Lambeth Women Speak (originally Streets and Lanes of the City) by Nellie Benson, 1890

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by S.R. Holman*

Mary Eleanor Benson (1863–1890), known to her family and friends as "Nellie"(1) was the oldest daughter and third child of Edward White Benson (hereafter E.W. Benson) and his wife, Mary Sidgwick Benson. Born into a learned and gifted family, Nellie grew up in a vibrant, tight-knit Victorian household dominated by talk of religion, books, art, and philosophy.

Nellie had four brothers: Martin (1860–1878), Arthur Christopher (1862–1925), Edward Frederick ("Fred," 1867–1940) and Hugh (1871–1914), and one sister Margaret ("Maggie," 1865–1916). Neither she nor any of her siblings ever married; Martin, the oldest, died suddenly at eighteen of meningitis while at school; Arthur spent his life as an educator and writer, among other things editing the correspondence of Queen Victoria; Fred, the most "secular" of the lot, spent his life traveling (as companion to his sister Maggie to health spas on the Continent and assisting her in her archaeological work in Egypt)(2), writing, and pursuing the life of the leisured gentleman; Hugh, the youngest, joined the Anglican monastic community at Mirfield in 1901, then joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1903 and spent his life as a writer and priest until his premature death of pneumonia at 43; Maggie followed her sister to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, wrote on philosophy and religion, and is perhaps best known for her book on the Temple of Mut at Karnak in Egypt, which she excavated in the 1890s; her activities after that were severely narrowed by illness and depression and she lived as an invalid until her death of heart failure at 51. The siblings were devoted to one another throughout their lives.

This closeness was perhaps strengthened in childhood by the usual social boundaries of the English clerical family, and by its peripatetic nature in this case, as well as the isolated country homes of their childhood and huge parks and gardens in the places where they lived, as their father followed a rapidly rising career trajectory. When Nellie was born in 1863, he was Headmaster of Wellington College; here all her siblings were born. In 1873 her father was appointed Chancellor at Lincoln cathedral; three years later, in 1876, he was appointed bishop of Truro, in Cornwall. Cornwall in those days was an isolated place, and the years at the cathedral in Truro and in the parsonage in the nearby village of Kenwyn may for these children have resembled a foreign mission field. But they loved the place, often returning to visit Truro as adults and writing about it with great fondness. It was from Truro that Nellie went up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in October 1881.

E.W. Benson was above all else an educator, starting schools wherever he went and active in educational reform and women's education. He introduced many changes at Wellington; at Lincoln he started a Night School for men and boys; expecting 60 at the first meeting, 400 turned up!(3) At Truro he established a high school, where both his own and the village children attended. Later, at Lambeth, where the administrative and other duties of Archbishop constrained his energies, he taught wherever he could and everywhere encouraged classes for all, including theological education for women (4).

Benson was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury during Nellie's first year at Oxford, and the family moved to the Archbishop's family quarters in Lambeth Palace, London, spending half the year in the official country house at Addington, a village eight miles from Lambeth and just east of the suburb of Croyden. Here they lived on the edge of both worlds: Croyden being town, and Addington the simplest English village.

In such a household, led by one who was also Headmaster, Dean, Bishop, and then Archbishop, Nellie and her siblings' social experiences ran the entire gamut of the English class system. Arthur, who wrote his father's biography (as well as Maggie's and Hugh's) describes his father's charisma as a churchman:

"If my father did not ever quite fathom the political system of England, loose, opportunist, swayed by social currents, easy-going as it is, he had an extraordinary knowledge of ecclesiastical feeling, and led the Church with unfailing tact and confidence, besides exercising a very patriarchal function in the Colonial Churches. The clergy of the day felt that, whatever happened, my father understood their position and their difficulties." (5)

This "extraordinary knowledge of feeling" or its faculty for empathy was a gift that Nellie shared, on a different level, in her teaching and work among the London poor.

Nellie's book, Streets and Lanes of the City, is a collection of true stories, by a gifted storyteller. Here Nellie relates the lives of girls, women and their families, whom she taught and visited between 1884 and 1890. Many of the girls were students in her Sunday afternoon classes; she listened to their confidences, took them on outings, and met their families and neighbors. While her family was entirely supportive, the work was very much Nellie's own. In 1884 Maggie, at home on holiday, wrote Arthur, "Nellie is getting so awfully energetic. Ever since I have been home she has been doing hardly anything except committees and visiting and taking classes. I feel most frightfully idle."(6) In 1886, when Maggie completed her Oxford studies, she joined her sister at home and began to find the form of her own particular work. She did occasionally share in Nellie's projects, such as at least once teaching Nellie's class of boys at Addington when her sister was unable. Arthur also tells us that Maggie wrote a "manual on capital labour,"(7) but he counts it among her "lesser writings."

Details for Nellie's life, work, and premature death at 27 come from three surviving sources. One is her father's "Brief Memoir" to the present volume. The other two portraits are found in Arthur's biography of Maggie and in his preface to the posthumous printing of Nellie's novel, At Sundry Times and in Divers Manners. Both are worth reprinting here at length (8):

"If, then, my sister was known beyond the circle of her immediate friends, it was as a friend of the poor, a constant visitor in "courts" and "districts," a member of relief committees, a guide and counsellor of young men and women of the lower classes, both in her town and country home. I have been surprised how often I have been asked the question even by comparative strangers, as to whether she was not very much interested in the poor...I mention this to show that people were disposed to classify her as an active district visitor, and not to think that she had any particular life apart from that; well, to be classed among the friends of the poor is, if well deserved, to be classed among the saints of God; and though some of the interest now taken in the poorer classes may spring from dubious sources, her own work was never dictated by any but the most direct and simplest motives–by the feeling that made her say, when quite a child, that she thought much about the poor because they had so much to suffer.

"...All her life she accepted the responsibilities of other lives, and did it naturally and ardently, without, I think, feeling that burden in responsibility which daunts many sensitive souls that would fain help if they could.

"...In 1883 we moved to London, living half the year within a stone's throw of poverty, and filth, and misery, on the skirts of that squalid tract of houses that cover the whole extent of the old Lambeth Marsh–those houses on to whose dingy areas and smoke-stained roofs the traveller from Waterloo looks out before he draws up at Vauxhall; but it would not be fair to say that it is all poverty; the constitution of the district is most peculiar, as containing a very large proportion of solid respectability–families who call themselves "Lambethians" and have inhabited the same houses for several generations; these are of the lowest middle class, earn good wages, live in some comfort, and hate the country: not always easy of access, but self-respecting, upright people...

"...She was ready for any kind of adventure, too–would prowl about with her brothers to second-hand bookshops, only stipulating that she should not go down a particular street where ‘she had a quarrel with a fishmonger.' On one occasion one of her brothers, then at Eton (9), brought in a school friend to pass the evening, everyone else having gone out. The two boys, with my sister, dressed up in their oldest things, and went out to Lambeth Market. Suddenly my sister met a philanthropic friend, who asked her with great surprise if she was alone. She said cheerfully ‘Oh, no,' and was going to point out her two companions, when the impenetrability of their disguise so appalled her, that she had to murmur something about her brother, and hurry on.

"[Her] Sunday class deserves, perhaps, a few words, as its origin was very characteristic of the simple way in which my sister attacked her work. The class first consisted of farm boys; then they brought their friends, and they others, till as the years went on and her original members would not leave her, it was a large gathering of grown-up men and older boys, who spent the Sunday afternoon with her in reading, talking, looking at pictures, and singing, and she had at last to limit her numbers and hand over the smaller boys to a friend who offered his help.

"...At one time, when her work in London seemed to be growing and ramifying [sic], she was very much undecided as to what she ought really to be doing: whether she ought to give up so much of her time to philanthropic work, or to be reading or writing more.
"[She wrote Arthur, saying:] I dare say you will see me a Poor Law Guardian one of these days. Fate's finger, whose leadings I so docilely follow, seems to me to rather point that way, if death or marriage doesn't intervene. I should think they are about equally likely."

In the end it was death. In his biography for Maggie, Arthur writes (10):

"That first happy stage of Maggie's life ... came to an end with her sister Nellie's death in the autumn of 1890. There was diphtheria in the village (11)– it was before the days when the cure for diphtheria had been perfected. Nellie was taken ill, and sent for a doctor–my father and mother were away–the doctor said she must be isolated, and the last time Maggie saw her, except for one brief glimpse just before she died, was as she was gleefully collecting books and papers in the schoolroom; she was going to have a few quiet days, she said, waving Maggie away to a safe distance, and she was going to work off arrears.

"The illness was short and severe, and the suffering was great; but Nellie never lost her courage: it ended in heart-failure, and she knew she was dying. She sent messages to all of us, and just before the end said with a smile to my father that she wondered what it was going to be like.

The day of Nellie's funeral was bright and autumnal, and I walked side by side with Maggie behind the coffin, through the garden, and down to the little church. Maggie was pale and smiling through her tears, and I was conscious that there was a great tenderness about her, as if she had vowed herself to fill so far as possible, Nellie's place as daughter and sister... Nellie by her gaiety and eagerness, her freedom from shyness, her love of new people and ever multiplied relations, her overflowing spirits, had given Maggie just the sort of encouragement she most needed...

"Nellie had always enjoyed having an understanding with others, and standing in a perfectly definite relation with them, so that when she died, we each felt that our special companion and confidante was gone. She had reflective moods, and pondered much over the part that she might play in life; but she was saved from introspection by the wide range of her interests. Her sympathies were instructive, and she had far more power than Maggie of entering by imagination into the lives of others; this was exhibited, I used to think, in her extraordinary gift for acting and impersonation; and she would have become, I have no doubt, an excellent writer, if time had been granted her. A novel, At Sundry Times and in Divers Manners, is full of humour and lively characterisation; and her little book Streets and Lanes of the City, privately printed by my father after her death, is one of the few books I know about the life of the poor which seems to have nothing technically philanthropic about it, but is written from the point of view of a frank and equal observer. Nellie was the only one of us, I think, who had no awe of my father. She knew exactly the sort of talk and companionship that he liked, and gave him exactly the sort of open and outspoken affection for which he craved. It was Nellie's way to fall in with the moods of her companion, not diplomatically, but with a certain self-suppression, because she enjoyed giving people their head and seeing how they behaved. The singular and beautiful result of this was that in a very tender and careful little biographical study which my father wrote of her, prefixed to Streets and Lanes of the City(12),he there drew a portrait of her which to me is hardly recognisable, but which is yet obviously true, because it showed Nellie as she reflected my father's own moods. But this was all a perfectly uncalculating impulse on her part, a natural desire to be exactly what was expected of her, mingled with an intense desire that her friends should be their own natural selves in her company. She did not draw out people because she wanted to stand well with them, but because she was more interested in them than in herself, and wished them to be happy, frank, and amused. Nellie never seemed to have strong wishes of her own. "What shall we do?" was her favourite question. Neither do I think she had consciously a strong sense of responsibility, or a wish to direct and influence others. It was a far more spontaneous and natural instinct in her, and her love was given lavishly to all who claimed her affection. I have seldom known anyone more truly unselfish, not from deliberate self-renunciation, but out of pure eagerness and goodwill; and it was all irradiated by a bubbling-over sense of humour, and an intense amusement in the whimsical qualities and inconsistencies and absurdities of human beings, which delighted her in spite of herself, and even when she would have wished them otherwise. She had a good deal of ill-health in her short life and much depression–the result perhaps of her activities. There was a mood in which she tended to stare fixedly before her, and to enliven proceedings with a doleful little song. But she hid her tiredness very gallantly, and it was little suspected. It was a happy temperament, full of curiosity and liveliness; and I never saw anyone who was more fitted by nature to be a wife and a joyful mother of children. She would have played with them, sympathised with them, understood them, laughed at them and consoled them; but this was not to be. As I think of her, I remember best her joyful greeting, her eager embrace and the firm grasp of her strong little hand, and the way in which she threw aside whatever she was doing, not reluctantly, but because she loved companionship better still...

"Nellie then was laid to rest in the quiet churchyard in the valley, beneath the steep wooded bluffs of the Park and close to the gardens and the little farm...

"The home life began again. But Nellie's death was like the closing of the old days of childhood for all of us. She was just twenty-seven, but she had kept alive by her freshness and childlike spirit many little family usages and games which never revived again. Till then we had always written and acted a children's play at Christmas, and there had always been a holiday magazine; but this all disappeared, and no one had the heart to revive it..."

Nellie divides the stories in Streets and Lanes of the City, into chapters according to various themes she considers of interest to her Victorian audience, such as social manners, friendships, religion and irreligion, death, illness, success, and failure. The strength of her narrative lies in her descriptive power. She relates conversation in the local idiom, apparently verbatim. Many of these girls and their mothers wrote her letters; she recorded them, and retained the original spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Archbishop Benson had these excerpts left unedited, allowing Nellie's correspondents their own true voice in their own spelling and phrases. These renderings, with their many misspellings, misuse of the lower case, and complete disregard for grammar and punctuation, are unchanged in the present edition, given here just as Nellie wrote them.

Certain recurring themes in the stories reflect characteristics of Victorian society that may seem quite foreign to the modern reader, especially the modern American reader. Her sense of class, especially, is present on every page. She describes "refinement" in the different classes in terms that often seem quite silly, although they are not obviously intended as irony. For example, she "proves" the "refinement" of many families by describing the furniture in their front parlour: the Sperlings, for example, demonstrated "the refinements of life" by a parlour chock-full of wax flowers under glass, with the glass neatly topped by crocheted doilies (13). Rosie Lander meets the Hodge family whose worthiness Nellie demonstrates by the "fact that they had a piano and a stair-carpet"(14) Antimacassars–those lace doilies that covered the tops and arms of overstuffed chairs and couches, protecting the fabric from dirt and hair-grease–figure prominently in Nellie's descriptions of the homes of those people who are poor and yet of good character. In other places, however, she finds certain Victorian etiquette carried to ridiculous lengths, and says so (15) .

Nellie uses the first person rarely. She often alludes to herself as "the visiting lady" or a certain girl's "teacher." In the form of her outreach she was not setting any new trend, and in several places she refers to other "visiting ladies." Women from the "leisured classes" in London, or at least women who did not themselves need to support their families by paid work, often offered their time as volunteer social workers in given neighborhoods, and there was a widespread move in the church at this time to encourage refined women and girls to use their energies in this way (16). She was backed by her many connections with wealthy individuals willing to offer assistance of various types, assistance she might then administer as she considered appropriate. This aid was not a perpetual welfare, but concrete short-term assistance intended to help a family overcome particular problems and "succeed," usually by gaining appropriate regular employment, health care, or education. Nellie deliberately focuses her narrative on the dignity and innate goodness of the people she desires to help. Her help was limited, and several times she notes "there was nothing to be done" if a family's needs were so great that no assistance would empower them to change bad behaviors or find employment. Where she is able to help, this often takes the form of philanthropic subsidies: she helps to pay (or arranges for reduced fees) for girls' "training in service" at the best sort of "Training Homes" for maids and housekeepers. She helps children and entire families have holidays in the country. She arranges for an alcoholic woman, Mrs. Ballard, to stay at an "Inebriate Home," both voluntarily and (when the situation becomes desperate) by accompanying the family to court and the woman to the certifying doctor to be committed for the year deemed necessary to effect lasting change.

These women's lives were hard and often very grim indeed, especially as we note that both Nellie and Arthur insist these are by no means the worst off in London and Nellie is telling only the stories of those motivated to receive and use her help well. She frequently cites drink and illiteracy as the most significant limiting factors in these women's struggle to survive and maintain self-respect. She speaks casually of their typical workday, whether the jobs are in "service" or in "business." Although most of the families in these stories valued education and sent their children to school, the girls were expected to go to work early in adolescence, and the hours were brutal. Elinor Lowry, for example, worked 11-hour days in an india rubber factory; Mary Bloxam worked in a draper's shop "daily from 9 to 9; on Saturdays from 9 AM to 11 PM." Burney Row, the local shopping district and flea market, was at its liveliest at 10 PM on Saturday nights. Nellie takes these hours and child labor for granted. Louey Carter for example, gets "a good chance to get on" in life when she has the opportunity to leave home and train for service–at age 13! Molly O'Brien, who "was the only grown-up girl" at home and "ought by rights to have left home long before she actually did," finally left the overcrowded nest for a training home, at 15.
Nellie finds multigenerational families living together in one room, several children sometimes sharing their mother's bed, even as the mother is dying of tuberculosis. Her story of Bobbie, a 16-year-old who spent his life crouched in bed in pain because his sister had dropped him on the stairs, is painful to read (17). Many girls are motherless. Sanitation is dismal; when Mrs. Farrant, for example, declares herself henceforth liberated from drink, she pours her last bottle of gin out the window, into the court below; her visitor doesn't blink, nor does Nellie comment: how else would one get rid of liquid in a house without running water and proper drainage? And this, we remember, was in the crowded center of urban London. Maggie never quite describes, but merely alludes, to the pervasive stench and "living horrors" that she must have encountered on most visits. Probably the greatest irony of her life, in fact, is that her own death came from a disease caught in the rural village; throughout her work in the Southwark slums she seems to have remained remarkably healthy.

Nellie's focus on dignity, goodness, and encouraging "elevated lives" does not stop her from painting the most gripping, portraits of some unforgettable characters. One of the most vivid descriptions in the book is that of Mrs. Pollard, an old lady who lived in a rented room in utter filth, and who categorically refused to give it up for the workhouse:

"The room was smoking, and the smoke had found a resting place on the cobwebs that hung festooned from the ceiling. The pattern of the paper was unrecognisable, the mantelpiece grimed and black, and in the hearth lay heaped the ashes of a week ago, along with sundry scraps of various kinds which had perhaps better rest undescribed.

"But on the round table, which stood in the middle of the room, was gathered a kind of abridged edition of the various elements of disorder and filth. There was in the middle an unscoured saucepan, and half pushed under its black and crusted side a plate, greasy with congealed gravy and pieces of bitten crusts, and in the middle of the plate was one of Mrs. Pollard's Sunday boots. Out of the boot protruded Mrs. Pollard's comb. Suffice it to say that the comb was more in need of cleansing than any article in the room, not excluding Mrs. Pollard herself. Of the more living horrors, we will not speak.

"She sat in a rocking-chair, pushed against the foot of the bed. She had only one eye, and that was very sore. Her grizzled hair was wont to fall over it, and the condition of it made one feel that the comb must have rested a long time in the boot.

[After an argument with the author, in which at every visit the old lady refused to go into the local workhouse infirmary] "...she would relax a little, and go into the state of her finances, conclusively proving that when her rent was paid, which it always was, she lived on minus 1s. 6d. a week.

"She was found dead one morning. The dirty lined old face, cold and stiff on the pillow, with the strange dignity of death. The only moving thing in the room, the cat, was–unwonted sight–washing itself by the fire.
"Yet Mrs. Pollard had held a good position in her day. It was drink as well as slovenliness that had brought her to this." (p. 70–71)

Even in this account, one goes away impressed by Mrs. Pollard's strength of character, her determination to live by her own standards and not be constrained by even our noble author, who valiantly tried to persuade her otherwise. Through this particular narrative, Nellie reveals both her own frustration with Mrs. Pollard's self-destructive choices, as well as her chagrined but adequately detached delight in the woman's eccentric but profoundly human nature.

Unlike other authors of her day, who often either described the poor either in vivid terms of wretchedness to evince social pity, or in rigidly moral terms calling for religious revival, Nellie downplays both the social and religious "moral" of her stories. Here and there, however, it comes out. In "Recovery," for example, she writes,

"...sometimes it is the sternest hardships only that can stimulate the self-help which alone can save. It is hard to wait and see sternness at work; it is hard not to rush in and interfere with ill-timed mercies that are, in fact, mere cruelty—aids to the prolonging of a situation that cries out for an end. "He that is afraid of the operations of Nature," says Aurelius, "is a child." And even those who can be men for themselves find it hard not to be childish as to others' sufferings.

Not that the necessity to hold one's hand gives cover for hard-heartedness. It is only the heart that feels that can sufficiently understand the problem and know when to do and when not to do."(18)

and further on, in describing sickness:

"What can we, the well-to-do, say to this mass of suffering not brought on by vice, not of a nature to be provided against? Such are the comfortless troubles of the needy: and such the deep sighing that has to be stilled by endurance, not by hope. Again, the helplessness of the unskilled at the presence of sickness is unspeakably pathetic. The well-off are equally helpless often, but then they are not called on to be helpful." (19)

Hers was a philosophy of charity in process. Nellie's zeal was for the work, her love for the individuals, but neither kept her from an active social and family life of her own. She does not take these girls home to dinner. They often come for an "appointment" with her to discuss their problems, but these interviews have the tone of meetings between teacher and pupil, in a defined location set aside for that purpose. There is no socialism here, and in fact Nellie seeks to work within the class system, encouraging women of her own class, who hire servants, to use these relationships as opportunities to foster the moral improvement of those in their charge (20). The girls' letters frequently refer to crises they suffered while she was "away," possibly in Addington, or in Switzerland, where her family went on summer holiday every year, or even perhaps in Greece, Palestine and Egypt, where she traveled in the mid-1880s. Nellie was no reformer; in her social work she reaches out as a counselor and teacher, ready at all times to leave it to her girls and their families to do their best with what they had, to make their own decisions based on classroom and personal conversations, and to demonstrate in this way their own intrinsic good character, something she never stopped believing in.

Streets and Lanes of the City was never printed for the general public. After Nellie died, her father printed it privately for a few of her friends. This was a deliberate decision, intended to protect the privacy of those whom Nellie names and whose lives, embarrassments, and failures she describes so clearly. Now, over a century after its first printing, there is no longer need for such reticence, and Nellie's fascinating account deserves a new reading. We are grateful to the Library of the University of Cambridge for access to their copy of this rare text.

For although Nellie Benson speaks from her own time, she speaks into the universal situation of urban poverty in all ages. In Streets and Lanes of the City, one finds the voices and the sorrows of those members of the working class in all generations who must forfeit their intellectual potential and physical health simply to survive, and the voices and the sorrows of those, more socially privileged, who try to help. Yet this is a story of hope, and one that gives vision for the future. A treasury of voices–social, religious, economic– Streets and Lanes of the City is one of those long-hidden classics, a picture of real people in London's 1890s, and the real-life vision of a remarkable woman.

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Notes: Page numbers to parts of this text refer to the printed volume.

1. In family correspondence indifferently spelled Nellie or Nelly.

2. Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay. The Temple of Mut in Asher. London, 1899. She also wrote The Venture of Rational Faith. London: Macmillan, 1908; this theologico-philosophical treatise was in many ways her real magnum opus, and took her fifteen years to complete.

3. A.C. Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury (London: MacMillan & Co., 1899, vol. 1, pp. 369.

4. For more on this see A.C. Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson, vol. 2, pp. 38 ff; and recently Susan R. Holman, "Lightfoot's 'Woman': Scribal Transmission and the Victorian Reporter," Anglican Theological Review 84 (2002):251-68.

5. A.C. Benson, Life and Letters of Maggie Benson. London: Longmans, 1917, p. 82.

6. Maggie Benson, 86.

7. Maggie Benson, 412.

8. The account that follows is taken from Arthur's "Memoir" in: Mary Eleanor Benson, At Sundry Times and in Divers Manners. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Trübner, 1891, pp. v–xliii, selections.

9. Probably Hugh.

10. The following section is from A.C. Benson, Life and Letters of Maggie Benson, 114–118.

11. I.e., in Addington.

12. See below, xvii-xxv.

13. P. 21.

14. P. 34.

15. See e.g., p. 17–19.

16. For example, J.B. Lightfoot, E.B. Benson's oldest friend and bishop of Durham at this time, in 1884 preached a sermon "The Place of Woman in the Gospel" to a London gathering of "The Girls' Friendly Society," one of many church-based outreach groups; In E.B. Benson's biography, Arthur frequently mentions his father's relationships with philanthropic organizations of wealthy London women.

17. Pp. 60–61.

18. Pp. 43–44.

19. P. 62.

20. Her father quotes this in his "Memoir" below, from her paper written in answer to Mrs. Frank Darwin.

*This new introduction by S.R. Holman is © 2001 by Rhwymbooks. It may be downloaded and cited provided such is solely for personal or academic use and is in the context of discussion of the book as a whole, and that proper credit is given to the author.