Sunday, December 19, 2021

Coolgardie and the White Plague

 Tuberculosis, often called the White Plague along with several other infectious diseases, swept through Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Something needed to be done to separate the contagious patients from the healthy, so sanatoriums were soon being considered in all of the states. The first one was established in Coolgardie, about 550 km north of Perth, in 1906.

As the focus for treating TB patients was sunshine and fresh air (not closed and isolated hotel rooms where coronavirus ) According to an inhabitant in 1906, the sanatorium was attractive, comfortable, and the patients had every care possible - all paid for by the government! The wards were long and airy, shaded by trees, making them cool on hot days, and there were small gardens. The patients ate well (although the food sounds stodgy) and they were given 'delicious' cups of hot milk when they got up. The sanatorium sounds awful for 'owls', though. The hot milk arrived at 6.00 am! Those who were very sick received extra luxuries, such as roast chicken or custard.

He also praised Dr Mitchell, who was the resident government medical officer and head of the sanatorium. Dr Mitchell eventually became a leading expert on lung diseases. He wrote that Dr Mitchell was 'most patient with the most despondent and nervous'.

The people who lived in the nearby town were, of course, terrified of catching the disease, so, according to another letter, the inhabitants were sadly prevented from leaving the grounds. This deprived them of their daily walks, so they were very upset. 

The Coolgardie Sanatorium was replaced by the Wooroloo Sanatorium in 1914.

You can see a picture of servicemen convalescing at Wooroloo here.

Children in a Sanatorium Finnish Museum of Photography, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Letter, The West Australian, 20 December, 1906

Letter, The West Australian 23 September, 1908

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Would You Like To Buy An Unchanged Edwardian House?

 I am sure that the price of this Edwardian house, inhabited for a long time by an artist, will soar!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Long Struggle of the Shopgirls


‘Nine-tenths of the fallen women in London were once shop assistants,’ Lord Brabazon said in 1883. Denise, the heroine of Zola’s famous novel Au Bonheurs des Dames, certainly had a struggle to keep her morals intact, and not seek extra ‘employment’. Even when they were probably innocent of soliciting, shopgirls were looked down on as at least ‘cheap’.  In Zola’s novel, some of the bourgeois women think that the shopgirls are ‘all up for sale, the wretches, like their merchandise’.

Industrialization and imports from the colonies, such as India, saw the rapid growth in the amount and variety of goods coming from all over the world, including fine materials, exotic fruits and fancy china. Department stores and specialist shops sprung up throughout the country. Women began to enjoy shopping for leisure, and they preferred to be served by young women rather than men. Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women to promote women shop assistants. ‘She asked pointedly, “Why should bearded men be employed to sell ribbon, lace, gloves, neck-kerchiefs, and the dozen other trifles to be found in a silk mercer's or haberdasher’s shop”?[i]

Many girls started to want independence, and a better career than being a servant. Being a shopgirl was increasingly regarded as ‘respectable,’ and they received better wages than servants. Shopkeepers preferred to employ girls and young women, because their wages were much lower than those of male shop assistants. The wages were usually two-thirds or even half the amount that their male counterparts received. It was also a cleaner and less physically demanding occupation than factory work.

Unfortunately, many girls who got jobs working in shops didn’t know what they were in for. Low wages were not their only problem. They often had to work incredibly long hours from early in the morning until late at night. Sometimes they worked until midnight on Saturday if they got Sunday off. Understandably, they were usually too tired to go to church on Sundays. The battle for a half-day on Saturday was a surprisingly long one. They also had to pay fines if they breached any of the numerous rules. Whiteleys had over 100 rules.

The shopgirls often had to live-in. This usually meant living in crowded dormitories with nasty food, which they often had to buy. Many received meagre breakfasts while they watched the shop managers and superior staff eating bacon and eggs. Margaret Blomfield, the first woman Cabinet minister in the UK, worked as a shopgirl when she was sixteen in a large draper’s shop in Brighton. She was incredibly unhappy, sleeping in a bare crowded dormitory, which was ‘incredibly hot in summer’ and ‘miserably cold in winter’. It was so difficult to get a bath that to get a hot bath once a week the girls had to run ‘at full speed for about half a mile’ to the public baths. Then they only had a quarter of an hour to undress, bathe and dress before the assistant ordered them out because the baths were about to close.[ii]

She was also incredibly scared when men knocked at the ground-floor windows, and tried to pull them down during Race Week. They had a struggle to slam and bolt the windows.

Margaret decided to join the Union, and spent time secretly observing conditions. She wrote about them as Grace Dare. Vaughan Nash used her reports in The Daily Chronicle, and they attracted the attention of Sir John Lubbock, who used them to improve living-in conditions in The Shop Assistant’s Act.

Conditions Improve

Even though the Coal Mine Act was passed in 1842, the first committee on shop conditions only reported toa Parliament forty years later. There were three committees, but nothing was done, because opposition remained strong for three main reasons. Many thought that the State shouldn’t interfere with working hours. Shopkeepers felt obliged to be at the mercy of the customer, and the need for profits was difficult and competitive. Also, shop assistants mostly didn’t want to join a union, because they felt that it was beneath them.[iii]

A few acts of Parliament improved conditions, but it wasn’t until the Shop Assistants Act of 1911 that a statutory half-day and a mandatory weekly holiday were introduced. The next two acts of 1912 and 1913 shortened the maximum weekly working hours, and made washing facilities mandatory in every shop.



[i] ‘Association for Promoting the Employment of Women’, English Woman’s Journal, vol.4, September 1859, p.57, quoted in Horn, Pamela and Annabel Hobley, Shopgirls, The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, Hutchinson, London, p.45


[ii] Horn, Pamela and Annabel Hobley, Shopgirls, The True Story of Life Behind the Counter, Hutchinson, London, p.90

[iii] Whitaker, Wilfred B. Victorian and Edwardian Shopworkers. The Struggle to Obtain Better Conditions and a Half-Holiday. David & Charles Newton Abbot, 1973, p.180