IV Working identities


Introduction: Iconic females

A few ancient female figures manifested themselves in working-class selfimagining and images of the working class. Shafts: A Paper for Women and the Working Classes ran between 1892 and 1899. Its emblem was an Amazon archer, shooting shafts of knowledge at women, the poor and unfranchised: its slogan was ‘Light Comes to Those Who Dare to Think’.1 A complex synthesis of feminism, socialism and more occult Theosophical lore, the London-based journal argued for access to birth control and universal suffrage. Its editor was Margaret Shurmer Sibthorp, born in Scotland in 1851. She became a founding member of the League of Isis, which campaigned for all women’s rights to a healthy sex life, birth control, and medical care in and after pregnancy.2

Another martial female of ancient mythology, Athena/Minerva, was prominent in craft-people’s iconography as patron of handiwork, and in self-educators’ imaginations as the symbol of wisdom and acquisition of learning.3 The ‘General Library’ on Leadenhall Street in London took its name from her and portrayed her, complete with a terrifying Gorgon on her shield, on the cover of its 1795 catalogue.4 She made a typical appearance in 1825 on the membership tokens of the Liverpool Mechanics’ Institutes alongside Mercury (representing trade and communications) and Vulcan.5 As goddess of strategic forethought she was also to be seen, from the 1820s onwards, in London streets on the metal plaques called ‘fire insurance marks’ of the Guardian Fire and Life Assurance Company, which aided the company’s firefighters to identify insured properties.6

More militantly, the republican and freethinker Richard Carlile named one of his newspapers the Gorgon because it equipped those who read it to turn their capitalist oppressors metaphorically into stone (see Chapter 13); the same idea lay behind the title of the short-lived Medusa; or, Penny Politician (1819-1820), so radical that it rejected all Tory and Whig economics alike. Ceres, meanwhile, was a popular image in taverns and public houses frequented by the lowest classes from medieval times,7 and is often depicted at corn exchanges, as well as on the 1908 extension to the Clyde Port Authority building in Glasgow.8

Cartoonist James Gillray, when revelling in the damage caused by Mary Anne Clarke, the working-class ex-mistress of Frederick, Duke of York, likened her to Pandora, opening her box.9 (Figure 19.1) She publicly blackmailed the King’s son by threatening to leak ‘everything which has come under my knowledge during

Mary Anne Clarke as Pandora (1809) by James Gillray, reproduced by permission of the British Museum

FIGURE 19.1 Mary Anne Clarke as Pandora (1809) by James Gillray, reproduced by permission of the British Museum.

our intimacy, with all his letters’.10 Despite her sex and class, when called to testify for two hours before Parliament, she gave a bravura performance; William Wilberforce recorded in his diary that, ‘elegantly dressed, consummately impudent, and very clever’, she ‘clearly got the better in the tussle’." But it was the Theban poet Pindar’s famous line ‘Water is Best’, and the Greek gods, Aphrodite and Eros, whom Elizabeth Ann Lewis, the Blackburn Temperance Campaigner, celebrated in the painting she commissioned in 1915 from Horace van Ruith for the Blackburn Art Gallery (Figure 19.2). The daughter of a farm labourer, Lewis devoted her life to improving the condition of the poor of Blackburn, then recognised as the most drink-blighted town in the world.12

Most of the figures from antiquity with whom the working classes identified, or were identified with by others, were, however, male—martyrs, rebels, slaves and labourers, both human and divine. They were largely distinct from the heroes and gods instrumentalised by those higher up the social scale—Alexander,

‘Water is Best’, Horace van Ruith, painting reproduced courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

FIGURE 19.2 ‘Water is Best’, Horace van Ruith, painting reproduced courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.

Aeneas, Augustus, Jove and Juno, Apollo, Venus and Mars. The proletariat’s gods and heroes are related to the distinct cultural canon we have earlier explored in relation to working-class readers and authors. This chapter asks which heroes from antiquity were admired and held up as exemplars by workers and which they were asked to identify with in their working lives. It also shows how certain figures, especially Hercules and Atlas, were violently contested, being used to symbolise both ruling-class or imperial dominion and the physical power of the proletariat, especially when organised into trade or labour unions.

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