Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 1 - Working Men in their Public Relations - Working Men's Friends

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WORKING MEN'S FRIENDS.

THE working man is certainly a man of many friends and protectors - that is, if he believes the  self-glorifying and interested assertions of a number of individuals who dub themselves "friends of the people, "the working man's friend, and so forth. But if the working man does not choose to take these assertions for granted, but, on the contrary, prefers to inquire how far they are true, and what are the motives .for making them, it is much to be feared that he will often have occasion to exclaim, "Save me from my friends !"
    A friend of the working classes being now a character that is deservedly appreciated and respected, and one that brings more or less of a coveted publicity to those sustaining it, is evidently also a character that offers attractions to all manner of men; and troops of friends, true and false, wise and unwise, candid and sugar-candid, and all other kinds of friends or professing friends, "the working man" must look to have. To mere popularity hunters, to stump-oratorically inclined individuals who are from time to time seized with a feeling under which they must speak or "bust, to social theorists, to budding [-30-]  or would-be politicians, and to matured but manoeuvring politicians, to all these does the character of a friend of the working-classes present irresistible attractions and men of each and all these classes are inflicting themselves upon the working man. A number of really well-meaning and benevolent persons-whose benevolence, however, is greater than their knowledge of the subject they deal with - have also of late years indulged largely in the friend of the working-man style of philanthropy; and the result of their proceedings has been, that the unfortunate working man has, in a most objectionable and unfortunate Exeter Hall fashion, been made an "object of interest." He has been dinnered and tea-partied, and had the inestimable honour of shaking hands with the squire, and of being waited upon at tea by the squire's wife and daughters, and exhibited to the neighbouring gentry at "feeding time." He has had prizes presented to him for growing the largest cabbage, and bringing up the largest family in the parish, or on the estate, "without troubling the union;" and he has even had an opportunity of cutting a dash, by the winning and wearing of prize breeches. And, while agricultural Giles has been lionized in this style, his brother Jack of the manufacturing districts has been made the subject of May meetings; has been lectured to, and upon, and been publicly assured by men of wealth and position that they, too, are working men, and work as hard as he does for their living, and that consequently his cause is their own: a kind of statement which though perhaps substantially true, is, under the circumstances, a piece of vain bombast which the more sensible of the Jacks set down at its true value.
    [-31-] From this class of friends, however, the working man has little to fear, as what they do is generally done with a good intention and from disinterested motives; and though their plans may not be very wise ones, or likely to effect the end they have in view; and though their exceedingly patronizing manner may possibly demoralize some of the patronized, by causing them to regard themselves as an inferior race of beings, still, upon the whole, little harm can, and some good may, result from the proceedings of these well-meaning if not very wise people.
    There is, however, one class of self-constituted friend - to whom the working man should ever say, "avoid thee;" a class whose chief object it is to "put money in their purse," and who adopt the character of the working man's friend as the readiest means of accomplishing that object. It is this class of friend who tells the working man that he is an outraged and oppressed individual, against whom all classes of society are leagued; and that it is to them - the said friends - and to no one else, that he must trust for guidance and protection. At the head of this peculiar class of friends stands the great C. G. B or "Alphabet" Crusher, proprietor of Crusher's news paper. Crusher's newspaper is the oldest of its class; but age has only increased its influence as the leading and most pronounced organ of the labouring classes,; the most energetic discoverer and denouncer of the abuses to which those classes are subject at the hands of every other. Since the abolition of the paper duty, Crusher has had many rivals for the proud and profitable position of journalistic agitator and toady-in- chief to "the working man;" but he has always acquitted himself in a manner that proves [-32-] him paramount, and his paper can still boast of having the largest circulation in the small but not altogether unimportant world in which papers of its class are read. And the continuous success of the veteran Crusher in his own line of business is by no means surprising to those having a knowledge of the subject. "Crusher's newspaper" for many years reigned alone in its glory, and its name became a household word among a large section of the working-classes, while its teachings, as propounded by the great "C. G. B. C." himself in weekly articles of the most terrifically "scathing" character, formed the political ideas of more than one generation of the men of that section. Of late years the proprietor seems to have deputed the scathing business to his leading contributors; the fact that his name forms part of the title of the paper, and the remembrance of his former deeds, still keeps his memory green; and in the estimation of the bulk of the agitator-ruled portion of the working-classes, Crusher, or as his admirers delight to call him, "The Old un," is more emphatically "the boy" than any of his younger rivals. And it is only due to Crusher's newspaper to say that it has gone with the age; for however sycophantic to the working-classes, or senselessly abusive of all other sections of society might be the tone of its rivals, it has always managed to advance a little beyond them in either direction.
    A working man may be in constant employment, earning good wages, and enjoying good health; he may have a comfortable home, and be a depositor in the savings bank, and with all these advantages he may consider that he is a comparatively happy man. But let him become a reader of Crusher's newspaper, [-33-] and he will soon find that, so far from having any claim to consider himself in any sense happy, he is one of the most oppressed and miserable of human beings. He will learn that he is the prey and victim of a "bloated, vicious, blood-sucking aristocracy," unjust taxation, unfair and unequal laws, and a host of other national and personal wrongs. He will be persuaded that the chief aim of capitalists and the employers of labour is to crush and "grind him down," and to annihilate "the rights of labour." In this conscientious and comforting publication he will find the government of his country described as an organized swindle, the principal design of which is to oppress and rob him, and to prevent him from ever attaining any elevation in the social scale. To corroborate this description the actions and conduct of the Government are distorted and commented upon in a style of unquestionable vigour, but of very questionable fairness. The members of the legislative and executive bodies, and all who are in any way actively concerned in carrying on the work of government, lie will find described either as arrant fools or self- interested knaves, who, however they may differ about other matters, are unanimous upon the two points of enriching themselves, and of deliberately oppressing the working-classes. And, finally, he will be led to infer that all the friendship for, and interest in, the welfare of the working man, and all the administrative talent in the country, is centred in the We's of Crusher's newspaper.
    "We are a nation that must be cracked up," observed one of our most remarkable men to Mark Tapley, during the period of that jolly gentleman's residence in the American "Eden;" and though there are few persons who would like to speak as plainly as [-34-] the Yankee colonel, there are, I fancy, still fewer who object to being cracked up occasionally. And so it is with the working-classes. They do not say that they must be cracked up, and they would scorn the idea of asking any one to crack them up; but still when they are cracked up they are pleased, and are disposed to view the motives of the flatterer in a favourable light. It is to this feeling that Crusher's newspaper, and others of the same class, are indebted for the influence they undoubtedly exert over a considerable portion of the working-classes. In these journals the working man finds himself cracked up to an almost unlimited extent. He is described in their pages as an injured innocent, against whom every man's hand is raised; he is told that it is he who is the only real producer of the national wealth, and that it is he who, as the chief producer, should have the lion's share of the produce, out of which he is unjustly kept by a "bloated aristocracy," and a "servile middle class." In these papers he finds himself habitually alluded to in favourable terms as "a bold bread winner," or "a brawny son of toil," is applauded to the very echo for his "sturdy independence," "rough common sense," and a host of other good and great attributes of which he may or may not be possessed. And in addition to reading all these fine things about himself, the working man, in this kind of papers, has the satisfaction of seeing his enemies (that is, according to these said journals, all who are in a higher rank of society than himself) denounced in the most emphatic language.
    The working man who reads and believes in newspapers of the "Crusher" class soon becomes a discontented and unhappy person, and learns to regard himself as an oppressed member of society, on whom all other ranks of society constantly wage warfare. He [-35-] becomes a person of intensely class feeling, and believes in the sentiment that. whatever is beneficial to or approved by people above him, must necessarily be antagonistic to his interest, as in a foregone conclusion; and, while he constantly rails against the aristocracy, thus speaking of them as the natural and avowed enemies of the working classes, he is himself generally the most aristocratic-in his own offensive sense of the word-of working men. Whenever a man of this kind is by any chance "clothed in a little brief authority" he exerts that authority to its utmost limits and exacts the honour due to it with the greatest rigour. If a foreman, he scorns the idea of associating in any but a business way with the men under his command; if a mechanic, he would indignantly repudiate any proposition to associate him with a labourer; and even when a labourer he will usually find some set of persons with whom he will refuse to associate - upon some such plea as maintaining the dignity or the rights of labour, or of upholding the respectability of the order to which he belongs. And men of this kind, narrow-minded, ignorant, ill- informed men, whose ideas upon the constitution of society and the relative position and value of its various sections have been derived from the toadying of papers whose circulation depends upon their persistent writing up of "The working man" are among the greatest obstacles to the social progress of the working classes. They are men of little strength of mind, and, being fooled to the top of their bent, are firmly impressed with the belief that themselves, and their class, are perfect; and that consequently there remains nothing more for them to do in the way of self-improvement, with any view to aiding in the work of their own advancement. All such disadvan-[-36-]tages as they labour under, they assume are entirely attributable to the general wrong-doings and special machinations against them of the rich and powerful, and they lay the flattering unction to their souls that their friends of the agitator persuasion will yet find find them a royal road to wealth and social elevation. Hugging themselves in this belief, they remain stationary, grumbling at their position, but refusing to move on, and are as a mill-stone about the neck of the more liberal, intelligent, and energetic section of the working classes, who have learned and are striving to carry out the principle that working men themselves must be the chief workers in achieving their own elevation, and that self- denial and self-improvement are primary means to the desired end.
    Another and if possible more dangerous "friend" against whom the working man should be on his guard, is the one who comes forward in the character of a delegate. This kind of working man's friend, though not a very numerous, is an exceedingly mischievous one. The members of it generally commence life as journeymen, and during that portion of their career (though still plain Bill or Jack) have probably been noted for their aversion to hard work, and what among their fellow workmen is called the "gift of the gab." And it is to this gift, added to effrontery and idleness, that they owe their elevation to the position of delegates. Should any meeting of the workmen employed in the establishment in which they are engaged be convened for the purpose of consulting upon any subject in which they have a common interest, Bill Spouter or Jack Gabbler will at once seize the opportunity to "hold forth." And as men of this kind have a great flow of language, and a ready command of long, hard, and high-sounding words, they [-37-] soon succeed in attaining great ascendancy over their less fluent fellow-workmen, for there are few things that exert a stronger influence over uneducated men than this same "gift of the gab," more especially when that gift is in the possession of one of their own class, and is exercised in favour of what they consider to be their cause. By means of displaying his frothy eloquence upon every available occasion, the delegate that is to be acquires the reputation among his shop-mates of being able to "speak like a book." In these days of frequent change and rapid locomotion their reputation for eloquence soon becomes known throughout "the trade," and then when any occasion arises for choosing a trade delegate, Spouter or Gabbler is probably the man selected. It is then that the working man's friend of the delegate species comes out in all his glory. It is then that he ceases to be Bill or Jack and becomes the great Mr. Spouter, who addresses crowded meetings of his "dear brethren," to whom he professes that he is quite overcome by the sense of their wrongs, on which wrongs, if real he enlarges in the most exaggerated language: though the wrongs have often no existence at all, being in fact simply the result of imaginations heated by the clap-trap rhapsodies of the Crushers and Spouters. It is when he has become a trade delegate that Spouter discovers that masters and all others connected with the labour of production, except the manual workers, are hard and designing tyrants, whose sole objects in life are to grind down the working man, and to amass wealth by "wringing it out of his sweat and blood;" and it is when he has made this discovery that he urges his "down-trodden brethren" to submit no longer to such a state of things, but to resist the tyranny of masters and capitalists: urges them, in a word, to take one [-38-] of the most disastrous steps that any body of working men can take,  namely, to strike. It is still Spouter who, when the men have struck, and they and their families are reduced to distress and starvation as a natural consequence (though Spouter as a trade delegate is meanwhile drawing a salary, the payment of which will cease with the termination of the strike), urges them-despite their own inclination to accede to the terms offered by the employers-to "hold out" to the last; and tells them that they will be guilty of selfishness and desertion of their cause and their fellow-workmen if they "go in," thus engaging one of their best feelings - their sense of honour - to aid in their own destruction. It is also Spouter who writes furious letters to Crusher's or any other paper that will publish them, denouncing, as an ignorant officious meddler, or a base sycophant, any person who has ventured through the press or otherwise to offer a suggestion for the purpose of bringing about an amicable arrangement between masters and men.
    That men of the Crusher and Spouter school should be esteemed as friends, and that "organs" of the Crusher's newspaper stamp should be admired and believed in by working men, may appear strange, but it is nevertheless true; for, as I have already stated, these men and their journals undoubtedly exercise a great influence over a certain portion of the working classes. But that portion, though a very considerable one, is by no means - and I say it with no feeling of disrespect towards them - the most intelligent or proportionately influential portion of the ranks to which they belong.
    There are now, fortunately for the working classes, many men among them who by the aid of cheap education and educational literature, an ably and inde-[-39-]pendently conducted newspaper and periodical press, and the formation and extension of mechanics' institutions, working men's clubs and other kindred institutions, have been enabled to keep pace with the intellectual advance of this rapidly progressive age. And to these men the worthless and even dangerous character of their Crusher and Spouter friends are painfully apparent through all the frothy sentimentality with which they surround themselves. It is to these men - the better educated and deeper thinking portion of their body - assisted by practical, appreciative, disinterested friends from other sections of society, that the working classes will be ultimately indebted for freedom from the injurious thraldom at present exercised over a large portion of them by men who, in the guise of friends, are their greatest enemies; since they are constantly striving, and with too much success, to create and sustain a feeling of hatred and antagonism against everybody above them in the social scale. And so long as this feeling of enmity exists, it will be impossible for working men to attain any decided or permanent social elevation; for, next to co-operation among themselves, a feeling of friendly unity for the other portions of society is the thing most requisite for the promotion of their own interest and welfare.
    To represent working men as a class who ought to be perfectly happy and contented with their position in life would be doing them a great and manifest injustice. That they are sometimes wronged, that there are employers of labour who in the pursuit of gain look upon and treat them as so much live stock or machinery, and that their position when considered in relation to their important place in the community is often a hard and sometimes even an unjust one, are [-40-] facts altogether indisputable. But when they reflect upon their position, working men should consider that some of the wrongs of which they reasonably complain are incidental to other sections of the community besides their own, while many of the restrictions peculiar to their class are in a great measure attributable to some injudicious proceedings upon the part of some greater or lesser portion of that class, or are the result of that class antagonism which the Crushers and Spouters of society do their best to create and foster.
    Apart, however, from wrongs which they suffer in common with others, or restrictions which may have been caused by their own imprudence, working men are well aware, and all other persons who have given any attention to their condition must admit, that there are points in connexion with the social position of those classes on which amendment and redress are very greatly needed. But while the necessity for such amendments is obvious to all who have seriously considered the subject, I think it must be equally obvious that it will never be by means of men of the Spouter or newspapers of the Crusher school, that they will be brought about. On the contrary, there can be very little doubt that they have a most prejudicial effect upon the interests of those whose cause they profess to advocate; for with the exception of strong drink there is nothing so dangerous and injurious to working men (as a body) as the flattering, bombastic, inflammatory speeches and writings of the kind of men and papers I have spoken of. And though the exaggerated tone which these men and journals always assume when treating of any real or supposed wrong often aggravates the sense of injury, yet both men and papers seem to be utterly powerless for the purpose of obtaining redress for the [-41-] wrongs complained of or even of directing public attention to them. Common sense and experience alike demonstrate that a solemn Times leader, round-about Telegraph article, or a sarcastic or smashing paper in the Saturday Review or the Pall Mall Gazette, will do more towards remedying the matter complained of (by directing upon it the current of that impalpable, but in this country generally irresistible, power, public opinion) than all the senseless bombast and vulgar invective with which the columns of Crusher newspapers teem "all the year round." And I think that even the warmest partisans of the Spouters would be compelled to admit that in any case of dispute between masters and workmen, the former would be much more likely to come to a satisfactory arrangement through the intervention of some disinterested person who understood the relations between men and masters, than by means of men who are constantly denouncing them (the masters) in the strongest possible language as selfish tyrants.
    When it is suggested to that misanthropic showman, Mr. Codlin, that little Nell is probably the child of wealthy parents, and that those who are kind to her during her wanderings will doubtless be rewarded, he becomes very anxious to impress upon her that it is he and not his kind-hearted fellow-showman who is her friend. Codlin's the friend, not Short, he constantly reiterates to Nell when Short is out of hearing. It mayn't appear like it, he is constrained to confess; but appearances notwithstanding, he assures her it is he and not Short who is the friend; and he impresses upon her mind that she is to be sure to remember that important fact. So warm does Mr. Codlin's feeling of friendship for little Nell become with the prospect of reward, that it induces him virtually to make prisoners [-42-] of her and her grandfather, in order that he may make sure of appearing in the character of her friend and protector before the relatives whom he supposes must be in anxious pursuit of her; and he is very much disappointed when Nell and her grandfather effect their escape from his friendly watchfulness.  
    Now there is a great spice of Codlinism in the friendship of the Crushers and Spouters for the working classes. They are constantly calling upon the working man to observe that it is they who are his friends. "Crusher and Spouter are the friends," they say to their hearers and readers, not Short, the good man and liberal statesman who devotes his time, knowledge, and power to the promotion of the spread of education, the extension of the principles of free trade, and the unity of society. Not Short, the thoughtful learned writer who devotes his talents, or Short, the publisher who devotes his time and risks his capital to produce valuable educational works at a price that places the means of a good education within the reach of every working man. None of these nor any of the other Shorts who assist him in his endeavours to attain social and intellectual elevation in the same kindly spirit with which the veritable Short assisted little Nell when on her painful journey, none of these, they repeat, are your friends; but we, the Crushers and Spouters. Like Codlin, they are compelled to acknowledge that "it mayn't appear like it." Friends of the Short type who kindly and unobtrusively strive to help the artisan by placing him in a position to help himself, may impress an unprejudiced mind with the idea that it is they who are the friends. But the giant intellect of Crusher is not to be imposed upon. For friendly services to "the working man coming from persons in the higher ranks of [-43-] life are, Crusher warns the working classes, "analogous to the saliva with which the boa-constrictor slavers his victim, being intended to aid the descent of the victim into the stomach of the noble reptile." On the other hand the fact that the Crushers and Spouters never give the working man anything but words, and are constantly urging upon him the necessity for presenting one or other of their brotherhood with a testimonial or dunning him for subscriptions to leagues and associations of which they are the organizers and self-constituted and irresponsible managers, would make it appear to most people that they were not altogether the friends of the working man. But then Crusher and Spouter remind "the brawny Sons of toil" that appearances are deceitful, and fervently assure them that, though it mayn't appear so, it is Codlin and not Short who is their friend, and the brawny sons of toil believe them and suffer accordingly.
    That a true friend is indeed a treasure, feeling, experience, and Shakspeare alike assure us, and the latter makes Polonius say, when giving counsel to his son
    "The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
    Grapple them to thy soul with hooks of steel ;"
    And working men would do well to ponder upon this advice and mark the qualification which it contains, for if they would act upon that advice and oniy "Grapple to their souls" friends whose "adoption" they have tried, they would soon find themselves freed from the dangerous wiles of the Crushers and Spouters. For to test the "adoption" of those characters would inevitably lead to the discovery that while professing to be the friends of the working man they are in reality the most dangerous enemies to his social progress. The working classes require friends to assist and cheer them in the work of improving their condition and [-44-] prospects, and fortunately they do not lack real friends who have done and are still able and willing to do them good service. But the real friends of the working classes are very few in number compared with the host of pretenders to that character, and many working men have yet to learn to distinguish the true from the false friend, and to realize the fact that flatterers and parasites are the most pernicious foes.

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