Benefit Street 1910: Delving into the Edwardian Eugenics Society’s Casebooks


A Cartoon by W.K. Hazeldon for the First International Eugenics Congress, 1912

 While at the excellent Social History of Medicine conference in Oxford recently I attended a fascinating session on digital sources and methods for medical historians. Among the presenters was Simon Chaplin from the Wellcome Library who gave a rapid tour of the growing body of digital books and archival material accessible through the Library’s web pages. For a social historian of health like me the most exciting development is London’s Pulse which makes available searchable scans of all of the extant reports of the Medical Officers of Health operating in London’s 28 boroughs between 1899 and 1972. I thought their other big undertaking, Codebreakers: The Making of Modern Genetics would have less of direct interest to me – but I was mistaken. One of the larger collections gathered in Codebreakers is the archive of the Eugenics Society  from its foundation in 1907 to its twenty-first century incarnation as the Galton Institute.

The Eugenics Education Society was founded by Sibyl Gotto as one manifestation of a heady mix of science and geopolitics circulating in Edwardian London. The word eugenics was coined by Francis Galton – cousin of Charles Darwin and a leading amateur scientist – to refer to human selective breeding. Galton was a strong advocate of the power – for good and evil – of heredity and by association natural (and unnatural) selection. In particular he was convinced that genius and weakness were transmitted through the generations, famously producing his own family tree to prove the point.

galton family

However, while Galton was mainly interested in promoting the selective breeding of the most able in society, many of his friends and fellow travellers were also advocating active limitation of those deemed to be ‘degenerate’, weak and feckless – especially those who might be found in Charles Booth’s Class A and B populations. Physical disability, low intelligence, inability to hold down a job or look after oneself, addiction problems and immorality were all seen as inherited characteristics which could and should be bred out of the population. But Galton insisted that scientific solutions required data, information, facts and so in 1910 the Eugenics Society, led by Sibyl Gotto, set out to collect data on some of those Londoners they deemed undesirable.

The reports, collected in Reports of Family Histories of Pauper Families, drew on the interview techniques developed by Charles Booth and his colleagues and the voluntary social work organisations like the Charity Organisation Society and the Guild of Help. Starting in the Chelsea and Fulham workhouses, they conducted research into a network of families centred on a woman we will call SA, building up a picture of the family backgrounds, marriage partners, work patterns, health and institutional histories of SA, her cousins, in-laws and more distant relatives. Rich in fact, gossip and prejudices these reports provide multiple insights into the social lives of the poorest people of one of London’s wealthiest areas.


Booth’s map of the west end – the gold lines are the wealthiest streets

Although much of the information in the reports is rather prosaic – lists of names, partners, children, ages and jobs – SA holds centre stage. She gives her own version of her life, provokes heated responses from in-laws and barbed comments from the investigators.

In her late 30s, after a Board School education she had gone into service aged 11 as ‘a sort of nurse’ (Wellcome Library Arch. & MSS SA/EUG/F.1:Box 57) followed by various servant post until, aged about 18 or 19, she was ‘seduced’ by RS while working for ‘Mr Vince (?) in Pimlico’. She returned to work after the birth of her first child but marriage to the father fell through when ‘she summonsed him for the maintenance of his child’ (he did pay 2/6 for the upkeep for many years). RS, who worked as a bricklayer’s labourer, left her to live with another woman. Following a conviction for stealing he found it difficult to get work.

After RS left SA had a second child with WB, an employee of the Army and Navy Stores who abandoned her three months before the baby was born and refused to pay maintenance. He was followed by JM, a coal porter from Chelsea. Again left and paid nothing for the child. Finally she settled down with FM and had five children (one was born in the workhouse and died in infancy). FM was clearly from a respectable family and in good stable employment as a Coach Painter. However, he had poor health and a weak heart and was ‘brutal and a drunkard’ though ‘fond of the children and treated them well’. The report suggested that she had had no stillbirths but that one of her children had died and according to her own assessment they were ‘not strong’, three having been in the infirmary, one with scarlet fever and diphtheria. By this time SA was in the workhouse and at least one of her children had been adopted by a relative.

chelsea workhouse

Chelsea Workhouse Infirmary c.1900

Seeking reasons for her behaviour in her family background, the investigators quizzed her on her direct relatives. Here there was little to give them solace. Here five sisters and two brothers were fairly respectable. All the girls were married while one boy was in the Marines and the other employed in a grocer’s shop. Admittedly not all the marriages were entirely conventional. The eldest sister had married a JF – described as ‘an old man’ – and when he died she married a ‘young man’ name unknown. However, SA’s fourth sister married GF, son of JF, a brewery employee. Through a network of marriages SA was connected to a large Irish family, the Bs, a member of that family adopting one of her children.

Yet in general, there was little evidence of congenital physical or mental or even moral weakness in SA or her blood relations – though the wider network offered richer pickings. One kinswoman came from four generations of illegitimate children. Other families had two generations in Barnardo’s homes, two families each had two children in industrial school (including a daughter sent for begging) while Mr JB offered exactly the kind of evidence the Society sought. He grew up in a Barnardo’s home and was sent to Canada to work as a cowboy but according to his sister ‘came back unawares’ having ‘worked his passage on a cattle boat’. He married and had three children, two boys in an industrial school and a baby daughter in the infirmary. The investigator reported that JB had lost his job and:

Takes his two children out from St Mary’s School because he is fond of them, and because he wants to get work. The Rev. Mother has complained to me that they cannot learn if they are so often taken out, especially in Winter. The answers of AT [his wife] were prevaricating and uncertain.
I expect JB takes them out begging and uses them as a decoy. [p.17]

Another relative’s tale was more clearly linked to economic environment than congenital weakness. A bricklayer, he had ended up in the workhouse due to the slack state of the building trade and still could not find work. He was described as ‘living on odd jobs, selling muffins etc.’

Most bizarre was the fate of JB’s father in law. His family had owned a greengrocer’s shop on Marylebone Road and when he married Lady Singleton’s cook the couple took a house in St George’s Street, Sloane Sq [in the heart of affluent Chelsea] and let rooms. They did well but something went awry and Mr B had to be ‘helped to become a shoeblack’. Tragedy struck when ‘plying his trade he was bitten by a dog, grew steadily iller for some months, and returning one night knocked his wife down’ leaving her ill for three weeks. The report concluded with the lines ‘ He is now in a lunatic asylum (Hardly the result of a dog bite !!!???). The asylum, it would appear, was in Yorkshire.

But what of SA with whom we began? Did she provide the kind of evidence the Society sought for its theories of inherited abnormality? Not really. Unlike her own case, SA claimed none of her five sister had any illegitimate children and even when resorting to the Victorian staple of drink, it was claimed that SA’s sister – who married into the B family – did not drink while ‘she herself knew when to stop, three glasses evidently being her limit.’ Though the investigator could not resist adding that she had ‘been drunk with M’. The Bs, on the other hand, all drank, including some of the wives, leading the investigator to remark that ‘They seem to be habitual drunkards.’ In return, however, Mrs PB, described SA as a servant with a lot of illegitimate children who ‘We ain’t have anything to do with her. She ought to be burnt, she did’.

She certainly was a woman of independent character who left the investigator reaching not for scientific rigour but good, old-fashioned moral indignation when she came to her sum up. The report closes with the following comments:

Remark. SA is without the slightest trace of shame or remorse. Her attitude is one of utter indifference and she regards the privileges granted her as her rights, inalienable and indisputable.
She is not bad looking and was capable physically, had she chose, to live a respectable life. She is now cook to the Workhouse Master. [p.7]

Organisations like the Eugenics Society attempted to move on from nineteenth century moral condemnations of the poor to deploy scientific theories and methods in their fight against those they saw as a physical or financial charge on society. Through family history case work they hoped to prove that there was a class of undesirables – physical, mental or moral – who could be identified and acted against voluntarily or, for some, forcibly. Yet just as modern media representations set out to cast the poor as a class apart, the intrepid investigators of the Eugenics Society exploring the ‘benefit streets’ of Edwardian Chelsea, often found a much more complex and multi-layered set of stories behind the lives of those in poverty.


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