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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…

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.

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