In this post, Kirsten Jarrett asks about the value of social investigations such as those of Ada Chesterton to historians. Are they sensationalist reportage or valuable historical testimony?
Bearing in mind the numerous comparable contemporaneous texts, as well as her approaches to the topic, how useful are the accounts of investigative journalist Ada Chesterton for studies of voluntary action in the early 20th century?
In a previous article for this blog, I discussed Ada Chesterton’s 1926 book In Darkest London, in which she described her sojourn amongst the destitute of East London, noting the value of her account in describing (albeit often in lurid detail) the conditions in charitable and local authority accommodation for ‘paupers’. One particularly interesting aspect of Chesterton’s work is her attempts to penetrate the fog of political rhetoric and underclass stereotypes through the means of first-hand testimonies, which recount the personal circumstances that led to enduring poverty, and relate the attitudes of her contemporaries to the charitable endeavours that attempted to address such problems.
Ada Chesterton returned to social investigation – via the same means of undercover reporting – in a later book I Lived in a Slum (1936), in which she describes the measures taken by charities and local authorities to tackle the problem of poor and inadequate housing in West London. As an introduction to the book, and as an informative illustration, I have plotted the places visited by Ada Chesterton upon the map (below, or here), accompanied by brief descriptive extracts from the book.
It may be useful to compare Chesterton’s work with both accounts of earlier social investigations – such as Jack London’s likewise emotionally charged The People of the Abyss (1902) – and with earlier and contemporaneous surveys of economic, health, and housing conditions – such as Maud Pember Reeve’s Round About a Pound a Week (1913), or Margery Spring Rice’s Working-class Wives (1936).
Though these and other texts are certainly valuable sources, Chesterton’s (admittedly ethically dubious) clandestine investigations benefit from her explicit confrontation of middle-class preconceptions. In relating the personal experiences of those plunged by bad fortune into deprivation, she creates texts that continue to captivate audiences, awakening her readers to the consequences of structural inequality, and provoking reflection upon the cause and effect of ‘underclass’ stereotypes in the present day. The men and women she covertly interviews readily discuss domestic affairs, with the result that the community ‘gossip’ relayed by Chesterton continues to afford insight into the hopes and fears of those dependent upon charitable aid.
View People and places of West End London: from ‘slum’ to social housing in the 1930s in a larger map Map (source: the author): People and places of West End London: from ‘slum’ to social housing in the 1930s