Prostitutes, Charles Dickens and Heritage Day

Today in South Africa, we are on holiday. It is a public holiday, Heritage Day. Originally called Shaka Day and only celebrated in Kwazulu Natal, 24 September commemorated the life of mighty King of the Zulus, King Shaka. Shaka was a brutal, fiercely intelligent, militant Zulu chief who conquered disparate small tribes and united the Zulu nation. He was terrifying and powerful, a great King.

King Shaka Zulu

King Shaka Zulu

Below is a praise song (isibongo). A praise song, South African-style, is a thing to behold. It’s not a gospel choir on a gaudily lit stage with a back-up band. A praise singer is a poet, a warrior poet who heralds the arrival of warrior kings. A praise song is his poem performed.

He is Shaka the unshakeable,

Thunderer-while-sitting, son of Menzi

He is the bird that preys on other birds,

The battle-axe that excels over other battle-axes in sharpness,

He is the long-strided pursuer, son of Ndaba,

Who pursued the sun and the moon.

He is the great hubbub like the rocks of Nkandla

Where elephants take shelter

When the heavens frown…

Traditional Zulu praise song, English translation by Es’kia Mphahlele
Watch this clip to get an idea of how it should sound. It’s really stirring. Watch it.
Now, he is advertising soccer and a bank but imagine he wasn’t. Imagine he was heralding a mighty king. A praise song is a wonderful thing made a bit silly and trivial by using it in advertising. It is not nearly as silly and trivialising as our new Heritage Day tradition, however. Most South Africans will not even be able to tell you why we have a public holiday today. They won’t know the official name of the day. They won’t know these things because we have unofficially renamed Heritage Day ‘Braai Day’ A braai is a barbecue. Having a braai in the spring sunshine is supposed to remind us of our roots. Meat unites all South Africans, apparently. Our love of charred meat on a fire brings us all together today in exactly the same way that fear, superior military tactics, and mass murder brought the Zulus together all those years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ll char our meat later this afternoon too; we’ll have a beer, and thank God we live in Africa. I do acknowledge that I am being just a little bit crotchety about “Braai Day” but I thought I would tell a story of our heritage that I didn’t know before this week. It is a story of dignity lost and regained, a story about the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, a story about the Frontier Wars and making a life in a wild country. So, I will tell  you this little story about our heritage on Heritage Day so that I can stop being so sanctimoniously whiny on a beautiful day. It will be quick because our braai starts in an hour!
Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

I have a thing about Victorian London. I probably like the Victorians for the same reason that I like the Tudors; there is an awful lot of information out there about both of them. You can read about the Victorians and read some more. There is a never-ending supply of descriptions of life as it was nearly 200 years ago. You can learn about what they wore, what they ate, how they lived. It’s easy to take an imaginary trip to Victorian London. Much of my early fascination with the Victorians came from the novels of Charles Dickens. The pickpockets, the workhouses, the dingy fogs lit eerily yellow by gas lamps and tallow candles, prostitutes, grime, poverty, debauch. (You see! A handful of sentences in and I’m 200 years-old already. Look at me using the word ‘debauch’ with nary a care.)
I am reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens and in it she tells a story that connects Charles Dickens to South Africa. I am beyond excited that South Africa makes a cameo appearance in the book, in a way that only people who come from small countries with few casual mentions in the history books will understand. And it is a story that involves prostitutes. As with Victorian London, I have a thing for prostitutes and anybody forced to make a life in the places just beyond acceptable. I am trying to trace the history of a woman from the Cape of Good Hope who in 1831 was working as a prostitute in Paris. Can you imagine her story? From her home country to the Slave Lodge at the Cape of Good Hope to Paris. But I’m getting carried away with myself here…Charles Dickens…was also fascinated by prostitutes. He didn’t follow stories of Cape slaves though, he actually did something useful with his interest and concern. He, together with Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, set up a house for prostitutes looking to turn their lives around. Urania Cottage Home for Fallen Women was opened in 1847.
Urania Cottage Home for Fallen Women

Urania Cottage Home for Fallen Women

The home could accommodate over 20 women sharing rooms. Upon entering the house, they were given new clothes, a bath (Saturdays would subsequently be their weekly bath day), a bed, and a chore roster. They were trained to be good wives and good women. Dickens was liberal enough to go for a carrot and not a stick approach. He insisted they should be treated with dignity, that they not be constantly reminded of their past sin but instead be rewarded for good behaviour. The house worked on a points system. If the girls were caught swearing or drinking or in any way reverting to their fallen nature, they lost points and were eventually removed from the house. Some left of their own will not being able to adjust to sober, Victorian womanhood. Those who made it through the program at the Home, were shipped off to the colonies. The rehabilitated fallen women were sent to Canada, Australia and The Cape of Good Hope.
I’m not sure quite how many ended up here in South Africa and Tomalin’s book only mentions one name, Louisa Cooper, but I am so excited by the idea that on Heritage Day here in South Africa, a whole lot of somebodies can claim descent from ‘fallen women’ who were once read to by Charles Dickens.
The South Africa they arrived in was a very different one from today’s. It was a wild and woolly place, the diamonds and gold that would turn it into the richest country in Africa for a time were as yet undiscovered. Some Boers, grown unhappy with their British overlords, had moved inland in what would become known as The Great Trek.; tensions between the Afrikaners and the British remained, however. There were constant wars against the native tribes. There was space and clean air but there was great hardship. I suspect the women from Dickens’ Home would have been sent to the eastern frontier of the colony. The Frontier Wars, drought, and the difficulties of setting up a life in virgin coastal forest had devastated the original 1820 British settler population. There were many more men in the area than there were women to marry them.
Algoa Bay 1833

Algoa Bay 1833

A former fallen woman could very easily find herself a husband and a house, start a family and begin anew. South Africa became her place to start again. I’ll keep searching for more names but for today, I am going to raise a glass to Louisa Cooper. And I think that is a very cool story for Heritage Day. For me, at least, it’s better than a boerie roll but I really must run. The fire is almost ready.
P.S. I’m trying very hard not to be a paragraph moron but I can’t seem to make WordPress work today. Imagine that all the paragraph breaks are in the right place because I cannot make it so in the real world.

33 thoughts on “Prostitutes, Charles Dickens and Heritage Day

  1. Your paragraphs look fine to me… The world is a small place. My sisters in laws’ husbands, who had never met before marriage, turn out to be descended, three generations ago, from the same woman. I’m not sure what degree of cousinage that makes them.

    • What a lovely story! If the same woman was great great grandmother to both of them, they are third cousins and even in the Middle Ages the boys wouldn’t have had to apply to the Pope for special dispensation to get married to each other :) Third cousins fall within the 8th degree of consanguinity and marriage was only ever prohibited up the and including the 7th degree.

  2. I’m definitely with you on the Victorian thing, and this is probably because I, too, was influenced heavily by my reading of Charles Dicken’s novels.

    So many places were settled by people not considered ‘good’, but they were the sort of people needed for these frontier lives, and I’d guess that many a ‘first family’ owe their roots to people like Louisa Cooper – wouldn’t it be amazing to find out what her life was like?

    That’s one of the biggest things that excites me with history – not the kings and queens, but the ordinary, everyday people, who were the backbone of the Victorian era :)

    • It would be wonderful trying to track down Louisa and her descendants but as I’ve found within my own family tree it’s not always easy to find people who didn’t want to found or found out.

      I also love the everyday life stuff. Have you read Liza Picard’s series about London? The books are amazing an focus solely on the details of life- the smells, the clothes. Wonderful!

  3. A very interesting story. At my college in Wellington there actually worked a woman with the surname Cooper. A descendant, perhaps?

    Braai Day is actually not that informal – it has been officially recognised as an alternative name by the SA Heritage Council and has Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its patron.

    But enough for now. I have a snoek on the coals that need devouring ;-)

    • Desmond Tutu: an absolute legend! I knew he came on board as the spokesperson. I remember the initial controversy but didn’t realise that it had been officially recognized as an alternative name. Thanks.

      Hope the interview went well and that adventure awaits.

  4. Pingback: Stillness | The Rider

  5. That Praise Song herald reminds me of lions in the zoo…caged but still finding a way to keep themselves relevant. All a bit sad really. You have Braai Day (Mr 23Thorns WILL be happy) and we have “Labour Day”. Labour Day is a holiday…so no-one labours…never understood that one. We got some Dickens’ prostitutes as well? Might be time to take up this history thing that you hold dear to you ma’am. It is, indeed, interesting and somewhat more internally satisfying than pinning incredible amounts of useless recipes onto an ephemeral cloudy board…tell me more of this thing you call “history”…

    • If by ephemeral board you mean Pinterest, don’t knock it! I spend hours on Pinterest telling myself I’m getting inspiration for my literary gift company – it’s market research you know and if I wasn’t doing it, I would have to pay a consultant to be my “trendspotter” – but really it is no different from paging through Hello Magazine.

      Yes, you did get some of the reformed fallen women. You also got some of my dissenting Baptist preacher ancestors. Silly fools for crossing the Indian Ocean to the land where their money is now worth everything divided by 10. I wouldn’t need a Pinterest and trendspotting or even a company if all of my Rands were Dollars. Hang on…life without Pinterest…um…maybe not the world’s worst decision then.

  6. I should think fallen women were just what was needed but I don’t imagine anything Dickens taught them helped them adjust to their new life. What they learned on the streets, survival of the fittest, was probably their most useful lesson.

    My grandfather lived with us when I was a child. He was actually a Victorian, born in the year if her Golden Jubilee. I loved to hear his stories of how much had changed. Maybe that’s why I have such an interest in history.

  7. Very enjoyable writing, Tracy. I am pernickety about paragraphing and I noticed no problems. I get the feeling that Dickens was a really kind man – he was very good to Frank Stone’s children when Stone died young. (Stone was a neighbour and an artist.) I too enjoyed the Tomalin biog., even though I normally prefer fiction to facts.

    • Thanks. There is no free line between paragraphs on my side. So frustrating! I’m pleased it didn’t feel, in the reading, like one always-running thought.

      He does seem incredibly kind. I had, prior to reading the biography, had an idea of him as being a bit of a bastard. I’m not entirely sure how or when I decided this; it was connected to his marriage, I think. Anyhow, it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised by people.

  8. I’d love to know how Louise did in her new life, too.

    I have days, when things go really well, especially if I’ve been to the gym, and I feel that I need my own personal praise singer walking ahead of me telling the whole world how frikken awesome I am.

    • I love the idea of all of us having a personal praise singer. It would ease the pain of job interviews and all of those other awful ‘tell us a little bit about yourself’ moments which I can’t bear. I think the praise singer would almost be more useful on days when life wasn’t going well. I could slouch behind him like a useless silkworm while at the same being reminded that I’m not a useless silkworm. :)

  9. I have to agree with Narf77’s comments re Labour Day. Not that its relevant any more as there are plenty out there who work a hell of a lot more than the 8 hour day that Labour Day celebrates.
    =-[\Our Australia Day too (26th January) should more rightly be called “get pissed and char meat day” for most Aussies too. I doubt that most Aussies would realise that it was on 26th January 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip claimed the land as a penal colony for England.
    I reckon that to have been a prostitute in Victorian London (or indeed any other city) would have required strong women. Their lives would have been rough, brutal at times even and in a mans dominated world a prostitute would have had nearly no chance of much more and even less rights or societal position. What a chance to be offered to women who in all likelihood fell to their undesireable livelihood through little choice of their own (workhouse or working on your back isn’t much of a choice really) and the strength that saw them survive the streets of London would have been a huge bonus in their new lives in frontier colonies. I would love to hear more of Louise and any of her fellow ladies, wherever they ended up.

    • It must indeed have been wonderful to be able to start a new life without the taint of “sin”. And while life here was hard, as I’m sure it was in Australia too, it must have beat the hell out of dying of syphillis in a dingy back street.

      I’ve just had a peek on amazon and there is another book about the women, Charles Dickens and The House of Fallen Women. I might have to give it a try.

    • Oh no! Oh no! I’ve just done a search on Louisa Cooper on our National Archives database. In 1853 (right time frame) a Louisa Cooper, alias, Lysa George, was arrested and tried for theft! There is also a death record for an unmarried Louisa Cooper in 1906. I’ll see if I can get hold of them to see if she is Dickens’ Louisa. But there you go…perhaps happily ever after was an idle fantasy. :(

  10. By some wild chance, in case you haven’t discovered this book, you must read The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber. It was later turned into a mini-series with Romola Garai and Chris O’Dowd. If Dickens were to have written a book about prostitutes, it may have ended up like this one. A nice, thick book to enjoy for weeks. And to re-read every year or so.

  11. There is an interesting documentary on Shaka. It’s called ‘Kingdoms of Africa – Zulu.Kingdom’.

    The reform houses for ‘fallen’ women were mostly pretty depressing. No woman wants to be shackled to the home and hearth after she has seen the world, even if it means she has been abused.

    • I’ll look up the documentary, and yes, it must have been very difficult to deal with the patronising “help” of the do-gooders after you had been living hard and strong and independent and beaten and raped and all those things. I’m still sorry that Louisa ended up a criminal here in S.A.

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