William Morris. Commonweal 1890

Coal in Kent

Source: “Coal in Kent” Commonweal, Vol 6, No. 217, 8 March 1890, p.77;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The news that coal had been discovered in Kent, and that it would probably be found to be workable, has no doubt sent a shock of hope and expectation to some hearts and of terror to others. Amongst those who have anything to lose, those who are able to live in tolerably pleasant places without being too stupified by poverty to prevent their enjoying them, among the cultivated middle-classes in short, I should think the latter feeling prevails. The threat of the creation of a new black country on the ruins of the rural beauty of some of the most beautiful country in England, and close to London also, must impress most well-to-do people, who do not claim direct relationship with Mr Podsnap, as a real terror not to be compensated by the hope of that vague and somewhat doubtful advantage, additional commercial prosperity. This feeling shines pretty clearly through the conventional twaddle which is being written in the newspapers about the splendour of the discovery, and the splendid energy of that great and beneficent employer of labour, Sir Edward Watkin, whose virtues this grand discovery is advertising in a quite providential manner. We know pretty well that though a few capitalists may make fortunes over the job, and a few landlords fill their pockets with the royalties for working the coal-field, the discovery if it leads to anything serious will be to the well-to-do public a ghastly disaster, which will not be compensated by the possible reduction in the price of coal used for household purposes; a benefit which could be obtained at a much lower price by compelling the railways to carry the coals at reasonable rates. (I say nothing about the profits of the coal-masters and the royalties of the landlords of the existing coal-fields, as they should go to the miners and other workmen engaged in getting the coal and making it marketable).

But some of our working-men readers will perhaps cry ‘Out, O damn the well-to-do classes!’ (a sentiment in which a knowledge of facts compels me to concur,) ‘Won’t this new discovery be a great benefit to the workers?’

Well, I don’t think Socialist working-men are under any delusions on this point. I think they know pretty well that whatever loss they may suffer from the establishment of a new manufacturing hell in the south-east of England, will not be compensated to them by any amelioration in the lives of, for instance, the workers in London. They have learned by this time that Sir Edward Watkin and his pals will stick to whatever swag they may filch out of Kentish coal, which belongs to the people not to them, and will only yield to the workers what they are compelled to yield.

But to non-Socialist workers I must point out that whatever gains may be made will pass by them. The new coal-fields will give employment? Yes, but at no higher rate of wages than workmen receive now; that is, wages which just take the place of the slaves’ housing and rations of ancient days; wages also subject to all the precariousness which curses the lives of all other workers at present. It will cheapen the price of coal to all London workmen? Well, if it does so permanently and generally, with such an article of necessity as coal, it will on the other hand reduce the wages of the workers throughout London. As a matter of fact, as far as the present condition of the London workers are concerned, it will leave them in the same condition as they are in now, and will but destroy the beauty of the country which will one day be theirs in reality, and not in name only as it is now. A few rich men will be richer; that is to say, they will waste more of the labour of the workers than they do now; but no poor man will have advanced one step nearer towards the attainment of wealth, that is, to a decent enjoyable life.

For the rest, surely a new manufacturing district is the thing of all others which England least needs. Double, treble, fourfold if you will (and I think you can) the yield of victuals from the fields of Kent, and you will have done some good; for though the profit-monger will in the present eat up the extra produce, and keep it from reaching those who need it, yet with the first days of the break-up of monopolist capitalism (ie., class robbery) it would at once become real wealth to be used by our teeming population.

But fresh groups of manufactories for producing the inanities and abortions of civilization, what shall we say about them? This — in the present they are instruments for carrying on the robbery of the poor by the rich, for producing counters to be used in the gambling market, which at once dominates and supports the capitalistic system of production. That is one function of their production; and the other is the making of goods for poor people, which none but poor people (ie., slaves) would buy. To make useless luxuries for the rich, and to force shoddy rubbish on the poor, will be the office of the manufacturing districts in the present if we are cursed with them. And in the future when we have become free, and no longer need the toys of the fool or the rags of the slave, what shall we do with them? They will be mere nuisances to be got rid of at the expense of labour and trouble

Let us hope, then, that coal in Kent will turn out an empty scare; that is, nothing but a blatant advertisement for the worker’s friend, Sir Edward Watkin.