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Life in the unknown: Alfred Alsop’s slum stories

This is the second blog in our series on Manchester’s Wood Street Mission by Max Maxfield, History MA student at the University of Manchester.  In this blog Max looks at how the Mission partly funded its work in the 1880s by publishing sentimental accounts of children living in the slums of Manchester and Salford 

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Methodist Minister and founder of the Wood Street Mission, Alfred Alsop (1844-1892)

In the early days of its history, the Wood Street Mission was mostly dependent upon the financial support of the Manchester business community. Alfred Alsop found benefactors by networking with local retailers, merchants, and other prominent business people. However, these were not the only means through which the Mission generated income in the late nineteenth century. Alsop (and other leading figures who were associated with the charity) recognised the need to acquire the support of the wider general public, a task which would require the Mission to develop public relations strategies and to promote the charity’s cause.

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Illustration From Dark to Light: or, Voices from the Slums by a Delver [A Alsop], 1881

      One of the most effective ways in which senior Wood Street Mission figures carried out this task was through the print medium and the utilisation of the emerging media landscape. For example, between 1879 and 1885, Alsop wrote and published a series of philanthropic novels (some of which he wrote under the pseudonym ‘A. Delver’) that directly helped the Mission by generating income through sales. However the primary purpose of these novels was to attract new support for the charity. Consisting of a mixture of fictitious waif stories and accounts of real-life experiences of poverty, Alsop’s novels helped to raise awareness of the dire living conditions of the working class in nineteenth-century Britain. By making the public engage with these stories, it was hoped that readers would shatter their ‘ignorance of life below the surface’, realise the need to address the injustice of poverty, and offer their financial support to the Wood Street Mission.

All of these publications were written in the melodrama genre in order to depict poverty in a manner that would resonate with the public and stir them into action. Melodrama was the dominant theatrical form in late-nineteenth-century Britain and pervaded the popular literature of the period, including philanthropic literature. The defining feature of melodramatic philanthropic writings was stark contrasts between dark and light forces, and Alsop’s novels were no exception.

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Children lined up outside Wood Street Mission. University of Manchester Library. Ref. WSM 15/1/1

Alsop uses many chapters to explain how working-class adults succumbed to these evils and how their situations could be alleviated, however it is undeniable that children were the true victim of these texts. Working-class children are presented as beacons of innocence that have been tragically corrupted by the neglect of their parents. Alsop despairs at the prospects of working-class children growing up in these conditions and asserts that suffering would pass down through generations without outside intervention. Children living in such places of immorality were destined to ‘grow up to be drunkards and gaol birds’ like their parents, or suffer even worse fates. Indeed, these novels contain many accounts of tragic events involving children who received no philanthropic help and suffered at the hands of their carers.

Alsop included such tragic stories in his novels in order to emphasise the depth of injustice within British society and the need for the middle and upper classes to take appropriate action. The heroic philanthropist was to intervene in the lives of the working class and halt the passing of degeneracy from generation to generation. The Mission would offer a platform for individuals to pursue their own self-development, rise out of the world of poverty, and become ‘acceptable’, prosperous British citizens.

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Title page: From Dark to Light: or, Voices from the Slums by a Delver [A Alsop], 1881

Thus, whilst Alsop’s novels enable us to understand ways in which the Mission engaged with the public in its early years, these texts also offer an opportunity to learn more about Alsop’s perception of poverty and what his beliefs were regarding the most effective means of ‘rescuing’ the working class. These novels therefore are valuable historical sources that reveal a huge amount of information regarding the views of the founder of the Mission, and thankfully two of these sources are available in the John Rylands Library! (Below the Surface, 1885, and From Dark to Light, 1881). We highly recommend having a look at these texts if you are interested in learning more about poverty in late-nineteenth-century Manchester and the early values of the Wood Street Mission.

You can find out more about the archives of The Wood Street Mission here and also consult a detailed catalogue

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