More Thoughts on Victorian Slum House

The series, Victorian Slum House has run its course. I must admit to having mixed feelings about the show.

I have to take into consideration that this happened in another country and in a different century. Also, the producers sped through the series, taking one decade jumps each week. There wasn’t enough information to give you a well rounded view of events.

I couldn’t help think that the producers were also making a political statement about social reform. While I don’t deny that changes were necessary to bring living conditions up to decent human standards, I think the reformers went about it from the wrong direction.

They demolished and rebuilt many of the tenement buildings, believing removing the blight would improve living conditions. Unfortunately, they placed such tight restrictions for living there that it prohibited the vast majority (over 90%) of tenants to return. In one building, where hundreds could be housed, only 11 people from the original tenement were allowed to return. It seems inconceivable the reformers didn’t think this through, but that’s what happened.

The more successful reform was education. Meager as it was, it was still better than what they had before. Absorbing the work force into more skilled jobs also helped their financial situation. Every generation thereafter improved their lot.

No one in the US or UK today are as impoverished as the Victorians who lived in those slums of the 19th century, so comparing social reforms between then and now would be unfair, but there are small parallels.

Speaking as one who is 1) a minority, 2) a woman, and 3) from a lower income family, I can recall only one time when my mother accepted any charity, and that’s when one of the nuns took my sister shopping for clothes.

I don’t recall the specific circumstances, but some well-to-do person asked the nuns to award a clothing allowance to several youngsters. My mother, afraid of insulting the nuns, accepted, but the situation never repeated itself.

It was a kindness, I’m sure, but it didn’t alleviate the greater problem of being poor.

To me, the finest service the nuns ever performed was when they acted as intermediaries for potential jobs. The nuns were a super network of connections long before Facebook or Linked In were born. They had their noses everywhere. If you were a good student and motivated, the nuns would do what they could to get you an afternoon job somewhere. It changed my perspective immediately. It changed my life! Once I had a toehold in the real world, I knew I could better myself.

I’ve worked since I was twelve years old, a far cry from my father, who had to quit school and go to work when he was seven. Yes. Seven.

The Victorians living in the slums of London (particularly in the 1840s and 1850s) were living no better than abandoned dogs. The biggest tragedy, aside from society discarding them, was that they were trapped. What trapped them was their lack of skills and education.

When I was growing up it wasn’t unusual for teachers to encourage kids to take up trade school instead of college. Even today, a lot of kids aren’t suited for college, or worse, take useless courses that don’t prepare them for the real world. I loved Philosophy and History classes as much as the next guy, but let’s face it, unless you planned to teach those classes, there wasn’t a lot of future in a degree in those fields.

Had I been born wealthy I would’ve devoted my schooling to art history. Not given that luxury, I opted for a degree that could keep me in the arts and still pay for my groceries. Graphic design had other outlets too. I worked as a copywriter for retail, designed advertising, and designed physical displays, working myself up to management each time.

I freelanced, creating ads, designing logos, and designing book covers. It’s a skill. One, I not only was allowed to choose, but one that’s made me happy. People should always choose work that makes them happy. You always get a better product in the end if you enjoy your work.

I’m not a reformer and I don’t know the answer to the world’s ills, but I know from experience what changed my life. It’s not enough to throw money at a problem. Teach a skill, offer a job, or mentor someone hungry for knowledge. These were the best gifts I was ever given.

The other side of that coin is that you have to be the kind of person that wants to improve his situation and will work at it for as long as it takes. That road is never short or easy. It might not even come in your lifetime, but it will improve life for the generation that comes after you.

My father worked at menial labor all his life. His kids, all six of us, graduated from university with honors. He might not have been able to give us much, but he instilled in us something even more important, the will to change our own stars. Sometimes all you need is a push in the right direction.

How old were you when you started working? Do you enjoy your work?

PS  I haven’t forgotten about my new series called Practical Independence. I’m thinking it’ll debut in September 2017, once my relations have gone home.

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16 Comments

  1. Stacy McKitrick

    My first job was working for the high school library during the summer. I think it was between my junior and senior years. I tried finding jobs elsewhere, but never got hired (then again, not sure I tried all that hard!). The second job I had was with the U.S. Army, when I enlisted. Did I enjoy work? Not at all. Well… until I discovered accounting. That was interesting work. Sure beat being a clerk typist anyway. Now? There’s no way I want to go back to accounting. I like writing so much better.

  2. The Victorians also coined the phrase ‘The deserving poor’ which of course suggests there exists also ‘the undeserving poor.’ This has become a bete noir amongst progressives in the UK. Your feelings?

    Ref first job – the boring old paper round, then moving up to delivering alcohol on a bike the size of a small tank. Basket attached. Finally reaching the giddy heights of working in the delivery van of Scott’s Bakery. Got fat on donuts.

    • Mike: So what is it the Progressives hate, the deserving poor or the undeserving poor? Or just being poor in general–because I kinda hated that too. 😀

      re: alcohol
      You mean the drinking stuff? Did it even reach its destination? I know how you like to tip the occasional glass.

      re: donuts
      I cannot imagine you fat at all.

    • Mike: I was a real go-getter as a kid. It was most likely the result of living in cramped quarters with a large family. I would do almost anything to get out of the house.

      Here’s another insight. I was once called into my manager’s office because I worked too many hours. I would average 60+ hours a week during my summer break. I worked for a newspaper that was open 24/7.

      I was a squirrel too. I hardly spent any of it other than a small sum I gave to my parents every week to help out.

      People always say they’re hard workers, but I really was. I enjoyed it.

  3. Honestly, I think the best way to help the poor is to give them jobs, pay them fair wages and benefits, and give them ownership of where they live. Condos, a cooperative, whatever. If they have a living wage and the authority to do building repair and maintenance, most of their dwellings would not be in such bad shape. People who are poor have very little control over much of their lives, and it has nothing to do with whether they receive assistance or not. A few people can work their way out of poverty, but for most, it’s just impossible under our current system. We insist on having, effectively, a class of slaves, so the rest of us can live on their labor.

    • Marlene: To me, getting a job was the most important step to becoming solvent. I don’t expect the government to give me a place to live, that’s my responsibility, but I do expect to find employment.

      re: benefits
      I have a real beef with one retail giant in particular. They had a system in place where they demanded you work no more than 35 hours a week, that way they didn’t have to offer benefits. I don’t know if they still do that, but it was a jerk move. I got tired of their games and left soon after.

  4. Jenny Schwartz

    The importance of teaching skills is huge. I remember an article years ago about Afghanistan. The thing I took away from it was the huge challenge of rebuilding the country when its tradesmen (and they were all men) were gone. There were no plumbers, no electricians, etc. It brought home to me how valuable people’s skills are to their society.

    • Jenny: That feeds back to my gripe about universities. So often people look down at tradesmen, the plumber, the electrician, the carpenter, but it’s those very people that keep our infrastructure going. You’re not going to find their skills at a university. Those skills are learned as an apprentice, getting yelled at by people who have been doing that job longer than the apprentice has been alive.

      That also touches on my other tenet, learn to do things myself. I don’t always have Greg handy. There are simple fixes even someone with two left hands can handle. I’m proof of that. 🙂

  5. My mom was a widow with 3 young children to raise. She absolutely abhorred accepting charity; never did it willingly. Fiercely independent; wouldn’t even ask for or accept help if offered to her. I remember one year we got a Thanksgiving basket of goodies from one of the local charities that provide food for those potentially not able to have a meal. She was livid that someone would have put our name into needing such help. We never went hungry with her providing for us, so I can see why she would be so resistant to accepting charity no matter how it came about.

    My mom encouraged us kids to find something we wanted to do for work that we found enjoyable, whether it required college or not, she didn’t push us that way. I found a career that until the past 6-7 years did provide enjoyment and a nice income. My sister did get a degree and a doctorate but never really put it to use. My brother started with the postal service when he could get his foot in the door. Retired recently after 35 years plus.

    My first job was babysitting (isn’t that the truth for most teen girls?) but then went on to tutoring, cleaning a beauty salon, office clerk, etc.

    betty

    • Betty: A single mother has the hardest job of all. I can well understand your mother’s reaction. My mom was mortified that the nuns thought she couldn’t clothe her children properly. She did make some of our clothes, but mostly we shared clothes until my sisters got taller than me and I was the one who ended up with the hand-me-downs. LOL!

      Thank goodness our school used uniforms. It helped immensely not having to buy new clothes every year.

  6. Angela Brown

    My first job was when I was 14. I had to get a worker’s permit to work at the local flower shop. I typically helped with yourself bills and treating my mom to eating out on evening’s when she came home extra tired.

    She always told me that she wanted me, my sister, and my brother to do better than her. If she were alive today, I’d like to think she’d be proud.

  7. My first job was at 13 as a preschool summer camp counselor; they paid four of us $100.00 (total) to work eight hours a day, five days a week for two months “helping” the adults looking after classes of thirty three-to-five year olds. Mostly we took care of the kids while the adults sat in the office and watched television and gossipped.

    At the end of the summer a lot of the parents tipped us, though, so I walked away with another $300.00. With tips it worked out to fifty bucks a week, but that was a lot of money in 1974.

    In middle school a teacher pushed me to take secretarial courses because I was a very fast typist, but when I asked her about becoming a writer she told me not to be silly. More teachers throughout high school assured me that it would never happen, but one took an interest and encouraged me. Sometimes it only takes one person to believe in you. 🙂

  8. Lynn: What a great story! I love that one person saw your potential, and boy, did you ever show them! I wonder if any of those naysayers realized what you had become. They’re probably choking on their words.

    One person can make all the difference in the world. It doesn’t always come down to money, but it does take faith.

    re: child labor
    That was the way of things back then. The kids did all the work and the adults supervised. That was nice that the parents tipped you guys. I never would’ve thought to do that. They obviously knew what was going on from their kids.

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