- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
And yet it is true. England has never known such peace and prosperity. She is the manufacturing, trading, and financial capital of the world; the pound sterling is hard as a rock. Throughout the Midlands and the North the factories belch the smoke which, if it disfigures the landscape and showers the dreary slums with soot, nevertheless bespeaks primacy in steel and iron, in potteries and silverware, in woolen and cotton goods. Liverpool is crowded with American clippers and packets, disgorging cotton for the mills of Lancashire, returning afterward with every article of manufacture. The City of London finances, insures, and discounts for the world. Many of the new railways in America, for example, are the product of British capital.
The great, tall, jaunty figure of Lord Palmerston, the roastbeef, mastiff type of Englishman, is leading to supremacy a new class—the upper middle class of manufacturers and traders who have displaced the Tory landowners for the rule of England. The repeal of the corn laws a decade before has emphasized the change; henceforward Britain will live by trade, importing her food from abroad. Long afterward it will prove a fateful change.
Unlike the rest of Europe, England has had her revolution peacefully, but great social change she has nevertheless under-gone. Much of the savagery that lurked behind the pleasant surface of a still recent England has been tempered or removed. The whipping post and the pillory are gone, and one hundred offenses have been removed from the hanging category. Public free education is being advocated, and for good reason. “Progressive” Britain has a 40 per cent illiteracy rate; Robert Lowe, who is, in effect, minister of education in the Palmerston government, makes an ironic suggestion: “It is necessary to induce our future masters to learn their letters.” Catholics and dissenters have gained civil rights; local government has been taken from the few and turned over to the taxpayers—that is, to the landlord but not the lodger. The great Reform Bill of 1832 has broken the power of the rotten boroughs, if not totally destroyed them—for everything is gradual here—and England, if it does not have democracy in the modern sense, has elected, representative government. The Queen has yielded, with un-Hanoverian grace, the right to appoint ministers except pro forma ; the Lords have been humbled somewhat in their power, to become (rather surprisingly) a useful consultative assembly.
(Recall for a moment the House of Commons just before the Reform Bill, to grasp the extent of its meaning. Of 472 borough members only 137 were elected in any real sense. Others were controlled by the Crown, certain peers, and a few rich commoners. A rotten borough, as it was called, was an uninhabited, or barely inhabited place. Consider Cornwall, which with forty-two members had as many borough members, less one, as all Scotland; the village of Bosseney, with three cottages and nine electors, eight of them belonging to one family, sent two members to Parliament. Michell village had five voters, Gallon seven, Old Sarum no voters at all—yet each sent a member chosen by the landowner. Of Cornwall’s forty-two members, forty-one were controlled by seven peers and eleven landowners. The other was freely elected.)
Despite these reforms, this new Britain would be shocking to modern eyes. The abuses of the Industrial Revolution are plain to see. In the very year of the Reform Bill, one fifth of the cotton-textile workers were under fourteen, one third under eighteen. Miners died like flies in the collieries, and no attempt was made to fix the real responsibility. Laissez faire! What was once a fairly happy farming yeomanry has been driven to the hideous cities, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, to soulless labor often, twelve, and fourteen hours a day. Life for many is on a bare survival level, for many women, nearly impossible. In the midst of all the Victorian propriety, in the eighteen fifties 80,000 women in London live by prostitution. All this has been noted by a German refugee named Karl Marx, who spends his days, this year of 1857, grubbing through the sections on economics, history, and politics in the drafty British Museum, living on a guinea a week paid him from afar in his capacity as London correspondent for the unsuspecting editor of the New York Tribune , Horace Greeley.
Think for a moment of the chimney sweep, who is generally less than ten years old and employed against his will. Up his employer sends him, through the grate and up the flue, wriggling his way through the Stygian blackness, toes clawing at the cracks between the bricks. Now he works his elbows, now his knees, stifling, showered by soot, very likely missing his way in chimneys that have been patched and altered over the centuries. Losing his footing, he crashes, like as not, to his death. Diseases and skin sores afflict him, and his life is generally short. For laggards who hang back, there is the device of the “tickler,” a little fire lighted in the grate by his master to speed the young worker on his way. If it smothers or roasts him alive, it will be an “unavoidable accident.”
This is the world that angers Marx, rouses Dickens to heights of irony, and brings out the passion of Thomas Carlyle. The reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, charged with the care of paupers, outrage Carlyle particularly.
“Let there be workhouses,” he cries, “and bread of affliction and water of affliction there. It was a simple invention, as all truly great inventions are … A still briefer method is that of arsenic. Rats and paupers can be abolished.”