Archive for the ‘Robert Owen’ Tag

What, When & Where Was Socialism?: The Contrasting Cases of Britain & Hungary   Leave a comment

 

012

Thirty Years After the Fall: Is Socialism Dead?

Júlia Tar’s recent piece on the Hungarian government’s online media outlet, Hungary Today, points out that 2019 is the anniversary of not one, but three remarkable events of the 20th century: NATO’s 70th anniversary; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic’s 20th anniversary since joining NATO, and the thirtieth anniversary of dismantlement of the Iron Curtain and of the Berlin Wall. According to Eugene Megyesy, the former Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today, we might not have learned from these historical events. 1956 was a significant year for Hungary because of its revolt against the Soviet Union and dictatorial communism. The revolt was followed by the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. Then,

Hungary opened the Iron Curtain toward Austria, allowing East Germans to flee the oppression of the Utopian socialist system, thereby rendering the Berlin Wall obsolete.

004

This was on 11 September 1989 (not June, as stated), when a courageous decision was taken at the urging of leading Socialist reformers in the government like Imre Pozsgay, and in spite of threats of invasion from Berlin. By November, the Berlin Wall had itself been destroyed. In summarising Megyesy’s ‘view’, Tar claims that…

… socialism was always built on the promises of a Utopian system, equality and the ability to solve all social problems (“heaven on earth”).

Eugene Megyesy warns that this is happening again in some countries:

Sadly, there are politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels, supported by ivory tower academics, media pundits and Hollywood luminaries, who believe socialism is viable.

Megyesy urges today’s generation to look back and think about whether socialism was ever successful. It may have been, but only for a limited period of time. He cites the unsustainability of the capitalism-backed socialistic systems in the Scandinavian countries as an example. In Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, it is even worse and only serves to highlight the gap between the poor and the leaders living in luxury, Megyesy explains. Before socialism, Venezuela was one of the richest countries; now it’s one of the poorest. According to Megyesy, socialism means…

… control over all means of production and the redistribution of wealth by the government.

Definitions and Debates:

But not every ‘socialist’ today would agree with this definition, and especially the idea that public control means control by the central or federal government. Neither does this interpretation match those of the multifarious strands of socialism in western Europe which developed from the middle of the nineteenth century. To define socialism and understand its roots, a longer and broader view is necessary, not just one which draws conclusions based on events since the spread of Stalinism across eastern Europe, or which focuses on recent events in North Korea or Venezuela for evidence of the failings of the Utopian Socialist system. Many of the twentieth century’s ‘dystopias’ may have had their origins among the nineteenth century ‘isms’, as in previous centuries they were often the product of misguided Christian millenarianism, like ‘anti-Semitism’, but that does not mean that we should simply discard the thinking of the philosophers and political economists who developed their detailed critiques of capitalism any more than we should reject two millennia of Christian theology. After all, as Marx himself noted, philosophers only interpret the world: the point is to change it. 

In seeking to change its own world, each new generation must produce its own reinterpretation of the ideas handed down to it from past generations and come up with its own solutions to its own moral dilemmas and social problems. That is, in essence, what socialism means to me. We should neither rely on theories from posterity nor reject them out of hand as if all who came before us were thieves and robbers. We can only learn from the past by giving it a fair hearing, remembering as the novelist J P Hartley famously wrote, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. We are solely responsible for our own ‘country’ in equity

the ‘present’, and for not learning from our own mistakes in its past. In this context, and according to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, in order to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

005

H. G. Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922 (above), expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all. The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.  

The resulting controversy among the many groups and tendencies all calling themselves ‘socialist’ has been, long, intricate and frequently bitter. Each main tendency has developed alternative, often derogatory terms for the others. But until circa 1850, the word was too new and too general to have any predominant use. The earliest known use in English is in Hazlitt’s On Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826), in which he recalls a conversation from 1809 in writing those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. There is also a contemporary use in the 1827 Owenite Co-operative Magazine. Its first recorded political use in French dates from 1833. However, ‘socialisme’ was first used in 1831 in the more generic meaning, and Owen’s New Moral World also contains a similar use. Given the intense political climate in both France and England in the 1820s and 30s, these references provide a sense of the period in which the word came into ‘common coinage’. It could not have been known at that time which meaning of the word would come through as dominant. It was a period of very rapid developments in political discourse, and until well into the 1840s there were a number of alternative words for ‘socialist’, some of which were in more common usage: co-operative, mutualist, associationist, societarian, phalansterian, agrarian, radical. As late as 1848 Webster’s (AmE) Dictionary defined ‘socialism’ as ‘a new term for agrarianism’. By that time in Europe, especially in France and Germany, and to a lesser extent in Britain, both ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ were common terms.

One alternative term, Communist, had begun to be used in France and England by the 1840s, but the sense of the word varied according to particular national contexts. In England in the 1840s, communist had strong religious associations, dating back to the Puritan sects of the seventeenth century. Thus its use was distinct from the secular word ‘socialist’ as used by Robert Owen, which was sometimes avoided for that reason. ‘Communism’ before Marx meant the primitive form practised in the early church when the followers of Jesus ‘held all things in common’. The ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ of the English Commonwealth similarly wanted to abolish private property and social distinctions altogether. In the nineteenth century, their ideological ‘descendants’ believed this could only happen if a democratic state was to own all property. The French ‘anarchist’ philosopher Proudhon wrote that all property is theft. But the development of political ideas in France and Germany were different; so much so that Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest. 

006

The Growth of Democratic Socialism in Britain & Ireland, 1880-1918:

‘Communist’ had French and German senses of a militant movement, at the same time that in Britain it was preferred to ‘socialist’ because it did not involve atheism. Modern usage began to settle from the 1860s, and in spite of the earlier variations and distinctions, it was ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ which became established as the predominant words. Communist, in spite of the distinction originally made, was much less used, and parties in the Marxian tradition took some variant of social and ‘socialist’ as titles; usually Social Democratic, which meant adherence to socialism. Even in the renewed and bitter internal disputes of the period 1880 to 1914 in Europe, these titles held. Communism was in this period most often used either as a description of an earlier form of society – primitive communism – or as a description of an ultimate form, a utopia, which would be achieved after passing through socialism. Yet, also in this period, movements describing themselves as ‘socialist’, for example, the English Fabians, powerfully revived what was really a variant sense in which ‘socialism’ was seen as necessary to complete liberalism, rather than as an alternative theory of society. To George Bernard Shaw and others in Britain and Ireland, socialism was the economic side of the democratic ideal (Fabian Essays, 33) and its achievement was an inevitable prolongation of the earlier tendencies which Liberalism had represented. Opposing this view, and emphasising the resistance of the capitalist economic system to such ‘inevitable’ development, William Morris used the word communism.

004

Morris was a well-established writer, artist, craftsman and an honorary fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, and was one of the middle-class Socialists who joined the Social Democratic Federation just as the working-class radicals left it. The Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party was unpalatable for many of its promoters and early members, and its denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ led to the defection of nearly all the Radical clubs. As Socialism began to spread in Britain, it became possible for its leader, H. M. Hyndman, to convert it into an openly Socialist body, which he did at its annual conference in 1883. It had begun to concentrate on issues such as Housing and the Eight Hours Working Day, which showed that the emphasis was no longer on purely political radicalism. Hyndman wrote to Henry George that same year that Socialist ideas are growing rapidly among the educated class… It was notable that many of these middle-class Socialists found their way to Socialism by way of the land reform movement: this was true of Henry George, whose views were published by the Land Reform Union and (in 1883) the Christian Socialist (I have written about ‘Christian Socialism’ elsewhere on this website). Morris, however, had not taken part in the land agitation: Ruskin, rather than George, seems to have been the means of Morris’ introduction to Socialism. He gives accounts of his political development in a collection of testimonies edited by Hyndman, How I became a Socialist (n.d.). The Federation accepted Hyndman’s declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain.

002

In short, British Socialists were a sort of ‘stage army’ in the 1880s. There were plenty of leaders, but a limited number of followers. But these leaders were successful in creating a much greater impression than would be expected from such a small body of opinion. The fact was that, although it was in the interest of the working classes to follow their lead, there was a very high proportion of middle-class people among the converts of this period, and what the societies lacked in numbers they made up in the comparative energy, ability and financial generosity of their members. This alone can account for the flood of Socialist periodicals and pamphlets which were already pouring from the presses. There were first of all weekly papers of the SDF and the Socialist League, which enjoyed a circulation considerably larger than its immediate membership. The Commonweal, the League’s paper, issued fifty-two numbers and sold 152,186 copies. The Christian Socialist, nominally an organ of the land reformers, but edited by Socialists, gave the cause a great deal of publicity over a long period. Annie Besant, the early trade union leader and the editor of the journal of the Law and Liberty League, ensured that Fabian meetings were well-reported in it. The Fabians also issued tracts and the Socialist League published pamphlets and its own reports of debates.

The SDF’s paper, Justice, simply represented the views of the Hyndman group, or ‘clique’, who greeted with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an attitude of uncompromising hostility to all other parties and to alternative views of how to achieve socialism within the Federation itself. In 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to write in his manifesto of ‘the transformation of society by peaceful means’, and was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his abandonment of the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of all its defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the other early socialist society, the ILP (Independent Labour Party). In 1898, it claimed a total of 137 branches, which was twice as many as it had had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure. The SDF was, much more obviously than the ILP, a Socialist party; and those who were converted to Socialism by Hyndman and other leaders might well feel that there was an element of compromise about a party which failed to call itself ‘Socialist’ in its title. Members of the SDF were expected to make a real attempt to master Marx’s theories, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’s ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’; this was much more than the ILP branches were usually prepared to do.

001

Without a programme, Engels realised, there could not be a united Socialist Party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Indeed, the political independence of the nascent Labour Party from the Liberal Party was always in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, British Socialists possessed a ‘faith’ in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This faith owed as much to Methodism as to Marxism, being based both on Christian principles and the analysis of contemporary society first presented by Marx and Engels. Much of this analysis was modified, however, by Hyndman and the Fabians, by Morris and Blatchford, though it still had a comprehensive reality for those who accepted it. To its working-class adherents, like my own grandparents who founded and campaigned for it in Coventry, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in class consciousness; to middle-class philanthropists, it afforded the consolation that they were working in solidarity with a range of tendencies of social change and progress. As Pelling concluded in his seminal work, the history of the world had often shown the dynamic qualities of a faith devoutly held, like that of the early Christians, the Calvinist reformers and the millenarian sects of the seventeenth century. Faith may feed on illusions, but it is capable of conquering reality:

Socialism had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. It led them at times into foolish misstatements, such as that of ‘Justice’ in 1885:

‘If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work. Don’t you call that practical politics?’

… or such as Blatchford’s declaration in ‘Merrie England’ that…

‘ … this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population.’

But the faith did not stand or fall by the accuracy of facts and figures: it depended much less for its sources and strength upon reason than upon deeper and simpler forces in human nature: ‘Socialism’, said Shaw in 1897, ‘wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond. … The Socialists made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers; in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed, in a real sense, a political ‘élite’.

The fact was that the British working class as a whole had no use for the conception of violent revolution. Any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early years of the industrial revolution. But dislocations of this type were for the most part transitory: a permanent political organization of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively set in motion the movement to form a Labour Party. At the time Keir Hardie (right) retired from the chairmanship of the ILP in 1900, it had captured trade-union support, with the ultimate objective of tapping trade union funds for the attainment of political power.

But soon the ILP was deeply in debt and was only saved from bankruptcy by the generosity of wealthy supporters such as George Cadbury, who, as a Quaker, appreciated its stance against the Boer War. With Hardie’s re-election to Parliament, and the reaction against imperialism, the ILP’s position steadily improved, and it began to build itself up again and gained fresh recruits. By 1906 it was as strong as it had not yet the full force of the Socialist revival of that time. The Labour Representation Committee was a pressure group founded in 1900 as an alliance of socialist organisations and trade unions, aimed at increasing representation for labour interests in the Parliament. The Socialists were a minority force within it, and even after the formation of the Labour Party and its adoption of Socialism as its political creed in 1918, there were many within the party who were hostile to it as an ideology.  There is little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party, which most of them had belonged to in the past if the Liberals had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working classes among their Parliamentary candidates. So the early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and heard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal, but disheartened Gladstonian Liberals. Despite the persistence of  this mixture of ideas, Pelling concluded:

The association of Socialist faith and trade-union interest, of hope for an ideal future and fear for an endangered present, seemed on the point of disruption at times: yet it survived, for a variety of reasons … because in the years before the party’s birth there had been men and women who believed that the unity of the working-class movement, both in industry and politics, was an object to be striven for, just as now most of their successors regard it as an achievement to be maintained.

003

Socialism and Communism in Europe, 1871-1918:

Across the continent, the relative militancy associated with the word communist was further strengthened by the very visual effect of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted below), though there was a significant argument as to whether the correct term to be derived from the event was Communist or Communard. For at least a ten-year period, the word Syndicalist became at least as important across Europe as a whole. It described the development of industrial trades unionism as a revolutionary force which would overthrow the capitalist system through the use of the General Strike and revolutionary violence in general. The word appeared in French in 1904 and in English in 1907; but it went through varying combinations with anarchism (in its stress on mutuality) and socialism, especially with Guild Socialism and Cooperative movements, emphasising the important interests of the consumer in economic models for the future.

The Commune as Seen by Jacques Tardi (“Le cri du peuple”), 2002.

The decisive distinction between ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ came with the renaming, in 1918, of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party as the All-Russian Communist Party (the ‘majority’ or Bolsheviks). From that time on, a distinction of ‘socialist’ from ‘communist’, often with supporting terms and adjectives such as ‘social democrat’ or ‘democratic socialist’ came into common currency, although it is significant that all ‘communist’ parties, especially in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its ‘satellite’ states, continued to describe themselves as ‘socialist’ and dedicated to ‘socialism’. This is one reason why, in central-eastern Europe, socialism is still viewed by many as synonymous with communism in contrast to the use of the word throughout the rest of Europe. That does not mean, however, that the history of socialist and social democratic parties in southern, western and northern Europe can simply be tarnished with the same brush of the ‘Stalinist’ past, as Medgyesy and other politicians have attempted to do in the run-up to this year’s European Parliament elections. Even Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission and a member of the conservative European People’s Party has been characterised as a ‘socialist’ in the Hungarian press and media.

The First Hungarian Republic, the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ & the Horthy Era, 1918-44:

002

The Proclamation of Mihály Károlyi as President of the new Republic of Hungary.

Elsewhere on this site, I have written about the roots and development of liberal democracy in Hungary, and of how both of these have been fractured by various forms of authoritarianism and dictatorship, more recently of a populist variety. Yet even in Hungary, we can trace the origins of socialist movements back to 1907, when a series of strikes and disturbances among both the urban and rural workers. But the promise of electoral reform, for which a crowd of a hundred thousand demonstrated for a second time on ‘Red Thursday’, 10th October 1907, came to nothing when Andrássy’s modest bill expanding the suffrage was rejected by the Hungarian parliament. Seven years later, the Social Democrats, as elsewhere in Europe, supported the patriotic war effort, perhaps hoping for democratic concessions in return. Following the Revolution of November 1918, with the establishment of a republic ruled by a National Council, the Károlyi government embarked on the programme of social and political reforms it had announced. These were badly needed, given the explosive atmosphere in the country. There was no political force in Hungary at the time that would have been able to answer all of the conflicting interests and expectations of these turbulent times. Although the elections to the new national assembly were conducted on the basis of a franchise including half the population, second only those in Scandinavia at that time, the effects of progressive social legislation, including the introduction of unemployment benefit and the eight-hour working day, the abolition of child labour and the extension of insurance schemes, could not yet be felt. The political scene became polarised, involving the appearance of radical movements both on the Right and the Left.

The streets, for the time being, belonged to the political Left. Appeals of moderate Social Democratic ministers to order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 and led by Béla Kun. He was a former journalist and trades unionist, who had recently returned from captivity in Russia, where he had become convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets to parliamentary democracy.  Communist propaganda also promised an end to all exploitation through the nationalisation of property, as well as international stability through the fraternity of Soviet republics which were prophesied to arise all over Europe. Within a few weeks, this attractive utopia, underpinned by well-designed social demagogy, had earned the Communists a membership of about forty thousand. Their supporters, several times that number, mobilised among the marginalised masses and the younger members of the intelligentsia, susceptible to revolutionary romanticism. By January 1919, a wave of strikes had swept across the country, in the course of which factories, transport and communication installations were occupied; in addition, land seizures and attempts to introduce collective agriculture marked the communist initiative, which also included the demand not only to eradicate all remnants of feudalism, but also the proclamation of a Hungarian Soviet Republic, and a foreign policy seeking the friendship of Soviet Russia instead of the Entente powers.

While the radicals on both the Right and the Left openly challenged the fundamental tenets of the Károlyi government, his Independence Party evaporated around him. Unhappy with the reform projects which Károlyi embraced and seemed too radical for them, most of the Independent ministers left the government, leaving the Social Democrats as the main government party. But they were struggling helplessly to tame their own radical left, who effectively constituted an internal opposition to the government, and gravitated towards the Communists. On 21 March 1919, the Social Democrats accepted the invitation to take sole responsibility for the government, but only to accelerate and conclude negotiations with the imprisoned Communist leaders about forming a united workers’ party. A new government, the Revolutionary General Council, presided over by a Social Democrat but in effect led by Béla Kun, was formed on the same day, with the declared aim of establishing a Leninist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

001 (2)

Certainly, the measures introduced by the Revolutionary government went beyond anything attempted in Soviet Russia at that time. The counterpart of these measures in the administrative and political reorganisation of the country was the replacement of old local, municipal and county bureaucracies with soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. A ‘Committee of Public Safety’ was organised to put pressure on the civilian population where it was needed in order to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat, its head, Tibor Szamuely travelling in his ‘death train’ to trouble spots in order to preside in summary courts, assisted by the notorious ‘Lenin Boys’, created to supplement the ‘Red Guard’, which took over the ordinary functions of the police and gendarmerie. Besides common murders of actual or alleged enemies by the ‘élite detachments, some 120 death sentences were meted out by the tribunals for political reasons.

The great momentum of the changes was partly intended to convince people that the realisation of the ‘socialist utopia’ was imminent. Social policy measures, the expected alleviation of housing shortages through public ownership of accommodation in a country flooded by refugees, the nationalisation of large firms, improved educational opportunities, the more effective supply of food and consumer goods through rationing and supervised distribution met with widespread approval, especially among the urban population. The intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918, was initially also allured by the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They not only included known Marxists like György Lukács, the writer, who became People’s Commissar for Education, but also members of the Nyugati (Western) Circle, who held positions in the Directorate for Literature, and Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the one for music. Gradually, however, these figures became disaffected, as did the intelligentsia and middle classes in general and the leaders of the October 1918 democratic revolution, some of whom emigrated the following summer. By then, the historian Gyula Székfű, who was appointed professor at the University of Budapest, was already at work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), in which he was hostile not only towards the communist revolution but also towards democracy and liberalism, which he blamed for paving the way for Kun’s régime.

The revolution and the village were unable to come to terms with each other. Despite the steady urbanisation of the previous half-century, Hungary still remained a largely agricultural country, especially after much of its towns were taken away by occupation even before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. Besides being economically unsound the amidst the shortage of raw materials and fuel to supply machinery supposedly more efficient large-scale co-operatives than in smallholdings, the nationalisation scheme embittered not only the smallholders themselves, who actually lost land, but also the landless peasants, domestic servants and the agricultural labourers whose dreams of becoming independent farmers were thwarted by the same urban revolutionaries who had formerly encouraged land seizures. Decrees regarding the compulsory delivery of agricultural surplus and requisitioning further undermined whatever popularity the government still enjoyed in the countryside. It blamed the food shortages on the peasantry, which exacerbated the already existing rift between town and country, and served as a pretext for further central control of the economy. The anti-clerical measures taken by the government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of ‘the family hearth’.

001

All of this made the communists more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the foreign (that is, Jewish) character of the revolution (over half of the commissars were indeed of Jewish ethnicity). An ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ Committee was set up in Vienna in April by representatives of nearly all the old parties led by Count István Bethlen, and a counter-revolutionary government was set up at Arad on 5 May, later moving to Szeged. Paradoxically, the Soviet Republic was maintained in power for over four months, despite the increasingly dictatorial means it employed, mainly by the temporary successes it scored on the nationalities’ issue; it collapsed not in the face of internal counter-revolution but when its military position against the allies of the Entente in the region became untenable. The Entente powers, gathered at the Paris Peace Conference, sent General Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, to Budapest, mainly to obtain reliable first-hand information about the situation there in April 1919. Smuts concluded that Hungary truly had a government of Bolshevik character, which gave weight to the French Prime Minister Clemenceau’s proposal to suppress German revanchist designs as well as the spread of Soviet communism into Western Europe by a cordon sanitaire established out of the new states of Central Europe. Harold Nicolson, the young British diplomat who accompanied Smuts on the train leaving Paris on April Fools’ Day, wrote about these concerns about the Germans turning to Bolshevism in a letter to his wife Vita (pictured below, together in Paris):

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go the moment they feel it is hopeless for them to get good terms. 

006

Small wonder, therefore, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism triggered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. The negotiations were conducted from the wagon-lit of Smuts’ train at the Eastern Station in Budapest, so as not to imply recognition of the régime, encircled by Red Guards with ‘fixed bayonets and scarlet brassards’. They centred on whether or not the Hungarian Bolsheviks would accept the Allies’ armistice terms, which would commit them to accept considerable territorial losses. As they hesitated, Harold decided to explore Budapest, a city he had grown up in before the war. He was alarmed and saddened by what he saw:

‘The whole place is wretched – sad – unkempt.’ He took tea at the Hungaria, Budapest’s leading hotel. Although it had been ‘communised’, it flew ‘a huge Union Jack and Tricoleur’, a gesture of good intent. Red Guards with bayonets patrolled the hall, but in the foyer what remained of Budapest society ‘huddled sadly together with anxious eyes and a complete, ghastly silence’, sipping their lemonade ‘while the band played’. ‘I shudder and feel cold,’ Harold remarked. ‘We leave as soon as possible. Silent eyes search out at us as we go.’

Kun desperately needed allied recognition of his government, but he inserted a clause into Smuts’ draft agreement that the Romanian forces should withdraw to a line east of the neutral zone established by the 1918 Armistice, in effect to evacuate Transylvania. Smuts would not countenance this, however, and the Bolsheviks were ‘silent and sullen’. Nicolson wrote that they looked like convicts standing before the Director of the Prison. Smuts concluded that ‘Béla Kun is just an incident and not worth taking seriously’. This proved to be only too true, as on 10 April, only a day after Harold’s account to Vita, a provisional government was set up in Budapest seeking to reinstate the old ruling Hungarian cliques. On 1 August, Kun fled the capital in the face of invading Romanian armies. He ended his days in Russia, dying in 1936, ironically as the victim of one of Stalin’s innumerable purges. The world revolution that was expected to sweep away the corrupt bourgeois politicians of the peace conference and their allies spluttered to a halt. The Bavarian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 7 April, hardly survived into May and the communist putsch planned by Kun’s agents in Vienna on 15 June also failed. Meanwhile, General Deniken’s counter-revolutionary offensive in Russia thwarted hopes of help from across the Carpathians.

Facing an ever more turbulent domestic situation marked by widespread peasant unrest and an uprising of the students of the military academy in Budapest, the Revolutionary government, after heated debates, decided to give in to the demands of the Peace Conference, withdrawing Hungarian forces from Slovakia behind the demarcation line at the end of June. Aurél Stromfeld, who as Chief of the General Staff led the Red Army into Slovakia which led to the short-lived Soviet Republic proclaimed there on 16 June, resigned in protest against the ‘capitulation’. Some of his generals now started to join the National Army, organised by the counter-revolutionary government in Szeged, under the command of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the last commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy. When the Romanians refused to retreat behind the neutral zone as envisaged, the Red Army launched a surprise offensive along the River Tisza. The initial advance was aborted, however, and ended in a disorderly flight of the Red Army. On 1 August, with the Romanian forces threatening to occupy the Hungarian capital, the commissars handed back power to the Social Democrats on the advice of trade union leaders that the creation of a government acceptable to the Entente powers was the only way to avoid complete foreign occupation. The next day, a government led by the trade unionist leader Gyula Peidl, who had refused to accept the creation of a united workers’ party, took office.

Although it promised to end the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ while at the same time defying a conservative restoration, the new government was still regarded as crypto-Bolshevik not only by conservatives but also by Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists. It also failed to gain support from the Entente. Assisted by the Romanian army, occupying Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign on 6 August. The government headed by István Friedrich, immediately set about annulling all the measures associated with the Soviet Republic, especially the nationalisation process. It also dismantled all the major social reforms of the democratic revolution, including those associated with individual civil liberties. Revolutionary tribunals were replaced by counter-revolutionary ones, packing prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 it had passed roughly as many death sentences as had the lackeys of the ‘red terror’, the ‘Lenin Boys’. The intellectual élite of the country suffered a serious blow. Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several dozen left the country, including Lukács, Mannheim and Korda. Horthy’s ‘National Army’, now transferred to Transdanubia, controlled and gave orders to local authorities and its most notorious detachments were instruments of naked terror. In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and ordinary Jews who were in no way associated with the proletarian dictatorship. Besides executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during these few months.

002

Despite the protests of the Social Democrats and other left-wing forces, the occupying Romanian forces were replaced by Horthy’s National Army in Budapest. His speech before the notables of the capital stigmatised it as ‘the sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for the sake of red rags. This suited an atmosphere in which most of the remaining adherents of the democratic revolution as well as the communist one were neutralised in one way or another. The returning conservatives promised to heal the country’s war-wounds by returning it to order, authority and the mythical ‘Christian-national system of values’. Sir George Clerk, the leader of the Peace Conference’s mission to Budapest in October 1919, abandoned his initial insistence that the Social Democrats and the Liberals should have an important role in a coalition government. As Horthy commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and was ready to subordinate them to government control, it had to be acceptable to Horthy personally and the military in general. As a result, the cabinet formed by Károly Huszár on 24 November 1919 was one in which the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Even though the great powers insisted that voting should take place by universal and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome. Terrorist actions by detachments of the National Army and the recovering extreme right-wing organisations, designed to intimidate the candidates and voters for the Social Democrats, Smallholders and Liberals, led to the former boycotting the elections of January 1920 and withdrawing from the political arena until mid-1922.

On 1 March 1920, the army occupied the square in front of the Parliament building, and, accompanied by his officers, Horthy entered and, according to medieval precedent, was ‘elected’ Regent, with strong Presidential powers. This signalled the end of Hungary’s own short experiment with democratic socialism, following its even briefer experience of home-grown communism. Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen, the dominant political figures of inter-war Hungary, both from Transylvanian aristocratic families, argued that the immediate post-war events had shown that the country was not yet ready to graft full democracy onto the parliamentary system. They advocated a limited ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the landed gentry and the aristocracy, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed at the radical extension of the liberal rights enshrined in the parliamentarism of the dualist. Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democracy because of its antipathy to private property. But they also opposed the right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced by an authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes and away from the ‘foreign’ bourgeoisie (in other words, the Jews).

The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of 1944 had emerged by 1922 as a result of Bethlenite consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonistic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from the liberal era were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting on the left of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals and, after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right of different groups of Christian Socialists as well as right radicals. One of the most important developments in the intellectual life of the Horthy era was the development of ‘populist’ writers, predominantly young and of peasant origin, who wrote ethnographically-based pieces revealing the economic and intellectual poverty of life in rural Hungary and drawing the attention of the ruling classes to the need for change. In ideological terms, some of them, most notably László Németh, advocated a ‘third way’ for Hungary between East and West, or between Soviet collectivism and capitalist individualism. Some, including Gyula Illyés and Ferenc Erdei, sympathised with socialism. Their top priority was the improvement in the lot of the poor peasantry through a genuine redistribution of land among them. But their willingness to engage with both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, as well as their emphasis on the ‘village’ as the root of ‘Hungarianness’, with its anti-Semitic overtones, led it into conflict with more cosmopolitan democrats and ‘urbanist’ intellectuals. This was symptomatic of a broader and longer-term division among Hungarian progressives which survived the attempts of even the Soviet communists to homogenise Hungarian society as well as the post-1989 transition to democracy and is resurgent in the propaganda of the current right-wing populist era.

003

The Second Hungarian Republic & The Eras of Rákosi & Kádár, 1945-1989:

The second Republic of 1945 was equally as brittle as that which followed the First World War, ending in a Soviet-style government which lasted more than forty years. By the time of the elections of November 1945, the communist vanguard, which had numbered only three thousand a year before, had managed to create a mass party of half a million members as a result of an unscrupulous recruiting campaign. Unlike the Social Democrats, they did not mention socialism as being even their strategic goal, and their rhetoric concentrated mainly on the pressing tasks of reconstruction combined with reform. Their avowed programme was essentially the same as the Independence Front; however, they did not refrain from occasionally playing nationalist tunes. Workers and smallholding peasants out of conviction, intellectuals out of idealism, civil servants out of fear and opportunism, all augmented the party ranks; the surviving Jews of Budapest joined out of gratitude to their liberators and their search for a new experience of community. Besides boasting an ever-growing influence on its own, the Communist Party was also able to manipulate the other parties of the Left. The Social Democratic Party, whose 350,000 strong membership possessed a powerful working-class consciousness, found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of the Communists for working-class unity. Together with the National Peasant Party, the Social Democrats chose to join the Communists in the Left-Wing Bloc on 5 March 1946, following the elections of the previous November which was won by the Smallholder Party, who collected fifty-seven per cent of the votes, with both the Social Democrats and the Communists polling seventeen per cent each, and the National Peasant Party a mere seven percent.

002

‘Forward to Peace & Socialism!’ The Young Pioneers’ Congress.

The elections themselves, by secret ballot and without a census, were the freest ever to be held in Hungary until 1990. Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, had condemned the ‘Marxist evil’ in a pastoral letter and called upon the faithful to support the Smallholders. Whatever the voters made of this intervention, the verdict of 4.8 million of them, over ninety per cent of the enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for the return of parliamentary democracy based on support for private property and the market economy over socialism with state management and central economic planning. But then the Smallholders gave in to Soviet pressure for the formation of a ‘grand coalition’ in which the communists were able to preserve the gains they had already secured and to secure a firm base from which they were gradually able to bully their way to power by 1949. After the tribulations of the Rákosi dictatorship, it was not surprising that, in 1956, what was initially a struggle between ‘reform’ communists and orthodox within the party, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, and in the meantime itself triggering off a growing ferment among the intelligentsia, became a national anti-Soviet uprising. The events which began, from 20 October onwards, with meetings and demonstrations at the universities in Budapest and the provinces, culminating with a peaceful demonstration in support of Gomulka’s reforms in Poland on 23rd, became a ‘revolution’ when the crowd successfully laid siege to the radio station and fighting began the next day between Soviet tanks and young working-class ‘guerillas’ whom even the restored Prime Minister referred to as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ at this stage.

014

All the insurgents agreed about was their desire to return national sovereignty and to put an end to arbitrary rule. They did not call for a reversal of nationalisation or a return to the pre-1945 order.  As fighting continued, by 28 October, Nagy had dropped the label ‘counter-revolution’ and started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, acknowledging the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days. The Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party was reformed as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) and the old coalition parties became active again, including the Social Democrats. After his initial uncertainty, the PM kept pace with developments on the streets, closing the gap between himself and the insurgents step by step. His changes culminated in the formation of a new multi-party cabinet on 2 November, including reform Communist, Social Democrat (Anna Kéthély, below), Smallholder and Peasant Party members.

006

However, this consolidation of power by a now avowedly ‘Revolutionary Government’ involved the collapse of the whole system of institutions of the party-state on which the cohesion of the Soviet bloc rested, and this was unacceptable for the Moscow leadership, Khrushchev included. It could not afford to lose a country of Hungary’s strategic location and mineral wealth from among its satellite states. But it was the radicalisation of the revolution in Budapest which made it impossible for a compromise deal to be struck. After announcing the formation of the MSZMP, also declaring himself to be in favour of neutrality and willing to fight in the streets, János Kádár left Parliament on 1 November for the Soviet Embassy. He quickly found himself in Moscow where he became the latest figure selected by the politburo to steer Hungary on a course acceptable to them. Having accepted this assignment, he entered Budapest with his cabinet in Soviet tanks on 7 November.

Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 11 November, the most peculiar forms of the revolution, the workers’ councils, started to exert their true impact after 4 November, with an attempt to organise a nationwide network. Initially set up as strike committees, their basic idea was self-management in the factory, owned principally by the workers. On the initiative of the workers’ councils, a massive wave of strikes lasted into January 1957. The intellectuals, rallying mainly in the Writers’ Association, the students’ committees and the Journalists’ Association, founded the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, chaired by composer Zoltán Kodály, which demanded the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. These movements marked out the Revolution as more than simply a defeated National Uprising. They were clearly socialist in their aims and membership. Kádár, on the other hand, did not have a clear policy to cope with this situation. The government programme which he drafted while still in Moscow, included promises of welfare measures, workers’ self-management and policies to aid the peasantry and small-scale enterprises. But these were clearly not the reasons for his ‘appointment’ by his Moscow patrons. To begin with, he was too busy organising special police forces for the purposes of retaliation and repression to spend time setting out policies. Although he negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, on the previous day the special police squads prevented the creation of a National Workers’ Council and in early December, two hundred members of the movement were arrested on the same day that saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates.

006

The revolutionary committees which had been set up were dissolved, and the police shot dead nearly a hundred demonstrators in Sálgotorján, Miskolc and Eger. The ideological justification for these actions and the continuing repression and the impending campaign of retaliation was created at a party conference which identified the causes of the October Uprising as the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction on the one hand and, on the other, the undermining of the party by ‘Nagy circle’ leading to a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of Horthyite fascism… supported by international imperialism. Given the trauma created by the revolution, its repression and the retaliation which followed in 1956-58, it is not surprising that Hungarian society was in the mood for Kádár’s Realsozialismus, based on his personalised creed that the ‘little man’ was interested simply in a decent living, instead of the great political issues of the day. He used the scope created by the ruins of the revolt on which he built his power to buy the complicity of Hungarians by unorthodox methods. In November 1962, Kádár somewhat pompously announced that the foundations of socialism in Hungary had been laid and that the construction of socialism was an all-national task, dependent on co-operation between Communists and non-party members, irrespective of personal convictions. There was to be no ‘class war’; this was what became known as the ‘Kádár doctrine’. These were the foundations of the ‘Hungarian model’, often referred to as ‘Gulyás communism’ in the 1970s, which was a far cry from utopian models. With characteristic persistence, Kádár managed to earn legitimacy, retaining it until it became apparent in the 1980s that Realsozialismus was not a functioning system, but merely ‘the longest path from capitalism to capitalism’.

Conclusion: The End of ‘Class-War’ Socialism?

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.

Marx House (Memorial Library) in London.

Marx (before ‘Marxism’) based his theories on a belief that men’s minds are limited by their economic circumstances and that there is a necessary conflict of interests in our present civilization between the prosperous and employing classes of people and the employed masses. With the advance in education necessitated by the mechanical revolution, this great employed majority would become more and more class-conscious and more and more solid in antagonism to the ruling minority. In some way the class-conscious workers would seize power, he prophesied, and inaugurate a new social state. The antagonism, the insurrection, the possible revolution are understandable enough, but it did not follow that a new social state or anything but a socially destructive process would ensue. Marx sought to replace national antagonism by class antagonisms, but it is interesting to see how the two lines of thought, so diverse in spirit, so different in substance as this class-war socialism of the Marxists and the individualistic theory and socialist theory have continued to be part of a common search for more spacious social and political ideas and interpretations. In the long history of socialism in western Europe, as contrasted with the seventy years of Soviet-style Communism, the logic of reality has usually triumphed over the logic of theory.

Sources:

Raymond Williams (1983), Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Harper Collins.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party (second edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

László Kontler (2001), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

H. G. Wells (1922, 1946), A Short History of the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

  

Posted April 19, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Dark Ages, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, English Language, eschatology, Ethnicity, European Union, First World War, France, German Reunification, Germany, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Oxford, Population, populism, Proletariat, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Remembrance, Revolution, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, USSR, Utopianism

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Forgotten England: Gentlemen Farmers and Labourers in the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions   Leave a comment

Part Two: Poverty, Poetry and Protest, 1815-51

001

As Napoleon’s power grew, the threat of invasion became very real. Home defence was a matter of urgency and the regular forces had to be supplemented by volunteer reserves. A force of yeomanry known as the Suffolk Light Dragoons was raised at Bury and a part-time navy, the Sea Fencibles, patrolled the coast. These bodies of amateur soldiers and sailors were very unreliable and many men joined them to evade conscription to the real army and navy. This was probably the situation with Isaac Gulliver’s privateers on the south coast. As an additional deterrent to French invasion both coasts were also studded with Martello Towers, small fortresses on which cannons were mounted. Eighteen were raised along the Suffolk shoreline, some of which can still be seen today, as in Kent. Whether or not they gave the local people much real protection is difficult to judge, since the only invasion attempt which actually landed soldiers did so on the Pembrokeshire coast near Fishguard, where there were no towers, and where the action ended in farce and surrender by the French after two or three days. The war provided a captive home market for English farmers. Napoleon’s blockade, the continental system, though only partially successful, served to strengthen the British government’s conviction that by agriculture alone we live in plenty without intercourse with other nations. Besides the soldiers and sailors, allied nations needed British corn. So, there was an emphasis on intensive crop farming, giving a further boost to the Agrarian Revolution.

The French wars coincided with a run of bad harvests (only two good harvests and fourteen bad ones in twenty-two years). Since the disruption of trade prevented foreign corn reaching English ports, the price of home-grown grain rocketed. Farmers hurried to profit from this situation, and the heavy clay-lands of central Suffolk came into their own. It was then that the Suffolk landscape took on its now familiar appearance – the heaths and meadows of the east and west harbouring flat flocks and herds, the centre dominated by wide fields, interrupted by occasional copses and water-meadows. Agricultural incomes ballooned during the Napoleonic Wars only to be severely deflated by the downward trend in prices by 1815. When the war ended the special conditions which had favoured this prosperity ended with it. In 1815 corn prices plummeted to half what they had been in 1812. Parliament, where the landed interest was dominant, hastened to pass the Corn Law which prohibited the import of foreign grain until the price had reached eighty shillings a quarter. For thirty-one years this appalling piece of legislation remained on the statute book, protecting farm profits at the expense of every man, woman and child in the country, who had to pay inflated prices for daily bread. Wheat prices continued to fall until 1835. Careful research has again shown that the effect of this deflation varied greatly from one locality to another, depending in particular on the local interface between agriculture and industry.

The situation would not have been so bad if all the sections of the rural community had shared the benefits brought by protection, but because there were more potential workers than jobs, wages remained low. Farmers kept their retained workers to a minimum and drew on the large pool of casual labour at the busy seasons of the year. Most workers lived in thatched, verminous medieval cottages or in redundant farmhouses, converted into smaller units by flimsy partitions, steep stairs and lean-to additons. Some farmers built new dwellings for their workers, may sub-standard, but others responsibly built. Those erected by Lord Tollemache on his estate at Helmingham are an excellent example of the best in modest domestic architecture. However, the farmworker’s basic need was for food. Like everyone else, he had to buy bread at artificially inflated prices and he needed better wages in order to do so. The prevailing poor law worked to his disadvantage in this, and the Speenhamland System, which operated from 1795 to 1834, provided that where a labourer’s wage was inadequate, it could be augmented from the poor rate. This demoralised the farm workers further, by bringing them within the category of the parish poor, depriving them of any incentive to work and subsidising the farmers by relieving them of the obligation to pay realistic wages.

When the French Wars ended, four hundred thousand soldiers and sailors were demobilised, too many of them seeking to return to work on the land, which was no longer available. The results were mass unemployment and low wages for those fortunate enough to find work. William Cobbett wrote of the conditions in which the labourers of Leicestershire were living:

Look at these hovels, made of mud and straw; bits of glass, or of cast-off windows, without frames or hinges frequently, but merely stuck in the mud wall. Enter them, and look at the bits of chairs or stools; the wretched boards tacked together to serve for a table; the floor of pebble, broken brick, and of the bare ground…

However, the life of the rural peasant was not entirely one of unrelieved misery and squalor. As a child Robert Bloomfield of Honington (1766-1823) lived with his mother who gained a meagre living from her dame school. He became a farm worker at Sapiston at the age of eleven until it broke his health. He went to London and found success there in the literary world of Wordsworth and Coleridge who admired the freshness and authenticity of his nature poetry. Nevertheless, he died, poor and half-blind, in Bedfordshire. The inspiration for his best work, of which The Farmer’s Boy is the greatest, came from his years of hard labour at Sapiston:

Fresh from the Hall of Bounty sprung

With glowing heart and ardent eye,

With songs and rhyme upon my tongue,

And fairy visions dancing by,

The mid-day sun in all his power,

The backward valley painted gay;

Mine was the road without a flower,

Where one small streamlet crossed the way.

 

George Crabbe (1754-1832) also grew up in Suffolk and began work in the field of medicine, but then turned to the church and to literature. As a poet he stands out for the honesty of his pictures of country life and the craftsmanship of his verse. His  poem The Vicar (1823) pokes fun at the way in which the country parson had to be all things to all people in his parish:

Now rests our Vicar. They who knew him best,

Proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest;

Free from all evils which disturb the mind,

Whom studies vex and controversies blind.  

The Rich approved, – of them in awe he stood;

The poor admired, – they all believed him good;

The old and serious of his habits spoke;

The frank and youthful loved his pleasant joke;

Mothers approved a safe contented guest,

And daughters one who backed each small request:

In him his flock found nothing to condemn;

Him sectaries liked, – he never troubled them;

No trifles fail’d his yielding mind to please,

And all his passions sunk in early ease;

Nor one so old has left this world of sin,

More like the being that he enter’d in…

…Thus he his race began, and to the end

His constant care was, no man to offend;

He was his Master’s soldier,

but not one To lead an army of his martyrs on:

Fear was his ruling passion.

Self-portrait, John Constable, c. 1799-1804, pencil and black chalk heightened with white and red chalk. © National Portrait Gallery, London.However, few would argue with the assertion that Suffolk’s greatest ever creative genius was John Constable (1776-1837; his self-portrait is on the right), who also loved his home county, though he too, like Robert Bloomfield, spent much of his life away from it, being from a more privileged background than Bloomfield. However, he was always striving to recapture naturalistic Suffolk moods in his work. He wrote to a friend that he had been…

The Hay Wain, John Constable, 1821, oil on canvas. © The National Gallery, London 2014… running after pictures and seeking truth at second-hand. I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall endeavour to get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes that may employ me… the great vice of the present day is ’bravura’, an attempt to do something beyond the truth. Fashion always had and always will have its day, but truth in all things only will last, and can only have just claims on posterity.

 

He therefore returned to his beloved Dedham Vale, where he had grown up amid the rumble and roar of his father’s mill wheels. There he painted the pictures which have always been recognised as representing not just Suffolk but the essential England. Nevertheless, it was an England which was soon to change, perhaps the reason why Constable’s paintings of The Hay Wain (1821, left) and Flatford Mill evoke so nostalgic a response in most English people, regardless of how much they understand about the craft of his art.

A century of great artists in the Constable tradition devoted themselves to the Suffolk scene. They found a deep truth in the simple beauty of the land and, like Constable, they knew that truth in all things only will last.  

 In addition to the evidence of rural poverty uncovered by Cobbett’s Rural Rides, the evidence presented to the commissions of inquiry into agrarian distress was carefully sifted by historians, working from county to county. This produced the conclusion that the western animal-rearing districts of the country, for example Lancashire and Cheshire, lying close to big urban markets for potatoes and dairy produce, barely suffered any depression. Arable farming districts, on the other hand, had no spare investment funds during the spells of very low prices in the deflationary periods, in 1816, and 1821-23. Later, although the price of wheat did not stagger to its nadir until 1835. farm costs had adjusted downwards as well. This tended to thin out the symptoms of true distress in later price troughs. Yet despite drops in both prices and costs, production continued to climb. The yield of wheat per acre, for example, rose by sixteen per cent from 1815/19 to 1832/36. Over the same period, the total population of England and Wales increased from just over eleven million in 1815 to nearly fifteen million in 1836, and these extra four million mouths were somehow fed without the help of imports and without the consumption of foodstuffs per capita falling significantly.

 

029The answer to this conundrum is probably that it was the labourers in the south and south Midlands of England who were hit hardest during the post-war period and into the 1830s. It was here that the Labourer’s Revolt of the 1830s began and was fiercest. Here, the depressed labourers refused to continue to suffer in silence, but protested in sporadic outbursts of rick-burning, as well as in widespread support for the Chartist movement of the 1830s, continuing into the 1840s. In 1830 perhaps the most serious outburst of rioting flared up not among the stocking-knitters of Nottinghamshire or the hand-loom weavers of Lancashire, but among the farm labourers of the eastern counties, where the threshing machine was increasing the number of labourers out of work during the winter months when threshing was done. The installation of the machinery was strenuously resisted by those whose labour, and consequent livelihood, it threatened to make redundant. Hence the farm labourer’s hostility to the horse-powered threshing machine which he saw depriving him of his winter work. But the violence which erupted in 1830 had been building up for some years, since the end of the French Wars, mainly due to widespread unemployment and depressed wages in the rural south and east. However, it was the particular anger against the threshing machines that fanned the riots flared in the southern countryside in 1830 and 1831.

021The disturbances began in Kent and quickly spread as far west as Dorset and as far north as Northamptonshire and East Anglia. An imaginary leader, Captain Swing, was invented (rather like the Nottinghamshire leader General Ludd) and, under his orders, farm labourers destroyed nearly four hundred threshing machines. The Swing Rising did not last long, however, as the Government, through local magistrates, dealt severely with the rioters. Six were hanged, over four hundred transported and about the same number imprisoned at home. By the end of 1830 order had been restored, though the rising did delay the spread of the machines. Nevertheless, the problem of low wages remained and increasing numbers of labourers decided to seek work in the growing industrial towns. Those who stayed put and tried to improve their wages through early attempts at forming unions, like the Tolpuddle Martyrs were dealt with like naval mutineers and also transported, leaving a legacy of bitterness. Here, too, the New Poor Law seemed most oppressive and had to be alleviated by the Speenhamland System, since there were few alternative occupations to farm labour, and periods of unemployment were almost inevitable.

In Dorset, annual contracts at the hiring fairs were usual, but wages were paid by the week, with nothing on wet days; much of the pay was in kind and the whole family was expected to work on the farm. The great difference in the rate of wages between the southern and northern counties was still apparent to James Caird in the High Farming period which followed the Repeal of the Corn Laws. He found that this wage differential was far greater than the prices of agricultural prices:

A bushel of wheat, a pound of butter, a stone of meat, is not more valuable in Cumberland, or the North Riding, than in Suffolk or Berkshire; yet the wages of the labourer in the two former (counties) are from sixty to seventy per cent higher than in the two latter counties… The higher rate is unmistakably due to the increased demand for labour. This has been greatest in the manufacturing and mining districts of the north, and near the commercial towns and great seaports… The welfare of the agricultural labourer is, more than any class in the community, dependent on the continued progress of our manufacturing and mercantile industry.

 Pictured below: The House of Commons in 1832.

021 (2)In the wake of the rural riots and rick-burning of the early 1830s, the passing of the 1832 Great Reform Act was due, in large measure, to the fears of the ruling classes that if they did not concede reforms, they might, at some imminent point, face revolution, as in France, from a combination of impoverished farm labourers in the southern and eastern counties and disenfranchised industrial workers in the growing northern and midland boroughs which had little or no representation in Parliament.

The archaic system of representation was at last challenged in the Reform Bill. At the beginning of the nineteenth century Suffolk’s parliamentary representation, unaltered for two centuries, was as follows: two county members and two borough members each for Ipswich, Bury, Sudbury, Orford, Dunwich, Eye and Aldeburgh. This distribution of representation was based on medieval settlements. Since then, all the coastal towns had dwindled in importance and Dunwich was one of the most rotten boroughs in the country; it consisted of only a handful of houses, since many of those which had been part of the thriving medieval port had long since fallen into the sea. Its corporation had to exercise their electoral franchise in a boat anchored over where the centre of the now submerged town had been. Virtually all votes were controlled by local magnates: Bury was likewise a pocket borough of the earls of Bristol, Orford was controlled by Lord Hereford and Eye by Lord Cornwallis.

Voters who were not tenants of the local landlord or in some way dependent on him were in a position of power; they could sell their vote to the highest bidder, and normally they did just that. The normal rate in Ipswich was three pounds, but this rose steadily as polling day came nearer and could be ten times that on the day itself. Candidates were expected to give sumptuous banquets for the electors and to give presents to their wives. Bribery, corruption and violence were a customary part of all elections. Sudbury was particularly notorious, with the mayor openly advertising that he and his colleagues were up for sale. Bands of electioneers wandered the town persuading voters to join their camp and wear their candidates favours. Once a voter had been recruited he was cooped up in a local hostelry, there to be plied with beer and kept away from the opposition who otherwise might try to nobble him. Dickens based his Eatanswell election in Pickwick Papers on Sudbury.

As a result of the Reform Act of 1832, Suffolk gained four county members and deprived Dunwich, Orford and Aldeburgh of their representation. It also extended the vote by reducing the property qualification. Now, ten-pound   householders in towns and ten-pound copy-holders in the countryside enfranchised. Corrupt practices could not be stopped until the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. However, politics remained a game for the rich which bore little relevance for the majority of the population. Even after the passing of the 1832 Act, five out of six men were without the vote and the industrial areas were still under-represented in the House of Commons.

 

001Writing at the time of the second Reform Act of 1867, George Eliot, alias Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), wrote a novel, Felix Holt, in which she looked back to the Warwickshire countryside she had grown up in thirty-five years earlier, at the time of the first Reform Act of 1832 and at how the temper of life changed by the first railways. The impression she gives is initially of a contrast between pleasant rural and unpleasant urban society, but closer reading reveals that, to Eliot’s eyes, the charm of the villages masked a society which was credulous and occasionally vicious; and although the new industrialism appeared to promote dirt and sensual indulgence, it could also respond to its problems in ways which the old order had never shown the capacity to do. Even the convinced enemy of capitalist industry, Engels, was able to write in the 1840s that,

The English worker today is no longer an Englishman of the old school. He no longer resembles his capitalist neighbour in being a mere machine for making money. His capacity for feeling has developed.

But where Engels saw the transition from rural to industrial life as a matter of decision on the part of society, Eliot saw it as a matter of decision on the part of the individual. Engels argued that people lived in industrial towns because they had no choice in the matter, whereas Eliot assumed that they chose to move and live there. Whatever the truth,  between 1835 and 1837, a period of returning and continuing hardship, the steady trickle of people leaving Suffolk became a flood, after the Poor Law Amendment Act provided financial assistance wishing to emigrate. Of the 6,403 people who took advantage of the scheme, 1,083 were from the county, most of them emigrating to Canada. In addition, more than two thousand left home for the industrial Midlands and North of England.

 

George Eliot’s remedies for the condition of the working people of Warwickshire was essentially a High Victorian Moral one, and she actually published an address to working men in 1867 using the name Felix Holt. Industrial society needed to be more ordered, workers should develop self-reliance and spend their, by then, high wages on books, and their time in the library rather than in the pub. Nevertheless, in her novel she does capture something of the nature of a more raw and rural, rough and ready English society:

 

Five-and-thirty years ago the glory had not yet departed from the old coach-roads: the great roadside inns were still brilliant with well-polished tankards, the smiling glances of pretty barmaids, and the repartees of jocose ostlers; the mail still announced itself by the merry notes of the horn; the hedge-cutter or the rick-thatcher might still know the exact hour by the unfailing yet otherwise meteoric apparition of the pea-green Tally ho or the Yellow Independent; and elderly gentlemen in pony-chaises, quartering nervously to make way for the rolling swinging swiftness, had not ceased to remark that times were finely changed since they used to see the pack-horses and hear the tickling of their bells on this very highway.

In those days there were pocket boroughs, a Birmingham unrepresented in Parliament and compelled to make strong representations out of it, unrepealed corn laws, three-and-sixpenny letters, a brawny and many-breeding pauperism, and other departed evils; but there were some pleasant things too, which have also departed… the elderly man has his enviable memories, and not the least of them is the memory of a long journey in mid-spring or autumn on the outside of a stage-coach… the slow old-fashioned way of getting from one end of our country to the other is the better thing to have in the memory… the happy outside passenger seated on the box from the dawn to the gloaming gathered enough stories of English life, enough of English labours in town and country… to make episodes for a modern Odyssey… Suppose only that this journey took him through that central plain, watered at one extremity by the Avon, at the other by the Trent. As the morning silvered the meadows with their long lines of bushy willows marking the watercourses, or burnished the golden corn-ricks clustered near the long roofs of some midland homestead, he saw the full-uddered cows driven from their pasture to the early milking. Perhaps it was the shepherd, head-servant of the farm, who drove them, his sheep-dog following… Mail or stage-coach belonged to that distant system of things called ‘Gover’ment’, which… was no business of his… his solar system was the parish; the master’s temper and the casualties of lambing-time were his region of storms. He cut his bread and bacon with his pocket-knife, and felt no bitterness except in the matter of pauper labourers and the bad luck that sent contrarious seasons and the sheep-rot… hedgerows were often as tall as the labourers’ cottages dotted along the lanes, or clustered into a small hamlet, their little dingy windows telling, like thick-filmed eyes, of nothing but darkness within. The passenger on the coach-box, bowled along above such a hamlet, saw chiefly the roofs of it> probably it turned is back on the road, and seemed to lie away from everything but its own patch of earth and sky, away from the parish church by long fields and green lanes… the inhabitants were probably so free from superstition that they were in much less awe of the parson than the overseer. Yet they were saved from the excesses of Protestantism by not knowing how to read, and by the absence of handlooms… to be pioneers of Dissent: they were kept safely in the ‘via media’ of indifference, and could have registered themselves in the census by a big black mark as members of the Church of England.

But there were trim, cheerful villages too, with neat or handsome parsonage and grey church set in the midst; there was the pleasant tinkle of the blacksmith’s anvil, the patient cart-horses waiting at his door… the wheelwright putting the last touch to a blue cart with red wheels… The land around was rich and marly, great corn-stacks stood in the rick-yards – for the rick-burners had not found their way hither; the homesteads were of those rich farmers who paid no rent, or had the rare advantage of a lease, and could afford to keep their corn till prices had risen. The coach would be sure to overtake some of them on their way to their outlying fields or to the market-town, sitting heavily on their well-groomed horses, or weighing down one side of an olive-green gig. They probably thought of the coach with some contempt, as an accommodation for people… who, wanting to travel to London and such distant places, belonged to the trading and less solid part of the nation. The passenger on the box could see that this was the district of protuberant optimists, sure that old England was the best of all possible countries, and that if there were any facts which had not fallen under their own observation, they were facts not worth observing> the district of clean little market-towns without manufactures, of fat livings, an aristocratic clergy, and low poor-rates. But as the day wore on the scene would change: the land would begin to be blackened with coal-pits, the rattle of hand-looms to be heard in hamlets and villages… here the pale eager faces of hand-loom weavers, men and women, haggard from sitting up late at night to finish the week’s work, hardly begun till the Wednesday. Everywhere the cottages and the small children were dirty, for languid mothers gave their strength to the loom… The gables of Dissenting chapels now made a visible sign of religion, and of a meeting-place to counterbalance the alehouse, even in the hamlets… The breath of manufacturing town, which made a cloudy day and a red gloom by night on the horizon, diffused itself over all the surrounding country, filling the air with eager unrest. Here was a population not convinced that old England was as good as possible; here were multitudenous men and women aware that their religion was not exactly the religion of their rulers, who might therefore be better than they were, and who, if better, might alter many things which now made the world perhaps more painful than it need be, and certainly more sinful. Yet there were the grey steeples too, and the churchyards… there were broad fields and homesteads, and fine old woods… In these midland districts the traveller passed rapidly from one phase of English life to another… after the coach had rattled over the pavement of a manufacturing town, the scene of riots and trades-union meetings, it would take him in another ten minutes into a rural region, where the neighbourhood of the town was only felt in the advantages of a near market for corn, cheese and hay… it was easy for the traveller to conceive that town and country had no pulse in common, except where the handlooms made a far-reaching straggling fringe about the great centres of manufacture… rural Englishmen… for the most part, resisted the rotation of crops and stood by their fallows: and the coachman would tell how in one parish an innovating farmer… had been fairly driven out by popular dislike, as if he had been a confounded Radical… and transferred his lease.  

In her later novels, Eliot continued to write about the whole of human society, especially in Middlemarch (1871-72). which many consider to be the greatest novel in English. Again, she sets it in the time of the first Reform Act, creating the fictional town of Middlemarch in the centre of England. Its themes are immense, from the changes in the voting system to medicine; from the coming of the railways to the roles of women. It considers the importance of the dead hand of the past, and ends with the heroine Dorothea finding her own independence and happiness. In another of her great novels, Silas Marner, she again contrasts the growing urban communities like Lantern Yard with the rural villages of the English Midlands in the experience of one man, The Weaver of Raveloe.

020A few leaders of the working people of industrial Britain believed, like George Eliot and other middle-class writers and social reformers,  in self-improvement through education, temperance and religion. The picture on the left shows the very respectable gathering of trades unionists which was organised to protest against the treatment of the six Tolpuddle martyrs whom the Dorchester magistrates sentenced to transportation for life for their trade union activities. They were Methodists. In the late twenties and early thirties there were several unsuccessful attempts to establish large national unions of workers, including  the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, founded by the Welsh industrialist, Robert Owen. More of these leaders, however, remained suspicious of allying themselves to the progressive middle classes, believing that, for example, the abolition of the Corn Laws and the arrival of cheaper grain, flour and bread would just be a pretext for employers to lower wages further.

022The answer was a Magna Carta for the modern age: In May 1838 the Chartists sought to change the situation for working people by publishing and petitioning Parliament to accept the six points of The People’s Charter, the first of which was universal manhood suffrage. Three months later, the Charter was adopted by a crowd of two hundred thousand people at a meeting in Birmingham, marking the launching of the movement. The size of the crowd was an indication of the support which it was already attracting from widespread geographical areas, but most of these were industrial areas, where the rising corn prices and collapse of foreign trade in 1837-38 led to the support for the movement from unemployed workers in the manufacturing districts.

Above: The second Chartist petition is carried to the House of Commons, 1842

002The lack of support for Chartism from the southern agricultural districts and from the capital itself was a major part of the ultimate defeat of the movement in 1848. Feargus O’Connor, MP for Nottingham, the charismatic Irishman who had founded The Northern Star as an anti-poor law paper and turned it into the major organ of Chartist politics, held back the physical force wing of Chartism by promising a final attempt at moral persuasion. A Chartist Convention would meet in London at the beginning of April and present the latest monster petition – five million names, it was said, on a document so immense that it would have to be taken to parliament in great bales, loaded on a farm wagon pulled by four big dray horses. Supporters, including Irish nationalist confederates, would descend on the capital from the Midlands and the North and would meet in morning assemblies at various Greens and Squares north of Westminster and move south in converging processions towards the Thames bridges, thence to their mass meeting place at Kennington Common. After speeches had been made, the petition was to be brought to Parliament. The Duke of Wellington sent out orders to allow controlled access over the bridges to Kennington – but, if necessary, to bar the route back. Some eighty-five thousand special constables had been sworn to supplement the four thousand Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and the eight thousand troops who were standing by under the command of the hero of Waterloo.

004Given this overwhelming display of force, O’Connor had the same choice to make as faced all the leaders of European marches and demonstrations in the springtime of 1848: whether to force the issue by attacking the soldiers head-on, hoping for defections, to opt for a tactical stand-off or even beat the retreat. In making his decision, he knew that the geography of rebellion was not on the side of the Chartists. In Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, the footsoldiers of liberty were local artisans and workers who barricaded themselves in their own quarters, hoisted the flags of revolution and defied government troops to come and get them. They could legitimately appear to be defending their own hearths and homes. But Londoners en masse were not so unified in their hatred of the Government, and still less of their romantic young Queen. The rank-and-file Chartists from the regions and provinces had already been stigmatised as an occupying army. At Kennington, speaking through repeaters standing on platforms dispersed through the huge crowd, surrounded by Irishmen, O’Connor announced that his orders were not to provoke any kind of incident with the soldiers and police. Nevertheless, on Blackfriars Bridge on the return march, faced with a solid wall of truncheon-wielding police, there was heaving, stone-throwing, charges and counter-charges. Arrests were made and heads bled. Many of the younger men among the demonstrators were disappointed, but O’Connor really had no choice. He may have had the numbers, but he had no means of arming them to face disciplined and resolute forces of order. The early photograph of the meeting at Kennington shows a disciplined, Sunday-best dressed respectable protest by workers always anxious to give the lie to their demonization as a drunken, criminal rabble.

003

This was not the end of Chartism as a working-class movement, however. Some of the leaders became trade union leaders in the 1850s and fitful rebellion continued in Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. At the same time, less confrontational means of advancing the cause of reform through working-class self-improvement, were being attempted. The Chartist Land Company had been established by O’Connor in 1845 in fulfilment of the dream inherited from the seventeenth-century Diggers and more recent Irish reformers. Its aim was to take back to the rural world from which they or their forebears had come those workers, often hand-loom weavers or stocking frame knitters made redundant by the new power machinery, who found themselves stranded in the new urban areas described by George Eliot, or who were first generation immigrants to factories who wanted to return to the countryside. Those able to put down a little money were given a plot of a few acres on which food could be grown and a few animals kept: this was the resurrection of the strips and back lots they had lost to enclosure and engrossment.  The Land Company has often been characterised as a utopian venture, but if it was, it was also based on solid business sense. It tapped into the already active instincts of working men and women to save enough money to buy property, including land at Great Dodford in Worcestershire, where a single cottage remains today as testimony to that spirit (photo left).

Subscribers were sold shares corresponding to their investment, and the first settlers were chosen by lottery, subsequently by auction or by the putting down of direct deposits. The motto of these settlers was do or die, as they cleared boulders, laid out roads and paths, and planted hedges. The conspicuous presence of women in the village was another indicator that, once the worst of the hard times were over, working families might be prepared to settle for the evolution of a rural domestic life rather than an urban revolution. This was not defeatism, but evidence of a quieter, constructive strategy which would come to dominate the second half century of the working-class movement.  Nevertheless, in 1851, more than half a million men and women continued to struggle for a living in the cotton mills of the North, the majority of them women.

023024Meanwhile, the advent of The Railway Age was about to bring steam trains within sound of Constable’s East Bergholt. An Act of Parliament was needed to set up a Railway Company, since building a railway line involved the compulsory purchase of land. To obtain Parliament’s permission those wishing to form a company had to present a detailed prospectus giving details of route which the engineer proposed to follow and a list of all the landowners affected, who might well protest. Some landowners succeeded in changing the route, diverting the line past their estates, but others accepted the compensation provided. The engineer had to make his line as level as possible, filling in hollows and embankments, cutting through rising ground and driving tunnels through hills. Bridges, some of considerable height and length were needed, crossing marshy ground as well as river estuaries. All this was difficult work and demanded great skill on the part of the supervising engineer. In turn, the engineers required men to dig and build for them, and at one stage, in 1847, there were three hundred thousand navvies working up and down the country building railway lines. Their predecessors, the navigation workers, had built the canals. Now, armed with picks and shovels, dressed in moleskin trousers, hobnail boots and rainbow waistcoats, they gained a reputation for hard work and riotous living. They came mainly from Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, going wherever they were needed and living in shanty towns thrown together near the works.

 

026

On one line it was estimated that, in one year, they consumed nearly one and a half million litres of beer and over twenty thousand litres of spirits. During a full day’s work they could shift in the region of twenty tonnes of earth. The work was often dangerous, especially where gunpowder was used, and the navvies often increased the risks through their own recklessness. Three navvies were killed on the London and Birmingham Railway trying to leap over the mouth of a shaft in a game of follow-my-leader. Their skills were required overseas as well as in Britain, so that in the course of the nineteenth century they literally built railways around the world.

 

025 (2)024 (2)n 1836, the Eastern Counties Railway Company was formed to build and operate a line from London to Yarmouth via Colchester, Ipswich and Norwich, in direct competition with the stage-coach services which already followed the same route. The Eastern Counties Company’s project was the most ambitious to date, too ambitious as it turned out. When it reached Colchester in 1843 work stopped because local shareholders were outbid by others who were all for getting the stock rolling and had lost interest in meeting the transport needs of East Anglia. As the Norwich Mercury bitterly remarked, local people might have saved the line by buying up shares for a sum not larger than was expended in bribery at the last Norwich election.

None025theless, an Ipswich businessman formed another company, the Eastern Union, to complete the work, and by 1849 Ipswich had been linked to Bury and Norwich, with branch lines to Harwich, Hadleigh and Sudbury. There then followed a bitter battle between the two companies. However, the Eastern Counties Company still controlled the line south of Colchester, so by fixing high through fares they were able to force the majority of Norwich travellers to use the alternative route. In 1854 the Eastern Union was forced to sell out to its rivals. Other branch lines were laid by small local companies, bringing Lowestoft, Beccles, Halesworth, Framlingham and Woodbridge into the steam age. All these branch lines were eventually taken over by the Eastern Counties Company, which was then reconstituted as the Great Eastern Railway Company in 1862.

At the time of the 1801 Census, Lowestoft was a decayed town of 2,332 inhabitants. Many efforts were made to improve the port, culminating in the building of the harbour in 1831. Then Sir Henry Morton Peto, a London builder and self-made man, who had amassed an immense fortune, bought the estate of Somerleyton, with its beautiful Tudor House, in 1844. He rebuilt the house, restored the church and virtually reconstructed the whole village. He also bought the branch line of the Eastern Counties Railway into Lowestoft in 1847. Lowestoft at once became the harbour for Norwich and once more accessible to the rest of the country. The fisheries revived, and the port became an important port of call for coasters. In 1854 the local authorities were empowered by the Lowestoft Improvement Act to levy a two-shilling rate to repair buildings, build new homes and install lighting, sewerage and other amenities. In 1861 the population was 9,413 and climbing.

By this time other Suffolk coastal towns had begun to share in the revival. Resorts were becoming popular destnations as the railways brought holidaymakers right into the east coast ports. In Southwold local businessmen embarked on an ambitious programme of speculative building of houses and hotels. White’s Directory for 1844 stated,

Felixstowe is now in high celebrity as a bathing place, and speculators have within the last few years erected here neat houses and cottages, which are let to visitors during the bathing season.

 

Aldeburgh and Orford became popular with yachtsmen. It was the essential Suffolk which attracted the visitors. The unique quality of the light, the wide vistas, the rich textures of fields, copses and hedgerows, mellowed cottages, stately church towers, mills, rivers, estuaries and shores, together with human and animal participants in the landscape – all these attracted the admiration of poets and painters alike.

Despite the coming of the railways, cutting across the countryside and along the coast, the face of Suffolk remained unchanged, especially compared with the Midlands, Durham, south Wales, and much of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Suffolkers continued in their traditional ways, most of them never venturing more than five miles from their native villages. Even so, the era of steam and the age of progress had arrived to stay and not even Suffolk could remain entirely unmoved by their spirit. New industries were created, and old ones revitalised. The vestiges of the cloth industry were still to be found in the south of the county. A little woollen cloth had continued to be made for local markets, but it was being replaced by mixed textiles such as fustians, hempen cloths and drabbet. The latter, getting its name from its greyish-white colour, was used principally in the making of farmers’ smocks. The weaving was still done in the traditional manner, on hand-looms at home. The weavers were not organised as a corporate body but completely in the hands of the entrepreneurs, and were lucky to earn six or seven shillings for a hard week’s work, less than that earned by a farm labourer when in full employment. The continuity of their work makes the story of the Suffolk weavers one of the most remarkable in the industrial history of both the county and the country. Over nine centuries they maintained their craft, adapting themselves to changing demands, and only in the late twentieth century did the last loom in Lavenham fall silent.

It was these traditional skills and low wages which brought London silk merchants to a number of towns and villages between Ipswich and Haverhill in the eighteenth century. In the course of time, cottage industry was replaced by the factory system. Mills powered by water or steam were built in Hadleigh, Glemsford and Nayland, and at Sudbury many handloom operators and their machines were installed in factories where the employer could exercise more control over them. The fortunes of the industry fluctuated but at its peak it employed as many as one and a half thousand hands in the production of plain and figured silks, satins and velvets.

039

One industry which was already ancient when the first weaver set up his loom was flint working, probably having a continuous history in the Brandon area from Neolithic times. For many centuries the industry had taken second place to sheep-rearing, but when the woollen cloth industry declined, whatever specialised sheep farming continued in the county deserted the poor pastures of the west. Sporting estates, rabbit farming and limited barley production were all that the area was good for, except flint. It was used steadily for building walls, including those of castles, manor houses and almshouses, and instead of brick in humbler farmhouses and cottages. Many of the county’s more impressive churches, such as at Lavenham and Woodbridge, and other public buildings were dressed with flint. In the nineteenth century there was a revival in the use of flint as a building material for labourers’ cottages, railway stations and municipal buildings.

At the same time flint was being used in the firing mechanisms of the English guns which wrought havoc among the Napoleonic cavalry and infantry. Flintlock muskets, more dependable in the wet and more rapidly reloaded, replaced the matchlock muskets of previous conflicts. A Brandon flint was reckoned to be good for five hundred shots.

027 (3)
In 1819 Ransome and Sons constructed Ipswich’s first iron bridge and supplied the railway with chairs which secured the rails to the sleepers. The Company’s single most important innovation, in 1803, was that of a casting process which produced a blade whose under side was harder than its top side which prevented the rapid blunting of plough shares. The development was especially important to the grain farmers of the heavy clay belt. This was only one of the numerous patents obtained by Ransomes during its first century and by 1850 the Company was employing over one thousand five hundred men. Ipswich, in general, benefited from the commercial boom of the early Victorian era. The coming of the railway kept fashionable Ipswich society supplied with its sundry wants.

027 (2)In 1843 the Rev. Professor John Henslow, one of the foremost botanists of the day, was staying with relatives in Felixstowe. He was particularly interested in fertilisers, as it had recently been discovered that exhausted soil needed nitrogen and phosphates to revive it. Henslow noticed that the red cragg and London clay of the neighbourhood contained phosphatic nodules. This discovery was taken up by Edward Packard, a Saxmundham chemist, who was already producing artificial fertiliser from bones. From the Ransomes he bought an old flour mill on the Ipswich dockside and began the commercial exploitation of the phosphatic nodules which Henslow had called coprolites. Used first by Suffolk farmers, the new fertiliser was soon taken up enthusiastically by foreign agriculturalists, and another commodity was added to Ipswich’s regular exports. The discovery of coprolite helped the trade of the docks (pictured left).

The Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 demonstrated finally that they had not been necessary in the first place. Foreign competitors were in no position to undercut British wheat. From the late 1840s, agriculture began to enjoy considerable prosperity once more and the wages of farm labourers rose. However, not for the last time, there was now a clear division emerging between two Britains, and within them two Englands. It was not a simple division between new urban areas and rural counties, but between those essentially industrial regions of the country where new markets for goods and labour enabled wages to rise more rapidly, both in town and countryside, contrasted with those rural regions where industry remained essentially domestic in character, so that labour remained in strong supply and wages did not rise as rapidly. In focusing on the growth of urban England during the Industrial Revolution, some historians have tended to forget this symbiotic relationship with rural England. Whilst it may have been forgotten, even by some contemporaries, it was not a lost world, even to the immigrants to London, Birmingham and Coventry who left it, many of whom took their country traditions, customs, folklore and patterns of speech with them.

Sources:

Martin Dickinson (1990), Britain, Europe and Beyond.  Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain 3: 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire. London: BBC Worldwide.

Robert McCrum, et. al. (1987), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.

Christopher Harvie, et. al. (eds., 1975), Industrialisation and Culture, 1830-1914. Basingstoke: MacMillan (for The Open University Press).

Neil Tonge & Michael Quincey (1985), Documents and Debates: British Social and Economic History, 1800-1900. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

%d bloggers like this: