07 7 / 2012
On the morning of the 7th July 2005 an exterminator from Tower Hamlets council removed a wasp nest from the loft in our student house. I had watched the tiny creatures fly out from above my bedroom window for the past couple of months. They would hover over our garden like gentle demons, until the wind urged them on. The wasp nest was the size of one of those large paper lampshades. The exterminator described it as one of the biggest he’d ever seen.
At the time my best friend was temping in an office in Pimlico, she wore wedge heels and court shoes. That morning she had left before I got up, she worked in a call centre, access to her mobile was limited. By the afternoon she had walked from Pimlico to Poplar, quietly and without fuss.
We graduated in 2005, three of my housemates from UCL, one from Kent and myself from Goldsmiths. That summer I began work at the British Museum. I loved that I worked weekends, the DLR and the Central Line felt like entering a school with no children. Peaceful but bated. I loved working in the round reading room at the museum, the grandiose history becoming a part of my weekly routine. In many respects there was almost a domestic atmosphere, staff relaxed and efficient, rooms saved for best, visitors welcome, the museum: ours. Some visitors would arrive with their suitcases, as they traveled to, or from, home. Not wanting to drag the luggage round the gallery or attempt to place it in the cloakroom, some people would chain their cumbersome bags to the railings outside. Each one a potential crisis of security.
I was not woken by the news of the bombings, I just came down that Thursday morning to see my housemates sitting silently watching the television. London icons edited into a devastating narrative. First a tube map, then a bus. UCH staff running with trollies. The bus cutting into the walls of the British Medical Association on one side and the green peace of Tavistock Square, with its memorials to Mahatma Gandhi, conscientious objectors and the victims of Hiroshima, on the other.
I didn’t shower until the evening, I watched as the water slowly filled our forever-blocked drain. I was overcome with a numb sense of relief. I, my family and friends had survived what I always dreaded. In fact I was nowhere near it. Instead I was opening a door for a pest-controller. We watched the names slowly build up on the BBC News website, pictures emerging of the victims. I sat at my shitty little desk, crying uncontrollably. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I said it so much more than fifty-two times. So many more lives touched, but not yet named.
The week continued. I arrived at the museum on Saturday morning to find names and faces attached to the railings. That afternoon security had to deal with yet another bag chained to the front. On Thursday 14th July I cut roses from our garden. We walked down to the Thames as the two minute silence cut across London. All week I had wanted to be underneath the spires of Christ Church in Spitalfields or Saint Paul’s in the City, to stand beneath London’s long-running survivors to commemorate those who were not; but inhibition got the better of me. The river it would be.
In my twenty-two year old mind’s eye I had imagined the roses delicately dropping into the water and being carried out to sea. But when the 2 minute silence struck, they fell unceremoniously from my hand and sat lapping at the Limehouse shore. Jetsom kindled with a forever missed flotsam.
12 6 / 2012
‘A London Street Scene During the Recent Fall of Snow’ in The Penny Illustrated Paper, (Issue 175), Saturday February 04 1865, pg 68 British Newspapers, University of London Research Library Services (accessed: 14/7/10)
There were an estimated 560,000 three to fourteen year olds living in London in 1870. Until this point most of these children were not legally expected to attend school, children of the working classes were as much a part of street and working life as adults. Illustrations in national newspapers, such as this one from the Penny Illustrated in 1865 depicted these children as part of public thoroughfares rather than private dwellings. Holding the tools of their trades (basket, shovel, broom) the boys were depicted as both playful, taking delight in the world around them, but also threatening in their brash and an imposing presence on the doorstep of this middle-class home. For the middle-class family looking on these children held the responsibilities of adults and yet lacking the moral or academic rigour of the school they were stunted in jovial immaturity.
In 1851 Henry Mayhew described the lives of a group of Mudlarks who traipsed up and down the banks of the Thames looking for coal, copper, rope and anything that they could sell.
These poor creatures…may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs …[They] know only those who reside near them, and whom they are accustomed to meet in their daily pursuits; indeed, with but few exceptions, these people are dull, and apparently stupid; this is observable particularly among the boys and girls, who, when engaged in searching the mud, hold but little converse one with another. 
For Mayhew the Mudlark was both young and old. He described, for example, how one boy of about nine had nostalgically recalled, ‘it was a long time since’ he owned shoes, these children may have been naïve in their education but they were world-weary in experience.  The ‘wretched’ circumstances, in which these ‘creatures’ silently worked in the cold, diseased-ridden mud had dulled them into ‘stolid… inexpressive … countenances.’ Few had been to church or school and for those that did it was ‘because other boys go there, than from any desire to learn.’  As one boy commented, he did not think they could learn even if he tried ‘ever so much.’ Indeed the most common institution these children encountered seemed to be the House of Correction, in which Mayhew argued, once a Mudlark was convicted of ‘petty thefts’ (bought about by hunger), it can not ‘excite our astonishment that…finding how much more comfortable it is [in prison] than their previous condition, they should return to it repeatedly.’
Mayhew’s research would be cited in a House of Commons’ debate concerning poor law medical relief in 1853, when the Registrar General attempted to explain that in large towns, like London, low family ‘wages would not allow’ for better treatment of children resulting in an ‘evil to…neglect.’ By the time the Liberal vice-president of the Council for Education, William Forster, introduced the Education Bill in 1870 the same families were at the centre of the debate about compelling children to attend school. Concern was voiced by, for example, Forster’s predecessor, Lord Robert Montague, about the children found in Mayhew’s Mudlarks or in the Penny Illustrated, that in expecting the families of these young people to lose vital household income and pay for an education the Government was only ensuring their lives ‘would suffer’. The Education Act itself did not make schooling compulsory across England and Wales, instead it set up School Boards who had to provide places for all children between 5 and 10 and Bye-laws (which London used) to compel them to take up these places.
‘School Board for London’, School board for London - the Work of Three Years, December 1870 – November 1873
In 1871, when the School Board for London published its Common Seal, compulsory-schooling was shown more positively. The two children stand between two worlds, one of marble-cladded academia and the other of muddied industry. Behind the children a working man with a hay-laden donkey respectfully tips his hat to the angel of enlightenment. Above the steps a book lies open on the SBL’s motto ‘Lux Mihi Laus’: Light is My Glory. The girl holds a basket and the boy, either books, or a package. The ambiguity of these hand-held objects, the incorporation of the working-man and the industrial backdrop helped reinforce the SBL’s image of paternalistic-acceptance, in which children and their families may have to work, but that the school would help them find an enlightened path through it, help them to see that ‘Light is my glory.’
15 3 / 2012
Inspired by this piece in the Guardian today, I want to write a post about how my work has been shaped by what I am. Which is a 28 year old woman with Type One Diabetes. I know this is a long post and for those who just want History you can read the first half, and those who just want to know about what it’s like to live with diabetes you can read the second half, but personally I think they inform one another.
In October 2011 I was meant to be giving a paper at the IHR, but instead I was at home suffering from shingles caused by a year of the physical and emotional stress that can come with diabetes. The paper I was meant to be presenting was on Overpressure. Overpressure was a term used to describe the stress that academic examination caused among children and teachers in the 1880s. When a child began school the Head Teacher would examine its reading and writing and enter it into a Standard. Standards were the graded classes that began after Infant School, beginning in Standard I, mainly with 7 years olds, and working up to Standard VII, for 12 year olds. Outside of this initial examination, however, teachers had little control over the ‘classification’ of their students. This was because each year one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors would examine the children in order to assess the teacher’s ability to teach, this was known as Payments by Results, in which the teacher’s salary was based on the number of students who passed inspection and were sent into the next Standard.
Teachers could draw up a list of children they thought should be exempt from the examination due to ‘delicate health, or prolonged illness; obvious dullness or defective intellect; temporary deprivation, by accident or otherwise, of the use of eye or hand.’ There was no guarantee, however, that the inspector would agree with the teacher’s observations because he had complete autonomy in how to define such categories. ‘Obvious dullness’ for example could be a sign of a hearing impairment, a learning difficulty, or it could be simply remedied by feeding the child, having it attend regularly, or given more appropriate teaching. Without inspector’s using a clear etiology, and with each child representing the teacher’s ability to teach, to put forward a list of names for exemption was to gamble with, not just a teacher’s reputation, but the school’s very income. It was a question of what inspectors’ expected and what teachers could achieve.
Fearing that an inspector would reject their list of students and therefore look upon the teacher as a poor workman blaming his tools, teachers were forced to put children into the annual examination who were not necessarily physically or intellectually ready. The examination itself involved the Inspector (and sometimes an assistant) inspecting examples of writing and arithmetic and then meeting with each child to ask some questions based on the Class and Special subjects taught that year. There were a total of six Class subjects, which included History, English and Elementary Science, these were taught to children from as early as seven years of age. Special subjects, of which there were eleven, were only for children in Standards V and above and included topics such as French, Mechanics and Domestic Economy. Both Class and Special subjects were an opportunity for the school to bring in extra income depending on the number of children who were able to answer the inspector’s questions. Other than making it relevant to the subject studied Inspectors could pose any question and thus each had their own interests and agendas that teachers had to get used to in order that they could prepare their students effectively.
Classification was made more difficult for teachers by the fact that officially inspectors did not take account of the school’s surrounding neighbourhood and thus schools which suffered from high levels of absenteeism brought about by sporadic illness and work were expected to achieve the same academic results as their better-off counterparts, despite certain results being affected by, as Mrs Burgwin of the penny-fee paying school in Borough put it, ‘circumstances over which the teacher has no control. It depends on the regularity of attendance, health of children, sufficient staff.’
By 1884 the issue of classification had broken out into a full scale public debate, fuelled by a report for the Education Department by the Government’s Visitor in Lunacy Dr Crichton-Browne Upon The Alleged Overpressure Of Work In Public Elementary Schools. Crichton-Browne identified the physiological and physical symptoms of overpressure as headaches, shortsightedness, toothache and controversially diabetes and suicides which he suggested in some cases were brought about by ‘our present educational system [which] is setting up states of nervous illness which in rare instances culminate in inflammation of the brain…and in many instances…a certain amount of suffering and disability…in afterlife.’ Crichton-Browne argued that it was children who were already malnourished or of ‘delicate’ health who were most vulnerable to suffering the effects of ‘modern civilization, which imposes an ever-growing tax upon the brain and its tributaries, and of which education is at once a product and an instrument.’
From the perspective of the Chief Inspector for Schools Mr Fitch, however, ‘Young people of studious and sedentary habits, with an unconscious predisposition to disease, are sometimes led to prefer the more intellectual forms of employment, in which less of enterprise or physical energy seems to be required than in other callings.’ Indeed it was a generalisation, Fitch argued, to blame a school’s poor performance on its poor surroundings because, ‘attendance is more regular, the progress more rapid, the scholars’ interest in their work more marked, than in many schools filled with children of superior social rank. The unhappy circumstances of their outdoor lives have done something to sharpen their faculties, and to make the pursuits of school more of a relief and pleasure to them than to other scholars’.
For Fitch to consider the child’s physical weakness as a symptom or a precursor to mental weakness could result in teachers and examiners ‘depriving a child for life of opportunities which he might possibly have used with advantage.’ Weak or ‘ill-nourished’ children, Fitch argued, must not be ‘relegated to a special class of dull and backward children from whom nothing is expected.’
Overpressure and me
I was diagnosed diabetic just after my fifteenth birthday. For two months after my diagnosis I was absent from school, learning how to adapt to the disease and recuperating from the effects of ketosis that had left me 20 pounds underweight and chronically tired. I continued to revise, however, for my upcoming GCSEs. At one point my Head of Year even came to my house so I could take a mock science exam. Told constantly by Doctors and well-meaning adults that ‘you mustn’t let diabetes rule you, You must rule the diabetes’ and delighting in what is now called the ‘honeymoon period’, in which I saw diabetes as a positive way to get healthy and not become obsessed by weight, I pursued my studies with, exhausted but happy, gusto. I passed my GCSEs with the predictably good grades, expected of a middle-class girl with a former Drama teacher and English teacher for parents. And I did the same with my A Levels and my BA. But throughout, my Diabetes was the exam I continually failed on a daily basis. In fact on an hourly basis. It was not that I ever collapsed, or found myself in hospital, it was not that I rebelled or didn’t care, it was just that trying wasn’t enough.
In my first year at university as an undergraduate I was given excellent support by my local authority, who informed me of Disability Living Allowance. Goldsmiths offered me extra time, if my sugar level went low in exams, and friends and loved ones were always prepared to walk a little slower or eat dinner a little earlier, to accommodate my fluctuations in sugar levels. It was as an undergraduate, however, when I first suffered depression about my diabetes. Not that I knew it was Depression, then. Then it was just me being melodramatic, me not picking myself up quickly enough, me being a bit too sensitive when sitting in hospital waiting-rooms, surrounded by people on dialysis, going blind, losing legs, ‘it was me’, I thought to myself, ‘just not trying hard enough to get my sugar levels under control.’ Despite nights of weeping I somehow ploughed on through, because ‘I mustn’t let diabetes rule me, I must rule the diabetes.’
After university I got my first job and began having the social-life I was too scared to face at uni. I went out, I danced I befriended strangers it was wonderful, it was everything being 23 should be. But I didn’t drink to excess and I didn’t take drugs and I’d regularly be made to feel awkward for not doing so. Even though I was open about my diabetes, it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t letting go enough. The thing about diabetes is that when you do let go, it punishes you. Even dancing, even losing myself in music would lead to nasty overnight hypos, where I would awake with a fog over my brain that I couldn’t explain, because I did what the Doctors told me: don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, and you’ll be ok.
At twenty four I embarked on my MRes now more confident that I was able to handle my diabetes. I began researching the history of a special school in Woolwich during the First World War. I was too late to find the voices of the children in oral histories, but logbooks and school reports detailed how the teachers perceived and taught children. It was tantalising, not quite a history of the children, but a history of what the children were meant to be. I wanted to take the research further. Just before I began writing up my dissertation, however, I suffered a virus that left me recouping for 6 weeks. Anyone can be knocked sideways by viruses, but diabetes means that you are constantly playing catch up as your body tries to respond. There is a tiredness that only comes with long-term illness, it is the tiredness of constantly having to, or trying not to, think about it.
But once I was better I began turning my research into PhD material. I was awarded funding from the AHRC for three years to complete it. Given my interest in history it is not surprising that many of my friends had already began researching for their own PhDs; all of these friends are very ambitious, all very high-achieving. I would never describe myself as ambitious or particularly high-achieving, in comparison to my friends. This is because I am reminded daily by my little blood glucose monitor that I haven’t done well enough. But I loved my research and I loved writing, a PhD was the right move. There was no way diabetes was going to deprive me of what Fitch described as, ‘a life of opportunities.’
In October 2010 thanks to the wonders of the NHS I was put on an insulin pump. The pump, my diabetes nurse warned me, was not going to make everything better, but it should make controlling my sugar-levels easier, because the hospital would be able to help me monitor myself more effectively. There were, however, some early glitches, which were complicated by being diagnosed with asthma. This ultimately resulted in becoming quite ill as my sugar levels fluctuated rapidly under the stress of not quite understanding the pump or my asthma. By the spring of 2011, however the pump had proved its worth and for the first time in 12 years my level had twice been in range in its quarterly check-up. But upon receiving the good news (news I’d waited over a decade for), I realised the battle (and it is a battle) wasn’t over. I had to maintain these sugar levels and it would not come easily.
In the following months as I checked my sugar levels 7 times a day, adjusted insulin according to hormonal changes and attended hospital appointments, I became increasingly isolated from my PhD, struggling to maintain the concentration needed to write. Throughout, my sugar levels steadily rose despite hours of brilliant one-to-one care from Kings Hospital. I found myself confused and upset by the fact I didn’t seem to be writing as quickly as my fellow PhD friends who by now had all completed. Convinced that the diabetes wasn’t a good enough excuse to feel so tired throughout the year, I kept pushing myself to not let it rule me, to get the PhD done. ‘After all’, I thought, ‘I’m AHRC-funded, I’m surrounded by talented historians, I have papers to give. By living my life I’m ruling diabetes.’
In October 2011 I was diagnosed with Depression. My body, exhausted from fighting with me, let shingles creep across my abdomen. It would take two and a half solid months to get better and in that time I had to learn to listen to my body, I had to let the diabetes rule me.
In 1886 Mrs Burgwin, head teacher of Orange street School in Southwark was asked if she had experienced overpressure in her school she answered,
Not if you want me to speak of instances of a child breaking down and having doctors to certify to that fact. I certainly have not that, but still I do know that many of the children are over-pressed with the work. I had a child standing before me only yesterday morning; she stood for a little while, and I noticed she was shaking her head; she seemed unable to grasp anything. Then in that way I have really to let that child stand still for a week or two.
Diabetes is such an invisible illness, at 28 I have no wheelchair, dialysis machine, cane or long-stays in hospitals that would make the Sun’s Beat the Cheat campaign sigh with the patronising relief of ‘IT’S OK THIS ONE’S A DISABLED.’ But it is disabling, bad hypos mean I can’t form words properly, high sugar-levels make me weak and the constant shadow of my future pricks me every time I check my sugar level and all the time I want to write and I want to research. But sometimes I have to stand still.