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Raymond Challinor

Useful Toil

(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1975, p.39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Useful Toil
edited by John Burnett
Allen Lane, £2.50 paperback.

PROFESSOR Burnett had a bright idea. He decided to try and unearth new sources that shed fresh light on working people’s lives. Appeals in the press led to a response: he received a number of diaries and autobiographies that had apparently merely been lying about in attics collecting dust. Professor Burnett has now published a selection from them – 27 extracts that come from wheelwrights, stone-masons, miners, kitchen-maids, navvies, potters, shop assistants, and a variety of other occupations.

The result is altogether fascinating. From reading them, one can gain more insight into the pay, conditions, attitudes and leisure pursuits, sometimes of sections of the working class whose activities have largely remained shrouded in mystery.

It could almost be propounded as a law of capitalism that the notice taken of you is in inverse proportion to your contribution to society. While the antics of the aristocracy have been sedulously chronicled, little interest was taken in the poor, benighted agricultural labourer. One has only to think about the terms that were applied to the agricultural labourer in the 19th century – ‘brother of the ox’, ‘secret people’ – to gain some idea. His long hours of back-breaking toil were done in obscurity, without society knowing or caring about him. If he starved to death – say, as sometimes happened, found near a hedgerow with his stomach full of grass, then it was unlikely that the authorities would bother to hold an inquest. Only in the mid-1850s, when agricultural workers formed their own union, did the ruling class start to pay some attention.

Looking at the information he has assembled, Professor Burnett says:

‘The picture which emerges from these writings is of men and women who are materially very poor by contemporary standards, who are uncomplaining in their poverty, who lead lives of hard work but rarely expect to find fulfilment from it, and for whom the family, interpersonal relationships, and relationships with God are centrally important. Their intellectual and cultural horizons are strictly limited: very few concern themselves with national events or politics, even with local trade union or labour movements.’

This, in my view, shows the limitation of Professor Burnett’s albeit fascinating book. While I am prepared to admit that working class organisations were generally not as well supported in the 19th century as they are today, there were nevertheless many significant revolts. People were not doffing their caps to the squire all the time. Also, they did think about political questions.

Perhaps Professor Burnett’s study will stimulate some other historian to journey down this avenue which he did not enter. It would be very worthwhile if someone issued an appeal, extensively publicised, for people whose ancestors wrote their experiences of participation in radical, socialist and trade union movements to bring them forward. When excerpts were collected, it would make an interesting companion volume to the one under review.

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Last updated: 21.3.2008