Series 1: C. Violet Butler (1884-1982)

violet-butler-portrait-by-peter-wardle-1968
Portrait of C. Violet Butler by Peter Wardle, 1968. Courtesy of Barnett House.

This podcast explores the life and impact of Christina Violet Butler (known as Violet), a philanthropist, social researcher, and educator, whose book Social Conditions in Oxford recorded the experiences of working-class residents in the Edwardian city.

Violet was born in Oxford in 1884 to a prominent philanthropic and intellectual family. Her father was an academic in law and history at Oriel College and her mother worked to promote charitable causes, taking a keen interest in issues associated with the moral welfare of women, including unmarried mothers.

Violet was schooled at home by her parents and a governess until she was 14, before she studied at Wycombe Abbey School in Buckinghamshire. She then read modern history at what would later become St Anne’s College, Oxford, earning a first-class degree. She was an enthusiastic student, who would cycle home from her tutorials with the economist Lettice Ilbert Fisher and pause en route under a lamp-post in Norham Road in order to read the comments on her essays – too eager to wait until she arrived home. Violet went on to receive a teaching diploma from the University of London.

Her charitable work took her into the homes of many working-class families in Oxford and these experiences are at the heart of Social Conditions in Oxford, which she completed in 1912. This social study looks at the living and working conditions of Oxford’s poorer residents and was based on her interviews with local people. She was solely responsible for the data collection and analysis, completing the research herself and producing the manuscript.

In part, Social Conditions is concerned with adolescent welfare, charting the lack of opportunities available to the young people of Oxford. It builds on an article she had published in the Economic Review in 1910, in which she highlighted the fact that most support services were aimed at children or the elderly, with little attention given to teenagers. In Social Conditions, Violet demonstrates considerable anxiety about the high level of casual work among young people. For instance, she addresses concerns about boys being paid to run errands. They often failed to learn a trade, and thus struggled to support themselves later in life. She was also worried about the difficulties facing girls and older women, who often worked as live-in maids and charwomen.

In her work, Violet was undoubtedly influenced by other Victorian and Edwardian social surveys, including Charles Booth’s Life and Labour in London and Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study of Town Life. As was fairly typical for her time, she was perhaps less interested in the structural causes of unemployment or underemployment, believing instead that individual education, hard work, and thrift could solve many social problems, especially when it came to adolescents.

Yet Social Conditions was also very much her own work: practical, pragmatic, and distinctly personal. It was well-received both locally and nationally. The editors of the Athenaeum magazine praised her for bringing out the “the personal aspect of local history”, an approach which they felt differed from the more impersonal tone used by Booth and Rowntree. They said that “the Oxford of her picture never ceases to be a city of living people”.

During the Edwardian period, the provision of social services depended to a large extent on the activities of voluntary organisations supplementing the work of local government agencies. In Oxford, Violet was involved with many such initiatives, such as the Charity Organisation Society and the Cottage Improvement Society. The Cottage Improvement Society managed properties in Oxford, overseeing rent collection and offering support and advice to tenants. Along with many housing organisations in this period, the Society’s approach was based on that of the Victorian philanthropist Octavia Hill who emphasised the importance of training tenants in household management and used female rent collectors to exert a social and moral influence over them. In her charitable work Violet drew on her extensive contacts both at the university and in the wider city.

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Barnett House on the corner of Turl Street and Broad Street. Image (c) Stephanie Jenkins, http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk

Following the publication of Social Conditions, Violet became an educator at Barnett House. Based in the centre of Oxford, at the corner of Turl Street and Broad Street, Barnett House was established in 1913 in memory of Canon Barnett, an Anglican clergyman. It was a research centre designed to “advance the systematic study of current social and economic questions”. From 1919, Violet taught women students on the social training course, which can be seen as a precursor to the study of social work. She then became the director of the centre, a role she remained in until 1946, although through her time here she remained an unpaid volunteer.

Professor Brian Harrison – who has written extensively on Violet – claims that she remained “active and intellectually alert until well into her eighties, a much-loved figure who was often seen cycling about north Oxford on her many errands, still pursuing her Edwardian aim of using friendly personal contact to draw together paid and voluntary welfare workers, town and gown, and rich and poor”.

Bibliography

Butler, C. Violet, Domestic Service: An Enquiry by the Women’s Industrial Council (London, 1916).

Butler, C. Violet, “Organized Charities in Oxford”, The Economic Review, October 1910 (20:4).

Butler, C. Violet, Social Conditions in Oxford (Oxford, 1912).

“C.V.Butler, Social Conditions in Oxford”, The Athenaeum, 27 July 1912 (4422).

Harrison, Brian, “Butler, (Christina) Violet (1884–1982)”, rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Harrison, Brian. “Miss Butler’s Social Survey” in Traditions of Social Policy: Essays in honour of Violet Butler, ed. by A.H. Halsey (Oxford, 1976), pp.27-72.

With thanks to the University College Archives.

Kathryne Crossley is a DPhil student in Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford.

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