My earliest recollections are associated with my father’s workshop. In looking back to the youthful period of life, and the years immediately succeeding, it has often occurred to me that some particulars might be revived, which, in the present day, when the great questions of education, food, and work, are occupying the public mind, would assist in exposing a defect or suggesting a remedy. Perhaps one of the most effectual means of arriving at just conclusions on which to base practical remedial measures, would be to get a number of operatives and artisans to make a clean breast of it—to enlighten the world honestly as to their social economy, their ways and means, sayings and doings.
As soon as I could hold a hammer, the workshop was my chief place of resort after school hours and on half holidays. I had a mechanical turn, and was fond of handling tools, and was brought up to consider myself as destined to become a cabinetmaker, and to plod through life at the side of the bench. For more than twenty years I pursued this calling, never dreaming that any other sphere of existence would open before me. I have consequently mingled much with workingmen, and had abundant opportunities of becoming acquainted with their prevalent habits and modes of thinking.
The establishment to which the workshop appertained was in a country town within a hundred miles of London; the number of ‘hands’ employed, including an apprentice or two, varied from six to nine, according to the state of business. The hours of work from March to October were from six in the morning till seven in the evening, and during the other half-year work commenced in the morning at daylight, and ended an hour later at night. Working by candlelight commenced for the season on the 13th of October—why this particular day was selected I never could make out—and ended punctually on the 1st of March.
The men had half an hour for their breakfast at eight, an hour for dinner at twelve, and half an hour for tea between four and five in the afternoon: at times, however, instead of going home to the latter meal, they drank a pint of beer in the workshop. They were punctual in their attendance, according to the conventional acceptation of the term; that is, if they reached the shop within five or ten minutes of the exact time, it was considered as being all fair; but the hour of leaving off work presented a singular contrast to the loose and straggling system of arrival; then every one was ready to depart, even before the ‘clock was cold.’
The description of the proceedings of one day would suffice, in main points, as an example of what took place year after year. On commencing in the morning, or on returning from a meal, several minutes were always wasted in gossip while each man took off his coat and put on his jacket and apron; then a desultory stroke or two of the saw or plane would be given, interrupted by a few additional snatches of conversation: movement at first seemed irksome, and perhaps a quarter of an hour was lost in getting the shop fairly under way.
All at once, after the lapse of an hour or so, some topic of general interest—a prize-fight, murder, or ‘radical reform’—would be started; and as cabinetmaking is too noisy a trade to allow of talking and working at the same time, a general suspension of labour ensued. The debate not unfrequently produced a quarrel; and as the excitement increased, the epithets ‘fool,’ ‘liar,’ &c. were bandied about without the slightest regard for decorum, or respect for personal feelings.
Notwithstanding the heat of disputation on such occasions, there seemed to be a tacit understanding that one eye and ear should be kept on the alert for the master’s approach. No sooner was this perceived, or his foot heard on the stair, than the signal was given, and all hands fell to working as busily as bees. While the master remained in the shop, this assumed diligence was kept up, and if any one spoke, it was with suppressed voice. No sooner, however, did the principal disappear, than an immediate slackening followed— every arm seemed suddenly deprived of half its energy, every tongue was loosened.
The disputes were, in the majority of instances, on the most trivial points; and in proportion to the speakers’ ignorance of the subject under discussion, so was the vehemence of the debate. The arguments were generally marked by bitter and obstinate prejudices—prejudices of the class. This is a most lamentable and fatal characteristic; but I shall have occasion to advert to it further by and by: as yet, many details remain to be brought forward.
Our sketch so far may be considered as filling up the forenoon: in the afternoon, about four o’clock in summer, or at dusk in winter, a proposition would now and then be made to ‘have in some beer,’ or purl, or egg-hot, according to the season. It was not what is called a drinking-shop, but the men would drink beer whenever they could get it, and consider themselves ill treated if none were offered to them when they were out at work. On this point much might be said respecting the deficiency of proper independence of character under which such a state of feeling would prevail.
As regards drinking, however, a great advance had been made upon the workmen of the preceding half century. An old man who had worked in the shop during a long course of years often related particulars of the scenes he had witnessed. To quote his words, ‘a bushel of beer was often drunk in a morning before eleven o’clock,’ and all sorts of tricks and subterfuges were had recourse to in order to evade the master’s notice. The youngest hand would generally be posted as sentinel, and when no other mode of escaping observation presented itself, the beer would be drawn up at a back window by a string.
In many workshops an absurd system of fines prevails, the main object of which is to accumulate a fund to be expended for beer: cabinetmakers are no exception. Fines are sometimes levied if the grindstone, or rubbing-down stone, on which plane-irons are sharpened be not used according to certain prescribed regulations: sometimes a point connected with the fire and candle, with the glue-pot or tinder-box, constituted the ground of an imposition.
Then there is the ‘footing,’ or bucksheesh, expected from every new hand engaged to work at the shop. Should the new hand prove refractory, and object to pay his footing, he lays himself open to all sorts of annoyances, the chief of which is taking away and concealing his tools, if he have any. This is called ‘setting old Mother Shornie to work;’ and as the poor man’s tools disappear one by one, the old lady is said to have carried them off. Should he want to use the glue, another will immediately snatch the pot from the fire and keep it on his own bench.
The upshot is, that the recusant either pays the fine or quits the shop. Bad luck, too, to the unfortunate wight whose apron was hemmed at the bottom! he immediately rendered himself liable to a fine, as the immemorial custom of the craft requires the apron to be decorated with a fringe made by pulling out a few cross threads at its lower extremity. Among blacksmiths, when a man mounts a new apron, it must be stamped with a quart pot, which it is needless to say is brought in full of beer; and a painter, while at work, becomes ‘fineable’ if he drop his brush, and it be picked up by a shopmate before he can recover it.
Some of these laws were enforced in our workshop: one of the men appointed by the others acted as treasurer. When the time came for drinking the sum collected, it often fell short of anticipation, leaving room to suspect the treasurer’s faith. The same fact was also observed with regard to a fund raised by penny a-week subscriptions for the relief of ‘tramps:’ it was never so large us it ought to have been.
There was a difference in morning and afternoon conversation: the former has been described; the latter, especially after beer, was somewhat more boisterous and unseemly. So it went on with little variation year after year. There was no ambition, no aspiration, no notion of daily bettering, of steadily carrying out a fixed purpose, save that of supplying animal wants. This, it may be said, is so pre-eminent a necessity, as to absorb all others; but we are told that,
‘ Well-earned, the bread of service yet may have
A mounting spirit.’
A hand-to-mouth mode of living had become second nature with all in the shop: their sole recreation, whether married or single, was to pass the evenings in the taproom of a public-house; such a thing as a walk in the fields, or listening to a lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute, was never thought of, or, if thought of, never put in practice.
As may be inferred under such circumstances, the moral code was lax; everything was fair, unless you were found out; and if by any chance a defaulter was detected, the general feeling, instead of contrition, was—’More fool he not to have managed it better.’ I well remember certain current phrases which were familiar to me before I was old enough to understand their import—’What the master don’t miss, comes to the man;’ ‘What a person does not know, does him no harm;’ or, ‘It’s no use to starve in a cook’s shop:’ all vicious sayings, importing a low tone of morality.
Acting on these principles, nails, screws, sand-paper, small pieces of veneer, in fact anything that could be easily secreted, was carried away; and, what is not a little singular, such acts were never looked upon as stealing; ‘taking it home’ was the recognised term. No one scrupled to work on his own private account, using the master’s time and materials at any job which he might have picked up among his own connections; the contraband object being hastily laid aside whenever the employer made his appearance.
Among other instances, I have known a man to make a dozen chairs in a shop constantly overlooked by a foreman, and carry them away piecemeal concealed about his person. Small articles inadvertently left in a chest of drawers, writing-desk, or other furniture sent in for repair, were always regarded as lawful prizes, and appropriated accordingly.
All this might be set down to an attempt on the part of a subordinate class to indemnify themselves for the absence of privileges enjoyed by others, but, as we have seen in the treasurer’s defalcation, they were not true to one another. And it almost invariably happened that the messenger sent out to buy bread, and cheese, and beer, or the materials for concocting egg-hot, made a profit for himself out of the contributions by purchasing deficient or inferior articles. The detail of such facts is a melancholy one: no attempt, however, has been made to overstate the evil; the knowledge of its existence may perhaps lead to measures of melioration.
Occasionally a London hand on tramp was taken in for a short time; his stay generally had the effect of interfusing a little metropolitan slang with the provincial vernacular. One useful result, however, followed; the new-comer furnished us with hints how to work, contrivances for abridging and expediting labour, or a new style of construction, which we could continue after he had left.
But our men were very ill-equipped with tools: scarcely one, indeed, who did not avail himself of the most miserable make-shifts; anything to save the outlay of a shilling. With these they would go on for years, unaware perhaps that they were sacrificing time, and producing inferior work, with such imperfect appliances. The better the tools, all other things being equal, the better is a man enabled to work: a few weeks’ saving of what was spent at the public-house would have put our men on an efficient footing in this particular. But they were incapable of taking a comprehensive view of their position and prospects; they could never look beyond the next Saturday.
Disheartening as all this may appear, there are one or two redeeming points. As a boy, I was extremely fond of reading, and having a good memory, often repeated in the workshop some of the stirring incidents of travel and adventure which I had perused. On such occasions I had always an admiring and attentive audience. It is true that time was lost while they ceased their work to listen to my recitals; but the conversation that followed showed a capability of being interested by topics out of the ordinary range when presented in a very familiar style.
There was a certain esprit de corps also among these men, which, under proper management, might become a motive-power of no mean value for moral training and advancement. At times, too, manifestations of loyal attachment and devotion to the employer would appear—glimpses, as it were, of a genuine nature deadened and perverted by mischievous habits. When we consider that men are found to work day after day for mere food and raiment, without an idea of the dignity of labour, or the poetry of life to sustain them, we are impressed with the fact of a latent power in this dogged perseverance, capable of greater things, when once the mental slough can be cast off.
The routine of workshop duty was often interrupted by ‘jobbing-work’ at customers’ houses. Country tradesmen, as is generally known, devote themselves to more numerous branches of trade than the shopkeepers of the metropolis, or what may be termed provincial capitals. Hence the workman’s occupation is more varied, and perhaps on that account more interesting, notwithstanding the depreciatory declaration of the real London artisan, that your countryman ‘knows a little of everything, and nothing well.’
Removing goods, paper-hanging, lifting carpets, taking down and cleaning bedsteads, &c. of such our jobs mainly consisted. To some houses we paid periodical visits: at the end of April, the thick worsted hangings and draperies, their winter occupation gone, were to be taken down and replaced by the summer’s paraphernalia of chintz and muslin, which in October again gave place to the cozy damask and moreen.
These goings out gave us an insight into the domestic arrangements of many families, and we were not backward in drawing inferences. At that time the most favourable estimate was formed of those households in which beer was most freely supplied: the house which kept ‘a good tap’ might always depend on prompt services.
According to the nature of our occupation, we went from storey to storey, from room to room; now catching a glimpse of a fashionable toilette, or a well-furnished wardrobe; then coming suddenly into a noisy nursery, or perhaps a store-closet smelling of soap and candles, ham and onions, jellies and juniper. It was the part of Asmodeus without the trouble of taking off the roof: what snatches we caught of little-town-ism!
In some houses the inmates would carry on their conversation quite regardless of our presence; our social position was too low to cause restraint. Experiences of this kind were amusing, but not improving. It was a great pleasure for me to be sent to an old manor-house; for there, by favour of the housekeeper or servants, I was allowed to spend a little time in the library every evening after the labours of the day. Country work is among the pleasantest of my workshop recollections.
But to return to our main question: the faults of character which I have attempted to signalise, with regard to a certain class of working-men, are not confined to one particular locality; the same defects, or modifications of them, appear in other quarters. A few years’ residence in the state of New York gave me opportunity to observe the same want of forethought, of true independence of character, of adapting means to ends, as prevailed in my native district at home.
The working-class in America comprises a heterogeneous mixture, of which we have little example in this country, and to this cause many radical defects may perhaps be attributed. There is one favourable point which I must not forget to notice: the English and Americans with whom I came in contact were always ready to lend tools to one another in case of need; not so the French and Germans; they either demurred, or refused altogether, even to their compatriots.
The French appeared to be the most unreflecting in their proceedings. I once remonstrated with a Parisian who had chopped up a valuable piece of mahogany to burn under the glue-pot. The reply was, ‘ Bah! whenever you see von rich man, you see your enemy: the boss is von rich—he is my enemy. It is quite fair; I do vat I like to him.’
From this intensified specimen of perverse morality, some idea may be formed of its wide-spread action in a less positive degree. I often look back to my workshop days with a feeling of regret that I did not make a better use of them, and that I yielded too readily to the influences around me. My latest experiences come down to within the last six years, consequently the conclusions which may arise cannot be said to apply to an obsolete state of things.
The workshop was a bad school for me; association in early life with men who had no fixed principles left unwholesome impressions on my mind, which have never been wholly eradicated. Apprentices, on entering a situation, have a double evil to encounter; in some cases they are at the beck and call of the whole shop—their life a very slavery—so much is exacted from them by men who are often loudest in senseless clamour about invasion of rights.
This is a physical evil; but the moral one is greater. I say it with inexpressible regret, that as far as my own experiences are concerned, the workmen, acting less as individuals than in the spirit of class, too generally neglect moral considerations; and nothing is more certain than that they are suspicious of each other. Could they have a thorough reliance on each other’s integrity, what might they not accomplish?
It may be said, indeed, that among the so-called middle and higher classes there is too much want of conscientious principle; but among these classes, I believe, there is an ever-pervading desire to maintain at least the appearance of respectability of character. A fear of losing caste, by being discovered to have done either a mean or dishonest action, insures that which an uncompromising integrity ought in itself to accomplish.
In my youthful experiences I saw little of pure-souled conscientiousness; the only guiding principle was selfishness injuriously exercised. This was an error springing immediately from what I consider to be a grand defect in the manual labouring-classes. They commit the prodigious mistake of considering themselves to be a class apart, and acting accordingly; whereas they should know that they are members of a varied community, the language, fashions, and feelings of which there is no reason they should not adopt.
In their labour there is nothing dishonourable, or which weighs them down; they are depressed mainly by considerations arising out of their feelings and habits. To me it is now obvious that with the exercise of a little forethought, self-denial, and self-respect, a better state of things would prevail. I would not be thought actuated by a desire to deny or undervalue the virtues which we know exist in many struggling families; my wish is, that they should become more general.
How many subordinate clerks, with smaller incomes than the yearly earnings of a mechanic, live in comfort and respectability. Why cannot the working-classes do the same? Having but comparatively little requirement for expensive clothing, they might often be more at ease in pecuniary matters than the father of a family obliged to wear a good coat and keep up an appearance.
Every year the multiplication of books and other educational facilities renders the work of progress easier. Education must come from within as well as from without. When this truth becomes better known, we shall perhaps hear that the working-classes have abandoned their ‘fixed idea,’ and emerged from the groove in which they have so long been travelling in ill-suppressed discontent, and caught the ‘mounting spirit.’*
*The above article is what it purports to be—the production of a person who only a few years ago laboured as a working-man in an English provincial town. That he has been able to put his ideas thus before the world is, he says, exclusively owing to a persevering course of self-instruction.—Ed. C.E.J.
Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal – Saturday, September 2, 1848