Archive for the ‘Chartism’ Category

Chumbawamba Sing the Chartists’ Anthem

September 13, 2016

I found this video on YouTube of the left-wing pop group, Chumbawamba, singing the ‘Chartists’ Anthem’. This was composed in the 1840s for the Chartist movement, the early 19th century campaign to get working men the vote.

It’s also struck me that this song is extremely relevant once again, with Tom Watson and the Blairites in the Labour party trying to throw out everyone, who wants to return the party to its roots as the party of the poor and the working class, battling poverty and unemployment on the one hand; and the Tories under Theresa May doing a bit of gerrymandering on the other with their constituency review. This is intended to cut the number of MPs in Westminster, and incidentally keep Labour locked out of power.

Chartist Woman Demand the Working Class Vote

May 14, 2016

Chartism Royle pic

I found this piece from the ‘Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to their Fellow-Countrywomen’, in the Chartist newspaper, Northern Star, of 9th February 1839 in Edward Royle’s Chartism 2nd Edtion (Harlow: Longman 1986). Chartism was the early 19th century movement campaigning for the vote for working men. Royle says in his introduction to the piece that

Chartism involved women as well as men as active participants, and there were many local women’s groups, like this one from Newcastle. But women’s Chartism was hardly a movement for women’s liberation. Chartism was seen as a movement for the emancipation of the poor, and was thought o fit traditional patriarchal terms. (p. 114).

I’m not sure. Other books on Chartism have said that a few of the Chartist radicals did want the vote for women, and about the same time, the Spencean Philanthropists, an early proto-Socialist group of radical democrats, did want the vote for women, as well as children. Quite apart from the first stirrings of modern feminism in the followers of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Women. And even if most Chartist women did their political activism in terms of getting the vote, not for themselves, but for their menfolk, nevertheless they were pioneers in that they consciously broke the social rules against women becoming involved in politics, as this piece clearly states.

Fellow-country women, – We call upon you to join us and help our fathers, husbands, and brothers, to free themselves and us from political, physical and mental bondage, and urge the following reasons as an answer to our enemies and an inducement to our friends.

We have been told that the province of woman is her home, and that the field of politics should be left to me; this we deny; the nature of things renders it impossible, and the conduct of those who give the advice is at variance with the principles they assert. Is it not true that the interests of our fathers, husbands and brothers, ought to be ours? If they are oppressed and impoverished, do we not share those evils with them? If so, ought we not to resent the infliction of those wrongs upon them?…

For years we have struggled to maintain our homes in comfort, such as our hearts told us should greet our husbands after their fatiguing labours. Year after year have passed away, and even now our wishes have no prospect of being realised, our husbands are over wrought, our houses half furnished, our families ill-fed, and our children uneducated – the fear of want hangs over our heads; the scorn of the rich is pointed towards us; the brand of slavery is on our kindred, and we feel the degradation. We are a despised caste; our oppressors are not content with despising our feelings, but demand the control of our thoughts and wants! – want’s bitter bondage binds us to their feet, we are oppressed because we are poor …

We’re seeing something of that today, with the poverty forced upon the working people of Britain by decades of Thatcherite political orthodoxy, from both the Tories and the Blairites. 590 people have starved to death or committed suicide due to the government’s savage benefit cuts. 290,000 or so have had their mental health made significantly worse through stress from the Fitness to Work tests imposed by the government. And 4.7 million people now live in ‘food poverty’ in one of the richest countries of the world.

This situation has partly come about through successive government ignoring the poor and working class. Blair and his coterie did. They concentrated on gathering middle class votes from swing voters, and pandering to the view that everyone below them was idle, and savage cuts to the welfare state were needed to force them back into work. One of the Blairite MPs in parliament even said that, in power, Labour would be harder on the unemployed than the Tories! And meanwhile, Cameron was doing his level best to strip the vote from the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities through his voter registration scheme. Just like the Republicans were doing in America. 78 per cent of MPs are millionaires, and it shows!

We need to invigorate working class politics against, to show that the working people of Britain matter, and that their poverty is literally killing this country, just like the Chartists did in the 19th century, though hopefully without their mistakes and failures.

The Chartists’ Shops to Punish Opposing Shopkeepers

April 25, 2016

I spent this weekend reading up on the Chartists. This was the early 19th century movement, which roughly ran for the decade between 1837 and 1848, which campaigned for the vote for every working man. There were also female Chartist organisations, and some Chartists were so radical as to wish to extend the franchise to women. It had a very mixed membership ideologically. Some were Socialists, others supporters of Free Trade. Some wanted the repeal of the Corn Law, while some were for keeping them. Many were against the New Poor Law and the Workhouses, but some, like Francis Place, supported it. There were Christian Chartists and atheist Chartists. Some, like Richard Oastler, were Tories, others Liberal. It has been regarded as a kind of early Labour party. This view has since been challenged, but certainly the Labour party politicians, who won the 1945 General Election saw themselves very much as part of the same tradition of working class political radicalism, and the contemporary heirs of the Chartists, as well as Tom Paine, the author of the Rights of Man.

Some Chartists believed, like Marx, that ‘the emancipation of the working class should be the task of the working class’, and wished to avoid contaminating the movement with contacts with the middle classes, who they felt would betray them. Nevertheless, the movement did have many middle class supporters, including Anglican priests, Nonconformist ministers, factory masters, and so on. One of the tactics the Chartists used, which I found particularly interesting, was that they opened shops to compete with and punish those shopkeepers that opposed the extension of the franchise to the hoi polloi.

The British working and lower middle classes are again becoming disenfranchised in the 21st century. And some of this is through the tactics used by the rich supermarkets to drive the small shopkeeper out of business, screw their suppliers, and drive down wages for employees. Quite apart from the various businesses that exploit unpaid workers under the ‘workfare’ system.

I think it would be superb if someone could come up with a similar system of shops to compete and punish these businesses, but I’m not sure how it could be done at a time of depression, when 4.7 million of us are in ‘food poverty’, and the trade unions are fighting for survival. The anarchists have tried similarly tactics, and these generally have failed. But perhaps there is a way. If there is, then it’s one I’d like to see pursued.

Solving Unemployment through Trade Union-Run Cooperatives

April 2, 2016

The German-born anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, devotes a passage in his Anarcho-Syndicalism (London: Pluto Press 1989) to Robert Owen’s proposal in the early 1830s to set up a Grand Consolidated Trade Union which would include all the working people in every trade, its plans for supporting unemployed workers, and finally its gradual decline in the 1840s. See pages 57-66. The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was intended to supersede the existing situation where the workers were divided into separate trade unions according to their different trades and industries. At the same time, the new, umbrella union would be organised into different divisions for the workers in specific branches of industry. The ultimate aim was for the workers themselves to take over production, which they would then market themselves through special shops, according to the cost of manufacturing the article. Instead of conventional currency, special labour notes, representing labour value, would be exchanged for these products. To support unemployed workers, the trade unions would also invest in land, which would be worked by unemployed workers, and co-operatives, which would also provide the unemployed with work, producing needed goods that would be purchased by the other members of the Union.

Rocker quotes the following passage from the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union’s statement of its aims.

As land is the source of the first necessaries of life, and as, without the possession of it, the producing classes were ever remain in a greater or less degree subservient to the money capitalists, and subsequent upon the fluctuations of trade and commerce, this committee advises that a great effort should now be made by the unions to secure such portions of it on lease as their funds will permit, in order that in all turn-outs the men may be employed in rearing the greater part, if not the whole, of their subsistence under the direction of practical agricultural superintendents, which arrangements would not have the effect of lowering the price of labour in any trade, but on the contrary would rather tend to in increase it by drawing off the at present superfluous supply to the manufacturers.

The committee would, nevertheless, earnestly recommend in all cases of strikes and turn-outs, where it is practicable, that the men be employed in the making or producing of all such commodities as would be in demand among their brother unionists; and that to effect this, each lodge should be provided with a workroom or shop in which those commodities may be manufactured on account of such lodge, which shall make proper arrangements for the supply of the necessary materials.

That in all cases where it is practicable, each district or branch should establish one or more depots of provisions and articles in general domestic use: by which means the working man may be supplied with the best commodities at little above wholesale prices. (Pp.61-2)

Rocker notes how this was greeted by the radical paper, The Poor Man’s Guardian

But far different from the paltry objects of all former combinations is that now aimed at by the congress of delegates. Their reports show that an entire change in society-a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing order of the world-is contemplated by the working classes. They aspire to be at the top instead of the bottom of society-or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all. (p. 59).

Rocker then describes the mass agitation for a general strike to bring about a ten-hour working day, the denunciations and persecution of the union, trade unionists in general, and political agitators, and how the G.N.C. finally petered out. Many of its members left to join the Chartists, while the events on the Continent in the 1840s also worked against working class radicalism.

The G.N.C.’s supporters made it very clear in their debates with other radicals, who wanted the political reform of the franchise and the House of Commons, that after the G.N.C. took power parliament would be made totally redundant.

Rocker writes

If, for example, one reads The Pioneer, the organ of the G.N.C. managed by James Morrison, one frequently encounters arguments that sound thoroughly modern. This is revealed especially in the discussions with the political reformers, who had inscribed on their banner the democratic reconstruction of the House of Commons. They were told in reply that the workers had no interest whatever in efforts of that sort, since an economic transformation of society in the Socialist sense would render the House of Commons superfluous. Its place would be taken by the labour boards and the industrial federations, which would concern themselves merely with problems of production and consumption in the interest of the people. These organisations were destined to take over the functions of the present entrepreneurs; with common ownership of all social wealth there would no longer be any need for political institutions. The wealth of the nation would no longer be determined by the quantity of goods produced, but by the personal advantage that every individual derived from them. The House of Commons would in the future be merely a House of Trades. (pp. 62-3).

It’s a hopelessly utopian dream. Unfortunately the need for legislation and a democratic parliament isn’t removed by the almost complete socialisation of the land and industry, as the former USSR shows. The various shops set up to sell goods according to the labour theory of value collapsed because they didn’t take into account demand for the goods. Nevertheless, the system has been revived on a small scale by communities running various local currency schemes, in which vouchers are exchanged for so many hours of work, and these have had some success. As these schemes are locally based, they have stimulated the revival of local, small businesses.

As for the idea of the Union purchasing land, that’s very much part of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the early 19th century. It’s similar to Bronterre O’Brien’s demand at the Manchester Guardian of ’40 acres and a mule’. As many of the new urban workers either themselves had been, or were the children of migrants to the towns from the country, the idea of going back to the land to gain a livelihood, away from the horrors of urban life, was obviously attractive.

There are also links to the ideas of the French Utopian Socialist, Louis Blanc, during the Revolutions of 1848 for ‘National Workshops’. These would be stare run workshops for the unemployed, which would be managed as co-operatives. Any profits made would be put back into buying up other factories and workshops, until gradually the whole of French industry would be nationalised. Although these workshops were set up, they were deliberately run down and mismanaged so that the scheme eventually collapsed. It was given to a minister or civil servant who hated the idea, and the workers employed in them were given pointless tasks, such as digging ditches, only to fill them in again.

Despite this, I do like these ideas. And I do wonder now long workfare would last, if a trade union set up a genuine workers’ co-operative on the Owenite model, and then applied to join the government’s wretched scheme as a ‘workfare provider’. All workers receiving some form of reward for their labour beyond their jobseekers allowance, with the workshop aiming to buy out other factories, or at least, some of the other ‘workfare providers’.

Somehow, I can imagine that going down at all well with the Tories. They’d be utterly aghast, and try to find all kinds of reasons not to take it on. I sort of wish someone would try, if only to see the ‘welfare to work’ industry turned on its head to support unemployed workers, not the overpaid heads of outsourcing companies and big businesses like Sainsbury’s, Tescos, or various charities like the Salvation Army, who are just seeking to exploit an easy supply of cheap labour.

Tunes for Toilers: A Political Christmas Carol, Part 2

May 26, 2014

Peterloo Massacre

George Cruikshank’s Cartoon, Manchester Heroes, attacking the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Yesterday I put up the sheet music to the 19th century ballad, A Political Christmas Carol, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noted the words when copying down the tune, so I had little idea of what it was actually about. Jess has kindly filled me in on this, pointing out that it’s by the radical journalist, William Hone. It attacks Lord Castlereagh, the prime minister responsible for the Peterloo Massacre, in which a crowd gathered to listen to the radical politician, ‘Orator’ Hunt, were charged by the a group of Hussars as a seditious mob. It also prompted Shelley to write his bitter attack on Castlereagh and the Conservative social order, The Mask of Anarchy. She states

You are almost certainly referring to this piece by William Hone, published, with an illustration by George Cruikshank, in 1820

“God rest you, merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember we were left alive,
Upon last Christmas day,
With both our lips at liberty
To praise Lord C———h
With his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!

He ‘turn’d his back upon himself’
And straight to ‘Lunnun’ came,
To two two-sided Lawyers
With tidings of the same,
That our own land must ‘prostrate stand’
Unless we praise his name –
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!
‘Go fear not’ said his L——p
‘Let nothing you affright
‘Go draw your quills, and draw five Bills,
‘Put out yon blaze of light;
‘I’m able to advance you,
‘Go stamp it out then quite –
‘And give me some “features” of joy!’

The Lawyers at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their friends a staring
To go and raise the wind,
And straight went to the Taxing-men
And said ‘the Bills come find –
‘For “fundamental” comfort and joy!’

The Lawyers found majorities
To do as they did say,
They found them at their mangers
Like oxens at their hay,
Some lying, and some kneeling down,
All to L—d C———h
For his ‘practical’ comfort and joy!

With sudden joy and gladness
Rat G-ff—d was beguiled,
They each sat at his L——p’s side,
He patted them and smiled;
Yet C-pl-y on his nether end,
Sat like a new born Child, ­-
But without either comfort or joy!

He thought upon his Father,
His virtues, and his fame,
And how that father hoped from him
From glory to his name,
And, as his chin dropp’d on his breast,
His pale cheeks burn’d with shame: –
He’ll never more know comfort or joy!

Lord C———h doth rule yon House,
And all who there do reign;
They’ve let us live this Christmas time –
D’ye think they will again?
They say they are our masters –
That’s neither here, nor there:
God send us all a happy new year!”

Also cited here
http://ruthmather.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/a-political-christmas-carol/
From Roy’s book

It is directed against Castlereagh, the target of Shelley’s ‘I ‘Mask of Anarchy’, and the butt of countless contemporary radical poets.

“The Mask of Anarchy
(Written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester.)
“As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim ;
Seven blood-hounds followed him :

All were fat ; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.”
……..
http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Shelley/the_mask_of_anarchy.htm

Castlereagh’s part in Lord Liverpool’s administration, along with Sidmouth, made him universally loathed.

Twenty years later Chartists would denounce the regime that gave the country Peterloo and Oliver the Spy. So hated was the government of the time that several armed insurrections were attempted, Spa Fields in 1817, Scotland’s Radical Rising of 1820 (and associated attempts in Lancashire and Yorkshire) along with Cato Street the same year

Shelley, incidentally, was an occasional customer of Clio Rickman, bookseller, printer, radical and close friend of Paine mentioned elsewhere.

Hone and Rickman frequented similar circles, though Rickman was also closer to the various Spenceans in his neighbourhood, forming business partnerships with them occasionally to publish radical ditties.

I might also add that Rickman printed and edited the second, expanded edition, of the first identifiably radical songbook.in 1798.

So, this is another ballad to remember and hum the next time an innocent person is killed or injured by the police, heavy-handedly trying to control a crowd of protesters. Especially as Boris Johnson is now trying to purchase those three water cannon from the Germans. They also suffered massive radical demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s after a left-wing demonstrator was killed by one.

Cato Street is, from what I can remember, also quite significant from the point of view of Black history. One of the conspirators caught drilling on Spital Fields and prosecuted for preparing to take in an uprising against the government was the mixed-raced son of a West Indian planter and one of his slaves. I’m afraid I really can’t remember the man’s name, but apart from his involvement with the radical Spenceans he had launched a huge debate in the press about the morality of slavery as he denounced the system, which had allowed his father to exploit his mother. I believe he’s one of the Black lives covered in Gretchen Herzen’s book on the history and lives of Black Brits before the abolition slavery, Black England: Life Before Emancipation.

Tunes for Toilers: The Jolly Machine, edited by Michael Raven

May 25, 2014

Jolly Machine

I found this in the sheet music section of Hobgoblin Music, a music shop specialising in folk songs, music and instruments in Bristol’s Park Street. Subtitled Songs of Industrial Protest and Social Discontent From the West Midlands, the songs in this collection describe and protest about the hardships of nineteenth century industrial urban life, covering low and unpaid wages, hard, exploitative factory masters, prison and transportation, unemployment, and the threat of mechanisation, the soul destroying drudgery of the workhouse, emigration, and Chartism and the promise of political reform from the Liberals.

The songs include:

Bilston Town,
Charlie’s Song,
Chartist Anthem,
Colliers’ Rant,
Convict’s Complaint
Dudley Boys,
Dudley Canal Tunnel
Freedom and Reform,
John Whitehouse
Jolly Machine,
Landlord Don’t You Cry,
Monster Science,
Nailmaker’s Lament
Oh! Cruel,
Pioneers’ Song
Poor of Rowley,
Potters’ Chant,
Sarah Collins,
Thirteen Pence A Day,
Tommy Note,
Waiting for Wages.

There’s also an explanatory note about the songs at the back.

‘Waiting for Wages’ and ‘The Tommy Shop’ deal with ‘tommy notes’. Until the passage of the Truck Acts, many employers didn’t pay money wages to their workers, but only tokens or notes that were only valid at the company shops, thus exploiting their workers further and massively increasing their profits. ‘Waiting for Wages’ is written from the women’s point of view, and describes them waiting for their menfolk to hand over their wages, half of which they’ve already spent in the pub.

The ‘Convicts’ Complaint’ is about the harsh conditions in Ciderville Jail, while ‘Sarah Collins’ is about a woman transported to Van Diemen’s Land – Tasmania – for some unstated crime. ‘Dudley Boys’, ‘Nailmaker’s Strike’, ‘Nailmakers’ Lament’, and ‘Colliers’ Rant’ are about strikes, some of which exploded into violent confrontation between the strikers and the army. ‘Jolly Machine’, ‘Monster Science’ and Charlie’s Song – the last about a notorious factory master and the scab workers prepared to work for him – are about the poverty and unemployment caused by mass industrial production to the traditional artisan craftsmen, such as potters. The ‘Needlemakers’ Lamentation’, ‘Dudley Canal’ and ‘Oh, Cruel!’ were all written to raise money for those suffering from or threatened with unemployment. ‘Oh, Cruel’ was written for a benefit performance by a Mr Rayner on behalf of a serviceman, Tommy Strill, who had lost a leg and eye in combat. The ‘Dudley Canal Tunnel’ song was a fundraiser, which aimed at raising £5,000 to keep the tunnel open and the boatmen, who navigated through it, in work. The ‘Potters’ Chant’, ‘Bilston Town’, and ‘Poor of Rowley’ are about poverty. The last is specifically about the mindless, soulless labour in the town’s workhouse. ‘Landlord, Don’t You Cry’, and ‘Pioneers’ Song’ are about emigrants leaving Britain for a more prosperous, optimistic future abroad, including America. ‘Thirteen Pence A Day’ is a song bitterly criticising conditions in the army, and urging men not to join up to lose life and limb fighting people they don’t know and who have never done them any harm. It’s a fascinating demonstration that anti-War songs didn’t begin with Vietnam. John Whitehouse is about a man, who hangs himself after failing to find a buyer for his wife. It was the custom in many parts of England for a man to sell a wife, with whom he could no longer live at an auction in the market. It’s a shocking example of how low women’s status was. The ‘Chartist Anthem’ and ‘Freedom and Reform’ are ballads about the demands for the franchise. The ‘Chartist Anthem’ describes the immense hardship in the struggle to get the vote. Its last two verses run

We men of bone, of shrunken shank
Our only treasure dearth,
Women who carry at the breast
Heirs to the hungry earth,
Heirs to the hungry earth.

Speak with one voice, we march we rest
And march again upon the years,
Sons of our sons are listening,
To hear the Chartist cheers,
To hear the Chartist cheers.

At a time when many working and lower middle class people feel disenfranchised and ignored by the political class, this is a song that could well be revived for today’s struggle to get politicians to wake up and take notice of the poverty and alienation now at large in Britain.

‘The Great Battle for Freedom and Reform’ also demands the extension of the franchise for the workers, and urges them to support the Liberals. The first three verses read

You working men of England,
Who live by daily toil,
Speak for your rights, bold Englishmen,
Althro’ Britan’s Isle.
The titled Tories keep you down,
Which you cannot endure,
The pass the poor man with a frown,
And the Tories keep you poor.

cameron-toff

Cameron: A titled Tory keeping you down, if ever there was one!

With Beale & Gladstone, Mills & Bright,
We shall weather thro’ the storm,
To give the working man his rights,
And gain the bill – REFORM!

We want no Tory Government, The poor man to oppress,
They never try to do you good,
The truth you will confess.
The Liberals are the poor man’s friend,
To forward all they try,
They’ll beat their foes you may depend,
And never will say die.

The description of the Tories still remains exactly correct. Unfortunately, the present government has the song’s claim that the Liberals are the poor men’s friend to be a hollow joke, although it was certainly true at the time.

The songs are an interesting document about the hardship and social injustice working people experienced in the nineteenth century. It’s the other side of the coin to the image of ‘merrie England’ presented in some traditional songs and the Tory view of history promoted by Michael Gove. And with exploitative employers now eager to use the cheap labour supplied by unemployed ‘volunteers’, ‘interns’ and those on workfare, assisted by a Tory government of aristocrats enforcing a policy of low wages and harsh, anti-union legislation, these songs are all too relevant.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator, Part 2

May 25, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Last week I posted up a number of radical British folk songs and ballads, including the 19th century tune, ‘The Agitator’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England. I’d only managed to note the music for this, and assumed that it dated from the Chartist agitation for the extension of the franchise to working men. I was wrong about this. The ever-informative Jess, put me right about it in her comment on the post. She pointed out that it actually came from the 1870s, and was part of a number of tunes composed to promote the Agricultural Labourers’ Union, composed by the radical journalist, Howard Evans. She wrote

‘The Agitator’ dates from the 1870’s

Roy Palmer probably garnered it from Howard Evans’ “Songs for singing at Agricultural Labourers’ meetings”, 1875

Evans, a Radical journalist;
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Evans_(journalist)]

later recalled;

“Early in the labourer’s movement I conceived the idea of bringing song into service by using popular tunes. I am no singer, but at a meeting in Sundridge, in Kent, I ventured a first experiment. It was heartily received and published in the ‘Labourer’s Chronicle’ others followed in quick succession, and before long was issued a Labourer’s Song Book, with a few songs by other writers, which from start to last reached a circulation of 120,000 copies” “Evans, Radical Fights of Forty Years 1913, p.42

But when the proprietors of the paper attempted to revive Feargus O’Connor’s Land Scheme (borrowed from the ideas of Thomas Spence [See Chase; The People’s Farm]);

“A violent quarrel broke out in our ranks. Ward and Vincent, the proprietor of the ‘Chronicle’, conceived the absurd idea of buying land with the twopences of the labourers. Of course most of them would be in their graves before they could get even a small piece of land…Ward and Vincent hoped to get [Joseph] Arch on their side, because he was at variance with Taylor, the secretary; but Arch was too level-headed a man to entertain such an absurd project. It became necessary to save the Union by starting another paper”

For a broader ‘portrait of the agricultural labourer in the nineteenth century’ I suggest Roy Palmer’s ‘The Painful Plough’

Mike Yates’ valuable essay on Walter Pardon adds another dimension to these songs
http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/pardon.htm

The linked essay on the folksinger, Walter Pardon, mentions a number of his songs, some sadly only now half-remember fragments. Many others have been recorded whole, with the article reproducing several of them: Come All Ye Swaggering Farmers, The Labourer’s Union, An Old Man’s Advice, and Sons of Labour.

Radical Balladry and Tunes for Toilers: The Agitator

May 22, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

Over the past few days I’ve been posting the sheet music to various radical folk tunes and songs as examples of the long tradition of working class radical popular music and poetry. On Tuesday I posted the music from Robin Williamson’s collection of British fiddle tunes for ‘The Rights of Man’ hornpipe, celebrating the work of the 18th century American revolutionary, Tom Paine, who was born in Thetford. Yesterday I put up ‘The New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, from Roy Palmer’s A Ballad History of England, which I assume attacked the establishment of the workhouses in 1832 by the new Liberal government. Today it’s the turn of ‘The Agitator’, again from Palmer’s book. As with yesterday’s tune, I’m afraid I didn’t note the words at the time. The title suggests it comes from the early 19th century during the period of intense Chartist agitation, when working men campaigned for the extension of the franchise to all men over 21 and the reform of parliament so that working men could enter it. There were two aspects to the campaign. One consisted of peaceful meetings and the compilation of petitions to parliament. Much less peaceful were the ‘physical force’ Chartists, who saw revolution as the only solution to the problem of creating democracy in England. Here’s the tune.

Agitator Tune

As with the ‘New Poor Law and the Farmer’s Glory’, this issue is still very relevant today. There is still a problem with the under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in parliament. Despite the introduction of equal suffrage and the payment of MPs, parliament is still dominated by the upper and middle classes, who have increasingly turned away from working class and very much legislate in their own interests. The aristocratic background of Cameron and Clegg, and the cabinet they lead is very much an example of this. Parliament needs to be reformed and made more representative of the working class. Now.

Poetry and the Workers in the 19th Century: Byron and Kingsley

May 15, 2014

The cause of reform and the condition of the working classes in the 19th century also attracted the support of some of the period’s greatest writers. These included Shelley, Byron, and Charles Kingsley, the Christian Socialist and author of The Water Babies. Byron and Shelley’s political radicalism is well-known. Shelley wrote his attack on the government and its brutal treatment of the lower classes, The Masque of Anarchy, after the Peterloo Massacre when hussars charged a crowd that had gathered to hear a speech by ‘Orator’ Hunt. Byron was a staunch supporter of radical movements for freedom. He died in Greece, where he had gone to join their war of independence against the Turkish Empire. In Britain, he declared that ‘poverty is slavery’, and wrote the Song of Luddites, celebrating the Luddite radical attack on the machinery that was depriving skilled artisans of their livelihood.

“As the Liberty lads o’er the sea,
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we boys, we,
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all Kings but King Ludd!

“When the web that we weave is complete
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep red in the gore he has pour’d

“Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew,
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!”

The Christian Socialists were a group of churchmen, deeply concerned at contemporary conditions for the poor, who wished to Christianise Socialism. Max Beer in his History of British Socialism says of him ‘But for his political principles, which somehow were bound up with Conservatism, he might have been a revolutionary Chartist leader. He publicly called himself a Chartist, although he was ready to eschew a thousand charters for the French cry of “organisation of labour” into co-operative workshops.’ (Max Beer, A History of British Socialism (New York: Arno Press 1979) Vol. 2: 182). He bitterly attacked the aristocracy and the capitalists in poems such as Yeast. This is particularly remarkable for its sympathy towards working class girls, who had children out of wedlock.

“You have sold the labouring man, squire,
Body and soul to shame,
To pay for your seat in the House, squire,
And to pay for the feed of your game.

* * * *

“When packed in one reeking chamber,
Man, maid, mother, and little ones lay;
While the rain pattered on the rotting bride-bed,
And the walls let in the day.

* * * *

“Our daughters with base-born babies,
Have wandered away in their shame;
If your misses had slept, squire, where they did
Your misses might do the same”.

Under Cameron ands his coterie of aristos, the working class truly are being sold for their seat in the House of Commons, as is their health through the stealth privatisation of the NHS. And the last stanza is still a very good corrective to the rants of the Daily Mail and other Conservative rags about unmarried mothers.

Radical Balladry and Poetry for Proles

May 15, 2014

Ballad Seller pic

19th Century Illustration of a Ballad Seller

A few days ago I posted a few pieces on Rob Young’s history of the British folk revival and folk rock, Electric Eden (London: Faber and Faber 2010), and the radical and political folk songs protesting about the conditions of the poor and demanding workers’ rights, such as The Poor Man Pays For All from the 1630s. The Chartist and trade union movements in the 19th century also included poets and song-writers, who attempted to get their message of popular democracy and just treatment for the workers across in verse and music. They included Ernest Charles Jones, a British lawyer, who was born in Berlin in Germany from British parents. In 1845 he became a member of the Chartist movement, and was co-editor, with Feargus O’Connor, of The Labourer, and Northern Star. Not surprisingly, he became embittered and alienated after he was imprisoned in the two years from 1848-50 for inciting the British public to revolt. He was a friend and follower of Karl Marx from 1850 to 1855, whose ideas influenced Jones’ Notes to the People of 1850-1 and the early years of his People’s Paper. Beer in his History of British Socialism, gives an example of his poetry, the Song of the Lower Classes.

1.

We plough and sow- we’re so very, very low
That we delve in the dirty clay
Till we bless the plain – with the golden grain,
And the vale with the verdant hay.
Our place we know-we’re so very low
‘Tis down at the landlord’s feet,
We’re not too low – the bread to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.

2.

“Down, down we go-we’re so very, very low,
To the hell of deep-sunk mines,
But we gather the proudest gems that glow
When the crown of the despot shines.
And whenever he lacks – upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We’re far too low to vote the tax,
But not too low to pay.

3.

“We’re low, we’re low – mere rabble, we know,
But at our plastic power,
The mould at the lordling’s feet will grow
Into palace and church and tower –
The prostrate fall – in the rich men’s hall
And cringe ata the rich man’s door:
We’re not too low to build the wall,
But too low to tread the floor.

4.

“We’re low – we’re low – we’re very, very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow – and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get – and what we give
We know, and we know our share:
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear”.

Other Chartist leaders in their poems urged a general strike and a worker’s revolution in order to achieve democracy. One of Thomas Cooper’s speeches in Staffordshire resulted in ‘serious disturbance’, arson and destruction of property. Cooper himself summarised them in the following lines, according to Beer, in his 1845 Purgatory of Suicides.

“Slaves, toil no more! Why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain?
Slaves, toil no more! Up from the midnight mine,
Summon your swarthy thousands to the plain;
Beneath the bright sun marshalled, swell the strain
Of Liberty; and while the lordlings view
Your banded hosts, with stricken heart and brain, –
Shot as one man, ‘Toil we now more renew,
Until the Many cease their slavery to the Few!
We’ll crouch, and toil, and weave, no more – to weep!’
Exclaim your brothers from the weary loom: –
Yea, now they swear with one resolve dread, deep –
‘We’ll toil no more – to win a pauper’s doom!’
And, while the millions swear, fell Famine’s gloom
Spreads from their haggard faces, like a cloud,
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb:-
How ‘neat its terrors, are the tyrants bowed!
Slaves, toil no more – to starve! Go forth and tame the proud!

Britain’s mining and cloth industries may have been devastated, but the words are still resonant and very relevant. We are, after all, suffering under the class government of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and their fellow financiers and aristos. And the lines ‘we’re too low to vote the tax/ But not too low to pay’ exactly describe the ‘Bedroom tax’.

Jess, one of the commenters on this blog, provided a bit more information. She writes

I forgot to mention, An Anthology of Chartist Verse has been published, not once, but twice.

It first appeared from Progress Publishers in Moscow in 1956,[As An Anthology of Chartist Literature] then largely reprinted by the Associated University Press in 1989. [As ‘An Anthology of Chartist Poetry’]. The second printing excised the Literary Criticism contained in the former edition [mostly reprinted from the Scottish Chartist Circular]

One version of the National Chartist Hymn Book can be viewed here;
http://www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw/search/controlservlet?PageId=Detail&DocId=102253

This last is well-worth looking at as an example of the aspirations of working class Christian radicals for social justice. It would frighten the modern, ultra-capitalist Christian Right faster than you could say ‘Social Gospel’.

Apart from the Chartists, other radical Left-wing groups and parties also produced song-books. Jess mentioned the Fabian Song book of 1912, which partly drawn from the Carpenter’s and Progressive song books. The ILP also produced a song book and the American Syndicalist union, the International Workers of the World or the ‘Wobblies’, are especially known for their songs. Jess writes about these:

A version of the ‘Little Red Song Book’ can be found here;
http://pronoblem.com/iwwlrs.pdf

It’s last known printing in the UK was in the 1990’s and was done by Scottish Republican Socialists through Clydeside Press (who are still in business)

Another American ‘Socialist Song Book’ can be found here
http://www.mediafire.com/view/?o6tbi8b3qf6dgbw

The Pennsylvania ‘local’ who produced (I would guess around the 1930’s) patently drew on the ILP Songbook of c.1910, initially drawn up by Tom Anderson of Glasgow, but completed by the Glasiers [Anderson felt so annoyed at what they had done that he left the ILP for the Socialist Labour Party. For the latter organisation he produced a ‘Proletarian Songbook’ [primarily for use in his ‘Proletarian Schools’]
More on Anderson here;
http://www.radicalglasgow.me.uk/strugglepedia/index.php?title=Tom_Anderson ]
Songbook cover here;

Unfortunately, the only place you will find those Chartist Anthologies is in Research Libraries. The WCML certainly has the Moscow edition. (I was once told there are only 50 or so in the UK)

Ironically the American one is even scarcer, with probably no more than 10 copies in the UK [It was kept away from Europe due to potential copyright problems}

But I can easily get access to both, so if you have a query, or an interest, I will sort something out.

There is a very strong body of radical, Left-wing working class and folk literature, which is still very relevant. Jess notes that it’s been largely neglected by the Left, except for a very few aficionados and researchers, like Roy Palmer, the author of a Ballad History of England. She also recommended a number of other folk song researchers and experts:

I would recommend, if you can still get hold of it, the EFDSS CD collection of William Kimber. Parts of the interview it contains is fascinating, especially Kimber’s acceptance of the Women’s Morris.

Also worth seeking out are the recordings of Walter Pardon, who includes, on one of his albums, songs used by the Agricultural Labourers’ Union.

More recently, the Left has used songs to articulate its criticism of social injustice and promote its causes. I first came across Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about nuclear warfare, ‘And we’ll burn together when we burn’ in 1980s with the revival of CND in Thatcher and Reagan’s new Cold War. The same decade also saw Billy Bragg get onto Top of the Pops with his modern folk-song about the Miners, just when Thatcher was putting the boot into them. With this new attack on the poor and working class, it would be no bad thing at all if some of these songs were revived. It might even remind some of the Labour party’s leaders just whom they’re supposed to represent.