Some English Workingmen
TEN or a dozen years ago a meeting was held in one of the great provincial cities of England, under the presidency of Lord Brougham, whose intellect and mental energy had not yet succumbed to conquering time. One of the peculiarities and special attractions of the meeting was a speech from a workingman, — a genuine workingman, who had only washed the grime of the iron-foundery off his face and hands, in order to mount the platform, and play the orator among philanthropic peers and popular members of Parliament. The workingman spoke well, for a workingman of that time ; England has grown half a century, or thereabouts, during the dozen years that have passed since then. There was nothing particular in the speech as a speech. I have a tolerably good memory, but I cannot recollect anything the artisan-orator said, or distinguish his eloquence in my remembrance from that of any of the commonplace members of Parliament, and other such speakers who preceded and followed him. But I remember that Lord Brougham was for a while in ecstasies. He jumped to his feet, when the speech of the iron-worker was over, and with all the frightful gesticulation and hideous, indescribable contortions of countenance he was wont to exhibit when roused to emotion of any kind, he protested that that speech was the very finest he had ever heard. That was something like praise ! Lord Brougham had doubtless heard Fox and Pitt ; he might possibly have even heard Mirabeau ; he must have been familiar with the eloquence of Canning and Plunkett and O'Connell, just as he was with that of Berryer and Montalembert and Gladstone and Bright; and he declared emphatically that this workingman’s oration was the very finest he had ever heard in his life. Of course, this was sheer nonsense and extravagance ; but it was for the moment sincere; it was not meant for nonsense and extravagance. Brougham was really surprised and delighted to hear a genuine workingman who could talk sensibly as well as fluently, and he exploded into the same kind of natural and pardonable effusiveness as that which is permitted to any of us when we hear an intelligent boy deliver some piece of recitation gracefully and effectively, and we declare in our enthusiasm that Edwin Booth could not have done it any better. After a while, however, Brougham began to repent him of his fury of praise. He seemed to fear that his panegyric might be the means of sending the honest iron-worker into a wrong path for the rest of his life; and he therefore took opportunity, before the meeting separated, to deliver a public admonition to his protégé against the fascinations of the platform. In the most earnest tones, and with gestures more fearful to behold than ever, he warned the orator never to be led into adopting the unprofitable calling of a public speaker, — “unprofitable,” interjected his Lordship, suddenly remembering his own career, “save to the very, very few,” — and always to keep to his honest and manly occupation as a worker in iron. Thus did the venerable statesman and agitator give the sugar first and the pill afterwards.
I have since occasionally seen or heard something of Brougham’s ironworker, and he has not thus far justified the alarms or verified the praises of his illustrious admirer. He speaks occasionally at meetings of workingmen, but he has not given up his original occupation, and he has not made any mark as a public speaker. Nobody any longer wonders to hear a workingman make a decent speech in England ; and Brougham’s friend is now only one of many who can do as well as he, while there are a few who can do a great deal better. The representative English workingmn has made an immense advance during the last ten years, — that is to say, he has made an immense advance towards being like everybody else, — like the average Radical members of Parliament, for instance. The rude, fervid, passionate eloquence, born of a deep sense of wrong, and thrilling with the half-poetic exaggeration of the untutored, sincere “ one idea,” — the sort of eloquence that we used to read about in the pages of “ Alton Locke,” and which I suppose was really to be heard in the days of the Charter and Feargus O'Connor, — that eloquence is little known now among the representative speakers of the English working-class. Such men now argue well and closely, talk plain facts and good sense, and can only be listened to with respect and answered by substantial reasoning ; but they do not try to be orators. Take the highest specimen of the class and bring him to perfection, and he would still be no more of an orator than such a man as Mr. W. E. Forster, for example, is an orator: he would be a ready, clear, and effective speaker, marshalling good arguments and appropriate facts with disciplined skill to a direct purpose. Neither the agitation created in England by the American civil war, nor the yet more intense and personal excitement of the Reform struggle, brought out an orator, among London workingmen. Some of the most influential leaders of the body are not even effective speakers. George Potter, for instance, the leader of the trades-union organizations, is a very indifferent speaker. I fancy that in the English provinces, in the northern counties especially, there is more of fervid eloquence, at meetings of workingmen, than is usually heard in London ; but even there I have not heard any hint of the appearance of an orator.
The most prominent representative of workingmen now occupying the attention of the English public is doubtless Mr. Odger, who has for some time past been making ineffectual efforts to get into Parliament, and is, I hope, destined some day to find a seat there. Whenever he becomes a member of Parliament, he will, I venture to think, greatly disappoint the House of Commons ; for he will be just as good a speaker as anybody there, with the exception of some five or six, perhaps ; and there is nothing whatever of the typical stump orator, or “ Alton Locke ” workingman about him. He is a gentleman (I do not know why the term should not be applied to him) of good acquirements and information, full of sound sense, able to make a clear, telling, argumentative speech. He will be a member of Parliament comme un autre. He will disappoint many of his brother-legislators, just as a lady was disappointed the other day in Washington when she was shown a great Indian chief, who had come up as a delegate from I know not how many warlike tribes, and she saw a personage wearing a frock-coat, gray pantaloons, and a stove-pipe hat. There are London workingmen who look and speak far more effectively in a theatric or artistic sense, as representatives of their class, than sensible and respectable Mr. Odger. There is a man, for example, who lately paid a visit, I believe, to the United States, — Mr. Thomas Conolly, an Irish plasterer, living in London, — who makes the nearest approach to what may be called “ artisan eloquence” I have ever heard in England. Conolly is a wonderful speaker in his way, — rough and ready, fluent, boisterous, and witty, mingling up sense and nonsense, shrewd argument and droll buffoonery, in such a manner as to be sometimes almost irresistible. Louis Blanc, I remember, was greatly impressed by Conolly’s powers, and even went so far as to style him a genuine orator. But Conolly has practically Come to nothing ; and this fact of itself is enough to prove that he is no orator. Indeed, I never heard anything from him which suggested to me that he possessed any gleam of that nameless, indefinable, mysterious gift of the gods, which makes a man an orator, and not merely a speaker. During the height of the Reform agitation, I asked an English statesman what would happen if this or that leader of workingmen, whom I named, were suddenly to turn out a great orator, — an artisan Mirabeau or O’Connell. “ Probably a great social revolution,” he answered ; “ at any rate, such a man would be the most powerful personage in England, and might dictate terms to prime ministers.” No such man appeared ; a tolerably good proof, I think, that he was not in existence, and that the occasion had no need of him.
There was lately in the United States a representative of a certain kind of English workingmen, — a man with a sort of literary and semi-philosophical turn of mind about him ; more like, perhaps, to the people in “ Alton Locke ” than your sensible, gentlemanly Odgers and rough, robust, humorous Conollys. This was a Mr. Robert Coningsby (an odd name for an artisan, some one may say), who is, or was, a working engraver, and who has considerable literary gifts and far greater literary aspirations. Coningsby is one of the class who would bid their working brethren seek their welfare rather in individual culture than in combined political agitation, — a profound mistake in a country like England, where, in order to render individual culture possible to any save a wondrously energetic and persevering few among the working-class, a combined and successful political agitation to remove class privileges and found a national system of education would first be necessary. Coningsby made a bold bid at one time to be the leader of a school of “ sweetness and light ” dilettanteism among workingmen, and he received the special welcome and patronage of the Times newspaper, in whose columns he published a long letter advising his laboring brethren to give up politics and study Plato. But politics had at that time more hold over workingmen than Plato, and the Reform battle was fought and won, as now the battle for national education is being fought, and Coningsby collapsed. Just then such advice as his, however plausible, however well meant and sincere, was treason to his class. But Coningsby is a man of ability and considerable seltculture, able to handle a pen as well as an average magazinist of professional training, and likely, perhaps, to pass into the ranks of literature altogether. Other London workingmen have already done this, and quite successfully. I could name more than one, who were artisans the other day, but who, having cultivated by self-tuition a natural taste for literary work, made gradual efforts towards opening a way into literature, and, feeling their way prudently as they went, were able at last to give up manual labor altogether, and live as journalists and magazinists. I think the literary profession has much reason to be proud of such accessions.
There is one workingman whom I know in London, who, although he has made quite a distinct success as a writer, and won something of a literary name, still keeps — at least has kept thus far — to his handicraft as a journeyman engineer. He is not at all of the Odger or Coningsby style, but is in manners, talk, and appearance just a rough, blunt, uncouth workingman ; only different from most other workingmen in being of remarkably stunted stature and apparently rather feeble frame. This is Mr. Thomas Wright, a working engineer (boiler-maker or something of the kind, I think), who has succeeded, despite of some discouraging and severe physical disadvantages, in qualifying himself for a very honorable position in the ranks of literature. He first became known by some essays which were published in the Cornhill Magazine, describing with the pen of a genuine workingman some phases of life among his class. There was a freshness, a simplicity, above all, an unmistakable truthfulness and realism, about these sketches, which at once attracted attention, and encouraged the author to publish a volume called “ Some Habits and Customs of the English Working - Classes, by a Journeyman Engineer.” The book had a very decided success, and was reviewed carefully and favorably by all the great critical journals. The peculiarity of the work which first attracted attention was the absence of all pretence to the style of the professional littérateur; it was the genuine, simple, unmistakable production of a workingman, describing in his own way and his own language the life he had himself seen and known. Since then “ The Journeyman Engineer,” as he always calls himself on his title-pages, has written other books, and a sort of romance dealing with the experiences, the habits, and the sufferings of his class, — works which, whatever their literary merit, have the high and rare value of a simple, faithful realism, and a profound sincerity. They too have been successful ; and I doubt not that mere prudence and proper economy alone will gradually compel the journeyman engineer to give up hammering rivets, and make a more profitable living by the writing of books. But in appearance, manner, and ways of thinking and describing, he will ever remain what he now is, an unpretending English workingman.
The Fenian element in London did undoubtedly for a while throw a certain light of fierce picturesqueness over some groups of the working-classes. But even before the London Fenians had estranged themselves by their wild excesses from popular sympathies, they had had hardly any influential representatives of the English working-class on their side ; and the old vehemence and hyperbolical eloquence of the Chartist era could scarcely be said to have had even a momentary revival. London workingmen in general cordially sympathized with Irishmen, of whatever class, who claimed justice and good legislation for their country ; and throughout the Reform Bill agitation, what time the railings of Hyde Park lay prostrate, the workingmen applauded no one, after the great Beales himself, more cordially than they did The O’Donaghue, the handsome and brilliant young Irish chieftain of polished eloquence, splendid ancestry, and ruined fortunes, — the only Irish member of Parliament who took any active part in the campaign of English reformers. But no Hibernian splendor of diction suffused the downright, direct arguments, the simple, plain speaking of the English workingmen. In fact, the English artisan, even when he devotes himself to political agitation, is becoming above all things respectable. He is no longer a picturesque figure. His tendency is quite as much towards science as towards politics. I think Huxley is at present more popular with him than Bright. Indeed, the latter had somewhat lost popularity among workingmen just before his lamentable illness. He had discouraged the effort to return workingmen to the House of Commons, and more than once had subjected, not very sympathetically, to the analysis of a clear, penetrating, somewhat cold judgment, the impulses of an enthusiasm and an ambition alike natural to, and honorable in, the class. Therefore the typical London workingman of to-day — I mean the typical captain among his class — is hardly to be regarded as a devoted admirer of John Bright. Bright has little or no sympathy with ambition ; and the representative workingman is ambitious. Bright is religious rather than scientific ; and the workingman tends to be scientific rather than religious. I question whether there are any classes of persons in England, not professional savans, who are now more eager for scientific knowledge than the more intelligent workingmen. There is something about Huxley, as there is about Stuart Mill, which workingmen find sympathetic ; which attracts them, wins their confidence, and makes them feel that the most rigid scientific teaching may be elevated by a soul, and animated by a light of emotion and enthusiasm. From Feargus O’Connor to Mill and Huxley what a distance has the Alton Locke of the London workshop traversed in the short space of twenty years !
I must say that I attribute much of the improvement which has lately taken place among English artisans to the influence of their trades-union organizations. Whatever the defects of these institutions, they have done much to teach the workingmen independence as a class, and the value of discipline, co-operation, and practical education. They have indeed, to a great extent, educated the workingman. The very remarkable desire for scientific knowledge, of which I have already spoken, may be traced in great measure to the processes of precise reasoning upon facts, and to the observation of social and industrial phenomena, which the whole system of trades-union organization encouraged and indeed required. The English workingman is already as different a being from the agricultural laborer as a New England farmer from one of the “ white trash ” of the South, under the old system. The fact that the London artisan is becoming less picturesque and more commonplace every day is a very healthy and auspicious sign. I hope the time is not far distant when he may cease to be a distinct type of personage altogether, and when no clearer idea will be conveyed of a man’s intellectual or social condition by describing him as an artisan than there would be now by describing him as a Londoner. He seems already to have quite emerged from the condition in which his highest honor and most substantial hope was believed to consist in the patronage of his social superiors. That kind of thing, often done with the best intentions, was almost always enfeebling and degrading. Of course I do not speak of the healthful, manly, sympathetic, systematic efforts of such men as “ Tom Hughes ” and F. D. Maurice, and others of the same class, to help the artisan to education and to self-help. That kind of assistance and co-operation was neither given nor received as patronage. Lately an idea entered into the minds of some well-meaning and really intelligent young men of the aristocratic class, that a great deal could be done in the way of removing social prejudices and elevating the artisan, by instituting a system of æsthetical and philanthropical tea-parties in one of the public halls of London, at which the workingmen and their wives were to be brought into familiar and friendly acquaintanceship with the sons and nephews, but I suppose not the daughters and nieces, of earls and viscounts. The thing was carried on perseveringly for some time ; it may indeed be going on still for aught I know; but I have heard that it was not particularly successful. A very amusing description of one of these gatherings was given to me by a friend who himself belonged not long since to the working-class, but whose remarkable natural gifts and ardent love of literature and culture have now made of him a very rising professional journalist. The efforts of the shy, wellintentioned young aristocrats to be friendly and familiar with the puzzled and diffident workingmen ; the iterated struggles to start satisfactory conversations, and to keep them going when started ; the almost paralyzing fear on the part of the “ swells ” lest they should seem to be doing the patrons, and yet the perpetual necessity that they should make the advances and take the initiative, if the whole thing was not to collapse in utter awkwardness, humiliation, and silence ; — all these phenomena seemed to my friend delightfully ridiculous, and were described by him with unction and humor. Nothing of that kind comes to any particular good. Of course all rigid class distinctions are everywhere objectionable, and, under certain conditions, fraught with danger ; but there is no more necessity for taking trouble to bring an artisan and a lord together at a tea-party than there is for bringing a lawyer’s clerk or a haberdasher into formal association with his lordship. The very effort is itself a proclamation of class distinction. Of late years, however, it is only just to say that the dead weight of opposition and obstruction, which the English workingman had to encounter on his way to education and political freedom, arose less from the influence of the aristocracy than from that of the middle class. Now that the workingman of England is in a fair way to education and to political and intellectual freedom, I hope something may be done for the middle class. The young nobles and the young workmen are alike improving and full of promise ; I hope the light of education and the spirit of manhood may next illumine and animate the young philistines of the middle class.
The representative English artisan of to-day may then, I think, be described as a manly, active-minded, selfreliant person, accustomed to discipline and understanding its uses ; democratic rather in what is called the “ philosophical-radical ” style than in the manner of Bright and Cobden; fond of literature, and probably fonder still of science ; calmly unorthodox, but assuredly not irreligious. Of course I have been describing the best of the class, but only, if I may use such a phrase, the “ average best ” ; that is to say, I have not had in my mind a few striking and exceptional men ; I have been thinking of a great many men, leaders in their own immediate groups, indeed, but who are to be found every' where without search or trouble of any kind. I know of no class in the English commonwealth of whom better things can be said, no class who in the same time have made anything like the same progress.