You don’t expect a sociological study to grip you like a novel, or make you laugh, but this book does both those things. Family and kinship in east London is a classic study, first published in 1957, and reprinted a couple of years ago as a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s based on three years of field work done in Bethnal Green in the early fifties, interviewing the residents about their family and social lives. Young and Willmott examine a community that was in the early stages of radical change as the London County Council began their project of postwar slum clearance, moving families from the old-fashioned terrace streets of east and south-east London to newly built suburban housing estates in Essex and Kent.
The study is split into two sections: the first describes the family and community structures that exist for the working class communities in Bethnal Green, looking mostly at young married couples. The authors find that the pivotal relationship here is between the adult woman and her mother, a relationship which sets the tone for other family relationships and which is the basis of the family’s engagement with the wider community. Social life with the family takes place at ‘Mum’s’; sons-in-law are integrated into their wives’ families, not the other way round. Daughters experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare naturally turn to their mothers for advice, sometimes over and above the advice of midwives and health visitors. A lot of the material is given as quotes from the interviews done, which means that it’s often very funny about the family relationships described.
The second part of the book looks at some of the east Londoners who have been rehoused in Debden (which the authors rename Greenleigh). The conclusion they draw is that the way that people have been rehoused into the suburban planning estates means that the ties with the community are fractured; as individual young families move out without the mother-in-law and the network which radiates out from her, they may experience a material improvement in their quality of life, but they lose the connection to a closely knit community in which they are used to knowing everyone around them. This argument gets away from the condemnation of post-war housing estates as being architecturally unwelcoming and instead criticises the way in which rehousing was carried out. I’m not certain, however, that there isn’t a certain romanticisation of the Bethnal Green community- warm, tightly-knit, everyone knows your name – which obscures the material discomfort of living in cramped inner-city terraces with poor ventilation and plumbing.
A few things really stood out for me when reading this. The attitude to the welfare state shown is interesting: in the post-Thatcher age, I’m so used to the right-wing positioning of the social state as something which is more or less in conflict with individuals and their families. The fundamental acceptance, not just that the welfare state is a force for good, but that the welfare state actively eases the relationships between family members, seems surprising to me today (although it shouldn’t). Of course, it stands to reason that (for example) the difficulties caused in poor families by the need to support penurious elderly parents are relieved by reasonable state pensions. But thirty years of small-state propaganda has made this a position which has constantly to be defended; the complete acceptance of the benevolent social state is dated but refreshing.
Willmott and Young suggest that the family is the connection between the individual and the wider community (there is a passage in which the authors follow a Mrs Landon on her shopping trip, during which she recognises fourteen different people, often knowing them through her siblings or her parents -‘My mum knew her mum’; ‘He’s a brother of my sister’s husband’). So the individual connects with the wider community through the family; but the state in return can ease the family relationship by relieving family members of the need to depend on each other.
I said earlier that the community examined was in the first stages of radical change, and this was not just in relation to the housing situation. Willmott and Young discuss the jobs done by the Bethnal Green working classes and touch on the ways in which work is beginning to change: the old furniture and clothes manufacturing workshops of the East End are being replaced by larger factories, often out of town. The jobs described are manual ones, predominantly unskilled: men work as porters in the markets of Bilingsgate and Spitalfields and as dockers; these jobs are passed down through families, from fathers to sons.
Three years after Family and Kinship was published, the postwar resurgence of the London docks would come to a halt as the containerisation of shipping meant that the shallow London docks were no longer suitable for international trade. All the London docks closed in the next twenty years, leaving a vacuum in the heart of East London which is still perceptible. The manufacturing trades were lost, first from London, then from the UK; Spitalfields market is now a bourgeois playground. The study may romanticise the working class, but it also depicts a confident working class who imagined that full employment in steady work was something they could rely upon. The authors call for caution in housing policy in order to preserve what they saw as a close-knit and strong community. In the end, however, it wasn’t housing policy which fractured that community; the damage was done by deindustralisation, rising unemployment and the casualisation of working class work.