Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

II. Early jobs and workmates

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

I now come to 1880. I was working as an engineer at the Westinghouse Company, Canal Road, King’s Cross, London. This was the first works established by Westinghouse in Europe for the manufacture of the Westinghouse Automatic Brake, and I found the work of the air brake particularly interesting. A number of the staff and some of the mechanics were from the United States, and Mr George Westinghouse himself was frequently there. Most of the machinery was from America. The atmosphere of the works was that of America, and it suited me well. Notwithstanding the fact that the brake was wonderfully efficient, experiments were always being carried on with a view to greater efficiency, and large sums were spent in this direction. George Westinghouse, the inventor, was a very big man physically, as well as otherwise, and to all appearances took the keenest delight not only in the designs, but in the mechanical finish. He seemed to take great interest in comparing English workmanship with American. Many yarns were told about Mr Westinghouse’s early experiences in the States. One — and I believe it was quite true — was as follows : Mr Westinghouse had invented the brake and was ready to get to business, but was in need of the capital to start a factory. He was advised to go to New York and get in touch with the moneyed men who are always ready to invest in a sound proposition. Westinghouse left his models at Pittsburg and made for New York, ultimately securing an appointment with a millionaire — Pierpont Morgan, I believe it was. Westinghouse explained the invention, describing how he would put two small cylinders on the side of the locomotive boiler, one of which would be operated by steam from the boiler, and this would operate its companion cylinder, pumping air into the pipes that were connected with the cylinders under each vehicle, and the release of the air would operate the brake blocks that would stop the train. The millionaire chimed in at this stage: “Do I understand that your intention is to stop railroad engines and trains by blowing wind at them?” — “Well, by pumping the air to a pressure of ninety pounds per inch and then releasing it.” The millionaire here cut the conversation short by jumping up and opening the door, directing Westinghouse out, and saying: “That’ll do, young man, I’ve no time to spend on damn fool propositions”; and thus ended the interview. The money difficulty was, however, overcome, and rapid development followed.

At this time I was mainly interested in two subjects apart from workshop affairs — social problems and astronomy. What turned my attention to the study of astronomy was the fact that, before starting with the Westinghouse Company, I had been employed in Cubitt’s engineering works in Grays Inn Road. I was working as a turner on a chuck lathe. The British Museum authorities had received a large meteorite weighing some seventy or eighty pounds, and they wanted to have it cut into approximately three equal pieces for exhibition in different museums. The museum people sent it to Cubitt’s for this purpose. It so happened that the lathe I was working on was the most suitable on which to do the job, so it came to me. I remember I spent about two days on this, and naturally it gave me a good stimulus to thought as to where it came from; as to what it consisted of I had ample evidence in sawing it through twice to make three portions as required. It consisted of metal that seemed to me exactly like Bessemer steel. This, however, was not continuous but interspersed all through the mass in pieces about an inch and a quarter in diameter; the rest of the meteorite resembled slag from a blast furnace, and was very hard. While I was at work on this, I was questioned by other workmen who passed me as to what it was. I soon realised my ignorance, and resolved to lose no time in getting some knowledge from reliable sources. Hence I became keen upon a number of things astronomical, and this science has ever since been my chief standby as a recreative study.

At this time also I was much attracted by the Malthusian theory of population. My additional experience and study in the field of practical social reform convinced me that persistent attention given to individuals might, and often did, result in the developing on their part of qualities of self-reliance and self-respect, thus temporarily, and sometimes permanently, changing their characters for the better; but it was plain that into the quagmire from which these individuals had been rescued, others had been forced by the pressure of their surroundings. It was impossible to take comfort in “plucking brands from the burning” if the rescues thus effected merely added to the pressure which would force others into a similar position.

It was clear that there was a mighty force of some kind counteracting and nullifying the efforts of well-disposed reformers. With altruistic enthusiasm, such persons worked in and through religious institutions, temperance and food reform agencies, people’s concerts, organ recitals, penny readings, Christian Endeavour societies, and Young Men and Young Women’s Christian Associations. These, and all the other benevolent and kindly efforts made by the comfortably placed on behalf of the miserable failed to reduce the totality of misery, or to minimise the sum of human suffering.

I was in contact with large numbers of workmates in conditions where serious fluctuations of employment prevailed. I was myself one of those liable to summary discharge, and to considerable spells of unemployment, quite irrespective of personal habits. Since the most intelligent and virtuous were affected equally with the others, it became nauseous to listen to statements from the temperance platform as to how careless individuals who had neglected their homes, etc, had become total abstainers, had regained regular employment, were able to keep at work in consequence of their reliability, and so on. This line of argument had such marked limitations that it was impossible to tolerate it. In view of the effort expended and the numbers enrolled in the various bodies, making due allowance for the excellent work done, the observer who computed the percentage of the physically unfit, the number of badly housed and insufficiently fed (what General Booth of the Salvation Army called the “submerged tenth“), perceived that the army of the wretched remained just as large as before all these efforts had been made.

Something more far-reaching must be found, or the prospect was indeed a gloomy one. I was in this stage of development when I was confronted with the doctrine of Malthus. Thomas Robert Malthus wrote his Essay on Population in 1795 in reply to William Godwin’s book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. The Malthusian contention is that population always treads on the limits of subsistence. The population under free conditions tends to double itself every twenty-five years. The means of subsistence under the most favourable conditions cannot be made to increase so fast, hence the growth of population is checked by the want of food. Malthus claimed that population increased in a geometrical ratio, and the means of subsistence in an arithmetical ratio. He stated the case as follows:

Let us call the population of this island eleven millions; and suppose the present produce equal to the easy support of such a number. In the first twenty-five years the population would be twenty-two millions, and the food being also doubled the means of subsistence would be equal to this increase. In the next twenty-five years, the population would be forty-four millions, and the means of subsistence only equal to the support of thirty-three millions. In the next period the population would be eighty-eight millions, and the means of subsistence just equal to the support of half that number … Taking the whole earth, instead of this island, emigration would of course be excluded; and supposing the present population equal to a thousand millions, the human species would increase as the numbers 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. In two centuries the population would be to the means of subsistence as 256 to 9; in three centuries, as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable.

This result is not to be witnessed because no more people can live than there is subsistence for. Malthus’s conclusion is that the tendency of population to indefinite increase must be held back by moral restraint of the reproductive faculty. In default of this, nature steps in with positive checks to the population, including “all unwholesome occupations, severe labour and exposure to the seasons, extreme poverty”, resulting in early deaths, with a percentage of the people always below even the poverty line and ready to die at the next touch of economic pressure. This theory destroys all hope of curing poverty and the evils arising from poverty by attempts to uplift the mass through changing the environment, or in any other way than by regulating the number of children that may be born, and by adapting that number to the possible maximum production of life’s necessaries. It declares that the production of these necessaries cannot by any possibility be made to keep pace with the unregulated natural increase in population. The illustrations given by Malthus, more particularly as regards America during the eighteenth century, seemed to give strong support to the theory. Although the author’s endeavours to apply the principle to various countries and to show that everywhere population tended to increase in a geometrical ratio, whereas the means of subsistence could increase only in arithmetical ratio, were obviously fanciful, still, in the main, the Malthusian theory seemed to be supported by fundamental facts.

The Malthusian League was very active in these days, and in 1877 public attention had been directed to the population question by the prosecution of Mr Brad laugh and Mrs Annie Besant for publishing and circulating the pamphlet known as The Fruits of Philosophy, written by Dr Knowlton of America. The league spread considerable literature on the population question, and everyone really concerned about social reform was sooner or later brought into contact with this question.

For myself, I did not feel equal to meeting the many arguments advanced by the Malthusians, nor could I convince myself that they were right. While in this unsettled state of mind I went to work at Thorneycroft’s, the torpedo-boat builders, at Chiswick. Here, in 1881, I read Henry George’s book, Progress and Poverty. This was a big event for me; it impressed me as by far the most valuable book I had so far read, and to my agreeable surprise at the time it seemed to give an effective answer to Malthus. I was greatly interested in the book. It enabled me to see more clearly the vastness of the social problem, to realise that every country was confronted with it, and the capable and comprehensive analyses of the population question supplied me with what I had not then found in any book in this country before. I must again give a reminder that Socialism was known only to a very few persons, and that no Socialist organisation existed at this time.

Henry George’s cure for economic troubles, as advocated in Progress and Poverty is the single tax. I could not accept all George’s claims on behalf of his proposal, though for lack of economic knowledge I was unable to refute these claims. I am not wishful, however, to pass any criticisms upon Henry George; I wish, rather, to express my indebtedness to him. His book was a fine stimulus to me, full of incentive to noble endeavour, imparting much valuable information, throwing light on many questions of real importance, and giving me what I wanted — a glorious hope for the future of humanity, a firm conviction that the social problem could and would be solved. Although it was not till 1884 that I acquired a real grasp of social economics, the study of Henry George’s book was of untold value, and never since I gave it careful attention have I had one hour of doubt but that the destiny of the human race is assured, and that the workers will, in due time, come to occupy their rightful position.

I must revert to the Westinghouse firm, for while here I took part in a strike. The firm, knowing the prejudice against piecework on the part of Englishmen in the trade, had not at first attempted to introduce it; but the time came when they insisted upon its being resorted to. They submitted proposals of a special character, and offered high prices, which the men admitted would pay well; but this was a policy experienced men had knowledge of. On one floor, the men were practically all non-union, and here, piecework was in operation. The firm claimed the right to apply the same principle on another floor. The attitude of the men was, on the advice of the union (the Amalgamated Society of Engineers), that to start piecework on a floor where hitherto day-work had obtained, was from the union standpoint an attempt to start it in a new shop. Consequently, all members of the ASE left work. In a few days I restarted at Cubitt’s. This was the first time I had actually participated in a strike. Since then I have been identified with many hundreds of them.

Working on the next lathe to myself at Cubitt’s was a quite unusual type of Scotsman. He was a tall, dignified person, never indulging in frivolity, but absolutely obsessed by the continuous study of Shakespeare. His one and only recreation was to read Shakespeare, and books that dealt with Shakespeare, plus seeing every Shakespearian piece performed, so that naturally he became a critic of no mean ability. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare infected me, and I, too, became a student of the great bard. As a Warwickshire man myself, and not a stranger to the Birmingham library, I had turned over the pages of the Stratford-on-Avon giant; but the devotion of my fellow-workman impelled me to carefully read, mark, and learn. I derived benefit accordingly, and from that time I was never lonely so long as a volume of Shakespeare was available. As I write these lines and think of my old workmate, whom I have not seen for very many years, I recall the only occasion when he looked at me with an unfriendly glare, and I probably deserved it. On the last day of March I had put many questions to my friend Jeffries on Shakespeare, and he had been equal to them all. It occurred to me to try the April-fool trick on him; so I made up a doggerel kind of question, and said I thought it occurred somewhere in the tragedies, as follows: “Oh, what a numskull to turn over the page and not to see that he’s had.” Of course, he could not recall such a sentence, but would look for it. Next morning, he expressed regret and astonishment at his inability to trace it; he had spent several hours trying to do so. I then reminded him that it was April 1, and he gave me the look referred to. No wonder!

The engines that propel the Whitehead torpedo were made by the inventor of the engine, Peter Brotherhood, whose firm was then in Compton Street, Clerkenwell. I left Cubitt’s to go to Brotherhood’s, to turn forty sets of pistons for that number of engines then ordered by the Admiralty. The atmosphere at Brotherhood’s was quite different from that of previous shops I had been at — more cosmopolitan, varied, and essentially engineering and nothing but engineering. The foreman was a fine, intelligent man, broadminded and tolerant; but there seemed to be nothing to talk about at meal times or on any odd occasion but work. Government orders, and who had them, patents just launched or expected, prospects of greater trade for engineers, the mechanical progress of the world as it affected engineers. No talk here of social problems; but every man was in the ASE and seemed to me to possess ability of the highest grade. Nothing could prove insurmountable to them, as mechanics.

From Clerkenwell, where I had been working on torpedo engines, I went to Chiswick to work on the engines for the torpedo boats. This I have already referred to. Amongst workmates here were enthusiastic co-operators; good propagandists they were, and they tactfully tried to interest their workmates in the principles of co-operation. Naturally, the next thing was membership of the store. There were those also who had a scientific turn of mind, and a number attended classes. Science and art classes were held in the neighbourhood, and I made another start by attending them. Here also were some who had a disposition to study systematically. It was decided to form a society. This was done under the name of the Shakespeare Mutual Improvement Society. I became president of this. The meetings were held at the Devonshire Club and Institute in Chiswick High Road. I happen to have a copy of the syllabus from January to July, 1884. Shakespearian subjects occupy a good portion of the program. Amongst others is a lecture on electricity, another the chemistry of the Sun, another titled Are other Worlds Habitable? Both the lectures on astronomy were given by a Mr G. Wells. Another was on the circulation of the blood. One was on The Tower of London, and I remember vividly another lecture on The River Thames. This last was given by James Aitken Welch. He was working on the surface plate, marking off; a term well understood by engineers. A well-developed man of cosmopolitan interests, he was a workman of the type that exercises a great influence for good over others. He was an ardent co-operator, an enthusiastic trade unionist, and is still active, well on in the eighties, as a trustee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. My own contribution to the program of the society in this first session of 1884 was a lecture on progress and poverty, and another on astronomy. On Saturday afternoons, visits were arranged to various museums and other public institutions.

At this period Mr Richard A. Proctor, the astronomer, was lecturing at Kensington on, The Birth and Death of Worlds. I was a regular reader of Proctor’s magazine Knowledge, and I had succeeded in interesting two of my workmates in some elementary items of astronomical information, so that they readily agreed to accompany me to the lecture. After a brief explanatory statement the lecturer exhibited a series of very fine pictures showing nebulae and the resultant worlds, their life and decay. I had been engrossed, giving all attention with eyes and ears. After a time, I looked round to my friend Ted on my left hand. He was fast asleep. I turned to Jack on my right hand, and he, too, was fast asleep. The spirit indeed was willing, but the flesh was weak. They were sorry, for they were really interested in the subject.

Whilst working at Chiswick in the year 1882, I made my first trip to Paris, in company with a young workman of London with whom I had been maintaining a correspondence in shorthand for the purpose of interchanging opinions and gaining a familiarity with Pitman’s phonography. My friend was a Swedenborgian, and amongst other matters we talked over was the doctrine of uses, as taught by the New Church. We discussed theology, and frequently he would return to his main contention as expressed by Swedenborg, viz: “All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good”. In explaining “goodness” the contention was that a man was good by the amount of service he rendered to his fellows: therefore, to be of use was to be good. My friend was also a capable violinist, and I, too, gave some little attention to this fine instrument, though I was never equal to a creditable performance thereon. Still, it was a helpful influence.

We were both delighted with our week in France. This was the first time either of us had been out of England, and we were eager for new experiences. It was of intense interest to both of us to muddle our way through, with about a half-dozen French phrases of the guidebook order. We watched men at work, and noticed not only how they worked, but took stock of every garment they wore and every gesture they made. The week did not satisfy me, but we returned and started work. Yet I could not keep my mind off the desirability of a longer trip and the sampling of some other country. So the following year I resolved upon a visit to New York, determined to take my tools and stay a few months, and get greater satisfaction than I had done from the short time in Paris.

I arrived in New York just as the preparations had been made to celebrate the opening of Brooklyn Bridge. This took place on the second day after my arrival, and that morning I had succeeded in getting a situation as an engineer (“machinist”, they term it), to start the next day. So I participated in the opening of the bridge celebrations with zest. There are four very fine bridges across the East River now, but this was the first of them.

I got along all right in the workshop. It was the engineering department at Havermeyer & Elder’s Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn. There had been a considerable recent extension of the works, and the engineers were working night and day shifts. My first unsatisfactory experience was that of the working hours. For years past in England we had had a nine-hour day, or fifty-four hour working week, so arranged that we could leave work at one o’clock on Saturdays. In the States a ten-hour day or fifty-nine hour week still prevailed, the men leaving on Saturdays only one hour earlier than on other days. I was, of course, a member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, but not more than a third of the men I was working with belonged to any union. My mate, taking turns about with me on the same lathe (in working the double shifts we changed about, each working a week on nights and a week on days), was a Norwegian. On the next lathe on my right there was a German, working mate with an American; and on my left an Austrian was mated with an Italian. On that one floor, accommodating about one hundred and twenty men, there were a dozen nationalities represented.

I put in four months in New York, working in Brooklyn; and all that time I found only one workman who had any knowledge of Henry George, and he was a Scotsman. This same man came from the western states, and fixed up for lodgings at what was known as Lafayette Hall, in Delancy Street. I also was staying there. We became friendly and he recited many of his experiences to me; but he was weak in the chest, the lungs were faulty, he became ill and went to the hospital.

On a Sunday morning, quite early, information was sent from the hospital that he had died during the night. Only three persons, including myself, had talked with him at any length. All we knew of him was that he was a member of the Amalgamated Engineers, and that his home was in Scotland, his mother’s address being found in his trunk. It was August, the weather was exceedingly hot. As the result of a conference of the three mentioned and the landlord, it was decided that the best thing to do was to accept responsibility for the burial of our departed comrade, and to proceed to make arrangements for the funeral. This was done. We obtained the permit to get the corpse, arranged with the undertaker to take same across the North River to a cemetery on the Jersey Heights; we paid six dollars for a grave; we four and two gravediggers were the only ones to attend at the graveside. No service of any kind was held, no speech made. We each took a shovel and slowly dribbled earth on to the coffin. Ten minutes later the gravediggers had filled in the grave. It was now five o’clock in the afternoon, and the man had not been dead more than twenty hours. It seemed to me awfully callous, and yet no proposal I could make was considered any improvement on the course taken.

Returning to London in the autumn, I at once commenced working for the old firm of Thorneycroft’s at Chiswick, and engaged actively in the work of the lecture society before referred to. It was about this time that the late Professor Thorold Rogers published his work Six Centuries of Work and Wages. I got hold of this and devoured it, and many parts of it were very helpful. Particularly was I interested in the details that showed the hours of labour and the purchasing power of wages received five or six hundred years ago in this country; and to find that Rogers contended, and gave many documentary proofs in support, that the hours of labour were only eight a day six hundred years ago.

The following extract will serve to show the style, and it can easily be understood that a student would delve into the mass of facts and figures the Professor’s complete edition provided:

I have protested before against that complacent optimism which concludes, because the health of the upper classes has been greatly improved, because that of the working classes has been bettered, and appliances, unknown before, have become familiar and cheap, that therefore the country in which these improvements have been effected must be considered to have made, for all its people, regular and continuous progress. I contend that from 1563 to 1824, a conspiracy, concocted by the law, and carried out by parties interested in its success, was entered into, to cheat the English workman of his wages, to tie him to the soil, to deprive him of hope and to degrade him into irremediable poverty.

I had become convinced of the necessity for a reduction in the hours of labour, and made use of any occasion that offered to advocate the eight-hour day. No one that knew was doing this, but I felt impelled to take action and did so. One of my earliest attempts was when I introduced the subject to the Hammersmith branch of the Amalgamated Engineers, of which I was a member. There were some seventy or eighty members present, and I submitted a resolution to the effect that the time had arrived when definite action should be taken to secure an eight-hour working day instead of the nine that generally prevailed. On the vote being taken five voted in favour, and the rest against. As far as I can remember no one really opposed in principle, but “the time was not ripe”. I was the “young man in a hurry”, etc. But the matter did not end here.