How Victorian undercover journo Olive Malvery’s exposé on appalling working conditions in Hoxton made international news

Olive Christian Malvery undercover as a flower girl

Olive Christian Malvery undercover as a flower girl - Credit: Olive Christian Malvery

Women in Hackney were shaping public opinion way before their rights were recognised in Parliament. The Gazette finds out about the remarkable journalist Olive Malvery who went undercover to expose appalling conditions of workers at the turn of the 20th century.

Hoxton Hall in Hoxton Street

Hoxton Hall in Hoxton Street - Credit: hoxton hall

Olive Malvery’s mission to expose the horrendous working conditions of the poor in Victorian England was sparked the night a “poorly-clad” woman with a child in her arms followed her home, begging her to buy the wilted flowers she was selling.

Olive, 23, who had moved to the UK from Pakistan in 1900 to become a professional singer, had been warned not to give money in the streets or believe sob stories. But the woman was persistent.

“She noticed that I hesitated and tears filled her eyes,” Olive recounts in her book, The Soul Market, published in 1905.

“’I have not taken a penny today, miss,’ she said. ‘Buy ‘em and you won’t regret it.’”

A “horrible feeling” came over Olive a few yards down the road, and she felt guilty for “hurrying home to a comfortable, warm room and good food”. She invited the woman back to for tea and milk, and in return the woman took her to her lodgings.

Olive Christian Malvery

Olive Christian Malvery - Credit: Olive Christian Malvery

Here they “stumbled up some dark and rickety stairs to the fourth storey where in a “miserable little room” she found “lying on the floor in a heap of rags, a man who, as far as I could judge, seemed dying”.

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This was just one of the horrendous slices of Victorian life described by Olive, whose story is told in Hackney Museum’s latest exhibition Making Her Mark. The working classes lived in extreme poverty in overcrowded slums where disease and crime were rife.

Olive was impressed by the work of Sarah Rae, who founded the Girls Guild for Good Life at Hoxton Hall. These clubs were popular at the time, to steer working girls away from “undesirable” pastimes like drinking and gambling. Instead they put on classes in cookery, dressmaking and elocution.

In her book, Olive says: “It was after continued visits to Hoxton and close and intimate friendship with Mrs Rae that I awoke to the fact that I could never do very much for these people until I had really tasted life with them.”

To immerse herself in their world, Olive went undercover as a flower seller, jam factory worker, street singer, match box maker and fur puller – where you would pull out the coarse hairs from an animal’s skin to leave soft downy fur.

“The windows were tightly closed to prevent draught and the place reeked with the sickly smell of decaying skins which was so nauseating that when I got into the room where the pulling was being done I felt as though I could not breathe,” she recounts.

“The slightest draught makes their work almost impossible. It drives the fine hair and fluff, with which the workplaces of these people is impregnated, into their eyes, nostrils and lungs. Bronchial catarrh and fur fever are two diseases which attack the young worker and are caused by inhaling this fluff and dust.”

Social commentator Olive, whose words ring true to this day, added: “There is a certain glamour about immense wealth that the whole world acknowledges, yet not many people concern themselves with the methods employed in the production of that wealth or with the business practices of the makers of the millions they either envy or admire.”

Olive maintained her links with Hoxton, and when she married diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in Westminster she invited 1,000 working girls. Her bridesmaids were Hoxton costermongers.

“When we share her story with people they are often quite surprised to hear about a woman but also a woman of Asian heritage having that celebrity author journalist status at the beginning of the 20th century,” Rebecca Odell from Hackney Museum told the Gazette.

“This book was being talked about in the United States at the time. It’s fair to say the book would have shaped public opinion because it was so widely read and reported on. She used her royalties to build two homeless shelters in London, and it inspired a great deal of charitable giving.

“Today is the centenary of 100 years since some women got the right to vote, and one of the strange things is that for so long women had been having such an impact on society in so many ways.”

Making Her Mark: 100 years of women’s activism launches tonight, and runs until May 19 at the museum in Reading Lane