Archive for the ‘Greenwich’ Tag

Contemporary Journals & Histories of The Great Plague of 1665-66.   1 comment

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Calamity hits the Kingdom:

In the Spring of 1665, Samuel Pepys made the following entry in his diary:

30 April. Lord’s Day … Great fears of the sickness here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.

The sickness he referred to was the bubonic plague, which Pepys had never known before, the last outbreak in London having occurred in 1625. The disease was not a new one but, like the more modern occurrence of influenza, it came at intervals, though not so often, and it was much more deadly, especially in the crowded parts of the cities. This was the worst attack in modern times, though not so widespread and catastrophic as the Black Death of 1348-49. In London, it lasted until the summer of 1666 and carried off some hundred thousand victims. In early 1666, it spread to other towns, mostly in southern England, but by the end of the year, it was over. We now know that the bacillus of the disease, which was endemic in the Near East and parts of North Africa was carried by fleas on the rats which infested the ships trading with those areas. No cure was known and the disease was almost always fatal. Pepys regularly reports the fatality statistics which were given in the weekly ‘bills of mortality’ published by the Parish Clerk’s Company of London. The Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, also kept a ‘Journal’ in which he reflected on the horror of that year:

It is scarce possible for people that live in a time of health and security to understand the dreadfulness of that “pestilence”. How fearful people were, thirty or forty, if not a hundred miles from London, of any goods that were brought to them from there, or of any person that came to their houses. How they would shut their door against their friends and if a man passed another in the field how one would avoid the other as we did in time of war; and how every man was a terror to another. Oh, how unthankful we are for our quiet societies, homes and health!

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When calamity hit the kingdom, as it did in a series of hammer-blows between 1665 and 1667, the instinctive response of both kings and subjects was not to invoke the illumination of science and rational argument but to call for divine intervention through penance, fasting and prayer. Daniel Defoe’s heart-rending account of the harvest of bodies in 1665, A Journey of the Plague Year, was written more than half a century after the event but was based on reliable memories of contemporaries, including one of Samuel Pepys’ amanuenses, Paul Lorrain.

What Defoe described was a culture divided into the mad and the methodical. The puritan ‘prophets’ seemed vindicated in their prophecies that God’s hand would be laid across the back of the ‘sin-steeped’ kingdom. Unhinged prophets walked naked in the streets roaring for repentance before the race was consumed altogether. In his ‘historical writings’, Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, described how the Plague followed the first ‘hammer-blow’ inflicted by the Dutch Navy in 1665:

There begun now to appear another enemy, much more formidable than the Dutch, and more difficult to be struggled with;

… which was the plague, that brake out in winter, and made such an early progress in the spring, that though the weekly numbers did not rise high, and it appeared to be only in the outskirts of the town (i.e. London), and in the most obscure alleys, amongst the poorest people; yet the ancient men, who well remembered in what manner the last great plague (which had been near forty years before) first brake out, and the progress it afterwards made, foretold a terrible summer. And many of them removed their families out of the city to country habitations; when their neighbours laughed at their providence, and thought they might have stayed without danger: but they found shortly that they had done wisely.

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Fleeing the Plague & ‘Fighting’ it:

But while the King, the Court, the professions (including physicians) and the Gentry all fled London as fast as they could, they left behind the common citizens to be locked up by the watch in their own houses, prisoners of the contagion, left to succumb, starve or survive. Doctors could not help much because they did not know how to cure the plague. Understanding of the generation and transmission of the disease was scarcely more advanced than when it first struck in 1348. Richard Baxter saw that one good thing came out of the plague, that the most useful people in these circumstances were the brave, unselfish men and women who stayed with the dying to give them courage and to help their families. Of course, it was the duty of the clergymen to do this, but many of them had also fled into the country so that for a time the silenced non-conforming ministers were needed too badly for anyone to try to stop them from helping the ill and the dying. They said that, …

… no obedience to any laws could justify them from neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such want and that it would be a poor excuse to say to God, ‘how I was forbidden by law’.

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In March, Clarendon wrote, the plague had spread so much that parliament was willingly dissolved, a necessary measure considering that so many of its members were the House of Commons were assigned to many offices relating to the Anglo-Dutch War which required their attendance at Westminster and in Whitehall. Meanwhile, platoons of watchmen patrolled the streets enforcing the requirement that households become hermetically sealed at the first sign of infection. The regulations may have been designed to seal off the country from the plague, but inevitably the infection always outran the ability to contain it, and in the meantime, they condemned Londoners to be deprived of any hope of work or sustenance except what came their way by charity. The desperate who attempted to escape the net risked arrest and prosecution. From Alderman Hooker, Pepys heard of …

 … a saddler who had buried all the rest of his children of the plague: and himself and wife now being shut up, and in despair of escaping, did desire only to save the life of this (their surviving) little child; and so prevailed to have it received stark-naked into the arms of a friend, who brought it (having put it into new fresh clothes) to Greenwich.  

For once, Pepys and his colleagues were moved enough to allow the child to stay there in safety. Because it was thought that cats and dogs spread the plague, the Lord Mayor of London ordered a general slaughter of them; by Pepys’ reckoning, forty thousand dogs and as many as two hundred thousand cats were duly massacred. That they were so swiftly rounded up and dispatched testified to the fact that what had modernised since the medieval epidemics was the policing of mortality. By the summer, the plague carts were carrying thousands to the burial pits every week. On a hot, sweaty day in early June, Pepys wrote:

This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill-conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy someroll-tobacco to smell and to chaw – which took away the apprehension.  

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Above: “Bring out your Dead” was the mournful cry heard at night as carts coursed their way through the city’s streets collecting corpses. As coffins could not be built fast enough, bodies were tossed into grisly pits on the outskirts.

Staying put & ‘socialising’:

Following that, Pepys ‘posted’ regular records and comments about the spread of the plague in his diary:

10 June: Lay long in bed; and then up and at the office all the morning. … In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch Street – which in both points troubles me mightily. To the office to finish my letters, and then home to bed – being troubled at the sickness, … and particularly how to put my things and estate in order, in case it should please God to call me away – which God dispose of to his own glory. 

11 June. Lord’s Day: I out of doors a little to show forsooth my new suit, and back again; and in going, saw poor Dr Burnet’s door shut. But he hath, I hear, gained great goodwill among his neighbours; for he discovered itself first, and caused himself to be shut up of his own accord – which was very handsome. In the evening comes Mr Andrews and his wife and Mr Hill, and stayed and played and sung and supped -most excellent pretty company; … They gone, we to bed – my mind in great present ease.

In this comment, it’s interesting to note the willingness of some to ‘self-isolate’, despite the low survival rate which must have been apparent by this stage. Also noteworthy, from our current perspective, is how much (wealthy) people continued to socialise during the plague and the benefit it brought to their mental states. But less than a week later, Pepys was severely affected by what happened during his hackney-coach journey from the Lord Treasurer of the Navy’s house in Holborn. The coach gradually slowed down and the coachman climbed down, hardly able to stand, telling Pepys that he had been suddenly taken sick and was almost blind. Pepys alighted and went to another coach, saddened for the poor man but also troubled for himself since he had been picked up at the end of town where the plague was most concentrated. However, by the end of June, it seemed to some that the peak of infection had passed:

… I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the plague, in one alley in several houses upon Sunday last – Bell Alley, over against the Palace Gate. Yet people do think that the number will be fewer in the town than it was last week. 

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A weekly ‘bill of mortality’ for the week of 15-22 August 1665.

It is obvious from his entries that, by this time Pepys was becoming increasingly anxious for his own health, trying to limit his visits to his workplace and to ‘isolate’ himself as much as possible. The plague was beginning to affect him more personally, as friends, as well as neighbours, were succumbing to it:

3 July: Late at the office about letters; and so home, resolving from this night forward to close all my letters if possible and end all my business at the office by daylight, and I shall go near to do it and put all my affairs in the world in good order, the season growing so sickly that it is much to be feared how a man can (e)scape having a share with others in it – for which the good Lord God bless me or to be fitted to receive it. So after supper to bed, and mightily troubled in my sleep all night with dreams of Jacke Cole my old schoolfellow, lately dead, who was born at the same time with me, and we reckoned our fortunes pretty equal. God fit me for his condition.

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Above: West side of the City

Below: East side of the City

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Yet he was still able to go out and about, ordering wine on 7 July, of which he was pleased to have an ample supply in his cellar. He sent some of this to his wife, who two days earlier had moved out of plague-stricken London to lodge with William Sheldon, Clerk of the Cheque at Woolwich yard. Pepys was also helping to arrange a ‘marriage alliance’ between the families of the Earl of Sandwich and Sir George Carteret. Pepys took Philip Carteret, due to marry Sandwich’s daughter, Jemima, to ‘Dagnams’, the Essex home of Lady Wright, the Earl’s sister-in-law, where the young people were due to meet for the first time. Both were said to be ‘excessively shy’. On their way from Greenwich to Dagenham on 15 July, which included two ferry crossings with their coach and horses, Carteret and Pepys had a silly discourse … as to … love matters, he being the most awkward man I ever met withal in my life as to that business. His awkwardness continued well into their evening visit to ‘Dagnams’ and during his ‘courtship’ of Lady ‘Jem’, which included an afternoon visit to church. She later agreed to ‘readily obey what her father and mother had done’ but the wedding ‘breakfast’ two weeks later, according to Pepys (who missed the service with the bridegroom’s parents due to the tide at Deptford), was very merry … but yet in such a sober way as never almost any wedding was in so great families. Pepys did not mention the plague in his entries for these four days, which suggests that he could still be ‘distracted’ by such amusing ‘episodes’ of a more ‘normal life’.

Fears, favours & funerals:

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As August began, however, Pepys found the Exchequer being moved out of the City to Nonsuch Palace near Cheam in Surrey by royal proclamation. He then returned home to his ‘papers’ and began putting his books into storage, ‘settling’ his ‘house … and all things in the best and speediest order’ he could, lest it should please God to take me away or force me to leave my house. That the number of deaths was still growing can be surmised from his entry for 12 August, in which he reported the imposition of a ‘curfew’ by the Lord Mayor:

The people die so, that now it seems they are fain to carry the dead to be buried by daylight, the nights not sufficing to do it in. And my Lord Mayor commands people to be within at 9 at night, all (as they say) that the sick may have liberty to go abroad for ayre.

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Having just visited his wife at Woolwich yard, on 15 August he got up at 4 a.m. and walked to Greenwich, where he called on Captain Cockes, who was still in bed. While there,

… something put my last night’s dream into my head, which I think is the best I ever was dreamed – which was, that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my armes and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamed that this could not be awake but that it was only a dream. But that since it was a dream and that I took so much real pleasure in it, what a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves (as Shakespeare resembles it), we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this – that then we should not need to be fearful of death as we are in this plague-time. 

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Lady Castlemaine, studio of Lely: ‘But strange it is, how for her beauty I … pity her … though I know well enough she is a whore.’ (16 July 1662).

On 21 August, the Navy Office was moved to Greenwich Palace. For the rest of the year, Pepys moved into lodgings nearby, paying occasional visits to his wife at Woolwich and to his office building in London. The Principal Officers attended a Sunday service at St Alphege’s, the parish church on 3 September. Pepys felt inhibited from wearing his fine new periwig for fear that it was maid of hair cut from infected bodies:

Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fie, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it. And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will buy any haire for fear of the infection – that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague. Church being done, my Lord Brouncker, Sir J. Mennes and I up to the vestry at the desire of the the Justices of the Peace, Sir Th. Bidolph and Sir W. Boreman and Alderman Hooker – in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord, consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forebid) come in crowds along with the dead corps to see them buried. But we agreed on some orders for the prevention thereof.

There was not much that science could do about the death rate, other than count London’s dead with ‘modern’ devotion to the seriousness of statistics and the mapping of the epidemic. In the first week of September, there were 8,252 deaths in the capital, of which 6,978 were from the plague. One in six Londoners died in the plague of the summer of 1665, and despite the onset of cooler weather as September went on, the trepidation hung around. On Sunday 24 September, Pepys caught up with his diary for the last seven days, he was contented that:

… it having pleased God that in this sad time of the plague everything else hath conspired to my happiness and pleasure, more for these last three months then in all my life before in so little time. God long preserve it, and make me thankful for it. 

But on 16 October, he returned to London, if only for a day. The scenes and sounds that greeted him immediately threw him back into a low mood:

But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.

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‘Home by water … the river beginning to be very fell of ice, so I was a little frightened.’      (18 December 1665). 

The Frozen Thames, by A. Hondius, 1667, detail. Before the river was embanked in the nineteenth century, it was liable to freeze in the most severe winters, especially to the near London Bridge (as shown). In 1676-77 and 1684 ice fairs were held on the Thames.

On 22 November, Pepys recorded that the plague had, that week, ‘come very low’, six hundred or so, the news bringing ‘great hopes’ of a further decrease. These were at least partly predicated on there being ‘a very exceeding hard frost’, continuing the next day, conditions which were apparently ‘a perfect cure of the plague’. It’s interesting to note how then, as now, people believed that the onset of colder or warmer weather could provide at least a partial ‘cure’, though there has never been any significant evidence for this. In fact, the persistence of the plague through the winter months throughout the winter of 1665-56 and its spread to other cities, towns and villages the next year is suggestive of nothing but the sense of desperation that Londoners must have felt as the year neared its close. However, by 24 November, when Pepys visited the City again, it remaining or returning citizens had begun to observe or enquire of each other as to who that they knew before the plague was still alive. There were other signs of life returning, and Pepys was ‘mightily glad to see the Change so full’. He had bought two barrels of oysters from his old shop in ‘Gracious Street’, so pleased was he to find ‘my fine woman of the shop’ still alive, but was then concerned to discover that they had come from Colchester ‘where the plague hath been so much’. On Christmas Day he attended church in the morning and then saw a wedding which he had not seen in many a day, presumably since the one he had helped to arrange in July. This time, the young people were ‘so merry with one another’.

Premature Predictions:

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Early in the New Year of 1666, on 5 January, Pepys went by coach with Lord Brouncker to ‘my Lord’s house in Covent Garden’. There was great interest in the arrival of a nobleman’s coach in town once again, and everywhere porters were bowing to them, and beggars were begging. Pepys went on to describe a much more lively scene than on his previous visits to the City:

… a delightful thing it is to see the town full of people again, as now it is, and shops begin to open, though in many places, seven or eight together, and more, all shut; but yet the town is full compared  with what it used to be – I mean the City end, for Covent Guarden and Westminster are yet very empty of people, no Court nor gentry being there.

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However, Pepys’ optimism proved premature for, in the week after Christmas, as Clarendon later wrote, although …

… the rage and fury of the pestilence began in some degree to be mitigated, but so little, that nobody who had left the town had yet the courage to return thither: nor had they reason; for though it was a considerable abatement from the height it had been at, yet there died still between three and four thousand in the week, and of those, some men of better condition than had fallen before.  

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Edward Hyde, First Earl of Clarendon, Lord High Chancellor, by Sir Peter Lely, c. 1662.

The Return of the King:

General Abermale, who was responsible for the conduct the Dutch War from London in the King’s absence, wrote to him in Oxford…

… that there still arose new difficulties in providing for the setting out of the fleet, and some of such a nature, that he could not easily remove them without communication with his majesty, and receiving his more positive directions; and how to bring that to pass he knew not, for as he could by no means advise his majesty to leave Oxford, so he found many objections against his own being absent from London.

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Charles II, as a patron of the Royal Society (of Sciences).

Windsor was thought to be a place where the King could reside safely since there had not yet been any infection there, but as the Court began to move there, taking up all the available accommodation, he became apprehensive about the outbreak of plague in one house in the town. In the end, towards the end of February, the king decided that the Queen, the Duchess of Richmond and all their families should remain in Oxford, while he and his brother, together with his cousin Prince Rupert, would meet the general at Hampton Court, staying there for two or three days a week, with the general returning to London down the Thames each night, 

… for no man did believe it counsellable that his majesty should reside longer there than the despatch of the most important business required.

Meanwhile, on 7 January, the Pepyses had returned to their home in Seething Lane, and on the 9th the Navy Board resumed its sittings there. But when he visited the ‘Change’ again on the 10th, they heard there, to their grief, how the plague had increased in the previous week from seventy to eighty-nine. Nevertheless, even some of the doctors and scientists began to return to the City as January went on and the number of deaths began to fall again. On 22 January, Pepys recorded details of his visit to the Crowne Tavern behind the Exchange, where the Gresham College met for the first time since the Plague:

Dr Goddard did fill us with talk in defence of his and his fellow physicians’ going out of town in the plague-time; saying that their particular patients were most gone out of town, and they left at liberty – and a great deal more, &c. But what, among other fine discourse, pleased me most, was Sir G. Ent about respiration; that is not to this day known or concluded on among physicians, nor to be done either, how that action is managed by nature or for what use it is.

The following day, the ‘good news, beyond all expectation’ was that the number of cases had dropped to seventy-nine. On the first Sunday of February, the Pepyses went to church together for the first time since the outbreak of the Plague. They only returned on this occasion …

… because of Mr Mills coming home to preach his first sermon, expecting a great excuse for his leaving the parish before anybody went, and now staying until all are come home; but he made a very poor excuse and a bad sermon. It was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so I was the less afeared for going through.

Three days later, 7 February, was a fast day for the Plague victims and Pepys spent it returning his chamber to the way it had been before the outbreak, taking all his books out of storage. This was the last direct, contemporary reference to the plague in London in Pepys’s ‘Journal’, so we might assume that by this date there were no more deaths in the capital. However, for at least a week at the end of February, Charles continued to keep his families in Oxford and to use Hampton Court for War meetings. The next week, Clarendon tells us, the number of those who had died from the plague in the City decreased by a thousand;

… and there was a strange universal joy there for the king’s being so near. The weather was as it could be wished, deep snow and terrible frost, which very probably stopped the spreading of the infection, though it might put an end to those who were already infected, as it did, for in a week or two the number of the dead was very little diminished. The general came and went as was intended: but the business every day increased; and his majesty’s remove to a further distance was thought inconvenient, since there appeared no danger in remaining where he was.

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In the third week, he decided to return to Whitehall and was preparing to do so when the news came through that there had been a further fifteen hundred deaths in that one week. As the King’s train rode into the City, the Courtiers found the streets otherwise empty of coaches;

… so much all men were terrified from returning to a place of so much mortality. Yet it can hardfly be imagined what nuimbers flocked hither and thither from all parts on the fame of the king’s being at Whitehall, all men being ashamed of their fears for their own safety, when the king ventured his person. The judges at Windsor adjourned the last return of the term to Westminster Hall, and the town every day filled marvellously; and which was more wonderful, the plague every day decreased. Upon which the king the king changed his purpose, and, instead of returning to Oxford, sent for the queen and all the family to come to Whitehall: so that before the end of March the streets were as full, the exchange as much crowded and the people in all places as numerous as they had ever been seen, few persons missing any of their acquaintance, though by the weekly bills there appeared to have died above one hundred and three score thousand persons: and many, who could compute very well, concluded that there were in truth double that number who died: and that in one week, when the bill mentioned only six thousand, there had in truth fourteen thousand died. 

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Above: A Plague Broadsheet, 1665.

Counting the Cost:

The frequent deaths of parish clerks and sections of parishes hindered the exact week-by-week counting of the dead, but what made it most difficult was the vast number of those who were buried in fields without any account being kept. Clarendon also claimed that many of ‘the anabaptists and sectaries who abounded in the city’, very few left their homes, ‘multitudes’ of them dying without the knowledge of the churchwardens or other parochial officers. They held their own burials in small gardens or neighbouring fields. The greatest number of deaths were of women and children, and also of ‘the lowest and poorest sort of people’, whereas few (rich) men missed their male acquaintances when they returned, ‘not many of wealth or quality or of much conversation being dead’. Due to the plague at Westminster, Parliament met at Oxford in 1666. It was prorogued to a day in April: but, as Clarendon recorded,

… the king had reason to believe that they would not so soon be in good humour enough to give more money, which was the principal end of calling them together. And the dregs of the plague still remaining and venting its malignity in many burials every week, his majesty thought fit to dispense with their attendance at that time by a proclamation: and he caused it at that day to be prorogued to the twentieth of September following. In the meantime, the court abounded in all its excesses. 

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Financially, the plague and the war had so ‘routed’ the revenues and receipts of the Exchequer, that those who collected these had not received enough to discharge the constant burden of their offices. Consequently, very little income was making its way into the national treasury, and neither was any interest being made on the ‘principal sums’. Moreover, as the great financial offices were located in the City of London, their destruction in the Great Fire in September meant that the very stocks which were consumed which would lead to a revival of trade.

The Spread of the Plague in the Country & the Clergy:

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Richard Baxter and his family all escaped the plague, probably because they were not living in London, having already been driven away by the Act of Uniformity which restored the old Anglican Church lock, stock and barrel, leading to the ejection of one in five of the clergy by 1662. Perhaps because of their popularity through their courage and devotion to duty during the plague, another law, the Five Mile Act, prevented them from coming within five miles of any important town or of any place at all where they had once been ministers. Some of these ministers went to small, out-of-the-way villages, while some went into hiding near their old homes and visited their wives and children secretly, on dark nights. They had to live in Acton, then six miles from the City; the Plague followed them there for seven months, but none of them caught it, although, at the end of their time there, the churchyard was like a ploughed field with graves. 

Rev William Mompesson (1639-1709) - Find A Grave Memorial

But it was not only the Puritans and their non-conforming clergy who were brave and charitable during the Plague, as the story of a young clergyman called William Mompesson (pictured above), who lived near Chatsworth in Derbyshire’s Peak District, reveals. After a period of service as chaplain to Sir George Saville, later Lord Halifax, he came as Rector to Eyam in 1664, with his wife Catherine accompanying him.

In 1665, the plague had reached his village through some cloth which had been sent north from London to the village tailor. The consignment of cloth bound brought with it the infectious fleas which spread the disease. After an initial flurry of deaths in the autumn of that year, it died down during the winter only to come back even more virulently in the spring of 1666. As its rector, Mompesson was determined not to let the plague spread, so that in conjunction with another clergyman, the ejected Puritan, Thomas Stanley, he took the courageous decision to isolate the village. He sent a letter to the (3rd) Earl of Devonshire at Chatsworth Hall to ask him to arrange for food and medicine to be placed at regular times on a great stone outside the village. This was done for seven weeks, during which time the Rector asked that no-one should leave the village and no-one did, though all were frightened that they might catch the plague by staying. The Rector made them see that it was their duty to other people not to risk spreading it around the country. All through the seven weeks of self-imposed quarantine until the plague died out, the Rector and his wife went about among the plague-stricken people, nursing them day and night. Mompesson did many other things to help the village during the plague including preventing the spread of it by filling a well full of vinegar for trading. This helped stop the spread of the plague by sterilising any coins that came in or out of Eyam.

In spite of these measures and the continuous care of the Mompessons, 259 of the parishioners died, including the Rector’s wife, but the infection did not spread to any other village in Derbyshire and the neighbouring counties. The plague claimed its last Eyam victim in December 1666. Mompesson became so associated with the plague that he was not universally welcomed at his next parish, Eakring, Nottinghamshire, where his memorial can be found. In 1670 he remarried, his second wife being a widow, Elizabeth Newby. She was a relative of his patron, Sir George Saville, and through his patronage, Mompesson eventually became Prebendary of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, although he declined the opportunity to be Dean of Lincoln Cathedral. He died in 1709.

This historic episode, commemorated each year in the village, has been the subject of many books and plays, notably The Roses of Eyam by Don Taylor (1970). Recently academics have begun to examine the factual basis of the story’s key ingredients: in particular, the extent to which wealthier residents were able to circumvent the ban. For example, despite insisting all villagers should remain in Eyam, Mompesson had his own children sent away to Sheffield in June 1666, just before the quarantine was agreed. At this time he also determined to send his wife Catherine with them but she refused to leave him, later succumbing to the plague.

The Comet, the Coronation & the Condition of the English People after the Fire:

The appearance of a comet in the summer of 1664 had been greeted with the same dismay that this phenomenon had always inspired as a presage of disaster. As Simon Schama has commented eloquently:

Following astrology, as the almanacs reminded their preternaturally anxious readers, was numerology; the tail of the comet heralded the sign of the Beast, his number being, as everyone knew: 666. Sure enough, in the first week of September 1666, up from the bituminous regions of hell, came the diabolical fire. Prophets had long been warning that the new Sodom, steeped in lechery and luxury, would be consumed by the fiery wrath of an indignant Jehovah.   

The longer-term significance of the events of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, forever linked in the psychology of the English people as coupled catastrophes, was that they revealed the 1660s as years of complacency and drift in which the early euphoria of the Restoration gave way to mild political depression. The ravages of the plague, the humiliating Dutch incursions up the Medway during the Second Dutch War (1665-7) and the Great Fire sapped the confidence of 1660-61 that God would bless a land that had come to its senses after the Civil Wars of the previous decades.

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Sources:

Robert Latham (ed.) (1978), The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary. London: Bell & Hyman (Book Club Associates).

G. Huehns (ed.) (1953), Clarendon: Selections from ‘The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars’ & ‘The Life by Himself’. London: Oxford University Press.

Simon Schama (2001), A History of Britain: The British Wars, 1603-1776. London: BBC Worldwide.

Katharine Moore (1961), Richard Baxter: Toleration and Tyranny (1615-1691). London: Longmans.

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part One, 1901-21.   Leave a comment

Individualism & Collectivism:

According to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), the term ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

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Yet, also in this period, movements describing themselves as ‘socialist’, for example, the English Fabians, powerfully revived what was really a variant sense in which ‘socialism’ was seen as necessary to complete liberalism, rather than as an alternative theory of society. To George Bernard Shaw and others in Britain and Ireland, socialism was the economic side of the democratic ideal (Fabian Essays, 33) and its achievement was an inevitable prolongation of the earlier tendencies which Liberalism had represented. Opposing this view, and emphasising the resistance of the capitalist economic system to such ‘inevitable’ development, William Morris used the word communism. Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

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Marx & Engels at work at the time of publishing The Communist Manifesto.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

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… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest.   

Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all.

The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.

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Without such a programme, Engels had realised, there could not be a united Socialist Party permanently, and every attempt to found one would fail. Indeed, the political independence of the nascent Labour Party from the Liberal Party was always in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution.

Socialism as a Matter of ‘Faith’ – Methodist or Marxist?:

British Socialists possessed a ‘faith’ in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This faith owed as much to Methodism as to Marxism, being based both on Christian principles and the analysis of contemporary society first presented by Marx and Engels. Much of this analysis was modified, however, by Hyndman and the Fabians, by Morris and Blatchford, though it still had a comprehensive reality for those who accepted it. To its working-class adherents, like my own grandparents who founded and campaigned for it in Coventry, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in class consciousness; to middle-class philanthropists, it afforded the consolation that they were working in solidarity with a range of tendencies of social change and progress. As Pelling concluded in his seminal work, the history of the world had often shown the dynamic qualities of a faith devoutly held, like that of the early Christians, the Calvinist reformers and the millenarian sects of the seventeenth century. Faith may feed on illusions, but it is capable of conquering reality.

The fact was that the British working class as a whole had no use for the conception of violent revolution. Any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early years of the industrial revolution. But dislocations of this type were for the most part transitory: a permanent political organization of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively set in motion the movement to form a Labour Party. At the time Keir Hardie (right) retired from the chairmanship of the ILP in 1900, it had captured trade-union support, with the ultimate objective of tapping trade union funds for the attainment of political power.

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But soon the ILP was deeply in debt and was only saved from bankruptcy by the generosity of wealthy supporters such as George Cadbury, who, as a Quaker, appreciated its stance against the Boer War. With Hardie’s re-election to Parliament, and the reaction against imperialism, the ILP’s position steadily improved, and it began to build itself up again and gained fresh recruits. By 1906 it was as strong as it had not yet the full force of the Socialist revival of that time. The Labour Representation Committee was a pressure group founded in 1900 as an alliance of socialist organisations and trade unions, aimed at increasing representation for labour interests in the Parliament. The Socialists were a minority force within it, and even after the formation of the Labour Party and its adoption of Socialism as its political creed in 1918, many within the party were hostile to it as an ideology.  There is little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party, which most of them had belonged to in the past if the Liberals had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working classes among their Parliamentary candidates.

All along, there was little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party if that party had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working class among their Parliamentary candidates. Again and again, it was the fault of the official Liberal Party constituency caucuses that this did not happen; and it was the behaviour of these that set many of the workers’ leaders thinking in terms of a separate party. Even Keir Hardie’s revolt at Mid-Lanark in 1888 had been directed, not against Gladstone’s policies, but against the system by which the local association chose its candidate. The subsequent success of the ILP was largely due to the failure of its rivals, the Labour Electoral Association, to make any satisfactory terms with the Liberal Party for the fuller representation of Labour. Its leader, Threlfall, had been forced to admit the complete failure of its policy in 1894:

It is a curious commentary upon this ‘ideal system’ that of the thirteen Labour members representing England and Wales in the present House, four ran in opposition to, or without recognising the existence of the caucus, five represent constituencies where the miners absolutely dominate the position … and only four either captured the caucus or out-generalled it. It is … a waste of time to advise the working classes to attend … they regard it as a middle-class machine; they have neither the time nor the inclination to compete with the wire-pullers who work it, and they have a decided objection to being made the puppets of anyone. It has served its purpose, and it has carried the people through one state of its development: but as it exists today it is too narrow and too much hampered with class prejudice to be a reflex of the expanding democratic and labour sentiment.

Herbert Gladstone, later to become the Liberal Chief Whip, also recognised that the constituencies, for social, financial and trade reasons are extremely slow to adopt Labour candidates. The Fabians also found that their attempts to ‘permeate’ the associations with potential candidates were met with the refusal of the moneyed men to finance the caucus. The principal reason why money was required was that there was no system for the payment of MPs. This was a reform that the Liberal leaders might have taken up much earlier than they did, thus removing a motivating factor in the support given by smaller unions to the idea of a separate Labour Party. As early as 1897, E. Cowey, a prominent Lib-Lab leader of the Yorkshire Miners moved a resolution at the 1897 TUC in favour of State payment of MPs, saying that:

… money was still the golden key that opened the door to a seat in the House of Commons. Only large and powerful societies could … afford to keep their representatives in such a responsible and expensive position. … The payment of members was absolutely necessary to the success of the Labour movement.

But it was not until 1911, after the Osborne Judgement, that the Liberal Party gave this priority and passed it into law; in the meantime, the smaller unions had already wedded themselves to the idea of a separate Labour Party. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why the Liberal Party failed to retain the popularity that it had once enjoyed among the ‘responsible’ leaders of the trade unions. As Ramsay MacDonald observed to Herbert Samuel, We didn’t leave the Liberals: They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces. As the LEA faded away after 1895-96, the ILP steadily asserted itself as the hope of the working-class for parliamentary representation. Thus, the early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and hard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal, but disheartened Gladstonian Liberals.

The Establishment of the Parliamentary Labour Party:

The great difficulty the LRC had to face was the maintenance of an independent political line by all its members. Richard Bell, one of the only two MPs representing it in 1900 Parliament, saw no need to hold himself aloof from the Liberals, and in 1904-5, when he refused to sign the Labour Party constitution, he had to be expelled. There was similar trouble with the three Labour MPs elected at by-elections before 1906: two of them, Shackleton and Henderson were reprimanded in 1904 for appearing in support of a Liberal by-election candidate. It was only in 1906, with the election of a substantial group of thirty MPs who drew a regular salary from the LRC, that the Labour Party was established as a genuine parliamentary party. Part of the problem had been the financial weakness of the Socialist societies as compared with the trade unions. Even in 1901, before many of the big trade unions switched their allegiance, the societies made up less than one-sixteenth of the total affiliated party membership. They were further weakened by the secession of the SDF and by the Fabian Society losing respect over its support for jingoism; the ILP was also, once more, on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1906, it contributed to the LRC based on a nominal sixteen thousand members, and the Socialist societies’ proportion of the LRC’s contributing membership had sunk to one-fiftieth.

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Above: A Liberal Party rally during the 1906 General Election. Though often rowdy, rallies were vital in mobilising voters. As the early twentieth century progressed, political parties made increasing use of the new forms of mass media: radio and newsreel, in addition to newspapers and journals.

Furthermore, many of the political difficulties of the Labour Party’s early years arose from the fact that the ILP, although committed to the line of independence, was nevertheless sympathetic to the Liberal Party in policy terms. It favoured Free Trade over Chamberlain’s policy of Protection and was fiercely opposed the Education Act of 1902, which established state-controlled elementary schools, as did most Nonconformist supporters of both Liberal and Labour causes. Sidney Webb had had a role in the design of this act, but the Manchester Guardian was able to say of the 1901 ILP Conference that: What must strike a Liberal … is … how much of the proceedings are devoted to the advocacy of traditional Liberal principles.

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After Champion was finally discredited, the former Liberals had it all their own way in the ILP’s leadership. Ramsay MacDonald, whom Hardie described as the party’s greatest intellectual asset, sided with the Liberals against the Fabian Socialists on almost every immediate issue of the time; and Hardie, who had been much more friendly to the Radicals since the outbreak of the South African War, in October 1901, publicly advocated a frank, open and above-board agreement … for well-defined purposes with the anti-war Liberals. Eighteen months later Hardie was apparently prepared to connive at MacDonald’s secret electoral understanding with the Liberal whips. With both the leaders and the rank-and-file of the Socialist wing showing little enthusiasm for the pacifist stance of MacDonald and Hardie, the non-Socialist elements gravitated further towards an alliance with the anti-war Liberals. Between 1903 and 1906 the new party machine had been brought into existence, and whatever the political views of its officers, it soon began to build up among them a vested interest in its maintenance, which has continued through to the present day, despite immense strains at times.

The officials of the great trade unions had made up their minds in favour of having a distinct party of Labour, and so long as their industrial strength continued to grow, the strength of the political organisation would also increase. In the pre-war years which followed, however, there were doubts about the value of political action, and the new industrial unions absorbed ‘syndicalist’ ideas from across the continent and the USA. These were often born out of a traditional distrust of ‘leaders’ within the movement which was often stoked by personal feuds between them as well as disagreements on policy; there were also stresses and strains arising out of wars, rumours of war and revolutions in Europe. Some of the unions, especially the Miners’ Federation, ‘the Fed’, suffered from the peaks and troughs of the international trade cycle, resulting in further radicalisation. Others among the ‘new unions’ of 1889 became more moderate as they became more established. In the thirty years of its life, the new party increased its aggregate poll and share of the vote in every General Election it fought. Despite the persistence of its plurality of ideas and interests, or perhaps because of it, the essential unity of the party remained intact. As Pelling concluded:

The association of Socialist faith and trade-union interest, of hope for an ideal future and fear for an endangered present, seemed on the point of disruption at times: yet it survived, for a variety of reasons … because in the years before the party’s birth there had been men and women who believed that the unity of the working-class movement, both in industry and politics, was an object to be striven for, just as now most of their successors regard it as an achievement to be maintained.

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In British politics as a whole, the electoral system underwent profound changes over the early twentieth century. In 1900, only seven out of ten adult men (and no women) were qualified to vote. Four million men were excluded from the franchise and there were nearly half a million plural voters, including around two thousand men with four or more votes. Despite the continued restrictions on the franchise,  the SDF continued to field independent socialist candidates. The picture above was taken during the Haggerston by-election of July 1908 and shows a suffragette, ‘Miss Maloney’ speaking from a Clarion Van in the cause of the SDF candidate, Herbert Burrows. During the five-day campaign in the safe Liberal seat, the van was parked outside the Liberal Party HQ. Burrows was a popular figure in East London, where he had helped Annie Besant organise the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant and May’s factory. The issue of female suffrage was a strong factor in the campaign, and the Liberal candidate, Warren, had the support of Mary MacArthur’s National Union of Women Workers. However, many notable suffragettes, including the Pankhursts, were opposed to his candidature, because he was a supporter of Asquith. The result brought a victory for the Tory, Rupert Guinness, the brewer, with Burrows finishing in third place with half the votes gained by Warren.

After the ‘Landslide’, Erosion & the Rise of Labour:

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Above: The Bethnal Green by-election of 1914. Door-to-door canvassing was, at it still remains, an important aspect of electioneering. Though women did not get the vote until 1918, this candidate seeks support on the doorstep from a female shopkeeper. His attention is an early indication of the growing importance of women at election-time.

The Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith had initiated, between 1906 and 1914, a series of social and political reforms of a far-reaching character. But the emphasis here is placed upon the period 1914-22 in identifying the role of the Labour Party concerning Liberal decline. Whether Dangerfield’s idea of the ‘strange death of Liberal England’ between 1910 and 1914 is a valid thesis is still strongly debated among historians. Its significance lies in its identification of the basic strains upon Liberalism caused by the political and industrial crises. Liberalism was, and still is (at least to some extent), an ideology of individual and social conscience. It was the 1914-18 War which tested that conscience rather than the earlier threats. The War also brought about an independent Labour representation in Parliament, a result of the breakdown of the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact of 1903. The nature of ‘total war’ brought many basic Liberal principles into question. It led to the leadership of Asquith being challenged first with the creation of a more broadly based coalition in May 1915 and then being superseded following the split with Lloyd George in December 1916. For the Liberal Party, this meant a rift, never to be healed, between Asquithian and Coalition Liberals.

Universal male suffrage was achieved in 1918, when, after a long struggle, women over the age of thirty were also permitted to vote. In 1928, the age limit was lowered to twenty-one, equal with men. The principle of single-member, equal-sized constituencies was accepted in 1885, though it was not completely achieved until 1948. Voting behaviour also changed significantly. Most obviously, Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two major political parties after 1918. The beginnings of this change, which took effect on a largely local and regional basis, can be seen in the map of the 1918 General Election, shown below. In 1918, British politics was based upon the relationship between the Liberal and Conservative parties. They were, in many ways, sides of the same coin. They accepted both the logic of consensus politics and the benefits of a capitalist society.

John Buchan, the Conservative politician and writer, described the 1918 General Election as a ‘blunder’.  He claimed that Statesmen, who had criticised soldiers harshly for their blindness, were now in their own province to be no less myopic. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. For the sitting members, the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons in the preceding May on a criticism of the Government by a distinguished staff-officer, one which was neither factious or unfair. Those who had remained ‘docile’ were given ‘coupons’ to fight the election on behalf of the Coalition Government, but the ‘malcontents’ were outlawed. The coupon candidates swept the board, giving the Government a huge working majority with 484 members; Labour returned fifty-nine members, and the non-coalition Liberals were reduced to little more than a score of seats. But although this was a landslide for Lloyd George, that victory for ‘the man who won the war’ should not blind us to the poor performance of the Asquithian Liberals, the vulnerability of many of the Coalition Liberals with their seats in industrial working-class areas to Labour advance and the 22.2 per cent of the total vote received by the Labour Party. ‘Fusion’ between Coalition Liberals and Conservatives seemed possible in 1919-20, the creation of a ‘centre’ party to counter the reactionary right and the revolutionary left, but Lloyd George did not grasp this opportunity and by 1921 it was too late.

The result of the ‘coupon election’ was one of the least representative parliaments in British history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official Opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, ‘a chamber of commerce’. It was an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. The election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and in Labour circles in general. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been largely in abeyance during the war, and which could not afford any decline in its status at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutionalism. Above all, it weakened the authority of Britain in the coming peace councils. Lloyd George went to these councils bound by extravagant election pledges. Overall, the first three decades of the century witnessed the development of class-based voting, with the Labour support concentrated in areas of heavy industry in Wales, the Midlands and North of England and Central Scotland, while the Conservatives held a near-monopoly of seats in the rural South of England, and the Liberals held on to the more sparsely-populated constituencies in the ‘Celtic fringes’ of Wales and Scotland and, to begin with, the more rural areas of East Anglia, Yorkshire and the North-East of England. This set the voting patterns for the rest of the century. In her diary for 1918, Beatrice Webb made a ‘prophetic’ statement:

The Liberal Party which had for years governed the Empire has been reduced to an insignificant fraction with all its leaders without exception at the bottom of the poll. … Lloyd George with his conservative phalanx is apparently in complete command of the situation; as the only alternative Government there stands the Labour Party with its completely Socialist programme and its utopia of the equalitarian state.

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Syndicalists & Socialist ‘Heroes’ of the Unemployed.

Outside Parliament, the Socialists kept up their agitation for ‘Work, not charity’ relentlessly during the first decade of the century, the SDF leading the unemployed on regular sorties into the heart of Mayfair. The photograph below of Westminster unemployed, printed from an SDF lantern slide, gives a vivid picture of the strength of the demonstrators as they ‘invaded’ Berkeley Square in November 1905. The Central Workers’ Committee had organised a vast demonstration of the unemployed. Assembling on the morning of 20 November on the Embankment, contingents marched from all parts of the capital. From Islington, Shoreditch, Hackney and Bethnal Green, unemployed men were led by Dick Greenwood of the SDF and Parson Brooks, the ‘socialist chaplain’. Two thousand walked from Hammersmith and Fulham, stopping on the way in Eaton Square to eat sandwiches provided by the SDF. The Woolwich men, two-hundred-strong, tramped to Greenwich, crossing the river by steamboat. Fifteen hundred arrived from Poplar, organised by the Labour Representation Committee and led by George Lansbury and two of his aldermen. The trade unions supporting the demonstration unfurled their magnificent silk banner with colours of crimson and gold, green and silver, bearing the names of the organised working class; the Gasworkers, Riggers, Coal Porters, French Polishers, Machine Rulers and many more.

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As the march moved away from the Embankment, they were led by the banner of the Westminster Unemployed, as seen in the photograph, with the slogan by heavens our rights are worth fighting for. Curse your charity, we want work was the theme as the SDF with trade union support swept towards the homes of the wealthy. Twenty thousand roared approval at a Hyde Park rally after the ‘incursion’; as Jack Williams told them, you have starved too long. … come out and parade the West End every day. He read a telegram from Keir Hardie urging them not to hide in the slums, but to come out and back us in fighting to win the right to work. Like Hardie, Williams was born into poverty and escaped from the workhouse at the age of ten, climbing the walls of the Hornsey Union to freedom. The other speakers at the rally included the trade union leaders Margaret Bondfield and Harry Gosling, but it was the fiery passion of Jack Williams that had the crowd roaring support. He led the workless to the doors of the rich, marching them on one occasion down Bond Street as policemen stood purposefully with their backs to the jewellers’ windows. On another ‘invasion day’, they marched to Belgrave Square, and caused consternation as a red carpet laid across the pavement for a society wedding was torn to shreds by the boots of the unemployed.

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Earlier in the year, London had seen the arrival of two marches from the Midlands. The first was from Raunds of Northampton, members of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, going in a body to the War Office to protest against cheap labour policy of the department in purchasing service boots at prices below an agreed tariff. Once again, the organiser of the march was a prominent member of the SDF, James Gribble, who had worked in the boot and shoe trade since he was twelve years old. He organised the march on military lines, selecting only the fittest men from hundreds of volunteers and appointing three ‘officers’ to take command of his men who were divided into six companies. With bicycle outriders and a horse-drawn ambulance, General Gribble, as he was dubbed, took no risks of his army falling by the wayside.

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Another procession to London to be commemorated by a series of postcards was the march of four hundred unemployed from Leicester, representing two thousand men and their families. Negatives of the original cards, including the one above, were sent to Leicester Museum by an old socialist, Robert Barnes, who produced the photographs, including that shown above, from those in the possession of the organising secretary of the march, George White. Their journey was arduous and miserable, the men trampling through driving continuous rain, shoes leaking, with topcoats made from sacks and living on bread, cheese and cocoa. The march was supposed to be welcomed in London by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party at a mass meeting in Hyde Park in support of the Unemployed Bill, which was opposed by many trade unions because it provided that the unemployed under local authority assistance should work at less than the union rate for the public works they undertook. Along the way, the marchers learned that the King had refused their request for an audience and it was a tired, ragged and soddened army that was given shelter and a meat tea by the Salvation Army at Edgware and asked by Ramsay MacDonald to sign the pledge! On Whit Monday the weather brightened and so did the men, marching cheerfully to Parliament Hill Fields (shown above), where MacDonald addressed a crowd on more than six thousand on behalf of the ILP. Keir Hardie also sent a telegram describing their march as ‘heroic’.

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An unusual postcard was that shown above, depicting the SDF agitator Ernest Marklew dressed in broad-arrowed prison clothes, picking oakum, published in 1906. The card is one of a small of socialist commemorative cards that belonged to a pioneer member of the ILP. It is a reminder of the long years of struggle by early socialists to establish the right of free speech in public places. The SDF had long been harassed by police while holding open-air meetings and heavy fines and imprisonment with hard labour had been imposed by middle-class magistrates on socialists accused of obstruction and refusal to pay fines. At Nelson in Lancashire, as well as in other towns and cities including the capital, socialists persisted in speaking at regular ‘pitches’ despite repeated harassment. As one speaker was arrested, another one would take his place, and thousands would turn out every Sunday, some from curiosity, others to lend support, as police fought their way through crowds to drag away speaker after speaker. The secretary of the Nelson branch of the SDF, Bryan Chapman, was also imprisoned during the free speech fight there. Marklew was sent to prison for fourteen days and Chapman got seven days. Arrests and battles followed each Sunday for months and the usual attendance of hundreds for an SDF open-air meeting swelled to thousands. The photograph of Marklew (above) was posted in a studio and sold by the SDF to raise money for the socialist cause.

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In 1908, the Manchester unemployed tried a new tactic to draw public attention to their plight. On Sunday, 14 September, following a meeting of about five hundred workless men, they were urged to march on Manchester Cathedral and the photograph above shows them pouring into the cathedral during worship, watched by the mostly middle-class communicants. The Dean, Bishop Weldon, appeared and agreed to speak on unemployment if they could come back during the afternoon. That afternoon nearly three thousand men assembled in Stevenson Square. About fifteen hundred then marched to the cathedral where the bishop welcomed them but said it wasn’t the province of the church to organise work but, if it was necessary to raise a special fund, many of us will willingly deprive ourselves to aid what is being done. The vicar of Rochdale preached a sermon in which he offered sympathy on behalf of the Church. When the men interrupted, the Dean had to declare the service over. After the service, the leader of the unemployed, a man named Freewood, read the prayer that he had intended to read in the cathedral, ending with…

O Lord we beseech thee to move thy servant Bishop Knox (Archbishop of Canterbury) to see that something more than sympathy is needed and that his influence brought to bear on our Parliament might bear some fruit.

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The rising militancy of the trade unions and the determination of the government to meet the militancy with armed force if necessary was shown first during the Cambrian Combine strike in 1910 in the Rhondda Valleys which led to serious rioting in Tonypandy and clashes with police leading to the death of one miner. Winston Churchill, then Liberal Home Secretary, deployed both cavalry and infantry units, the latter drawing bayonets on picketing miners. I have written about in detail elsewhere on this site. The picture above (top) shows miners waiting to go into a mass ‘Federation’ meeting at the Empire Theatre, Tonypandy in November 1910. Below it, Trehafod miners are pictured picking coal from the slag-heaps during the dispute, which continued into 1911.

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Above: A soup kitchen during the Cambrian Combine strike, 1910-11.

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Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889, founder of the militant Workers’ Union, first secretary of the ILP and first secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, arrived back in England in May 1910, after eight years of trade union activity in Australia. By that time, he was a labour leader of international renown with a capacity for appearing at the centre of a struggle, as a catalyst for action. He returned from his years abroad as an advocate for syndicalism, or ‘industrial unionism’, as a means of winning working-class power. Within eight weeks of arriving home, he had launched a small publication, The Industrial Syndicalist. He wrote,

… What is called for? What will have to be the essential conditions for the success of any such movement? That it should be avowedly and clearly revolutionary in aim and method. We therefore most certainly favour strikes and we will always do our best to help strikers.

He was not to have to wait long before leading one of the fiercest strikes of the decade. Following his ideas of industrial unionism, by November he had formed the thirty-six unions organising transport into the National Transport Federation. After winning the first stage of the battle against the International Shipping Federation for union recognition, the lesson of solidarity was clear in Liverpool on 28 June 1911, when four thousand dockers came out demanding recognition of the National Union of Dock Labourers. Churchill drafted troops into Liverpool and sent two gunboats up the Mersey with their guns trained on the port. Cavalry and infantry with fixed bayonets were deployed and hundreds of long, stout staves were ordered for the police. Mann answered this by telling the Liverpool strikers:

Let Churchill do his utmost, his best or his worst, let him order ten times more troops to Liverpool, not all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea.

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On 24 August, with all their demands conceded, the strike was called off. The success of the dockers and the railwaymen, during the first national railway stoppage, seemed to inspire a revolt of women workers in the area of London’s dockland during a heatwave in August. The photograph above showing the distribution of loaves of bread outside the Labour Institute in Bermondsey survives as a relic of an uprising of the unorganised. Women and girls walked out of jam, biscuit and pickle factories and marched around Bermondsey calling on other women in the food factories to join them in claiming an increase in their incredibly low wages. Out came the women and girls from the factories with household names; Spillers’, Pearce Duffs’, Hartley’s and Lipton’s, where they worked for as little as seven shillings a week. Laughing, singing, welcoming the escape from the stifling factories, they were joined by Labour leaders including Ben Tillett, the Dockers’ leader (pictured below), Mary MacArthur, Herbert Burrows and Dr Salter addressing fifteen thousand of their fellow strikers in Southwark Park. Within three weeks, increases had been won at eighteen of the twenty-one factories where the women had struck.

It is doubtful whether British society has ever been so beset with contradictions as it was in 1914. A Liberal Government was in power, though only just; it depended on the votes of Labour and Irish Nationalist MPs. A vast programme of social reform lay behind it, but a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. There was widespread working-class unrest; beginning in 1910, there had been a wave of strikes, conducted with extreme bitterness on all sides, sweeping through the country, with every prospect of a final confrontation in the autumn of 1914. Ben Tillett, looking back on these years in 1931, called them:

A strange, hectic period of our economic history! It was a great upsurge of elemental forces. It seemed as if the dispossessed and disinherited class in various parts of the country were all simultaneously moved to assert their claims upon society.

‘Memories and Refections’, 1931.

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The Disunited Kingdom at the Outbreak of War:

It was to a disunited kingdom, with a militant Suffragette movement ‘alongside’ militant trade unionism in Britain, the Army in Ireland in a state of mutiny and Ulster on the verge of civil war over ‘Home Rule’, that war came in August. At once another contradiction was exposed. The ruling Liberal Party was strongly tinged with pacifism, yet it was also the Party which had carried through, under Lord Haldane, the most effective military reforms in British history. The people as a whole were largely unaware of them; indeed it was almost completely unaware of its Army, except when war was actually in progress, or when disagreeable occurrences like the Curragh Mutiny reached the headlines and was the cause of ‘wild delight’ on the opposition Conservative benches in the House of Commons. A powerful counter-note to this was struck by a Labour MP, Colonel Ward, which would nevertheless have been considered dangerous had it been uttered outside the protection of privilege that the House provided. In ringing tones, he warned the Tories that, if they wanted a Civil War, they could have it: If there was to be a mutiny in the Army, it would a mutiny of the working class. Britain was a naval power, much admired around the world as the shield of British democracy, but the Army, characterised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, was viewed with far less respect, particularly by the lower middle class and the ‘respectable working class’ and especially in the ‘chapel-going’ areas of Wales and the rural Midlands and ‘West Country’ of England, where ‘red-coats’ were seen as ‘scum’.

For socialists, although not all pacifists, the war was a negation of internationalism, splitting the movement as workers from one country hastened to shoot down the workers of another. On 2 August 1914, just two days before the declaration of war, a huge anti-war meeting was held in Trafalgar Square. Called by the British section of the International Socialist Bureau, a manifesto, whose signatories included Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, was read to the gathering, it ended with the words down with the class rule, down with the rule of brute force, down with war, up with the peaceful rule of the people. Speakers included Will Thorne, Mary MacArthur, Margaret Bondfield, Herbert Burrows and Keir Hardie. Three days later, the Labour Party supported the war. H. G. Wells proclaimed the sword had been drawn for peace. Labour and trade union leaders joined in recruiting campaigns and Will Thorne became a Lieutenant Colonel in the West Ham Volunteers. Workers enlisted in their hundreds of thousands and it was left to the pacifist section of the labour movement together with a handful of true internationalists to preserve the socialist conscience. The ILP published an anti-war manifesto that declared:

Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns we send sympathy and greetings to the German socialists. …

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This was truly a cry out of the darkness.  The slogans on the posters in the recruiting photograph on the right attest to the prevailing jingoism of the times.  In his own constituency of Aberdare, Keir Hardie, the apostle of British socialism was booed as he declared he was going to oppose this war in the interests of civilisation and the class to which he belonged.

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

These words were brave and sincere, but also soon lost in the vortex of hate which soon flowed from the outbreak of war, and a tired and saddened Hardie slowly died as the workers rushed in their hundreds of thousands to join the recruiting queues to enlist for the bloodiest slaughter in the history of mankind to date. The same British workers who had been hailing their German proletarian comrades just days before, now saw them as enemies and aggressors, crying out Down with Germany!

The dominant mood, in the early August days of 1914, was one of euphoria, as can be seen on the faces in the photograph above, taken outside the recruiting office.

The weather seemed to have a lot to do with it.  A mood of national unity was suddenly reborn, one which leading figures in the Labour movement found difficult to resist and remain in leadership. When Ramsay MacDonald (pictured below) resigned as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party because of his own opposition to the war, Henderson was ready to take his place.

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But resignation in these circumstances did not come cheaply either. One contemporary who had met him once before 1914 and had failed to be impressed,  except by his remarkable good looks. M. A. Hamilton had also heard him speak after this and had been considerably impressed. But what had ‘thrilled’ his observers in 1914 was his going out into the wilderness:

We accepted the legend of rejected office, and gloried in it, as in the courage of his assault on Edward Grey. Meeting him in those days at 44 Bedford Square, one could not but admire an aloof dignity in which there was no hint of self-conscious pomp. This admiration steadily mounted, as MacDonald was singled out for attack. He was assailed, incessantly, as a pro-German pacifist who cared nothing for his country. He got all the brick-bats; they were numerous and edgy, and he minded them, a lot.

Arthur Henderson was, according to E. A. Jenkins in his biography, From Foundry to Foreign Office (1944), a typical Northcountryman, who liked to talk about religious or political ‘topics of the hour’. Henderson became a Methodist in 1879 (having previously been a Congregationalist) and became a local lay-preacher. Henderson worked at Robert Stephenson and Sons’ General Foundry Works from the age of twelve. After finishing his apprenticeship there aged seventeen, he moved to Southampton for a year and then returned to work as an iron moulder (a type of foundryman) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After he lost his job in 1884, he concentrated on preaching. In 1892, Henderson entered the complex world of trade union politics when he was elected as a paid organiser for the Friendly Society of Iron Founders and its representative on the North East Conciliation Board. Henderson believed that strikes caused more harm than they were worth and tried to avoid them whenever he could. For this reason, he opposed the formation of the General Federation of Trade Unions, as he was convinced that it would lead to more strikes.

In 1900, Henderson (shown on the left in the photo from 1906, with other leading figures in the party), was one of the 129 trade union and socialist delegates who passed Keir Hardie’s motion to create the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). In 1903, he was elected Treasurer of the LRC and was also elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Barnard Castle at a by-election.

1910 Arthur Henderson.jpgIn 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party and won 29 seats at the general election. In 1908, when Hardie resigned as Leader of the Labour Party, Henderson was elected to replace him. He remained Leader until his own resignation two years later, in 1910. In 1915, following Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s decision to create a coalition government, Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to become a member of the Cabinet, as President of the Board of Education.

‘Total War’ – the Views of Working-class Men & Women:

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Despite the vitriolic attacks on pacifist politicians like MacDonald at home, there was a more satirical tone expressed in the voice of the Army in its marching songs as it arrived in the fields of Flanders and northern France. This was the Regular Army, the sardonic, unemotional, matter-of-fact voice of the widely-despised ‘Tommy Atkins’ who, as usual, was being expected to do the dirty work, was quite prepared to do it and was not sentimental about it. It had few illusions and its attitudes, had they been aware of them, would have further shocked their fellow-countrymen. In contrast to the general public mood, it was not fuelled by hatred of Germany but, in true mercenary spirit, it would have been equally ready to fight the French. Its motto was, We’ll do it. What is it? Sixty per cent of the men in the ranks of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force were reservists, called back to the colours. For many of them, their return to Army life was a distressing uprooting from their homes and occupations. Yet theirs was also an odd satisfaction in obeying the call.

But the Regular Army, even with its reservists, was simply not large enough for the needs of continental war. There would need to be something else, and this need was quickly perceived by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Out of this perception came the ‘Kitchener Armies’ or ‘New Army’, an extraordinary manifestation of patriotism which brought over 2.25 million volunteers into the colours in the first fourteen months of the war. As the Front-line war dragged on over the next three years, the endless casualty lists recorded the toll of human life; the physical destruction mounted day by day. It was not surprising that nerves frayed and revulsion mounted among those who had to endure all these sufferings. To make them endurable, the soldiers invented a class-conscious vocabulary and style of humour all of their own, closely modelled upon that of the ‘old Regulars’, as demonstrated in the following anonymous parody of the parable of the sower:

Some fell by the wayside, and the Sergeant-Majors sprang up and choked them. 

The demand of the generals for more and more young men for the muddy walk to mutilation and death on the Western Front inevitably resulted in the depletion of labour available for industry and the increase in opportunities for women to replace them at home. Of course, there were problems and a degree of resistance especially from male workers in skilled industries such as engineering. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, an all-male union with a long tradition of craft skill, saw the introduction of lower-paid unskilled labour as a threat to post-war job security and wage-rates. The answer was the ‘Shells and Fuses Agreement’ whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In effect, the trade unions were asked to accept the introduction of a twelve-hour working day, the unlimited subdivision of jobs, the scrapping of apprenticeship agreements and the introduction of unskilled labour to produce the hardware of war. Safeguards and rights painstakingly fought for by trades unionists over half a century or more were set aside until the end of the war. No similar sacrifice was to be asked of the employers who were enabled to make rich profits by speeding up production and introducing unrestricted unskilled labour at cheap wage-rates.

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Above: Oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.

The doubts of trade unionists about the large-scale introduction of female labour into industries were expressed in a composite resolution at the 1915 Trades Union Congress from two craft unions asking for committees to be set up to ensure the replacement of women at the close of the war by more suitable male labour. The real threat, however, was the inequality of pay between men and women and, to their credit, many trade union leaders insisted on equal pay for women doing equal work, achieving some limited success. The government sided firmly with employers against the unions and in June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing industrial practices and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force dilution of labour by unskilled men and women on the unions. The war opened many industries to women and there is no shortage of propaganda-style photographs like the one above, showing women in ‘unladylike’ work, cleaning railway engines, filling shells, and humping coal sacks. Although of an official nature, they do represent women at the kind of heavy industrial work that would not have been readily open to them before the outbreak of the war.

It was the mass participation of women in the War effort – in industry, in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced the result so deeply desired and defiantly demanded by the pre-war Suffragette Movement. In March 1917, the House of Commons passed the Women’s Suffrage Bill by 341 votes to 62, setting out a scheme for electoral reform to come into operation at the end of the War. The motion was moved by Asquith, who, according to The Times’ Michael McDonagh, gave a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. But, even in the latter stages of the war, women’s participation was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by their menfolk at the Front, nor did they admire how it was sometimes ‘forcibly’ obtained. One soldier’s letter to his wife which was censored from May 1918 was quite threatening on the subject, also perhaps revealing the social conservatism which existed in working-class homes:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the WAAC. We men can stand a lot, but they are nearing the danger zone when they wish to force our wives into service. Goodness, the damned infernal impudence of wanting our wives! Why, if anyone came for you while I was at home, I’d slit his throat open. I’m not bragging; I’m saying what I mean. How little they understand us, they are running up against trouble with a vengeance; they will find they have signed their death warrant.

Lloyd George’s Visit to Clydeside & Labour’s Socialist Programme:

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While many trade union and Labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the increased exploitation of industrial workers, other sections began a wave of resistance, demanding payment of the proper rate for the job where new workers were introduced, controls on company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs waiting for them when they returned after the war. The strongest opposition was led by the Clyde Workers’ Committee, a group of shop stewards elected directly from the shop floor under the chairmanship of Willie Gallacher. The Clyde workers had already conducted a strike for higher pay in February 1915, and the newly formed committee was more than ready for Lloyd George (above) when he travelled to the Clyde at Christmas of that year as Minister of Munitions to plead the case for dilution as a patriotic duty. Against the advice of his officials, Lloyd George was obliged to meet with the shop stewards and hear out their case for workers’ control of the factories. At a meeting in St. Andrew’s Hall held on Christmas Day, he had the experience of having to stand on the platform while the entire audience got to their feet and sang The Red Flag.

The effect of the protests on the Clyde and the continuing agitation by women trade unionists did result in 1916 in an amendment to the Munitions Act which gave statutory force in ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Unions recruited the new women workers and by 1918 the membership of those affiliated to the TUC had risen by well over two million since the outbreak of war, totalling two and a half million. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants, and/ or working-class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and most importantly, they had been brought into the organised trade union movement for the first time. Even before the end of the war, however, the growing divisions in British society, later to be signalled by the General Strike of 1926, were already widening. In January 1916, the government had arrested Gallacher, Johnny Muir and Walter Bell, the leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, on charges of attempting to cause mutiny, sedition or disaffection among the civilian population. Ernest Bevin, speaking in the Leeds Coliseum on 3 June 1917, joined in the radical trade union war of words with the Coalition Government:

We all know that in the industrial world the capitalists would give us peace tomorrow if we would surrender. But I am not going to surrender. I am not going to be a pacifist in the industrial movement. I believe that even in our own country there will have to be the shedding of blood to attain the freedom we require …

In 1916, David Lloyd George forced Asquith to resign and replaced him as Prime Minister. Arthur Henderson became a member of the small War Cabinet with the post of Minister without Portfolio. (The other Labour representatives who joined Henderson in Lloyd George’s coalition government were John Hodge, who became Minister of Labour, and George Barnes, who became Minister of Pensions.) Henderson resigned in August 1917 after his proposal for an international conference on the war was rejected by the rest of the Cabinet. He then turned his attention to building a strong constituency-based support network for the Labour Party. Previously, it had little national organisation, based largely on branches of unions and socialist societies. Working with Ramsay MacDonald and Sidney Webb, Henderson in 1918 established a national network of constituency organisations. They operated separately from the trade unions and the National Executive Committee and were open to everyone sympathetic to the party’s policies. Henderson lost his seat in the ‘Coupon Election’ of 14 December 1918 but returned to Parliament in 1919 after winning a by-election in Widnes. He then secured the adoption of a comprehensive statement of party policies, as drafted by Sidney Webb. Entitled “Labour and the New Social Order,” it remained the basic Labour platform until 1950. It proclaimed a socialist party whose principles included a guaranteed minimum standard of living for everyone, nationalisation of industry, and heavy taxation of large incomes and of wealth.

Bevin’s ‘Docker’s Breakfast’, Poverty & ‘Poplarism’:

There were mutinies in the armed forces which continued during the period of demobilisation into 1919, reminding the upper classes rather uncomfortably of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent revolutions on the continent. They were followed by a series of strikes which led The Times (27 September 1919) to proclaim that this war, like the war with Germany, must be a fight to the finish. The civil strife which had arisen towards the end of the war continued principally among the miners, shipbuilders, railwaymen and farm workers, that is, in the declining sections of the economy. Ernest Bevin, pictured below, the national organiser of the Dockers’ Union, used his own experience of poverty and his deep knowledge of and feeling for the dockworkers in presenting the case for higher wages to the Shaw inquiry of 1920. The potatoes are peeled into a chipped enamel bowl, while the little girl watching is wearing boots that must have come from her brother.

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‘The Dockers’ KC’ was an appreciative title won by Ernest Bevin when he argued the case for a sixteen shillings a day minimum wage and de-casualisation of their labour at the Shaw Inquiry in 1920. Bevin, a thirty-nine-year-old national organiser of the Dockers’ Union was given the task of putting the case for the Transport Federation. His performance was brilliant. Though lacking in formal education, he spoke for eleven hours, vividly describing the history, work, poverty, danger of a docker’s life and scoring heavily in exchanges with the Chairman of the Port of London Authority, the wealthy Lord Devonport, an old enemy of dock workers. While the two sides were involved in academic arguments as to whether or not a docker and his family could live on the employers’ proposed wage of three pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence a week, Bevin went shopping in Camden Town. That evening he prepared a ‘docker’s breakfast’ (shown above) and took the plates into court.

When Professor Bowley, the employers’ expert witness, went into the witness box, calculating the precise number of calories on which a man could live and work, Bevin pushed scraps of bacon, bread and fish he had prepared before him and asked the Cambridge professor if that was sufficient for a man who had to carry heavy sacks of grain all day. The witness protested. You have never carried 2cwt bags on your back continuously for eight hours? Bevin fired. The professor answered that he hadn’t, and Bevin then produced a menu from the Savoy Hotel and asked him to calculate the calories in a shipowners’ lunch! The outcome of the Inquiry was a triumph for Bevin, and the court condemned the system of casual labour, awarding a national minimum wage of sixteen shillings a day for a forty-four hour week. Bevin went on, of course, to become a leading figure in the trade union and Labour movement over the next four decades.

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Historians often date Britain’s ‘hungry years’ as beginning in 1929 with the ‘Great Depression’, but for many workers, they never had a beginning, since the depression, unemployment and hunger were a permanent condition of their lives and one from which they received only occasional relief. In March 1921, Poplar, a borough in London’s East End, blighted with mass unemployment, casual dock labour, rotten housing and slum landlords, reached a breaking point. It was hardly equitable that a rich borough such as a Westminster, where a penny rate raised more than thirty thousand pounds, maintained only eleven hundred on outdoor relief, while Poplar, where a penny rate raised only three thousand pounds had to maintain forty-four thousand. The East End of London as a whole, with only a quarter of the paying capacity of the West End, had seventeen times the liability. Faced with a massive increase in the rate, a burden the poor could not carry, the Council refused to cut the level of relief to the unemployed and decided not to pay the quarter of a million pounds due to the central authority, the London County Council, carrying a rate of four shillings and fourpence in the pound, to meet the needs of the Council and the Board of Guardians.

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This was the essence of the conflict that was to lead to the imprisonment of the mayor and the majority of the socialist members of the Council and the introduction of a new word into the English language, ‘Poplarism’. Summoned to appear at the High Court on 29 July the Council marched in procession from Bow with the mace bearer at their head, the mayor wearing his chain of office and all beneath a banner saying ‘Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison’. Following the councillors, who included Edgar Lansbury and his father, the ‘uncrowned King of the East End’, the kindly George Lansbury, came the people of Poplar. The court ordered payment, the councillors refused and in September, nearly the whole of the Council was sent to prison for contempt. Fifteen thousand marched to Holloway, many of the women carrying babies (as shown in the photo above) where Minnie Lansbury and four other women were taken. While Herbert Morrison deplored their actions and J. H. Thomas called the councillors ‘wastrels’, the fight continued even inside the prison.

A council meeting was held in Brixton Prison, the women being brought from Holloway to attend. Outside, ten thousand enrolled in the Tenants’ Defence League and pledged to refuse to pay rent if the councillors asked. The High Court released the councillors in October so that they could attend a conference to discuss the whole matter. The result was a victory for Poplar. The Council had made their first charge the care of the sick, orphaned, aged, widowed, workless and homeless and forced the introduction of a Bill equalising rate burdens between the rich and poor. The two photographs of Poplar residents and councillors are taken from an album presented to one of the councillors at a Council meeting the following year. The caption to the picture of the Poplar women carrying the loaves given by the Guardians is entitled ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ while the photograph of the councillors features Alderman Hopwood with his pipe, ‘surrounded by his bodyguard’.

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The photograph above shows the outing of Norland Ward Women’s Group of the North Kensington Labour Party. The woman on the left in the front row is carrying the Party’s red flag and most of the group are wearing red rosettes. The substantial-looking Labour Club proclaims ‘Socialism’ and ‘Recreation’ and the women in their prettiest dresses have no doubt earned their break from the shop, factory, housework and local canvassing for the party. Charabanc day trips were a popular working-class leisure activity during the 1920s and the elected representatives of the Labour and trade union movement enjoyed them as much as the membership. Charabanc pictures from the early twenties are common and include those of the annual outings of workers from scores of factories on jaunts to Dartmoor and Epping Forest. The charabancs chugged along at a maximum of twelve miles per hour.

(to be continued…)

 

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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

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Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

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The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

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There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

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East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

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