In this week’s blog, journalist and author Eugene Byrne shares a historical joke about a social activist in Edwardian England, and takes a closer look at the impact such people had on the lives of the poor, and how the role of the ‘do-gooder’ was often ridiculed by the rest of society.
In Edwardian times, the charitably-minded wife of a London magistrate thought it would be a nice gesture to invite poor children to Sunday tea. She contacted a vicar in the East End and asked him to send her one child each week.
It came to the turn of nine-year-old Ruby. In her best dress, and with her face washed and hair brushed, she went to the grand house and was ushered in by the lady, who invited her to sit down at the table.
“I see you keep your house very clean,” she said to her hostess. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness, you know.”
The lady smiled. The little urchin was obviously paying attention in Sunday School.
“And tell me,” said Ruby to her hostess, “is your husband presently in gainful employment?”
“But of course!” said the lady. “What a curious question!”
“And tell me please,” said Ruby, “are you both keeping off the drink?”
“What impertinence!” said the magistrate’s wife. “When you are out visiting, you should take great care to behave like a lady, my child!”
“But please miss, I am trying to behave like a lady!” said Ruby. “Whenever ladies come to visit our house, they always ask those questions!”
Before there was the welfare state, there were the do-gooders, as recently celebrated by Ian Hislop in his BBC Two series, Age of the Do-Gooders, which emphasised the important role several individuals played in jarring Victorian Britain’s social conscience.
For all the eminent men and women striving to improve society, there were hundreds more upper-and middle-class social activists, such as the lady in the joke, working among the poor. They had a hugely beneficial effect in everything from improving literacy to encouraging the sort of basic hygiene which in the slums could mean the difference between life and death.
But long as such huge gaps existed in the wealth of the poor and rich, their activities could be seen as hypocritical and meddling, especially when they lectured people about religion. Jokes like this would have provoked knowing laughter in East End pubs and Welsh mining villages alike.
Punch cartoonist ‘Pont’ (Graham Laidler, 1908-1940) came up with a similar take in 1938, drawing a working man and woman, looking tiny in the massive ornate doorway of a mansion and with one of them saying: “Please don’t disturb yourselves, my good people. My friend and I are only studying conditions among the rich.”