When researching an article on infanticide in Victorian Preston I included accounts from the social activist and proto-feminist Eliza Cook and the town’s historian Charles Hardwick. I had not realised that the pair were probably close friends: he dedicated one of his books to her and wrote for her journal, she wrote poems for him.
The connection between the two was made in a long-overdue account of Hardwick’s life by Julie Foster and published in the Preston Historical Society’s Autumn 2020 newsletter. In one of her articles, Eliza Cook discusses conditions in the worst districts of Preston in a way that suggests she had gained first-hand knowledge of conditions there from a visit to the town.
A little while back I put on line an account of the Preston social reformer John Clay’s ridiculous view that the town’s working-class mothers were murdering their babies wholesale to claim burial insurance. I also posted the text of the letter in which he made his assertion, and a response from the Victorian feminist Eliza Cook that dismantles his evidence piece by piece and questions the reliability of his statistics.
I recently came across a report in the Preston Chronicle of a speech by the town’s historian Charles Hardwick which politely but firmly rebutted the Rev Clay’s gross defamation of the town’s working class. I’ve posted it here.
Such obvious bias on the part of the Rev Clay calls into question the reliance that his contemporaries and later writers placed on his reports on prison reform and the social conditions of the working class. Eliza Cook’s passionate response to Clay’s calumnies serves as a useful corrective to unquestioning acceptance of Clay’s objectivity, and to the fulsome celebration of the reverend in the Harris Museum’s exhibit devoted to him.