“the lower classes smell”

I was reminded of these ‘four frightful words’, written by George Orwell when I was reading Steph Lawler’s brilliant article ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’. Hygiene – or the perceived lack of it – has played a big part in constructions of ‘problem’ or ‘troubled families’.

Wofinden’s portrayal of the ‘problem family’ in 1944 is worth repeating in parts here:

“From their appearance, they are strangers to soap and water, toothbrush and comb; the clothing is dirty and torn and the footgear absent or totally inadequate. Often they are verminous and have scabies and impetigo … The home, if it can be described as such, has usually the most striking characteristics. Nauseating odours assail one’s nostrils on entry, and the source is usually located in some urine-sodden, faecal stained mattress in an upstairs room … One can only conclude that (the) children have never known restful sleep, that the amount of house-work done by the mother is negligible and that the general standard of hygiene is lower than that of the animal world”

Fast forward nearly 70 years and we get to Louise Casey, who recently used her speech at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) annual conference to raise the issue – and cost -of dental hygiene amongst ‘troubled families’:

“Forgive me if you’ve heard this example before but I think it encapsulates the problem in one story

One survey looked at 3,000 children in one area of the north east – an area that has been through every deprivation programme going, from city challenge, single regeneration budgets, through to new deal for communities and neighbourhood renewal – and more recently had the pupil premium spent on them.

A survey showed that not one of those 3,000 children had been for a routine dental check up – for free – but 300 of them had been to A&E for emergency dental treatment.”

Orwell highlights the effect of this focus on hygiene far better than I can (and he even touches on the issue of dental hygiene) so I’ll return to the paragraph he wrote after the four words in the title of this blog:

“That was what we were taught – the lower classes smell. And here, obviously, you are at an impassable barrier. For no feeling of like or dislike is quite so fundamental as a physical feeling. Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over, but physical repulsion cannot. You can have affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him. It may not greatly matter if the average middle-class person is brought up to believe that the working classes are ignorant, lazy drunken, boorish and dishonest; it is when he is brought up to believe that they are dirty that the harm is done.”

Orwell, G. (1937) The Road to Wigan Pier, p199

Wofinden, R.C. (1944) Problem Families, Public Health vol 57, p136

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