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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Work


CHAPTER VIII

WORK

It would be difficult to say in how many kinds of work Blades had been engaged at one period or another of his long life. To many of these allusion has already been made. The fact was that he could have turned his hand to almost anything and have acquitted himself creditably.

In speaking to him on this subject one day, I was curious to know, among all these various trades, businesses, and occupations to which he had turned his attention, what he called himself, and so I put the question to him point-blank. His answer was instantaneous and decisive : 'A British workman '. This reply greatly delighted me, and I thought to myself if only our so-called British workmen had done one-half of what this man had done, what a very different condition the trade and prosperity of our country would have been in during these latter years. It could not, however, have been expected that all our labourers would be able, even with the best intentions, to do the work that he did, or anything approaching it; as he once jestingly remarked to me, he believed that he had done in his time 'what would have killed a hundred and fifty of 'em'; and so no doubt it would, and a good many more besides ! But the subject of work generally is one that gives ground for some sad reflections at this time.

Among the many changes that have taken place within my recollection, one of the most remarkable is the attitude of the so-called labouring classes to work. This was observable long before the War broke out; but since that time the change has been greatly intensified. It will have been seen from the foregoing pages how one at least of the working class regarded this matter. His allusions to it were frequent. Among the many expressions which he used in speaking to me on the subject, I remember the following: 'ah liked hard work '; 'my heart was in t' job'; 'ah was ta'en up wi 't'; 'wark was nowt'; 'ah loved it [work] an' ah did it'; and there were many others of a similar character which have escaped me. We wonder how many of the working classes at this day would be ready to give utterance to expressions like these; as Blades repeatedly said to me: 'People in these days do not know what work means'. In this there is a great amount of truth.

Work is now regarded by vast numbers of people as something to be almost ashamed of, shirked, slurred over, to be got through anyhow, avoided in every possible way, instead of being looked upon as the most honourable thing any man can do; as something to take a pride in, to be satisfied with, nay, even to rejoice in.

There are those who appear to think that having nothing to do is the highest state of human existence; that is their idea of a perfect gentleman. I remember once asking a Yorkshire workman what a certain person whom he knew was; 'Oh !' he replied, 'he's quite a gentleman, he has nothing to do'. It is this kind of attitude to work which tends so much to demoralize great masses of our people. No doubt the War, as I observed, did much to aggravate this state of things. It revolutionized everything. Why do we find that, generally speaking, the workmanship of goods made in pre-War days is of better quality than of those that are made now? We not merry, but they are not nearly so good and durable. 'Dearer and worse', that is the common cry. Take foot-gear, for instance. The old saying 'there is nothing like leather' has become quite perverted in its meaning. For people of the working class with families, boots and shoes have become a serious item in the year's expenses. It is somewhat surprising that clogs are not more worn, as they are in the West Riding; they are certainly noisy, but at least they keep the children's feet dry, and are much cheaper than leather, so called, boots and shoes. The quality of modern leather is for the most part of very inferior quality, as compared with what it was formerly, chemicals being largely used in its manufacture, and oak bark in tanning appears to have entirely gone out of use. I am told that even paper is not seldom worked up into some kind of substitute for leather. It is the same with almost everything else. Wages are much higher than they were in the middle of the last century, but workmanship has deteriorated rather than improved. In buying goods at the present time it is frequently urged by the seller as a recommendation of some article or other that it is of pre-War make. But why, we may ask, should this be? The same materials might be obtained for the manufacture of the goods, and similar hands and skill to manipulate them. But alas! the interest in the work, the desire to turn out the best thing possible with the materials at hand, in short, an honest pride in whatever they map have in hand is lacking.

The distaste for work at the present time is remarkable. No one, for instance, can fail to have noticed how when a number of men are at work, they will drop their tools as if they had been touching some unclean thing the instant the clock strikes the hour for ceasing work. It might be that it would take a man but a turn or two of a screw, or a spadeful or two of soil to complete a job; but those few requisite motions of the hands and arms, we may be sure, would not be made, but the unfinished bit of work would be left till the next morning, when the men would slowly and deliberately take up their tools again.

The word 'work-shy', which has asserted itself in our language in comparatively recent years, is, I fear, but too true an index of the state of things in our midst. It shows the attitude of our people generally to work, and the sign is not to our credit, but very much the reverse. As one travels up and down the country the indications of a general slackness and lack of interest in work of all kinds is but too evident. A friend of mine in the south of England was recently motoring over a considerable distance, and as he passed along he came across, at varying intervals, some forty roadmen who were supposed to be at work; but he did not remember to have seen one of them who was actually working; some were leaning on their tools, others were talking, eating, drinking, or otherwise idling. And yet, no doubt, these men were adequately paid for the time they were expected to be at work. But it would seem that men are now largely paid, not for what they do, but for what they leave undone. There is at this time a bitter complaint of the heavy incidence of rates and taxes on all classes. But can this be wondered at when we consider the extent to which the ratepayers' money is frittered away by so many who fail to do an honest day's work, for what would generally be considered a fair wage?

There is, and has been for many years, a strong demand for able-bodied men from the mother country to settle in our colonies, and many have responded to the call with considerable success; but no one can expect to succeed, nor deserve to do so, unless they are prepared to work hard. Hitherto the supply has fallen far short of the demand, but for what reason we cannot say.

Speaking some months ago on the subject of immigration before the House of Commons Committee, the Director of Colonization of the Canadian National Railways said: 'If there is to be a rapid settlement of the Canadian West, the majority of settlers cannot be from Great Britain'; and the same speaker declared that the Continental immigrant seemed a little more ready to work and to endure preliminary hardships than settlers from Great Britain, where the farm labourer worked eight hours a day, with a Saturday half-holiday and unemployment insurance. 'The truth is', he added, 'that the British race does not display the same genius for pioneering that it did in the old days.'

Time was when this same British race were distinctly the most successful colonists in every part of the world ; hence the building up of our great Empire; and my belief is that, taken as a whole, they still hold, if not the foremost, at least a prominent place. But the question is, how long will this remain so? The signs of the times are ominous; and if the work-shy spirit continues to spread, as it seems to he doing at present in the mother country, the days of our pre-eminence as colonists are numbered, and we shall ultimately have to take a back seat among the nations of the world.

The best workers in our country districts at the present day are, I believe, our farm labourers, and in this lies our hope, though agricultural work does not attract the same numbers that it did formerly, and frequently farmers have great difficulty in getting sufficient hands to perform the requisite work on their land, even though the acreage under the plough is very much less than it was a generation ago.

What we sorely need at this time are more ploughs and ploughmen. Our slogan should be 'back to the land '. The ploughman has done much for the country in the past; he has helped to build up our manhood; and it was the ploughman who saved us from starvation at the time of the Napoleonic wars, when wheat was selling at something like a guinea a bushel.

It is iniquitous that agricultural land should be so heavily taxed as it has been in recent years; instead of attracting our rising manhood to the land the policy of recent governments seems to have had the effect of driving them away from it. Our educational authorities appear to have done but little to keep our young people in touch with agricultural life, though nothing could be better for them than this. The healthiest lives are those which are brought into closest contact with Nature; and this, too, has other effects which are of the highest value. It was stated not long since at a meeting at Cambridge, presided over by Lord Lytton, the speaker being a lady from Waterford, that a certain test which had been made in the schools in Northumberland showed that the finest minds came from the loneliest farms in the Cheviots, which indicated that in the first instance the ordered environment of life on a farm laid the basis of a good mind.

There is nothing degrading in ploughing, as some would seem to suppose; on the contrary, it is one of the best works in which any man can engage; and by the word 'ploughing' I mean everything which that term connotes, such as harrowing, drilling, rolling, and all the various operations of land culture. Cincinnatus, who was a model of primitive Roman virtue and simplicity, was twice called from the plough to the Roman dictatorship. The prophet Elisha was in the act of ploughing when the mantle of Elijah fell upon him. We are told, too, that the Chinese Emperors were once in the year compelled to guide the plough. This surely was no bad example for any great magnate to set his subjects.

With regard to the present dearth of ploughmen and agricultural labourers generally, Sir W. Beach Thomas recently drew attention to the subject in the columns of the Spectator. He alluded to advertisements for such men in one of the local papers. I cannot do better than quote his well-timed words. He said that, in referring to one issue:

'There were four advertisements for ploughmen and a number for other sorts of land workers. It is assumed in urban comment that the decrease is due solely to the surrender of arable land by farmers who cannot make it pay. But a secondary cause is the decay of the craft of land-worker. Thatchers (except one group of Norfolk thatchers), ploughmen, oak-renders, horse-keepers, hedgers and ditchers, rick-builders, mowers (with the scythe), handymen who understand machines, are all hard to find. The curious result follows that the reduction in employment does not coincide with unemployment, so far as the farming industry is concerned. Farmers, though reducing the tale of their labourers for economic reasons, have more and more difficulty in finding good men. The only solution is not, as some farmers claim, a lower wage, but a higher. The most serious loss to farming is the flight of the more energetic and more intelligent labourer. A good labourer maton, as good land rented high is better than poor land at a gift. Higher wages or more small-holdings seem the only alternatives if we are to keep the land cultivated and the country villages populous.'

But to come to our own immediate neighbourhood; we hear on all sides of the low state into which agriculture has fallen in these later years. For this there can be no remedy which is insurmountable. What then can be done to mend matters ? In the case of large farms there is the difficulty of finding an adequate supply of labour. Men require high wages when they can be found willing to work on the land, and when such are forthcoming they do not work with the same will that they did formerly. It would seem, therefore, that the only way to overcome this difficulty is to adopt the most scientific and up-to-date methods of land culture, and by every possible kind of mechanical aid. I cannot here enter into details, but only indicate broadly the kind of line that should be taken.

As regards the smaller farms and holdings, it seems to me that the best thing to be done to ensure success is for the farmer himself and his family to take the work more into their own hands. This would reduce the necessity for outside labour to a minimum or even to a vanishing point altogether. If a farmer had one or two stalwart sons and daughters, as every farmer ought to have, they would then be practically self-contained for carrying on the work of the farm. Why should not the farmer himself and his sons turn their hands to ploughing, harrowing, sowing, reaping, stacking corn, foddering the animals, and performing those multifarious operations necessary for the cultivation of the soil and the rearing of stock? Why, we may ask, should not the housewife and her daughters do the work about the house, cook the dinners, bake the bread, churn, make up the butter, attend to the poultry, and so forth ? There is nothing degrading in all this, but it means work, and perhaps hard work. There are no doubt many cases where this is done; but such instances might be very greatly multiplied. There are many things that contribute to make farming successful; but there are certain essentials without which no man is ever likely to make it answer: these are, first and foremost, a willingness to work, next, an interest in that willing work ; and lastly, an honest pride in it.

We frequently hear it said that farming does not pay in these days; but that is due very largely to the fact that those who engage in it do not go the right way to work to make it pay. Bad seasons and the heavy burdens of taxation, no doubt, are serious hindrances. The former we are powerless to prevent, and the latter should certainly be alleviated. It is a cruel business to place heavy burdens on land from which the food of the people is derived; but under fair conditions there is no valid reason why a man whose head and heart and hands are in his work should not make a good living out of it. And the same applies to the housewife; she, too, must apply herself con amore to her household and other duties. If she desires to be a lady, she must be so in the original sense of that much-abused word. The first syllable of 'lady' is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word hlaf = a loaf, and the suffix represents another AS. word which signifies a kneader; so that if the housewife considers herself a fine lady she should be a good kneader of bread, or bread-maker.

It would be a great strengthening of our social system, and add to the stability of the country if the class of the old yeoman farmers could be largely increased, to say nothing of small holdings, by which means the British soil might be made to produce very much more than it does at present.

Only quite recently, to quote once more from the Spectator, Sir W. Beach Thomas--in alluding to this subject under the heading 'Country Life'--informs us of some highly successful farming now in operation in the neighbourhood of the Wash in Lincolnshire, where some six thousand acres of land were bought by the Government in 1919, and have been let in small holdings, or at least partly so. The writer speaks of this as a district where small-holders flourish. To one particular holding, though by no means a characteristic one, he draws special attention as being one of peculiar interest. I will venture to quote what Sir Beach Thomas says of this holding:

'It consists only of five acres and is farmed by a carpenter. He grows an astonishing variety of produce in great perfection: many bulbs, a patch of iris, several pole of annual gypsophila, potatoes, a good quarter-acre of strawberries, as much of peas, with a small amount of grain and some tree fruit. In addition to the outbuildings provided, he has built with his own hands and at his own expense pigsties and henhouses. The farm was not weedless, but except for one patch of bulbs (the most difficult of all crops to handle) it was singularly clean, and every crop, except perhaps the apple trees, which did not suit the county, looked good enough to ensure a good return. How the work was done by a man largely busy with an ancillary occupation it is hard to imagine, but no one performs greater miracles than the man who loves the land and understands it.'

It is only fair to add that the quality of the land here is rich; still, it is only reasonable to suppose that proportionately good results would be obtained in the case of land which is naturally less productive.

I once asked Blades what his opinion was of Trade Unions. His reply was given without hesitation: 'I think', he said, 'they are a perfect nuisance to the world.' This expression, I confess, took me somewhat by surprise. I thought that at least he would have given some qualified approval of the changes brought about by Trade Unionism. Here was a man who in his younger days had gone through tremendous hardships, had worked as few men could ever have done, and whose wages had been extremely small, and yet giving it as his definite opinion that the great movement and organization designed for the betterment of the conditions of the working classes was, on the whole, a loss rather than a gain to our own as well as to other countries. I could not, of course, agree with a condemnation so sweeping. I can only suppose when I put the question to him that his mind turned at once to the events of 1926. And certainly those events were enough to shake the confidence of any sensible man in the methods adopted by the men's leaders in the great economic upheaval in the trade of the country in that disastrous year, when we were brought to the verge of ruin. It was as though Trade Unionism had gone mad. The harm done to our country at that time is incalculable, and we are now (1928) but beginning to recover from the effects of it. Whether we shall ever do so completely remains to be seen.

It is impossible to conceive of a man like William Blades ever becoming a member of a Trade Union. He could never have brought himself to submit to their rules and restrictions. He would wish to be free to work any number of hours a day he liked, and to make what bargains he thought fit with those who wished to employ him. It was certainly amazing how in the great strike just referred to, the men could be induced to follow the guidance of the wild spirits of those who were their chosen leaders.

It is on all hands acknowledged that one of the greatest problems of our time is that of unemployment. To see I know not how many hundreds of thousands of our fellow-countrymen living lives of idleness, partly through lack of work, and partly through an unwillingness to engage in labour of any kind, is a very sad, though, apparently, under present conditions an inevitable state of things. What is known as 'the dole', appears to be the only make-shift for the relief of those who are out of work. But to the great majority, surely, of those who receive it, this must be a humiliating means of gaining a livelihood. By many, however, the dole is regarded as a godsend with which those who receive it seem to be perfectly content, and it is welcomed as the most happy state of things possible, and therefore one which they would not move a finger to alter. To all such, this is most demoralizing. That was an amusing bit of irony on the situation which appeared in one of our Society papers (The Tatler, 5 October 1927) not long ago. A woman was questioning the doctor about her husband who was ill, when the following dialogue took place: 'Dr. " I very much doubt if your husband will be able to work again." She." I must tell 'im that, Doctor, it'll cheer 'im up no end ".' And to a similar effect was an account I read in some paper, the name of which I have forgotten. A mother was taking her boy to school. The child not looking happy, his mother tried to console him thus: 'Cheer up, Johnny, you will soon be on the dole!' It may be all very well to make light of such imaginary cases; but in truth the entire dole system is a serious matter, not only for those immediately concerned, but also for the country at large. And the longer it continues the worse it will be, because in course of time the men's limbs and muscles through lack of exercise will have become so enfeebled that if by any chance work did come in their way, they would be incapable of doing it efficiently. Then again, what in the name of reason could be more demoralizing than the 'ca'-canny' cry about which a good deal was at one time heard? Why should a man, for instance, not be allowed by the rules of his Union to lay more than a certain number of bricks in the course of a day, when perhaps he is able and willing to lay twice or three times the number? What, we may ask, can be the object of such an absurd rule? How does it benefit the men? Does it tend to raise their status in the eyes of their fellow-countrymen? Is it supposed that the less work they put through, by so much will their lives on earth be prolonged? Work does not injure the human frame, though want of exercise often does so, and by long disuse the limbs become half atrophied, and incapable of performing their proper function. In watching a gang of men who are supposed to be at work, no one can fail to notice the languid, half-hearted way in which a large proportion of them set about it; the least thing diverts their attention from what they are doing, and causes a temporary cessation; even such a trifling matter as a ridiculous mouse running about among them would be wellnigh enough to cause a stoppage for some considerable time; and if by any chance a rabbit were to come within the range of their observation, it is hard to say what would happen! Our old friend 'Punch', with his ever-watchful eye on the follies, foibles, and failings of the community cannot help noticing these things. An instance of this appeared in that far-famed journal some time ago. The following scene is depicted: the overlooker of a gang of workmen is standing at the door of his office. A trade union official comes up to him and puts the question: 'How many men have you got working here ?' To which the other makes answer: 'About 'arf of 'em ! ' There have, no doubt, been occasions when this overlooker's reply would scarcely have been an exaggeration, so feeble and spiritless is the way in which many men set about their tasks. In all labour concerns time is money; and if all the stoppages of greater or less duration, for little or no reason, in the course of a year were reckoned up, what a huge sum it would represent! If a man has to exert himself to his full extent, which from time to time it is necessary for him to do, as for instance in lifting heavy weights, he may need a minute or so to recover his breath; but how seldom do we see men nowadays pausing in their work in the country to wipe the perspiration from their brows! In the iron districts, where the blast furnaces are in operation, things are different; there, indeed, the work is most trying and exacting for the human frame, and, as a rule, the men well earn all they get; but I am here speaking rather of ordinary, and especially of municipal work, where the facts are, I believe, very generally as I have stated them. man individually, as well as to the country at large, if they would take a few lessons out of William Blades book! To the workmen themselves, I repeat, would a blessing descend, for they would have the satisfaction of feeling that they were doing their best to entitle them to be called honest British workmen, than which there can be no title more worthy of respect. They would thus, too, carry into effect the precept of old Horace which I have set on my title-page: 'Tu pulmentaria quaere sudando' (find your relishes by hard exercise); so that they would eat their dinner every day with greater enjoyment.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002