing and in hawking, in shopkeeping or in laundry work. They were overworked and underpaid. There was also a certain pattern to their urban exploitation; as they grew older, they descended still lower into poverty and distress. The city hardened those whom it did not kill. Yet single women, among them widows and deserted wives, still flocked into the city as the only market for their unskilled labour. It is no coincidence that this was also the period of London’s great commercial unfolding; as business and industry grew, the male presence of the city was rendered more powerful. So women were commercial objects, wearing such-and-such an amount of material at such-and-such a price, or they were rendered “feminine” and “pretty.” The more straightforward and forlorn images of the late seventeenth century give way to idealised representations of the feminine by the middle of the succeeding century. There was a vogue for advice books, beginning in 1750 and reaching its peak in the 1780s, with titles such as An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to her Absent Daughters and An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, in which the virtues of humility and obedience are continually encouraged. The purpose was to restrain or curb the natural power or instincts of women, all the more overtly displayed in the city; a distinction was often drawn between the city wife and the country wife, for example, the latter manifesting all the characteristics of docility and faithfulness which the former notably lacks.
During the eighteenth century the prejudice against actresses had faded; they were no longer considered “coarse” or “degraded” but, like Kitty Clive and Mrs. Pritchard, were allowed into the society of men such as Horace Walpole. There were many eminent women throughout the century—Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Theresa Cornelys, Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft among them—but although the pieties of Hannah More raised her above any disapprobation, and indeed she exercised an influence not unlike that of an abbess in early medieval London, the careers of other celebrated women were beset by scandal and obloquy. Walpole wrote of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, that “she is laughed at by the whole town. Her dress, her avarice, and her impudence must amaze anyone … she wears a foul mop, that does not cover her greasy black locks, that hang loose never combed or curled; an old mazarine blue wrapper, that gapes open and discovers a canvas petticoat. Her face swelled violently on one side, and partly covered by white paint, which for cheapness she had brought so coarse that you would not use it to wash a chimney.” Mary Wollstonecraft, whose ingenious and suggestive A Vindication of the Rights of Women was written in Store Street off the Tottenham Court Road, was disparaged as a blasphemer and a whore; her demands for female equality were dismissed as the tirade of an “amazon,” and her life was marked by isolation and unhappiness. As William St. Clair has written in The Godwins and the Shelleys, “At the end of the entry [in the Anti-Jacobin Review] for ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ the reader is cross-referred to ‘Prostitution,’ but the single entry under that heading is ‘seeMary Wollstonecraft.’”
It will perhaps come as little real surprise that the desire to control women occurred at times of panic and low financial confidence. It ought also to be recalled that there was a sense of impending change and disturbance in the air, and that the first intimations of revolution in France and America threatened the very existence of the state polity or “Old Corruption.” Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was itself an aspect of that fervour, which may explain why females were never more derided than in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. It was another method of urban control.
The women of nineteenth-century London were also marginalised and restricted. They were given roles, in other words, to which they were forced to adapt. The culture of the period is permeated by images of saint and sinner, angel and whore, pure and fallen, but this is only one aspect of a fixed network of expression. Fictional representations, for example, often concentrate upon the innocent fragility of milkmaids or flower-sellers treading the hard streets of the city; yet the obsessive interest in innocence, particularly in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, was based upon the understanding that it would be destroyed. When the narrator of Dickens’s Master Humphrey’s Clock meets the prepubescent girl, Little Nell, wandering through the streets of London he is filled with anxieties “of all possible harm that might happen to the child.” No Londoner reading this, in 1841, would have the least possible doubt that the most likely harm was that of being literally forced “upon the streets.” The trade in child prostitution was thriving. The city of that period had nurtured, if not created, that trade; we might say that it prospered upon it. So all the tears at the death of Little Nell, and all the pity and sympathy at the spectacle of transient innocence, were instigated by a context and by a city which the Victorians themselves created. They wept over young women who were being betrayed by the great metropolis, so in this depiction of innocence there is also a kind of necessary cruelty or hardness. Innocence has to be destroyed if the city itself is to survive and prosper.
London was the arena for “the battle of life” or “the struggle for life,” to use two characteristic Victorian expressions, and its women were not soldiers. That is why the role generally imposed upon the middle-class and non-working woman was that of the angel of the hearth, a domestic deity whose role as wife and mother was pre-eminent and inevitable. She tended her husband when he returned home from the battlefield, and protected her children from the depredations of the city. The London house became a zone of privacy and segregation. In Victorian homes the exterior world seems literally to be kept at bay by a whole artillery of protective forces; it was screened by thick curtains and by lace inner curtains, muffled by patterned wallpaper, held off by settees and ottomans and whatnots, mocked by wax fruit and wax candles, the metaphorical and literal darkness of London banished by lamps and chandeliers. This was the home of the feminine principle.
Those who were not protected from the life of the nineteenth-century city were obliged to work very hard in order to survive. They became part of the “sweating” industries, where “sweating” means long days and nights of sewing and stitching in overcrowded attics or small rooms. Many were confined within the drudgery of domestic service, while other categories of employment were cooking and laundering. Some could not withstand the pressures upon them. In the 1884 list of the inmates of Bethlem Hospital for the mad are listed thirty-three servants, seven needlewomen, four milliners and sixty “wives, widows and daughters of tradesmen.”
There were other forms of escape. The women of what the Victorians called “the lower classes” were reported to “drink to excess more than men. They take to it largely to carry them through their work … The women are worse than the men, but their drinking is largely due to their slavery at the wash tub.” Alcohol was the curse of working women precisely because they were consigned to a life of unremitting labour. If the “soakers” smelled of gin or of beer, it was also the smell of the city.
Verlaine wrote of the behaviour of certain girls, perhaps prostitutes, that “you can’t imagine what charm there is in the little phrase ‘old cunt’ addressed every evening to old gentlemen.” Swearing and blasphemy were everywhere apparent but, in a thoroughly pagan city, what else was to be expected? Close observers of the streets, such as Charles Dickens and Arthur Morrison, also noticed the propensity of poor women for violent argument and assault. The photographs of females in late nineteenth-century London show them staring suspiciously at the camera. One of the most familiar and suggestive of these images, particularly at the turn of the century, is that of the flower-seller. Instead of the painterly image of innocence and fresh-faced exuberance, no longer to be found on the streets, the photographs show glum and elderly women, each wearing a straw hat or a man’s cap, transfixed by a hat-pin, together with a shawl and an apron. They congregated around the fountain of Eros, in Piccadilly Circus, with their baskets of violets and carnations spread around them. They were always known as “flower-girls,” never “women,” and in that linguistic transference there is contained a great deal of London lore. One observer of the city regarded them as “Cockney vestal virgins,” although virgins they probably were not. These female emblems of London, as they soon became, were grouped around the statue of desire; yet they themselves were old and withered. They sold flowers, images of perishable beauty, when they themselves had dropped into the sere leaf of age. This contrast of youth and desire with age and poverty, at the very heart of the city, is a potent reminder of the wastefulness and weariness of urban life. They continued at their post until the early 1940s, before disappearing in one of London’s great silent transitions.
Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century the prevailing image of women is still one of work and labour. For every description of glamorous and affluent society women, there are others of the hotel restaurant “slavey,” of the shop assistant, of the typing pool. There is a sequence, in a film entitled Every Day Except Christmas, of a real character known as “Old Alice,” the last of the women porters in Covent Garden Market, pushing a barrow of flowers; the film was made in 1957, which suggests the longevity of certain trades.
Some female occupations were quite new, however, and the period of both world wars fundamentally changed the nature of labour. When the young men were despatched to the trenches and battlefields of the First World War, women were for the first time accepted within previously male reserves. They began to do “war work” in heavy industry, particularly in munitions and in engineering. The number of women employed at Woolwich Arsenal rose from 125 to 28,000, while the old workhouse at Willesden was used as lodgings for the women working at factories in Park Royal. There were female bus- and tube-drivers, with a steady admission of women into clerical or commercial work. Although women were not continually employed in the heavier industries after the First World War, their counterparts in office life remained. This was complemented by another great transition. By the end of the First World War the number of women in their once traditional occupations, dress-making and domestic service, had dropped quickly and significantly. Instead women found work in banking and commerce, local government and retailing, shops and businesses, public administration and the civil service.
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One distinct type had been the “factory girl,” whose token moment of emancipation arrived in the summer of 1888 when 1,500 “girls,” working in the Bryant & May match factory in Bow, walked out of their jobs in a demand for higher wages; they were to a certain extent organised by the Fabian militant, Annie Besant, and their success had significant consequences. In that year also women were allowed to vote in local London elections, and of course the movement of the suffragettes found its source and purpose in London. For the first time in the city’s history, women were able to engage its egalitarian spirit in pursuit of their own interests.
In 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst founded the East London Federation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU itself was established by her mother ten years earlier); the federation’s birthplace was a baker’s shop along the Bow Road, not far from the Bryant & May factory. Sylvia wrote later that “I regarded the rousing of the East End as of utmost importance … The creation of a woman’s movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country.” So through the efforts of women London reacquired its destiny as the home of radical dissent; it was a suitable response, kindling a spirit in all those women who had been written off as “soaks” or worse.
The history of the suffragettes connected with Sylvia Pankhurst was associated very closely with that of the East End, and became a genuine expression of the area’s concerns. Meetings were held in Poplar, Bromley and Bow; processions began, or ended, in Victoria Park; the printer of suffragette literature was in premises along Roman Road, while the Women’s Hall opened on the Old Ford Road. The significance of the topography of the women’s movement has never adequately been analysed, but it has become clear that the eastern areas of London lent power and authority to it. During the First World War, a Distress Bureau was opened on the Old Ford Road for women who, with their husbands’ income gone, had been threatened with eviction. A co-operative factory, organised by Sylvia Pankhurst, was established in Norman Road with a day nursery within it. A free clinic and nursery was opened on the corner of Old Ford Road and St. Stephen’s Road; it had once been a public house, known as the Gunmaker’s Arms but was renamed the Mother’s Arms. It was this double movement, of caring feminism and the female adoption of male working roles, which steadily advanced the moral and social position of women in the city.
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There are still women wrestlers in Shoreditch; the inmates of Holloway Prison have been characteristically convicted of cruelty to children, prostitution, or drug trafficking. There are still many poor women whom the city has beaten into submission. From the latter half of the twentieth century there are records of hostels and refuges for “sick women and battered women.” There is a truth about London here; the pattern of relative misery remains recognisable and unaltered, while surging above it are broad general movements of change. So, for example, the latest statistics suggest that female labour in London has increased by over 6 per cent in the ten years from 1986, while that of men has declined. It is now estimated that 44 per cent of the women in London are in paid employment. So the city has become friendlier to women, and they permeate all of its structures and institutions; there are female taxi-drivers and female executives. Just as the early twenty-first-century city is becoming lighter and more open, so after two thousand years it is discovering its feminine principle.