Category Archives: Labour

The Astronomer Caroline Herschel

indexWe have a couple of times wandered down through the countryside from Bristol to Bath, and so we found the Herschel Museum, tucked down a little street. I had heard of Sir William Herschel vaguely, but was happier to find out about the life of his sister, Caroline. And I bought this book.

Put together by her niece Mary Herschel in 1878, it is lovely but I definitely feel it is time for a new appraisal. Caroline’s own memoirs which she wrote are here cut up, put into context, probably somewhat expunged — though it is had to tell through the veil of both women’s intense sense of propriety. The letters are brilliant though, and give a wonderful sense of Caroline as well as how much she was loved and admired by others, particularly her nephew Sir John Herschel, who followed in the footsteps of her brother William.

Caroline lived for an extraordinarily long time, 1750-1848. She was in a position to do astronomical observations for only a portion of this time, but she found seven comets, did loads of work, was first woman to receive a medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, and actually made an honorary member of the Society with Mary Somerville in 1835.

Along with her own accomplishments, the book offers a fascinating window on the lives and limitations placed upon women in this period. She had typhus at a young age, so only grew to 4’3″. This explains the assumption that she would never marry, and that her role would be to always and forever take care of other people’s families. She was deeply imprinted by her mothers’ ideas of what would best fit her for this life fated for her:

My father wished to give me something like a polished education, but my mother was particularly determined that it should be a rough, but at the same time a useful one… I could not help thinking but that she had cause of wishing me not to know more than was necessary for being useful in the family; for it was her certain belief that my brother William would have returned to his country, and my eldest brother not have looked so high, if they had had a little less learning. (20)

This was not in fact her fate, but always there is the sense that she is still, to some extent, living within its boundaries. She left Hanover in 1772, William persuading her mother to let her go and become his assistant in Bath. In 1782 he was appointed the King’s Astronomer (for a large cut in pay, and a lot of showing royals the stars), moved to Slough. She went with him.

While she rarely complains or talks about herself at all, she does at one point write

In short, I have been throughout annoyed and hindered in my endeavours at perfecting myself in any branch of knowledge by which I could hope to gain a creditable livelihood. (31)

She tried to educate herself. But is always forced to remain conscious of her own lack of education, and her complete dependence upon others. It is a terrible thing, like a straightjacket which she must live within. This despite her wonderful singing voice and musical abilities, as well as her intelligence and determination.

Alexander was obliged to return to Bath…till now I had not had time to consider the consequence of giving up the prospect of making myself independent by becoming (with a little more uninterrupted application) a useful member of the musical profession. But besides that my brother William would have been very much at a loss for my assistance, I had not spirit enough to throw myself on the public after losing his protection. (51)

Still, she throws herself into the business of astronomy to help her brother — an uncomfortable business with long cold nights and a house more like a workshop and a lot of accidents. It is unclear from her memoirs whether this is indeed the intellectual endeavor she would have chosen to dedicate her life to if she were free to make her own choice, but once embarked upon it, she did not look back. A life of some adventure, really, though much tedium and hard work:

As soon as the season for the concerts was over, and the mould &c., in readiness, a day was set apart for casting, and the metal was in the furnace, but unfortunately it began to leak at the moment when ready for pouring, and both my brothers and the caster with his men were obliged to run out at opposite doors, for the stone flooring (which out to have been taken up) flew about in all directions, as high as the ceiling. (44)

I seem to have lost my photos from the museum, all but one. It is quite wonderful though consisting of only a handful of rooms. You can still see these cracked floor stones:

IMG_2869One thing that struck me from her words was the demanding nature, and lack of generosity of the King. I read the memoirs of Fanny Burney long ago, and remember similar surprise at the monotony, and often the level of penury, suffered by many at court who existed to wait upon royalty’s pleasure. Caroline describes in at least one letter an enjoyable evening spent in by then Madame d’Arbley’s company, and that made me happy. However, after numerous people put pressure on him, King I-forgot-which-one-it-was slowly increased the money allowed to William for building telescopes (marvelous, enormous telescopes) and in 1787, finally recognised the work of Caroline:

A salary of fifty pounds a year was also settled on me as an assistant to my brother, and in October I received twelve pounds ten, being the first quarterly payment of my salary, and the first money I ever in all my lifetime thought myself to be at liberty to spend to my own liking. A great uneasiness was by this means removed from my mind…Nothing but bankruptcy had ll the while been running through my silly head (75-76)

She is a funny mix of devotion to her brother, deprecation of her own abilities, and acknowledgement of women’s uncertain position in the world. She writes many years later on receiving the medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, in a letter to her nephew dated August 21, 1828:

What you tell me in the short note dated May 24th…has completely put me out of humour with the same; for to say the truth, I felt from the first more shocked than gratified by that singular distinction, for I know well how dangerous it is for women to draw to much notice on themselves. (231)

I think that last sentence explained an immense amount of her letters and the choices made in her memoir to me.

That last sentence embodies everything that women have been fighting for centuries. When her brother marries and promptly turfs her out of their home, it only highlights the injustice of a society unable to value women except as mothers or wives…she overcomes it all.

She is both observant and intelligent and wise, however much some of her deprecation grates from time to time on my modern ears. Understandings like this shine clear, in her response to the publishing of her index to Flamsteed’s Observations (written from Slough, Sept 1798):

But your having thought it worthy of the press has flattered my vanity not a little. You see, sir, I do own myself to be vain, because I would not wish to be singular; and was there ever a woman without vanity? Or a man either? Only with this difference, that among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition. (96)

There are glints of humour, like this one, in the form of advice to her Nephew John, 25 October 1831:

But do not observe too much in cold weather. Write rather books to make folks stare at your profound knowledge…. (249)

So much of her memories and her letters has to do with being ill, long bouts of sickness, I am sure exacerbated by working through the nights in cold and damp. She moved back to Hanover after her brother’s death, only to be deeply disillusioned by the lack of intellectual society and the terrible mistreatment by her own family. She was no longer able to search for stars, only work on her indexes. Yet she was stuck, and forced to make the best of it.

I loved that this included some of the letters written to her, for they show most beautifully the esteem in which she is held, and her intelligence and humour and the expectation she will share in scientific excitement and seeking of knowledge. There are passages like this one:

I found my aunt wonderfully well and very nicely and comfortably lodged, and we have since been on the full trot. She runs about the town with me and skips up her two flights of stairs as light and fresh at least as some folks I could name who are not a fourth part of her age …. In the morning till eleven or twelve she is dull and weary, but as the day advances she gains life, and is quite “fresh and funny” at ten or eleven, p.m., and sings old rhymes, nay, even dances! To the great delight of all who see her ….

There are a few other interesting passages, like this one from Dr Maskelyne writing to Miss Caroline Herschel , verifying her discovery of a comet, 27 December 1788:

Let us hope the best, and that it is approaching the earth to please and instruct us, and not to destroy us, for true astronomers have no fears of that kind. (81)

This from Caroline writing to her nephew John, 1822

I wish you would let me know if any of the works of Schelling are known in England? Of him it is said that his philosophy is entirely new, and beyond all what goes before, and so profound, that nobody here can understand him, &c.

Philosophy hasn’t much changed I don’t think.

On April 23, 1835 alluding to some misdeeds of Newtons…what news emerged then, I wonder to cast him into disrepute? News we have since forgotten? After relating her happiness at becoming a member of the Royal Astronomical Society ‘our Society, of which I am now a fellow!’, she goes on to write:

I lament very much, in common with every friend of science, that Newton’s name is mixed up with transactions that show him in a diffeent light from that in which we have generally received his character. (277)

All in all this is a fascinating little book, but I would love to see Caroline Herschel become better known and better studied.

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Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera

Dziga Vertov - The Man with A Movie Camera 1929Just saw Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929) and had one of those moments where you realise just how splendid a film of the city can be. One of those moments where everything changes about how you see film.

(An aside: The first film I remember doing that was Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) which my Uncle Milton showed me when I was 17 or 18, and the last film that I remember doing that was Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and that was seven or so years ago…

Funny that they’re all from around the same time.)

I haven’t seen the other city symphony films, have only vaguely heard of them (but always meant to track them down). Some say that this is the best, and I believe it — on a foggy Sunday afternoon when all too often I enjoy a little snooze, I sat entranced at scenes of Moscow, Kiev and Odessa seamlessly edited together.

But what I loved is that the cameraman (as courageous hero) and the woman editing the film itself (women fill this film, working everyday women) — as well as its initial audiences — are always present, reminding you of how reality is moderated, cut up and represented in film.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is not neutral, the process is anything but seamless. There are many shots that go from still to moving pictures, playful and charming. It reminds you constantly how it is you see what you are seeing, that choices are being made. It takes you from the everyday into split screens, kaleidoscope effects, occasional stop-motion and surreal compositions of eyes and watchers and movement. Unlike many a black and white film I have seen using such effects, they improve the whole. They give a sense of the city as mediated by our own vision and the vision of others. It challenges us to think about not just what we are seeing, but how we are seeing it.

It does this with exuberance, not with pretension. In 1929. With the few avant garde films I have seen from the 1960s onwards, I find the lack of pretension amazing and most wonderful.

All this, and then oh…the life of the city that it shows. Cities as we shall never know them now, full of trams and horsecarts and early automobiles. Pedestrians everywhere. Life brimming over its streets not dominated by fast-moving traffic — that piece of my brain obsessed with transport adored this aspect of it, down to the woman pouring oil in the tram tracks in the very early morning.

Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera Dziga Vertov - Man With A Movie Camera

This is a film of movement and labour and social leisure — unsurprising in a film that of the soviet revolution just before Stalin’s crackdown. It shows people in these aspects of their lives — at work in factories and mines, a ceaseless flow of associative editing from beauty shop to laundry to automated spinning wheels to film editing to operators connecting calls to typewriters to beaches to babies being born and funerals and movements through the streets. Life filling these great boulevards, (but very little in homes, nuclear families, neighbourhoods, a telling political and social focus)…

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The factories were the not the most popular of screen grabs, but can I just say again how wonderful to see the screen full of women. A few of them of that beauty that usually finds it way to the movies, but most of the beauty that does not. Smiling, laughing, making cigarette boxes, walking and telling stories and working and bearing children.

Most wonderful. I shall enjoy seeing it again, and know I shall see much more.

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Salford in Love on the Dole

Love on the Dole Walter GreenwoodLove on the Dole (1933) might be the last depressing, worthy, important account of the toll and misery of working class poverty I read. Every now and then I suffer flashes of panic that I myself will fall back into it, die poor and struggling. Reading this really doesn’t help, and every year older I get the more deeply existential this fear becomes. Especially as I am now too old to escape, like Sal, through becoming a kept woman and making the most of that to help myself and my family.

So thought I’d make the most of this book. But though 1933 is several decades along, it’s descriptions are depressingly, distressingly similar to the East End’s Mean Streets described by Arthur Morrison,  Lambeth’s slums from Reeves’ A Pound a Week or Maugham’s Liza of Lambeth. Things have become a little better from the abject poverty of Manchester in the 1850s described by Engels in The Conditions of the Working Class in England, but while bodies hold together survive a little longer, the soul is still crushed.

They call this part ‘Hanky Park’. It is that district opposite the parish church of Pendleton, one of the many industrial townships comprising the Two Cities. In the early nineteenth century Hanky Park was part of the grounds of a wealthy lady’s mansion; at least, so say the old maps in the Salford Town Hall. The district takes its names from a sloping street, Hankinson Street, whose pavements, much worn and very narrow, have been polished by the traffic of boots and clogs of many generations. On either side of this are other streets, mazes, jungles of tiny houses cramped and huddled together, two rooms above and two below, in some cases only one room alow and aloft; public houses by the score where forgetfulness lurks in a mug; pawnshops by the dozen where you can raise the wind to buy forgetfulness; churches, chapels and unpretentious mission halls where God is praised; nude, black patches of land, ‘crofts’, as they are called, waterlogged, sterile, bleak and chill.

The doorsteps and windowsills of the houses are worn hollow. Once a week, sometimes twice, the women clean them with brown or white rubbing stone…Some women there are whose lives are dedicated to an everlasting battle with the invincible forces of soot and grime. (11)

Hanky Park has emerged from the industrial revolution, the modern upheaval of everything driven by capitalist industry and the transformation of stately homes and country fields into factories and ugly homes for the workers they need to work in them. Greenwood writes:

Trafford Park is a modern miracle. Thirty years ago it was the country seat of a family whose line goes back to the ancient British kings and whose name the area retains.Thirty years ago its woodlands were chopped down to clear the way fro commerce and to provide soles for Lancashire clogs; thirty years ago the lawns, lately gay with marquees, awnings and fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, were obliterated. The Hall still stands though it now houses only dust and memories and echoes. And the twin lions surmounting either side the wide flight of steps now survey…a double railway track only six yards away, and, where the drives once wound their serpentine paths through the woods, the fungus of modern industry, huge engineering shops, flour mills, timber yards, oil refineries, automobile works, repositories for bonded merchandise, choke and foul the prospect….

A Five Year Plan thirty years ahead of the Russian. Yesterday the country seat of an aristocrat, today the rowdy seat of commerce. Revolution! and not a drop of blood spilt or a shot fired! (158)

This is of course, novel as call to conscience, call to action. There’s little room here for the humour, the humanity that got people through these conditions. I’d happily read more of those, like Mord Em’ly, or oral histories of these times where grinding poverty can’t efface the cheer and character of everyone. Still, there are too many familiar elements to deny or diminish the power of this reality — the reason for my panics after all:

In the staring gas light, the women, throwing back their shawls from their dishevelled hair revealed faces which, though dissimilar in features, had a similarity of expression common, typical, of all the married women around and about; their badge of marriage, as it were. The vivacity of their virgin days was with their virgin days, gone; a married woman could be distinguished from a single by a glance at her facial expression. Marriage scored on their faces a kind of preoccupied, faded, lack-lustre air as though they were constantly being plagued by some problem. As they were. How to get a shilling, and, when obtained, how to make it do the work of two. Though it was not so much a problem as a whole-time occupation to which no salary was attached, not to mention the sideline of risking life to give children birth and being responsible for their upbringing afterwards. (31)

I do like how this almost journalistically portrays the changing times, the new fashions, the weekly routines of labour and leisure of both men and women.

Clatter of clogs and shoes; chatter of many loud voices; bursts of laughter. Hundreds of girl operatives and women from the adjacent cotton mills marching home to dinner arm in arm, two, three, four and five abreast. They filled the narrow pavements and spread into the roadway.

A generation ago all would have been wearing clogs, shawls, tight bodices, ample skirts and home-knitted, black wool stocking. A few still held to the picturesque clogs and shawls of yesterday, but the majority represented modernity: cheap artificial silk stockings, cheap short-skirted frocks, cheap coats, cheap shoes, crimped hair, powder and rouge; five and a half days weekly in a spinning mill of weaving shed, a threepenny dance of a Saturday night, a Sunday afternoon parade on the erstwhile aristocratic Eccles Old Road which incloses the public park, then work again, until they married when picture theatres became luxuries and Saturday dances, Sunday parades and cheap finery ceased altogether. (42)

I like how it acknowledges the fascinations of these new factories as young Harry burns to become more than just a messenger:

Machines! MACHINES! Lovely, beautiful word! (69)

But still it describes a system of labour that guarantees steady work at lowered wages to women and children, and lays off men to ensure they do not have to pay the higher wages their training (and the simple fact of being men in this sexist world) entitles them to. It leaves them to hang about street corners and pubs and wait in queues for the dole until they are kicked off it through the new and now infamous means test. A government seal on an acceptable level of utmost misery. In this book at least (much like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), none of them asking the whys or fighting back except for one. Socialism and struggle showing him glimpses of a better life and how to get there.

He dies.

Worried about whether you have in fact escaped poverty? This is what you need:

That dirty hovel, home? Where else? In all the wide world, of all the sweet dreams and fond imaginings of such homes as were writ or projected at the pictures, of them all, hers was that in North Street.

Dully, insistently, crushing came the realisation that there was no escape, save in dreams. All was a tangle; reality was too hideous to look upon: it could not be shrouded or titivated for long by the reading of cheap novelettes or the spectacle of films of spacious lives. They were only opiates and left a keener edge on hunger, made more loathsome reality’s sores. (65)

Then there is this passage, which describes the mix of industry, housing and government offices that marked poor urban areas, reduces its residents to animals, and then more or less compares them to the animals heading in great bewilderment to the slaughterhouse.

An erstwhile reformatory school for erring boys, an ugly, barrack-like building, serves as one of the Two Cities’ labour exchanges. Hemmed in on three sides by slums, tenements and doss houses, the remaining side stares at the gas works and a cattle-loading mound, into, and out of which, bleating sheep, cows and bulls, their eyes rolling, their parched tongues lolling, are driven by loutish men and cowed dogs. And the slum children, seeing in the inoffensive creatures a means to exercise their own animal instincts, come out of their dens armed with whips and sticks and stones to belabour the animals as they pass, meanwhile indulging in the most hideous inhuman screams, shouts and howls such as occasions horror in the mind of a sympathetic observer and, doubtless, terrified bewilderment on the parts of the doomed beasts as they, starting under whip, stick and stone, run blindly along the dinning unfamiliar streets finally to find themselves packed, suffocatingly, in wretched cattle trucks.

A high wall, enclosing an asphalt yard, ran round the building. On it was scrawled in chalk, and in letters a foot high: ‘Unemployed Mass Meeting Today 3 o’clock.’ The handiwork of Communists five or six weeks ago. (153)

If only the unemployed had come in their masses.

The Hardcastles escape from this fate to some extent — but the moral of that escape is clear. I have great admiration for Sal, after her socialist love and hope dies of consumption she stares her fate in the face (with the help of the older and wiser Mrs Bull). To escape it she becomes a hard-headed woman of business, using her beauty to obtain security as her labour cannot do it for it her. I like that the novel is not sentimental and does not seem to judge her harshly for this. Simply points it out to a world that will, in the hopes that such a fall from grace might spur action where nothing else has.

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City and Country in Adam Bede

Evans published Adam Bede in 1859, describing events set in 1799 — it was 1721 that the first machinery was introduced into a silk mill in Derby and 1771 that Arkwright opened his cotton mill in Cromford. This is a turning point in industrial history and one she references, though fairly tangentially more’s the pity.

One of the things I got out of reading this, was that it continued the process of doing away once and for all with one of my stubborn blind spots — and I appreciate things that do that. Especially a blind spot that has continued in the face of constant small revelations — my simplistic working binary of clean pastoral countryside with its lovely clean towns and villages vs great dirty smoggy cities as centres of industry and innovation.

It’s just wrong.

It was especially wrong several hundred years ago, because multiple small villages served as dirty centres of industry and innovation. Many more held quarries, tanneries, and mines and etc — coal dust transformed whole landscapes that are today green and peaceful. I am ashamed that I have still been carrying that binary shit in my head and the only reason I know it was still there is because books and museums and unexpected clusters of mills and mines encountered in my ‘peak district back-to-nature holiday’ surprised me.

What is curious now, I suppose, is how much closer to reality it has actually become in ‘developed’ countries. How the dirt and grime and exploitation and innovation have been centralised and separated from daily life, its laborers moved to the cities, pollution’s existence in naturally beautiful peripheries cleaned up, and industry’s stories retold or simply erased in much of the countryside. This means of course, that the dirt and toxicity moved along to other places, other countries. So in a way my blind spot is the result of a great deal of effort, but whose? And why?

This isn’t even an attempt at an answer because I know it’s a whole complex combination of things that I could probably start listing right now involving capitalism and labour and etc. One place to start might be Lumsdale Valley, which held all kinds of toxic industry starting in the 1600s and is now a lushly and eerily beautiful series of preserved ruins.

Matlock Walk

Instead here are just some interesting passages from Adam Bede. In this one the man himself, country carpenter and half-peasant half-artisan (as described by George Eliot) praising the industrial revolution. Why? Because it’s happening within a few miles of him.

And there’s such a thing as being oversperitial; we must have something beside Gospel i’ this world. Look at the canals, an’ th’ aqueduc’s, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford; a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t’ hear some o’ them preachers, you’d think as a man must be doing nothing all’s life but shutting’s eyes and looking what’s agoing on inside him.

A view of Masson Mill set in its landscape:

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And the setting of Cromford Mill and its canal:

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It is so hard, now, to understand that this was once ‘industrial’.

Sadly, this novel in almost its entirety takes place in ‘Hayslope’ which is really Ellastone, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. So eagerly awaiting references to Wirksworth, I was despairing (as already noted) several hundred pages into Hetty’s beauty as adorable as downy ducklings and the constant passive-aggressive wailing of Adam Bede’s mother and Dinah’s sermons on goodness and Methodism. But finally, we get to some descriptions of this beautiful stone town, quite rural and lovely to my own eyes. Here is Rev. Irvine to Dinah:

“Ah, I remember Snowfield very well; I once had occasion to go there. It’s a dreary bleak place. They were building a cotton-mill there; but that’s many years ago now. I suppose the place is a good deal changed by the employment that mill must have brought.”

She replies (and oh, if only this had centred on her life in ‘Snowfield’):

“It is changed so far as the mill has brought people there, who get a livelihood for themselves by working in it, and make it better for the tradesfolks. I work in it myself, and have reason to be grateful, for thereby I have enough and to spare. But it’s still a bleak place, as you say, sir–very different from this country.”

I suppose this is as much a shift in common perceptions of what is beautiful and what is country as it is my own blindspot. It’s also an interesting note on labour, those who moved first to smaller towns like these, seeking better lives. This happened alongside the importation of primarily children (not noted by Elliot of course) to work the mills. Both groups must have transformed these places.

This is the view over ‘bleak’ Wirksworth from Black Rocks — whose other side was once the site of a lead mine to be sure:

Wirksworth Walk

Curiously Dinah goes on to describe her own views on what the town-country distinction means for her preaching and gathering of souls, and Irvine responds.

“But I’ve noticed that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there’s a strange deadness to the Word, as different as can be from the great towns, like Leeds, where I once went to visit a holy woman who preaches there. It’s wonderful how rich is the harvest of souls up those high-walled streets, where you seemed to walk as in a prison-yard, and the ear is deafened with the sounds of worldly toil. I think maybe it is because the promise is sweeter when this life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.”

“Why, yes, our farm-labourers are not easily roused. They take life almost as slowly as the sheep and cows. But we have some intelligent workmen about here.”

These are common enough prejudices against cities and people of the country even now of course…and perhaps Eliot had more of a hand in forming them than I know.

Here is Adam’s perception of Wirksworth — and it makes me think perhaps I am not quite so far off:

And when at last he came in sight of Snowfield, he thought it looked like a town that was “fellow to the country,” though the stream through the valley where the great mill stood gave a pleasant greenness to the lower fields. The town lay, grim, stony, and unsheltered, up the side of a steep hill, and Adam did not go forward to it at present, for Seth had told him where to find Dinah. It was at a thatched cottage outside the town, a little way from the mill–an old cottage, standing sideways towards the road, with a little bit of potato-ground before it. Here Dinah lodged with an elderly couple; and if she and Hetty happened to be out, Adam could learn where they were gone, or when they would be at home again.

I could have gone to see that same cottage, but I didn’t. We just didn’t get round to it. But here is where Mary Ann Evans visited her aunt:

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It has more than its share of quarries to be sure

Wirksworth Walk

But look at this village:

Wirksworth Walk

Wirksworth Walk

Hardly dreary.

Eliot did occasionally write something I really liked, and this is one of them. I’ll end with another quote from Adam and something I definitely miss in the city:

I like to go to work by a road that’ll take me up a bit of a hill, and see the fields for miles round me, and a bridge, or a town, or a bit of a steeple here and there. It makes you feel the world’s a big place, and there’s other men working in it with their heads and hands besides yourself.

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Masson Mill: the glories of early machinery

Masson Mill (built 1783) was Arkwright’s showpiece, constructed after his system was perfected at Cromford. The museum was amazing — not entirely because I now understand how this new revolution in weaving worked, but because I am so enamoured of these old machines (now that women and children are no longer at risk of losing fingers in them). And who wouldn’t love the world’s largest collection of bobbins? This made my photographer’s heart go pitter pat, and I truly mourned the temporarily comatose state of my SLR.

If I had to pick one amazing thing to highlight, it was these old punch cards that defined the patterns for weaving — and of course, served as the forerunners for computers.

Masson Mill

Masson Mill

Masson Mill

But the rest, oh the rest was such a treat of extraordinary old iron, wheels and cogs, bobbins and threads. And the ghosts of workers, cut out and placed happily smiling at their visitors when actually this place must have been deafening with the noise, full of wisps of cloth and cotton dust and children running machinery…

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Mills, mills the very first mills

76aPublications_Books_DVMComsI’ve said before, it is so hard to believe that a significant part of what we call now the industrial revolution started in these beautiful valleys and hills — and for that reason the Derwent Valley is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A copy of the book that was published based on the application to UNESCO was sitting on our shelf in the cottage — not the most gripping of styles but the content was quite fascinating none the less. Especially as one of these opening quotes is undoubtedly true:

The Arkwright system substituted capital for labour, machines for skill, factory for home, and mill discipline for family work routines. (15)
— David Jeremy, 1981.

This is where so much that now shapes modernity started, as strange as it seems in such beautiful surroundings. Cromford Mill was the world’s first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill, built between 1771 and 1790 by Richard Arkwright.

It was expanding on the technologies to be found down the road in Derby. In 1721 the opening of Lombe’s Silk Mill:

brought to England technology developed in Italy which enabled silk to be thrown on machines driven by water power. This important step towards full scale factory production did not on its own trigger rapid or widespread economic investment in mechanised production, but its influence on the later developments in the cotton industry which took place a few miles to the north, at Cromford, is now widely recognised. (15)

We spent more time in the country and at Arkwright’s showcase Masson Mill so didn’t explore too much this larger central complex, but it is impressive:

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It was always more than buildings or machinery however, but also a whole new organisation of work, method of management, and also control over labour. Cromford became essentially a company town, with mill workers living in the housing that Arkwright built, shopping in his stores, and we heard, spending company scrip.

Cromford was relatively remote and sparsely populated, and Arkwright could only obtain the young people he required for his labour force if he provided homes for their parents. In Cromford, there emerged a new kind of industrial community which was copied and developed in the other Derwent Vallet settlements (15)

This system in its entirety was soon copied, and several other mills used ‘pauper labour’, building dormitories for large numbers of children. It is curious being outside this complex as it is so obviously built for security, with thick high walls, gates and no windows at ground level — so these copies emerged through industrial espionage or after the patents on the system had expired by 1785.

Arkwright’s associates Jedediah Strutt, Thomas Evans, and Peter Nightingale all became themselves mill owners — by 1788 there were over 200 Arkwright type mills established in Great Britain. For the first time I heard of ‘Traitor Slater’ or Samuel Slater, who apprenticed with Strutts in Milford and took technologies with him to US to found a new cotton weaving industry there along these lines. Johann Gottfried Brugelman pursuded a number of workers to move to Ratingen and installed the system in Germany.

Capital and technology crossing borders, expanding across the world. Somehow it is so poignant to see it here move so quickly, become so complete. This story embodies Marx’s theories about technology and competition, as Arkwright’s system composed of machinery and power transmission, the buildings, the production systems and labour management were all taken on in their entirety and then efforts made to improve on them.

New Lanark’s initial buildings developed with exactly this system, and Owens did not start working to change it along more philanthropic lines until 1799 — I’ve only just realised we went there while I had stopped blogging for a while, but it is an amazing place.

As the mill system outgrew the Derwent Valley, with its steep hills and limited room for expansion both in terms of space and labour, mill owners looked to move their operations. Cotton’s new centre moved to Manchester, leaving these mills preserved (sometimes falling down).

The money that was made here was evidenced by Arkwright’s private residence — Willersley Castle c 1790 — we only caught a glimpse of it through trees and had a laugh at its sign: Afternoon tea available all day!

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Also St Mary’s Church, built 1797, his private — and very large — chapel:

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He (in partnership with others) built the Cromford Canal in the early 1790s. Originally intended as a through route between the mills and Manchester, it was soon replaced by the Cromford and High Peak Railway built between 1824 and 1830s.

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I so love canals, I am glad they have brought back this one, and are looking to connect it once again to the canal network.

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This is Leawood pumphouse 1849,  which housed a steam pumping engine to increase supply of water to the canal:

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We also walked down (well, up and up and up some more first) to Lea Bridge and Smedley’s (formerly Nightingale’s) Mill. It was built in 1783 by Peter Nightingale — Arkwright’s financier and landlord in Cromford — and Benjamin Pearson, a formerly trusted employee. It was built in anticipation of the patents expiring, and must have been the source of no small amount of social tension and generated a lawsuit. In 1818 John Smedley took over. Smedley’s is still running and much expanded, newer building having surrounded the old mill which they say still remains at the core. They continue to be a major employer in the area.

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Florence Nightingale was one of these Nightingale’s, Peter being her great-uncle, and she spent quite a lot of time here, so there is a community hall named after her.

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More on the inside of the mills with the obscene amount of amazing photographs from Masson Mill, built by Arkwright as a showpiece and consolidating everything he had learned from the earlier buildings and operations. But later.

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Caudwell Flour Mill and Mill Stones Left Behind

In every city, town and village we have walked past old mills, now repurposed and turned into luxury flats most of them. It was good to see one still running as a mill, and even better to learn it was open as a museum. It was such a pleasure to walk around a working mill, see the history of past innovations. Had we not been about to embark on a walk of many miles up several large hills, we would have bought some flour…

Some of the exhibits discussed the changing technologies — both the move from the beautiful old water wheels that to my mind still signify a mill to the new water turbines that so much more efficiently powered the machinery, and the use of rollers to grind grain rather than the great circular millstones. Once upon a time mills were a ubiquitous feature of towns, villages and cities — I loved this map that showed just how many there once were in this area along the river systems:

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The change in the grinding of grain to bake our bread is just one of the changes that modernity has brought to our lives, a change to both the rhythm of our days and the food that we eat. I wonder if we can even guess now just how great a change that has been.

Caudwell's Mill

The machinery inside was wonderful

Caudwell's Mill

The Hammer Mill — ‘Miracle Mill’ No. 2, used to pulverize stock into powder:

Caudwell's Mill

Measurers and grain elevators:

Caudwell's Mill

Flour sifters at all levels of fineness, and their machinery:

Caudwell's Mill

Caudwell's Mill

Caudwell's Mill

This was less the amazing old machinery, and more the title — Baron “Dreadnought” Grinder:

Caudwell's Mill

You climb story after story, here is a view of the beautiful country from the top:

Caudwell's Mill

An old dust collector at the very top, of exquisite carpentry surrounded by bewildering belts and struts

Caudwell's Mill

This area was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, which impacted upon flour mills as much as mills of any other kind — the Caudwell Mill was in the forefront of some of these changes. It was fascinating to continue our walk, get a bit lost per usual, and stumble across further remnants of this past. Not without first passing one of the most lovely farms I’ve seen:

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and a chicken crossing a road — though too far away for questions:

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We climbed up into the woods

Stanton Moor Walk

We think we had already gone wrong at this point, but I could not be sorry. Because then we found this:

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Something to do with the quarry we think, though perhaps another mill. Up through more forest

Stanton Moor Walk

More ruins:

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To find a fallen stack of old mill stones — victims of technological change left here unwanted and unneeded…

Stanton Moor Walk

and perhaps this was part of the end of these quarries, now reclaimed by the forest and more beautiful thereby.

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

Stanton Moor Walk

This is heading up to Stanton Moor, which was more beautiful still, but more on that later. Better to sit with thoughts of human endeavour, how much everything has changed, what happened to technologies left behind and the men who once excelled in them…

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Antediluvian Quarries, Peak District

We climbed stone stairs no one had tread regularly for a very long time…

Matlock Walk

we were off our path but we didn’t yet know it, because we were on someone’s path — though no one in the past few days perhaps. We followed faint traces to climb through heat and humidity, nettles and brambles stinging against our legs. Drawing blood. The valley opened up beneath us and we entered into pine forest — the first we had been in this trip.

Matlock Walk

A lovely, open pine forest scenting the air and full of light, not the close packed replacement and industrial forests. We had strayed from the way, but it didn’t matter because we found this.

Matlock Walk

A beautiful, eerie landscape

Matlock Walk

where stone-built walls and quarried stone faces mingled, all of it swallowed by moss and pine needles and trees so the natural world and the human one were almost indistinguishable.

Matlock Walk

Great slabs of stone, whether tumbled down or piled up almost impossible to tell, alongside great chimneys of rock.

Matlock Walk

Matlock Walk

Ferns of a green I still find hard to imagine, coming from the desert. The green of my dreams as a little girl.

Matlock Walk

Enormous mossy stones in piles

Matlock Walk

Sunlight streaming down through the trees, and everywhere a verdant landscape spilling across the distance. And us there, up above it in this place of human effort and labour swallowed up by the forest. This lonely place of memory now, and stillness.

Matlock Walk

Happy accident that brought us here. We followed this track back down the hill, and then found our way.

Matlock Walk

Of that more tomorrow…

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Will Thorne: My Life’s Battles

20150715_201917 Will Thorne (1857-1946) was an amazing trade union activist back at the dawn of trade unions. Born in Hockley, Birmingham he lived in London’s East End from 1882.

Originally published in 1925, this is perhaps not the most eloquent of books, but plain-spoken and deeply felt. Written by a self-educated man who shaped our lives, and yet is all but forgotten.

He started work at age 6, ‘turning a wheel for a rope and twine spinner at Rob’s Rope Walk’ from 6 am to 6 pm, a half hour breakfast and one hour for dinner, on Saturday’s he worked a half day and then went to his uncle’s who was a barber to lather faces for him until 11 pm.

His first strike? The rope maker reduced his wages from 2s. 6d. a week to 2s., and he refused and walked off.

He worked for another uncle at a brick and tile works, describes how each brickmaker was essentially an independent contractor, paid piece work and paying piece work in turn for the various other labourers needed. Dismissed for being caught asleep while tending the fire, he got work somewhere in another factory further away.

Aged nine, he awoke at 4:30 am, walked 4 miles to work, worked a 12 hour day, and then walked back home to a scanty meal. He writes of his mother telling him he had to quite, that:

‘I remember her telling me that the 8s. a week would be missed; some one would have to go short. But it was no use my being slowly killed by such work as I was doing, and it was making me humpbacked. It was not until I was away from the work for several weeks that I was able to straighten myself out again. (19)

Later he began in the gas works:

The retort houses are exceedingly hot, for both behind and in front of the stoker are the burning eyes of the furnaces; amidst the roaring of the heat-hungry retorts a breeze as of hell fans me. This is my job; these are my conditions. (37)

Men there worked 12 hour shifts, one week on days and one week nights — on the transition day/night between the two they worked 24 hours shifts. There are a number of scattered descriptions of the grimness of this work, and the constant efforts of employers to force the men to work longer and harder for the same or less pay — through both improved technology and shifting employment policies.

All of it echoes the description of the gas works which made such an impression on Flora Tristan in her visit to London.

the system we lived under at that time, the poverty and hardships the workers had to endure…made us rebels…. I was only fifteen, working at the metal-rolling mills, when I swore that I would do everything in my power to help prevent other children going through the same hardships, misery, and suffering that I had to go through. (46)

He started educating himself, talking to his fellow workers, trying to organise resistance. There are incipient organisations and blacklists.

There is also, of course, not least the allure of London:

I had always wanted to go to London, and my desire to go to the biggest city in the world was stimulated by letters from an old workmate at the Saltley works, who was no working at the Old Kent Road Gas Works… I finally decided to go to London in November, 1881. With two friends I started out to walk the journey, filled with the hope that we would be able to obtain employment…(49-50)

There are some comments on Jews swindling people in Petticoat Lane, and the rest is laced with thoughtlessly unkind references to peoples of colour, along with embarrassed footnotes that such language was accepted then as it shouldn’t be now. Yet this is the power of whiteness, even amongst those with nothing.

Once established in work, he brought his family down from Birmingham, but his son died at 6 mos while another daughter was born. The work dried up and back they went to his wife’s parents home just outside Birmingham. Then back to London the following year with two Irish brothers by the name of Keegan. Got a job in Beckton with help of foreman, who had also been on strike with him at the Saltley works. He brought wife and children down again, and this time it was to stay.

He joined the Social Democratic Federation, and would become secretary of Canning Town branch — he met everyone who was anyone. On a speech by George Bernard Shaw, he writes:

His lecture , while very interesting, was couched in such language as to make it difficult for him meaning to be grasped by most of the audience. He spoke to us just as if he was talking to an audience of thousands of people in the Albert Hall. I remember his sharp, caustic criticisms and the keen flashes of wit, which, however, where mostly lost on the hearers.

The East End of London has never taken kindly to the “highbrows,” although the growth of education is gradually permitting the submerged workers of this crowded, over-worked and over-populated district to appreciate the finer things in life. (56)

His education came from speeches, from conversations, and from the circulation of books and pamphlets. His definition of Socialism is part of a story he tells of a confrontation with a foreman, and is copied from a pamphlet giving the contents of a speech by John  Burns on the dock at the Old Bailey on 18th January, 1888, charged on charges of seditious conspiracy:

Socialism is a theory of society which advocates a more just, orderly, and harmonious arrangement of the social relations of mankind than that which prevails now

Substituting the principle of association for that of competition in every branch of production and distribution, Socialism proposes to abolish the system of wage slavery, and establish instead governmental, municipal cooperation, securing to every honest worker the full value of his labour, partly in personal remuneration, and partly in social and public benefits, such as education and recreation, sustenance and care in old age.

Socialism proposes that labour shall be a noble elevating duty, not an unhealthy slavish drudgery. (63)

He notes another book that helped him form his critique of society — J. Sketchley, A review of European Society, and an Exposition and Vindication of the Principles of Social Democracy. I’ve never heard of it.

will-thorneAnd all the while he is trying to organise for improved conditions.

Out of evil comes good. The despair of the workers at the conditions they were compelled to put up with was causing a stirring in their souls–souls deadened by long hours of hard labour, rewarded with the smallest possible amount of money to provide sufficient food, clothing and shelter to enable then to continue their drudging toil. (61)

He describes the 1st attempt to form a union of gas workers and general laborours in 1884 by Jack Monk, but fear of victimisation was so great it had to remain secret and lasted only a few weeks. 1885 saw the 2nd attempt to form a society, headquartered at the “Sir John Lawrence” in Canning Town.

His own union formed at a public meeting on 31st March, 1889 at the Canning Town Public Hall, on the subject of new rules whereby  men could be required to stay on after their shift on a Sunday. Thus was born the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.

They asked for, and won, the eight hour day without going on strike.

By July 1889 they had over 60 branches, 44 in London. But it’s on to the big Dockers’ Strike of 1889 with barely a halt…

1889 was a big year, and at the end of it, it was accounts due and Thorne’s first report as head of the union. From it, I extract this gem:

In conclusion, I hope that every member, male and female, will do their utmost to make our union one of the strongest in England, and I am glad that we have the females with us, it being our duty to help our fellow-women, and raise them from the starving position in which they are at present placed. (102)

Clumsy in wording, but rather nice all the same. I can’t help but think this mention of women is all down to Eleanor Marx (Aveling), later on Thorne writes

Near to the Chancery Land lived Eleanor Marx-Aveling and Dr. Aveling. I knew them well. It was Eleanor that helped me more than any one else to improve my very bad handwriting, my reading and general knowledge. (117)

How wonderful of her.

Just in case you were thinking that all those victories were too easy and the bosses just handed over the eight hour day across the board, by December 1889 they had plotted their come back on a number of fronts, and gas workers had to go on strike again. They received donations of tea from a merchant and sold it on again, profits going to the strike fund — this expanded to become a store in Barking Rd, Canning Town near the union head office.

They started up a bakery — the first attempt failed, but the 2nd succeeded.

The profits from the bakery, although the bread is sold cheaper than at the ordinary bakeries, is used to subsidise our political efforts. Our nominees who are elected to the Town Council are paid the wages they lose while attending to their municipal duties. (111)

One of the biggest clashes was the strike at Wortley Gas Works in Leeds, a good reminder of the old strike days when the fight for our rights was a life and death one — and all of it illegal.

One of the local leaders, Tom Paylor, had heard that a number of blacklegs was to arrive at the New Wortley station at three o’clock in the morning. He chalked this information on the pavements in different parts of the city, and when the time arrived hundreds of strikers were in the vicinity.

The police were also in evidence in large numbers, but we had decided that no blackleg would go into the works without a fight, despite the great odds we were facing in challenging both the police and the blacklegs. (129)

Men and women massed along streets and a railway bridge blacklegs would have to pass under, armed with stones and wooden railway sleepers to throw down on police and scabs below — and they did. In a melee at the gates to the factory the crowd rushed the scabs, Thorne himself was knocked out cold.

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Engles sent him a signed copy of Capital 1 and 2 after this. Bless. Thorne was at his 70th birthday party as a guest of the Avelings, and over the course of his days he met Jean Longuet, Marx’s grandson, William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and many others. He was elected to a majority Labour Council in West Ham, and then to Parliament.

He seems to have been a grand old man. While the book certainly gives you the sense that he was on the more conservative side of the Trade Union Movement of his time, and not forgetting the apparent racial limits to his views on the rights of man and his four wives, you could be pretty damn sure I think, that he’d always be on the right side of the barricades.

For more on labour and struggle…

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Tales of Mean Streets

Tales of Mean StreetsTales of Mean Streets  (1894) describes the contents exactly — the meanness not only of city and streets but also of characters and the poverty that confines them. These, I think, are stories written by a man who escaped such poverty and looks back on it only with relief that he managed to get out, and perhaps with a fear of falling back that erases generosity. There is none of the lurid and titillating violence and detail of Thomas Burke, nor yet any of the humour, pride and everyday mutual support seen in W. Pett Ridge. Just poverty, meanness, narrowness and desperation. In such depths of poverty these things exist, of course, in abundance. I hate when they are not balanced by the small things that still make lives bearable, humour above all, but I know that fear of poverty not just lying behind you but also lying in ahead and how it can shape your view of the world. These are tales of the working class by one of their own like those of Pett Ridge, and on the same subjects from Edwin Pugh, Somerset Maugham (whose work mostly infuriated me), and Richard Whiteing. All of whom together came to be seen as a new school of English fiction as stated by the introduction on Morrison’s life and work. I found another list of Victorian ‘slum fiction‘, which includes all of these titles and many more.

For a taste of daily life, a sense of the streets, Tales of Mean Streets is very good. The stories, too, are beautifully crafted. Always a hidden ugly little twist to make them stand out as far more than just descriptions of everyday life and struggle for survival. This is not surprising given the company Arthur Morrison kept — though that company was surprising. He worked for W.E. Henley, editor of the National Observer… who was on the crack team of writers forming his team? In addition to Morrison there was Rudyard Kipling, J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Charles Whibley, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats and H.D. Lowry.I can’t imagine them all just sitting in the pub after work, but I am enjoying the effort.

Morrison worked under Walter Besant on the newspaper at the People’s Palace in Mile End, which endears him to me immensely. He left to become a writer and journalist, wrote detective tales starring Martin Hewitt also published some tales of the supernatural in Cunning Murrrell (1900), and his more famous works, A Child of the Jago (1896), To London Town (1899), and Hole in the Wall (1902).

A street

This street is in the East End. There is no need to say in the East End of what. The East End is a vast city, as famous in its way as any the hand of man has made. But who knows the East End? It is down through Cornhill and out beyond Leadenhall Street and Aldgate Pump, one will say: a shocking place, where he once went with a curate; an evil plexus of slums that hide human creeping things; where filthy men and women live on penn’orths of gin, where collars and clean shirts are decencies unknown, where every citizen wears a black eye, and none ever combs his hair. The East End is a place, says another, which is given over to the Unemployed. And the Unemployed is a race who token is a clay pipe, and whose enemy is soap: now and again it migrates bodily to Hyde Park with banners, and furnishes adjacent police courts with disorderly drunks. Still another knows the East End only as the place whence begging letters come; there are coal and blanket funds there, all perennially insolvent, and everybody always wants a day in the country (19).

Of this street there are about one hundred and fifty yards–on the same pattern all. It is not pretty to look at. A dingy little brick house house twenty feet high, with three square holes to carry the windows, and an oblong hole to carry the door, is not a pleasing object; and each side of this street is formed by two or three score of such houses in a row, with one front wall in common. And the effect is as of stables (20).

There follows a categorisation of who lives on such a street, not noisy, loud troublemakers marching to Hyde Park or factory girls living a little further out of the city, instead on this street are the people too proud to ask for charity, the men work in the docks or the gasworks, maybe the shipbuilding yards. Two families live in each house, possibly a lodger.

In a time before clocks and alarms for the common man, there is this (reminds me of EP Thompson writing about clocks and time):

Every morning at half-past five there is a curious demonstration. The street resounds with thunderous knockings, repeated on door after door, and acknowledged ever by a muffled shout from within. These signals are the work of the night-watchman or the early policeman or both… (21)

And then a description of the mayhem, the waves of male workers, school children, children carrying their fathers lunches down to the docks or gasworks, their return, the return of the men. Every day except Sunday.

Nobody laughs here–life is too serious a thing; nobody sings. There was once a woman who sang–a young wife from the country. But she bore children and her voice cracked. Then her man died, and she sang no more. (24)

And this:

Yet there are aspirations. There has lately come into the street a young man lodger who belongs to a Mutual Improvement Society. Membership in this society is regarded as a sort of learned degree, and at its meetings debates are held and papers smugly read by lamentably self-satisfied young men lodgers, whose only preparation for debating and writing is a fathomless ignorance. For ignorance is the inevitable portion of dwellers here: seeing nothing, reading nothing, and considering nothing.

Where in the East End lies this street? Everywhere. The hundred and fifty yards is only a link in a long and a mightily tangled chain–is only a turn in a tortuous maze. This street of the square holes is hundreds of miles long. That it is planned in short lengths is true, but there is no other way in the world that can more properly be called a single street, because of its dismal lack of accent, its sordid uniformity, its utter remoteness from delight. (28)

From this street all of the stories grow, as much as anything can grow in the environment so described. Everything stunted, petty, brutal mean. For many there is some compassion from the author — distinctly in contrast with lack of compassion and the hatred of anyone getting above themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood, which often hastens their brutal end.

The exception is the fallen woman — there are these terrible descriptions from a story of a streetcar to Bow Bridge (otherwise a fascinating little glimpse into early public transportation):

In the midst of the riot the decent woman sat silent and indifferent, her children on and about her knees. Further along, two women ate fish with their fingers and discoursed personalities in voices which ran strident through the uproar, as the odor of their snack asserted itself in the general fetor. And opposite the decent woman there sat a bonnetless drab, who said nothing, but looked at the decent woman’s children as a shoeless brat looks at the dolls in a toyshop window.

A man by the door vomited his liquor: whereat was more hilarity, and his neighbors, with many yaups, shoved further up the middle. But one of the little ones, standing before her mother, was pushed almost to falling; and the harlot, seeing her chance, snatched the child upon her knee. The child looked up, something in wonder, and smiled; and the woman leered as honestly as she might, saying a hoarse word or two. (62)

This is also noteworthy for use of one of my favourite words ‘stramash’, meaning fight. I always thought it was scottish, but perhaps was once as common down South?

‘The Red Cow Group’ describes an eager young anarchist (I am fairly certain police provocateur along the lines of The Secret Agent) willing to teach men how to make bombs and tell them where to put them but loathe to do anything himself —  he is demolished in the most satisfying way by a group of working class boozers.

There are the Nappers, who come into a little wealth and of course it goes to their heads and inspires a discourse on fashion and the East End’s class geographies:

Mrs. Napper went that very evening to the Grove at Stratford to buy silk and satin, green, red, and yellow–cutting her neighbors dead, right and left. And by the next morning tradesmen had sent circulars and samples of goods. Mrs. Napper was for taking a proper position in society, and a house in a fashionable part–Barking Road, for instance, or even East India Road, Poplar; but Bill would none of such foolishness. He wasn’t proud, and Canning Town was quite good enough for him. This much, though, he conceded: that the family should take a whole house of five rooms in the next street, instead of the two rooms and a cellule upstairs now rented (131).

There are stories that show the desperation of the great Dock Strike of 1889, the promise of boxing as one way of escape, the mix of the criminal and the decent, the explosiveness of violence and the pervasiveness of poverty. I wonder what it was exactly that brought Morrison back to to write these stories.

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