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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

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Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

022

There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

012

The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

015

The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

002

The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

001

In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

017 (2)

In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

017

Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

001

The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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What is ‘Christian Socialism’? Part One   Leave a comment

The Nonconformist Origins of

Christian Socialism in Britain

002

Above: My Gulliver grandparents.

Below: A Family evicted for supporting the National  Agricultural Labourers’ Union     

002

I grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham as the son of a Baptist minister who had been a draughtsman in a Black Country steelworks before the Second World War. My mother was the daughter of a Warwickshire collier whose own grandfather, Vinson Gulliver, had helped Joseph Arch, the Methodist lay-preacher to establish the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union in the early 1870s. This was the first union of unskilled workers, and their strike found support from the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review, which in 1872 expressed the view that…

… the movement which commenced a few months since in Warwickshire, and which is spreading gradually over the whole agricultural region of south and mid-England, is not unlike the first of those upheavals which occurred five centuries ago. Like that, it is an attempt to escape from… an intolerable and hopeless bondage, with the difference that… the present is an attempt to exact better terms for manual labour. Just as the poor priests of Wycliffe’s training were the agents… by whom communications were made between the various disaffected regions, so on the present occasion the ministers or preachers of those humbler sects, whose religious impulses are energetic, and perhaps sensational, have been found the national leaders of a struggle after social emancipation. A religious revival has constantly been accompanied by an attempt to better the material conditions of those who are the objects of the impulse… A generation ago the agricultural labourer strove to arrest the operation of changes which oppressed him… by machine breaking and rick burning. Now the agricultural labourer has adopted the machinery of a trade union and a strike, and has conducted his agitation in a strictly peaceful and law-abiding manner.

004

Above: Rev Arthur J Chandler, during his ministry at Wednesbury, 1940s.

Although my father was from a working-class ‘Tory’ background, like many born in Birmingham and the Black Country in Edwardian times, he understood the Baptist emphasis on a ‘social gospel’ and encouraged me in my radical views. I learnt from him that ‘the truth is never found in extremes’, a mantra which has stayed with me ever since. I heard him preach many sermons in which he referred to Dr John Clifford, the prominent Baptist leader and President of the Christian Socialist League. This was the successor organisation to the Christian Socialist Society which took over the management of the Christian Socialist magazine from the Land Reform Union. Clifford (1836-1923) was a member of the Fabian Society as well as a liberal evangelical minister in Paddington from 1858. In a tract published by the Fabians, Socialism and the Teaching of Christ (1897), Clifford wrote of the Collectivist Gospel as having at least four distinguishing merits, in that…

  • while it does not change human nature, It destroys many of the evils of modern society because it sets everybody alike to his share of the work, and gives to him his share of reward;

  • it ennobles the struggle of life, leaving man free for the finer toils of intellect and heart: free ’to seek first the kingdom of God and his justice’, so that .. exists ’not for the sake of life, but of a good life’… in keeping with ’the mind of Christ’;

  • it offers a better environment for the development of the teaching of Jesus concerning wealth and the ideals of labour and brotherhood,..

  • it fosters a higher ideal of human and social worth and well-being through a more Christian conception of industry; one in which every man is a worker, and each worker does not toil for himself exclusively, but for all the necessities, comforts and privileges he shares with all members of the community.

Clifford set this new ideal of life and labour against what he called the hard individualism of late Victorian society. It was this individualism that he saw as partial, hollow, unreal and disastrous, fostering the serfdom of one class and the indolence of another. It had created, on the one hand, a large class of submissive, silent… slaves undergoing grinding toil and continuous anxiety, and on the other a smaller class suffering debasing indolence. It spawned hatred and ill-will on the one hand, and scorn and contempt on the other. This was at odds with the common ideal in both the soul of Collectivism and the revelation of the brotherhood of man in Christ Jesus. Evidence for the early role of Christian Socialists in the move towards an independent politics can be found in that, as early as March 1895, a ‘Christian Socialist’ candidate fighting alone against the Liberal candidate for East Bristol missed election by only 183 votes in a total poll of over seven thousand. The Welsh Religious Revival of 1904-5 also helped promote the rise of Labour politics, first in the Liberal Party, but then in the development of a separate party.

Sources:

John Briggs & Ian Sellers (1973), Victorian Nonconformity: Documents of Modern History. London: Edward Arnold.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: OUP.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem. London: Scorpion Publications.

The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951: Part Two   Leave a comment

Part Two: Satanic Mills and Social Gospels, 1855-1910.

 

Despite the period of quiescence among both agricultural and industrial labourers during the 1850s and 1860s, midst Blakes’s dark, satanic mills, the spirit and memory of Chartism did not simply evaporate after 1848. The following words are taken from The Chartist Hymn Book, recently rediscovered in Todmorden Public Library:

 

Men of England, ye are slaves,

Bought by tyrants, sold by knaves.

Yours the toil, the sweat, the pain,

Theirs the profit, ease and gain.

 

Men of England, ye are slaves,

Beaten by policeman’s staves,

If their force ye dare repel,

Your will be the felon’s cell.

 

Men of England, ye are slaves –

Hark! The stormy tempest raves –

‘tis the nation’s voice I hear,

Shouting, ‘Liberty is near!’

 

Michael Sanders of Manchester University has been investigating the origins of the copy found in Todmorden is the only surviving copy. The Chartist movement never recovered from its defeat in 1848, but became a potent memory, if no longer an active force, in British working-class politics. Precisely because it was a movement of hope Chartism has cost a long historical shadow, symbolising a desire for a more just society. Historians have sometimes described it as a hunger movement, a desperate response to desperate times. However, this is only partly true, as the Chartist Land League in Worcestershire and the hymns like the one above, compiled by the South Lancashire Chartists, show. As a national movement, seeking to achieve the reform of Parliament through the six points of The Charter it failed in its objective. Neither did it turn from Reform to Revolution when it had the chance, as the continental movements did, all of them, ultimately, also ending in glorious defeat. Following the disappointment of the rejection of the third petition, and as prosperity returned in the 1850s, the national movement evaporated. The last time the Chartists turned out in any great number was for O’Connor’s funeral in 1855, attended by a crowd of over fifty thousand. Although this event was also symbolic of the demise of Chartism, and there was to be no resurrection, the words of another hymn from the pamphlet are both resonant and prophetic of a distinctly working-class nonconformist culture, which developed in both town and countryside both before and after Chartism:

Nor fear, nor sword, nor dungeons vile,

Shall quench the ever-burning spark,

Although its path may be awhile,

Sunless and cheerless, dreary, dark.

 

It burns, and shall for ever burn,

The fire of perfect liberty;

All men its principles shall learn,

And then we shall, we must be free.

 

But Christ has risen from the dead

And gained a glorious victory;

Then follow him – the Truth – your head,

Demand your Charter and be free.

 

By the early 1850s, none of the Charter’s aims had been realised, but the movement had drawn attention to the needs and demands of labouring men and women and through continuing local action it helped to bring about the coral growth of a distinct from of Labour politics in the second half of the nineteenth century. In fact, a closer inspection of the evidence shows that the remnants of Chartism survived long after the debacle of 1848, and that there were always some advocates of an independent labour party, including the members of the short-lived Land and Labour League, founded by the British members of the First International. The Old Dissenters, the Unitarians, Quakers and Congregationalists, had strong democratic and humanitarian traditions; and orthodox Methodism, though politically conservative at first, especially during the time of the French Revolution, had always been, in a very real sense, the religion of the poor. Methodist class meetings and lectures had been the training ground for political radicals and early trade union organisers, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs. But the Nonconformist Ministers were often hampered by dependence on the direct support of their congregations, and especially on generous laymen. By the mid-Victorian period, Many Nonconformist churches therefore bore an appearance of the Gladstonian Liberal Party at prayer. Nominally democratic, they tended to become oligarchies of local wealthy worthies. It was not unusual for some churches to establish pew rents like their Anglican churches. Keir Hardie was among those who drew attention to this abuse:

… They would often find even the churches marked off in sections, one part for those who did not care to associate with the common herd, the seats luxuriously cushioned and the kneeling-stools well upholstered, in striking contrast to the accommodation of the poorer classes… They were sometimes asked why the working man did not attend church, but was it to be wondered at?

A special difficulty for the Methodists was their association with the rising industrialists. Individualism was usually the distinguishing feature of their creed, much more so than Wesley himself would have liked, and those who practised it most successfully were often the churches’ most influential members. However, within the Nonconformist tradition, the individualistic emphasis upon conversion had always to be held in tension with a corporate understanding of the church as the corpus Christianum (in Calvin’s terms). As the normative social philosophy of England changed from individualism to collectivism, so correspondingly this second emphasis, which for much of the century was neglected, came into new prominence. The Political Dissent of the 1830s and 1840s thus survived mid-Victorian individualistic respectability among Old and New Dissenters to become the Nonconformist Conscience and Social Gospel of the 1880s and 1890s.

However, it was the Primitive Methodist missions among the agricultural labourers that made the connection between the two radical eras. In particular, the support that they gave to Joseph Arch, himself a Methodist lay-preacher, in the formation and growth of the National Agricultural Labourers Union in 1872, gives the lie to the idea of Nonconformity as a mechanism of social control. The mid-Victorian trades unionists had learned instinctively the importance of combination and corporate awareness, and to them Nonconformity made a generous response: the contribution made by Methodists to both the Miners’ and Agricultural Workers’ Unions cannot be denied, much less despised, even if the comparative effect of this is still disputed among historians of the Labour Movement. Even the most respectable organ of Dissent, The British Quarterly Review, could not fail to applaud the logic of Joseph Arch’s endeavours, though its enthusiasm seems partly to arise out of a wish to manipulate the situation against the old foe of the landed Anglican establishment:

… the movement which commenced a few months since in Warwickshire, and which spread gradually over the whole agricultural region of south and mid-England, is not unlike the first of those upheavals which occurred five centuries ago. Like that, it is an attempt to escape from what was felt to be an intolerable and hopeless bondage, with the difference that, on the former occasion, the insurrectionists aimed at a relief from arbitrary service, while the present is an attempt, through the machinery of a similar combination, to exact better terms for manual labour. Just as the poor priests of Wickliffe’s training were the agents, perhaps unintentionally, by whom communications were made between the various disaffected regions, so on the present occasion the ministers or preachers of those humbler sects, whose religious impulses are energetic, and perhaps sensational, have been found the national leaders of a struggle after social emancipation. A religious revival has constantly been accompanied by an attempt to better the material condition of those who are the objects of the impulse. It may be doubted, indeed, whether any movement in a religious direction has ever been successful unless it has been coupled with a determination to improve the social and moral condition of those who join it, or at least has invited its disciples or converts to discover a compensation for the hardships and wrongs of life in the consolations of religion, or in the hopes of some juridical restitution… A generation ago the agricultural labourer strove to arrest the operation of changes which seemed adverse to him, and of laws which oppressed him, by machine breaking and rick burning. These efforts were, to be sure, insulated and spasmodic, and of course failed of making any impact on the facts which they were intended to controvert. Now the agricultural labourer has adopted the machinery of a trade union and a strike, and has conducted his agitation in a strictly peaceful and law-abiding manner.

Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal MP and himself a leading Unitarian in Birmingham, observed how Nonconformist organisation absorbed the passion in men’s nature and he himself made good use of this in his Protectionist campaigning, which won much support among the industrial working classes as well as in the countryside. Beatrice Webb noticed how the Methodist class meetings, itinerant lecturers, and conferences were all forms of organisation that the workers transferred easily into the secular political sphere, together with the same apocalyptic spirit of faith and hope.

015Thomas Cooper (1805-95) had been a Midland Chartist leader, editor and writer, as well as a Wesleyan lay-preacher in his youth. After becoming an apostle of free thought, he then became a Baptist defender of orthodoxy, but never lost his political radicalism. In his Life Written By Himself (1877), he recalled the radical sermon he had preached to crowds of Chartists at Fenton, Longton and Hanley (at the latter standing on a chair outside the Crown Inn). Before his sermon, the crowds sang Bromwich’s hymn, Britannia’s sons, though slaves ye be. His sermon contained references to the Game Laws and the Poor Law, the agricultural workers, the stockingers of Leicester, the handloom weavers of Lancashire and the nailmakers of the Black Country. He remembered the shouts of the multitude… their looks of vengeance, and how he had felt he could die on the spot in fulfilling a great duty – the exposure of human wrong and consequent human suffering. Apparently, he didn’t refer to the six points of the Charter, but recalled, not without a latter-day sense of guilt on reflection, the difficulty he had had in calming the crowd and raising the spirit of gentleness and forgiveness.

 There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for workingmen on local authorities, and sometimes, as at Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. However, there were few labour leaders who regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility.

Most of them accepted the leadership of Gladstone, whose championing of working-class suffrage had led to the second Reform Act of 1867, and on many policy issues the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. In 1869, a Labour Representation League had been set up with the object of promoting the registration of the working-class vote, without reference to opinion or party bias, but without a significant trade union base and funding, and given the broad nature of the Liberal Party, there seemed no reason why the League could not continue to work alongside the other elements in that Party. Nonetheless, even the Birmingham Quaker and Free Trade campaigner, John Bright, was unenthusiastic about the election of working men as representatives of the middle-classes. He accused the League of being disruptive in their pursuit of this. Working-class candidates contested very few seats, but where they did, middle class voters switched to supporting the Tories rather than vote for a worker to represent them. At the 1874 General Election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing considering that the British electorate by then consisted mainly of workers. This lack of political class-consciousness was a reflection of the prosperity of the country under laissez-faire conditions. However, in a country with a long-established aristocracy and gentry, and a traditional class structure below them, there was little prospect of social fluidity even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. Large-scale industry forged class solidarity among the workers, which in the end facilitated effective trade union and political action.

It was not until the Royal Commission of 1867 that the respectability of Trade Unions was firmly accepted. In 1868 the Trades Union Congress was founded, formally constituted in 1871. By 1875 they were free from the last trace of criminal law. Nevertheless, fear of Trade Unionism persisted among those who ruled. This fear among industrial employers threatened to undermine the radical alliance of urban middle-class religious dissent with the newly enfranchised respectable working classes and their nascent trade unions. A Birmingham Congregationalist, R W Dale (1829-95) became a close ally of Joseph Chamberlain. He became co-pastor at the city’s Carr’s Lane Congregational Temple and sole pastor from 1859. He refused many invitations to other appointments, giving himself entirely to involvement in Birmingham. Becoming Chairman of the Congregational Union in 1869, he withdrew from it in 1888 over Home Rule for Ireland, preferring to stand by Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists. However, in 1891 he became the First Moderator of the International Congregational Council. He was a supporter of working-class representation in Parliament, but could not help seeing that there were serious difficulties in the way before this could be realised. In his talk on The Politics of the Future: A Lecture for the New Electors of 1867, he argued that working-class leaders should not wait until they were allowed to sit on the sacred benches at Westminster, but that they should go out and convert the constituencies first, so that they might then convert the House.

 

Dale suggested that they should send leaders up and down the country, from Berwick to Plymouth, to the lecture rooms and public halls of every town in the country, forming political institutes in every borough for promoting lectures and public meetings to diffuse knowledge of liberal principles in relation to all national affairs, and to maintain the union and intensify the earnestness of all sections of the liberal party… He proposed that these institutes should be based on the branches of the Reform League, including the one in Birmingham, with a local emphasis on making the great towns more tolerable places to live in. He failed to see why the filth in which some wretched people are satisfied to exist and which originates many forms of disease from which their neighbours suffer as well as themselves, should not be more resolutely punished, and indeed rendered almost impossible; why the provisions which secure free air and cleanliness in some factories and workshops should not be extended to trades which are as yet altogether uncontrolled; why there should not be several open spaces reserved in every great town for children to play in; why new districts lying outside the boundaries… should not be compelled to keep their streets cleaner and get better drainage… it will be the fault of the new electors if they do not insist on such improvements as these, he claimed.

Using the example of Birmingham itself, he pointed out that there was no frowning castle overlooking and threatening the town, the stronghold of a feudal baron and filled with armed men, permitted by their lord to rob and ill-treat men at their pleasure. But it was not those who occupied the highest positions in society, but those occupying the lowest, from whose tyranny emancipation was needed. What Birmingham had was worse than this, a vast gaol… far more costly to support than were any of the strongholds of the robber chiefs that once dwelt in the castles on the Rhine. Dale asserted that newly enfranchised urban working classes had a great practical concern in making the criminal classes disappear, and also in alleviating the one million persons receiving relief, including both permanent paupers and a vast mass of people who are on the parish on and off again every few months, but who when they go off are sure to leave successors. There were, he observed, both hereditary criminals and hereditary paupers, and it was the new voters who would feel very keenly the pressure on the community to support the armies of the homeless and unfed, leading them to think of corporatist means of diminishing the problem of pauperism.

However, in 1874 Joseph Chamberlain was complaining, in a letter to Henry Allon, a Congregational minister in London and the Editor of The Quarterly Review (see above), that many of the urban Dissenters appeared no longer willing or able to combine cordially with the working classes, without whose active assistance further advances in the direction of Religious Equality were impossible. Both in the case of the agricultural labourers and with regard to the demands of the Trades Unions for the repeal of what he called class legislation of the worst kind, the Dissenters had largely held themselves aloof and their national Press, The Daily News, for instance, had been unsympathetic and even hostile. Unless this attitude changed, the Artisan voter would take little interest in Nonconformist causes such as Disestablishment, seeing the whole issue as a mere squabble between Church and Chapel. Nevertheless, Chamberlain noted that Liberalism had come out well in the recent election in the Midlands, where the Party gained a seat, and in the Northern Counties. In both cases this was due to the direct appeal of local leaders to the working class voters, the Dissenters aiding very largely with their purses and influence, and cordially recognising the justice of the labourers’ claims. Birmingham had a really Liberal Press at this time, in the Daily Post and Morning News. Thus, the moral force of local Nonconformity provided the basis for the Chamberlains’ municipal socialism, alongside the more top-down Anglican and Anglo-Catholic cause of The Christian Social Movement, which was also becoming strong in the city, supported by John Henry Newman and others.

 

013In the 1880s and 1890s the consolidation of the unions coincided with a national financial and industrial crisis. The new unionism of these decades made it the target of ruling class fury. The economic problems of the unskilled and semi-skilled trade unionists were very different from those of skilled workers, and their industrial methods and tactics were therefore different. While the old New Model Unions of the 1850s were able to rely on the skill of their members as a crucial bargaining weapon, the new unions were at all times, even in years of good trade, subject to the pressures of an overstocked labour market. In such circumstances, where much of the work could be performed by agricultural labourers drafted in, it was much more difficult to make a strike solid or to achieve stable unions. Outside the highly skilled trades, to win even the semblance of a closed shop, militant tactics were demanded which the older trade unionists had pioneered decades before but which, by the end of the 1880s, they believed they no longer needed. The employers were more uncompromising than their fellows in industries where unionism had been long-established; and their first, and for men of property not unnatural, reaction, was to smash these new upstart organisations rather than attempt to meet them on common ground.

It has been argued that, despite the obvious suffering of many farmers and agricultural workers, the so-called Great Depression at the end of the century was a myth. After all, it is argued, investment levels in industry were maintained, while the volume of British trade and output rose, as did the tonnage of British shipping, right up to 1914. Yet by the end of the century a Royal Commission had been convened to investigate The Depression in Trade and Industry. In fact, the profits being made were not consistent with the levels to which investors had been accustomed from the period when Britain was the workshop of the world. Foreign competition was catching up and proving more adaptable to new techniques while Britain still relied on its staple industries and tried technology. It is also important to recognise that some contemporaries, not just those in agriculture, were convinced that they were caught in a massive depression.

Certainly, the most strident complaints came from those landed interests in a position to influence and command attention, but the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture of 1897 did not entirely support these.   Regional differences were emphasised in this report, with the eastern and southern counties, where there was a greater proportion of land given over to arable farming, experiencing a more severe depression than the pastoral counties. Even in the latter, however, there was notable depreciation of livestock values and the fall in the price of wool diminished profits and rents between 1886 and 1893. In districts suitable for dairying, market gardening and poultry rearing, and in the neighbourhoods of mines, quarries and large manufacturing centres, where there was a considerable demand for farm produce, there had been relatively less depression. Nevertheless, there had been a significant contraction of land under the plough in all parts of the country. There is little doubt, however, that foreign grain and meat did alter traditional agricultural patterns in Britain, heralding the shrinkage of arable estates and the agricultural workforce, one more dimension of the transformation of rural society in the nineteenth century. The Victorian opponents of radical constitutional reform who felt that, our stability is but balance, and wisdom lies in masterful administration of the unforeseen, sensed the metamorphosis experienced in the nineteenth century as one which had happened without violent revolution, but not without pain. The reaction to the apparent lack of progress in prices, profits and wages helped to revive the protectionist lobby, with ramifications for twentieth-century economic and social policy.

Free Trade had served Britain well as long as prosperity and, therefore, the scope of the individual entrepreneur grew. However, as foreign competition began to match, and even overhaul, British industry in the final decades of the century the philosophy came under attack from a growing lobby for protectionism, led by Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal MP for Birmingham. In the atmosphere of the New Imperialism he advocated an imperial association in which free trade could carry on, but protected by tariffs against European imperialist rivals. His views were popular not just with some Liberals and Conservatives (he later crossed the floor of the House of Commons and joined the Conservatives) but also with trades unionists and socialists like W H Andrews, who later emigrated to South Africa:

Chamberlain had turned his coat and was riding on the rising tide of Imperialist enthusiasm. The people of Birmingham were as clay in his hands. On one occasion Andrews stood in the tense, close-packed mass which invariably filled the City Hall for the Empire-builder’s meetings. Chamberlain walked stiffly on to the platform and was given a tremendous ovation lasting five minutes. He stood motionless, staring straight before him, with no sign of emotion on his sharp, tight-drawn face. It would have been a brave man to utter a whisper of opposition in such a crowd under his influence. (R K Pope, The Life and Times of W H Andrews, Workers’ Leader, n.d.)

010In September 1882, Engels wrote a reply to Kautsky’s question as to what the English workers think about colonial policy. In it he pointed out that since there was no workers’ party in England, but only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, the workers therefore happily shared in the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies. However, Pete Curran, of the Independent Labour Party, gave a very different view to the 1900 Conference of the Second International:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests… But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words… And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

Thus, by the end of the century, the free trade versus imperial protection controversy stood unresolved, both in the Liberal Party and more widely among labour leaders, whether Lib-Lab, ILP or SDF. Ties to the Empire were very real, not simply because of Britain’s export of coal and iron goods, but also because of the huge surplus in the rural population of South Midlands and Southern England, as compared with the North and West Midlands of England, and Wales, where such surpluses could be absorbed by the growth of urban and semi-urban communities. This almost umbilical relationship was to shift dramatically after the First World War, but for now the supply of people to the Dominions was as important as the supply of goods.

It was a wretched situation in the south Midlands and East Anglia for all those involved in agriculture, especially those in arable farming, and continued right into the Edwardian years. Ryder Haggard recorded how, in 1901-2,

… the rural labourer has never been more discontented than he is at present. That, in his own degree, he is doing the best of the three great classes connected with the land does not appease him in the least. The diffusion of newspapers, the system of Board School education, and the restless spirit of our age have changed him, so that now-a-days it is his main ambition to escape from the soil where he was bred and try his fortune in the cities… for there are high wages, company and amusement, with shorter hours of work. Moreover, on the land he has no prospects… a labourer he is, and in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred a labourer he must remain. Lastly, in many instances, his cottage accommodation is very bad; indeed I have found wretched and insufficient dwellings to be a great factor in the hastening of the rural exodus; and he forgets that in the town it will probably be worse. So he goes… The fact is, of course, that the youth of this county (Norfolk), as of other districts, does not wish to learn to plough, even when bribed to do so with prizes, and that here, before long, ploughmen or any skilled labourers, will, to all appearances, be scarce indeed.

 

He felt bitter when he saw good workmen ending their days in the workhouse, worshipping in the same church, but finding little meaning in the words of the parson:

God? They know more of the devil and all his works; ill-paid labour, poverty, pain and the infinite, unrecorded tragedies of humble lives. God? They have never found Him. He must live beyond the workhouse wall, out there, in the graveyard… where very shortly…

 

Despite Ryder Haggard’s understandable bitterness, there were clergy in some of the better-off towns who cared about the lives and fates of less fortunate fellows, and tried to do something practical for them. One of the more remarkable of these was Rev Wickham Tozier, Minister of St Nicholas Congregational Church in Ipswich. He decided, in 1884, that there must be a better way of helping the deserving poor than doling out daily portions of bread and soup. He founded the Ipswich Labour Bureau, installed a telephone to communicate with local firms and provided clean clothes so that prospective employees could make themselves presentable for interviews. He advertised in the local press, and hundreds of men registered at the bureau. Many of them were found jobs, some as far away as Scotland. For his labours, Tozier was misunderstood, even abused, but he persevered with his work and urged other towns and cities to start similar schemes. Yet it was not until 1909 that the government brought in the Labour Exchange Act, leading to the setting up of the local employment offices, which became so vital a part of the industrial scene after the First World War.

018Similarly, not every nineteenth century employer of labour was a natural-born despot. Companies such as Colman’s of Norwich, of mustard fortune, operated a more benevolent form of capitalism, introducing education and insurance schemes ahead of state compulsion. In 1857, thirteen years before the first real Education Act, when countless children were still toiling ten or twelve hours a day in mills and collieries, Jeremiah James Colman opened Carrow School for the children of his employees at Stoke and Carrow. The weekly payments for one child were one penny, three halfpence for two and twopence for three from the same family. The first school at Carrow was over a carpenter’s shop, cramming in fifty-three pupils. In an opening statement, Colman told parents: the school helps you to educate your children and to train up a set of men who will go into the world qualified for any duties they may be called upon to discharge. With a workforce of three and a half thousand, Colman’s was in effect the local community and the likelihood was that their duties would be discharged in the manufacture of mustard. It was said that the only way to get a job at Colman’s was to be spoken for by a relative already working there. With Victorian paternalism, Jeremiah James Colman, great-nephew of the founder, philanthropist and MP ruled his family with firm discipline but due regard for their welfare.

019School began each morning with a hymn, a prayer and a Bible reading and although a Colman education included diligent and careful teaching of the scriptures, it also included art and craft subjects beyond the three r’s. Far-sighted in his attitude towards education, Colman was a staunch believer in women being given every opportunity for learning, and from the outset drawing and needlework were included in the basic subjects taught. Precluded by his business and parliamentary interests from taking an active part in running the school, his wife Caroline became the force in the direction and development of the school. The Colmans were also committed to technical education and by 1899 claimed to be the first in Norwich to introduce cookery, gardening, laundry work, beekeeping and ironwork into the curriculum. As the years went by, the school moved, expanded and improved, adding a wide range of technical subjects but never neglecting art and culture.

At the time these photographs were taken, in the early 1900s, Caroline Colman was intensely concerned with the physical well-being of her pupils, urging mothers to ensure that their daughters wore warm dresses with high tops and long sleeves as a caution against measles and other childish ailments. Although the children were obviously carefully groomed for the class photograph, their general condition of well-being contrasts sharply with the ragged appearance and thin faces of many other scenes of this period.

021 (2)However, conditions of work in the heavy industry of the Black Country, the series of towns to the west of Birmingham, together with slave wages, were what determined the workers’ need for independent action. One of the main industries of this region was chain making. By the beginning of the last century, a thousand tons of chains a week, in the form of the largest anchor chain to the smallest dog collars, were being produced in Stourbridge, Dudley, Cradley Heath, Halesowen and Bromsgrove. The heavy chain, as in the picture of one being unloaded from a railway wagon at the quayside, was made by men organised in the Amalgamated Society of Anchorsmiths and Shackle Workers, founded by the pioneering labour leader Tom Stitch. Working in intense heat, sustained from dehydration by draughts of beer, the health of the chain makers suffered severely from the fierce alternation of temperatures as well as from the heavy nature of the industry. One Cradley Heath chain maker, who had burns all over his body, reported as to how,

… the work affects you all over… you gets so cold that you shivers so that you can’t hold your food. The furnaces burn your insides right out of you… it’s easier to catch a flea than a piece of red-hot iron, and the bits of red-hot iron are always flying about. Sometimes a bit gets into your boot and puts you “on the box” for a week…

 

021020Wages at the turn of the century reached to a maximum of fifteen shillings per week for a working day of six hours, six days a week. The lighter chain was made by women and children working in small workshops with five or six women at the anvils or in family groups in sheds in their own backyards (see photo). The women worked with seared and calloused hands while their children crawled around the floor amid the flying sparks. For twelve hours a day a woman would be paid from five to eight shillings a week, working for a parasitic fogger (middleman/ middle woman). The only choice was to accept the low wages or starve.

 

Then Mary MacArthur of the National Federation of Women Workers led five hundred of them out on strike in 1910. The same year, a group of the women aroused the support of the Trades Union Congress, and the sympathy of the nation, when they appeared on the platform, silently holding up one of their chains, while one of them made a brief appeal for help. Less well-known was the work of the women in the Staffordshire brick-field (see photo taken at Stourbridge, above right). They were known as clay dabber chicks, performing the same work as men with the dead-weight, glutinous clay. Working barefooted in small groups, they wheeled clay to the pug mills, molded up to a thousand bricks a day, sweated in the stifling heat of the kiln shops and loaded barges for a wage of between six and ten shillings a week.

To be continued…

The Fires of Perfect Liberty: Labouring Men and Women of England, 1851-1951.   Leave a comment

      

Introduction and Part One: 1851-1901: Change, Decay and Resistance in the Countryside

During the period 1851 to 1941, the pace and style of life in the Midlands and East Anglia changed more rapidly and radically than in any preceding period, including the previous hundred years. Mechanisation came to the farms, piped water to the villages and street lighting and trams to the towns. Radio eventually pierced the isolation of rural areas. Trades Unionists and socialists attacked the centuries-old social structure, weakened as it was by economic decline. Patronage and paternalism were replaced by concepts of equality and the assertion of new rights to education and housing, alongside the continuing demands for a fair week’s pay for a fair week’s work. A generation of men were buried on the western front while many of their children were left to fight for their way of life against unemployment, poverty and despair at home and against fascism and dictatorship on the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

The changes in village life that took place during these years constitute one of the most fundamental developments in the history of the last five centuries, since the end of the Wars of the Roses. The parish of Brandeston near Framlingham was typical of these changes. In 1842, it was a self-contained community with a population of 555 souls. It had a fourteenth century church with Perpendicular additions and a Tudor hall recently bought by Charles Austin, Q.C., and High Steward of Ipswich. There was an ancient inn and a new Congregational chapel. Henry Collins’ mill stood on the edge of the village and is reputed to have had eight sails. It was self-sufficient in services, with its own blacksmith, wheelwright, joiner, butcher, grocer, tailor and builder. Derek Wilson continues:

There were thirteen farmers, and the rest of the community were employed directly or indirectly in agriculture. On the rare occasions when a man needed to leave the village he would walk or go with the carter to Wickham Market where he could pick up the Royal Mail or the Lord Nelson coach to London. A Hundred years later, the population of Brandeston was 312. The third and last generation of Austins had left the Hall, which was on the point of becoming a boys’ school. The Congregational Chapel was closed. There was no trace of the windmill and the mill house was now the post office. There were still eight farms, employing between them only twenty to thirty men. The old stables of the Hall had been converted into flats. Hill House, a substantial Georgian residence, was a saddler’s workshop. The forge was still operating but the nearby wheelwright had long since closed his shop. Some of the houses were empty and many, especially the thatched cottages, were in need of repair. The railway at nearby Hacheston Halt and Parham linked Brandeston with Ipswich and the world, and the Eastern Counties bus came through regularly. Villagers frequently went on shopping expeditions to Framlingham, Wickham Market and the county capital. And who were the villagers? Retired farm workers and servants from the Hall; newcomers in search of rural seclusion; men and women who travelled to the nearby towns for work. Compare the names of Brandestonians in 1842 and 1947 and you will find only a few that are identical.

  

In many ways, the transition began with what became known as The Railway Age, although in the 1850s there were still many parts in the extremities of East Anglia, including Framlingham, into which the steam trains had not yet reached. By 1850 speeds of fifty to sixty kilometres per hour were commonplace on the main railway routes. Moreover, travel by rail was cheaper than by road. Railways cut out the hidden costs of coach travel such as the tips to the coachman and guard and the expensive meals at the coaching inns along the road. By 1850 the long-distance coaches had disappeared and people were travelling far more than they had ever done before. The Times commented:

 

Thirty years ago not one countryman in one hundred had seen the metropolis. There is now scarcely one in the same number who has not spent the day there.

 

The railways brought change in numerous ways. They speeded up the distribution of mail and in the 1850s newspaper expresses were leaving Euston and Paddington. The need to keep to railway timetables caused Greenwich Time to be adopted throughout the country. The engineering works often provided pleasing new features on the landscape, such as bridges and viaducts. Cities were also transformed, not always for the better, by the approach lines, stations and marshalling yards. In addition, the railways encouraged the expansion of industry. Goods traffic moved more quickly and could grow at a rate which would not have been possible had it still been confined to canals and navigable waterways. The railways gave particular impetus to the development of the iron, steel and coal industries. In the 1850s, over a million tonnes of coal a year were being consumed by the steam engines and more miners were needed in the coalfield areas and towns. Here again, the railways helped in making it easier for agricultural workers to move to these areas in search of higher wages.

Quite apart from all these effects, the railways themselves were a major industry. In the 1850s, apart from the navvies, sixty thousand people were employed in running the railways. As well as engine drivers, they included clerks, porters and carriage builders. Some of them lived in new railway towns, like Crewe, housing the carriage and locomotive works required by the railway companies. Others lived in older towns, like York, which were rejuvenated by becoming important junctions. Unlike any other industry, the railways employed people throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain. Wherever a railway station was opened, station staff were needed and a station master was required to supervise them. Moreover, as other countries began to industrialise, they needed the machinery, rails and locomotives which only Britain was able to supply in the middle of the century. By 1851 Britain’s output of iron had already risen to two and a half million tonnes, ten times the amount produced in 1801.

004014In the second half of the century, steel production took over and increased forty times to nearly five million tonnes in 1900. Not all of the iron was used to construct machinery or to build railways. Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, was made of iron and glass. Iron was used increasingly in all kinds of buildings, including houses. It was used for gas pipes, fireplaces, doorstops and kitchen ranges, as well as for iron railings outside. However, in 1856 a swifter and cheaper method of producing steel was devised by Henry Bessemer, and by 1890 steel had replaced iron in railways, bridges and shipping. By 1900, however, Germany had overtaken Great Britain in steel production, and was catching up in pig-iron and coal production.

Nonetheless, Britain’s output continued to increase in every industry, including the expansion of the railways, despite having industrialised far earlier than all the other European countries (see statistical tables, right).

By 1870 there were over thirteen thousand miles of railway track in England and Wales, four and a half thousand of which had been laid by 1848. Yet the accurate assessment of the difference made by the railways to society in terms of facilitating provision of goods, means of personal travel and the development of holidays is difficult to conclude and necessitates more detailed, specific, local studies. In Suffolk, the Eastern Counties Railway Company took over its rival, the Eastern Union, and other branch lines were laid by small local companies bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age, and these were eventually also gobbled up by the ECRC, which was reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

Returning to the condition of agriculture, it soon became evident that the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 did not produce the market chaos predicted by many wealthy landowners. Instead, agriculture continued into a period of prosperity, known as High Farming, successfully feeding industrial society. The industrial advances of the mid-Victorian period also eliminated the risks of repeats of the serious social discontent of the 1830s and 1840s. Although labour may have been hard, and wages low, the seasonal rhythm of the land was maintained. Where modern technology could increase yield or cut overheads without involving prohibitive capital expenditure, farmers hurried to use it.

This was when the agricultural contractor came into his own. He hired to the farmers the large machines and the operators and engineers they could not afford to buy for themselves. Most important of these was the steam threshing outfit. It could do in a few days the work which had previously been one of the jobs which kept farm staff busy throughout the winter. Steam threshing was a busy, noisy, back-breaking time, becoming as much a highlight of the farming year as harvest itself. The thresher’s hoppers filled sacks with chaff and with graded grain. A full sack of oats weighed twelve stone, one of barley sixteen stone and a sack of wheat was eighteen stone, and each one had to be stacked or carted as soon as it was full.

001The novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was brought up in Dorset, and his novels were largely based on his knowledge of a rural society, in many ways simpler than the main stream of Victorian life recorded by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, far more like that of Flora Thompson. Like all of them, however, Hardy powerfully communicates the experience of social change, especially in the following passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), in which he describes the impact of the advent, at some point in the 1860s, of the steam-powered threshing machine at Flintcomb-Ash Farm, and on his heroine, the victim-of-circumstances farm-labourer, Tess Durbeyfield. She arrives at the farm, with her fellow labourer, at dawn on a March morning, for the threshing of the last wheat-rick:

When Izz Huett and Tess arrived at the scene of operations only a rustling denoted that others had preceded them: to which, as the light increased, there were presently added the silhouettes of two men on the summit. They were busily ’unhaling’ the rick, that is, stripping off the thatch before beginning to throw down the sheaves; and while this was in progress Izz and Tess, together with the other women-workers, in their whitey-brown pinners, stood waiting and shivering, Farmer Groby having insisted on their being on the spot thus early to get the job over if possible by the end of the day. Close under the eaves of the stack, and yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.

 

A little way off there was another indistinct figure; this one black, with a sustained hiss that spoke of strength very much in reserve. The long chimney running up beside an ash-tree, and the warmth which radiated from the spot, explained without the necessity of much daylight that here was the engine which was to act as ’primum mobile’ of this little world. By the engine stood a dark motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine-man… He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke… He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent; his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself, his eye on his iron charge, hardly perceiving the scenes around him, and caring for them not at all: holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives… The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.

 001

While they uncovered the sheaves he stood apathetic beside his portable repository of force, round whose hot blackness the morning air quivered. He had nothing to do with preparatory labour. His fire was waiting incandescent, his steam was at high pressure, in a few seconds he could make the long strap move at an invisible velocity. Beyond its extent the environment might be corn, straw, or chaos; it was all the same to him.

 

The rick was unhaled by full daylight; the men then took their places, the women mounted, and the work began. Farmer Groby… had arrived ere this, and by his orders Tess was placed upon the platform of the machine, close to the man who fed it, her business being to untie every sheaf of corn handed on to her by Izz Huett, who stood next, but on the rick; so that the feeder could seize it over the revolving drum, which whisked out every grain in one moment.

 

They were soon in full progress, after a preparatory hitch or two, which rejoiced the hearts of those who hated machinery. The work sped on till breakfast time, when the thresher was stopped for half an hour; and on starting again the whole supplementary strength of the farm was thrown into the labour of constructing the straw-rick, which began to grow beside the stack of corn. A hasty lunch was eaten… without leaving their positions… the perspiring ones at the machine, including Tess, could not lighten their duties by the exchange of many words. It was the ceaselessness of the work which tried her so severely… there was no respite; for as the drum never stopped, the man who fed it could not stop, and she, who had to supply the man with untied sheaves, could not stop either… it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particularly duty, and Groby gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power, and this may have been true. The hum of the thresher, which prevented speech, increased to a raving whenever the supply of corn fell short of the regular quantity…

 

Dinner-time came, and the whirling ceased; whereupon Tess left her post, her knees trembling so wretchedly with the shaking of the machine that she could scarcely walk… In the afternoon the farmer made it known that the rick was to be finished at night, since there was a moon by which they could see to work, and the man with the engine was engaged for another farm on the morrow. Hence the twanging and humming and rustling proceeded with even less intermission than usual…

 

027Thus the afternoon dragged on. The wheat-rick sank lower, and the straw-rick grew higher, and the corn-sacks were carted away. At six o’clock the wheat-rick was about shoulder-high from the ground… From the west sky a wrathful shine – all that wild March could afford in the way of sunset – had burst forth after the cloudy day, flooding the tired and sticky faces of the threshers, and dyeing them with a coppery light, as also the flapping garments of the women, which clung to them like dull flames… The man who fed was weary, and Tess could see that the red nape of his neck was encrusted with dirt and husks. She still stood at her post, her flushed and perspiring face coated with the corn-dust, and her white bonnet embrowned by it. She was the only woman whose place was upon the machine so as to be shaken bodily by its spinning… The incessant quivering, in which every fibre of her frame participated, had thrown her into a stupefied reverie, in which her arms worked ion independently of her consciousness… Whenever Tess lifted her head she beheld always the great upgrown straw-stack, with the men in shirt-sleeves upon it, against the gray north sky; in front of it the long red elevator like a Jacob’s ladder, on which a perpetual stream of threshed straw ascended, a yellow river running up-hill, and spouting out on the top of the rick.

 

However, steam machinery was much too heavy for most of the everyday jobs around the farm and the horse continued to provide most of the motive power. Harvest time also remained a very labour-intensive period and, although mechanical reapers began to appear, few farmers or their labourers thought that they would replace the traditional methods anytime soon. In her book, Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson describes in considerable detail Oxfordshire village life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here she writes of harvest time:

002I026n the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked on by the men as an auxiliary, a farmer’s toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and the women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.

 

With no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called King of the Mowers… With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes as they mowed and decreed when and for how long they should halt for a ’breather’, and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or for long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in the day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ’Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest field astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.

 

There were also various horse-drawn machines such as drills, hoes, reapers and binders, which cut running costs. In Suffolk, Ransomes and Garretts of Leiston were still leaders among the firms producing agricultural equipment. They kept up with the times by supplying traction engines and steam lorries during this period. However, when Ryder Haggard went to buy a reaper in Bungay, he found he could only get one of American make. Nonetheless, Ransomes did lead the way in adapting the internal-combustion engine to mowing, and in 1902 they patented the first ever ride-on mower.

HenryTidmarsh&FamilyWorking on a threshing machine was not just extremely hard work, but also dangerous, especially because many of the early machines were unguarded. My Great Aunt Jessie Gulliver was born in 1901, just ten years after Tess of the D’Urbervilles was published, but her family stories went back to her grandfather and grandmother on her mother’s side of the family, the Tidmarshes. Her grandfather Tidmarsh and grandmother (neé Webb) were born in about 1840. They lived in the village of Great Rollright, in modern-day Oxfordshire, then part of Banburyshire. Henry Tidmarsh was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright. When still a young man, some time in the late 1850s or early 1860s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the belts, he slipped and fell into it, presumably trapping his arm on the drum. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When the village doctor got news of the emergency, he went after Henry with a horse and cart, saving his life. However, neither he nor the hospital could save Henry’s arm. As Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, his employer, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton, where he would go round the village with pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice!

006GeorgeGulliverBertha Tidmarsh met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains also owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver (right), born in Ufton in 1862, was a groom and coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses. His father, Vinson, born in Hethe in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire, in 1855. They had five children, the third of whom was George, followed by Henry, who was also born in Ufton in 1865. It was therefore this Vinson Gulliver who, according to family folklore, marched Joseph Arch, through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford in the late 1860s, possibly with his relative Charles Gulliver, who was another Wesleyan preacher. It was his son, Henry, George’s brother, who took over as secretary. This story has been confirmed by the discovery of a letter from Vinson Gulliver (b. 1888), to his brother Alfred in 1979:

He was a Primitive Methodist preacher. He knew Joe (Joseph) Arch and was a secretary of the Agricultural Union, and later his son Henry took it over until he was the only paying member, although by what grandfather said, he acted in that service until he left the district.

 

Joseph Arch was the son of a Warwickshire shepherd. They formed the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union, leading to the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872, the first trade union for unskilled workers, which eventually became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Despite internal division, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong in 1875, organised in thirty-eight districts.

At that time, agricultural workers’ wages were just a little better than subsistence level, amounting to no more than twelve pounds a year for ordinary labourers, rising to twenty pounds for a good head waggoner. For this, he would often work alone in the fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of life beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and the village pub and church. He and his family could be evicted with little justification or notice. Joseph Arch and the Union tried to put a stop to this by organising mass marches and meetings. These meetings, attended by thousands of farm workers in borrowed fields, often in pouring rain, ran the risk of incurring the wrath of both squire and parson. God bless the squire and all his relations and keep us in our proper stations was how prayers ended in many rural parish churches at that time, where life was ordained by the unholy trinity of tyranny composed of Squire, Parson and Farmer. Joseph Arch described his first glimpse of a communion service; First up walked the squire to the communion rails, then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, the blacksmith and then, very last of all, the agricultural labourers. Opposition to the Union from farmers and landed gentry was fierce and the labourers, scattered in isolated villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of this hostile squirarchy. The children of Wesleyan supporters could also lose their places in the village schools, which, at that time, were all controlled by the Church of England and watched over by the parish priest or rector. Despite the threat of losing their homes as well as their livelihoods, open-air meetings often ended with rousing renditions of When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, the chorus of which was:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

The view of the Nonconformist British Quarterly Review of July 1872 on The Agricultural Labourers’ Strike was that whilst a trade union was by no means the best way of remedying the social inequalities and injustices of the time, it was the only means available:

… It has been doubted, and perhaps with some justice, whether in England, at least, these associations have had the effect of raising wages. It is contended, and with great appearance of truth, that workmen have been in the various mechanical trades so much in demand, that the principle of competition for the employment of labour has had full play, and that the rise of wages among artisans and factory operatives is to be ascribed to natural, and not to artificial causes. But it cannot be doubted that workmen’s associations have shortened hours of labour, have educated artisans – as they will the agricultural labourer – into the sense of common interest and a common duty, and have made the interests of the working classes so notable a matter of public interest, that political parties are fain to attempt association with them, and to legislate for them.

 

The article went on to argue the low wages of agricultural labourers were largely the result of the Poor Law, because the habit of giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied but destitute poor had grown into a practice which was reproducing some of the features of the old Speenhamland System. In those cases where a rural district was added to a thriving town, the temptation on the part of the farmer-guardians to give this form of outdoor relief in aid of wages was almost irresistable, since by doing so, they were able to reduce labour costs and maximise profits at the expense of the ratepayers. While wages remained so low, there was also little prospect of labourers joining provident societies and saving for their own maintenance in sickness and old age. The authors argued that,

 

 With greater comfort and contentment come more independence, more enterprise, and a higher standard of decency, morality and religion. It is an error to imagine that independence makes men unmanageable or unreasonable. Few men take more intelligent estimate of their position than English artisans do. When they do unite for co-operative purposes they show no symptom of insubordination or disobedience to the necessary orders of their managers or directors… there is no reason to think that the English agricultural labourer can sink to any lower level than that which he occupies now… it is no wonder that the religious sense of the peasantry is obtuse; the marvel is that it should exist at all, and be capable of being stirred by the homely but earnest eloquence of the Methodist preacher, , the apostle of the agricultural labourer. In the last session of Parliament, Sir Roundell Palmer, taking up the defence of the Anglican Establishment,… invited the attention of the House to the benificient functions which are performed by the country clergy. If, indeed, they are to be responsible for the condition in which their flocks are found, no severer censure of their efforts can be uttered… it is not too much to say that nine-tenths of the religion which the agricultural labourer believes is gained in spite of the clergy, and by agencies which they name only to scorn or ridicule.

 

To some labouring men, the young trade union movement seemed to hold out some hope, as workers from all over East Anglia combined into groups, instinctively believing, as their fathers had done half a century before, that solidarity meant strength. Just as instinctively, however, farmers felt that solidarity meant trouble. They dismissed, or threatened to dismiss, any men who carried a union card. The farmers usually won but, in 1874, a sufficient number of labourers stood firm enough to enable an effective strike to be mounted. The demand was for fourteen shillings a week. There were violent scenes in many places, and in Brandon troops were called in to confront a crowd armed with sticks and bearing a banner proclaiming Bread or Blood in Brandon this day. The demonstrators won on this occasion, with the magistrates agreeing to provide cheaper bread and flour, and the triumphant cry of revolt was taken up elsewhere. From Halesworth to Ely the countryside was up, with rioters breaking into shops and barns and threatening farmers and magistrates. It took several days for law and order to be restored. As at the time of Captain Swing, such violence expressed everything but solved nothing. There was no solution: the workers, the farmers and the government were all powerless. As one farmer complained in a letter to The Times,

We have to pay more for labour, manures and feeding stuffs. Yet we are selling the best wheat England ever produced at 25s. Per quarter, wool has reached the lowest price ever recorded and, notwithstanding the poor root crop, beef hardly averages 6d. Per lb. But there is another feature of the farming outlook which is very sad to contemplate, and that is the decreasing influence agriculture has upon Parliament.

 

We also know that there was considerable overseas emigration from the Warwickshire countryside and other areas where NALU had grown strong, in the 1870s and 1880s, sponsored by the union. Questioned by the Royal Commission on Agriculture in 1881 about how the union set about achieving higher wages for its members, Arch replied that they had reduced the number of labourers in the market very considerably by helping seven hundred thousand men, women and children during the nine years of the union’s existence. Asked where the funds had come from for the emigration of such numbers, Arch replied that he himself had travelled to Canada and made arrangements with the Canadian Government for them to give the migrants a certain amount, which the union then matched with trade union funds. In fact, the growth of the union had come about at a time when farm labourers’ wages were rising, and the rural revolt led by Arch stemmed more from the raising of expectations which accompanied these rises, however marginal. Even so, the harvester who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could still, in the 1890s, find himself standing in front of the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. Against this continuing absolute social control, it took a special kind of courage to stand with a few labouring brothers and sing:

 

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

 

However, by the last quarter of the century, fundamental changes in the shape and character of agriculture in England had also become fully evident: fewer worked on the land and the golden age of profits had vanished in the face of imported meat and wheat, especially from the American prairies. This hit the South Midland and East Anglian cereal farmers and their labourers far worse than those producing mainly meat and dairy products for the West Midland and Northern industrial towns. Most of these men and women who remaining on the land were trapped there by a combination of the rigid class structure and rural poverty, as this 1898 extract from Henry Ryder Haggard shows:

Notwithstanding the care, knowledge, and intelligence which are put into the working of the land, under present conditions it can scarcely be made to pay. The machinery works, the mill goes round; the labourers, those who are left of them, earn their wage such as it is, and the beast his provender; the good man rises early and rests late, taking thought for the day and the morrow, but when at Michaelmas he balances his books there is no return, and lo! The bailiff is glaring through the gates… in our parts the ancient industry of agriculture is nearly moribund, and if the land, or the poorer and therefore the more considerable portion of it, is farmed fairly, it is in many instances being worked at a loss, or at any rate without profit… The small men only too often keep up the game till beggary overtakes them, when they adjourn to the workhouse… The larger farmers… at last take refuge in a cottage or, if they are fortunate, find a position as a steward on some estate. The landlords… unless they have private means to draw on… sink and sink until they vanish beneath the surface of the great sea of English society.

 

This passage may seem, in parts, rather exaggerated in both the claims it makes and the style it is written in, but Ryder Haggard could claim to know what he was writing about, since he farmed a considerable amount of land on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The decline he described had begun in about 1875. By a combination of industry and improved techniques, farmers had survived the ending of protection and the had prospered during the middle years of the century. Then the full impact of free trade was felt. Grain from the American prairies was carried to New England ports in new steam trains, exported in new steam ships and sold on the English market at prices lower than home produced corn. In 1877 wheat was 56s. 9d. A quarter. By 1894 the price had slumped to 22s. 10d., a figure at which it could not be grown in England at a profit. By the end of the century the amount of land under cereals in Suffolk had been cut by half, with those farmers who could diversify rearing stock as well. However, this market area was not free from competition either, since refrigerated container-ships were bringing cheap lamb and beef from New Zealand and Argentina. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the landed interest had dominated Parliament and had forced the Corn Laws through but the balance of political power had now shifted; the middle classes and property-owning town dwellers benefited from cheap, imported foodstuffs, so that free trade had come to stay.

The depression which fell upon the agrarian communities of East Anglia was the worst that it had ever experienced. Land values and rents tumbled. Thousands of labourers were thrown out of work and left their ancestral homes. Ditches and hedges were unkempt, fields unploughed; houses, cottages and barns unrepaired. Men who had once owned their own farms were now living on the parish dole, a pound of flour and threepunce a day. Alongside them, the army of impoverished farm-workers who had once worked for them, grew daily, a powerless host who had little idea as to how to relieve their misery.

… to be continued…

What May Day may mean to the many…   11 comments

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Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)

 

In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.

Walter Crane, 1886
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:

A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.

He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:

Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,

Together pull, strong and united:

Link your hand like a chain the world round,

If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,

Shall build, in the new coming years,

A fair house of life – not for others,

For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

May Day 2008 024
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)

Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes.  In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree.  Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.

While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…

All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.

Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England.  He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.

However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’  once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’  A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the  most powerful telescope in the world.

However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:

Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers

 That your little ones shall see

Brighter Days – O men and brothers –

When Life and Labour ye set free!

Sound upon the pipe and tabor!

Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!

Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!

Come a-maying, toilers, come!

However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of  ‘class war’:

March they not in shining warfare,

No sword they bear, or flashing blade;

But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,

But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.

‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’

This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations.  Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.

The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.

When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.

The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

 NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap  from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.

The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.

No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.

Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent  madrigal  ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:

 

Remember us poor Mayers all!

And thus do we begin – a

To lead our lives in righteousness

Or else we die in sin – a.

Beyond their Graves – The Lives and Times of the Gullivers: Part 2 (Chapter 2)   2 comments

Chapter Two:

The Warwickshire Gullivers in Pen-Portraits

Much of wh001at follows in the remaining chapters is from the recordings which my Great Aunt Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver) made for me, together with a Journal she wrote, with some help from her American niece, Julie, in the early 1990s, when she was also over ninety years old. Added to these, I have used the recollections of my mother, recorded for a local history project in the village on the edge of Coventry, Walsgrave-on-Sowe, where she grew up and lived before her marriage in 1953. This also contained a piece originally written for the local Baptist Church by my grandmother (Vera Gulliver, née Brown).

In addition, I have ‘mined’ my own notes and recollections from interviews with with my grandfather, Seymour Gulliver, during my sojourns with him as a research student in the early 1980s. I have also recently acquired some further information from Julie, helping to clarify some family matters, together with some photos, included with the text. In putting all this together, I have tried to maintain a colloquial style, close to that in which the stories were originally given, applying the skills of oral history which I learnt as a apprentice historian, learning his craft. One of the things I have learnt is that, in researching our own family histories, we can become too obsessed with establishing facts from written traces of our ancestors through genealogy. As the previous chapter showed, these are often missing, or can be contradictory in the information they provide. This is where, for me at least, understanding the historical context is essential to interpreting the chronicles and retelling the stories of past people, weaving both into a more mature narrative. This is what I have attempted to do here, remaining authentic to both the people and their times, rather than telescoping their experiences into my present perspective, with all its prejudices. These are their stories, as they told them (direct quotations are given in itallics).

HenryTidmarsh&FamilyJessie’s story starts with her mother, Bertha Tidmarsh (b. Great Rollright, Oxon.), my great-grandmother, married George Gulliver (b. Ufton, Warwicks.1862) in October 1887, when she was about eighteen. She had been in service from the age of twelve, beginning as a kitchen maid, washing up in a great Hall nearby. When she had finished, she would sit in the great big kitchen with just a candle, all by herself, feeling quite frightened, and the kitchen maids would bring her a glass of beer and a piece of bread and cheese for supper. Then she would walk home alone in the dark, feeling terrified.  When her mother’s sister came to Great Rollright, she asked where Bertha was, and her mother told her that she was over at the Hall, washing-up. So her aunt went to get her back because there was a flood, and the water was nearly up to Bertha’s knees on the way home. After that, her aunt got her a little job in service at Chipping Norton, from where she could come home on her time off. Her father, Henry Tidmarsh was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright. When still a young man, in the 1840s-50s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the machine, he slipped and fell. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When he got news of the emergency, the village doctor went after him with a horse and cart, saving his life. Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently-established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, whom he was working for, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton, where he would go round the village with pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice

English: St.Michael's Church, Ufton, Warwickshire
English: St.Michael’s Church, Ufton, Warwickshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bertha met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains also owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver, born in Ufton in 1862, was a groom and coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses. His father, Vinson, born in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire, in 1855. It was Vinson Gulliver who, according to family folklore, marched with his relative Charles Gulliver and another Wesleyan preacher, Joseph Arch, through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford in the late 1860s. Arch was the son of a Warwickshire shepherd. They formed the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union, leading to the founding of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union (NALU) in 1872, the first trade union for unskilled workers, which eventually became part of the Tansport and General Workers’ Union. Despite internal division, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong in 1875, organised in thirty-eight districts.

Joseph Arch
Joseph Arch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At that time, agricultural workers’ wages were just a little better than subsistence level, amounting to no more than twelve ponds a year for ordinary labourers, rising to twenty pounds for a good head waggoner. For this, he would often work alone in the fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of life beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and the village pub and church. He and his family could be evicted with little justification or notice. Joseph Arch and the Union tried to put a stop to this by organising mass marches and meetings. These meetings, attended by thousands of farm workers in borrowed fields, often in pouring rain, ran the risk of incurring the wrath of both squire and parson. God bless the squire and all his relations and keep us in our proper stations was how prayers ended in many rural parish churches at that time, where life was ordained by the unholy trinity of tyranny composed of Squire, Parson and Farmer. Joseph Arch described his first glimpse of a communion service; First up walked the squire to the communion rails, then up went the tradesmen, the shopkeepers, the wheelwright, the blacksmith and then, very last of all, the agricultural labourers. Opposition to the Union from farmers and landed gentry was fierce and the labourers, scattered in isolated villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of this hostile squirarchy. The children of Wesleyan supporters could also lose their places in the village schools, which, at that time, were all controlled by the Church of England and watched over by the parish priest or rector. Despite the threat of losing their homes as well as their livelihoods, open-air meetings often ended with rousing renditions of When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree, the chorus of which was:

English: Barford - The Joseph Arch. One of the...
English: Barford – The Joseph Arch. One of the surviving pubs in Barford, named after one of the villages most famous inhabitants who first organised and unionised the agricultural workers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

These social tensions in the mid-Victorian Warwickshire countryside may help to explain the disappearance of some names, in parishes like Noke, from the parish records, and their later reappearance in household census returns. Some of the Gullivers obviously moved to other parishes, and into Banbury and other towns, but the majority must have stayed put. Wages may have been a little better in the towns, but living and working conditions were generally worse, so that it was not until the beginning of the next century that people were drawn in any significant numbers into cities like Coventry, Oxford and Birmingham from the surrounding countryside. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that Coventry became a city of many trades, with the decline of the traditional craft industries of ribbon weaving and watchmaking, and the birth of the cycle trade in the 1990s, to be followed gradually by motor-cycle and car manufacture, and the establishment of Courtauld’s works in 1905. In the 1860s, the collapse of the old staple industry trade of silk weaving, developed during the sixteenth century by the arrival of Huguenot families, caused many Coventrians to seek employment elsewhere. Many of these were women, since silk-ribbon weaving employed twice as many females as males in 1861. The population decreased from nearly fifty thousand to well under forty thosand between 1861 and 1871, and grew only slowly to reach fifty-three thousand in 1891. The census enumerator’s schedules for 1861 show that that nearly eighty per cent of household heads were born in and around Coventry, eighty-five per cent of those living in the medieval centre of the city. There was a slight increase in demand for watchmakers by 1871, but this employed less than ten per cent of the local working population. There was, as yet, no great demand for unskilled labourers from outlying rural areas like Ufton. The growth of the new cycle industry attracted new types of workers rather than displaced male weavers (who had a workshop rather than factory discipline), but these were mainly semi-skilled metal-workers from Birmingham and other west Midland towns.

The sudden absence of the Gullivers from the Noke parish records might well be explained, in part at least, by the fact that they were no longer having their children baptised in church, and were no longer marrying there and/or being buried there. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, both Methodists and Baptist causes flourished in many south Midland villages and chapels were being built. Dissenting families would only attend church irregularly in order to have their children placed on the school roll. Consequently, before the establishment of a general registration system from 1837, the records of births, marriages and deaths often excluded nonconformists.

However, we do have complete records for the Gullivers from the marriage of Vinson Gulliver and Hannah Green in Wormleighton in 1855. Vinson was from nearby Hethe, which  was where they lived before moving to Ufton about ten years later.  Besides his five children with Hannah Green, (William, John, George, Henry, Sarah),  Vinson also had a son, also George, (b.1881) and a daughter by his second wife Hannah Ward. Her daughter also had one daughter, Amelia, born in 1889, but she only lived to be twenty-one, and by the south door of Ufton Church there is a grave bearing her name She was the same age as George and Bertha’s daughter, also named Amelia (Millie). Her mother sent her up to London to learn court dress-making, but she developed  tuberculosis and died. Great Aunt Jessie could remember that in her aunt’s cottage there was a beautiful photograph of Amelia. She had lovely long hair right down to her waist.

GeorgeGulliver

In the 1871 Census, George was recorded as a scholar, in 1881 as an agricultural labourer, and as a Groom-in-service in 1891. The Chamberlains gave George and Bertha Gulliver a tied cottage on their estate in Ufton-on-the-Hill, free of rent. There were eight Gulliver children born there:

Vinson George (b. 28th November, 1887, d. Altrincham, Cheshire, 1996) (1899 photo, top right);006

Kathleen Amelia, ’Millie’ (b. 2nd February, 1889; d. Derbyshire, 1992) (top left);

Ethel Mary (b. 12th December, 1891)(bottom right);

Alfred (b. 23rd October, 1893; d. Coventry, 1972) (bottom centre);

Olive Margaret (b. 5th July, 1895)(bottom left);

Arnold (b. 10th July, 1898) (on Bertha’s lap);

Seymour Henry (b. 13th March, 1900; d. Coventry, 1982);

Jessie (b. 13th June,1901; d. Coventry, 2002).

In the 1901 Census, George was recorded as an agricultural labourer at Ufton.

After that came:

Bertha, born in nearby Bishop’s Itchington, (3rd May, 1903; d. Oxford, 1979);

They were followed by:

Irene Helen (b. 15th November, 1904; d. Coventry, 1926);

Arthur Reginald (b. 19th June,1907);

Frank Leonard (b. 29th December, 1910; d. Toronto, Canada, c.1980);

born in Wroxall, Warwicks, near Balsall Common;

and finally Janet Alice, born at Caludon Lodge, Wyken, near Coventry (14th November, 1913). She died at eight months, of whooping-cough, and is buried in Wyken Church graveyard.

So, in the course of twenty-six years, Bertha gave birth to thirteen children, twelve of whom survived into adulthood. It was not uncommon for agricultural workers to have such large families, even at the end of the Victorian period and into the Edwardian years before the Great War. In the family of Susan E Clarke, recent (2011) author of Gulliver Travels Again, there were three generations of Gulliver families with eight children, from that of John Gulliver (b. 1797 in Overthorpe) to that of her grandfather, Arthur Charles (b. 1864) who married Emma from Byfield. Charles Gulliver (b. 1834), Susan’s great-grandfather, the Methodist lay-preacher, worked on a farm in West Thorp. His wife Mary (née Heritage) ran the beer house there while bringing up her eight children, one of whom died of scarlatina at the age of seven.

002 (2)My great-uncle Vinson Gulliver, the eldest of George and Bertha’s thirteen, outlived all but one of his siblings to become Britain’s oldest man at 108 in 1995. He left school at twelve and went to work on a Warwickshire farm, looking after cattle, horses and pigs. However, he craved the bright lights of the city and found work in the engine sheds at Trafford Park, Manchester, in 1907. His starting wage was just eleven shillings per week, of which eight went on his rent. His driver felt sorry for him living on only three shillings per week, and invited him to go and live with him and his wife, as they had no children of their own. He stayed at their house until he was forty, by which time he had long since progressed to become an engine driver himself, with the old Cheshire Lines and later British Rail. That was when he married his wife Lucy, and they went to live only two doors away from the couple who had taken him in as a boy. Even at 108 he could talk clearly on most subjects, and wrote regularly to his surviving siblings, including my Great Aunt Jessie. He had one daughter, who had three girls, all of whom married and had children. In 1992, aged 105, he took a ride on Manchester’s Metrolink trams which were put into service on the old Altrincham line, on which he had driven his steam engines. He died aged 109.

Millie Gulliver, the second eldest, died aged 102, in 1992. She was very much the mainstay of the family, according to Jessie, who remembered her as a young woman of sixteen, when she herself was only three. Like her mother, she also worked as a housemaid for the Chamberlain family, and would always come home on her day off. Jessie would run down the hill to meet her, and Millie would always have a bag of sweets for her little sister, as well as some tobacco for her dad, the only time he had a smoke. She only had one afternoon/ evening out each week, returning to the Hall at night. She married before the Great War, but continued to work at the Stoke Park estate during the First World War. She had two daughters, who both had children. The eldest daughter moved to Derbyshire, and her mother followed soon after.

Ethel Gulliver was a very gifted child, somehow different from all the others. When she was thirteen she went to a manor house and learned to look after young children, staying there for a few years. Then she went to London to look after a doctor’s baby. She took lessons in dress-making and learnt to do lace work, making bed covers and table cloths. After that, she became a hospital nurse, and moved to Canada, working with Helen Keller in a home for deaf and blind children. As a qualified nurse, she then got her midwife’s certificate. She was sometimes sent out to deliver babies, often to  places where wolves were never far away. Her next job must have been very different therefore, as she went to work in the largest hospital in New York, assisting in operations. It was during this period that she came home for a two-week holiday to in 1926. While there an old gipsy woman came to the house selling pegs and told Ethel that she would return to the house before the year was out. Ethel thought the gipsy was mad, but her younger sister, Irene, was expecting a baby. Irene died a week after the baby was born, and Ethel did indeed return and stayed for the rest of her life, looking after Irene’s husband, Bob, and the daughter, Gillian. She never married, but Gillian married and had two boys.

Alfred worked on a farm with Vinson and his father when the family moved to Wroxall, not far from Berkswell Station. He worked there until he was fifteen and then went into the Navy. He was a good-looking boy and, like his mother, had black hair and blue eyes, whereas most of the other children took after their father, with brown hair and blue eyes. He did very well in the Navy, becoming a petty officer, and went all through the First World War. He also served in the Second World War, aged fifty-five, but stayed in dock training gunners. His wife, Lilly, lived in Coventry, and they had one boy, named Allan, living in Meriden. He married and had one boy, Peter Gulliver.

Olive had to look after Jessie when she was small, as both Millie and Ethel had left home, so Olive went everywhere with her little sister. She was a good scholar, but there was no money to send her away to a better school. She married a butcher from Kidlington in Oxfordshire, and had two children, Lorrie and Barbara. They were asked to manage a public house at Sturdy’s Castle, and then took over the ’Hand and Shears’ in Church Hanborough, which Lorrie helped to manage until 1961.

Arnold worked on Green’s Farm on the Walsgrave Road, with his father. He took milk into Coventry with a horse and float. His mother always said that he drove like a mad man. He always suffered from stomach pains, but mother just thought it was tummy ache. However, it turned out to be appendicitis, and he was taken very ill and died in 1916, aged eighteen. He is buried at Wyken Church. Afterwards, his mother said it was probably for the best that he had died at home, because he would have had to join up in the war, due to the introduction of conscription in 1916. Just the thought of going to war, which he hated, and of leaving home, upset him.

Seymour was just an ordinary boy, two years older than Jessie, who therefore knew him well as they grew up together, playing outside. Their mother would quite often tell him to take her out, so she could get on with the housework. At first, Seymour also went to work on the farm near Walsgrave with his father and brothers when he left school just before the Great War. He later told his daughter how he rode on top of the hay-loaded waggons into the city centre, coming into the narrow medieval Spon Street on top of the hay, with it touching the overhanging eaves of the half-timbered houses on either side. He then went to work in Binley Pit, first of all in the office. He tried to join the Army in 1917, although he would not be eighteen until the following spring. He was at Catterick Barracks when the influenza epidemic struck, wiping out almost all of the Company he had joined. He wrote to his mother and she arrived at the gates in Yorkshire, produced Seymour’s birth certificate and demanded her son back. She took him back to Coventry on the train, and he survived both the war and the epidemic.

001Returning to the Colliery, he went underground as a collier, not just because, as a reserved occupation, it kept him from being conscripted in 1918, but also because there was more money to be earned working at the coalface.  He married Vera Brown that year. Their wedding took place in Walsgrave Baptist Church, conducted by Rev. Penry Edwards of Treorchy in the Rhondda, who had recently become the first full-time minister at the chapel and had baptised Vera shortly before. They had four children in all, three girls; Gwen, Ena and Daphne, and one boy, Raymond. Daphne was born in the new house in 1931, and was given as a middle name Irene, that of her recently-deceased aunt. As a toddler, she found it difficult to pronounce, however, and would introduce herself as Daffy I-wee-wee, much to the embarrassment of her brother and the amusement of all she met! Seymour continued to work as a collier, and then as a foreman. In the Second World War, he was put in charge of the ’Bevin Boys’. Ray married and went to live in the small cottage built by his grandfather Brown, which was attached to the Coach House of Walsgrave Hall, in Hall Lane. After the war, he went to work at the Ryton car factory. He had one son, Gwen and Ena both had daughters, and Daphne had a daughter and three sons. Seymour continued to work for the National Coal Board until retirement in 1965. He died of pneumaconiosis, the dust, in Walsgrave Hospital in 1982.

Jessie was the last of the children to be born at the tied cottage in Ufton in 1901. Bertha was born in Bishop’s Itchington, after the family moved into rented accommodation there when George left his job at Chamberlain’s to go and work at Harbury Cement Works. She was a very small baby, and her mother used to put her down on a shelf, so she would be safe from the feet of all her brothers and sisters. The house was very small, with just two rooms downstairs and three upstairs. They were only there for a short time, however, before moving to Wroxall. Bertha was quite slim as a child and her mother would tell the other children to be careful of her little arms if they were playing with her. She grew up into quite a determined young woman, however, and married a man from Banbury. They went to live in London. They had one child, Julie, who met and married an American GI soldier in the Second World War. She went to live with him in The United States of America and had one girl and four boys.

Irene and Arthur were both born in Wroxall. Soon after Arthur was born, her Grandma Tidmarsh took Irene to live in Great Rollright, and she stayed there for about eight years. However, Grandma became ill, so Irene returned to live with the rest of the family in Walsgrave. These changes came as quite a shock to her, and she was never able to keep herself tidy. Her socks were always round her ankles and her hair ribbon was often loose. Jessie would tell her that she couldn’t walk home from school with her looking like that! She was just one member of a very large family, but needed the kind of special care that her Grandma had given her. Her mother just did not have the time she needed, and, at first, when she returned, the other children did not give her any special attention or care, according to Jessie. But as she grew up that changed. She was of a peaceful disposition, living up to her name, very much like her dad, and that endeared her to her siblings.

She married a boy named Bob Slack and they made a lovely home together. Jessie said they got it looking just like a picture book. They only needed a baby, but one did not arrive for about four years. Irene died one week after the baby girl, Gillian, arrived in 1926. They had wanted this baby so much, so all the family were upset about it. Bob never got over his loss. She was the only girl he had ever loved, and they had only had five years of married life together. They had become friends when Irene was fifteen, and she was twenty when they married. Bob had worked at Herbert’s factory for five years, and Lord and Lady Herbert felt so sorry for him that they moved him from Coventry to their Long Ashton factory near Bristol. When the Second World War broke out, they gave him a better job going all over the West Country maintaining their machinery in factories, so that the factories could maintain their levels of production for the war effort.

Ethel had returned from New York and was looking after him and little Gillian, whom she loved. She was a beautiful child, the kind of child that people would stop and have a few words for, as well as for the woman they no doubt assumed to be her mother, who kept her looking so beautiful. She grew up and married a Mr Yeo. They had five boys, all very clever in singing and playing music.

Arthur was also born at Wroxall and he was very much his mother’s boy. He hated her to leave him, and would hang on to her skirts. If she was out of his sight he would cry and carry on. He wore a plaid skirt and navy blue knickers, which was the fashion then for little boys, until they were about three. When Millie came to visit, she brought him a little suit and cut his hair. He cried and carried on again, wanting his skirt back! But, at last, he was a little boy! He grew up just like all other little boys, and that was when the family moved to Caludon Lodge near Walsgrave. Arthur married, but had no children.

Frank, the twelfth child, was born at Caludon Lodge. He was very different from Arthur. His mother said that he would never let anyone kiss and cuddle him, and that he would fight his way through life. He grew up with Arthur, and later they went out dancing together. He would wear Arthur’s shirts and ties, and Arthur just let him do this, and would never say a word. Frank would land one on anyone who looked at his girlfriend. He married Mabel and they had two daughters. World War Two was on, and both Arthur and Frank hated war. As they were both working on aeroplanes, they were given reserved status, and therefore allowed to stay at home. After the war, both continued to be in work, because planes were needed in peace-time as well. Frank, however, was given the chance of going to Canada to work on aeroplanes there. So he and Mabel accepted the offer and never looked back. They returned for holidays later. One of their girls married and had two boys, but she died, and Frank adopted one of her boys and changed his name to Gulliver.

The last of Bertha and George’s children was a little girl, Janet Alice. One Sunday morning, in November 1913, the family were getting ready to go to the Church service in Walsgrave, when mother asked one of the girls to stay at home. They said, you know, mother, we like to go to Church on Sundays. So she said we could all go (she usually went on her own to the evening service at Wyken Church). When they came home, the nurse from Walsgrave Hospital was there and she told them that they had a baby sister. Olive was eighteen at that time, and Jessie thirteen, so they later wondered why their mother didn’t tell them she was having another baby, which wasn’t obvious to them at that time. Jessie remembered that Janet was beautiful, with black hair and blue eyes. Only she and Alfred had black hair, of all the children. People would stop and say what a beautiful baby she was, but Frank had whooping-cough and she caught it from him. She died at eight months in the summer of 1914 and was buried at Wyken Church. The white roses in Caludon Lodge garden were just coming into bloom, and George lined the coffin of his beautiful, black-haired little girl all around with them.

Published Sources:

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Susan E Clarke (2011), Gulliver Travels Again: A Journey to find the Gulliver Ancestors. Bloomington, USA: AuthorHouse.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life and Labour in A Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. University of Warwick: Cryfield Press.

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