Pearl Jephcott, youth and the lives of ordinary people. Pearl Jephcott produced a series of influential studies of the lives of young people, and was an important figure in the development of thinking about youth club work. She also undertook a number of studies that added significantly to our appreciation of working class life.
Agnes Pearl Jephcott (1900-1980) was a gifted social researcher and organizer. For nearly twenty years she helped to develop and sustain girls’ and mixed clubs – and displayed a marked ability to make significant relationships with young people and those that worked with them. Alongside this work Pearl Jephcott also began researching and writing about the lives and experiences of young people. Unlike many other researchers she placed an emphasis on exploring the experiences and circumstances of ‘ordinary’ young people. Her research broaden out to studies of particular neighbourhoods and social phenomenon. There was, again, an emphasis upon the lives of ‘ordinary’ people and the environments they find themselves in (particularly their housing conditions and the impact these have) – and the actions that local people can take. In this piece we examine her contribution and her significance.
Pearl Jephcott was born in Alcester, Warwickshire into a reasonably well-to-do family (her father was an auctioneer). The youngest of four children, she went to Alcester grammar school and then to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. She graduated in 1922 with a BA in history (Turnball 2004).
Pearl Jephcott briefly took up teaching but then moved on to secretarial training. From there she went to work in the Midlands in appeal work for Dr Barnardo homes (Stovin 1946). In 1927 Jephcott began working as the organizing secretary of the Birmingham Union of Girls’ Clubs. According to Jean Stovin (1946) the work included starting one of the first Union camp houses (in Ullenhall), and finding and ‘placing’ a large number of helpers and teachers for the Union’s 70 or so affiliated clubs. In 1935 she transferred to Durham as the County Organizer with the reputation of being highly effective. She wanted to develop youth work in one of the ‘special areas’ where there was high unemployment. As Stovin again comments, in seven years Pearl Jephcott built up from two existing unions a County Association of some 80 clubs. During this time she continued to work as a youth leader (setting up and running a small village club for a number of years. Direct engagement with the lives of young women – their experiences of work, home and leisure – was the ‘keynote of her work’ (op. cit.).
In 1942 Pearl Jephcott joined the staff of the National Association of Girls’ Clubs as a temporary National Organizer doing research and taking an interest in Service Cadets. She had applied to be the education officer for the Association but lost out to Josephine Macalister Brew. In 1943 she became Publications Secretary and the editor of Club News. She was a member of a remarkable team of women working for the Association during the war. These included, in addition to Brew, Eileen Younghusband and Leslie Sewell. Whilst at the Association she completed her first major study of young women Girls Growing Up (Jephcott 1942) and Clubs for Girls which sought to suggest ‘briefly and simply the underlying purposes of young people’s clubs’ (Jephcott 1943: 6).
Pearl Jephcott gained a Barnett fellowship to follow-up the girls in her study – and this resulted in Rising Twenty (Jephcott 1948b). In 1946 Jephcott was awarded an MA by publication. The same year she left what had become the National Association of Girls’ Clubs and Mixed Clubs to work for Political and Economic Planning (PEP). There she co-authored three of its broadsheets (Turnbull 2004). As part of her research she worked incognito in a light engineering works in London reporting on the virtually non-existent interest of her fellow employees in current affairs’ and arguing for more stimulating working environments (Kynaston 2007: 324; Jephcott 1948b). In 1950 she joined the staff of Nottingham University where she worked on two projects – one funded by Rockefeller exploring the social origins of delinquency (Sprott, Carter and Jephcott 1954), the other the membership of youth organizations (Turnbull 2004). The latter project was sponsored by the King George’s Jubilee Trust and resulted in Some Young People (Jephcott 1954).
From Nottingham, Pearl Jephcott became a senior research assistant at the London School of Economics (LSE) – working in the social administration department headed by Richard Titmus. Her first research project (working with Nancy Sear and John Smith) was a study of married working women. The project, based in Bermondsey and focusing on Peek Frean’s biscuit factory did not have an easy passage (in part because Titmus was something of an elusive supervisor) – but the resulting book Married Women Working (1962) was a significant and reasoned contribution to the then popular debates around the role of working wives and mothers. Whilst at the LSE she also contributed to two landmark government reports. The first, 15-18 (CACE 1959), arose out of her membership of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England). The second was The Youth Service in England and Wales (Ministry of Education 1960) the report of the ‘Albemarle Committee’ (1958-1960) where she also represented the interests of NAYLO (the National Association of Youth Leaders and Organizers). The Report effectively set out the framework for an expanded youth service. At this time Pearl Jephcott also sought to follow-up the young women she studied in Girls Growing Up and Rising Twenty – but although the research known as ‘The Uncertain Years’ was completed it was never published (Turnbull 2004).
Pearl Jephcott then left the London School of Economics and began work on the North Kensington Family Study in 1962 (Eileen Younghusband was also involved). The resulting book A Troubled Area. Notes on Notting Hill (Jephcott 1964) explored housing conditions (especially the problem of multi-occupation dwellings), the experiences of migrants, and role of self-help – co-operative action on specific local problems. She then moved to Glasgow University to study the leisure of young people in Scotland – which resulted in Time of One’s Own (Jephcott 1967). A second project followed quickly (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust) – exploring the experience of high rise living. It was based on nearly 1000 interviews of residents in Glasgow tower blocks. Homes in High Flats (Jephcott 1971) was the first major British contribution to debates around high-rise living and highlighted some of the common issues people experienced.
In 1970 Pearl Jephcott left Glasgow. She travelled but continued to research and write (including undertaking a study for UNICEF on children and young people in Hong Kong). In 1973 she gained funding for a half-time post to research the needs of families in high-rise flats in Birmingham. In 1980 she suffered a stroke and died some months later at the War Memorial Hospital, Chipping Norton (9 November) (Turnbull 2004). She never married.
Taken as a whole, Pearl Jephcott’s contribution to our appreciation of the lives of young people both during the Second World War and after is significant and engaging. As Annmarie Turnbull (2004) has commented with regard to Girls Growing Up and Rising Twenty, they indicate the concerns and the style of much of Pearl Jephcott’s subsequent research:
All presented vivid, detailed, and at times passionate pictures of little researched aspects of the lives of working-class people, particularly of girls and young women. They involved ethnographical research involving participant observation, interviews, and autobiographical accounts, and offered practical recommendations to improve the quality of life of their subjects (Turnbull 2004).
It is a pity that the final and third book in the series was never published as taken together they would have provided an accessible and vivid overview of an important period in women’s lives. The way in which the books were brought together and written considerably extended their appeal. They could be read and enjoyed by a wide cross-section of people.
Clubs for Girls (Jephcott 1942) was written at the request of the National Association of Girls’ Clubs and firmly aimed at those new to, or thinking of joining in, the work. It was welcomed at the time as a succinct and accessible introduction and still repays reading as Annmarie Turnball (2002) has argued The opening chapters looked at girls’ needs and, girls and older people. A third and central chapter examined ‘The good club’. Pearl Jephcott highlighted seven areas arising from her conversations with young women and her own experiences:
- Appearance – the quality of the physical environment.
- A breadth of membership sharing in common activities.
- A ‘good show’ i.e. plenty of different things to do.
- ‘Learning things’- exploring new areas and acquiring a wide range of interests.
- ‘Being useful’ – a club gives opportunities to do things that matter for others.
- ‘Friendliness’ – girls invariably stress one thing when they talked about what they valued in a club, Jephcott (1942: 45) concluded, ‘and that is some variation of the term friendliness’.
- ‘Someone you can talk to’. Club helpers need to be approachable, to join in, and to listen and talk with young people.
The final two chapters of the book look at the girls’ future and at buildings and people. It ends by urging helpers to continually ‘encourage the members to look outside themselves and to take a friendly and generous, never hostile, interest in people and things’ (Jephcott 1942: 68). As Annmarie Turnbull (1942: 73) comments, her book models that ideal.
In Rising Twenty (1948a) Pearl Jephcott both followed up the young women that featured in Girls Growing Up and young women from two other areas – central London and a northern industrial town (possibly Barrow according the David Kynaston 2007: 418). One of the most significant findings was the continuing power of traditional orientations to marriage and work among those she talked to. Young women for the most part did not see themselves continuing in work once they got married (a theme she was to return to later in Married Women Working).
Some Young People (1954) altered the focus of her work – or rather highlighted a theme that had run through her research around young people. Rather than looking to their lives as a whole, its main object was to deepen understanding of the relationship of ‘ordinary boys and girls’ to youth organizations (Jephcott 1954: 15). Over 900 young people were interviewed from London, Nottingham and from a number of rural areas in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. The research found that around one in three of those aged fourteen to seventeen belonged to youth organizations with boys far outweighing girls. It also highlighted just how complicated it is for a young person to become an ‘effective member of a formal group’ (op. cit.: 105). For the Youth Service the troubles themselves fell into three categories:
They concern a more adequate supply of societies, firstly for the adolescents of rural areas; secondly for the girls in all three areas; and thirdly for the children below adolescent age in the London area. (Jephcott 1954: 142-3)
Jephcott and her researchers also argued for greater variety and more experimentation in provision – and questioned the extent to which youth organizations sought to bring external direction into ‘the one part of the day when the youngster is not controlled by parent or teacher or employer’ (Jephcott 1954: 149). She also commented on the impact of changing ideas around the function of youth organizations:
It is, for example, difficult for a unit to have precision in its aims when it is uncertain whether it is primarily an institution where further education can be piped in , so to speak; or whether it is one whose most important business is to help its members to participate in an experiment in group relations. Is the organization a device for policing the child out of mischief or one for speeding him more quickly into the adult world? A more searching alternative that faced a good number many leaders and committees was this. Should the unit for which they are responsible be adapted to the ‘average’ normal adolescent, or ought they to think first of the under-privileged, the boy or girl who most needed help? (Jephcott 1954: 152-3)
It is a set of questions that have retained their relevance!
The three major studies of working class communities that Pearl Jephcott undertook – on the experiences of married working women in Bermondsey (1962), Notting Hill just after the riots (1964), and the experience of high-rise living in Glasgow (1971) – each made a significant contribution to their area of study. With Michael Carter she also completed an unpublished study of ‘Radby’ (edited by W. J. H. Sprott) – that Josephine Klein drew on extensively in her Samples from English Cultures (Klein 1965). The studies were all, again, written in the trademark Jephcott style.
Married Women Working (Jephcott with Sears and Smith 1962) throws considerable light on the experiences and situations facing such women and was published at a time when there was often ill-informed, debate around the subject. However, one of the most engaging features of the book is the way in which Jephcott was able to get inside the lives of local people in Bermondsey and to present their experiences truthfully. It certainly helped that she lived in the area whilst undertaking the research. Significantly, she chose to live in a poor neighbourhood next to the River Thames (Cherry Gardens), and was able to draw upon the experiences of her neighbours. In this she was following in the footsteps of settlement workers associated with both Bermondsey Settlement and the Oxford and Bermondsey Club. Pearl Jephcott was able to mix such material with data gained from more formal interviews and to create, for example, a insightful picture of the processes of ‘home-making’ and raising children.
A Troubled Area (Jephcott 1964) explored the problems of Notting Dale following the ‘race riots’ of 1958. As Eileen Younghusband writes in her introduction:
It is an account by someone with the vision to take in the significance of such all too familiar sights as overflowing dustbins, tired mothers with small children and heavy shopping baskets, and houses which are slatternly because they are cherished by no one — and which are cherished by no one because they are slatternly. (Younghusband in Jephcott 1964: 12)
Pearl Jephcott was able to cut through a lot of contemporary prejudices about immigrants (at this point largely from the West Indies and Pakistan) and to focus on housing – particularly the problem of multi-occupied houses. She examines the way in which migrants were not able to gain a foothold in council housing and were left to endure squalid conditions – and the impact this had upon them. One of the central chapters focuses on material gained from 20 multi-occupied houses over six months – and it is damning. Jephcott catalogues how expensive the rents were, the poor amenities, tensions around shared facilities, and the ways in which Notting Dale’s over-confined houses exposed ‘small children to so many hazards’ (Jephcott 1964: 89). In a second chapter on housing in general she brings out the nature and scale of exploitation by landlords. Another chapter examines the experiences of ‘residents from overseas’. Not unexpectedly Jephcott also looked at children’s play and adolescents’ leisure. However, one of the significant themes running through the book is that the nature of the problems are well known – what is needed is action. Importantly, while recognizing the importance of action by the state, Pearl Jephcott also examines the contribution that the considerable core of residents ‘who given some lead, might co-operate with their neighbours to tackle some of the area’s more obvious problems’ (Jephcott 1964: 19). She concludes, on the basis of three local experimental projects undertaken as part of the research, that there is considerable room for developing much better opportunities for children’s play, for example, through community co-operation. She also argues that far more work is needed to enlist the active help of local people ‘at all social levels’ (op. cit.: 140).
Homes in High Flats (Jephcott with Robinson 1971) was the first major study of the experience of high rise living in Britain. As such it was something of a landmark text. Significantly it both brought out the issues for residents e.g. problems around common parts and lifts, stress, and space for children’s play (issues that bear an uncanny resemblance to what <href=”#housing0″>Octavia Hill had identified in the 1890s), and the extent to which a many residents valued living in tower blocks (e.g. the quality of the flats themselves, the views, and the locations). Some years later Alice Coleman (1985: 11-13) was to criticize this aspect of Jephcott’s research in that Glasgow – where the research largely took place – was a special case. The previous conditions in which residents had lived were relatively problematic when compared to the high rise blocks. However, she also recognized the importance of the contribution that Pearl Jephcott had made – and the extent to which policymakers had cherry-picked her research to emphasize the positive side of high-rise living rather than deal with her findings about vandalism and stress (op. cit.: 181).
Pearl Jephcott’s contribution to our appreciation of young people lives and to our understanding of youth work was significant. Importantly, she also was able to explore some key aspects of working class communities with sensitivity and insight. As a practitioner she could form relationships, and develop and extend work; as a researcher she was able to join in with local ways of life, to listen carefully and to make sense of what she found in ways that were accessible to reader unfamiliar with the situations she described. Reflecting on her time working with girls and clubs for young people, Jean Stovin (her successor as Durham County Organizer) commented:
In her are blended a most refreshing sense of humour, unflagging energy, tireless patience an a real sincerity of purpose; she had not time for the dabblers and titivators of social work.
… to her many friends, Pearl is known and liked as a grand companion to work and play with, and herself spreads a zest for life wherever she goes. (Stovin 1946)
Pearl Jephcott was committed to the people she found herself among, and to working with them to build better lives. The way she approached both her work as a youth organizer and as social researcher, still repays reflection and study.
Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1959) 15 to 18. A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education Volume 1 (The Crowther Report). England. London: HMSO.
Coleman, Alice (1985) Utopia on Trial. Vision and reality in planned housing. London: Shipman.
Jephcott, A. P. (1942) Girls Growing Up. London: Faber and Faber.
Jephcott, Pearl (1943) Clubs for Girls. Notes for new helpers at clubs. London: Faber and Faber.
Jephcott, Pearl (1948a) Rising Twenty. Notes on ordinary girls. London: Faber and Faber.
Jephcott, Pearl (1948b) article in the New Statesman, September 11.
Jephcott, Pearl (1954) Some Young People. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Jephcott, Pearl with Nancy Sear and John H. Smith (1962) Married Women Working. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Jephcott, Pearl (1964) A Troubled Area. Notes on Notting Hill. London: Faber and Faber.
Jephcott, Pearl (1967) Time of One’s Own: Leisure and young people. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Jephcott, Pearl with Robinson, Hilary (1971) Homes in High Flats. Some of the human problems involved in multi-storey housing. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.
Kynaston, David (2007) Austerity Britain 1945-51. London: Bloomsbury.
Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales (‘The Albemarle Report’), London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Sprott, Walter J. H., Pearl Jephcott and Michael P. Carter (1954?) The Social Background of Delinquency [Mimeograph]. Nottingham: University of Nottingham Department of Philosophy.
Stovin, Jean (1946) ‘Pearl Jephcott’, Club News, May p. 2.
Turnbull, Annmarie (2000) ‘Giving girls a voice: Pearl Jephcott’s work for young people’ Youth and Policy 66: 88-100.
Turnbull, Annmarie (2002) ‘Classic texts revisited: Clubs for Girls’ Youth and Policy 73: 66-74.
Turnbull, Annmarie (2004) ‘Jephcott, (Agnes) Pearl (1900-1980)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Phyllis Willmott who talked to me about Pearl Jephcott’s time at LSE.
To cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2008) ‘Pearl Jephcott, youth and the lives of ordinary people’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/pearl-jephcott-youth-and-the-lives-of-ordinary-people/. Retrieved: insert date].
© Mark K Smith 2008
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