....by a Journeyman Engineer.

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Some Habits and Customs
of the Working Classes.

By a Journeyman Engineer.

Tinsley Brothers.


READERS who care to know what a spokesman of the working class has to say for his order will find this a capital book.  The writer is a clever fellow; but he is more than that.  His observations are keen and his conclusions are mostly just; they show that the knowledge which he has picked up has ripened into considerable wisdom.  He is really a working man; a "unit of the great unwashed" he calls himself.  But he asks for no tenderness of handling from the critic on that account.  He tells us that he "would much rather be damned outright than damned with a qualification."  Nor does he need it.  His book has something better than literary pretension; which, in the case of many working men who take to the pen, means a putting on of the fustian of language when they may have cast aside the fustian of their daily wear.  The "Journeyman Engineer" has something to say, and he says it in good, honest English, being, as he is, thoroughly English in spirit, and having our national sense of homely humour.  He does not set up the working man as a model hero; nor think, with some injudicious, idolaters, that in him human nature has most nearly attained perfection.  He has been behind the tapestry, and knows the seamy side of the pictures that are held up at times on the platform.  He is aware that the workman is often drunken, often cruel to his wife and little ones, and often guilty of language and conduct which, to put it mildly, is not all that may become a man.  On the other hand, in spite of vices in the grain, and in spite of virtues with which he has been varnished, our "Journeyman Engineer" thinks the working man a pretty good fellow, whether you take him for all in all, or only "half-and-half."  "He will maintain a battle for what he conceives to be his rights, and never count the cost; he will stand by his friend in cloud as well as sunshine; and he will often endure the woes of want, and the still more terrible grief of seeing his wife and children suffering those woes while he is powerless to relieve them, with a degree of fortitude which, were it displayed in a more startling situation, would be deemed heroic."  The "Journeyman Engineer" has seen many instances of kindness and generous feeling manifested in workshops—men "pitching into" their work in the hardest style in order that they might give a hand to help some fellow worker who was ill and could not keep up with the rest.  He has frequently seen a young man—even when trade was dull—voluntarily offering himself for "the sack," in order to save a married man from it !—as heroic a thing in its way as was the self-sacrificing act of Sydney in passing on the cup of water.  Nevertheless, he has not met with the paragon working man of the platform; and thinks that such a one, if he exists, would stand a likely chance of being chaffed out of any workshop.

    Of his fellow workmen he can affirm "as I heard a mechanic doing the other day when asking a shopmate to write a letter—that they were very good scholars once, only they have forgot all their education."   Generally speaking, he says the working man who can write is but a poor correspondent, and "regards letter writing as a soul-depressing business, fit only for the gloom and involuntary confinement of a wet Sunday."  He combats the Exeter Hall notion that the working men are in the habit of scoffing at religion, or of persecuting any one who may be what they consider "serious"; on the contrary, they entertain a high respect for any member of their own body who is truly religious in his life.  A workshop often affords a crucial test of the depth of a man's religion, and the men are apt to find out hypocrisy and scoff at self-righteousness.  The presence of a sincerely devout man in the workshop is beneficial, and his advice, or reproof, is listened to respectfully.  The reasons why the working men do not go to church are chiefly these: Sunday is literally their day of rest.    From their humble position they are not compelled to sacrifice to the proprieties and social decencies; and not feeling obliged to attend from any higher motive, they like to make the most of their day in the enjoyment of home comforts and the pleasures of social intercourse.  As regards the attractions of Church, they are impatient at listening to long, dull, droning sermons, and he thinks the mummeries of ritualism bear no comparison in splendour with a ballet at the Alhambra.  Moreover, there is a tradition amongst working men to the effect that when, once on a time, one of their number did present himself at church, he was shown to the free seats, to see many better coats obsequiously shown into a pew.  This rankles in their minds, and the most is made of it in excuse for staying away.

    The working classes do not take much interest in either Atheism or Secularism.  No journal advocating these principles has ever paid, or had anything more than the most miserable circulation.  Their main support has been found in the extra subscriptions of the fanatic few, like that person who some time ago left a small fortune to a lecturer that he might devote himself entirely to the spread of Atheism; and, sad to say, the change of fortune brought a change of mind, and the lecturer gave Atheism the go-by, and devoted himself to the enjoying of his money and the spoiling of Philistines.  Persons like this have been the mainstay of atheistic publications, not the working classes themselves.

    Our "Journeyman Engineer" glances with a keen eye at the newspapers devoted to the interests of the working men, in which they will learn that they are the prey of a "bloated, vicious, blood-sucking aristocracy," unjust taxation, unfair laws, and a host of other national and personal wrongs, and may be persuaded that the Government is an organized swindle, worked by arrant fools and despicable knaves.  Many will recognize the "toady-in-chief" to the working man pointed out with humour and pelted with scorn by our author, and we hope the readers of the "Crusher's" paper may see this honest denunciation by one of themselves.  We could also wish that some woman of the working class were able to picture autobiographically the evil influence of the "Kitchen Miscellany," and publications still more vile, on her own life and character.  It would be a sad revelation, a sorry sight, but might be very useful.

    What a "Journeyman Engineer" has to say of trades-unions and strikes will be read with special interest at the present time.  He is a witness to be called on the side of his own class, but not an unfair one.  He stands up for the trade societies, and shows their many benefits to both masters and men.  He admits that there have been instances "in which a few lazy, brawling pot-house orators have induced the members of a trade-union" to wrong the masters and themselves; but that these unions are extremely beneficial to all parties when wisely conducted, he demonstrates from the experience of the "Amalgamated Society of Engineers," and furnishes an interesting account of its rapid growth and great prosperity.   He points to the important fact that this society paid away £63,565.18s.5½d. to its members in he year 1862—one of the worst years of the Cotton Famine—as its contribution of help to the nation in a time of great trial.  Naturally the working men feel that it would be very unjust if the law of the land is not to give them any protection for such efforts to help themselves, because they may, in extreme cases, assert the right to "strike."  Surely the only right solution of this difficult question is, for the law to take cognizance of the whole subject, and, whilst it protects the savings-banks, and legalizes the benefit societies, appoint a tribunal, with power to hear and determine the right in each individual case of quarrel.  The working men argue that they do not unite for the purpose of obstructing trade, any more than a man insures is life on purpose to die.  Any particular "strike" may be really caused by the obstinacy or selfishness of one man amongst the masters.  How, then, are they to be held responsible for obstructing trade when the law leaves the responsibility unascertained?  Right must be determined before justice can be done; and both right and justice are not to be sat aside without examination, because there may occur stoppage in trade.  They are not acquainted with any abstract freedom for Trade to trample on Labour, right or wrong, and cause it to submit, or run the risk of losing its savings.  Law for one, they say, law for all.  It is the fear of many persons—and that fear has recently had ample expression—that the prices of labour maintained by the unions may lead to England's loss of that supremacy in certain branches of manufacture which she has hitherto held.  Working men reply,

"That has to be tested.  We do not wish that England should be beaten anywhere, having no desire to see the old land knuckle under, being, as we are, English to the backbone.  But should there be a failure of natural resources, and the turn of some other country has come to outstrip us in a particular department of industry, why should we and our wives and children be ground down more and more to make up the difference?  Why should the engineers sink to the level of the Spitalfields weavers?  That is not the only outlet for us.  Should the worst fears be realized, should the Income Tax returns tell a far different tale of the masters than at present, there are new worlds asking for our labour, in our own language, and offering double prices too.   We have no need to stop here and go down, down, down, in order that fortunes may be made and wealth accumulate from our labour.  If humanity is to sink in that way, so that some particular trade may swim against the current, the sooner that trade perishes and human beings are delivered the better.  At present the only power we have of determining the necessities of the case is in the final right of 'striking,'—that is our sole tribunal."

On this head the "Journeyman Engineer" is quite fair to both masters and men; he admits the time has arrived when foreign competition can only be beaten off by a cordial cooperation of employers and employed: united they stand, but divided they fall.  In spite of some lamentable exceptions, the working classes have more sense on this subject than they always get credit for; too much, for example, to support such demands as those put forth by the engine-drivers,—e.g., the right of the men to be judges in the matter of their own dismissal and the claim that promotion shall go by seniority only.

    We obtain some amusing peeps into the inner life of the workshop from this book.  Here is one that will be novel to many of our readers:

KEEPING NIX.

    "When an apprentice enters a shop, he will in all probability be taught to ' keep nix' before he is told the names of the tools; and though the apprentice, everything around him being novel, would prefer being enlightened regarding the elementary mysteries of his trade to being put to keep nix, this merely shows his want of wisdom.  Keeping nix is a really important job, and one the efficient discharge of which is supposed to imply the possession of considerable ability on the part of the apprentice, and which elevates him in the estimation of those who are to bring him up in the way he should go.  Keeping nix consists in keeping a bright look-out for the approach of managers or foremen, so as to he able to give prompt and timely notice to men who may be skulking, or having a sly read or smoke, or who are engaged on 'corporation work'—that is, work of their own.  The boy who can keep nix well—who can detect the approach of those in authority, while they are yet afar off, and give warning to those over whose safety he has been watching, without betraying any agitation, or making any movement that might excite the suspicious of the enemy—will win the respect of his mates; he will be regarded by them as a treasure, a youth of promise.  But should he be so slow or so unfortunate as to allow his mates to be 'dropped on' while he is upon guard, then woe to him !  Curses loud and deep will be heaped upon his thick head; a stout stick and his back will probably be made acquainted; and from that time forth, until he has redeemed his tarnished reputation by doing something specially meritorious in the nix-keeping way, he will be regarded as one concerning whose capacity to learn his trade there are grave doubts."

    Englishman-like, the "Journeyman Engineer" has his grievances, and must have his grumble.  He is dreadfully persecuted by some rabid Teetotalers, who seem to regard him as a stumbling-block—an example of the very worst kind—because he never gets drunk, and yet will not be converted to their views.  Good-naturedly enough he takes his revenge.  Another grievance is the treatment he has suffered from being "only a lodger":—

"None but those who have suffered from having it applied to them can fully estimate the utterly humiliating power of the word 'only.' I have read that


All that poets sing or grief hath known
Of hopes laid waste, knells in that word alone;


but for my part, I would be disposed to give the palm for an utter misery conveying sense to that word only.  'It is not good for man to be alone,' but to speak of a man as being alone does not necessarily imply that he is contemptible, while to speak of him as being only anything does.  However insignificant a man may be, whether he is a German Prince or 'a pauper whom nobody owns,' you have merely to prefix only to the description of his insignificance, and you intensify it a thousandfold.  It is the constant use of this terrible word 'only,' in conjunction with the term 'a lodger,' that has been chiefly instrumental in producing the now generally received opinion that a lodger is a person to be despised.  Is a man in his wife's 'black books,' or does he find himself powerless in his own house, he in either case fully expresses his position by shrugging his shoulders and simply observing, 'I'm only a lodger.'  Even beggars know that a lodger is a person of no consideration in a household, for if by chance you open the door in answer to the knock of any of those importunate personages, you have merely to say, 'I'm only a lodger,' and the most persistent beggar will immediately take him or herself off; though in the street, they would probably have stuck to the same lodger until they had succeeded in extorting black mail from him.  So well is this last phase of the powerlessness of a lodger understood that it has become a regular practice with many men who are householders and fathers of families to get rid of mendicants, collectors of missionary funds, and other importunate callers, by boldly asserting that they are only lodgers."

    We take this book to be a fair representative of the more thoughtful working man's mind,—to some extent it is a spirit-level of English working men in general; and we find in it an additional cause for wondering why so many members of the House of Commons should have unhesitatingly concluded that the working-class plea for a share in the political life of the nation would be straightway converted into a tug and tussle of the "Have-nots" against the "Haves," and that for such purpose the working class would combine against all others.   This is quite unwarranted by all that we know and hear of English working men.  Granted that with a large extension of the franchise many present members may not be again returned, it will not be on account of their wealth or landed property: it will be rather because they have no natural fitness for the position to which they aspire.  Given the same capacity and energy in the man, the working class would any day prefer to be represented by the gentleman than by one of themselves.  No people has ever shown a greater devotion to their natural leaders, as they seemed, even though these might only wear the insignia of leadership.  In proof of this we have only to look to the army, to see what they will do and where they will go, when led pluckily by one in a higher rank of society.  What they ask is to be led—more intelligently and nobly led.  And, we repeat, where there is the natural nous in the man, wealth, property, education, local or national standing will always give the advantage over the mere "working man" in the estimation of the working classes themselves.  So that instead of dolorously contemplating a lowering of the standard of membership, we can look forward to seeing it raised far above the present level by the extension of the suffrage to working men.  Instead of swamping the House of Commons with much worse men, we think there is evidence to show that the working class will exercise a very important influence in choosing more of the best men, and aid acceptably in fulfilling the life of a great nation.

 



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