Classical labourers

The close connection between Prometheus and Hephaestus/Vulcan in ancient Athenian cults was replicated in the parallel appearances they made in industrial iconography, along with Prometheus’ fellow Titan, Atlas.94 Vulcan is sometimes attended by his fellow forge workers, the gigantic Cyclopes. The blackened, deafened Titanic foundrymen at the Cyclops Steel and Iron Manufactory on Saville Street, Sheffield, set up by Charles Cammell from Hull, were described in The Official Illustrated Guide to the Great Northern Railway (1861):

After passing through an almost interminable succession of buildings occupied by swarthy workmen, engaged in their Titanic operations, we arrive at a series of very large buildings of more recent construction, consisting of rolling-mills, tilts, forges, and grinding wheels; and here the mighty power of machinery in its most gigantic proportions will astonish the beholder ... The men engaged on these premises are models of herculean hardihood, so much does muscular exercise, even of the rudest and most severe character, develop the bodily frame. The hearing of these men is, however, frequently affected by their employment; nor can we wonder at this, for the clang of the machinery and tools is something prodigious.95

Along with the Titans and Hercules, Vulcan was favoured by industrialists as name and ornament. Charles Tayleur’s Vulcan Works was founded in 1830 between Liverpool and Manchester to manufacture locomotives. A bronze relief panel depicted Vulcan on Henry Hoole’s Green Lane metalworks in Sheffield.96 Vulcan came to signify the city of Sheffield itself, at least after the town council commissioned Mario Raggi’s 1897 bronze statue of Vulcan, complete with anvil, hammer and thunderbolts, to top their town hall. Art representing workmen of all kinds was often informed by ancient depictions of Hephaestus, especially since the Romans’ Vulcan was often portrayed wearing the liberty cap, and no doubt some workers meditated on what they shared with their ancient avatar.

Vulcan made occasional appearances on Trade Union banners, including the early 19th-century banner of the Regular Carpenters of the City of Dublin.97 Patent chimney sweeping machines brand-named ‘Vulcan’, manufactured in Derbyshire, were specifically marketed as ‘the only efficient supporters of the law against climbing boys’, referring to the Chimney Sweeps Act 1834 which had forbidden boys under the age of ten to be apprenticed to this trade.98 But Vulcan was rarely adopted as a revolutionary hero, perhaps because in myth he is either quietist (he avoids open confrontation with the other, patrician Olympians in the Homeric epics), or actually a class traitor (in the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound he obeys Zeus’s orders to chain the philanthropic Prometheus to the rock). Vulcan was used, rather, by non-proletarian employers, businessmen and cultural media to represent heavy industry. A cartoon published in Punch on 23rd September 1893 depicts Vulcan as a miner, opposed to Mars who represents British soldiers (Figure 19.11). The editor of this issue of Punch, Sir Francis Burnand, had been a famous writer of classical burlesques (see above, pp. 146).

A months-long conflict had been waged in the coalfields about severe pay cuts. Not only the police force but the army were sent to mining communities to quell protestors. Several had been killed by soldiers, who, at Doncaster, opened fire into the crowd. But the situation was complicated because the miners were themselves divided. Some districts (e.g. County Durham) had agreed to submit to arbitration, while others (especially in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire) were opposed to it. In some coalfields, non-striking miners who had agreed to arbitration were protected by the militiamen and formed bonds with them.99

In the cartoon, the chaotic alliances and divisions are simplified by using classical allegory.101' Mars signifies the alliance of the military with the less militant

Mars presents Vulcan an arbitration award. Public Domain image, Punch (1893)

FIGURE 19.11 Mars presents Vulcan an arbitration award. Public Domain image, Punch (1893).

miners who were prepared to enter arbitration. Vulcan represents the militant miners who were resolutely opposed to wage cuts and could not agree to arbitration. The conciliatory Mars says to the defiant Vulcan, ‘LOOK HERE, BROTHER VULCAN!—WHEN EVEN I HAVE KNOCKED UNDER TO ‘ARBITRATION’, SURELY YOU MIGHT TRY IT?’ The two gods meet beside a mine shaft. The areas around mines all over England and Wales had been turned into battlefields where different elements of the working class fought throughout the long summer of conflict. The cartoon is accompanied by Burnand’s poem ‘A LESSON FOR LABOUR’. Although sympathetic to the poverty of the miners, it implies that they, rather than the government, are responsible for the escalation of violence and patronisingly advises the militant wing to come to heel.101

We have already seen that Hercules could be used both to represent the slave-owning United States and, as liberator of Prometheus, the progress of the Abolitionist cause in Britain. Of all the labouring classical heroes associated with the working classes, Hercules’ role is most conflicted and ambivalent. In ‘Labour and Capital’, a lecture he toured with in 1867, Ernest Jones still identified workers with Antaeus, the giant who wrestled with Hercules:

Back to the land! it is the only safeguard against the assaults of capital. The Hercules, monopoly, wrestles with the Antaeus, Labour. When he lifts him from the ground his strength is gone—soon as he touches earth he is strong again.102

For Hercules’ pedigree as symbol of the ruling class was long. In their excellent study The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker explore the centrality, from the 16th century onwards, of Hercules and his labours, especially his defeat of the many-headed hydra of Lerna, to the iconography of the divine right of European Kings and their colonial enterprises.103 The hydra’s many heads came to symbolise the plurality of places where rebellion could break out amongst slaves and labourers, only to be decapitated by the might of the Herculean ruling class.104 Thomas Carlyle ironically alluded to this standard ruling-class trope in his description of Peterloo in Past and Present: ‘Certain hundreds of drilled soldiers sufficed to suppress this million-headed hydra and tread it down, without the smallest appeasement or hope of such, into its subterranean settlements again, there to reconsider itself’, but he also compared Cromwell’s struggle with the monarchy to Hercules’ combat with the hydra.105 It was such a classconscious reversal of the roles of Hercules and the hydra which ‘Nicholas’ the fisherman effected in a polemic which compares the oppressive forces in his city—the Dublin Corporation, excisemen, judges and magistrates—to the many heads of the Lernaean hydra. Published in 1784 under the name of‘An Advocate for Justice’, his treatise is entitled Oppression Unmasked, Being a Narrative of the Proceedings in a Case between a Great Corporation and a Little Fishmonger, Relative to some Customs for Fish, demanded by the former as legal, but refused by the latter, as Exactions and Extortions.

Although the author laments Nicholas’ lack of a ‘liberal education’, classical signposts enhance the harangue. It opens with an epigram from Virgil’s Aeneid and closes with the Aesopic fable discussed above (pp. 389-90), showing that twig-bundles are unbreakable, the moral of which is ‘Unity is Strength’. The tale is transplanted from Dublin to Utopia, which shares features with ancient Rome and Athens. The fisherman, Nicholas, sells his catches at a fish-market in the ‘metropolis’. But in Utopia, he becomes subject to ever-increasing tolls payable ‘to the Praetorian Body (answering to the Corporation of the City of Dublin) ... appointed by the Praetor’. Nicholas gets legal counsel, tells the ‘Forum’ that the new tools were illegal, and embarks on a decades-long battle with the authorities. He is imprisoned twice, pays hefty fines, is arraigned before what he calls the Utopian ‘Areopagus’ for non-payment of rent for his fish-stall, is later re-arrested and persecuted by a magistrate ‘attended with a posse of lictors’ who destroy his stall and stock and near-fatally beat up his attendant. The polemic ends with an appeal for financial help with the imminent legal showdown. Nicholas intends to defend ‘the public against the oppressions and impositions of TYRANNY ... Aided by the generous and spirited Hibernians, he may crush that hydra, that would devour the very entrails of mankind’.106

But it was not until the French Revolution, five years later, that the labouring Hercules emphatically changed political sides in favour of workers. At the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic (Versailles, August 1793), the revolutionary public was amazed by the colossus in the form of Hercules, wielding his club on their behalf while strangling the serpent of deviant Federalism, with the hydra—enemy of revolutionary unity—writhing at his feet.107 Thomas Spence was thinking of Hercules as well as the biblical David when, in 1794, he called in his paper Pigs’ Meat; or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude for the contemporary equivalent of mythical giants—aristocrats, landlords, etc.—to be destroyed: ‘The extirpation of these should employ the philanthropic giant-killers, the deliverers of mankind’.108 This almost certainly inspired the Union of Journeymen, formed in 1818 by its Chairman, shipwright John Gast, on 2nd December of that year, to extend the movement to other categories of worker and assume the name ‘The Philanthropic Hercules’.109

Hercules’ role as patron of trade unions reached its climax in the late 19th century when he appeared on the central panel of the Dockers’ banner (Export Branch), strangling the snake which the caption beneath suggests ‘Destitution, Prostitution, and Exploitation’ (Figure 19.12). Ben Tillett led a famous dockworkers’ strike in 1889, when the banner was adopted. Hercules’ pose is modelled upon Frederic Leighton’s sculpture ‘Athlete struggling with a python’, exhibited in 1877,110 which Walter Crane had imitated for the illustration to the fable ‘The Man and the Snake’ in his Baby’s Own Aesop:"' the dockers’ Hercules unambivalently represents the physical strength and political defiance of the working-class man, while the evil serpent of capitalism symbolises the middle and upper classes.112 Similar Herculean figures were to be seen on other banners. An Edwardian May-Day banner in the People’s History Museum depicts a red-capped female personification of Socialism strangling the snake of Capitalism with the help of several sturdy labourers. The Hercules-miner on the banner of Kellingley Colliery, the last deep-pit coal mine in Britain, was still carried in sad but proud procession the day the colliery closed on 18th December 2015.113

Other mythical labourers occur slightly less frequently in representations by and of the working class. In a poem prophesying the imminent triumph of the proletariat entitled ‘Atlas’ by Irish-born Victor Daley, who later emigrated first to England and then Australia, Atlas is identified as the exploitative parasite who can afford not to work because he has imposed his burden on the proletarian Hercules. Hercules now does all the world’s labour for him: the spirit of Liberty comes to Hercules and works to saw through his chains ‘With rasp and file of Knowledge, / And acid keen of Thought’.114 But there was a left-wing identification with Atlas as well. Alexander Anderson was a Dumfriesshire surfaceman

Dockers’ Union Banner, image reproduced courtesy of the Peoples History Museum, Manchester

FIGURE 19.12 Dockers’ Union Banner, image reproduced courtesy of the Peoples History Museum, Manchester.

(i.e. navvy) with the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company, famous for his poems celebrating work on the railways (Figure 19.13). His 320-line epic ‘A Song of Labour’ (1873), published in a volume sponsored by The Dundee Advertiser,is ‘respectfully dedicated to my fellow-workers with pick and shovel everywhere’. In trochees which replicate the sound of machinery, it concludes with its self-description, ‘Labour’s mightiest Epic rolling through the world’s heart of toil’. Despite being born into a one-room cottage, the son of a quarry worker, Anderson was a committed autodidact;116 the poem bristles with references to the classical figures he associated with workers in heavy industry, beginning with Atlas:

Then, my Brothers, sing to Labour, as the sun-brown’d giant stands

Like an Atlas with the world shaking in his mighty hands;

Brawny arm’d, and broad, and swarthy, keeping in with shout and groan, In the arch of life the keystone that the world may thunder on;

Ever toiling, ever sweating, ever knowing that today

Is the footstool for the coming years to reach a higher sway.117

Photograph from Alexander Andersons Surfaceman’s Later Poems (1912), edited and with a biographical sketch by Alexander Brown

FIGURE 19.13 Photograph from Alexander Andersons Surfaceman’s Later Poems (1912), edited and with a biographical sketch by Alexander Brown.

Next come Briareus, Laocobns, Titans, Enceladus, Cyclopes and, of course, Prometheus. No wonder the Sheffield Telegraph called Anderson the ‘Homer of the Iron Horse’.™ The left-wing view of Atlas in a poem by Sid Chaplin (discussed below pp. 465-7) is different again.

But Atlas could be deployed to define class struggle from the opposite political perspective. Punch magazine sympathetically depicted Stanley Baldwin, Conservative Prime Minister of Britain during the General Strike of May 1926, as being envious of Atlas. Atlas can concentrate on holding up the sky, whereas Baldwin is under constant pressure to find new funds to ‘appease’ the miners.119 The cartoon exemplifies the almost universal vilification of these strikers, especially the miners, in the mainstream press. The owners of the mines wanted to cut the miners’ pay and increase their working hours. To delay the crisis, Baldwin had responded by offering to subsidise the miners’ pay for nine months and set up a Royal Commission. This cartoon marks what was seen by the middle class as a capitulation by Baldwin. But it was not; in March the Commission recommended, among other things, the reduction of miners’ wages by 13.5%. In May the nine-day strike was broken by middle-class volunteers, including many ‘blackleg’ university students, especially at Oxford, who regarded it as a great lark to spend a few days driving buses, delivering groceries and working in factories.12" Some of them sported fancy dress, including classical Greek costumes.121

Finally, the Underworld tortures of Sisyphus and Ixion occasionally appear in discussions of the plight of the working class. Stephen Duck’s ‘The Thresher’s Labour’ (1730) concludes with an explicit parallel between agricultural work and Sisyphus’ punishment, as we saw in an earlier chapter (pp. 85-6). Perhaps Duck’s poem was known to James Phillips Kay, later Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877), one of the most important reformers of Victorian education. In his treatise The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester (1832), for which the catalyst was the appearance of cholera in Britain, he wrote that the work of the mill artisan ‘resembles the torment of Sisyphus’, and that its monotony destroys the mind (22). Ixion was temporarily transformed into the leader of a revolt of the slaves working under a ‘sordid and avaricious’ flour-mill owner in Edward Fitzball’s spectacular play at the Adelphi Theatre, Black Vulture: or, The Wheel of Death. Ixion stabs his master and curses him for transporting slaves from far away and forcing them ‘to toil in thine accursed mill till the limbs trembled, and the straining eyeballs almost burst from their sockets’, beating them just to add ‘a grain of gold dust to thy still unsated coffers’.122 The rebel Ixion is chained to the Wheel of Death, but sells his soul to the Black Vulture, and becomes a worse oppressor than his master had been, thus expressing Fitzball’s underlying ‘fear of social upheaval’.123

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