Thursday, 25 September 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Shorthouse: self-discovery and endurance in post-Edwardian Australia

Part One: Attitudes to single women in late-Victorian England

By the 1850s the British Empire had reached a high point of achievement and influence, as evidenced in the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace. The displays of arts, crafts and manufacturing from all corners of the world encouraged British men to sail off and seek fortunes in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. At the time these countries were considered “young” and in need of being filled with enterprising British manhood. As men departed for the colonies they left behind a vacuum in the marriage market, creating an imbalance of the sexes. This vacuum expanded further as a result of casualties in the Crimean and Boer Wars. Social commentators feared for the moral health of the motherland, which now had large numbers of unattached females unable to fulfil perceived wifely destinies. One of the most influential of these commentators was William Rathbone Greg, a Manchester-born essayist and former mill manager. He set out schemes for dealing with these “abnormal” women, as he viewed them, in his essay of 1869, Why are women redundant? He was convinced that a truly civilised society should be able to solve its problems, and ashamed that more was not being done to solve the problem of single, and evidently purposeless, British women:

The problem, which is so generally though so dimly perceived … appears to resolve itself into this: that there is an enormous and increasing number of single women in the nation, a number quite disproportionate and quite abnormal; a number which, positively and relatively, is indicative of an unwholesome social state, and is both productive and prognostic of much wretchedness and wrong.

Poor Mr. Greg – he saw Britain on the verge of some kind of nasty social ‘epidemic’ that only white middle-class males would be capable of curing! He goes on to write of working girls earning wages in mills instead of “learning to perform the functions and labours of domestic life”; of ill-paid seamstresses “wasting life and soul”; of “beautiful lay nuns, involuntary takers of the veil”; of wretched and deteriorating old maids. But Greg’s fantasy of the “angel in the home” was simply that – a fiction. Women had always worked, even when married. The majority of ordinary British women, even if unable to go out to work, took on ‘homework’, assembling small artefacts, stitching shirts, laundering and so on.

In the 1860s there had been a rise in active female suffragism, and campaigns to improve female health, by Josephine Butler and other broad-minded women. Some were able to see past their moral blinkers and comprehend that, if Britain could find productive, not just re-productive, roles for women with time on their hands, then so much the better for society and Empire. Thank goodness for modern historians like Martha Vicinus. She reminds us that:

Feminist journals … were filled with success stories. Tales of heroines from the past, and “First woman to…” accounts … Heroic individualism, of course, fit the dominant ethos of the times, which idealized the individual man who made his way in politics, business or the jungle. The female version was more religiously inclined, but she too was expected to overcome opposition for the sake of her vision.

Ethel Shorthouse had been born on February 15th, 1886, at Castle Gresley, Derbyshire, the eldest of twelve children of hard-drinking colliery stoker John Shorthouse and his wife, Mary Jane Lees. I like to think of Ethel passing her spare hours in the Free Library at Hyde, Manchester, from where she sent a postcard to her sister Minnie, and reading such accounts of female derring-do, feeling bolstered against the pitying attitudes of writers like Greg. Something certainly spurred her to eventually contact one of the proliferating ladies’ emigration societies. These societies remained active right up until the outbreak of the Great War, an event that would contribute another blow to the unbalanced male/female demographic. In another postcard to Minnie in November 1911, Ethel bemoans the fact that she cannot get hold of “information from London till I know the number and Company, so will have to give it up.” Minnie’s response that same month was that she was “very glad to hear that you have altered your mind in going away”. I think it is reasonable to assume that, given what we later learn about Ethel’s actions, they are referring to emigration, and that perhaps Minnie was anxious not to lose her supportive older sister to a household on the other side of the world.

Ethel seems to have left behind very few written clues about her plans, and we have to await confirmation from her Australian Journal. She begins it by recording her twelve hour overnight journey from Tamworth railway station, arriving in London at half past six on the morning of Wednesday 14th May, 1913. She then “was met by a Lady at the Station, who took me to the Victoria Hostel for refreshments, and to await further instructions before leaving England.” The sketchiest of details, and Ethel is on her way to heaven knows what she dreamed of. This was to be the end of the round of ‘positions’ in the North Staffordshire and Manchester areas, and the beginning, at the age of twenty-seven, of a new life.

[Above images taken from “Around Tamworth in old photographs” by Richard Sulima]

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