and How to Help Them
August 1861 — The Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Dublin, Ireland
I have requested permission to bring before this Association a plan for the protection of young girls of the poorest class, in our great cities. It is not merely as a suggestion more or less plausible that I would urge it on the attention of the members, but as a system of work already tried and proved efficacious on a considerable scale. My respected friend Miss Stephen, of Clifton, devised two years ago the plan which has since been tried at Bristol; and at the present time upwards of one thousand young girls have received from it aid and guardianship, which, we cannot doubt, have been the means, humanly speaking, of preserving many and many of them rom the peculiar perils of their lot. I hope that the simple statement I shall offer of the nature and success of the scheme may prevail with some benevolent persons, to give it a trial elsewhere. In particular, I would urge that in Dublin, where much effort is making in the way of midnight meetings and refuges, it may also be thought right to endeavor to achieve a still more blessed end and prevent the awful woes which such labors can at best but partially cure. It was once bitterly remarked to me by a poor governess, “There is more bread in England for one sinner that repenteth, than for ninety-nine innocent women.” I do not believe that this is really the case. I am convinced that if philanthropists saw how they could keep their poor fellow-creatures in the right path, they would gladly double the energies with which they now labor to bring them back when they have gone astray. It can surely only want the knowledge of a practicable method of attaining such a purpose which can hinder them from directing their first care to the prevention of evil. This method for one class of girls, has, I venture to affirm, been actually found and proved successful to a very considerable extent, therefore, (I respectfully submit,) it more than asks, it challenges adoption.
It is an unquestionable result of the experience of philanthropists, that a very large proportion of misery and vice in our cities is the result, not of any voluntary and conscious choice of evil in the poor victims, but of conditions of ignorance, distress, and temptation, under which they have almost inevitably succumbed. To relieve young girls from these dangers, to rectify these conditions, is simply, under God, to save them from falling. It is not affirmed we can touch all cases where evil is deeper rooted, it is not pretended we can surround young women in our wicked towns with wholly healthful conditions, but, in as far as we can achieve such conditions for the majority, I repeat we are given the power of preserving them from destruction. Let us not faithlessly doubt the trust of this solem power. An excellent Russian gentleman (Son of the late president of the commission for the aboltion of serfdom) made to me, a few months ago, this admirable remark, “I am sometimes overwhelmed by the sight of the miseries caused by over-civilization in England, and by under-civilization in Russia; yet must I always elieve that God has not so constituted the social condition of His creatures, but that there are laws which, when we have discovered them, and learned to obey them, will remove all this weight of sin and suffering.” This is the true Religious Philosphy of Social Science. There are means of obviating all the misery around us, and God has made it our task to find and use them. We are to drain and ventilate our towns and bring good air, and food, and water, to the lanes and courts, and not sit down and take for granted that cholera and typhus are unavoidable evils which we may pray against, but never strive to hinder; and cure in our hospitals, but never prevent in our filthy streets. And in like manner we are bound to purify the moral atmosphere of the poor, to take away the causes of moral disease, and pour in light and mental food, and warmth of kindly sympathies, to the utmost of our power, and not wait till the evil is done, and sin has fastened on its prey, and then begin to bestir ourselves to commit our criminals to reformatories, and our poor fallen women to refuges and penitentiaries. I am speaking for girls especially; let me add one appeal — think what it is to save a woman at first to keep her innocent and good, able in due time to take her happy and honored place as wife and mother in the great human family!
Among the healthful conditions needful for young girls, the most obvious of all is the protection, and care, and advice of women older than themselves. We all admit this unhesitatingly in the case of girls of the upper classes, and surround them perhaps with even unreasonable restrictions in consequence, yet young ladies have no such perils to encounter in any case as their humbler sisters. None dare to address them as *I grieve to say it) half the men in our country think they have a right to address a poor girl in her working clothes performing her duties. They are guarded by an ignorance cruelly stripped in very childhood from the others. They have no hard, hungry, toilsome life, no harsh, unfeeling mistress, from whom to escape. Here lies the point of the evil. An immense majority of the girls of the laboring class find their living as domestic servants in small and poor houses; and of all these thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of girls, a vast proportion have no adequate guardianship beyond their mistresses for the time being, — their parents being dead or absent, unwilling or unable to attend to them. Again, among these mistresses so many fail in their duty, in one way or another, that the helpless young servant is worse than unprotected. I am not speaking “without book,” but as the result of the investigations of trustworthy agents and “missing links.” Mistresses of the humbler class are, of course, as varied in character, for good and evil, as other human beings, but the possession of such irresponsible power as they exercise over their poor drudges is too often a temptation to great and grievous wrong. Some are unkind, harsh, and cruel; some are drunken or ill-conducted; some (careful enough for their own children) send out their servants at all hours, on errands f all sorts — perhaps to the public-house for drink; some starve or over-work the girl; some withhold all her hard-earned wages on pretence of breakages, or of gifts of their own worn-out clothes; some dismiss her at a day’s or hour’s notice, and (as I have myself known it) actually at night, without a home to go to, or a shilling of money! It will be said, “Why does not the girl seek for justice?” But the idea of applying at a police-office is the last these poor children would ever entertain, and their mistresses are but too well aware of the fact. It is not wonderful that girls in such circumstances fall under the temptations which every walk in the streets places in their way — it would be wonderful if they were not to do so.
To meet these evils was the problem to be solved. In January, 1859, an intelligent woman was installed as agent for a small free Registration Office. Girls from twelve to eighteen, in need of places, soon applied, and also employers needing servants. The agent examined each case, and recommended the girl as the truth might warrant. Such as could not go to service for want of clothes were assisted from a store of good plain ones in the office. When the girl went to her place the agent visited her at intervals, ascertained that all her circumstances were physically and morally healthful, and collected such share of her little earnings as the girl desired to invest in the savings’ bank of the institution, which repays fourteenpence on every shilling. When the girl needed to leave her service another was sought for, and she was carefully guarded in safe lodgings, if any interval took place. It may perhaps be imagined that the mistresses would be impatient of such control as this, and decline to take girls from the office. But, on the contrary, it is found that only bad employers shrink from the legitimate supervision. All good ones rejoice in the added moral influence brought to bear on the conduct of their servants (who, of course, are always admonished in case of fault by the agent) and on the respectable appearance the clothes allowed them enable them to make. The proof that such is the case is this, that the institution grew in a few months with marvelous rapidity. A good hosue was engaged for a new registration office, agents were multiplied as needed, and girls and employers continue dto flock more and more, so that at the proper hour a small crowd was always waiting for the attention of the excellent old lady who from the first presided over the registration. Much of the success of the undertaking must, indeed, be attributed to this good woman’s untiring spirit and energy, and the sagacity with which she conducts all her business. Her address is Mrs. Bartholomew, 3, Park Row, Bristol; and if any lady should visit that city, and desire to acquaint herself with the working of this institution, she cannot do better than call on her.
At the end of the first year nearly six hundred girls had been guarded and helped by the registration office, and then another want became manifest. Many of the children were utterly ignorant of all domestic duties. In most poor families the eldest daughter is made a sort of drudge and sacrifice to the various little Molochs, as Dickens calls her baby brothers and sisters. She is kept away from school to help her mother, and she grows up to sixteen, perhaps, when the other children cease to require her assistance, without knowing how to use a needle, or read or write. For these and many other neglected and ignorant girls it was obviously needed to open a servant’s training school. To send them to service in their state of stupid ignorance was only to insure their speedy dismissal. A Home was accordingly opened at some distance from the Registration office. Here as many poor girls as desired it attended day classes for sewing, reading, &c., &c. A certain number from these classes were in succession admitted to the privilege of boarding in the house and learning laundry-work and cookery. From this Home they could be recommended to the better class of situations.
Still, there was another want. Among the girls who applied for help were many who, it became manifest, would never be suitable for service. Dismissed from place after place for faults of temper or the like, it became impossible honestly to recommend them to any new applicants. What could be done with them? There exists three mils from Bristol a large cotton factory, managed by very good people, and where the general morals of the “hands” is unusually high. A Factory Home was evidently the proper resource. A small respectable house with a little garden was hired, a kindly matron installed, and the girls gradually established under her charge. After a few weeks, when they have learned their business, their earnings are sufficient to cover the expense of their board, &c.
Such is the whole scheme of the Preventive Branch of the Bristol Female Mission. It was, as I said, devised by Miss Stephen, of Clifton, and carried out by her labors, assisted by other ladies belonging to the Female Mission. The whole expenses (defrayed, of course, by private subscriptions) amount to £500. This includes Registration Office and Agent, Visiting Agents, Training School, and Factory Home. As the number of girls assisted exceeds 1000, we have here an average of less than ten shillings a head for affording them a guardianship which we may safely trust has been the means of preserving numbers of them from a fate which the costliest penitentiaries can do little to remedy.
Surely these simple details are enough to excite some desire to imitate in other cities a work so singularly successful in the first trial given to it! There is one class of girls for whom, above all others, I would plead, and for whom much good may be achieved without any out lay of money, only by the devotion of the leisure time of any lady who would give them guardianship similar to that of Miss Stephen’s agents. I speak of the girls who are sent out to service from the Workhouse. I shall not attempt to discuss here the subject of work house education; let it suffice to observe that under the best auspices the education of girls in large masses, without individual love and care, has never yet been other than a grievous failure. It is all in vain to teach reading and writing, and to gabble formularies of theology, while every element is absent through which woman’s nature can develop healthfully and beautifully.
It will not answer to treat a human being as one of a herd of cattle, however carefully fed and housed and driven from yard to yard. With all reverence let us say it, God Himself does not treat us so, but with individual care and love; and out of our belief in this personal love springs all that is deepest in religion. In like manner, it is the parent’s love for the child as an individual by which the germs of affection in her nature are kindled, and through such human love she learns to conceive the existence of the love of God. But the poor workhouse girl is the child of an institution, not of a mother of flesh and blood. She is nobody’s ‘Mary’ or ‘Kate’ to be individually thought of — only one of a dreary flock driven about at certain hours from dormitory to schoolroom and from schoolroom to workhouse yard. The poor child grows up into womanhood, per haps, without one gleam of affection, and with all her nature crushed down and carelessly trampled on. She has had no domestic duties, no care of a little brother or an old grandparent, to soften her; no freedom of any kind to form her moral nature. Even her hideous dress and her cropped hair are not her own! Yet she is expected to go out inspired with respect for the property of her employer, able to check her childish covetousness of the unknown luxury of varied food, and clever enough to guess at a moment how to light a fire, and cook a dinner, and dress a baby, and clean a house, for the first time in her life. What marvel is it, these hapless creatures constantly disgust their employers by their ignorance, thievishness, and folly, and fall, poor friendless children ! under the temptations which the first errands in our wicked streets will have sufficed to set before them ! I will not pretend to speak concerning the Irish poorhouse girls, of whose condition such contradictory evidence has lately been given before the Parliamentary Committee; but I can affirm one thing on my own experience of England, and that is this — that one of the largest channels through which young lives are drained down into the dead sea which lies beneath all our vaunted civilization is the Workhouse!
Such a plan, then, as that of Mis Stephen is doubly and trebly needed for these girls, if for none others. With regard to them, however, it is possible to effect much of the same benefit by any lady who will devote some of her hours to the work, without any outlay of money for agents or registration office. It has also been tried in Bristol, and with entire success. The lady desiring to work the plan should obtain the addresses of girls (from the master of the workhouse or otherwise) immediately on their being sent to service. She should then call on each mistress, express her interest in her little servant, and request permission for her to attend a Sunday afternoon class for workhouse girls. The mistresses are always found to take such visits in good part when they are made with proper courtesy, and are led by them to greater consideration for their servants. The worst of them can no longer treat the poor child as a mere friendless workhouse drudge. She is found to be a human being for whose interests one of higher rank than herself is watchful. Usually the mistresses have been willing to avail themselves of the Sunday school, which, of course, is an excellent “basis of operations” for all sorts of good, religious and secular, for these poor girls. The main object is effected either way — the children learn to feel affection and reliance on a friend whose influence is wholly directed to keeping them in the path of duty, and whose hand they know will be stretched to help them in case of the dangers of destitution.
I have seldom seen so pretty a sight as that of the Sunday class of workhouse girls, held in a certain dear old house, under the shadow of a cathedral tower; and I cannot but think that any one who had witnessed it would be tempted to undertake a similar task. The girls came in by twos and threes into the little study, with salutations to their kind teachers, almost uncouth in their warmth; then turned to greet their companions, the only friends they possessed in the wide world. Very plain were the poor children — stunted figures, and faces, in many instances, fearfully scarred by disease. Yet this Sunday parade was not wholly unsuccessful, for the young faces were as bright as cleanliness and pleasure could make them; and the clothes given them by the lady teachers were put on to fullest credit. Business began by grand lodgments of pence — and even, in some marvelous instances, of sixpences — in the savings’ bank. Then came changing of books from the little library, with may warm encomiums on the latest perusal, “Oh such a nice story, ma’am!” Next came a display of copy-books, in which such girls as had leisure had written either a copy or a recollection of the previous lesson. Afterwards there were repetitions of hymns or texts learnt by heart at pleasure during the week; and then a little reading of the Bible, and some wise kind words from the young teacher. And then there was the great pleasure! The girls chose their own hymns and sung them softly and sweetly enough — the rich tones of the ladies blending with their voices in something better to one’s heart than only musical harmony. It was, I say, a pretty sight. England has many like it every Sabbath-day, but none, I think, can well be more touching than that of these poor little workhouse girls — so friendless in all their lives before — gathered at last into that little fold of kindness and gentleness at the Deanery in Bristol.
* Original title: “The Preventive Branch of the Bristol Female Mission”
Source: The English Woman’s Journal, Vol VIII, No. 45, November 1, 1861, pp. 145-151.
Also: Friendless Girls, and How to Help Them: Being an Account of The Preventive Mission at Bristol, (London: Emily Faithfull & Co, Victoria Press), 1861.