The 20th century could be a hostile time for young women.
A lack of decent jobs, low social influence and unwanted babies have plagued the lives of many young women in the UK.
Cornwall, unfortunately, was no exception.
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In 2016, Jenny Dearlove, from Penwith, discovered a “treasure trove” of documents saved by a charity called Penzance Rescue & Preventative Society (PPRS), she said.
Archives have revealed stories of drama and tragedy in the lives of many vulnerable young women in Cornwall throughout the 20th century.
Inspired by these untold stories, Jenny set to work on her book ‘Women to the Rescue’, which showcases the extraordinary work of a local charity in the face of the desperate circumstances endured by many women.
Jenny said: “It’s an uplifting story that begins at the turn of the 20th century; it deserves to be heard because it describes both immense kindness on the part of the members of the Refuge committee and a welcome societal change in attitude towards young women who had ‘gone astray’.
“It’s also a story of broadening horizons in education and job opportunities.”
The PPRS was rooted in the values of the Anglican Church and sought to rescue vulnerable girls from the streets. Over time, the group has also provided help for people with difficult family situations, mental and physical illnesses or learning difficulties.
In the early 20th century, years before the welfare system, there was little sympathy for those in need of charity. In fact, writes Jenny, there was a lingering Victorian belief that charity encouraged laziness and discouraged hard work.
Consequently, Jenny said she was surprised when her research revealed how PPRS volunteers defied contemporary social norms, believing these so-called “fallen” women were worth a second chance.
She said: “A surprise was that the well-to-do members of the Committee, who were all volunteers, didn’t look down on the ‘girls’ they worked so hard to help. Unlike most of their contemporaries, they believed that prostitutes and unsupported single mothers could benefit from rehabilitation, training and employment.
In 1918, the girls left school at only 14 years old. With nearly all jobs, even domestic ones, requiring inaccessible and unaffordable training, many turned to prostitution as the only way to earn a living.
According to records, girls as young as 11 were rescued from the streets by the PPRC in the first 30 years. Without contraception, many fell victim to circumstance and the options for those who became pregnant were bleak.
So grim that the Cornishman reported 14 cases of infanticide between 1900 and 1940. In 1909 he wrote an article titled “Is Cornwall Suffering from an Epidemic of Infanticide?” writes Jenny.
The PPRS has set up both a temporary shelter (The Penzance Refuge) and a domestic workers’ bureau to help improve the prospects of these otherwise invisible women.
The book refers to the case of a girl, Evelyn, who was found wandering on the pier by the police in December 1911, appearing to have lost her memory. She was admitted to the shelter where her baby girl was born.
Another young girl, Mandy from Penzance, was cared for by the PPRS who found her a place in a maternity ward in Exeter. When she recovered from childbirth, the charity helped her find work in Devon and pay for her baby to be taken in at Penzance.
Jenny writes: “Mandy’s case illustrates the custom of removing troubled girls from their familiar surroundings in order to give them a fresh start, but it also shows a lack of sympathy in placing a mother and her young child so far apart the other. ”
Mandy was relatively lucky in this regard. Unsupported single mothers were often persuaded that they were securing a better life for their child by going down the adoption route, which meant never seeing their child again.
The Fairbridge Scheme was just one of many programs that sent children to places in the British Empire to train them in agricultural practices. Many Cornish children between 1869 and the 1930s emigrated to Canada as part of home child immigration.
Jenny wrote: “The adoption programs scandal, which sent migrant children to the colonies and then to Commonwealth countries, revealed evidence of abuse and neglect.”
However, among the dark realities, Jenny said her research has also revealed some lighter moments. This includes the records of an unnamed young girl who boarded a ship in Glasgow Harbor with a Norwegian sailor. When she woke up, they were at sea en route to the Middle East.
Luckily for her, she was dropped off at St Ives, brought to the shelter by the police and then helped get a train back to Glasgow.
Throughout the book, you observe the societal changes that have taken place over the century, both materially and ideologically.
Jenny writes, “We as readers are reminded of how many material comforts and appliances we now take for granted; in 1908, the Refuge housed around eight young women, some with babies, without electricity, gas, telephone or washing machine. Wood had to be chopped, coal broken into smaller pieces, clothes sewn by hand, and all laundry done by hand.
While society is by no means perfect today, Jenny said she wanted the book’s message to be about how “society has become more tolerant and humane over the past 100 years”.
“The importance of this book is simply to give a voice to these young women, their struggles not forgotten – and how many of us today may have come from young mothers who were given a second chance ?”
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