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Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia, and Britain
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Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse: Social Work and the Story of Poverty in America, Australia, and Britain

by Mark Peel

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Social workers produced thousands of case files about the poor during the interwar years. Analyzing almost two thousand such case files and traveling from Boston, Minneapolis, and Portland to London and Melbourne, Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse is a pioneering comparative study that examines how these stories of poverty were narrated


Social workers produced thousands of case files about the poor during the interwar years. Analyzing almost two thousand such case files and traveling from Boston, Minneapolis, and Portland to London and Melbourne, Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse is a pioneering comparative study that examines how these stories of poverty were narrated and reshaped by ethnic diversity, economic crisis, and war.

Probing the similarities and differences in the ways Americans, Australians, and Britons understood and responded to poverty, Mark Peel draws a picture of social work that is based in the sometimes fraught encounters between the poor and their interpreters. He uses dramatization to bring these encounters to life—joining Miss Cutler and that resurrected horse are Miss Lindstrom and the fried potatoes and Mr. O’Neil and the seductive client—and to give these people a voice. Adding new dimensions to the study of charity and social work, this book is essential to understanding and tackling poverty in the twenty-first century.

Editorial Reviews

Daniel Walkowitz
“This book is a brilliant and compelling intervention into how documents are constructed and how stories are imagined by those who tell them, those who hear them, and the historians who try to decipher their meanings. Mark Peel has written the first work of twenty-first-century history, and it stands as a model of how historians think and write multivocal accounts of the past. Convincing, provocative, and a pleasure to read.”

Janet McCalman
“This is a book about learning to listen. It traverses the old and new Anglo worlds between the wars, attending to the exchanges between social workers and the poor—intimate exchanges of judgment, redemption, class, gender, and race. Yet as we listen and learn, so do the protagonists, themselves caught in tides of history that prove transformative. A remarkable exercise in felt history and historical imagination.”

Karen Tice
“Arguing that case records can be a significant source for recovering the voices of the poor, Mark Peel uses these records as a departure point to probe the negotiations, disputes, and drama of encounters between the poor and their helpers in eight welfare agencies in the early twentieth century. Well-written and engaging, Miss Cutler and the Case of the Resurrected Horse maps new ground in its transnational and comparative scope.”


“Highly recommended.”
Australian Social Work
 “This is a broad, sweeping, transnational overview of the experience of the poor and the way these ‘social workers’ were influenced by the difference societies in which they operated. . . . Interesting and well-researched.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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MISS CUTLER & the Case of the Resurrected Horse


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65363-1

Chapter One

Service, Sympathy, and Efficiency

The Charity Organisation Society (COS) always took a particular interest in sorting the deserving from the undeserving, and it shaped both the story and the experience of poverty in Melbourne between the wars. A city of around a million people, Melbourne, like Australia as a whole, rose and fell according to the rhythms of global fortunes; the 1920s and 1930s were hard times. In 1922 the six women who worked under Secretary Stanley Greig Smith, including Assistant Secretary Doris Cumberland, handled around seven hundred new cases per year. There were nine women on the staff by 1930, but the number of applicants soared to more than a thousand per year by the middle of the 1920s. In earlier years, the society's annual reports divided cases into those deriving from "misfortune," "misconduct," and "imposture." Male and female applicants were tabulated, and careful note was taken of referrals. In 1922, for example, 37 came from clergymen and doctors, 50 from the society's subscribers, and 112 from the State War Council. In 1931 the annual report simply states a number: 2,669 new cases. Volume had defeated the capacity and perhaps even the desire for categorization. It was, the society's Executive Committee recorded, "an abnormally arduous year." It would worsen: the scale and duration of Melbourne's Depression meant that there were two thousand or so new cases every year for the rest of the decade. Even if the other inquiry officers were impressed—or daunted—by Agnes Cutler's forensic skills, they had little time in which to emulate them.

Melbourne's interwar poverty had familiar wellsprings: large families, unemployment, low wages, illness, old age, and disability. In what they said to Agnes Cutler and the other inquiry officers, people normally began with the frailties of their bodies and the telltale ailments of insecurity. Their teeth were so bad that they could no longer chew solids. They had diabetes and couldn't afford to replace the bread and cakes that filled them up with the nourishing food they needed. They had chronic bronchitis from damp houses. They were going deaf, but hearing aids cost too much. Their newborns struggled to thrive; their children slept three and four to a bed, didn't get enough to eat, and fell asleep in school. The rent of an unheated room in inner suburban Carlton took up half of the pension, so old people and invalids lived on thinning diets and in chronic pain. Some drank that pain away; others, unable to cope with bad teeth or bad eyes, asked for help. If they could be proved deserving, they waited a year—perhaps two years when demand was high—for free treatment at the Dental Hospital on Spring Street or joined the long queue for cheap spectacles from the Eye and Ear Hospital at Eastern Hill.

There were lonely old men, broken by hard work at age forty or fifty, in constant pain from bad backs and bad knees. There were jobless drifters aged nineteen and twenty, hard eyed and bitter before their time, along with drinkers who were too sober or too troublesome for the inebriates' homes. There were people who needed somewhere to live, and people who needed somewhere to die but couldn't secure a bed in one of the few hospices. There were people who needed to bury a husband, killed on the railways or on the wharves, when a decent funeral might cost a month's wages. Some applicants had "weak minds," like the self-styled "Russian secret service count" who survived a torpedoed troopship but then turned to alcohol. Children died in agony from tubercular spines and hips; men aged twenty-five were too weak from rheumatism, asthma, and untreated infections to earn a living; women, worn out by hard work, poor diet, and self-sacrifice, withered in their thirties. And in the 1920s, the war still rumbled through Melbourne, as fathers died of wounds that never healed, and other men, still hearing the guns, screamed in the night and struck out at their families and themselves.

This was a world in which it was easy to be discarded, and the poor paid a high price for their frailties and failings. For all but a very few in the 1920s, unemployment or illness brought disaster, as well as the indignities of meanly measured doles. Then came the Depression. Australia's was savage: in 1933, the worst year of the decade, perhaps a quarter or a third of Melbourne's men were jobless. An even greater range of people were undermined and unsecured by a crisis that picked off skilled workers, independent women, and respectable clerks. The Depression blasted dreams and dented hopes, lengthened unemployment into years, and drew many into a cycle of rural relief work, tramping, sustenance, and slums that would be broken only by wartime mobilizations in the 1940s.

The COS inquiry officers worked in a welfare system still unsure of the most appropriate boundary between public and private responsibility, protective of the unquestionably deserving, such as the aged or the blind, yet neglectful of those whose problems were seen as more circumstantial and temporary. As historian John Murphy so aptly characterizes it, this form of welfare reflected a strong antipodean cultural tradition that "combined grudging commitments to any form of social provision, with a strong resistance to the idea that the poor had a claim upon the state." In interwar Victoria, public elementary education was free, but free or subsidized medical treatment was reserved for the "truly needy," and waiting lists were long. There was no guaranteed unemployment benefit until 1930; when it came, it took the form of a miserly "sustenance" of groceries and eventually coupons, overlaid with conditions and restrictions and not even available to young, unmarried men and women. As unemployment peaked, there was government-funded public work on roads, dams, rivers, and monuments, which provided men with jobs but often took them away from their homes, leaving wives to try to support families as best they could.

There was no right to relief, no Poor Law like that of Britain; in Australia, it was important to maintain the argument—more in hope than in fact—that a new world without "real" poverty could get by without the instruments old worlds needed to manage destitution. In Melbourne, as in the United States, the poor were befriended, helped, and advised by a range of philanthropic agencies, which were just as crucial for those living on public pensions and benefits that barely covered the basic costs of living as they were for those who struggled along on low and intermittent wages. Private agencies distributed cash and goods, worked alongside and sometimes in competition with each other, and provided investigation and distribution services for public bodies. Governments relied on them to deliver and discriminate between those who should and should not receive assistance. There were ladies' benevolent societies in most suburbs by 1900, and various churches set up missions. The stamp of early twentieth-century urban reform campaigns—the settlement house or the model tenement, for instance—was less obvious in Melbourne than in London or most American cities and was strongest in those services that focused on a new nation's next generation: free kindergartens and baby health centers, for instance. Nor was there much of the philanthropic interest in poverty amelioration that characterized the cities of the Northern Hemisphere; used to booms and busts, Victoria's rich preferred at this point to hold on to their money or to invest it in schools and other instruments promoting the privileges of their own class. Much was left to faith. Melbourne's sectarian boundaries were very strong, so Catholic women tended to work within the St. Vincent de Paul Society's local auxiliaries, and Jewish women in the Hebrew Ladies' Benevolent Society, but poor Melburnians were not always so interested in the niceties of sectarian logic. They used the Salvation Army or the Wesley Central Mission or "St. Vinnies," drawing as deeply from different wells as their circumstances demanded.

In this mix of public and private relief, the women of the Charity Organisation Society certainly witnessed suffering. They heard some harrowing stories and met people in what must have seemed insurmountable circumstances. They helped organize appeals for wives and children left behind by accidents or by husbands killed at work. They sought gratuities for young men, army veterans mostly, whose parents couldn't afford to keep an adult son at home in the lean years of the 1920s. They interceded with creditors to protect families from repossession, and they helped people write applications for pensions and payments. With relatively little to give, they paid off gas and electric bills or paid for milk, eggs, and special diets, sometimes, I think, from their own purses. They watched some of their applicants recover, and they watched a few of them die.

In 1932 Melbourne's Truth newspaper, a tabloid mix of crime reporting, sports news, photographs, and "human interest" stories, published an article titled "Those Nine Women and Their Capable Director, Service, Sympathy and Efficiency." It must have pleased Smith, who always felt that the dramas and the lessons of charity investigation merited wide publicity; in 1928 he had planned a "series of radio talks on interesting aspects of philanthropic work in Melbourne," and in 1925 he had secured the Executive Committee's approval for a "small quarterly Journal ... for educational and propaganda purposes," which was called the Other Half. He wrote his own pieces, too; one daily newspaper, the Herald, printed his long article, "What We Do with Your Christmas Money" in December 1928. It reassured donors that "we sift every case and deal with it as it deserves."

Calling the COS a "baby" that Smith had "tended with loving care," the Truth article noted that this "is not really a charity organisation in the sense as recognised as such in most other parts of the world." The author's next—and more grammatically adept—sentence captured something dear to Smith; his COS was "a centre of social service which is the epitome of efficiency" and "the centre-pin upon which a whole series of charitable—benevolent if you like—activities rests and draws inspiration."

The "nine splendid women" whose case notes provide the material for these chapters were also featured in the article. Four of them—the assistant secretary and three "inspectors"—were pictured alongside Smith. In the photograph, they are well—though conservatively—dressed. They wear necklaces, though not, of course, earrings. Unused to posing for a camera, they look uncomfortable, in the way that almost everyone does in photographs of the 1930s.

I know so much and so little about them. I know their writing hands and turns of phrase, even puns they found amusing. I know what they would have said to applicants and how they would have said it. I know when they were hired and how long they stayed: Agnes Cutler was appointed in 1922 and resigned in 1943, the year in which the first ever married investigating officer, Meryl Wiseman, joined the society, and both Lillian Allen and Ethel Brown were rewarded for a quarter-century's service in 1948. I know what they were paid: in the early 1920s, inquiry officers earned £2/10 a week, which gave them an average wage for Australian women and about half the average wage for Australian men. They earned about as much as a male factory worker and rather more than any woman working in a manual occupation (Secretary Smith's annual salary was raised to £560 per year in 1925, a substantial sum). In 1930 they earned around £4 a week, but their weekly wage was cut by six shillings—about 8 percent—in 1931, a sum not restored until 1937. The secretary took a 10 percent cut in salary at the same time. In 1944 senior staff earned £5 a week, still less than the majority of working men.

In the 1920s they were not yet called social workers. They were inquiry officers or investigating officers; it was an important signal of what their work was meant to achieve. Their initiation into professional casework came from their senior colleagues; Celia Bedford, Agnes Cutler, and Lillian Allen spent a good many days training novices. What marked out the best inquiry officers was a combination of experience and a "special fitness" that, in Melbourne, remained somewhat undefined but was assumed to be particularly developed in women. There was no formal training until the 1930s, when the Victorian Council for Social Training—which Smith had helped establish—developed a Diploma of Social Science, the practical component of which could be taken "on the job" at the COS. A university course wouldn't come for another decade. While acknowledging that "social work is an exceedingly difficult business," the Other Half also reported in 1930 that "the main body of social workers—professional and voluntary—still gain their training largely in the school of stern experience, which is subject to narrow limitations and carries with it the certainty of errors of judgement." It was an uncertain endorsement.

Yet beyond that, there is mostly supposition. I can draw on the factors identified in studies of other Australian places, assuming that Melbourne had no reason to be different, and on the illuminating interviews with hospital almoners done in the 1970s by Laurie O'Brien, Cynthia Turner, and others. Like them, the COS women made their choices from a mix of vocational calling, religious conviction, economic necessity, and the narrow occupational paths available to women of their social background. It was a satisfying and interesting career, straitened by constraints on women's public work but still fulfilling expectations of useful personal service that were forged in professional families and reinforced in Melbourne's powerful independent schools. There are more specific hints of their backgrounds in the case files: the trams they caught from home to the city, their meetings with other charity workers at weekend church socials, and even the insults some of the applicants hurled at them. Although they grew familiar with the streets and lanes of working-class Melbourne, they did not and would never live there. Some were the daughters of clergymen and schoolteachers, and others had fathers who owned shops. They attended "good" schools, perhaps with the help of a bursary or money from a grandparent. Some lived independently, probably in the small flats respectable Melburnians of restricted means could rent in South Yarra, East Melbourne, or Hawthorn, and others still lived in the family home. They were all Protestants. They came from and remained church people, and it was their churches that centered their lives outside of work. From the evidence of their convictions, homilies, and ideas and from their emphasis on service, they were Methodists and Presbyterians for the most part. They were not rich, and if they were comfortable it was probably because they could draw to some degree on family resources. They were not married when hired, and most were still unmarried when they resigned or retired.

For most, this was a life's work. It was important and demanding, and they assumed—as many men assumed—that it was work to which women like themselves should be well suited. As they met with and questioned the poor, they would have to find the balance between service, sympathy, and efficiency that inspired the idea of charity organization.

Chapter Two

Mr. Smith and the Importance of Modern Casework

Agnes Cutler and her colleagues joined a society about to claim—courtesy of Stanley Greig Smith—a more important role in Melbourne's welfare network. Melbourne's Charity Organisation Society was founded in 1887. Like its British parent, and the similar bodies that were formed at that time in American, British, and European cities, it aimed to coordinate the activities of various benevolent groups and prevent the unthinking charity that was believed to encourage "pauperism" and "dependency." Rather than provide material aid, it would offer friendly and constructive advice to the poor and provide leadership to the jumble of alms-giving agencies in what was then both Australia's biggest city and one of the largest cities in the British Empire. Like its overseas counterparts, the Melbourne COS struggled through the severe depression of the 1890s; with coordination difficult to achieve, the survival of new agencies such as the COS depended to a significant extent on whether they took up other functions, particularly the provision of direct relief. The COS emerged from this first great depression still struggling to find its foothold.


Excerpted from MISS CUTLER & the Case of the Resurrected Horse by MARK PEEL Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mark Peel is professor of modern cultural and social history and head of the School of History at the University of Liverpool. A former professor of history at Monash University, he is the author of three books, most recently The Lowest Rung: Voices of Australian Poverty.

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