Posts Tagged ‘Truck Acts’

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.

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The Post Office, Privatisation and Valueless ‘Work-shares’

July 13, 2013

This is a story that I will need to check, but if it’s true, then the Post Office has committed what would once have been a violation of the Truck Acts, and committed something that could reasonably be construed as fraud.

‘Work Shares’, Local Currency Schemes and 19th century Anarchism

The government this week announced it was moving ahead with its plans to privatise the Post Office. This is scheduled for the autumn. There is going to be major restructuring, but it has stated that its workers will be given shares as part of the privatisation deal. I know a number of people, who work for the Mail that are naturally worried about whether they will still have a job in a few month’s time. A friend yesterday told me, while we were discussing this, ‘At least this time they’ll have real shares’. I queried what they meant by this, and my friend further explained that a little while ago the Mail told its workers that it was now going to pay for their overtime in that period in ‘work shares’. My friend said this wasn’t the correct term, which he couldn’t remember at that moment. The name my friend gave to it suggests that it may have been similar to some of the local currency schemes operating in some parts of the UK. These schemes give you a number of coupons or token for hours worked in particular community projects, which can be exchanged for goods and services, which have involved the same amount of hours worked. It’s an idea that ultimately seems to come from 19th century Anarchism, particularly Proudhon’s Mutualism and Anarcho-Individualism. One of the great American Anarchists of the 19th century used to operate what he called a ‘Time Store’. He used to time how long it took to serve a customer. The actual monetary cost of his wares were low, very close to cost price. However, he would also charge his customers payment in kind equivalent to the time he had taken to serve them. It was a commercially successful system.

It also inspired the classic SF short story, And Then There Were None, in which a party of imperialist Earthmen gradually succumb to the superior social and political system of just such an Anarchist Utopia. The planet they attempt to conquer has just such a libertarian economic and political system. Intrusive questions and attempts to bully the self-reliant farmers, businessmen and workers of the world into giving vital information is simply answered with the word ‘NYOB’: None Of Your Business. The local currency schemes, which such libertarian ideas have inspired, have done a lot of stimulate local economies, as people patronise their local businesses using these currencies. Or they did until Gordon Brown started looking for more things he could tax, and declared that these schemes were also subject to VAT. Unfortunately, according to my friend the Mail used an accounting trick to declare that these ‘work shares’ were valueless, took them back off their workers, and destroyed them.

The result of this is that the Post Office workers were effectively not paid for the overtime they worked.

The Truck System

Now as I said, I don’t know if this is true. If it is, then at one time it would have been a violation of the Truck Acts.

Robson Green gave a succinct summary of the ‘Truck System’ in his TV show, Building the North, on ITV on Wednesday, although he did not call it by name. He remarked how 19th century factory masters had nearly absolute control of their workers’ lives. They were frequently paid in tokens, which could only be used in the company shops. Although he didn’t call it by name, this was the notorious Truck System. It was abolished in the 19th century by the Liberal government, which freed their workers from such commercial exploitation from their employers. I’ve got a feeling that free trade commercial ideology may also have played a part. If the workers’ were free to spend their money how they chose, then not only would this allow them greater choice, it would also encourage greater competition and commercial opportunities as other companies and shops would be free to supply them with whatever they wanted or needed.

Truck Acts Repealed in Favour of Electronic Payment

Unfortunately, the Truck Acts were repealed in the 1980s when the direct payment of wages and salaries into employees’ bank accounts was introduced. My point here is not to criticise that system of payment, but simply to show that it appears to have had the unfortunate consequences of opening the system of payments back up to such morally and commercially dubious arrangements as the ‘work shares’. It looks like something close to the Truck System was being operated by the Mail with these spurious shares. It does not augur well for employee confidence in their promises to provide them with shares as part of the privatisation package.

Unpopularity of Post Office Privatisation

I also have to say that I don’t know anyone personally who has been in favour of the privatisation of the Royal Mail. My next door neighbours were working class Conservatives. They objected to the idea, when it was mooted by Blair’s administration. I don’t think ordinary people like them will be impressed whatever the type of government that introduces it. The same friend, who mentioned the ‘work share’ system also told me that the dangers of privatising this service could be seen in the way the Americans had never privatised it. America has always strongly supported capitalism and free enterprise, at least to a greater extent than the European nations. If the Americans found that privatising the Post Office was unworkable, then it showed that it was really unworkable.