Women to the Rescue by Jenny Dearlove
Memories of the recent past may not always be resurrected with pride. Indeed, they may be suppressed in an attempt to avoid guilt and pain. When it comes to the rough treatment of young women, unmarried and with child, in the years before the establishment of the Welfare State, recalling matters grows still more uncomfortable. The recognition of the catalogue of penury, ignorance and pain which led to unwanted babies, abortion and infanticide in the not so very distant past is not easy to absorb. However, there are advantages in looking over such painful issues. Firstly to discover that other brave women, in the form of a local society whose members responded to give succour at a time while others simply condemned “moral weakness”. Secondly, some such misfortunes; broken relationships, fear of infection and addictions plaguing our Grandparent’s generation remain today. What then can be usefully learnt from the records of the “Refuge for Girls in Trouble” set up in 1907 in Penzance?
In assembling an overview of the work of the Penwith Rescue and Preventative Society, Jenny Dearlove clearly demonstrates the often makeshift approach to the social care of young women in dire distress through unwanted pregnancy. It outlines one solution by the good folk of one Cornish town. This story contains an interesting medley of personal statements from care workers, committee members and others attempting to relieve distress. In giving a panorama of these dark times, it is necessary to deal with the uncomfortable details of dire distress; abortion, drunkeness, severe poverty, prejudice, dirt and disease. However, without such charitable interventions how much worse would the situation of these girls and babies have been?
It seems that often the young women were moved out of the area, quite often separated from their babies. Many alternative institutions beside the Penzance Rescue Society appear somewhat dire. The photograph of Madron Workhouse ( the text is liberally illustrated) in particular looks like the forlorn last hope that it undoubtedly was. In addition to illustrations there are several appendices with a very useful timeline that conveys the benefits of the development of the Welfare State and changing regulations toward contraception. Material inventions such as effective plumbing, electric cookers and later still, the washing machine were an obvious boon even when relationships between the occupants of the care homes and hostels were not always as they might be.
Doubtless, one beneficial aspect of this book are the questions which it raises. For certain men do not come out of the account with any credit.Not only those who left their girlfriends with unsought pregnancies but those who had forced their attentions on vulnerable women. Women’s suffrage and following campaigns, although limited at first, helped create a climate for change which went on to benefit children. Additionally, the book encourages thought about the difference between un helpful moralistic stances and more neighborly generosity expressed by giving practical assistance.
Some of the most interesting issues concern the differences between the organisers and what would nowadays be called, front line staff. There is early evidence of multi[ple pressures on the latter. Professional Social Work really only took off in the 1960s and its resourcing remains subject to political control and financial cuts. Currently, bearing in mind profound lapses in child care and paucity of welfare provision we might do well to acknowledge rather forgotten women who got down to the task of sustaining others who, in the parlance of the time, were considered to have “fallen”……..
All are one now, roses and lovers,
Not known of the cliffs and the fields and the sea
Women to the Rescue
A Penzance Refuge for Girls in Trouble
Available from The Hypatia Trust https://hypatia-trust.org.uk/contact