Victorian attack on the idle, the unemployed and the ‘underclass’
Last updated at 20:33, Thursday, 24 May 2012
The West Cumberland Times ran a feature article entitled Some ‘Working’ Men back in 1891.
It was one of its weekly opinion pieces, which I’ve always found to be both fascinating and informative and often an excellent way of gaining some hint as to what the man in the street was thinking about events, local, national and, occasionally, also international.
But this article puzzled me because I feel that it was quite out of character with the paper’s usual output.
It was an ill-concealed attack on the idle, the unemployed and that section of the community which today’s politicians seem to have coined another name for – the underclass.
The writer claimed that the British workman was getting too big for his boots.
He blamed this on a number of reasons – foreign ideas influencing our national politics, the fact that the gulf was widening between “the classes and the masses.” I rather like that one.
He thought that the average working man, because of better education, an increased interest and participation in politics, had become aware of what he was really entitled to in the world – and had taken steps to obtain it.
Their endeavours seemed to have irked him.
He thought that other hard-working tradesmen deserved to get some attention and limited hours of work – as did many other professionals who did not “wear aprons, nor brag about being ‘horny handed sons of toil,’ and all that nonsense.”
And then he went on to identify some types of “workers.”
There was “the artisan who sometimes works and oftener indulges a morbid antipathy to manual exercise. He “had been trained not to risk disease of the heart by over-hurry to commence work; although if he failed once to stop at the stroke of the clock, he would reproach himself for the rest of his life.” I think we’d call them clock watchers nowadays.
Then he cites the example of a group of painters who, after invariably arriving a few minutes late for work, after taking forever to locate and put down their paint pots , spend time “in ascertaining with upward view whether someone has or has not run off with the building in the night.”
They then take a long time to put up their ladders safely, and elf and safety had yet to be invented. After only a few brush strokes, the group gather in the road to view their work – when along comes a newsboy.
Time then for a newspaper read, a smoke, a drink and a chat. Not enough time to get much done until after breakfast – very necessary after their near seven o’clock start.
The writer does graciously admit that there were many workmen who didn’t behave like this. He does, however, maintain that “only in too many cases, the picture is not overdrawn.” But what he has written about, rather amusingly, is a spot of lead swinging, clock watching and time wasting.
But he then opts for a spot of generalised character assassination.
He claims that “our worker, and it is sometimes before he’s out of his time” then gets married, often “to somebody as incapable and idle as himself” – and I don’t get the significance of this next bit – “particularly if she sports a red feather in her hat on Sundays.” It must mean something. Any ideas?
Then it’s off to the register office, when they might “enter upon married life in a condition not consistent with the principles of teetotalism.”
Then follows a life spent in lodgings, the husband getting drunk on Saturdays and as many other nights as his money will pay for, spending his time lounging around on Sundays.
Drink is always available on special occasions, when he might end the night, when drunk, by “thrashing his wife for the fun of it.”
It doesn’t matter how little money there is, drink can always be obtained from somewhere.
And when money runs out, there’s always the club, the pawnbroker, the parish, etc, to apply to.
If goods are required, there’s always the tallyman to turn to.
I’ll let our Victorian journalist have the last word: “Unfortunately, this description is only too accurate of many men in this district who might have occupied good positions as workmen, but who are, instead, a disgrace and burden to their families and the public.”
It’s a gloomy picture, although I don’t really understand how the writer can logically tie in the antics of the drunken wife beater with the legitimate demands of the Victorian working man.
I think he got his wires crossed on this one.
First published at 19:21, Thursday, 24 May 2012
Published by http://www.timesandstar.co.uk