Posts Tagged ‘Richard Oastler’

English History through the Broadside Ballad

December 24, 2019

A Ballad History of England: From 1588 to the Present Day, by Roy Palmer (London: BT Batsford 1979).

From the 16th century to the 20th, the broadside ballad was part of the popular music of British working people. They were written on important topics of the day, and printed and published for ordinary people. They would be sung by the ballad sellers themselves while hawking their wares. This book is a collection of popular ballads, assembled and with introductory notes by the folklorist Roy Palmer. It begins with the song ‘A Ioyful New Ballad’ from 1588 about the Armada, and ends with ‘The Men Who Make The Steel’ from 1973 about the steelworkers’ strike. Unlike the earlier songs, it was issued as a record with three other songs in 1975. The ballads’ texts are accompanied by sheet music of the tunes to which they were sung. Quite often the tunes used were well-known existing melodies, so the audience were already familiar with the music, though not the new words which had been fitted to them.

The ballads cover such important events in English and wider British history as a Lincolnshire witch trial; the draining of the fens; the Diggers, a Communist sect in the British Civil War; Oak Apple Day, celebrating the narrow escape of Charles II from the Parliamentarians in 1660; the defeat of the Monmouth Rebellion; the execution of Jacobite rebels in 1715; the South Sea Bubble; Dick Turpin, the highwayman; the Scots defeat at Culloden; emigration to Nova Scotia in Canada; Wolfe’s capture of Quebec; the enclosures; the Birmingham and Worcester Canal; the 18th century radical and advocate for democracy, Tom Paine; the mechanisation of the silk industry; the establishment of income tax; the death of Nelson; the introduction of the treadmill in prison; the Peterloo Massacre and bitter polemical attacks against Lord Castlereagh; Peel’s establishment of the police; body snatching; the 1834 New Poor Law, which introduced the workhouse system; poaching; the 1839 Chartist meeting at Newport; Queen Victoria’s marriage to Albert; Richard Oastler and the factory acts; the repeal of the Corn Laws; Bloomers; the construction of the Oxford railway; Charles Dickens¬†visit to Coketown; the Liverpool Master Builders’ strike of 1866; agitating for the National Agricultural Union of farmworkers; the introduction of the Plimsoll line on ships; an explosion at Trimdon Grange colliery in County Durham; a 19th century socialist song by John Bruce Glasier, a member of the William Morris’ Socialist League and then the ILP; the Suffragettes; soldiers’ songs from the Boer War and the First World War; unemployed ex-servicemen after the War; the defeat of the General Strike; the Blitz; Ban the Bomb from 1958; and the Great Train Robbery.¬†

It also includes many other songs from servicemen down the centuries commemorating the deaths of great heroes and victories; and by soldiers, sailors and working people on land protesting against working conditions, tax, and economic recessions and exorbitant speculation on the stock markets. Some are just on the changes to roads, as well as local disasters.

This is a kind of social history, a history of England from below, apart from the conventional point of view of the upper or upper middle class historians, and shows how these events were viewed by tradesmen and working people. Not all the songs by any means are from a radical or socialist viewpoint. The ballad about Tom Paine is written against him, though he was a popular hero and there were also tunes, like the ‘Rights of Man’ named after his most famous book, celebrating him. But nevertheless, these songs show history as it was seen by England’s ordinary people, the people who fought in the navy and army, and toiled in the fields and workshops. These songs are a balance to the kind of history Michael Gove wished to bring in a few years ago when he railed against children being taught the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War. He’d like people to be taught a suitably Tory version of history, a kind of ‘merrie England’ in which Britain is always great and the British people content with their lot under the benign rule of people like David Cameron, Tweezer and Boris. The ballads collected here offer a different, complementary view.

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.

Photo of Charity Food Queue 1900

April 23, 2016

Late last night I put up a quote from Richard Oastler, condemning the Victorians’ treatment of the poor as criminals by confining them in the workhouse if they wanted poor relief. This came from Poverty and Public Health 1815-1948, by Rosemary Rees (Oxford: Heinemann 2001). The book is school text on attitudes to poverty, poor relief, health, housing and sanitation in the 19th and early 20th century before the foundation of the NHS and welfare state. It’s profusely illustrated, with contemporary photographs, cartoons, drawings, plans and diagrams. One of the photos is this picture of a group of mainly children waiting for a hand-out of charity food in 1900.

Charity Food Queue

About a year or so ago I put up on this blog a late Victorian – Edwardian poem about children waiting in a queue in the early morning to receive food given as part of poor relief. I commented that this could describe the situation now, in the 21st century. Hundreds of thousands are being forced to use the food bank thanks to Ian Duncan Smith’s, George Osborne’s and Dave Cameron’s destruction of the welfare state and imposition of the sanctions regime. 4.7 million people are living in ‘food poverty’.

The photo is a document of the face of poverty at the turn of the 20th century. With just a few changes in fashion, it could also be the face of poverty in the first years of the 21st.

And it’s a disgrace.

Richard Oastler, on Why the Poor Deserve to Keep Their Liberty from the Workhouse

April 22, 2016

I found this quote from Richard Oastler’s The Rights of the Poor to Liberty and Life of 1838 in the book Poverty and Public Health, by Rosemary Rees (Oxford: Heinemann 2001):

Remember, always that liberty – freedom from confinement as well as food and clothing – is the birthright of every Englishman, however poor. What, Sir, is the principle of the New Poor Law? The condition imposed upon Englishmen by that accursed law is, that man shall give up his liberty to save his life! That, before he shall eat a piece of bread, he shall go into prison. In prison, he shall enjoy his right to live, but it shall be at the expense of that liberty, without which life itself becomes a burden and curse.

Thank God, the law of the land does not yet say – though the Commissioners of the New Poor Law have dared to say – that poverty is a crime, by which an Englishman may be deprived of the blessings of liberty.

(p.99).

Bloggers like Johnny Void, the Angry Yorkshireman, Tom Pride and Mike over at Vox Political, and myself have repeatedly pointed out the similarities of the workfare system to slave labour. It’s also been pointed out, time and again, that a benefit claimant may spend longer on workfare than a criminal sentenced to community service. It doesn’t seem to me to be at all a stretch to apply this quote from Oastler about the ‘New Bastilles’ of the workhouses to workfare and the wretched sanctions regime.

Is ‘Theramenes’ the Ancient Greek for Nick Clegg?

May 21, 2014

Greek Shoes

Shoes from ancient Greece. From Giovanni Caselli, History of Everyday Things (Hemel Hempstead: Beehive Books 1993)

Nick Clegg

Nick “Colthurnus” Clegg?

I found the saying, ‘He wears the sandals of Theramenes’, and its explanation in the 1981 edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It said that this was

Said of a Trimmer, an opportunist. Theramenes (put to death c. 404 B.C.) was one of the Athenian oligarchy, and was nicknamed Cothurnus (i.e. a sandal or boot which might be worn on either foot), because no dependence could be put on him. He “blew hot and col with the same breath.”

Which just about describes Clegg, the man, who broke all his election promises to climb into a coalition with the Tories, and is now frantically trying to convince the electorate that the Lib Dems are still a party of principles who can be depended upon to restrain the excesses of whichever party with which they will form another coalition. There is absolutely no evidence they have actually done this, and indeed have appeared only too eager to support the massively illiberal legislation passed by the Conservatives destroying the health service, state education, what’s left of the welfare state and setting up secret courts from which the accused is barred and may not know the charges against him. For security reasons, of course.

Or it could equally describe Dave Cameron, who spent his period in opposition trying to make the Tories appear slightly left of New Labour by engaging in community activism. His mentor, Philip Blond, published Red Tory, which tried to embrace 19th century working class radicalism and the progressive legislation passed by Conservative reformers like Richard Oastler, as well as name-checking the great anarchist Kropotkin. Now in power, Cameron has turned his back on all that, and has firmly embraced the usual Tory policies of putting the boot into the working class by privatising everything he can get his hand, cutting welfare benefits and forcing the unemployed to work for free for the Tories’ corporate paymasters.

And like Theramenes, Clegg and Cameron belong to the aristocracy, and so thoroughly represent oligarchic rule against any kind of democracy.

140117democracy

Dave “Antique Greek Boot” Cameron?