Friday, 14 July 2017

A Classic Slum and other books by Robert Roberts ........... on the place he was born

I first came across Robert Roberts and the Classic Slum in 1973.

Waterloo Street, 1893
I can’t remember if it was recommended to me or I just found it on the bookshop shelf.

Either way the phrase “poverty busied itself” leapt off the page and I was hooked.  Here is a vivid description of Salford life at the beginning of the 20th century.*

It is an account not tarnished by romanticism or bedevilled by lofty and detached criticism but a vivid description of what it was like to live a working class area.

It could so easily also have been Manchester or a clutch of other northern cities and towns and for that many any one of the equally grimy bits of south east London where I grew up.

Robert Roberts was born in 1905 and lived at 1 Waterloo Street at the junction with West Wellington Street.  The house had four rooms and one of those was the shop.

Here he lived with his parents and his four siblings.  His father was a brass finisher and his mother ran the shop.

At which point many will groan and mutter “not another story about dirty old Salford, from a southerner who only plays at being a northerner.  Why can’t he offer up something on the Salford of today?”

It’s a criticism with a tiny bit of validity.  I am from south east London, having been born in Lambeth, spent my early years in Peckham and then Eltham which is the place near Woolwich.  That said I have lived here from 1969, had a dad who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne and a mother who grew up in Derby.

But what makes the Classic Slum and its companion A Ragged Schooling more than just a set of memories is that they are supported with a heap of scholarship drawn from newspapers and official documents all mixed with descriptions of ordinary people Mr Bickam a veteran from the Boer War who on August 5 1914 tried to enlist the day after war broke out.

The bigger Salford picture in 1893
“He stopped my mother as she hung washing across the street. ‘Turned down!” he said disgustingly – ‘Bad teeth!.  They must want blokes to bite the damned Germans!’  She laughed.  Mr Bickham went on his way.  ‘They’ll be pulling me in though,’ he called over his shoulder, ‘before this lot’s done!”

An amusing comment on the outburst of patriotism at the start of the war but which doesn’t prepare you for what happened because “By August 5 1915 he had been lying dead three months in France.”

Many will know the book but for those that don’t or like me are coming back to it after a long break it is well worth a read.

All of which leaves me to say I chose not to offer up a picture of Flatiron Market or a grimy street, instead just a detail from the 1893 OS map of South Lancashire showing Waterloo Street.

Although it is worth mentioning that in the 1911 street directory only Mr Roberts and another shopkeeper are listed the rest of the street were not.

Picture; Waterloo Street, 1893 from the OS for South Lancashire, courtesy of Digital Archives Association,

*The Classic Slum, Robert Roberts, 1973 page 39

1 comment:

  1. A magnificent book...and a good synopsis of what it contains. Everyone should read it. Old Salfordian.