Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 46 - Conclusion

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Education - Curtailed liberty - Englishmen abroad - Workers v. Shirkers - Old-time wisdom - Quo vadimus?

IN my first chapter I said that in many respects things are not to-day what they were sixty years ago, and that it is open to doubt whether all changes have been for the best.
    The sun rose and set on each day of those six decades and between each rising and setting it would usually have been difficult to perceive any alteration on the previous twenty-four hours. But inappreciable differences nevertheless occurred, and cumulatively they amount to-day to something very formidable. In fact, one is tempted to suspect that the nation has changed fundamentally.
    Old fogies are reputed, and often justly, to be incapable of recognising improvements and to think that the country must necessarily be going to His Apollyonic Majesty when views and things they have been brought up to are replaced by new-f angled notions and devices.
    That may be my case. I may be wrong, and sincerely trust that I am, but present-day developments and syznptoms seem to furnish forth no inconsiderable causes for disquietude as to the future of England, Great Britain and the Empire.
    Let me, with many humble apologies to the genius of the twentieth century, set down some of my misgivings. A few only, for a treatise would be required to touch upon them all.
Item the Engishman's education is defective.
It will scarcely be denied that the mainspring of a modern [-354-] civilisation is education. If that be weak or flawed development must be arrested and distorted.
    To those who remember with what joy and bright hopes free education was looked forward to in the 1860s - what wonderful results were predicted - how much nearer it was bound to bring us to the Millennium - the results in 1924, after fifty-four years' application of the grand specific, must, I fear, appear extremely inadequate if not entirely disappointing. In modern phraseology, "the goods have not been delivered."
    That is not, however, the fault of good Fairy Education, but of the grotesque masks and faces in which she has been doomed to mum. The lamp of knowledge has certainly been lighted, but its combustion is imperfect and it gives off soot as well as light.
    It must not be thought that there was no free education prior to 1870. I have referred to National Schools and Ragged Schools at Greenwich, but it was not there alone that they flourished. In 1858 there were 160 Ragged Schools in London and very many more in the provinces-splendid monuments to the good cobbler John Pound of Portsmouth who first devised and established them. And there were free Church of England Schools also, and probably some maintained by other denominations, but of this last item I will not be sure.
    These free schools were supported by voluntary contributions and collectively accommodated many thousands of scholars. The subjects taught were not numerous, perhaps, but they were those really required by the future pawns on the Chess-board of Life - the three Rs, with outlines of geography and history. Singing of hymns and glees received attention and the whole flavoured with a strong admixture of the Bible. And lectures on straightforward conduct in life, fair play, etc., were not wanting. In addition, promising boys and girls were often taught at least the smatterings of a trade, so that on leaving school they might become something more than explorers of blind alleys. Free meals were in many instances given to the poorer pupils and, in bad cases, free clothing.
    [-355-] So, prior to the inauguration of State Education, there was free schooling in England for all willing to accept it, and parents unable to pay the charges of proprietary schools had still a chance for their little ones. The efficiency of these private establishments may not have been great, but the few subjects taught were well rubbed in. Unfortunately, compulsory attendance not having been decreed, many children were kept at home, and it was these unfortunates who later in life figured in the statistics as unable to read and write. Had attendance at some school or other been made obligatory, and moderate, not Draconic, supervision set up a system giving good practical results might conceivably have been evolved.
    This old plan produced workers, and so responded to the needs of Country and Empire; the existing system gives us every year a great army of incipient ladies and gentlemen, too proud to perform their natural parts as subordinates and yet, in great measure, too imperfectly educated to become anything but mere hewers and drawers. Games of cards (or life) cannot be played with packs that are all aces and kings, nor games of chess without pawns. Strange as the fact may appear, workers are as indispensable as queens in every bee-hive. A crew entirely of officers is a noble aspiration, no doubt, but it, like the 1924 British bricklayer, won't work.
    And at what a cost is this delusion pursued? Of the bounding school-rates, potent restrainers of trade and enterprise, a very large proportion is expended on behalf of persons able - and often exceedingly well able - to educate their offspring. A sensible community would not allow this: such children should not be received at public schools except in return for fair payment. The system is unjust to the deserving, for it results in classes of unmanageable size and consequent poor and scamped instruction.
    We have been trying to teach too much-more subjects than any but the brightest could. hope to master, and to impart them to every grade of intellect. And some of these subjects are such as cannot be of much practical use to ordinary boys or girls about to earn their own living. If [-356-] these things could be properly learned and retained the issue might be different, but the vast majority of children acquire them so superficially that six months after leaving school they remember nothing about them.
    And for such subjects essentials are neglected. English is so badly taught-if at all-that very many pupils, after passing all the standards, can neither speak nor write with even an approximation to correctness. Yet they are farcically taught French.
    And tuition as to conduct in life; duty to country, society and one's neighbour; what constitutes good and honourable conduct, would appear, from my inquiries, to be entirely neglected. Such things in the modern curriculum are re- placed by singing and dancing. And no teaching is forthcoming on the organisation of modern civilised life-the constitution and functions of a Parliament, a Government or a Town or County Council-so that boys and girls walk about and grow up in a world of which they know nothing. A lad certified as having passed all standards in a London Council School, applying for employment as office boy, being asked if he knew who the Lord Mayor was, confidently replied, "the gentleman who gives the big show." Not long since a leading newspaper instanced girls leaving school with "excellent knowledge of graphs and square roots, but unable to do housework." And what, in very many cases, do these accomplishments lead up to and end in? Jazz.
    Drastic reform is surely called for. Children of different intellects should be sifted into their natural classes at a very early stage and the curriculum adapted to their capacities. The bright ones should be led on and no effort spared to develop their aptitudes. Let no George Stephenson be lost through lack of encouragement. But attempt not to make a Stephenson out of a Quasimodo.
    The inferior grades of intelligence should only be taught the most essential subjects - the old National School programme substantially - but taught it well. Moral teaching and information about the world, the land and the town they live in, should be given to all, preferably through the medium of lectures conceived in an entertaining spirit.
    [-357-] An engineer using the same grade of iron or steel for all purposes would soon come to grief: yet that is, in effect, what most School Authorities are doing; and, in my opinion, they have come to grief. When their gentlemen graduates go to Canada or Australia - colonies largely built up by the exertions of the men of the 1850-60s - they are too soft or too lazy to work. They are not wanted on the farms, and are avoided by the colonists. So they either loaf about the towns or come home - perchance as stowaways - and take their unemployment doles. Only recently I heard that English were avoided from such widely-separated places as Adelaide and Toronto.
    It is very different, however, with boys and girls sent out by Dr. Barnardo's and kindred institutions. But their education has been practical, and not on County Council cum Oxford and Cambridge lines.
    And the mountain of sins of commission and omission is now liberally added to by the Proletarian Sunday-schools, in which religion, patriotism, morality, everything rendered sacred by the practice of the last 2,000 years, is openly derided. Londoners have erected a statue to good Robert Raikes, founder of Sunday-schools. Were it vocal, like that of Memnon, how it would groan! "Lugubrious, at the setting of the sun!"
Item: Englishmen are not so free as they were.
Police regulations and offences have multiplied; new laws and by-laws been enacted; tax-collectors given authority to conduct inquisitions into a man's business and even private affairs; Trade Unions interfere with the individual's right to work and the amount and manner of his work: so, in effect, the Briton's "mean free path" - to use a technical expression - is considerably more circumscribed and his factor of self-determination notably reduced. The stage of the German Verboten has not been reached, but may be discerned looming on the horizon.
    Another curtailment of liberty is involved in the destruction of individuality due to the extension of large companies and businesses. Instead of striking out independent careers, beginners now have to become clerks, shopmen, or what not [-358-] in some colossal establishment where they obey orders and have no opportunity to originate or improve. A vast fund of that initiative for which our race is famed and which founded our Colonies and Empire thereby becomes submerged and lost.
    For this reason railway grouping is much to be deplored, for it extinguishes the efforts of many able men to solve transport problems, engineering and otherwise, for the benefit of their companies and their own credit. Most of these officials now become subordinates, existing only to carry out the plans of the few high chiefs whose jobs will probably prove too big to be attended to properly. Much talent hitherto exercised to good purpose will be sent to sleep. Standardisation - itself a fetter on invention - will be applied as a specific but in an ever-progressive art like the railway service cannot attain any permanent success, for after a time improvements will have to be neglected because the mass of the stock will have become old-fashioned and yet be of too much value to be scrapped.
Item: Englishmen, instead of being respected in foreign countries, are generally contemned.
In the 1850-60s an Englishman abroad was somebody. I can scarcely contend that every man-Jack of them was born with a patent of nobility as a cad, but certainly at that period, and considerably later, Englishmen enjoyed a prestige amongst foreigners unequalled by any other nationality. "Natives"of every clime - from Germany to Java or Japan - hastened to accord him the status of a gentleman, in the best meaning of the term. His word was accepted as current cash and justice was supposed to haunt his Dundreary whiskers. This was occasionally embarrassing. As a lad I was sometimes put out by the deference shown as soon as my nationality became known. Even in France, where, as I have noted, England, her army and politics, were not popular with the masses, individuals were always polite and often more. In 1869 I inquired of a fat Frenchman in Marseilles the way to the Post Office. As I spoke he took off his tall hat (the charm of my accent probably!) and with it in his hand walked to the corner of the next [-359-] street and profusely indicated the route, afterwards bowing himself out of sight. And in 1866, at Ghent, a Belgian, learning I was English, forced me to accept a cigar, nipped and lighted and all. I shall never forget that!
In 1870 I used to be touched by the confidence expressed by Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Beloochees and what not, in the Burra Raj - Great Government. The Crimean War was still green and Englishmen in Turkey were everywhere respected. Had not our Government rejected the Euphrates Valley Railway concession which the Turks literally threw at their heads, Mesopotamia would have become a British preserve automatically and willingly many years ago. Even Greeks, Rumanians and Hungarians of those days considered it an honour to be noticed by a Briton. And now!
    The Euphrates Valley Railway scheme to connect the Mediterranean with the Persian Gull was investigated and reported favourably upon by a Select Committee in 1872. Many distinguished men sat on the Committee and appeared as witnesses before it. The Turks offered the necessary land for the line gratis and to grant free transit for all British mails and troops: likewise to assign us a half share in the management. Allowing ?75,000 as yearly value of services to be received, the maximum liability for the British Exchequer according to the plan recommended a 3% guarantee on the capital of the projected Railway Company - was estimated at ?225,000 per annum. Although the Indian authorities strongly pressed for the railway, Mr. Gladstone's Government pigeon-holed the Report, and thereby wrote themselves down moles for ever. A disastrous mistake which was a factor in bringing about, and extending the area of, the Great War and caused us dreadful sacrifices in vain efforts to redeem it. And the end is not yet.
    The mid-Victorian had his faults, and not a few, but it is to be feared that it fell to him to see the British Empire at its zenith.
Item: Englishmen are not so earnest.
Sixty years ago life and work were taken more seriously. Men shouldered their burdens energetically, not always [-360-] without grumbling perhaps, but generally with the wish and will to perform creditably and do both themselves and their employers justice. Skulkers were apt to be ostracised by their mates. A bricklayer restricting himself to 300 bricks per day would have been tolerated by neither master nor man. Although things have improved vastly for the working classes, their progress has not kept pace with the growth of their murmuring. If content be a measure of happiness, then were the people of sixty years since far better off than those of to-day.
    In the Life of Thomas Brassey, the great contractor, we read of the great pride taken by the English navvy in his work, and how it paid to employ him in France and Italy at twice the remuneration of the native worker. An observer in France wrote: "I think as fine a spectacle as any man could witness is to see the digging of a cutting in full operation, with about twenty wagons being filled, every man at his post, and every man with his shirt open, working in the heat of the day, the gangers looking about and everything going like clockwork."
    Frenchmen who came to the railway cuttings in course of excavation attracted by the reputation the navvies had won for themselves, cried "Mon Dieu! Les Anglais, comme ils travaillent!" Alas! in 1924 the position is quite reversed, and it is the Frenchman who scores.
    I have referred to the refusal of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway directors, on the occasion of the strike of 1867, to concede the men's demands that engine-men, once appointed, should obtain the maximum pay of their grade. The directors pointed out that that would place all, whatever their capacity, on the same level and ultimately be bad for the men themselves, and for that reason the demand was rejected.
    But the maleficent concession was granted a few years back, and in 1922, at a discussion of experts at the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, it was declared that the evils foreseen have duly come to pass.
    Most railway companies provide classes for the training, instruction and improvement of their engine-men, but it is [-361-] now found that, since all must be treated alike, only a few care to attend them. One speaker said, "Since the new conditions of service came in, that in six years the men automatically attain the highest rate, they just sit tight until they get it." Thus the duller obtains the highest pay and the cleverest can do no more. When the men get off their engines they want to go to football matches, not classes, and, what is perhaps worse, are not ashamed to say so.
    The effect in the long run cannot but be disastrous from the efficiency point of view, and signs are not lacking that the spell is already working.
    During the last few years there have been several bad accidents in which, reading between the lines of the Government Inspectors' Reports, there were indications of either gross incompetence or very complete indifference on the part of the engine-men, running-shed mechanics and others.
    Brassey's navvies belonged to the race of Empire Builders; the latter-day workmen rather to that of Empire smashers. As I write Essex farmers and others are complaining that they cannot obtain labourers, as men who work get less than the unemployment dole paid to those who do not.
Item: Luxury and laziness succeed thrift and industry.
Sixty years ago, and indeed for long afterwards, ideas of thrift, diligence, application, were inculcated everywhere and the wisdom of putting by for a rainy day enjoined. Every child was familiar with Dr. Watts's couplet-
        "How doth the little busy bee
            Improve each shining hour?"
and -
        "'Twas the voice of the sluggard!
         I heard him complain-
         'You have waked me too soon,
         I must slumber again.'"
And the texts these afforded were used to good purpose in forming children's minds.
    Such teachings produced the artless folk who took pleasure in fountains and fireworks and Lord Mayors' shows; crowded in tens of thousands to hear a preacher and were ever ready [-362-] to fight three Frenchmen. No doubt the maxims were right enough for the period, but we have got far ahead of such simplicity. Legislation and thrift now repel each other.
Item: Quo vadimus?
I am not complaining that things are no longer what they were. That would indeed be in vain. Change is the unvarying law of all human kind, human institutions, as well as of the globe which constitutes their theatre and the "galaxy of heaven" through which it whirls. And empires are no more exempt from its operation than other works of the human ant.
    There were features that no one wants restored. Sixty years ago hours of work were long, factories often insanitary, safety of toilers disregarded, employers exacting, remuneration inadequate: evils that cried for remedy and against which Trade Unions were entitled to fight strenuously and prevail and good men to protest, as Charles Dickens did in his Hard Times.
These unfavourable conditions nevertheless had their uses. They brought good men to the front-men bred to hardship and against hardship and odds prepared to battle.
    Prairie dwellers cannot be expected to become good climbers. It requires obstacles, and formidable ones, to foster a race of mountaineers.
    In all ages conquerors have emerged from places where the natives, after prolonged war with Nature, have ended by turning their poverty-tempered arms against peoples effeminated by civilisation or climate. Hannibal and his hordes, after subduing the Alps, succumbed to the enervations of Italy; Byzantium yielded to the desert Arab; Rome itself to the Gaul, the Goth, the Vandal and the Hun.
    Consider the case of the pushful Scotsman, product of a country poor in itself, harried for centuries by foreign foes. He had to fight whether he would or not. Chronic penury in time evolved the corrective habits of earnestness, thrift and diligence, the impulse of which still persistent, although showing pregnant signs of exhaustion, enables him to score plentifully off the softer and more careless Southron. We laugh at his "bawbees" and " saxpences" oblivious [-363-] of the stern lesson they carry with them; but had he been blessed (?) with a rich and fertile country and the Englishman inconvenienced by a sterile one, conditions would have been considerably reversed. Very conceivably Alec and Angus would be contemned to-day as sybarites and ne'er-doweels, and the natives of Kent and Devon notorious for close-fistedness and dourness. There is some advantage in being born close neighbours to an Ice Age.
    Spain furnishes another example. For 700 years the Moors had to be faced and fought; the Prince and the peasant equally trained to arms. When at last the barren mountains of Castile and Aragon prevailed over the enchanting plains of Andalusia, and the Moors were defeated and removed, the Spanish nation was a camp of gallant and toughened soldiers under dauntless chiefs. Cortez and Pizarro conquered the Americas; then gold flowed up the Guadalquivir, and soon the phase of fighting-to-live was succeeded by one of living-to-dally: result, the degenerate Spain of the last 300 years.
    All of which is in harmony with Charles Darwin's portrait of Dame Nature - Cruel, ruthless, effective, decreeing the Survival of the Fittest, and seeing that she gets it. And the law is as true of nations and kingdoms as of Nature.
    Empires cannot go on for ever, nor, having reached their limit, stand still at that point. Perpetual motion is their doom - upwards or downwards!
    At what point in the flight, then, stand we of Britain?
    I cannot say. There have been so many occasions when England has been brought up standing and yet ultimately forged ahead again as if nothing particular had happened that one is encouraged to believe that danger is her element, and that fortune will again mend when apparently at its worst. We have ever excelled as back-to-the-wall fighters, and mayhap some great chief will arise and retrieve the position. That is what we must earnestly hope.
    That there will be plenty of retrieving to do seems abundantly evident. We find ourselves much in the position of decadent Rome. Indeed, in some respects, the parallel is surprising. The Caesars carried on by free doles of grain [-364-] (John Bull gives hard cash) and other necessaries; by hocussing the people with games (we substitute votes) and gladiators (our people are encouraged to waste their time watching football). Ultimately the Romans could not be induced to submit to military service; the eagles had to be withdrawn from distant territories and resort made to the ruinous device of placating the Empire's enemies while deserting and sacrificing its own loyalists and friends.
    All this is happening with us to-day.
    We are no longer the earnest England of the Great Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862. And beyond everything lies the fact that many nations will in the future be our keen competitors in production of every kind, so that, even should a great revival of patriotism and common sense occur, and all classes combine to reassert the national position, the effort will have to be made in a world of bitter commercial rivalry and price-cutting in which there will be no room for short hours, high wages, ca'canny and doles of the merry-go-round order.
    Meanwhile, the good ship Britannia, with helm adrift surges amongst the rocks, the officers engaged chiefly in scheming to displace their rivals; the crew one hail on strike and the other hail thinking they ought to be; the passengers mostly dancing the hornpipe; the few who refrain, well, what can they do? Only doubt and hope.

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924