Dora B. Montefiore, New Age August 1905

Women’s Interests

Copenhagen from its municipal side.

Source: New Age, p. 555, 31 August 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I am still lingering in Denmark’s pleasant capital, and, thanks to the unbounded courtesy and friendliness of Danish friends, have been enabled to study some of their institutions and more recent municipal undertakings in a way which is not always possible to visitors in a foreign country. The municipal side of life in this city, which was built many hundreds of years ago as a bulwark against piratical raids, appears especially worthy of study, and a few details on this point may be of interest to my women readers who are making a study of various forms of local government. The whole population of Denmark is about four and a half millions, one-fifth of which live in the town of Copenhagen. The Municipal Council consists of forty-two members, who are elected for six years; but during that period six retire in rotation every year and can stand for re-election. The Corporation holds a very large share of the land in the city and is consequently on the look-out to increase its responsibilities as landowner, realising to the full its duties as trustee for the people, which should own collectively the soil on which it lives. The Corporation also administers the Poor Law, the hospitals, education, gas, water, electricity, the cattle market, and sanitary and building matters. The tram system, which is a most complete and convenient one, also belongs to it, but is leased to a private company for a certain number of years. The routine of the Corporation work is divided into four sections, each presided over by an alderman or mayor. One of these mayors at the present time is a Socialist working man – a painter by trade’ and there are several other Socialists on the Council. Women, as yet, have no municipal vote.

The Labour Bureau.

One of the best organised of the newer forms of municipal activity is the Labour Bureau, which consists of a committee formed of three municipal members, four employers, and four working men. As the larger and best organised unions, such as the engineers and compositors, each have their own labour bureau, the men and women who find employment in the Municipal Bureau are mostly workers in the smaller trades or unskilled workers, and last year 24,000 men and women obtained employment from the office. The premises consist of a waiting-room, where the daily papers can be read, a library, of 800 volumes, and two offices, fitted with telephones so as to be in constant communication with employers requiring labour. Each applicant is admitted separately to the office, where he is questioned as to his requirements and receives a card bearing the address of an employer wanting labour of the sort he has to offer. It is calculated that each applicant occupies the time of the Bureau employees about five minutes, and when he has received his card he goes out by another door. The Bureau is open from nine to one in the morning and from four to seven in the afternoon.

Municipal schools.

Education in Denmark is obligatory from the age of seven to fourteen, and, when so demanded, is gratuitous; but some parents pay a small sum a week. In one respect the class arrangements are superior to our schools as there are never more than twenty-five to thirty children in each; but in order to counterbalance the extra expense entailed by this arrangement and at the same time to make full use of the school buildings, the curious plan is adopted of dividing the scholars into two sets – one set being taught from eight to one o'clock and the other set receiving instruction from one to six. This arrangement has of course, the disadvantage that the children are employed in earning money during the hours they are free from school instruction, with the result that, as is the case with us, the-children are often too tired to benefit by the teaching given in school. Gymnastics are taught in all schools; the boys have “sloyd” manual training and the girls cooking. I was present at a cooking class in a girls’ primary school, and was much pleased with all the detail of the arrangements and with the order and exquisite cleanliness that was inculcated. Some attempt, partly municipal, partly private, has been made to feed the more necessitous among the children, and the Labour Party have on their programme State feeding of the children, and hope before long to be able to introduce the measure. Arrangements for a country holiday are also made for the majority of the children; a remarkable feature about these arrangements is that the farmers and small land-holders in the country take the children free for ten days or a fortnight, instead of, as in England, charging 5s. a week. Adult continuation classes have been in existence for the past six or seven years.

The Poor Law in Denmark.

In connection with the municipal administration of the Poor Law, there is no workhouse test such as we have in England, but out-door relief is given where necessary. The orphans and State children are mostly farmed out in homes or trained in small Municipal farm homesteads. There is an old-established municipal institution for old age pensions, which gives the right to a certain number of old people of both sexes, over sixty years of age, to a small pension, varying in amount, according to certain qualifications. We were also shown over two large homes for old people, one where much more freedom and privileges were allowed and where a higher standard of comfort prevailed than in the other. In the superior home four women or four men shared a room, which was neatly and tastefully furnished and had linoleum on the floor. There was a pleasant garden, where the old folk were sitting about in the sun, and in the case of old married couples they had their own rooms, where their meals were also served if they wished. The less comfortable home was reserved for the less respectable amongst the aged poor, such as those who could not be trusted to go out without getting drunk or begging. For adult workers every encouragement is given to go and work on the land, and if a man can save a small |sum of money the State will grant him from seven to ten acres, for which he pays a rent that at the end of a certain number of years, makes him the owner outright of the land. There is none of the extreme poverty to be seen in Denmark that is so painful in England, neither does there appear to be any extreme of riches. There are scarcely any carriages or automobiles to be seen in the streets or on the country roads, and a large country house is an extremely rare object.

A disclaimer.

Miss Alice Henry, of whom I wrote lately in connection with her work in the Australian prison system, writes: “May I ask the favour of a few lines to disclaim the credit for having been the first in Australia to advocate the establishment of Children’s Courts. That honour belongs to the State Children’s Council of South Australia, two of whose women members began to agitate on the subject nearly twenty years ago. They were Miss Catherine H. Spence, known more widely perhaps by her life-long campaign in favour of proportional representation, and Miss Emily Clark.” I am glad to be able to correct my former statement, and at the same time record the fact of the work of these two able women.