Dora B. Montefiore, New Age April 1904

Women’s Interests

Proposed Social Service Institute

Source: New Age, p. 219, 7 April 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I attended, by invitation, last Monday at the Holborn Town Hall, a preliminary meeting of those interested in founding an Institute of Social Service on the lines of the Musée Sociale founded ten years ago in Paris, and of a similar Institute founded about three years ago in America. As I knew something of the aims and methods of those who are working in Paris, and of the value of the knowledge they collect and co-ordinate in that centre, I was interested to hear on what lines the proposed Institute for Great Britain and Ireland would be worked. The objects of the Society as set forth on the leaflet which was sent me are “To collect, register, and disseminate information relating to all forms of Social Service and Industrial betterment adaptable to the needs of the United Kingdom, in order: –

“(1) To make such information available to all concerned in the improvement and elevation of our national life.

“(2) To promote the initiation and development in this country of the most beneficial and successful forms of social service.

“(3) To facilitate co-operation between organisations with kindred social aims, and as far as practicable, to prevent overlapping.”

The very strength and essence of such a scheme should be its power of linking together in social service all classes in self improvement and elevation, whilst the mistake that should be especially guarded against is the giving rise to the feeling that one or two classes who consider themselves morally and socially superior are enquiring into and collecting information about other classes whom they consider morally and socially inferior. There are thousands of our working classes doing splendid social service in improving and elevating our national life. We have Trade Unions which are an example and an object lesson to the working classes of the whole continent in their aspirations towards betterment. We have thousands upon thousands of devoted women workers in municipal life, in hospitals, in settlements, and in parish work. Yet no Trade Unionist, no woman, no member of the working classes was invited to speak or make suggestions in the practical work of starting such an undertaking; and when the names of the committee were read out, two women only (Lady Aberdeen and Miss Webb) were included in a working committee of about thirty.

What an Institute for Social Service might do.

Worked on genuine democratic lines and with the Charity Organisation element severely eliminated, an Institute for Social Service might be of extreme value in collecting, co-ordinating, and disseminating information about the various complex, social, and economic questions which come before our legislators, our public administrators, and our workers in the field of social science. Social questions are to the front in all civilised countries; the methods of dealing with them in the various countries are so diverse that a lifetime might be spent in investigating them. One has only to read a book like that of Mr. Shaw’s (the. American writer) on the different forms of municipal enterprise in European countries in order to realise the interest and fascination of this and kindred studies. Yet we have in Great Britain no centre where those engaged in social service can obtain trustworthy and up-to-date knowledge, not only of what is going on in our midst, but of what is going on in neighbouring countries. The forces of conservatism and of reaction are in this country splendidly organised, and work with precision and solidarity in baulking and retarding necessary social legislation; but the forces of progress and betterment are too often inefficient for want of exact knowledge and of the power of systematic specialist attack.

The work of women specialists an absolute necessity.

Take for instance two examples of crying need for social betterment: the feeding of half-starved school children, and the prevention of the employment of children out of school hours. Is it conceivable that if women had a voice in legislation and were conscious articulate citizens, that the law would allow children of six years old to work 111/2 hours a week out of school hours, delivering milk in all weathers? Or that a little girl of 12 should be allowed to work 17 hours a week sewing buttons on shirts at 11/2d. a dozen shirts? Yet these are only two instances out of thousands of similar cases of systematic cruelty to children permitted by the laws of this country. Again, if when a member who knows the question from the inside, describes in Parliament the daily suffering of underfed school children, we were ready with tabulated facts and figures supplied by workers and teachers; and could also provide through an Institute of Social Service well digested information as to the way the question is solved on the Continent, and in our Colonies it might be possible for a Cabinet Minister to offer something more substantial than an “expression of great sympathy” and the information that “a committee was deliberating on the subject.” It is food that our starving children are crying for, not sympathy or committees; and an Institute for Social Service in which the mother element was fairly represented might be able to help our legislators with practical suggestions for feeding the children whom we are now torturing with mental and physical work.