Olive Christian Malvery was an Anglo-Indian writer and investigative journalist who exposed poverty and terrible working conditions in London at the start of the 20th century.
Early life in Lahore and London
Malvery was born in Lahore, in the Punjab, in either 1877 or 1882. Her parents separated, so she and her brother were raised in India by her maternal grandparents. In 1890, Malvery came to London to study at the Royal College of Music.
She supported herself by writing fiction for journals and magazines, giving lectures, teaching elocution, and ‘drawing room’ storytelling inspired by Indian legends. In the introduction to one of her articles, ‘Gilding the Gutter’, she is described as “the well-known lecturer, reciter, and social worker”.
Undercover for Pearson’s Magazine
In 1904, she was hired to do a photojournalism series on London’s poor for Pearson’s Magazine. Malvery went undercover in south and east London, disguising herself and working as a flower seller, a barmaid, a factory girl, and a homeless woman so that she could speak more easily to working class girls and women, and to learn how they were treated.
The Soul Market and Hoxton Hall
Malvery wrote about many of her experiences again in more detail in her book The Soul Market, published in 1907 and available to read in full in the Internet Archive.
While she was writing the book she had become friends with Sarah Rae, who ran a social club for working class girls at Hoxton Hall. Through Rae, Malvery met and made friends with many of the local Hoxton girls, some of whom were bridesmaids at her wedding to Scottish-born US diplomat Archibald Mackirdy in 1905. They had three children before his death in 1911.
In later life Malvery continued writing, and produced books about child labour, unemployment, and ‘white slavery’ (there was widespread fear in this period that young English girls were being kidnapped and forced into sex work).
Malvery also paid for two shelters for homeless women to be built in London, likely inspired by her own experience of sleeping rough. She died aged 37 while ill with cancer, following an accidental overdose of sedatives.