SOME years ago, the inhabitants of a small English country town were astonished by a very extraordinary circumstance. A new fishmonger from London suddenly plunged into the calm waters of the local trade, set up a magnificent shop, and sold his delicate goods at amazingly reasonable prices. The town, being by no means populous enough to support any two tradespeople who dealt in the same article, and the patronage of the fickle public being soon almost exclusively bestowed upon the new fishmonger, the old-established shop, which did business in the old-established way, was soon shut up; and the proprietor was reported to have left the place in disgust, with the intention of trying his luck in any other district of England, in which he could hope for the common justice of meeting with fair play.
No sooner had the new fishmonger got the public all to himself, than a gradual, steady, unintermitting rise began to take place in his prices. He was a very intelligent man, and he explained this alarming phenomenon clearly and fluently, on the soundest commercial principles. Nobody who objected to his bills, ever got the better of him in argument. Week after week his prices grew higher, and his train of reasoning in support of them more and more brilliantly convincing and conclusive. At last, the charges rose to such an exorbitant rate, and the monopoly enjoyed by the new fishmonger asserted itself so unendurably, as well as so logically, over the purses of his helpless customers, that the public spirit of the townspeople rose in resistance. A private meeting of the respectable classes was summoned at the house of the daring patriot who led the local struggle for the twin-blessings of freedom and cheap fish. Resolutions were proposed and passed, binding all the persons present, representing the rank, the respectability and the fish-consumption of the town, to make the sacrifice of at once abstaining from eating fish, on any pretence whatever, until absolute want of custom should have had the effect of starving the rogue who had impudently cheated the whole community, out of the town.
It is gratifying to be able to report that no member of the League thus formed, proved unfaithful to the common cause; that the exorbitant fishmonger, after desperately resisting the combination against him for two whole months, and after vainly proposing a compromise with his outraged customers, fairly evacuated the town under stress of circumstances; that the old-established tradesman was sought for, was recalled, and was set up in his former business; and that the inhabitants have eaten their fish at reasonable prices, from that eventful period to the present day.
The anecdote which I have just related is not only true, but is also, as I have every reason to think, unique. Trifling as it may appear, it affords, I believe, the only instance on record, in which the middle classes of England have been found capable of combining together for the sake of promoting their own social advantage. If this conclusion be the true one—and I shall presently offer a few striking proofs in support of it—some rather serious considerations arise, in reference to the share which, little as we may think it, we ourselves have, in perpetuating some of the most vexatious and unpopular abuses of our own time.
Englishmen of the middle classes have combined together, and will probably again combine together, for the promotion of religious and of political reforms. Some very great victories in both these directions, have been won already by the influence of that united self-denial and united perseverance which is described by the word League. We, the respectable people, when we have a religious want or a political want, thoroughly understand the necessity of carrying out the desired object by sacrificing our own individual convenience to the first great consideration of the general benefit. When we have a social want, however, do we recognise the same principle? I rather think that we become, in this case, suddenly incapable of seeing it at all. The principle of a Strike, as understood and practised by the artisan, when he feels (whether rightly or wrongly, it is not my present business to inquire) that he is suffering under an abuse which nothing but self-devotion can help to remedy, seems to be, as to all social difficulties, a complete mystery to the gentleman who stands above him in rank and education. It is a notorious fact, that various bodies and individuals make large fortunes by professing to minister to the necessities, the conveniences, and the amusement of the respectable classes; and it is equally indisputable that the promises which these professions imply, are, in the great majority of cases, not fairly performed. When we are impudently cheated of our fair demands in religious or in political matters, what do we do in the last resort? We right I ourselves by a combination—or, in plainer English, we strike. On the other hand, when we are cheated in social matters, what do we do? We grumble, and submit. For the sake of our faith, or for the sake of our freedom (to borrow an illustration from the anecdote at the head of this paper), we are bravely ready to do without our fish. For the sake of our every-day necessities, comforts, and conveniences, we are none of us individually ready to sacrifice to the common cause so much as a single shrimp.
Let me make my meaning clearer by a few examples. Take an example, first, of an abuse, in the rectifying of which the interests of all our lives and limbs are concerned—take the case of the obstinate refusal of Railway Directors to give us a means of communication, in case of accidents, between the passengers and the engine-driver. Does any man, in his senses, believe that the granting of this just demand will be procured by any of the means which have hitherto been tried for enforcing it? A few months since, a railway carriage full of people was on fire. Everyone of the passengers would have been burnt alive, if a few labourers had not happened to be working, on that particular day, at a particular part of the line. This frightfully narrow escape from the most horrible of deaths, was published in letters to the Times. The vital necessity of a communication between the passengers and the guard was urged by the very men who had been all but killed for want of it. The same safeguard has been petitioned for to Parliament. And what good has come of taking this course? What good ever does come of shifting responsibilities, with which each man of us is individually concerned, on the shoulders of others? Have our letters to the Times—has our Imperial Parliament—got us what we so urgently want? On this very day, thousands and thousands of people will be travelling, with nothing but a screen of wood and cloth between them and a fire which is rushing through the air at the rate of from five-and-twenty to sixty miles an hour.
What, then, in this case, is to get us our fair demand? I answer, quite seriously, nothing will get it, at once, but a Strike on the part of the travelling public. Let us combine to ruin the passenger-traffic; and, in three months’ time, the Directors will be forced to give us what we want. You, who read this, and laugh at it, tell me how many times, in the course of the year, you travel on business which it is absolutely impossible to put off, and how many times you travel for your own convenience and amusement, which a temporary self sacrifice might well enable you to postpone? If you want fair protection for your life, will you put off attending to your own interests—for three months—to get it? You are the obstacle—not the difficulties of organising the Strike. We are already subdivided, by our professions, into distinct classes. Let us have our consulting representatives of each class; our delegates acting under them, with a certain round of streets to visit; our public meeting, when the delegates have made us acquainted with the matter in hand; our signed engagement which it is a point of honour not to break—and the thing is done. For three months we all engage to sacrifice our individual convenience and pleasure, to serve the common object of securing our own safety; and to travel only in cases in which the most serious interests are concerned. Is this such a very Utopian idea? Is it so absolutely impossible to organise ourselves in the manner just suggested? The taxgatherer successfully subdivides us, reckons us up, disciplines us, holds us, by thousands and thousands at a time, in the hollow of his hand, opens our multitudinous pockets, as if they were the pockets of one man. Does anybody tell me that what the tax-gatherer can do for us, we cannot, at a pinch, do for ourselves? If I wear a fustian jacket I can knock off work, by previous arrangement and combination, in three or four counties at once, on one given day, at one given hour. But if I am a clergyman, a doctor, a barrister, I cannot knock off travelling in the same way—no, not although the interests of my life depend on it. In the one case—with Poverty and Hunger against me—I can sacrifice myself at the word of command. In the other case, with nothing to dread but the temporary loss of some country pleasure, or a temporary delay in seeing the sights of London, I become utterly incapable of making my individual sacrifice for the public benefit; I let men, whose pockets I am filling, endanger my life with impunity; and, when I escape being roasted alive, I think I have done my duty if I pester the Editor of the Times with letters, helplessly entreating him to save me the trouble of redressing my own grievances and protecting my own life.
Take another case. The other day, I met my friend Smoulder. He was grumbling, just as tens of thousands of other Englishmen of his class grumble; the subject, this time, being the disgracefully uncomfortable condition of the metropolitan omnibuses.
“Here is a great Company,” says Smoulder, “which buys up all the London omnibuses; which starts with the most magnificent promises relative to the reformation of those detestable vehicles; and which even invites every ingenious man in the country to forward the reform, by sending in models of a new kind of omnibus. What has become of all the promises, and all the models? Here we are still with the same old omnibuses, and the same old grievances to complain of. There is no more room for me on my seat, now, than there was before the great Company was heard of. I am squeezed on getting in, and crushed on sitting down, just as I used to be,—squeezed, sir, and crushed, sir, and by an infernal Monopoly, sir, that promised me a new omnibus to ride in. You are a literary man. Why don’t you sit down, and write a letter about it to the Times?”
No, my friend, I will not write to the editor of the Times, to ask him to do for you, what you ought to do, and can do, for yourself. You live in a large suburb of London, and you are one of a large class of business-men, who return a regular daily revenue to the omnibus Company. You and your fellows, in the morning and the evening, and your wives, sisters, and daughters, when they go out shopping, in the course of the day, are the principal customers who keep certain lines of omnibuses running. Call a meeting in the City, and propose that the whole class of the business-men shall give up using omnibuses for the next six weeks, and direct their female relatives to do the same. Make up your minds, and make up their minds, to walk for that time only. Or, if this cannot be done, spend a little extra money—for not more than six weeks, remember—in cab-hire. Only sacrifice yourselves individually, for this short time, and in this easy manner; and you will promote the general interest of your class, by forcing the London Omnibus Company to do it justice. How long do you think that monopoly would hold out against the sudden withdrawal of tens of thousands of omnibus passengers, representing tens of thousands of fourpences, and sixpences, and not to be reduced to submission by hunger, as the poor men are reduced when they combine against the rich master. Strike, Smoulder! Strike for six weeks, and ride in comfort for the rest of your days.
Smoulder stares at me,—shakes his head,—says irritably: “You turn everything into a joke. Who’s to do all that, I should like to know?”— prefers passive grumbling, to which he is accustomed, to active resistance, of which he has no idea;— hails the omnibus, not being able to look an inch beyond his own convenience, the next morning as usual,—aimlessly grumbles over the discomfort of it, all the way to the Bank, with his friend Snorter; who aimlessly grumbles also, to the same tune, in a lower key;—meets Gruffer and Grumper on ’Change, and grumbles to them; goes home (in the omnibus again) and grumbles to his wife and children;—finally, writes a letter to the Times, and actually thinks, when he sees it in print, that he has done a public duty.
Once more, there are the theatres. There is hardly a person in this country, possessing an ordinary sense of comfort, who does not dread going, even to the most attractive performances, on account of the miserably defective accommodation which the managers offer to the public in return for their money. If we sit in the dress-circle, have we room for our legs? Can we move without jostling our neighbours on both sides? Can we even see comfortably unless we are in the front row? If we go down-stairs into the stalls, are we not jammed together on high seats, with no foot-stools and no carpet, on the principle of getting as many of us into the place as possible—that place never having been originally intended for stalls at all? I know two theatres in London—and two only—in which it is possible to sit in the stalls with moderate comfort, and to see below the knees of the actors. As for the pit—with its rows of narrow wooden planks, half of them without backs, and all of them twice as close together as they ought to be—what words can describe the wretchedness of it? Where, in the rest of the habitable world, out of doors or in, is the cruel discomfort of the so-called sitting accommodation of a British pit to be equalled? It is really inconceivable that the public should now have submitted, for years and years, to be packed together, for the sake of putting certain additional pounds per night into the manager’s pockets, like pigs on board an Irish steam-boat. And yet, they have submitted, when the remedy lay all the time, in their own hands. No miserable sinner in this country more thoroughly enjoys good acting than I do. And yet, if I thought the inhabitants of my parish would follow my example, and would try to rouse other parishes to the same sensible course of action, I would, from this moment, cheerfully engage to abstain from entering a theatre for a whole year’s time, if need be, for the sake of ultimately starving the managers into giving us decent accommodation for our money. How comfortably we might sit and see a play, if we could only combine to send round a circular letter of this sort to the proprietors of the London theatres!
Sir,—I am desired to inform you, on the part of the theatrically-disposed inhabitants of this parish, that our bones have ached in your pit, our necks stiffened in your stalls, and our legs caught the cramp in your boxes, long enough. Your audience, sir, in this district, has struck for better seats, to a man, to a woman, to a child. Put what you like in your bill, not one of us will enter your theatre till our good money has wrung out of you the common justice, in return, of a comfortable seat.
What palaces of luxury our theatres would become in a few months, if the managers received such a letter as that, next week, from every parish in London!
There is the question of school education again. The public, fast asleep as usual, has been woke up about that subject, lately, by the Times. The case has been mentioned of a gentleman whose bill for the half-year’s schooling and boarding of two little boys amounted to seventy-five pounds. This extortion was commented on publicly by an eminent novelist, was further exposed by an excellent article in the Times, which article was applauded with the usual unnecessary servility by the usual letter-writers who appear in that journal. What result has followed? One impudent letter, so far as I know, from one impudent schoolmaster. What other results are to be expected? Tell me plainly, will the comments of the eminent novelist, will the excellent article in the Times, will the fawning approval of the public letters, lower our school-bills—say, in a year’s time? Judging by past experience in other matters, and by the representative letter of the impudent schoolmaster, I should say not. What, then, will lower them? Emptying the expensive schools next half-year—or, in other words, a strike of parents. My house would be dreadfully noisy, my boys would break the windows and play tricks with gunpowder, and I should have to suffer the shocking hardship of teaching them myself, unless I looked about and hired a tutor for the half-year. All serious inconveniences, I admit—but which alternative is the worse? To be uncomfortable for six months, or to submit to be fleeced regularly every half-year until my boys are grown up?
Here I rest my case; not because I am getting to the end of my examples, but because I am getting to the end of my space. Many readers may differ with my opinions, and may laugh at my remedy. It is easy to do so. But it is equally easy to obey the injunction which heads this paper. We travel every day in peril of being burnt to death; we ride in uncomfortable omnibuses; we sit in theatres with aching necks and bones, and are fleeced in them by box-opening harpies after we have paid our admission money; we pay bi-annually for the teaching and boarding of two of our small children a sum which equals a year’s income for a clerk and his family—whose fault is it, really and truly, that these grievances, and dozens of others which might be mentioned, are not speedily and completely redressed? Has it actually come to this, that the English public has a capacity of common suffering, and a capacity of common grumbling, but no capacity of common action for the promotion of social reforms? Our system of civilisation relieves us of the performance of many irksome duties, by supplying us with deputies whose business it is to take them off our hands. This system has many obvious advantages, which no reasonable man can question. But, if it be pushed beyond its legitimate purpose of saving the useless waste of valuably employed time, then it leads to serious disadvantages—even, as I am inclined to think, to serious deterioration of the national character. Public opinion, in these latter days, is apathetically satisfied with much talking and much writing: it shifts all doing to the shoulders of any chance deputy who may, or may not, turn up to accept practical responsibilities. It was not always so in England. When HAMPDEN’S blood rose under the extortionate tyranny of Charles the First, he was not satisfied with expressing his opinion that his taxes were unjust; he struck,, and taught his countrymen to strike; he buttoned up his pockets like a man, and said, in plain, fearless words, “I will not pay the King his unjust demand.” What does Hampden now, when every species of audacious social imposition is practised on him? He pays—and writes to the Times.
First published Household Words 6 February 1858 XVII No.411 pp169-172
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