Hyndman Contemporary Review, July 1887.
Source: Contemporary Review, July 1887;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
I think it may fairly be said that the well-to-do classes in this country really know very little about their working fellow-countrymen. I have myself knocked about the world a good deal, and, out of England, I have, at various times, lived on terms of tolerable intimacy with all sorts and conditions of men. But, until the last ten years, I must confess that the lives led by the great mass of the workers at home were almost a blank to me, and that, though I wished them well, I scarcely entered into their feelings at all. As I don’t think this was due to want of imagination or to the lack of sympathy, and I had certainly enjoyed exceptional opportunities for observation in town and country, I suppose I may be taken as a fair specimen of ordinary educated men of good means. Between the modes of thought of the workers and of men who have never had to face the difficulties which surround those who live from hand to mouth by daily toil there is a great gulf fixed. Among the cultured minority there is a sort of unexpressed belief; which finds too often harsh utterance by many who are merely rich, to the effect that if the working-men were fit for anything better than to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the minority, they would become a part of that minority themselves, and thus cease to be hewers of wood and drawers of water. The “survival of the fittest” is one of those pseudo-scientific arguments, also, which does great service in support of this view. Nowadays a change is taking place, and there is, as I believe, a genuine endeavour among at any rate a large section of the upper and middle classes to learn what the multitudes around them really stand in need of or are making ready to demand.
I was brought directly into contact with the workers of London in their own homes for the first time about twenty years ago. The shipbuilding trade was then rapidly leaving the Thames for the Clyde, and East London was in a very depressed condition. “Slumming” became quite fashionable, as it has again become of late. I slummed myself – partly out of curiosity, partly out of the hope that I might do some good. Emigration, then as now, was the great panacea put forward by well-meaning people; charity was the remedy actually applied. I soon saw, as others saw, that, whatever might be thought of emigration, charity was ruinous. It cursed both him that gave and him that took. I could not but recognize that, as things stood, the trade must go, for the time at any rate; that the strike of the shipwrights against a reduction had but served to bring on the crisis a little sooner, and that the case therefore was hopeless. After some months of fitful work in conjunction with an intimate friend, now dead, I gave the visits up. But I have never lost the impression of what I then witnessed. The endless patience in terrible misery, the calm bearing up under almost unendurable suffering, a fourth of which would have driven men of my class into something little short of insurrection, was wonderful to behold. Then I regarded this passive attitude as the noble resignation of people who bore an unavoidable calamity with firmness and stoicism. Now I look upon it merely as a symptom of that hopeless apathy which until lately has afflicted the whole working community. Much indeed were it to be wished that this same doubtful virtue of patience were less practised among them, for their own sakes and for the sake of the future of our country.
It is this uncertainty of employment, however, which more than anything else weighs upon working-men of all grades. No man, even of the highest ability, can be sure of getting continuous work. A week or a fortnight’s notice, no matter what his previous career or character may have been, and he is out upon the streets seeking for a job. This drawback affects skilled artisans less than unskilled, and trade-unionists have, besides, their out-of-work pay to fall back upon. But it is an ever-increasing evil even with them. The latest Report of the Amalgamated Engineers, for instance, shows that, without any great strike to exhaust their funds, the mere necessity for supporting the members who can get no work to do has almost broken down their finances. Yet that is the strongest combination of workmen of one trade in the world, and all our English trade-unions are, actuarially speaking, bankrupt, owing chiefly to this cause, at the present time. But the trade-unionists form only a small minority of English working-men. Hundreds of thousands even of skilled artisans belong to no trade-union. For all of them, as well as for the unskilled men, the uncertainty I speak of is terrible. I have watched friends of mine who have had to go round week after week, month after month maybe, seeking for a job. Such men do not parade their griefs, never or very rarely ask a middle-class man for help, and would utterly scorn to beg. Yet, as a highly skilled artisan said to me only a few days ago, “I would almost as soon go round begging bread as begging work; they treat you as if it were a favour you asked.” I have watched such men, I say, skilled and unskilled too, and the mental effect upon them of these long periods or short periods of worklessness is more depressing than I can describe. Let a man have been never so thrifty, if he has a wife and children, a very few weeks of idleness sweep away his savings; then he begins to pawn what little things he has; later he gets behind with his rent. His more fortunate comrades help him – this is invariable so far as I have seen among all classes of labourers; and then if he is lucky he gets into work again; if not, his furniture goes, and he falls into dire poverty. All the time not only has the man himself been suffering and losing heart, but his wife has been fretting herself to death and the children have been half-fed. In the winter-time, when the uncertainty of getting work becomes in most of our great industrial cities the certainty of not getting it for a large percentage of the labouring men and women, things are of course at their worst. After having vainly trudged around from workshop to workshop, from factory to factory, from wharf to wharf, after having, perhaps, fought fiercely but unsuccessfully for a few hours’ work at the dock-gates, the man returns home, weary, hungry, half-dead, and ashamed of his growing raggedness, to see his home without firing or food, perhaps to go to bed in order to try and forget the misery around him.
The trade-unionist, of course, can take no jobs as an unskilled man. If he does, he at once forfeits all the results of his years of payments to his union. To offer him even a fair wage out of his own line is simply to insult him with the chance of work he must not do. The non-trade-unionist or unskilled man at times of depression finds thousands like himself striving for employment at barely living rates of wages. After a few turns of such times a man’s spirit is broken. He never feels any confidence in his future. He knows but too well that at any moment he may have to undergo a similar experience. Those who talk so glibly of thrift as a panacea for all the social ills of the workers can never, I am sure, have carefully tabulated the income of a working-class family one year with another, making allowance for the incidental expenses of a home of the humblest kind. Periods of slack work in all trades now come so much more often than they did that no amount of thrift can save the workers as a class from the effects of this growing uncertainty. The majority of them, of course, have no idea of the reasons for this fitfulness of employment even in good times, and the more frequent recurrence and heavier pressure of hard times when they come. But I am convinced that if any intelligent man, in any grade of labour, were asked what on the whole occasioned him the greatest anxiety and made him most hopeless of his future, he would say this terrible uncertainty of which I have spoken.
Closely bound up with this is the steady reduction in the age at which masters decline to take men on. In nearly all trades now a man with grey hairs in his beard is rarely engaged, and is the first to be discharged. Some firms, and these the largest, make it a rule never to employ men over forty years of age if they can possibly help it. The reason for this is clear. The pressure of modern competition, the rapidity of modern machinery, are so great that a man must be in the fullest vigour to keep pace with the current. Individual employers, harsh as they may seem, can scarcely be blamed. They have to carry out contracts against rivals, and adopt what they think is the best way of keeping their business in full swing. It is the same with the coal-viewers in the colliery districts. None of them will take on a man nowadays, and especially since the Employers’ Liability Acts have been made more stringent, who is at all past his first vigour. They will keep older pitmen who are accustomed to the work and make up by experience for loss of quickness, but they refuse to employ fresh hands over forty years of age. This; as will be seen at once, is a permanent cause of uncertainty and a constant drain upon whatever benefit funds the workers may contrive to rake together when in employment.
Besides the greater stress of modern machinery referred to, the necessity, even without machinery, of getting through more work in less time wears men out earlier than it used to. One of the saddest conversations I ever had was with a skilled joiner, a trade-unionist, who had reached the age of forty-four, having worked at his trade since he was fourteen. He had been thrifty, sober, and industrious, but his frame now was completely pulled to pieces, sickness had disabled him for many months, and the look-out for himself and his family was very black. After discussing the position, he said, as a Sheffield file-grinder might say in his place, “I have worked on beyond the average of men in my trade, and I can’t complain myself. It is hard on my wife and family.” When statists prove to their own satisfaction that wages have risen, they invariably omit these considerations of slack time and the greater rapidity with which men are now used up than they were formerly. In actual life these points are forced home deeply and keenly enough.
Here, too, comes in the positive loathing for the “House,” the workhouse, which has become more noticeable and more bitter within my memory. To begin with, of course the improvement in general education and the better conditions of life which, on the whole, prevailed from about 1855 to 1875 produced their effect in rendering the entire working class more independent and less inclined to submit to the degradation of being separated from their relations and treated as paupers. I know of my own knowledge hundreds of families which have suffered the actual pangs of starvation, men, women, girls, and children of tender years, rather than be forced into the acceptance of indoor relief. They look upon it as worse than going to prison. So do I, looking upon it for them. I can imagine nothing worse than the modern workhouse as a rule; and I marvel, in view of the hostile report of the French medical men who came over to examine them on behalf of the French Government, that nothing is done to remedy the cruelty with which our Poor Law is administered. But that is by the way. The workers at any rate dread and hate the workhouse; and if I had the space to tell the tales of petty tyranny, of actual starvation, and revolting details which I have heard from time to time, no one would wonder that respectable people of the working class prefer to starve outside to being starved and bullied inside these refuges for the destitute. Yet one in twelve of London workers dies a pauper.
Through all this, one feature of working-class life to which I have incidentally referred should be noted. Working-men, whatever may be their deficiencies in other respects, and they are many and great, as I shall show later, do as a rule stand by one another in trouble, and really think nothing of it. What is more, the poorer they are the more certain is it that they will help their friends in distress. But for this feeling of fellowship among those who suffer most from uncertainty and have the greatest difficulty in keeping their heads above water, things would be yet worse with them than they are. From the well-to-do the workers expect neither help nor sympathy. A certain section of persistent cadgers of course there are in all great cities – men and women who have become utterly broken down and disheartened in the struggle of life. These are ready to bow down and whine and cant and cringe in order to get the wherewithal to buy a meal or a glass of gin. But the overwhelming majority, though no doubt ready to take what may be offered them in times of trouble, are certainly not of this description. Neither in London nor in the country do English working-men of the industrial classes – differing in this respect certainly to a great extent from the ordinary agricultural labourer – expect, as a rule, consideration from the rich. In the Black Country, that a man of the upper classes should take the slightest interest in the sorrows of the people is regarded as an inexplicable thing. An accident of a very distressing character occurred to a miner in one of the chief colliery towns of Staffordshire. The poor fellow was completely crushed. A friend of mine who was stationed there (Herbert Burrows) went to see him as he lay dying, and got him a few things. Not a pitman’s family in the neighbourhood but was talking of this for weeks afterwards. My friend, who is a well-known man in London, was pointed to as a phenomenon – a well-dressed person, not a doctor or a parson or a minister, who had been to see a pitman who had got hurt. Such an action had never been heard of before in the neighbourhood. This was on Lord Dudley’s property, where any one can see more hideous squalor and neglected physical and moral degradation in a week than will serve him for a lifetime. I mention that case, but it is only one out of many. That they should help and sympathize with one another is, however, among the poor a matter of course, though death and disease come too close to them in every-day life to leave any lasting impression on the mind. There is none of the sort of sham solemnity about death which is to be found in the houses of the rich. How can there be, when even comparatively well-to-do artisans can afford but two rooms? The sick and the dying are in the midst of the household living, and are still in the midst of the household when dead.
And this naturally leads me to speak of that question of the housing of the people wherein the workers agree fully with the conclusions of the Royal Commission, but in regard to which nothing of any importance has been or is being done. I know at this moment numbers of families of excellent character, where the bread-winner himself is well educated and quite capable of appreciating the nature of his surroundings as well as the utter hopelessness of bringing up children satisfactorily in such conditions, who are forced to live in what are little better than pigsties. Even artisans earning the highest wages are very badly off in this respect, as they are obliged to live near their work, especially in London, and this necessitates the payment of high rents. A working-man, as a rule, pays a far larger proportion of his income than the middle class for rent, and gets far worse accommodation for the rent he pays. On this point all classes are agreed. It is scarcely too much to say that a great part of the physical degeneration observable among all descriptions of workers is due to the bad, crowded condition of their dwellings. Glasgow, Liverpool, and other large towns, as well as the agricultural districts, are as bad as London in this respect. Though the scantily supplied new model dwellings are as dull as prisons and almost as bare, they show by the decreased death- and disease-rate how the workers suffer from their surroundings in the miserable rack-rented dens that the house-farmers are allowed to make fortunes out of. It is my opinion that nothing could possibly be done to improve the health of the people which would produce a greater effect than immediate attention to this dwelling question. That a reduction in rents, if universal, would in present conditions be followed probably by an equal reduction in wages would not interfere with the healthier conditions of existence which they would gain. No one who knows from personal experience the manner in which millions of our working countrymen are pigged together – evidence on this head of the most revolting character is to be found throughout the Report of the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Poor – can wonder that they are not such fine specimens of humanity as could be wished. The marvel is that the children grow up with any sound physique at all. Even in the mining districts of the North, where the pitmen are, though rough, sound, vigorous, well-educated men, the villages, with their rows of hovels sandwiched in between rows of dustbins and water-closets, are a disgrace. Everywhere we look, in short, it is impossible not to observe that all serious improvements in town and country have so far stopped short of the homes of the people.
How is it they themselves don’t use their increasing power in the State to compass social gain for themselves and their children? How is it? Unfortunately, the answer is only too ready. Because as a whole they are too ignorant, too apathetic, and too much split up among themselves. The last point is perhaps the most important of all. “What is the Third Estate?” asked the Abbe Sieyes. “Nothing. What should it be? Everything.” Nowadays that saying might be applied with far more reason to the working class. If, however, as I have said, there is little common feeling between the workers and the well-to-do, and a knot of working-men will almost instinctively stop their conversation if a “gentleman” comes in upon them, even though they know him pretty well and the subject is quite unimportant – if this is unfortunately the case between two clearly defined strata in our society, there is far too much of the same sort of thing, though of course not in that precise form, between the different grades of the working classes themselves. Skilled artisans, for instance, rarely mix much with unskilled labourers, or take any deep interest in their grievances. They are shut out, if trade-unionists, by the rules of their trade from any active co-operation with them. Not unfrequently they neglect to take account of the sufferings which the labourers have to undergo in consequence of the enforced idleness inflicted upon them by reason of their own strikes; though, seeing that the simple labourers have no organization of their own to fall back upon at such times, and are little likely to get funds from the outside public, they suffer far more than the skilled men, with still less prospect of advantage even in the event of victory. This was the state of affairs in the unfortunate strike among the coal-hewers of Northumberland, which has lately terminated after four months’ struggle. The labourers, who are outside the trade-union, were in a most miserable condition, literally starving, they, their wives, and their children; the unionists having been out against a reduction of 12½ per cent. in their already low wages. It is pitiable to see such misery, knowing well, too, that the people who suffer can never have at any time of their lives any real leisure or enjoyment to compensate them for it. On the other hand, in the case of the great strike at the Llanberis slate-quarries, the unionists who had savings gave up their strike pay in the noblest way for the benefit of the non-union men, though these very men had been against the formation of a union at all. As a rule, nevertheless, skilled workers of different trades and unskilled labourers of various occupations do not recognize that in the main their interests are identical. Men who earn high wages rank themselves as a sort of aristocracy of labour, and look down upon their less fortunate brethren. This is one of the greatest stumbling-blocks in the way of the social improvement of the working class as a whole – this, with the competition between the labour of men and women, which, in present conditions, has a most depressing effect upon the whole class of workers, women as well as men Since I was a boy I have seen women’s labour displace that of men in many departments of exhausting factory labour, where, but that women are cheaper and more docile, the men are unquestionably the better suited to the work. This, however, is too large a question to be dealt with cursorily. It is enough to say that the long-continued depression and the breakdown of the union finances all round are forcing even the most skilled men to take a wider view of the situation, and are proving to them the folly of mere strikes.
Nothing is more discouraging to any one who goes much among the workers than their lack of initiative and “go.” They have grievances enough in the course of their daily life to cause them to bestir themselves, Heaven knows; but they too often display hopeless stolidity when the possibility of complete change is pointed out to them. Among the older ones apathy has become chronic. They have lived through a period of sluggishness in which social questions have been thrust into the background, and they ask in sheer helpless fatuity, “What are we to do?” Moreover, they are so accustomed to put out their thinking and political organization to be done for them by this faction or that, by a wire-puller or a sectarian of some sort, that the idea that any real change for the better must come from themselves seems absurd to them at first. And this I have found quite as true in the manufacturing districts of the North of England and Scotland as in London and the South. Everywhere, no doubt, there is a certain percentage who are almost beyond hope of being reached at all. Crushed down into the gutter, physically and mentally, by their social surroundings, they can but die out, leaving, it is to be hoped, no progeny as a burden on a better state of things. But I am not speaking of them. I speak of the great body of the people who work with their hands for wages, and of them it is certain that the majority, the overwhelming majority, over five or six and twenty years of age, though ready enough to admit the truth when put to them, are so far quite incapable of taking any initiative of their own to remedy their own deep-seated grievances. With the younger men who are now coming into the workshop and the factory from the Board Schools the case is different. They have learnt just enough to be personally desirous to learn more, and to wish to obtain better conditions of existence than their parents. This they soon find, by bitter experience, is impossible as things stand. From among these younger men are arising the leaders of the working people everywhere; while the young women, also, are less inclined than their mothers were to accept the inevitable and live and die workers for wages. That is the result of my observation – that the rising generation will be far more discontented and far more exacting in its demands than that which is passing away. As, at the same time, wages are being reduced and uncertainty of employment is increasing, the probability of a thorough change is greater. These younger people are losing confidence in the old organizations, political and social. They see that trade-unions are of little real value, and that mere politics are of no use at all. That they have not yet come to a direct practical conclusion as to what they mean to do I recognize as clearly as any one.
But here must again be noted that physical degeneration which, in spite of all optimist statements, is so striking a feature in our urban and even in our rural population. Among the factory operatives throughout Great Britain an average man of the upper classes will find that he is taller, stronger, and in every way better developed than ninety-nine out of every hundred of these workers. Navvies, coal-heavers, and others who work in the open air are, of course, more powerful; but even these are not, so contractors tell me, equal to what they were. I think I can notice the physical degeneration myself. Thirty years ago I spent a considerable time reading with a tutor at Stockport, and I saw a great deal of the neighbourhood, visiting the mills in nearly all the towns around, and attending large gatherings, as at racecourses, public meetings, cricket matches, and the like. It is undoubtedly very difficult to compare one’s impressions at such a distance of time when the observer has himself changed so much. But it is certainly my opinion that the people are smaller than they were, and I am sure they seem no better off in other respects. All the social mischiefs which I remember then to have heard descanted upon seem to me still to flourish quite unchecked. The bad housing, the neglect of the children by the mothers, the very early sexual connections, in and out of wedlock, formed by the boys and girls, the want of scope for enjoyment of a healthy kind, all seem pretty much as they used to be, or even worse. And my general impression is supported by the records of the Blue Books, the returns of the certifying surgeons, and the fact that the standard for recruits for the army has been reduced from 5ft. 8in. to 5ft. 3in. since the Queen came to the throne. The inferior, indigestible food, especially the lack of milk for the children, the bad, close air, and the want of proper physical relaxation, following upon begettings from a stock already enfeebled by overwork and privation, have produced their natural effect. Since I was last in Manchester two successive bishops have enlarged upon the deplorable results, physical and moral, of this degeneration. The tendency at present in our cities is therefore to the reproduction of excitable, nervous organisms, educated enough to understand the misery of their surroundings, and therefore bitterly discontented with them, yet suffering from privation which renders them physically depressed.
Amid all these drawbacks, nevertheless, teetotalism spreads and cooperation is increasing. That is undoubted. But teetotalism, beneficial as it may be to the individual, does not help its votaries to any permanent improvement. Most of the active men among those whom I have worked with for the last few years are teetotallers: the best known of them all are. What they tell me is that though a teetotaller has an advantage over his fellows in health, as they believe; in the preference given by an employer to a teetotaller as a steady, sober man; and in the little savings which can be made for bad times; yet that the pressure now is so severe, and teetotallers have become so numerous, that the general advantage gained is, after all, but trifling. A teetotaller can hold on a little longer than a man who takes beer or spirits – though, be it observed, as they say to me, teetotal drinks, outside of water, are not so very cheap – by dint of his savings, and has of course a great superiority over a mere drunkard; but, if I am to trust my own experience, the percentage of teetotallers thrown out of work and into difficulties is very little if at all below that of the much-maligned moderate drinkers. I do not deny, of course, that drink is a curse to the workers as to any other class, but, apart from the fact that misery is the cause of alcoholism far more than alcoholism is the cause of misery, the truth is that total abstinence cannot save the worker from being crushed in our present society. So far as the progress of the working class goes, I only wish they were all completely sober. But the whole of their life must be changed before that can be possible, and then, to use a paradox, it will not be necessary.
Then there is co-operation. That is chiefly to be seen in the North of England. There it has attained vast proportions so far as distribution is concerned; and many of the co-operative concerns are very fairly managed. What I find among co-operators, as among fanatical teetotallers, is a certain narrowness of vision, leading them to imagine that they have found the more excellent way. I will not here enter into the general arguments against the co-operative system as we see it. But in this case, as with total abstinence, I fail to observe that the workers are protected against those fearful uncertainties due to the development of machinery, the constant shifting of centres of industry, and the recurrence of world-wide industrial crises which produce such frightful effects. No doubt the co-operators get their goods cheaper and of better quality when they are in work. This is an enormous gain, I admit; for the small retail system means for them the worst possible articles at the highest possible prices, and they are thus fleeced every way. But on the other hand, and this any one who wishes can note for himself, the predictions of Bronterre O’Brien and others have been fulfilled to the letter in regard to the narrowing of the horizon of aspiration which this perpetual dealing with twopenny-halfpenny gains involves. While men are debating about their gains on sugar, on bacon, on tea, coffee, & c., they are apt to lose sight of their far more important interests as a class. They become imbued in a small way with the trading spirit of profit, which is quite opposed to the true spirit of co-operation. This injures the tone of the working people, who, as a body, are, in spite of all drawbacks, more open to the reception of high conceptions of duty and far-reaching ideals of what might be than the upper or middle class. That is a reason why mutual lending societies among the workers are in the long run not beneficial. The shareholders look to their 10 per cent., or whatever the rate may be, and forget their mutuality in money-lending. A friend of mine, not a Social Democrat, who was one of the most skilled workers in his trade in London, started a little mutual business of this kind in Soho – with the best intentions, and the effect was anything but good. To return to co-operation; it has never taken root in London, and probably never will, on a large scale. There are few facilities for storage in London rooms; people are in the habit of buying their goods from hand to mouth in very small quantities, and cooking apparatus is of the worst description. But it may be doubted whether if all workers turned co-operators in buying they would he appreciably better off than they are to-day.
Certainly, nothing which the working classes have done for themselves has as yet touched the main causes of their depression. Overwork is still as crushing as ever in nearly all departments of business. The curtailment of hours in skilled branches is but nominal after all, What has been gained is more than made up by greater intensity of labour during the hours worked; while persistent “overtime,” though it may give the men more wages, takes more out of them, as they always say, than the extra. remuneration they get. On the other hand, in many directions the number of hours worked have been increased without any proportional increase of wages. This has been the case with omnibus and tramcar drivers and conductors, shopmen and shopwomen, railway men, the slaves of the sweaters, and others. It is almost impossible for those who are thus kept perpetually at high pressure to find the time for deep reading or discussion, and I am surprised that people who are thus overdriven know as much as they do. To look properly after their families is too often quite impossible for women and men alike. For political and social information they are, as a rule, wholly dependent on the weekly paper – the importance of which in the coming democratic period is not yet fully understood – and gossip. Of course the more active contrive to do much more than this, and some actually wear themselves out in social and political agitation, which calls for continuous reading at great (proportional) expense and sacrifice. But hard work and long hours keep the majority from any adequate study of their surroundings. That is the real difficulty in all proposals based upon the votes of the workers. We are in a vicious circle. The workers themselves have not the leisure, as they themselves admit, to master the causes of their unfortunate position. The classes above them, who possess the education, have a direct interest in maintaining the present system.
In any case the two portions of the working class who suffer most neither agitate nor act for themselves. The women and children of the wage-earners have before them a most unenviable prospect. Of course there are lucky families which go through life with a fair amount of comfort, and have a reasonable share of material happiness, such as a man not having too many children, who is in steady employment at good wages, can secure to himself and his belongings. But the numbers of those who are thus fortunate may easily be exaggerated, and at best they constitute a small proportion of the whole. And, for the rest, the heaviest part of the domestic trouble always falls upon the woman. Take a married female factory hand, for example, who may be earning good wages, though the rates of such wages are as habitually exaggerated as the wages of colliers are, what home-life is there for her? She is obliged to hurry off to the mill early in the morning, in cold or fog, rain or snow, barely, perhaps, recovered from her confinement, leaving her babe at the most critical stage of its existence to the care of strangers. Her husband and herself together earn no more than enough to rent a decent room or two or a small cottage, As the children grow up they are packed off to school, but the expense of keeping them increases, and the mother, herself pulled to pieces by heavy work, sees her offspring developing into puny, weak lads, far different from the rosy-checked boys whom she remembers playing in the village where she was born. Then comes a period when the mills work short time, or are shut down altogether. Husband, children, herself, all in fearful want for weeks or months, losing strength and losing heart at the same time, looking forward at last to the renewal of the dull, monotonous work at the loom or the spindles in bad, close air, with cotton or wool fluff flying all round, as the best hope in the world. What wonder that such women sometimes take to drink? What marvel that homes which are no homes almost drive boys and girls forth to the only pleasures left to them – drink and lust? But what is true of the cotton and woollen districts is equally true elsewhere. Prostitution itself, if we are to believe the testimony of every great doctor who has examined into the question, is, in our great towns, an evidence of the overwork and underpay of women. The girls take to the streets in the first instance to supplement a starvation wage. More than a generation has passed since Hood wrote the “Song of the Shirt,” and still the hopeless seamstress stitches on – the machine has intensified the labour, but left the wages where they were. All this meets any man who goes much among the working class. He sees daily and hourly such a hideous waste of life, such never-ending ruin of physical and mental faculties, such terrible suffering and privation borne by those whom he gets to know and respect, that his inclination is to turn off in another direction, and to believe, in spite of the teachings of science to the contrary, that all this is inevitable. To watch the gradual breakdown of shop-girls and barmaids from sheer overwork and excessive standing is itself almost as bad as to see the match-girls and sweaters’ hacks at the East-end of London crushed out of existence by short food and hopeless toil. I never hear or read strong advocacy of unrestricted women’s labour but the picture of these over-driven women in every branch of industry in which women are employed rises before me. How is it possible for them to beget healthy offspring when their physical strength is thus enfeebled?
And then the children. Their lot is a sad one too. None too strong when born, they are, many of them, brought up under every possible disadvantage. I only wish a census, a trustworthy census, could be taken of all the children in Great Britain who are insufficiently clothed and insufficiently fed. I am confident the return would horrify those who think well of our civilization. This is what the workers feel most bitterly – the impossibility of giving their children the good milk and other nourishing light food which the conditions of city life render more rather than less essential to their well-being. Uncertainty, strikes, slack time, bad trade, reduction of wages, all tell at once upon the health of the children. A keen observer can detect it immediately. This of all the sad features in a period of depression is the saddest, and I should advise any one who wants fully to appreciate the irony of our civilization to be present at the School Board summonses for non-attendance of children at school or non-payment of school fees. There is a silent tragedy in each case. And none are quite safe from this sudden calamity. No worker can be sure that his children will not be left in destitution, or, the much-paraded returns of the Savings Banks notwithstanding, that he will not find himself at the end in the workhouse.
And yet, as I have said, in spite of all drawbacks, the working class display noble qualities, and have a capacity for understanding the possibilities which lie before the race far in advance of their nominal superiors. I have spoken as I have seen. But I do not believe, for one thing, that any man gains the confidence of the workers by flattering them. Certainly there is much which is contemptible in the servile following of a name; but the mere windbag, the self-seeking demagogue who wishes to curry favour, loses his influence very quickly. It is often stated that the democracy is fickle. I don’t believe it. My charge against my working countrymen is that, on the contrary, they stick too faithfully to men who, having done them some little good, have afterwards deceived them time after time. This steady adherence to their chosen leaders – instances of it will occur to all as they read – completely gives the lie to the current notion so far as Englishmen are concerned, and is indeed a manifestation of that quality of trustfulness and confidence which will yet render our people, as they recover from their physical degeneration, the most formidable democracy the world has seen. They have still the love of fair play and open debate with order which we of the educated class are said to be losing, and they will allow a fair adversary or a friendly critic to say things to them which are assuredly far from agreeable, and permit references to be made to their apathy and ignorance, which I do not believe would be put up with by the men of any other nation. When the French workmen delegates came over from the Paris Municipality last year, they were in amazement at the calm self-restraint and discipline of the great meetings of working-men – most of them, of course, holding the extremest opinions – which they saw throughout Great Britain. Speaking of the great demonstration in Trafalgar Square, one of the ablest of them said to me, “If we had such a meeting as this in Paris, we should want to capture the city.” This natural capacity for orderly gathering, this voluntary discipline which is so marked a feature of all English crowds, betoken great qualities of citizenship. It will be the fault of the “governing classes,” not of the people, if we have to face in this country another such period of rioting and suppressed civil war as lasted from 1835 to 1842, and partially till 1848. The working classes are patient to long-suffering and apathy. They welcome reforms with a gratitude out of all proportion to the benefit conferred. But they, in common with the rest of the world, see that the social question, their question, now presses for solution; they, or at any rate the younger ones among them, feel the increasing competition and struggle for existence as unnecessary and unjust. Peaceful and law-abiding as they are, therefore, they will not be patient for ever. A new spirit is abroad among the workers throughout Great Britain, and matters which closely concern them, the knife-and-fork questions of which Stevens the Chartist spoke on Kersall Moor upwards of forty years ago, are being daily discussed in the dinner-hour and at the clubs. And now ideas spread faster than ever, and conditions develop more rapidly. The period of social apathy is clearly at an end. Let us hope that a full and timely recognition of the just demands of the people, an endeavour to realize, in part at least, the ideal of national and international industrial co-operation, now firing the minds of the labouring classes throughout Europe, will enable England to take that lead in the peaceful re-organization of society for which she is fitted by the state of her economical development and the political freedom which, on the whole, her inhabitants enjoy.
1. The Government, though often challenged, has never dared to publish the figures as to those out of work in East London. The official figures are really in excess of those given by the Social-Democratic Federation last winter.