Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Preface

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THROUGHOUT the papers that form this volume it is clearly implied, and in several places distinctly stated, that the writer is a working man; but since an implied identity of the author with the person supposed to be writing is a legitimate and frequently-adopted means of giving a realistic air to fancy sketches, and as any merit the present volume may have comes of the fact that the sketches that compose it are not fancy ones, I wish my readers to understand that in the present instance there is no assumption of character for the sake of literary effect. I am really a working man - a unit of the great unwashed - and having nothing but personal experience and observation to go upon, use them alone. So that however deficient the papers may be as pieces of literary workmanship, they are, as regards their substance, entitled to such a degree of consideration as may be fairly awarded to actual experience.
    While the broad generality, that the working classes of this country form one of the most important sections of its social system, is admitted by all who have a knowledge of the constitution and aims of that system, great and extreme differences of opinion exist among men in every rank of life as to the exact relative position and power which those classes should hold, or [-vi-] are entitled or fitted to hold, in the State, and most important questions of home policy hinge more or less on these debatable points. And as, to all who regard the social progress and well being of the country the solution of these vexed questions is a consummation devoutly to be wished, and the first and an absolutely essential step towards the desired solution is a thorough understanding of the character, education, habits, and modes of thought of the working classes, as embodied in their personification "The Working Man," the result has been that this typical individual has been done times innumerable by more or less eminent hands, and from very various points of view. Many of these word-pictures of the working man are, as word-pictures, masterpieces, and are, considering that they are written by men outside of the classes of which they treat, surprisingly accurate; but still, to a working man even the best of them plainly show a want of that knowledge of the minutiae of the inner life of the working classes which can only be thoroughly known to members of those classes. And it is in the hope of, and with a view to throwing some light upon this inner life-which in the aggregate has a most important bearing upon the general character of the working classes, and must be taken into consideration by all who wish to form an approximately correct estimate of that character - that the following papers have been written. While some of the pictures of the working man that have been given to the world have been as impartial and accurate as it was possible for them to be made from an outside point of view, others have, as was naturally to be expected, gone to either extreme; some representing him as something very like
    A monster of such hideous mien,
    As to be hated needs but to be seen;
    [-vii-] while others picture him as an all-perfect being, a living incarnation of "all the talents" and the whole of the cardinal and moral virtues. In this case, however, as in most others in which extreme views are taken, the truth lies near "the happy mean." The working man of actual life is, like most other human beings, a compound of good and evil; he has virtues, but he has also his faults and weaknesses. He will maintain a battle for what he conceives to be his rights, "and never count the cost;" he will stand by his friend in cloud as well as sunshine; and he will often endure the woes of want, and the still more terrible grief of seeing his wife and children suffering those woes while he is powerless to relieve them, with a degree of fortitude which, were it displayed in a more startling situation, would be deemed heroic. And take him for all in all, and his comparatively limited opportunities considered, he is not a bad fellow; and is in any relation of life-according to my full belief - an infinitely better man, and a more useful and creditable member of society, than the snobby-genteel kind of person who, with the manners and education of an underbred counter-skipper, and an income less than that of a good mechanic, sacrifices comfort and honesty to keep up appearances. Nevertheless, in him human nature has not attained the maximum of perfectibility just yet; his character has its seamy as well as bright side. He is often drunken, and not always ashamed thereof; and sometimes his love of drink leads to his being guilty of conduct which - to put it mildly - is not all that may become a man; moreover, he frequently, in a too literal sense, takes no heed for the morrow. And though he is undoubtedly endowed with a considerable amount of natural shrewdness, he is constantly allowing himself to be cajoled out of [-viii-] money and used as a tool by gangs of idle, ignorant, blatant harpies, who are his own inferiors in everything except one questionable gift, "the gift of the gab." He is not, generally speaking, so well educated and well informed as he might be; his language is scarcely "pure English undefiled," and is too often and too habitually "full of strange oaths ;" while his ideas upon history, political economy, and the constitution of society, are noticeable rather for their confusion and their exceedingly "pronounced" tone, than for their extent or accuracy - in short, they are derived for the most part from the "Sunday Smasher," whose terrific correspondent, "Wat Tyler," he will tell you, is the boy for them - them being a vague and generic synonym for that bloated and bloodthirsty aristocracy, on which the redoubtable "own correspondent" in question is constantly, but as it would seem unavailingly, pouring the vials of his wrath.
    But his faults and shortcomings all admitted, the average working man of every-day life, when not misled by the mis-statements or puffed up by the flatteries of self-seeking adventurers or ill-informed, injudicious friends, is, upon the whole, a pretty good fellow; and if in trying to show him in his habit as he lives, I have not hesitated to speak of or attempted to conceal his faults when they have come in course, I have not, I trust, on the other hand, failed to do justice to his good qualities. At any rate, I can conscientiously aver that if I have extenuated nothing, neither have I put down aught in malice; I have, according to my lights, told the whole truth, but nothing but the truth.
To speak of the working man as having faults at all, will be regarded as a libel upon him by those who take the view that lie is the perfection of humanity. But so far as I am able to judge, the working man of [-ix-] these observers exists only in imagination; and it is of the original, and not an idealized copy, that I speak. By remembering this, by remembering that it is not of their working man I speak, gentlemen of an idealizing turn will be saved from any useless waste of indignation, or from undertaking a Quixotic defence of an individual that is not attacked. As there is no rule without an exception, I cannot say with absolute certainty that no such working man ever existed as the all-perfect and grievously sinned against being which sundry writers and speakers delight to picture as the representative working man; but I do say, that in the course of an unusually extensive and diversified experience I never met with such a one; and I beg also to say that were such a paragon to turn up in a workshop, he would stand a remarkably good chance of being chaffed out of it, unless he speedily toned himself down to something approaching the natural standard. But should some such bright particular workman actually exist at the present moment, he must be regarded as so thoroughly exceptional a being, that he cannot justly be taken into account in any general consideration of the working classes; and it is with a view to aid in the important work of arriving at a correct general estimate of the working classes that I write.
    The various papers forming the volume have not been written with any view to continuous connexion, nor do they profess to embody the history of "The Working Man" from the cradle to the grave; they simply treat, as the title of the volume expresses, of some of his habits and customs, and are occasionally written in a somewhat discursive style, in order that episodical features of working-class life or manners which, though interesting in themselves, would not [-x-] afford materials for separate papers, may be touched upon. As I am not in any severe sense of the term an educated man, my book, considered from a purely literary point of view, will doubtless present numerous and serious defects to learned critics, but while asking that such defects when found may be made a note of, I trust that the "extenuating circumstances" of my education having been of an elementary character, and my pleading guilty on that point, will be taken into consideration in passing sentence on such shortcomings. But should the book, or any part of it, be considered deserving of condemnation apart from such errors or defects as are fairly attributable to a want of education, I have no wish to shelter myself under the plea of being "only a working man." A working man should, in my opinion, be held as fully responsible as other men for every statement or expression of opinion that he may put forth; and, personally, if I am "to be damned, I would much rather be damned outright than damned with a qualification.

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