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Letters to Our Working Party

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smallcoverLetterstoourworkingparty.jpg
cover to U.S. edition by E. & J.B. Young

This little book purports to be a collection of letters addressed to "Dear Kate" who remains at home and signed "E.W." who is in London with "Aunt Sophy."  The letters are intended to be read to a gathering of young ladies at the vicarage of E.W.'s  home town while they work on sewing projects for the poor.

 

The book's purpose is  to encourage young women to appreciate the blessings of prosperity and a pure life, to understand the plight of those less fortunate, and to encourage genorosity and an interest in Home Missions. 

 

In some sense it is a catalog of London charities recounting visitis to various church and medical missions in and around London in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. It also provides glimpses into the source materials that Evelyn Whitaker used in her realistic portrayals of 19th Century life.

Letters to Our Working Party by Evelyn Whitaker has been digitized by EvelynWhitakerLibrary.org

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My Synopsis:

 

Chapter 1 sets the scene of the working parties for Home Missions.  It contrasts the happy sewing of the Meadowland vicarage gathering of Friendly Girls & the vicarage Bible Class with the plight of the working girls of Haggerston:  button-hole makers and boot-makers. [Baby John and Rose and Lavender] Is cheap fashion and finery such a good thing when those who make it are not paid a living wage? Mention is made of the Mission of the Good Shepherd, founded by the Sisters of St. Saviour's Priory and of Temperance nights.  The Christmas banquet of the Young Woman's Help Society is described.

 

Chapter 2 begins with a decription of a beautiful blue tea gown which Aunt Sophy purchased for E. W.  and about which she feels guilty remembering the trials of the seamstresses who made it.  She describes a holiday house for such women at Babbacombe, near Torquay in South Devon and encourages the working party to send a stamped envelope to Miss Skinner, Bayfield, Babbacombe, for more information.

 

Chapter 3 describes the bitter cold of January and details the Feast of the Epiphany at the Mission of the Good Shepherd for 60 men, "blokes... the undeserving."  Mention is made of the "blighting influence of Free Trade" and the great fire at Lynes wood-yard in November 1883.  The men seen at the Worship Street Police court are described as well as the sport of pigeon racing and the temptations of the Brittania Theatre.  The threat of the Radical club and Russian Nihilists are overthrown.  

 

Chapter 4 begins with a bit of humor in the descriptions of coughs and colds [Miss Toosey's Mission, Gay] and the cozy corner of Meadowland's alms houses and transitions to the desparate situations of those who are "friendless, penniless, and hopeless" in London.  Mention is made of the Newport Market Refuge, the Industrial School for Boys (located first at Long Acre but recently moved to a new site "in Coburg Road, Westminster, close to the police-station in Rochester Road, and immediately behind the Grendier Guards Hospital" where tailoring is taught.  The school's excellent band provides musicians to many regiments of Her Majesty's service.  Some accomplishments of the boys are praised and support is encouraged from "any who have dear, manly English boys of their own, sons or brothers."

 

Chapter 5 begins with Aunt Sophy's trouble breathing and Psalm 150 then provides an account of a visit to a cousin in the country village of Martel in Somersetshire [the setting for Miss Toosey's Mission] where E.W. attends a vicarage working party with "country town young ladies sitting round, with smiling faces and busy fingers, making little frocks and pinafores and listening to Lowder's Life and short accounts of East London work read aloud."  The working party is followed by a factory tea at the factory "school room" where effort is made to teach literacy,  housewifely skills, and moral sensiblities to the factory girls.  The life, character, and dress of the workers is outlined [Baby John] as is "the silk work" that went into the blue tea gown of Chapter 2.

 

Chapter 6 focuses on the plight of the Post-Office army and the work St. Martin's League, begun by Rev. A.H. Stanton, Curate of St. Alban's.  The four London houses and a sea-side holiday house at St. Leonard's provide rest and help  but "will you believe it?  This Jubilee year of the Queen will most likely be the last of St. Martin's League."

 

Chapter 7 compares the lovely gardens of Meadowland where toadstools spring up overnight to the housing developments of "Plaistow-on-the-Marsh, in Essex, over the River Lea" where the Metropolitan Board has no authority.  This squalid, dismal place, with the main sewer of London running through it is home to "the noxious, ill-smelling trades which London would no longer tolerate in its midst... manure works, bone works, tar distilleries, an chemical works of various kinds pour their filth into the River Lea and pollute the atmosphere for miles around.  The small-pox hospital is erected there too."  The Victoria and Albert Docks attract a large population but there is not enough work for the "unskilled artisans chornically out of work"  whose "wives and children live or die as they can."  The efforts of the Church (St. Mary's, St. Luke's ) to help those caught in the situation are limned.  Sunday Schools, "rabbit hutch schools, two missions and The Christian Evidences Society do battle with the Cromwell Club and Atheists in "London over the Border" described by Dickens in Household Words.

 

Chapter 8 sets a happier tone than the previous chapter as E.W. and Aunt Sophy bring two babies from London to "The Buttercups" near Twyford on the Great Western Railway about an hour from Paddington.  There rescued children are taught 'to play and to laugh" and "delicate" children are made healthy. "There were victims of Board School education, over-worked brains and St. Vitus's dance."

Mention is made of Westminister Hospital, The Charity Organization Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Children.   E.W. urges Kate to consider whether they cannot do something similar in Meadowland.

 

Chapter 9 begins with a memory of a January day in  Torquay and the funeral service at  St. John's for Canon Robinson where came"the fishermen of Brixham with a wreath of seaweed" that was given a place of honor among the white flowers that filled the chancel.  E.W. then urges Kate and the working party to take an interest in St. Andrew's Waterside Mission at Great Grimsby and the Fisher Lad's Institute.  Having described the character and troubles of the young fishermen, E.W. suggests the need for a Mission ship to the North Sea and urges monetary support.

 

Chapter 10 is a visit to "St. Catherine's Home for patients with advanced consumption at Ventnor....  It is open to patients of all religious denominations.  Neither Roman Catholics nor Dissenters being expected to attend services in the pretty little chapel...  nursed by the Sisters from St. Margaret's, East Grimstead, hospital trained and very experienced..."  "Consumptions is so dreadfully common...  It is not only the trades that are known to be injurious to health, the steel-grinders, stone masons, glass cutters, millers, etc. but the long hurse in hot work-rooms and bad air make lung disease very common among dressmakers and workgirls, clerks, and shopmen, and the exposure to weather in other occupations, such as the young postment... adds to the long list of victims who fall yearly before this fatal disease."  The home is in need of expansion to receive twenty rather than twelve patients, a ward for children, a dining hall.  "Better accommodations for the Sisters and a garden for the patients.  I do not think that we, who in almost every family, have a sweet and tender memory"  of someone who has died of consumption "will let them want the means to carry out these improvements."

 

Chapter 11 concludes the book with the account of a September visit to Oxfordshire where the community and church provision of the poor paints a pretty picture when compared with the desparate needs presented by the earlier letters regarding Plaistow and Grimsby.  An encounter with a "gipsie" caravan enroute to St. Giles Fair at Oxford "gave a great picturesqueness to the neighbourhood, and Edith made a lovely little sketch of an encampment."  The realities of gipsie life are less lovely and after describing these hardships and difficulties, E.W. urges passage of a bill before Parliament, introduced by Mr. Smith, to require the registration "of all gypsy vans and temporary dwellings with a view to their inspection by the sanitary authorities to prevent overcrowding and insanitary conditions and to enable the School Board to get hold of the children who will have a pass book to enable them to obtain admittance to any school."  E.W. confesses that "there are many difficulties in working this scheme."

 

Throughout Letters to Our Working Party cleanliness and education are stressed as the best means of improving the lives of the poor and of teaching morality and godliness.  E.W. asserts that faith requires action.  She advocates that the true work of Christian and Church is social justice--the care of the poor, the relief of suffering.  She is in fact an early  proponent of a social gospel.

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