Don’t mock the Victorian Do-Gooders

I’m very much enjoying Ian Hislop’s “Age of the Do-Gooders” on BBC2. You sense Ian is always wanting to mock, but instead is finding himself deeply impressed by the courage and committment of his subjects.

Next week he’ll be talking about sex and drink and the reformers who did their best to change patterns of behaviour within society.
Lady Henry Somerset was a leading figure in this area.

On a national and international scale, as president of the British Women’s Temperance Movement, she promoted the cause of temperance throughout the land. To her this meant trying to persuade the government and local authorities not to issue so many liquor licences, to make it easier for people to “do good”, harder to do harm, to themselves or others. Unlike her colleagues in America, she did not favour prohibition. She was not against the idea of people enjoying a drink in moderation, but she felt alcohol and drug abuse was the cause of many social problems. It was too cheap and too readily available and so an easy escape route from loneliness, poverty and depression.

She recognised that, amongst the working class, there was a vicious circle. Social deprivation led to the urge for oblivion through drink or drugs but alcohol and drug abuse led to social degradation.

She had first hand experience of the harm drink could do. One of her own aristocratic friends had committed suicide, having become addicted to drink. She also went out into the town and city streets on cold dark nights and witnessed for herself the damage excessive drinking could do. Bye Street in Ledbury, a market town just a few miles from her stately home of Eastnor Castle, was notorious for its drink-filled squalor. Whitechapel and the East End of London came under her close scrutiny. She preached and she led by example, taking the total abstinence pledge herself.

But for Lady Henry, words were not enough. In any small way she could, she set about making a difference. In 1894 she bought land at Duxhurst, just south of another of her family’s estates at Reigate in Surrey and there she established her village for the care and reform of inebriate women.

Duxhurst was an incredible enterprise. Upper class ladies and the celebrities of the day who had fallen into alcohol or drug abuse, stayed at the Manor House there. Middle class women had their own Hope Cottage and contributed towards their own costs.

The working class women, many of whom were rescued from the courts and sent to Duxhurst as an alternative to prison, were housed in simple cottages around a village green – a world away from the slums of their old life. All were encourgaed to participate in the work of the village – on the farm, in the lavender fields or in the greenhouses, or working on looms or in the pottery. Lady Henry was a great believer in occupational therapy and recognised that “the moral effect of being able to create something of beauty is curiously apparent”. She ensured the physical needs of all the patients were attended to as a priority. Each new resident spent at least a few days being assessed and treated in the small hospital she had built on site before being allocated to one of the cottages, under the charge of the “right nurse Sister”.

“One may be especially good with young women, another may best understand the middle-aged. A third may have a genius for the Bohemian type, a fourth may give all her sympathies to the conventional,” she wrote in Beauty for Ashes, her book about the Duxhurst project, showing a deep understanding of human nature.

Lady Henry Somerset was driven by her own religious convictions and by an empathy with women who were scorned by society because of their drink problem and subsequent behaviour. This empathy was borne out of her own unhappy marital experiences and the shame she herself had felt at being ostracised by some of her peers because she had challenged her husband’s behaviour and sought (and won) custody of their child. She had once had to flee down the backstairs of her sister’s house because her sister’s mother in law, the Duchess of Bedford, refused to acknowledge her, a woman who had “created a new sin” and “dared to mention something which was only mentioned in the Bible”. She believed that this bitter experience gave her a unique insight into the plight of others. She understood their loneliness and depression.
Lady Henry may not have appreciated the title of “do-gooder”. She mocked many of her class for their token efforts and lack of imagination.
“Only those who can change places, and find themselves in the position of the sufferer or sinner, have the power to help or comfort them”, she believed.

About rosblack

I am a freelance writer & author of 4 social history books, featuring female social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In a previous life I managed a housing charity. I also give talks.
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3 Responses to Don’t mock the Victorian Do-Gooders

  1. Is Temperance only a historic concept now?

    • rosblack says:

      The World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union still exists and in Britain there is the Woman’s Total Abstinence Educational Union which is the successor of the BWTA ( after several reincarnations). Their work is primarily educationg people (esp the young) about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse.

      Speaking personally ( & as someone who enjoys the odd glass of wine or two), I think the basis message of tmeperance ie moderation could do with being brought back into fashion. One problem is that temperance has been confused with prohibition and this has been rather romanticised by the US media in modern times.

      Its interesting that many of the problems faced by the Victorian temperance reformers, such as the vested interests fot he liquor trade and the amount of taxation governments can raise from its sale, still exist today.

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