Those who read my story only for amusement, I advise to skip this chapter. Those, on the other hand, who really wish to ascertain what working men actually do suffer — to see whether their political discontent has not its roots, not merely in fanciful ambition, but in misery and slavery most real and agonizing — those in whose eyes the accounts of a system, or rather barbaric absence of all system, which involves starvation, nakedness, prostitution, and long imprisonment in dungeons worse than the cells of the Inquisition, will be invested with something at least of tragic interest, may, I hope, think it worth their while to learn how the clothes which they wear are made, and listen to a few occasional statistics, which, though they may seem to the wealthy mere lists of dull figures, are to the workmen symbols of terrible physical realities — of hunger, degradation, and despair. [Footnote: Facts still worse than those which Mr. Locke’s story contains have been made public by the Morning Chronicle in a series of noble letters on “Labour and the Poor”; which we entreat all Christian people to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” “That will be better for them,” as Mahomet, in similar cases, used to say.]
Well: one day our employer died. He had been one of the old sort of fashionable West-end tailors in the fast decreasing honourable trade; keeping a modest shop, hardly to be distinguished from a dwelling-house, except by his name on the window blinds. He paid good prices for work, though not as good, of course, as he had given twenty years before, and prided himself upon having all his work done at home. His workrooms, as I have said, were no elysiums; but still, as good, alas! as those of three tailors out of four. He was proud, luxurious, foppish; but he was honest and kindly enough, and did many a generous thing by men who had been long in his employ. At all events, his journeymen could live on what he paid them.
But his son, succeeding to the business, determined, like Rehoboam of old, to go ahead with the times. Fired with the great spirit of the nineteenth century — at least with that one which is vulgarly considered its especial glory — he resolved to make haste to be rich. His father had made money very slowly of late; while dozens, who had begun business long after him, had now retired to luxurious ease and suburban villas. Why should he remain in the minority? Why should he not get rich as fast as he could? Why should he stick to the old, slow-going, honourable trade? Out of some four hundred and fifty West-end tailors, there were not one hundred left who were old-fashioned and stupid enough to go on keeping down their own profits by having all their work done at home and at first-hand. Ridiculous scruples! The government knew none such. Were not the army clothes, the post-office clothes, the policemen’s clothes, furnished by contractors and sweaters, who hired the work at low prices, and let it out again to journeymen at still lower ones? Why should he pay his men two shillings where the government paid them one? Were there not cheap houses even at the West-end, which had saved several thousands a year merely by reducing their workmen’s wages? And if the workmen chose to take lower wages, he was not bound actually to make them a present of more than they asked for? They would go to the cheapest market for anything they wanted, and so must he. Besides, wages had really been quite exorbitant. Half his men threw each of them as much money away in gin and beer yearly, as would pay two workmen at cheap house. Why was he to be robbing his family of comforts to pay for their extravagance? And charging his customers, too, unnecessarily high prices — it was really robbing the public!
Such, I suppose, were some of the arguments which led to an official announcement, one Saturday night, that our young employer intended to enlarge his establishment, for the purpose of commencing business in the “show-trade”; and that, emulous of Messrs. Aaron, Levi, and the rest of that class, magnificent alterations were to take place in the premises, to make room for which our workrooms were to be demolished, and that for that reason — for of course it was only for that reason — all work would in future be given out, to be made up at the men’s own homes.
Our employer’s arguments, if they were such as I suppose, were reasonable enough according to the present code of commercial morality. But, strange to say, the auditory, insensible to the delight with which the public would view the splendid architectural improvements — with taste too grovelling to appreciate the glories of plate-glass shop-fronts and brass scroll work — too selfish to rejoice, for its own sake, in the beauty of arabesques and chandeliers, which, though they never might behold, the astonished public would — with souls too niggardly to leap for joy at the thought that gents would henceforth buy the registered guanaco vest, and the patent elastic omni-seasonum paletot half-a-crown cheaper than ever — or that needy noblemen would pay three-pound-ten instead of five pounds for their footmen’s liveries — received the news, clod-hearted as they were, in sullen silence, and actually, when they got into the street, broke out into murmurs, perhaps into execrations.
“Silence!” said Crossthwaite; “walls have ears. Come down to the nearest house of call, and talk it out like men, instead of grumbling in the street like fish-fags.”
So down we went. Crossthwaite, taking my arm, strode on in moody silence — once muttering to himself, bitterly —
“Oh, yes; all right and natural! What can the little sharks do but follow the big ones?”
We took a room, and Crossthwaite coolly saw us all in; and locking the door, stood with his back against it.
“Now then, mind, ‘One and all,’ as the Cornishmen say, and no peaching. If any man is scoundrel enough to carry tales, I’ll —”
“Do what?” asked Jemmy Downes, who had settled himself on the table, with a pipe and a pot of porter. “You arn’t the king of the Cannibal Islands, as I know of, to cut a cove’s head off?”
“No; but if a poor man’s prayer can bring God’s curse down upon a traitor’s head — it may stay on his rascally shoulders till it rots.”
“If ifs and ans were pots and pans. Look at Shechem Isaacs, that sold penknives in the street six months ago, now a-riding in his own carriage, all along of turning sweater. If God’s curse is like that — I’ll be happy to take any man’s share of it.”
Some new idea seemed twinkling in the fellow’s cunning bloated face as he spoke. I, and others also, shuddered at his words; but we all forgot them a moment afterwards, as Crossthwaite began to speak.
“We were all bound to expect this. Every working tailor must come to this at last, on the present system; and we are only lucky in having been spared so long. You all know where this will end — in the same misery as fifteen thousand out of twenty thousand of our class are enduring now. We shall become the slaves, often the bodily prisoners, of Jews, middlemen, and sweaters, who draw their livelihood out of our starvation. We shall have to face, as the rest have, ever decreasing prices of labour, ever increasing profits made out of that labour by the contractors who will employ us — arbitrary fines, inflicted at the caprice of hirelings — the competition of women, and children, and starving Irish — our hours of work will increase one-third, our actual pay decrease to less than one-half; and in all this we shall have no hope, no chance of improvement in wages, but ever more penury, slavery, misery, as we are pressed on by those who are sucked by fifties — almost by hundreds — yearly, out of the honourable trade in which we were brought up, into the infernal system of contract work, which is devouring our trade and many others, body and soul. Our wives will be forced to sit up night and day to help us — our children must labour from the cradle without chance of going to school, hardly of breathing the fresh air of heaven — our boys, as they grow up, must turn beggars or paupers — our daughters, as thousands do, must eke out their miserable earnings by prostitution. And after all, a whole family will not gain what one of us had been doing, as yet, single-handed. You know there will be no hope for us. There is no use appealing to government or parliament. I don’t want to talk politics here. I shall keep them for another place. But you can recollect as well as I can, when a deputation of us went up to a member of parliament — one that was reputed a philosopher, and a political economist, and a liberal — and set before him the ever-increasing penury and misery of our trade, and of those connected with it; you recollect his answer — that, however glad he would be to help us, it was impossible — he could not alter the laws of nature — that wages were regulated by the amount of competition among the men themselves, and that it was no business of government, or any one else, to interfere in contracts between the employer and employed, that those things regulated themselves by the laws of political economy, which it was madness and suicide to oppose. He may have been a wise man. I only know that he was a rich one. Every one speaks well of the bridge which carries him over. Every one fancies the laws which fill his pockets to be God’s laws. But I say this, If neither government nor members of parliament can help us, we must help ourselves. Help yourselves, and heaven will help you. Combination among ourselves is the only chance. One thing we can do — sit still.”
“And starve!” said some one.
“Yes, and starve! Better starve than sin. I say, it is a sin to give in to this system. It is a sin to add our weight to the crowd of artizans who are now choking and strangling each other to death, as the prisoners did in the black hole of Calcutta. Let those who will turn beasts of prey, and feed upon their fellows; but let us at least keep ourselves pure. It may be the law of political civilization, the law of nature, that the rich should eat up the poor, and the poor eat up each other. Then I here rise up and curse that law, that civilization, that nature. Either I will destroy them, or they shall destroy me. As a slave, as an increased burden on my fellow-sufferers, I will not live. So help me God! I will take no work home to my house; and I call upon every one here to combine, and to sign a protest to that effect.”
“What’s the use of that, my good Mr. Crossthwaite?” interrupted some one, querulously. “Don’t you know what came of the strike a few years ago, when this piece-work and sweating first came in? The masters made fine promises, and never kept ’em; and the men who stood out had their places filled up with poor devils who were glad enough to take the work at any price — just as ours will be. There’s no use kicking against the pricks. All the rest have come to it, and so must we. We must live somehow, and half a loaf is better than no bread; and even that half loaf will go into other men’s mouths, if we don’t snap at it at once. Besides, we can’t force others to strike. We may strike and starve ourselves, but what’s the use of a dozen striking out of 20,000?”
“Will you sign the protest, gentlemen, or not?” asked Crossthwaite, in a determined voice.
Some half-dozen said they would if the others would.
“And the others won’t. Well, after all, one man must take the responsibility, and I am that man. I will sign the protest by myself. I will sweep a crossing — I will turn cress-gatherer, rag-picker; I will starve piecemeal, and see my wife starve with me; but do the wrong thing I will not! The Cause wants martyrs. If I must be one, I must.”
All this while my mind had been undergoing a strange perturbation. The notion of escaping that infernal workroom, and the company I met there — of taking my work home, and thereby, as I hoped, gaining more time for study — at least, having my books on the spot ready at every odd moment, was most enticing. I had hailed the proposed change as a blessing to me, till I heard Crossthwaite’s arguments — not that I had not known the facts before; but it had never struck me till then that it was a real sin against my class to make myself a party in the system by which they were allowing themselves (under temptation enough, God knows) to be enslaved. But now I looked with horror on the gulf of penury before me, into the vortex of which not only I, but my whole trade, seemed irresistibly sucked. I thought, with shame and remorse, of the few shillings which I had earned at various times by taking piecework home, to buy my candles for study. I whispered my doubts to Crossthwaite, as he sat, pale and determined, watching the excited and querulous discussions among the other workmen.
“What? So you expect to have time to read? Study after sixteen hours a day stitching? Study, when you cannot earn money enough to keep you from wasting and shrinking away day by day? Study, with your heart full of shame and indignation, fresh from daily insult and injustice? Study, with the black cloud of despair and penury in front of you? Little time, or heart, or strength, will you have to study, when you are making the same coats you make now, at half the price.”
I put my name down beneath Crossthwaite’s, on the paper which he handed me, and went out with him.
“Ay,” he muttered to himself, “be slaves — what you are worthy to be, that you will be! You dare not combine — you dare not starve — you dare not die — and therefore you dare not be free! Oh! for six hundred men like Barbaroux’s Marseillois —‘who knew how to die!’”
“Surely, Crossthwaite, if matters were properly represented to the government, they would not, for their own existence’ sake, to put conscience out of the question, allow such a system to continue growing.”
“Government — government? You a tailor, and not know that government are the very authors of this system? Not to know that they first set the example, by getting the army and navy clothes made by contractors, and taking the lowest tenders? Not to know that the police clothes, the postmen’s clothes, the convicts’ clothes, are all contracted for on the same infernal plan, by sweaters, and sweaters’ sweaters, and sweaters’ sweaters’ sweaters, till government work is just the very last, lowest resource to which a poor starved-out wretch betakes himself to keep body and soul together? Why, the government prices, in almost every department, are half, and less than half, the very lowest living price. I tell you, the careless iniquity of government about these things will come out some day. It will be known, the whole abomination, and future generations will class it with the tyrannies of the Roman emperors and the Norman barons. Why, it’s a fact, that the colonels of the regiments — noblemen, most of them — make their own vile profit out of us tailors — out of the pauperism of the men, the slavery of the children, the prostitution of the women. They get so much a uniform allowed them by government to clothe the men with; and then — then, they let out the jobs to the contractors at less than half what government give them, and pocket the difference. And then you talk of appealing to government.”
“Upon my word,” I said, bitterly, “we tailors seem to owe the army a double grudge. They not only keep under other artizans, but they help to starve us first, and then shoot us, if we complain too loudly.”
“Oh, ho! your blood’s getting up, is it? Then you’re in the humour to be told what you have been hankering to know so long — where Mackaye and I go at night. We’ll strike while the iron’s hot, and go down to the Chartist meeting at ——.
“Pardon me, my dear fellow,” I said. “I cannot bear the thought of being mixed up in conspiracy — perhaps, in revolt and bloodshed. Not that I am afraid. Heaven knows I am not. But I am too much harassed, miserable, already. I see too much wretchedness around me, to lend my aid in increasing the sum of suffering, by a single atom, among rich and poor, even by righteous vengeance.”
“Conspiracy? Bloodshed? What has that to do with the Charter? It suits the venal Mammonite press well enough to jumble them together, and cry ‘Murder, rape, and robbery,’ whenever the six points are mentioned; but they know, and any man of common sense ought to know, that the Charter is just as much an open political question as the Reform Bill, and ten times as much as Magna Charter was, when it got passed. What have the six points, right or wrong, to do with the question whether they can be obtained by moral force, and the pressure of opinion alone, or require what we call ulterior measures to get them carried? Come along!”
So with him I went that night.
“Well, Alton! where was the treason and murder? Your nose must have been a sharp one, to smell out any there. Did you hear anything that astonished your weak mind so very exceedingly, after all?”
“The only thing that did astonish me was to hear men of my own class — and lower still, perhaps some of them — speak with such fluency and eloquence. Such a fund of information — such excellent English — where did they get it all?”
“From the God who knows nothing about ranks. They’re the unknown great — the unaccredited heroes, as Master Thomas Carlyle would say — whom the flunkeys aloft have not acknowledged yet — though they’ll be forced to, some day, with a vengeance. Are you convinced, once for all?”
“I really do not understand political questions, Crossthwaite.”
“Does it want so very much wisdom to understand the rights and the wrongs of all that? Are the people represented? Are you represented? Do you feel like a man that’s got any one to fight your battle in parliament, my young friend, eh?”
“I’m sure I don’t know —”
“Why, what in the name of common sense — what interest or feeling of yours or mine, or any man’s you ever spoke to, except the shopkeeper, do Alderman A—— or Lord C—— D—— represent? They represent property — and we have none. They represent rank — we have none. Vested interests — we have none. Large capitals — those are just what crush us. Irresponsibility of employers, slavery of the employed, competition among masters, competition among workmen, that is the system they represent — they preach it, they glory in it. — Why, it is the very ogre that is eating us all up. They are chosen by the few, they represent the few, and they make laws for the many — and yet you don’t know whether or not the people are represented!”
We were passing by the door of the Victoria Theatre; it was just half-price time — and the beggary and rascality of London were pouring in to their low amusement, from the neighbouring gin palaces and thieves’ cellars. A herd of ragged boys, vomiting forth slang, filth, and blasphemy, pushed past us, compelling us to take good care of our pockets.
“Look there! look at the amusements, the training, the civilization, which the government permits to the children of the people! These licensed pits of darkness, traps of temptation, profligacy, and ruin, triumphantly yawning night after night — and then tell me that the people who see their children thus kidnapped into hell are represented by a government who licenses such things!”
“Would a change in the franchise cure that?”
“Household suffrage mightn’t — but give us the Charter, and we’ll see about it! Give us the Charter, and we’ll send workmen, into parliament that shall soon find out whether something better can’t be put in the way of the ten thousand boys and girls in London who live by theft and prostitution, than the tender mercies of the Victoria — a pretty name! They say the Queen’s a good woman — and I don’t doubt it. I wonder often if she knows what her precious namesake here is like.”
“But really, I cannot see how a mere change in representation can cure such things as that.”
“Why, didn’t they tell us, before the Reform Bill, that extension of the suffrage was to cure everything? And how can you have too much of a good thing? We’ve only taken them at their word, we Chartists. Haven’t all politicians been preaching for years that England’s national greatness was all owing to her political institutions — to Magna Charta, and the Bill of Rights, and representative parliaments, and all that? It was but the other day I got hold of some Tory paper, that talked about the English constitution, and the balance of queen, lords, and commons, as the ‘Talismanic Palladium’ of the country. ‘Gad, we’ll see if a move onward in the same line won’t better the matter. If the balance of classes is such a blessed thing, the sooner we get the balance equal, the better; for it’s rather lopsided just now, no one can deny. So, representative institutions are the talismanic palladium of the nation, are they? The palladium of the classes that have them, I dare say; and that’s the very best reason why the classes that haven’t got ’em should look out for the same palladium for themselves. What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, isn’t it? We’ll try — we’ll see whether the talisman they talk of has lost its power all of a sudden since ‘32 — whether we can’t rub the magic ring a little for ourselves and call up genii to help us out of the mire, as the shopkeepers and the gentlemen have done.”
From that night I was a Chartist, heart and soul — and so were a million and a half more of the best artisans in England — at least, I had no reason to be ashamed of my company. Yes; I too, like Crossthwaite, took the upper classes at their word; bowed down to the idol of political institutions, and pinned my hopes of salvation on “the possession of one ten-thousandth part of a talker in the national palaver.” True, I desired the Charter, at first (as I do, indeed, at this moment), as a means to glorious ends — not only because it would give a chance of elevation, a free sphere of action, to lowly worth and talent; but because it was the path to reforms — social, legal, sanatory, educational — to which the veriest Tory — certainly not the great and good Lord Ashley — would not object. But soon, with me, and I am afraid with many, many more, the means became, by the frailty of poor human nature, an end, an idol in itself. I had so made up my mind that it was the only method of getting what I wanted, that I neglected, alas! but too often, to try the methods which lay already by me. “If we had but the Charter”— was the excuse for a thousand lazinesses, procrastinations. “If we had but the Charter”— I should be good, and free, and happy. Fool that I was! It was within, rather than without, that I needed reform.
And so I began to look on man (and too many of us, I am afraid, are doing so) as the creature and puppet of circumstances — of the particular outward system, social or political, in which he happens to find himself. An abominable heresy, no doubt; but, somehow, it appears to me just the same as Benthamites, and economists, and high-churchmen, too, for that matter, have been preaching for the last twenty years with great applause from their respective parties. One set informs the world that it is to be regenerated by cheap bread, free trade, and that peculiar form of the “freedom of industry” which, in plain language, signifies “the despotism of capital”; and which, whatever it means, is merely some outward system, circumstance, or “dodge” about man, and not in him. Another party’s nostrum is more churches, more schools, more clergymen — excellent things in their way — better even than cheap bread, or free trade, provided only that they are excellent — that the churches, schools, clergymen, are good ones. But the party of whom I am speaking seem to us workmen to consider the quality quite a secondary consideration, compared with the quantity. They expect the world to be regenerated, not by becoming more a Church — none would gladlier help them in bringing that about than the Chartists themselves, paradoxical as it may seem — but by being dosed somewhat more with a certain “Church system,” circumstance, or “dodge.” For my part, I seem to have learnt that the only thing to regenerate the world is not more of any system, good or bad, but simply more of the Spirit of God.
About the supposed omnipotence of the Charter, I have found out my mistake. I believe no more in “Morison’s-Pill-remedies,” as Thomas Carlyle calls them. Talismans are worthless. The age of spirit-compelling spells, whether of parchment or carbuncle, is past — if, indeed, it ever existed. The Charter will no more make men good, than political economy, or the observance of the Church Calendar — a fact which we working men, I really believe, have, under the pressure of wholesome defeat and God-sent affliction, found out sooner than our more “enlightened” fellow-idolaters. But at that time, as I have confessed already, we took our betters at their word, and believed in Morison’s Pills. Only, as we looked at the world from among a class of facts somewhat different from theirs, we differed from them proportionably as to our notions of the proper ingredients in the said Pill.
But what became of our protest?
It was received — and disregarded. As for turning us off, we had, de facto, like Coriolanus, banished the Romans, turned our master off. All the other hands, some forty in number, submitted and took the yoke upon them, and went down into the house of bondage, knowing whither they went. Every man of them is now a beggar, compared with what he was then. Many are dead in the prime of life of consumption, bad food and lodging, and the peculiar diseases of our trade. Some have not been heard of lately — we fancy them imprisoned in some sweaters’ dens — but thereby hangs a tale, whereof more hereafter.
But it was singular, that every one of the six who had merely professed their conditional readiness to sign the protest, were contumeliously discharged the next day, without any reason being assigned. It was evident that there had been a traitor at the meeting; and every one suspected Jemmy Downes, especially as he fell into the new system with suspiciously strange alacrity. But it was as impossible to prove the offence against him, as to punish him for it. Of that wretched man, too, and his subsequent career, I shall have somewhat to say hereafter. Verily, there is a God who judgeth the earth!
But now behold me and my now intimate and beloved friend, Crossthwaite, with nothing to do — a gentlemanlike occupation; but, unfortunately, in our class, involving starvation. What was to be done? We applied for work at several “honourable shops”; but at all we received the same answer. Their trade was decreasing — the public ran daily more and more to the cheap show-shops — and they themselves were forced, in order to compete with these latter, to put more and more of their work out at contract prices. Facilis descensus Averni! Having once been hustled out of the serried crowd of competing workmen, it was impossible to force our way in again. So, a week or ten days past, our little stocks of money were exhausted. I was down-hearted at once; but Crossthwaite bore up gaily enough.
“Katie and I can pick a crust together without snarling over it. And, thank God, I have no children, and never intend to have, if I can keep true to myself, till the good times come.”
“Oh! Crossthwaite, are not children a blessing?”
“Would they be a blessing to me now? No, my lad. — Let those bring slaves into the world who will! I will never beget children to swell the numbers of those who are trampling each other down in the struggle for daily bread, to minister in ever deepening poverty and misery to the rich man’s luxury — perhaps his lust.”
“Then you believe in the Malthusian doctrines?”
“I believe them to be an infernal lie, Alton Locke; though good and wise people like Miss Martineau may sometimes be deluded into preaching them. I believe there’s room on English soil for twice the number there is now; and when we get the Charter we’ll prove it; we’ll show that God meant living human heads and hands to be blessings and not curses, tools and not burdens. But in such times as these, let those who have wives be as though they had none — as St. Paul said, when he told his people under the Roman Emperor to be above begetting slaves and martyrs. A man of the people should keep himself as free from encumbrances as he can just now. He win find it all the more easy to dare and suffer for the people, when their turn comes —”
And he set his teeth, firmly, almost savagely.
“I think I can earn a few shillings, now and then, by writing for a paper I know of. If that won’t do, I must take up agitating for a trade, and live by spouting, as many a Tory member as well as Radical ones do. A man may do worse, for he may do nothing. At all events, my only chance now is to help on the Charter; for the sooner it comes the better for me. And if I die — why, the little woman won’t be long in coming after me, I know that well; and there’s a tough business got well over for both of us!”
“Hech,” said Sandy,
“To every man
Death comes but once a life —
“as my countryman, Mr. Macaulay, says, in thae gran’ Roman ballants o’ his. But for ye, Alton, laddie, ye’re owre young to start off in the People’s Church Meelitant, sae just bide wi’ me, and the barrel o’ meal in the corner there winna waste, nae mair than it did wi’ the widow o’ Zareptha; a tale which coincides sae weel wi’ the everlasting righteousness, that I’m at times no inclined to consider it a’thegither mythical.”
But I, with thankfulness which vented itself through my eyes, finding my lips alone too narrow for it, refused to eat the bread of idleness.
“Aweel, then, ye’ll just mind the shop, and dust the books whiles; I’m getting auld and stiff, and ha’ need o’ help i’ the business.”
“No,” I said; “you say so out of kindness; but if you can afford no greater comforts than these, you cannot afford to keep me in addition to yourself.”
“Hech, then! How do ye ken that the auld Scot eats a’ he makes? I was na born the spending side o’ Tweed, my man. But gin ye daur, why dinna ye pack up your duds, and yer poems wi’ them, and gang till your cousin i’ the university? he’ll surely put you in the way o’ publishing them. He’s bound to it by blude; and there’s na shame in asking him to help you towards reaping the fruits o’ yer ain labours. A few punds on a bond for repayment when the addition was sauld, noo — I’d do that for mysel; but I’m thinking ye’d better try to get a list o’ subscribers. Dinna mind your independence; it’s but spoiling the Egyptians, ye ken, and the bit ballants will be their money’s worth, I’ll warrant, and tell them a wheen facts they’re no that weel acquentit wi’. Hech? Johnnie, my Chartist?”
“Why not go to my uncle?”
“Puir sugar-and-spice-selling bailie body! is there aught in his ledger about poetry, and the incommensurable value o’ the products o’ genius? Gang till the young scholar; he’s a canny one, too, and he’ll ken it to be worth his while to fash himsel a wee anent it.”
So I packed up my little bundle, and lay awake all that night in a fever of expectation about the as yet unknown world of green fields and woods through which my road to Cambridge lay.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10