Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one. Europe

I. Childhood and apprenticeship

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter

I was born at Foleshill, Coventry, Warwickshire, on April 15, 1886. I fix upon 1880, when I was twenty-four years of age, as a suitable opening date for what follows, because in that year I first began to realise that the faults of individuals; and the evils in the community, the existence of which I deplored, were not to be eliminated or cured by urging individuals of every class and station to live “godly, righteous and sober lives”.

I must explain that I had only a very short time at school as a boy, less than three years all told; about a year and a half at Foleshill Old Church Day School, and about a year at Little Heath School, Foleshill. As by this time I was nine years of age I was considered old enough to start work. My mother had died when I was two and a half years old. My father was a clerk at the Victoria Colliery ; so it was counted · fitting that I should make a start as a boy on the colliery farm. A year as an ordinary kiddie doing odd jobs in the fields, bird-scaring, leading the horse at the plough, stone-picking, harvesting, and so on, and I was ready to tackle a job down the mine.

I started work down the mine in the air courses. A number of men and boys were always at this work: the duties were to make and keep in order small roads or “courses” to convey the air to the respective workings in the mines. These air courses were only three feet high and wide, and my work was to take away the ’’mullock”, coal or dirt that the man would require taken from him as he worked away at “heading” a new road, or repairing an existing one. For this removal there were boxes known down the mine as “dans”, about two feet six inches long and eighteen inches wide and of a similar depth with an iron ring fixed at each end. I had to draw the box not on rails; it was built sledge-like, and each boy had a belt and chain. A piece of stout material was fitted on the boy around the waist. To this there was a chain attached, and the boy would hook the chain to the box, and crawling on all fours; the chain between his legs, would drag the box along and take it to the “gob” where it would be emptied. Donkey work it certainly was. The boy were stripped to the· waist, and as there were only candles enough for one each, and these could not be carried, but had to be fixed at the end of the stages, the boy had to crawl on hands and toes dragging his load along in worse than Egyptian darkness. Many a time did I actually lie down groaning as a consequence of the heavy strain on the loins, especially when the road was wet and clayey, causing much resistance to the load being dragged.

The work is now rarely done in this way. More generally a larger road is made, rails are aid, and horses do the pulling; but it must be remembered that I am writing of a period before the Mines Regulation Act of 1872, and four years before the Education Act of 1870.

I had been working at the mine about four years when a spontaneous fire broke out, and proved to be of such a serious nature that it could not be extinguished. Several attempts were made to restart work; but every time fresh air was admitted the fire burst forth anew. At length the mine was closed altogether, and thus it remains to this day, 1922.

Our family, like the rest, had to leave the district. We settled in Birmingham, and I became apprenticed to a tool-making firm. This was in 1870, the year the Elementary Education Act was passed. Its operation was too late to be helpful to me, as I was already in my fifteenth year when it became law, and had been at work five years. By degrees it dawned on me that I had missed something in the educational line; I realised that all boys under the age of fourteen were now required to attend school. I, like other boys, very frequently had to work overtime, so the only school I could attend was Sunday School, to which I went regularly, and I became a regular churchgoer as well at St Thomas, Holloway Head, Birmingham. The working hours at the factory were sixty a week, but, as I have said, frequently we were called upon to work overtime, usually two hours of an evening, thus leaving at eight o’clock instead of six o’ clock, and as we started punctually at six in the morning, it made a long day of it.

At this time I knew nothing at all about trade unionism; but occasionally one or other of the men would be pointed out to me as “belonging to the Society”. I had no clear idea as to what this signified, until, when I was sixteen, I became conscious of some kind of activity amongst the men, particularly the “Society men”, which neither I nor my workmates could make much of. As the weeks passed, we overheard mention of the Beehive, the trade union paper, which, however, I have no recollection of having seen at that time. Then we heard of meetings being held. We youngsters had not so far been counted of sufficient importance to be consulted, or even informed, till we learned that the men were negotiating with the firm about the nine-hour day. The next bit of news was indeed exciting. We learned that every person in the firm, men and boys, was summoned to a meeting. This was the first meeting of the kind I had ever attended. The proceedings did not last long. The business consisted of a report from the committee that had been negotiating with the firm for the nine-hour da y, or fifty-four hour week, instead of the ten-hour da y and sixty-hour week. It was proposed that all should continue to start work at six in the morning, and leave at five in the evening instead of six ; also that there must be “penalisation of overtime”. This, I gathered, meant that the men would refuse to work overtime unless there was more than ·there was more than the ordinary time rate for it. All the proposals being endorsed, negotiations were continued and completed, the firm granting the conditions. How truly pleased I was I need not trouble to add, and how thoroughly we enjoyed the dinner held to celebrate the event requires no further comment. I did not know at the time that there was a general move throughout the country establishing the nine-hour day in all engineering works, but so it was, and I had good reason to be glad of it.

The reduction of working hours to nine a day, coupled with the stoppage of overtime, had a very important bearing on my life. The firm, having agreed to pay extra for overtime, very astutely gave orders immediately for a considerable extension of the factory, sufficient to accommodate an additional hundred men and boys. This was exactly what the men had aimed at, and I believe all were delighted at the diminution of overtime. For myself, I very rarely worked any overtime after this during the additional five years I remained there to complete my apprenticeship.

Fortunately for those of my age others who had sorely felt the need of education, had already, in co-operation with influential persons taken action to establish evening classes in the town. Thus, at the Midland Institute, at the Severn Street Institute, and elsewhere, classes on many on many subjects were available at very reasonable rates. Three evenings a week for five years I attended classes in connection with the Science and Art Department, South Kensington.

In addition I attended a Bible class one evening a week, and found it very helpful. I shall refer to this later. Also, I went on one evening a week to the meeting of a temperance society of which I was a member. Every Sunday evening, along with a young religious enthusiast, I attended a church or religious service of some kind, and became familiar with all varieties, not only of forms of worship and doctrine but also of preachers and their styles. This left one evening only out of seven for ordinary purposes during the winter months.

I think I was particularly fortunate in most of the teachers I came into contact with. Three in particular I am quite sure had much to do in giving to me and strengthening any characteristics I may have worth referring to.

My Sunday teacher, Mr Watts, in whose class I was twice each Sunday during four successive years (till I consented to take a class myself), was a man of great religious fervour. As soon as the scriptural lesson was read, he addressed the class, tactfully attending to each member of it with a warmth and zeal that riveted interest and stimulated enthusiasm for a devotional life. At Severn Street, where I studied machine construction and design, the teacher, Mr E. Shorthouse, a Quaker, was no ordinary man. He was dignified and refined and gave personal attention to each student. His quiet, forceful manner, his kindly but pointed comments, his helpful suggestions on the subject of one’s efforts, with an occasional personal enquiry as to one’s welfare, commanded not only our admiration but our genuine love.

Although I was connected with the Anglican Church, the Bible class I attended and liked so much was conducted. by Mr Edmund Laundy of the Society of Friends. Mr Laundy was a public accountant, a precise speaker, a splendid teacher. He taught me much, and helped me in the matter of correct pronunciation, clear articulation, and insistence upon knowing the root origin of words, with a proper care in the use of the right words to convey ideas. He encouraged the class systematically to use a good dictionary, and ever to have the same handy. Following his valuable advice I have always been grateful that I was privileged to attend his class. He has gone: it is forty-five years since I left Birmingham, and therefore left the class; but I have never been unmindful of the value of the lessons that fine old man gave us.

During the period I spent in Birmingham, Mr John Bright was one of the three members of parliament for the borough. I frequently heard him in the Birmingham Town Hall. I have heard many prominent speakers in that hall, and in many other places, but never one comparable to John Bright. The plainness of his language, the unaffected simplicity of his illustrations, his power to drive home the points of his speech, in conjunction with the mellifluous vocalisation of which he was a master, made one feel that it was a great privilege to listen to such oratory, and to observe the orator.

During this same period, Mr Joseph Chamberlain was on the municipal council and filled the position of mayor of the borough for three years in succession. Municipal politics in Birmingham were then of a rather high standard, the reconstruction scheme in particular being, for that date, a bold undertaking. Joseph Chamberlain was full of energy, and exhibited great capacity. I well remember the meeting in the Town Hall on the occasion of his becoming the MP in place of either Muntz or Dixon, who resigned to make room for him. Chamberlain’s maiden speech in parliament was in favour of the Gothenburg system. As a whole-souled advocate of total abstinence, I was an ardent supporter of Chamberlain in his efforts to introduce the Gothenburg scheme into Britain. I continued to think highly of this scheme until years after, when I visited Gothenburg and Scandinavia generally; then I lost my enthusiasm for it.

National politics at this period were not very enlivening. No one was as yet advocating socialism; to preach radicalism or republicanism was as far as any public speaker went; but secularism was well to t e front. Charles Bradlaugh, G.W. Foote, Annie Besant and others were exceedingly active. George Jacob Holyoake was also a strong advocate of secularism. What was known as the free-thought movement not only had numerous adherents, but many of the best speakers in the country were identified with the movement, and the National Secular Society had a very large membership. G.J. Holyoake; himself a Birmingham man, was a highly cultured and most refined speaker. I heard him occasionally at the Baskerville Hall, Birmingham, and always admired his transparent sincerity and broad-mindedness.

The first time I heard Mrs Besant was in Birmingham, about 1875. The only women speakers I had heard before this were of mediocre quality. Mrs Besant transfixed me; her superb control of voice, her whole-souled devotion to the cause she was advocating, her love of the downtrodden, and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for all children created such an impression upon me that I quietly but firmly resolved that I would ascertain more correctly the why and wherefore of her creed.

Charles Bradlaugh was at this period, and I think for fully fifteen years, the foremost platform man in Britain.

When championing an unpopular cause, it is of advantage to have a powerful physique. Bradlaugh had this; he had also the courage equal to any requirement, a command of language and power of denunciation superior to any other man of his time. On matters that he held to be right none could make a better case and few so good. He · was a thorough republican. Of course, in theological affairs, he was the iconoclast, the breaker of images. He had never been a trade unionist, but the trade unionists of the north, particularly of Northumberland and Durham, regularly invited him to their annual galas, and looked upon him as the mast valiant helper they could secure.

I am not concerned to take sides as regards the respective principles championed by those to whom I refer in these memoirs. My purpose in directing attention to the personalities I mention is to enable the reader to size up the situation at the date referred to.

One of the most prominent figures in trade-union activity at this period was Joseph Arch. He was an agricultural labourer of Bedford, Warwickshire. During the 1870s he devoted himself to organising the farm workers, and on a number of occasions they received the hearty support of the trade-union movement in general. The bitterness shown by the farmers and in many cases by the clergy, particularly those of the Church of England, was of a tyrannical and persecuting order. It was the bitterness of those who have issued proclamations in favour of liberty, but who fiercely oppose all attempts towards emancipation that are made by persons living in their own immediate neighbourhood. As with all other sections of workers, substantial successes, and at other times failures, were experienced by the farm workers, but beyond any question the Agricultural Labourers Union did more than all other agencies put together to improve the farm workers’ status, and to give them an insight into the possibilities of a better future.

By the time I was·twenty-one, in April 1877, any knowledge I had of trade unionism, co-operation, politics, or other forms of activity, sank into nothingness in comparison with my then dominant conviction that everything was subservient to the “one thing needful”, the “salvation of the soul”. All social distress, according to this view, is the direct outcome of neglecting the soul’s salvation. With missionary zeal I worked in the temperance movement as an adjunct to church work, believing in the orthodox way that a vicious environment was mainly responsible for keeping human beings in the “wide road that leads to destruction”. I realised, however, that I ought to try and change that environment by social activities.

Had I had guidance at this stage, to teach me how far environment is really responsible for character, and to show me the respective values of social institutions, undoubtedly I should have changed my attitude; but I had no grounding in sociology or in economics. The teachers I had revered knew nothing of such subjects; their outlook upon life, and therefore mine at this time, was conditioned by the orthodox interpretation of the Christian religion, which in its turn was mainly conditioned (but this I did not know) by economic determinism.

It was of great value to me that there was a fine public library at Birmingham, easily get-at-able, and available to all. I read considerably, but not systematically. I knew nothing of Shelley; Ruskin only very superficially; and nothing whatever of Malthus or Marx. Still, I was groping my way, if not directly, towards the light. At least I was becoming conscious of mental darkness. Giving attention to physiology, stimulated thereto by the statements made by temperance advocates as to the poisonous effects of alcohol on the human system, I grew convinced that excessive and improper drinking habits were largely engendered by unwise eating. The effect of this study was to cause me to become a vegetarian, and an enthusiastic food reformer.

From two directions I received a tilt towards the region of economics. Mr W. Hoyle’s book on temperance first led me to connect the problems of the day with the social problem in general. Mr Hoyle contended that if temperance habits universally prevailed, the hours of labour need not be more than four per day. In food reform literature I read not only of the waste of material in the consumption of malt, etc, in the making of liquor, but also of the enormously extravagant custom or living upon animal food when, the same land cultivated to supply humans with foodstuffs direct, would maintain several times as many people as was possible when animals were maintained on the land, and the humans fed on the animals. I am not here concerned with physiological or humanitarian reasons for a non-flesh diet. I merely refer to my first realisation that acreage of land and the produce therefrom had, or might have, a direct bearing upon population and the standard of life.

Young men of the present generation may be disposed to smile at the lack of economic knowledge possessed by young men at the period I am writing of. In this connection it should be remember that no propagandist meetings advocating socialism were held in those days. No socialist society existed. Although Karl Marx had written the first volume of his great work, Capital, in London and it had been published in Germany in 1867, the English translation of this volume did not appear until 1886.

There was no general activity amongst trade unionists. The trade unionists whose names were before the public at this period were those of Henry Broadhurst, George Howell, George Odger, Randall Cremer, Robert Applegarth and George Shipton. The furthest they reached in matters political in 1874 was to run Labour candidates under the auspices of the Labour Representation League. Two (the first ever elected in Britain) were returned in 1874; Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander Macdonald for Stafford. The above-named were nothing more than liberal Labourites; they merely claimed full legal recognition of the right to organise trade unions, with safeguarding of trade-union funds. A number of them, and notably Charles Bradlaugh (whose name was included in the list· of candidates), were land reformers, not land nationalisers.

In the autumn of 1876, having completed my seven years’ apprenticeship, and being now twenty-one years and six months old, I left Birmingham for London. The engineering trade was experiencing a very slack time. I had a spell out of work, and rather than remain idle I obtained a situation as dock clerk at Swan & Edgar’s, Piccadilly Circus. I continued my interest in food reform, and joined in propagandist efforts with a group of similar-minded enthusiasts, finding considerable satisfaction in the advocacy and practise of the same. I continued rigidly on these lines for three years.