Branch Street is a classic. It is a compelling read - full of vivid stories about work with a group of children attending a London play centre during the Second World War. Through these stories Marie Paneth grapples with the nature of the work, and her feelings as a worker. It is all done with a rare honesty and a directness that is breathtaking.
The project was based in a condemned house in a street close by a bomb shelter where much work also took place. More than 100 children live in the street - and there is significant poverty, poor health and family breakdown. The street is close by a 'prostitute quarter'. Paneth's particular specialism was art - but what comes through the accounts is an ability to respond directly and honestly to the questions and issues that were engaging the children and young people.
The location of Branch Street is disguised in the text - and trying to work out where exactly in London it was has been, and is, an interesting diversion. As far as I can work it out, the area lay somewhere between the Edgeware Road and Lisson Grove (NW8) - the site for the detached work project analysed by Goetschius and Tash (1967) in Working with the Unattached. More on this later when I have done a bit more digging.
If you have been involved in street and club work with children and young people, then you are likely to recognize the situations Paneth describes. There is the testing out through talk of sex and your own sexuality; the trip to the zoo where members get 'lost'; the camping trip which is a major strain on the worker; the stealing from the project; and the arrival of a new worker who is a wrestler. I do not know of a book about youth work where such stories have been better told. There is also a significant historical point here. While there had been excellent accounts of the sorts of encounters workers have with young people (e.g. Maud Stanley on work with girls; or Charles Russell on boy gangs) - I cannot bring to mind any other book predating this that tells it as directly, and in the language used at the time.
Second, the book conveys the frustrations and some of the possibilities of working informally and honestly. Paneth's style could be characterized as fairly 'laid back'. She believed that the children that she was working with in Branch Street had missed out in significant ways - and that their indiscipline and aggression was a result of this. The workers' task:
... started by letting them behave in as "young" and undisciplined manner as one expects new born child to behave, as if they were absolutely irresponsible creatures, whom one had to accept as such. In this period of our acquaintance they had to find out that we were utterly unconcerned about their behaviour but enormously concerned with being "on their side", seeing their side of the question, bringing them things which they might want or need, so that they might find out and become convinced that we were really for them, irrespective of what sort of persons they were. We had to continue in this way until we would be sure that the children had understood and had accepted us for what we were. (1944: 47)
Through this process she hoped that the children would develop self discipline. Her goal in educational work, 'was to make good, independent citizens for a good community' (1944: 46).
Paneth had a strong belief in trying to work in a way that encouraged the children and young people to take responsibility and organize things for themselves. She was frustrated in this in various ways - and talks of her horror that "the children's house":
was changing from my original conception - a house run by the children from Branch Street according to their own ideas - into an imitation of a club, to be run like any other club, according to the ideas of grown-up people, and this before the children had so much as set foot on the doorstep.
Third, I find the questioning of her own activities - and her insistence on project workers sharing and reflecting on their experiences especially engaging. She again writes:
Have we been intruders, disturbing an otherwise happy community, and is it the bourgeois in us, coming face to face with his opponents, who mind and wants to change them because he feels threatened? Or do they need help from outside?
My apologies if I am gushing - but this is a book that you should read.
What became of Marie Paneth? I do not know. I have not been able to find any further trace of her - but I am on the case! If you have any knowledge of her - please contact me - so we can honour her properly on these pages.
Prepared by Mark K. Smith
© Mark K. Smith
First published July 1996. Last update: May 29, 2012