Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1903

Women’s Interests

Philanthropy and the interests of the working classes.

Source: New Age, p. 635, 1 October 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

An influential deputation of Germans under the leadership of Dr. von Elbur, of Berlin, is at this moment on tour in England for the purpose of enquiring into the private and municipal organisations existing in this country for the amelioration of the conditions of the working classes. The fame of the London County Council’s housing work and of Rowton Houses has evidently reached the Fatherland; and as Germany is beginning to suffer acutely from the various social and economic diseases caused by over-indulgence in competitive industrialism, it has no doubt occurred to some of the City Fathers in the principal towns that some cheap and showy plaster in the shape of homes for the wage-earners must be quickly applied as a rival remedy to the more drastic prescriptions proffered by the Social Democrats. Behold the “influential deputation” therefore in London, staying at its luxurious hotel, and trotting round, in the intervals of dining and supping hours, to inspect working-men’s dwellings at Boundary Street, and Rowton House, Whitechapel, under the guidance of Lord Carrington and Mr. Burgess. They have also on their list as places worthy of study, the Polytechnics, the People’s Palace, the Passmore Edwards’s Settlement, and Toynbee Hall; while Port Sunlight and Bourneville will be in their turn visited. The tour might surely have been made of greater practical value if the visitors had taken rooms in the workmen’s dwellings, and carried on their enquiries from within, instead of from without; or if one of them had, for instance, tried the experiment of arriving in London with the traditional half-crown in his pocket, and had tested how far that would go till he could obtain some employment – even with Rowton House accommodation awaiting him at sixpence a night. Also, as the working class homes are for women and children, as well as for men, the presence of a German hausfrau or two, knowing something about the practical requirements of a home and of the conditions and needs of working women, might not have been amiss in the “influential deputation.”

A workers’ tour of inspection.

A more practical deputation composed of over two hundred working men and women travelled a few weeks ago from Holland to Belgium for the purpose of studying Belgian methods of co-operation, with the view of copying them in the former country. The Labour Party in Belgium, composed as it is of Trades Unionists and Socialists, has, for some years past, used co-operation most successfully for financing their party, subsidising their Labour newspapers, and for granting many substantial benefits to their members. The Socialist Halls in all their principal towns – Halls known as “Maisons du Peuple,” or People’s Homes, are object lessons of what the people can themselves do for improving their condition, and attaining solidarity. The motto of the party is that “the emancipation of the worker must be accomplished by the worker himself” and the results of their policy can be studied in the enormous co-operative bakeries and cafés in the principal Belgian towns, and in a compact and militant Labour party, numbering thirty-three members in the Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile, the people are being slowly but evolutionally educated for the great social change that must come when the ever-growing Trusts are nationalised, and Democracy steps into its inheritance. It is no longer through philanthropy even in its most enlightened form that social evils can be cured, for philanthropy can only apply salves and soothing ointments. The German proletariat is better educated than is ours; and though they will no doubt be glad to profit provisionally by improved dwellings, and Toynbee Hall methods, they will not take their eyes meanwhile off the one thing needful – their own collective work towards their own emancipation. When talking the other day to a Dutch Labour leader in Amsterdam, he explained to me that though trams, gas, water, telephones, docks, and almost every public service in that town was municipalised the workers’ position was thereby but little improved, and the fight for universal adult suffrage and better all round conditions for labour was as keen and as acute as ever. That was why the Dutch workers had decided to send a deputation to Belgium to learn co-operative collectivist methods, and apply them in Holland for the self-elevation of the worker.

Women Trades Unionists.

A Union in Holland that should interest all women Trades Unionists is that of the Diamond workers, which admits women on the same terms as men. The Union has not been organised much more than nine years, but the conditions and hours of both men and women workers have been enormously improved, and their pay much increased. Lately they have built themselves a hall, which, as a public building, would do credit to any great town. Suitability, beauty, and truthfulness have been the main points considered in its construction, and the influence of William Morris, the poet and craftsman of Collectivism, has consciously inspired both fabric and decoration. No stucco, plaster, or any other shams are allowed in a building which is to express the craftsman worker and his ideals. Where wood, iron, or brick are used, they are allowed to appear, whilst simple line decorations are applied by means of coloured glazed bricks, which give an almost Byzantine effect to what would otherwise be severely simple. Diamond cutting and polishing is a highly skilled trade; the work done is all piece-work, and men and women, thanks to their Union, are paid at the same rate for work done. No woman earns under £2 a week, many earn £3, and the secretary told me that he knew cases in which women earned as much as £5 a week. When I asked how it was that women came to be employed in such a well-paid trade (for my experience in England has always been, when making enquiries into the conditions of women’s labour, that Trade Unions and Restrictive Legislation make it impossible for women to compete with men in the best paid industries), I was informed that some of the diamonds that have to be split and polished can only be examined by means of a magnifying glass, but the delicate touch of the trained and specialised woman diamond-cutter can handle and split these stones which men could not manipulate. When some years ago I was in Nottingham enquiring into the work of the women lace-makers, I found the men’s unions of lace-makers would not admit women as members, though their skill with the machines was equal to that of the men; and this, added to the fact of restrictive legislation, which did not apply to men working in the same trade, was gradually ousting women from work, which would seem essentially a woman’s occupation, but which men were successfully usurping. There is certainly on the continent a more human feeling amongst Unionists towards unskilled labour and towards female labour than in England, and one cannot but feel that in the long run labour all round will, on the continent, be the gainer.

Dora B. Montefiore.