Clara Collet and Charles Booth

[Deborah McDonald [] has kindly shared these materials from her Collet website with the Victorian Web. Her biography of Collet was published by Woburn Press in November 2003]

Two millions of people, or thereabout, live in the East End of London. That seems a good-sized population for an utterly unknown town. They have no institutions of their own to speak of, no public buildings of any importance, no municipality, no gentry, no carriages . . . they have nothing. It is the fashion to believe that they are all paupers, which is a foolish and mischievous belief . . . Probably there is no spectacle in the whole world as that of this immense, neglected, forgotten great city of East London. It is even neglected by its own citizens, who have never yet perceived their abandoned condition. -- Walter Besant, All Sorts and Conditions of Men -- An Impossible Story (1882)

In order to try to quantify the full extent of poverty in London, especially in the East End, Charles Booth began his great statistical work in 1886. He employed a team of researchers in order to aid him in this work. He was very selective as to whom he took on to aid in this work, and most of the researchers were university-qualified men. However, from the start, his wife's cousin, Beatrice Potter (later Webb) had been involved in his work collecting statistics relating to the Tailoring Trade, the Docks, and the Jewish Community. She was not university trained and in fact was largely self-taught as were many upper class women of her time. Booth wanted someone to take on the large task of quantifying women's work in the East End and asked Beatrice if she would undertake this task. However, she was,

In a dreadful perplexity about my work. Charlie wants me to do "Women's Work at the East End” and have it ready by March, which means sacrificing part of February to writing . . . On the other hand, "Female Labour” is a subject of growing importance . . . Then the work is needed to complete Charlie's book and I own him consideration. (The Diary of Beatrice Webb, 3 November 1888).

When overwork and the engagement of Joseph Chamberlain, about whom she had harboured romantic hopes, brought on nervous collapse, Booth was forced to look elsewhere. Needing someone reliable, level headed, and well educated to complete the work, he chose Clara Collet.

Collet had an MA in Political Economy from University College London. She had links with Toynbee Hall where she had undertaken several lectures -- a privilege, as women were not permitted to stay at this male institution set up by the universities in order to improve the education of the East End people. Several of Booth's other investigators had links with Toynbee Hall, and it may have been as a result of this connection that she came in contact with Booth. The two may also have met ay various clubs to which both she and Booth belonged.

Whatever the background to Booth and Collet's collaboration, by the autumn of 1888 Clara Collet had embarked on four months of hard investigative work in the East End. As Booth said as part of his input into the Labour Commission into industrial relations (British Parliamentary Papers, vol 27, Labour Commission),

We [ie Collet and Booth] then sought assistance from some societies that interest themselves in the condition of the factory girls. I think the principal one is called the Factory Girls' Helpers Union . . . the object being to obtain introductions to the girls, to find a road, so that we might become acquainted with them. And Miss Collet in connection with that took up her residence in the East End, and lived there for three months (she gave altogether four months to the work), and during that three months she was continually engaged in trying to come in contact with the girls, and those who were working amongst them. . . . She would become acquainted with the girls and invite them to her house.

One can only imagine the chatter of these young women drinking their cups of tea in Collet's East End home as they told her of their plight to survive. Some of them informed Collet that the seasonal nature of their work forced them to walk the streets at night in order to supplement their income. It was autumn 1888; women like these were the very targets of Jack the Ripper who was weekly adding victims to his list of casualties.

Collet was given her own assistant, and together they compiled the quite substantial section on "Women's Work" for Booth. The work was well researched, well documented, and well received. The quality is considered to be superior to that contributed by Beatrice Potter and added considerably to knowledge about all aspects of women's work in the East End from confectioner to fur puller, from laundress to umbrella maker. Collet makes few value judgements although she does blame prostitution and degeneracy in the area upon low wages rather than upon any inherent condition of the women concerned.

"Women's Work" gave Collet the training and experience necessary to enable her to be offered employment as Labour Correspondent for the Board of Trade, thus setting up her future career. In time she became considered the expert on women's work in Britain.

Last modified 1996