Ada Chesterton: ‘slumming it’ in 1920s London

Mrs Cecil (Ada) Chesterton

Ada Chesterton

Having examined (and continuing to assess) accounts of the journalist and social reformer Ada Chesterton that relate to poverty in Britain during the inter-war period, I’ll provide a brief outline of this author, to contextualise her work. She wrote prolifically during the 1920s and 30s, on destitution, homelessness, and ‘slum’ life and housing conditions in London, publishing In Darkest London (1926), Women of the London Underworld (1931), and I lived in a slum (1936).

Ada Elizabeth Chesterton (nee Jones, 1888-1962) wrote for the Sunday Express (Gardiner 2010: 258, 266, 268, 274, 275, 290), as well as publishing a number of books relating her ‘undercover’ investigations of poverty and poor housing within Britain, and her tours of the continent in search of possible solutions to unemployment. She met her husband Cecil Chesterton (younger brother of the famous ‘G.K.’) when they were both working on Fleet Street (where she had also lived) (C Chesterton 1936; Ker 2011). Cecil was politically active, being a Fabian, and a Christian Social Union member before converting to Catholicism, and a staunch advocate of Distributism (Chesterton 1936: 192-93; Matthews 1999: 10). Although on occasion expressing dissatisfaction with political systems (see Chesterton 1926), Ada was an active trade unionist. Despite numerous marriage proposals, over several years, Ada waited until the eve of Cecil’s embarkation to the Front (which required special dispensations, considering his age and medical condition) to accept; however, the marriage was to be short-lasting, due to Cecil contracting nephritis in the last months of the war, dying in a French hospital not long after the Armistice (Ker 2011). After Cecil’s death, Ada took over her late husband’s role in co-editing the New Witness (which succeeded Eye-Witness – dedicated to exposing political corruption, and co-edited with Hilaire Belloc – after Cecil was sued for libel after making accusations of corruption and insider trading in relation to the 1912 Marconi Scandal) (Chesterton 1936: 205–206).

Ada Chesterton’s political conscience may have made her aware of the inherent inadequacies of philanthropy and the Poor Law with regard to both alleviating and responding to poverty (see Laybourn 2009: 373-76). Her aptitude for dramatic prose – as acknowledged by G.K.  – combined with her seemingly forceful nature (Ker 2011), placed her in an ideal position to apply her journalistic skills to awaken the complacent British public to the plight of ‘the poor’. This most notably began with her fortnight amongst the ‘outcasts’ of London (in February 1925), the account of which was serialised in the Sunday Express (an example, ‘A Woman Alone in Whitechapel’, appearing on 22nd March 1925, can be found reproduced here) before being published the following year as In Darkest London – the title surely evoking William Booth’s earlier survey of poverty, In Darkest England, published 1890.

On the whole in her earlier work Ada reacted against the beliefs still held by many (and reflected in both charitable organisations and state welfare provision, such as the Pension 1908 Act) that saw individual failings and inferiority, and moral depravity, as the root cause of poverty and poor conditions (see Laybourn 2009: 373-4, 376-77, 385, 392-3, 401). Her main aims were to highlight the devastating effects of largely uncontrollable circumstances and events, insufficient work, low and irregular wages, and high rents, upon poverty (Meller 2009: 390, 392, 400), by relating the personal stories of those she encountered during her own forays into the ‘underworld’ and ‘slums’ of London.

Although she appears to have recognised the circumstantial nature of poverty, and (in general) decried attempts to see destitution as a behavioural state, there is no clear critique of, or opposition to, structural inequality and social hierarchies: she is no ‘class warrior’. Rather, she aims to demonstrate how existing responses to poverty and housing were ineffective, to a large extent due to poor organisation, and to make suggestions as to how mistakes might be rectified; it is this last aim that takes her beyond the remit of reporter, and into that of social reformer. Although, as a journalist, the need to obtain ‘good copy’ surely cannot have been far from her mind, she avowed (as within In Darkest London) to clearly show that certain conditions (although sometimes due to mistakes on the part of the individual, often because of the unscrupulous acts of, for example, profiteering landlords) conspired to reduce the ‘respectable’ and hard-working to destitution, from which is was usually then impossible to escape. What stands out in her work is an acknowledgement of the possibility to be both a single-mother – or a prostitute, vagrant, or in any number of states that were seen as ‘deviant’ at the time (and often are today) – and be ‘otherwise’ of ‘good character’, exhibiting positive attributes such as ‘honesty’, ‘kindness’, and (despite having next to nothing in possessions) ‘generosity’. Within I lived in a slum, she continues to applaud the efforts of those facing difficult conditions – this is presented as being all the more poignant as the Kensington borough ‘slum’ in which she stays nestles so close to abundance and wealth; in comparison to her earlier work, however, her tone appears a little less sympathetic in Women of the Underworld.

Notwithstanding her valiant attempts to both demonstrate the humanity of the destitute, and to find effective ways of responding to poverty – which were to some extent successful, due to great popular appeal – Ada Chesterton had her faults. Her least savoury and most ill-conceived attempts at controversy, seen in her anti-Semitic comments made under the pen-name of JK Prothero (few – including opponents – were aware of ‘his identity), have rightly been condemned (both in the past, e.g. by HG Wells and GB Shaw, and present) (Ker 2011; Matthews 1999: 3-4, 10). These views seem closely allied to the events of the Marconi scandal, and the successful action by the managing director, Isaacs, against her late husband, which perhaps embedded her view that equated Jewish dominance of the financial market with corruption (Ker 2011). These views incorporate contradictions, as she appears to be moved to sympathy on encountering Jewish individuals experiencing poverty and institutional prejudice – as evident within both her earlier (Chesterton 1926) and later (Scultz-Forberg 2006: 318) works. It is difficult to determine whether her accounts of ‘poor’ Jewish individuals and neighbourhoods – she calls attention to the good character of the ‘Jewesses’ she meets, and highlights the low numbers of Jewish residents within homeless hostels (Chesterton 1926) – exhibit an awkwardness (due to either the ‘exotic’ nature of these encounters, or realisation that wealth is not necessarily a Jewish attribute), or whether the sympathy and humanity is, in these cases at least, contrived.

During her tours of European as a foreign corresponded (Ker 2011), Ada sought out potential solutions to long-term unemployment in Britain, publishing her findings in 1935 as Sickle and Swastika (Scultz-Forberg 2006: 113-14), My Russian Venture (1931), Salute the Soviet (1942). In common with other writers of the time (see Rau 2009), she was largely impressed by approaches to ‘social problems’ witnessed both under both the Nazi and communist regimes. In the view of Mrs Chesterton, the Reichsarbeitsdienst (German National Labour Corps) camps, in which unemployed ‘degenerates’ and ‘asocial’ individuals were conscripted into 6 months of agricultural or building labour, were to be recommended; young men were drilled into “superb specimens of vigorous manhood, like young eagles, turned proudly to the sun” (Rau 2009: 11-12, citing Chesterton); Chesterton was likewise impressed by a Hitler Youth summer camp (Scultz-Forberg 2006: 310, 359). The extent to which she was aware of the primary functions of such camps – the social exclusion of ‘undesirables’ (Rau 2009) – must be questioned; this attitude certainly seems at odds with her earlier opinions regarding degeneracy. But then the credulity of well-meaning visitors to totalitarian states, in search of resolutions to poverty at home in Britain, has been highlighted by more perceptive authors, such as Orwell. She does, however, become aware of the dangers of fascist on attending a National Socialist mass meeting, where she felt the atmosphere was “truly terrifying” (Schwarz 1993: 501). She recognises the prejudice against employment of Jews within the professions; but her earlier prejudices against Jewish financial control clearly remain (Scultz-Forberg 2006: 366).

Ada Chesterton was evidently far from perfect (and although should be judged in relation to the ignorance and prejudice of her day, her particularly venomous espousal of negative stereotypes cannot be excused). She was, nonetheless, almost unique in her attempts to both understand and portray poverty, as a consequence, and not cause, of conditions, her a legacy having lasting effects. Due to the scenes she witnessed amongst ‘the outcasts’ she was moved in 1926 to found the Cecil Houses (or Central and Cecil Housing Trust, as it is now) – with the aim (albeit in a small way) to redress the imbalance of care (particularly shelter) for homeless women. Her dramatic (and perhaps, modern tastes, at times overly sentimental), but above all compassionate and humane, portrayal of poverty and destitution stimulated passionate outrage among the moneyed public, enabling substantial funds to be raised for the provision of support for homeless women in London.


Chesterton, C 1926 In Darkest London

Gardiner, Juliet 2010 The Thirties: An Intimate History

Ker, Ian 2001 G. K. Chesterton: A Biography

Laybourn, Keith 2009 ‘Social Welfare: Public and Private, 1900-1939’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, Blackwell, pp. 373-87

Mathews, Race 1999 ‘Prejudice: anti-Semitism in the Distributionist weeklies

Meller, H 2009 ‘Housing and Town Planning, 1900-1939’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) A Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, Blackwell, pp. 388-404

Scultz-Forberg, Hantz 2006 London – Berlin. Authenticity, Modernity and the Metropolis in Urban Travel Writing from 1851 – 1939

Schwarz, Angela 1993 ‘British Visitors to National Socialist Germany: In a Familiar or in a Foreign Country?’, Journal of Contemporary History 28:3 (Jul.), pp. 487-509

Rau, Petra 2009 ‘The fascist body beautiful and the imperial crisis in 1930s British writing’, Journal of European Studies 39: 5

Ward, Maisie 1943 Gilbert Keith Chesterton


1 thought on “Ada Chesterton: ‘slumming it’ in 1920s London

  1. Pingback: ‘Secret Histories’ of London’s Streets in the 1930s: Voices from the Notting Dale ‘slums’ « Underworld Archaeology

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