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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 71

The Wrongs of labour

The Wrongs of labour.

The wages of national sinfulness in the neglect of the poor are poverty and disease, profligacy, vice and despair, irreligion, corruption, and rottenness in every class of the people.

TThe works of Emile Zola do not commend themselves to English taste; those, however, who seek a vivid and powerfully drawn picture of the treatment to which the children of Labour have been subjected, even in quite recent times, will find it in "The Germinal, or Master and Man," the story of a strike. There are in this tale of course the realistic iucidents and impurities common to the Zola productions, such as no modern English writer would dream of incorporating in his work; but in this particular instance there is some excuse, for vice and depravity, extreme and various, are the natural outcome of long hours of laborious toil at low wages, necessitating poor food and the herding of the sexes, degraded below the level of the brute, in hoves immediately contiguous to each other. Terrible as the story of suffering and debasement seems—too terrible almost for belief—it is however founded upon truth; and true as it is regarding the lives of the mining population at one time in France, it is no less a faithful representation of the condition of the same class of people at the same period in that dear and grand old Mother Land which all of us love so well. In these high and palmy days of '92, it is counted "bad form" by Tory papers to make reference to the wrongs which Labour has silently endured in times past; it is discreetly held to be wisest and best that such uncanny things should be forgotten. Of a truth they are forgotten by, or, haply, never came within the knowledge of the present generation. To answer present purposes, however, it is essential that certain facts should be recalled, if only in order that some fair measure of honour should be rendered where great honour is justly due. It is forgotten, no doubt, that page 6 up to some fifty years ago women were employed to draw trucks like beasts of burden in deep and darksome mines; that they lived in caverns, rarely ascending to behold the light of day; that children were born to them there, and died there, never in the brief period of their wretched existences having onee beheld the glorious radiance of the sun, nor the perfect beamy of a flower if they succeeded in struggling through the period of infancy, they too were harnessed to draw the truck as soon us a small modicum of physical strength be came manifest It almost passes belief that in a Christian land such awful human degradation could be possible; yet, whilst the public prints of '92 are almost indecent in their eagerness to feast thy people with every detail of the latest horror, it is "bad form" to make reference to murders most foul and abominable, legally committed under the glorious principle, of "freedom of contract," when that principle was in unquestioned dominancy.

As in the mines, so in the factories. Women worked; children, still of tender years, were employed. The rooms in which they laboured were low, small, ill-ventilated; the bacilli of consumption, typhoid and cholera covered the walls; disease and death haunted they were. But the long-delayed day of salvation dawned at last when Elizabeth Barrett Browning took tip her pen to write "The Cry of the Children." Hot many of they that labour with their hands have read that "? Cry," or know aught indeed about it? It tells its own piteous story. Here, but one or two lines, the refrain to as many verses can be quoted:—

For, all day, we drag our burdens tiring
Through the coal-dark underground—
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
In the factories, round and round.

And all the day the iron wheels are drying;
And sometimes we could pray
"O ye wheels," (breaking out in a loud moaning)
"Stop, be silent for a day!"

Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children's souls, which God is casing sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.

Our blood splashes upward, O gold-heaper,
And your purple shows your path!
But the child's sob curses deeper in the silence
Than the strong man in his wrath!

"The Cry of the Children "reverberated over the land; the great heart of the people was touched, and it thrilled at the touch. A Legislature controlled by a class representing capital, cowering and ashamed, hurried to the passing of mining and factory laws." This surely is true!

But look here, here upon this picture! It is a woman in—yes, a page 7 woman in a garret! Pale, emaciated, hungry, and scantily clothed she toils for a wretched pittance insufficient to hold soul to body. Listen, she is a sweater; a sweater trying by toil incessant to win the means of sustenance at two pence per shirt. There are very many slaves such as she is in this great, free, enlightened, and magnanimous country. Perhaps she too has heard of the piteous "Cry of the Children," and, learned with a thankful heart how the representatives of the people in Parliament assembled—Waring in mind how laws should be equal—were hastening to pass remedial measures to relieve from their heavy burdens all the women and children who labour, and perchance the happy thought has crossed her mind that somewhere, far away yonder among the stars shining through the roof, there exists a Power that will in the near future raise up a "Cry" for her and all the poor who suffer. Hark! Even whilst thus she prays a song bursts upon her and penetrates the skies. It is Hood's "Song of a Shirt":—

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags
Plying her needle and thread.
In poverty hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pilch—
Would that its tone could reach the rich—
She sang this song of a shirt.
It's oh to be a slave,
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save.
If this Christian work!

Once again was England thrilled, and once again there was a rustling of dry bones in the Parliament, where class legislation was wholly unknown! No doubt, it may be said that the case of the shirt-makers was exceptional but when Thomas Hood wrote, there was "sweating" in all trades, where "sweating was at all practicable," particularly amongst the tailors and shoemakers.

"You sea, men are so wonderfully and fearfully made that they work, they throw their best work, they bring all their powers, their inventions, and their contrivances, and lay them at the feet of their employer, though they know him to be a greedy grinder and a sweater-Yes, and they will sell the finest invention, just as they will sell the most wonderful book, or the most splendid picture—whether on a canvas or in a print—for next to nothing, to the first crafty man who comes to buy it." The words are those of Walter Besant, and they are quoted for no stronger purpose than to enable the remark, that the greatest inventors—and therefore the world's greatest benefactors—have come from the ranks of labour. The capitalist has never invented anything.

"Necessity," it has been said, "is the mother of invention," and so, no doubt, the history of the world proves. Necessity, it is; that page 8 compels poor Jack to find a ship when all his earnings from last voyage have disappeared. When he again goes aboard there is a hole called a bunk for him to repose in, and "hard bake" and "mahogany" for his food. Midst arctic snows and tropical heats poor Jack baa to do his duty, and at all times and in all seasons he has braved the dangers of tbe deep without giving forth one word of complaint. He has no meetings with a lord or a mayor in the chair; no eloquent speeches to crowded audiences; no resolutions duly proposed, seconded, and enthusiastically carried; no petitions to present; no strong-voiced public opinion to support him in the exposition of any possible wrongs he may have to endure; he is removed from the ordinary interest of men, and only the loving eyes of wife or mother or sister or child follow him across the seas. But one man of all has appeared to give thought to the wrongs which have been perpetrated upon the sailor, and today there is not a British ship upon the seas that does carry not the honorable mark of his noble work.

These facts have not been set down for the purpose of calling up rancorous feeling or the stirring up of class animosities; nothing of the kind. It is desired to point out here the deep debt of gratitude due by the children of labour in every land where the English language is spoken, to those who, although they cannot properly be said to have belonged to the ranks of Labour, have each achieved more substantial and material gains for the working classes than all other of their champions put together. Indeed, their names are worthy to he printed in letters of gold and hung over the family altar in the home of every son of toil, so that not for a day nor an hour they may be suffered to fade into a shameful and ungrateful forgetfulness!

Elizabeth Barrett Bowning,
Thomas Hood,
Charles Dickens,
Samuel Plimsoll.

As one by one the conditions to which Labour was reduced came to be exposed in all their horrible deformity, it was promptly and emphatically denied that the capitalistic employer derived any advantage from such a state of things. It was persisently and loudly asseverated that he gained nothing, and he was in no way responsible. The excuse put forward was that the great public beyond him insisted upon production of every kind being cheap. That to improve the work rooms and dwellings of their employes, shorten their hours of labour and raise their wages, would involve such an outlay and weekly expenditure that the work of production and of manufacture could not possibly be carried on. Mark this, and mark it well, for it is the second and most important point to be evolved. The asseverations of the capitalistic employer have been proved to be one vast mistake. page 9 During the past fifty years women and children have ceased to labour in mines; the small, low, disease-infested workrooms of the factories have disappeared from human knowledge; the sweating system has, been almost wholly suppressed; over-laden and deck-laden and rotten-bottomed ships are known no more; education has been diffused and spread abroad with a liberal and no less beneficent hand; lastly, the hours of labour have been shortened, and wages almost doubled. What consequences have flowed from these changes? Has production ceased? Have manufactures diminished? Is the capitalistic employer "clean wiped out?" Answer? Is it not rather the case that so far from an overwhelming and blasting ruin having overtaken him, the capitalistic employers have never since history first began been so wealthy, prosperous, powerful, and numerous (it may be added) as at this hour! It is true, every word of it, The story of past suffering, of hideous poverty, of intolerable misery, of confinement, disease, and death, is true, it is supported by testimony given at the time; the excuse put forward is on record and is undeniable; the facts of today are plainly to he seen on every hand. What follows? This, that immediately any claim for further consideration is put forward on behalf of those who labour, it is met by the same old, old assertion that to grant it is impossible; that to yield would undoubtebly destroy industry; that factories would be shut up and mines closed; that ruin and nothing but ruin, absolute, and complete would overtake the country. Pause, O gold heaper; stay a moment and reflect! You have said all this before, in the long ago now so nearly forgotten, and you know now that you were hugely, utterly mistaken. Is it not just possible that you may be mistaken again? Be less positive in assertion; prove more considerate in action!