Paul Shaw (SMG Central Archivist, St Mary’s Convent, Brentford) has kindly written a blog post on his experiences of using Charles Booth’s notebooks for his researches into the history of the Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God. The notebooks were created during Booth’s fifteen-year study into poverty in London which was eventually published in 17 volumes in 1902 as, ’Life and Labour of the People in London.’ The notebooks can be accessed via the LSE Archives reading room and more information about the survey is available on the Charles Booth Online Archive. Paul writes:
In December 2012 I had the pleasure and privilege of delivering a presentation at Holborn Central Library on the Theobalds Road, in the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre, at the invitation of the archivist, Mr Tudor Allen. My subject was Frances Margaret Taylor (1832-1900) (shown below), a Roman Catholic Religious Sister, who founded an order of nuns in London in 1872 to work with the London poor, the ‘Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God’.
As the central archivist for the congregation, I frequently give talks and presentations on the history of the organisation, and on the archive collections, and there is particular interest in the founder. By any measure, Mother Magdalen Taylor (as she was known in religion) had a remarkable life and career: she served as a volunteer nurse during the Crimean War, where she converted to Roman Catholicism; she was also prominent in Catholic writing and journalism, authoring one of the standard first-hand accounts of Crimean nursing.
On her return to London, she took up work to help the poor of London. She had a particular concern for the many Irish Catholic labouring families, who often struggled with the instability of the London labour market and the high rents in central London, and the Catholic inmates of the workhouses. Along with her friend and mentor, Cardinal H E Manning, who was noted for his opposition to the orthodox ‘laisser-faire’ economic nostrums of the day, she sought to assist the Catholic poor and to campaign, through her journalism, for their rights to be recognised. She had a particular concern for women’s employment; as the historian David R Green has noted, in his study of the notorious St Giles Rookery, poor labouring women had many less sources of employment than their male counterparts, and could frequently be forced into prostitution. Following the establishment of Frances Taylor’s religious order, the work of her Sisters was focused upon the worst slums of central London, mainly in the area around St Giles and Soho, on the borders of the present-day Boroughs of Westminster and Camden, where she worked with the parish priests of a number of Catholic Missions.
We are very fortunate that a substantial amount of material survives in the archives of the congregation in Brentford relating to this work, including photographs of some of the early convents and Sisters; detailed printed reports published by the Sisters to publicise their work (below); internal accounts and statistical analyses of the work; and correspondence both internal and with priests and others (a summary of the content and work of the archive appeared in ARC – Archives, Records Management & Conservation, August 2007).
Increasingly, academic researchers are taking great interest in the expanding work of religious sisters at this time, but nonetheless useful references to their work outside of contemporary Catholic publications and convent archives can be difficult to find. I was very pleased, therefore, to take the advice of Nick White, one of the LSE archivists, that the Booth poverty maps and the archive of Booth and his surveyors might provide useful material for my talk, and perhaps for future presentations and papers. This indeed proved to be the case, and information available on the LSE Library website greatly assisted me in identifying relevant material.
In addition to using slides of the Booth poverty maps (1889 edition) from Camden archives in my power point presentation, I quoted from an account by Canon Vere, parish priest of St Patrick’s Church in Soho Square, who noted that 8 or 10 of the nuns ‘Poor Sisters of the Mother of God’ [sic] worked in the parish and ‘a larger house is being taken for their accommodation’ (BOOTH/B/210) This was the convent in which Frances Taylor died in June, 1900. The error in the title of the order is typical: but the Booth surveyors did better than the census enumerators who usually simply described any Catholic or Anglican Religious Sisters as ‘Sisters of Mercy’ or ‘Sisters of Charity’! The account by Fr Vere, dating from 1898, also gives fascinating accounts of the social conditions and cultural outlook of the poor in the Soho area, which is often lacking from internal convent archives, and which greatly helps in providing context to the Sisters’ work. I also ‘sampled’ some of the ‘police’ notebooks describing the very streets in which the Sisters worked, a fascinating and slightly eerie experience (eg BOOTH/B/354).
It is clear, particularly from Canon Vere’s account, that the experience of the poor in central London was in fact changing at this period, and that the improvements introduced by the metropolitan authorities at the period was greatly improving housing conditions, whilst at the same time leading to a further increase in rents. This perfectly coincides with the experience of the Sisters at this time, who were often forced to move out of properties in poor neighbourhoods of London, due partly to demolition and urban improvements, but who found it very difficult to find further properties amongst the poor which they could afford to rent! My use of the Booth notebooks has shown generally how they may be used in conjunction with the archives of religious orders working with the poor to cast light upon the circumstances in which they worked, and the problems of the labouring poor in central London which they were attempting to mitigate.