Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley


Written in 1854.
Addressed to the Working Men of Great Britain.

My Friends — Since I wrote this book five years ago, I have seen a good deal of your class, and of their prospects. Much that I have seen has given me great hope; much has disappointed me; nothing has caused me to alter the opinions here laid down.

Much has given me hope; especially in the North of England. I believe that there, at least, exists a mass of prudence, self-control, genial and sturdy manhood, which will be England’s reserve-force for generations yet to come. The last five years, moreover, have certainly been years of progress for the good cause. The great drag upon it — namely, demagogism — has crumbled to pieces of its own accord; and seems now only to exhibit itself in anilities like those of the speakers who inform a mob of boys and thieves that wheat has lately been thrown into the Thames to keep up prices, or advise them to establish, by means hitherto undiscovered, national granaries, only possible under the despotism of a Pharaoh. Since the 10th of April, 1848 (one of the most lucky days which the English workman ever saw), the trade of the mob-orator has dwindled down to such last shifts as these, to which the working man sensibly seems merely to answer, as he goes quietly about his business, “Why will you still keep talking, Signor Benedick? Nobody marks you.”

But the 10th of April, 1848, has been a beneficial crisis, not merely in the temper of the working men, so called, but in the minds of those who are denominated by them “the aristocracy.” There is no doubt that the classes possessing property have been facing, since 1848, all social questions with an average of honesty, earnestness, and good feeling which has no parallel since the days of the Tudors, and that hundreds and thousands of “gentlemen and ladies” in Great Britain now are saying, “Show what we ought to do to be just to the workman, and we will do it, whatsoever it costs.” They may not be always correct (though they generally are so) in their conceptions of what ought to be done; but their purpose is good and righteous; and those who hold it are daily increasing in number. The love of justice and mercy toward the handicraftsman is spreading rapidly as it never did before in any nation upon earth; and if any man still represents the holders of property, as a class, as the enemies of those whom they employ, desiring their slavery and their ignorance, I believe that he is a liar and a child of the devil, and that he is at his father’s old work, slandering and dividing between man and man. These words may be severe: but they are deliberate; and working men are, I hope, sufficiently accustomed to hear me call a spade a spade, when I am pleading for them, to allow me to do the same when I am pleading to them.

Of the disappointing experiences which I have had I shall say nothing, save in as far as I can, by alluding to them, point out to the working man the causes which still keep him weak: but I am bound to say that those disappointments have strengthened my conviction that this book, in the main, speaks the truth.

I do not allude, of course, to the thoughts, and feelings of the hero. They are compounded of right and wrong, and such as I judged (and working men whom I am proud to number among my friends have assured me that I judged rightly) that a working man of genius would feel during the course of his self-education. These thoughts and feelings (often inconsistent and contradictory to each other), stupid or careless, or ill-willed persons, have represented as my own opinions, having, as it seems to me, turned the book upside down before they began to read it. I am bound to pay the working men, and their organs in the press, the compliment of saying that no such misrepresentations proceeded from them. However deeply some of them may have disagreed with me, all of them, as far as I have been able to judge, had sense to see what I meant; and so, also, have the organs of the High–Church party, to whom, differing from them on many points, I am equally bound to offer my thanks for their fairness. But, indeed, the way in which this book, in spite of its crudities, has been received by persons of all ranks and opinions, who instead of making me an offender for a word, have taken the book heartily and honestly, in the spirit and not in the letter, has made me most hopeful for the British mind, and given me a strong belief that, in spite of all foppery, luxury, covetousness, and unbelief, the English heart is still strong and genial, able and willing to do and suffer great things, as soon as the rational way of doing and suffering them becomes plain. Had I written this book merely to please my own fancy, this would be a paltry criterion, at once illogical and boastful; but I wrote it, God knows, in the fear of God, that I might speak what seems to me the truth of God. I trusted in Him to justify me, in spite of my own youth, inexperience, hastiness, clumsiness; and He has done it; and, I trust, will do it to the end.

And now, what shall I say to you, my friends, about the future? Your destiny is still in your own hands. For the last seven years you have let it slip through your fingers. If you are better off than you were in 1848, you owe it principally to those laws of political economy (as they are called), which I call the brute natural accidents of supply and demand, or to the exertions which have been made by upright men of the very classes whom demagogues taught you to consider as your natural enemies. Pardon me if I seem severe; but, as old Aristotle has it, “Both parties being my friends, it is a sacred duty to honour truth first.” And is this not the truth? How little have the working men done to carry out that idea of association in which, in 1848–9, they were all willing to confess their salvation lay. Had the money which was wasted in the hapless Preston strike been wisely spent in relieving the labour market by emigration, or in making wages more valuable by enabling the workman to buy from cooperative stores and mills his necessaries at little above cost price, how much sorrow and heart-burning might have been saved to the iron-trades. Had the real English endurance and courage which was wasted in that strike been employed in the cause of association, the men might have been, ere now, far happier than they are ever likely to be, without the least injury to the masters. What, again, has been done toward developing the organization of the Trades’ Unions into its true form, Association for distribution, from its old, useless, and savage form of Association for the purpose of resistance to masters — a war which is at first sight hopeless, even were it just, because the opposite party holds in his hand the supplies of his foe as well as his own, and therefore can starve him out at his leisure? What has been done, again, toward remedying the evils of the slop system, which this book especially exposed? The true method for the working men, if they wished to save their brothers and their brothers’ wives and daughters from degradation, was to withdraw their custom from the slopsellers, and to deal, even at a temporary increase of price, with associate workmen. Have they done so? They can answer for themselves. In London (as in the country towns), the paltry temptation of buying in the cheapest market has still been too strong for the labouring man. In Scotland and in the North of England, thank God, the case has been very different; and to the North I must look still, as I did when I wrote Alton Locke, for the strong men in whose hands lies the destiny of the English handicraftsman.

God grant that the workmen of the South of England may bestir themselves ere it be too late, and discover that the only defence against want is self-restraint; the only defence against slavery, obedience to rule; and that, instead of giving themselves up, bound hand and foot, by their own fancy for a “freedom” which is but selfish and conceited license, to the brute accidents of the competitive system, they may begin to organize among themselves associations for buying and selling the necessaries of life, which may enable them to weather the dark season of high prices and stagnation, which is certain sooner or later, to follow in the footsteps of war.

On politics I have little to say. My belief remains unchanged that true Christianity, and true monarchy also, are not only compatible with, but require as their necessary complement, true freedom for every man of every class; and that the Charter, now defunct, was just as wise and as righteous a “Reform Bill” as any which England had yet had, or was likely to have. But I frankly say that my experience of the last five years gives me little hope of any great development of the true democratic principle in Britain, because it gives me little sign that the many are fit for it. Remember always that Democracy means a government not merely by numbers of isolated individuals, but by a Demos — by men accustomed to live in Demoi, or corporate bodies, and accustomed, therefore, to the self-control, obedience to law, and self-sacrificing public spirit, without which a corporate body cannot exist: but that a “democracy” of mere numbers is no democracy, but a mere brute “arithmocracy,” which is certain to degenerate into an “ochlocracy,” or government by the mob, in which the numbers have no real share: an oligarchy of the fiercest, the noisiest, the rashest, and the most shameless, which is surely swallowed up either by a despotism, as in France, or as in Athens, by utter national ruin, and helpless slavery to a foreign invader. Let the workmen of Britain train themselves in the corporate spirit, and in the obedience and self-control which it brings, as they easily can in associations, and bear in mind always that only he who can obey is fit to rule; and then, when they are fit for it, the Charter may come, or things, I trust, far better than the Charter; and till they have done so, let them thank the just and merciful Heavens for keeping out of their hands any power, and for keeping off their shoulders any responsibility, which they would not be able to use aright. I thank God heartily, this day, that I have no share in the government of Great Britain; and I advise my working friends to do the same, and to believe that, when they are fit to take their share therein, all the powers of earth cannot keep them from taking it; and that, till then, happy is the man who does the duty which lies nearest him, who educates his family, raises his class, performs his daily work as to God and to his country, not merely to his employer and himself; for it is only he that is faithful over a few things who will be made, or will be happy in being made, ruler over many things.

Yours ever,

C. K.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44