LANGUAGE AND WORKING-CLASS MOVEMENTS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY

The sentiments of the working classes with respect to the lack of universal male suffrage are aptly summed up, perhaps a little melodramatically but at least honestly, by George Loveless, one of the Tolpuddle martyrs. After being

sentenced in 1834 to transportation to Australia to serve a seven year prison sentence, Loveless scribbled the following short poem on a scrap of paper:

God is our guide! From field, from wave,

From plough, from anvil, and from loom;

We come, our country’s rights to save,

And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:

We raise the watch-word liberty;

We will, we will, we will be free!

In 1824/1825 the Combination Acts of 1799, which were passed to prevent workers from forming societies with the expressed aim of gaining better working conditions, were finally repealed, thus making the formation of trade unions technically legal. The failure of the 1832 Reform Act was that, although it did away with the system of rotten boroughs, gave parliamentary representation to the large cities and extended the vote, it did not grant universal male suffrage. This led to the formation of a number of societies to protect workers from reduced wages during the early 1830s. Six rural labourers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset banded together to form the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, led by George Loveless, a Methodist preacher, and refused to work for less than 10 shillings a week. A local landowner by the name of James Frampton wrote to the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, to protest the foundation of the union and invoked an obscure Act of Parliament passed in 1797 preventing people from swearing oaths. The six men were arrested, tried and transported to Australia. They all became popular heroes, and their sentence was curtailed in 1836, with the exception of that of James Hammett, who was released in 1837.

What can we learn from this brief narrative account and from Loveless’s poem? From the poem we can deduce, first, that at least George Loveless (and possibly also his brother James) was a competent writer. In all probability most of the other members of the group were also able to read and write. Second, in keeping with Loveless’s specific religious orientation—Methodists were nonconformists (as were large sections of the working-class population)— his call for liberty is prefaced by the expression of the belief that the working-class movement for the vote and for fair pay for a fair day’s work is guided by God. Third, Loveless addresses his poem to and on behalf of workers of all kinds (“from field [soldiers],[1] from wave [sailors], from plough [agricultural labourers], from anvil [skilled craftsmen], from loom [factory hands]”. Fourth, the body of workers (“we”) are patriotic and consider that their rights are simultaneously the rights of all citizens (“our country’s rights to save”). Fifth, the persecutors are a “tyrant faction”, a minority who reserve for themselves the right to dominate and persecute, and the voice in the poem

predicts their ultimate downfall (“doom”). Sixth, the watchword of the working classes is “liberty”, a word that they were consistently told they did not understand. Finally, the poetic voice expresses and repeats the working classes’ determination to be “free”.

By the 1830s, the lower classes of society in Britain were well on the way to literacy, they had taken on an air of militancy that was sanctified by their religious beliefs, and they were articulate and defiant. The ranks of the establishment—politicians, landowners, factory owners, the educated, the literati and the established Church of England—had become the “enemy”, and they seemed determined to prevent universal male suffrage at all costs.

The Napoleonic Wars had been a time of political repression, isolation from Europe, rapid industrialisation, immense social change, social unrest and internal migration. Yet despite all this, it was also a time of continuing demographic growth in which the population doubled between 1801 (roughly 10.5 million) and 1851 (roughly 20.8 million). Olivia Smith (1984: 159-160) points out that an overall demand for news increased from the early 1790s to 1815, and access to an increasing number of newspapers stimulated the increase in literacy in the lower and working classes of the population. This was also aided by technological developments in the printing presses, so that by the time the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the reading materials available to the “schooled” rather than the “educated” were no longer restricted to chapbooks, broadsheets, ballads and religious tracts. Newspapers, cheap novels and instructional texts of all kinds considerably enlarged the amount of material there was to read. W. B. Stephens (1987, 1998) warns us not to assume illiteracy in the working classes before the advent of compulsory schooling in 1870, and by looking through parish registers across the country he estimates that more than 50 percent of the adult population had the ability to sign their name at the turn of the nineteenth century.

There is still a considerable amount of discussion among historians and economists as to when the Industrial Revolution began and the degree to which we are justified in calling it a “revolution” (cf. Hobsbawm 1962; Ashton 1948; Deane [1969] 1979; Crafts 1985). But regardless of when it began and whether it deserves the nomenclature “revolution”, industrialisation had the effect of transforming the natural and demographic physiognomy of large parts of Britain, particularly the north of England, a large swathe of Scotland to the south of Perth stretching from Glasgow across to Dundee and Edinburgh and including large parts of Ayrshire, the Midland counties of England (Staffordshire, the north of Worcestershire and west of Warwickshire), the East Midland counties of England (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire) and southern and northeastern Wales. Improvements in agricultural production after land enclosures (which peaked between 1760 and 1830) simultaneously began to push up population figures, but at the same time to force many labourers off the land. The improvements in the transportation system (better roads and the building of a system of canals) meant not only that produce could be moved more easily and rapidly from one place to another, but also that surplus labourers could move

from their traditional homes to the rapidly industrialising areas of the country where work was available. Harnessing steam-generated power had begun in the early eighteenth century, but by the 1780s it was used for production purposes, thus mechanising, in particular, the hand production of textiles. The mining of coal from newly located coalfields meant that iron could be smelted more easily for the production of iron and steel products. All of this led indirectly to an increase in the population, particularly among the working classes, and to large-scale internal migration from the countryside to burgeoning industrial centres such as Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Nottingham, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Glasgow and Lanark. Large-scale industrialisation began in the textile industries of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.

The major disruptive effect of industrialisation was felt more keenly in the north of England than elsewhere, and nowhere more sharply than in the handloom industry.11 Some vandalism of machines had occurred in reaction to the demise of the handloom industry during the first decade of the nineteenth century, but not as an organised form of working-class protest. The Luddite movement was an organised, violent response to political repression and ruthless economic exploitation by the moneyed classes in the wake of the 1799 Combination Acts, and in particular after the election of Spencer Perceval as Prime Minister in 1809.[2] [3] The Luddite movement, which began in Nottingham in March 1811 with demonstrations and frame-breaking,[4] did not begin its activities as a premeditated political organisation, but the harsh retaliatory reactions of the authorities soon led to a high degree of disciplined planning and coordination among its members. Luddism spread quickly into Lancashire and Yorkshire, where it took on more menacing forms including full-scale attacks on targeted mills. The government retaliated by billeting no fewer than 12,000 troops in the troubled areas, more than the number of troops fighting in Spain in the Peninsular War. Against this show of armed force, the Luddite movement fizzled out in 1812. As a result of the riots, Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act in 1813, making industrial sabotage a capital offence. First convictions were made at a trial in York, after which 17 men were executed and many more transported to Australia.

Luddism, however, was only the tip of the iceberg. The end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a slump in industrial production, particularly in the iron industry, unemployment in the wake of hordes of demobbed soldiers and widespread famine. Industrial unrest flared up at regular intervals and was always violently repressed. But, as Olivia Smith points out (1984: chap. 5), radical politicians and writers and the mass of the middle and working classes had a much clearer idea of their rights and, more significant, of their own abilities after 1810 than during the 1790s. It is certainly no exaggeration to suggest that the writings of John Horne Tooke, Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and others had given to the masses who had never had the dubious benefit of a classical education a surprising amount of self-confidence. And their self-confidence was boosted rather than suppressed by the almost hysterical repressive action taken by government after government to retain their own assumed privileges to govern and wield power over others. Horne Tooke, in particular, had deflated the claim made by the “refined” circles of society to be in possession of the legitimate form of English. For the time being, however, even though steady progress was made in wearing down the effectiveness of this discourse, it managed to hold its ground by adapting the legitimate language myth to the changing social system of values and beliefs by which those power structures were upheld. The crucial test that “vulgar” language was not vulgar but just as fit to express ideas, as creative and as valid a form of English as “refined” language, was about to take place. Prior to this crucial test, so-called vulgar language had proved its literary worth in the writings of the Coleridge/Southey school of poets, although this was not widely recognised at the time. It now had to prove itself as an instrument of effective, nonparliamentary, political opposition.

  • [1] I interpret “field” in the context of the times to represent the field of battle here, rather than a fieldin the agricultural sense.
  • [2] One should also note that in the north there were significantly fewer people who had the right to votethan in the south.
  • [3] Perceval was a declared opponent of Catholic emancipation and of the reform of Parliament. Hewas assassinated in May 1812 by a man with a personal grievance against him, and although no connectionwith the Luddite movement was ever proved, the violence of the years 1811 and 1812 is evidence of the direpolitical situation of Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
  • [4] “Frame-breaking” is a term used to denote the wilful destruction of various kinds of mechanisedframes used in the textile industry, for example, stocking frames, water frames and different forms of steam-driven power looms.
 
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