‘Bodkin Agitates the Nine Hours Question’ (2 March, 1861)

The following epistle is an early appearance in ‘The People’s Journal’ of Tammas Bodkin, the character used by editor William D. Latto to speak frankly (and amusingly) on current affairs. Latto became editor of the people’s journal in December 1860 and used the platform to launch Tammas, bringing himself a fair amount of fame in Victorian Scotland. In this column Tammas discusses the Nine Hours Movement, demands from Edinburgh Masons and joiners to reduce working hours from ten to nine hours a day. This would lead to a strike, following on from similar action in London in 1860. There is also a discussion of a meeting in the Liff and Benvie parish which occurred on the Monday (28 February) in regards to changing the mode of assessment for levying the poor-rates (parish tax for poor relief) to ease burden on working people.

Maister Editor,—The nicht afore last I was sittin’ after supper pickin’ my teeth wi’ my bodkin, when Jamie Mallet, the mason chield, wha lives richt aboon me, gallows button for him. It was rather late, bein’ little oot or in o’ eleven o’clock, an’ after a hard day’s wark my shoothers were achin’, no to mention that my ‘ee-holes were nearly closin’ wi’ sleep; an’ so I wad hae preferred my bed to sewin’ on a button in ordinary circumstances, but as Jamie is a gey neeborly sort o’ body, an’ a tremendus hand for a crack, I bade him come in-bye, an’ I wad see what could be dune. Jamie is mannerly eneuch, an’ began makin’ apologies for disturbin’ me at sic an untimeous time o’ nicht, “but ye see, Tammas,” quoth he, “I canna gang to my wark the morn withoot braces, for, as I need baith hands to my business, it wadna do for me to wield the mell wi’ ae hand an’ haud up my breeks wi’ the ither.” “That’s very true,” quoth I, “an’ I’ll soon put you a’ to richts; but what think ye o’ this nine oors’ movement that the Edinbro’ folks are a’ gaen gyte aboot?” “Weel,” says he, “that’s joost the question I was aboot to put to you, Tammas. What’s your opinion on that point?” “My opinion is joost this, Jamie, that if folk can manage to live on the wages o’ nine oors, they wad me great fules to work ten, but for my pairt it taks me saxteen or auchteen oors’ hard work to win aitmeal an’ petawties for my wife an’ family.” “Na, na, Tammas, ye maun be exaggeratin’ noo surely; ye dinna mean to say that ye’re slaved in that way, except it be ye’re greed o’ gain that gars ye work sae lang oors.” “Weel, Jamie,” quoth I, “greed or no greed, it’s geyan certain that I winna leave a fardin’ behind me. But if hunger didna compel me to work lang oors I wad aften hae to do sae to gratifie the pride o’ my customers. There’s aye the ither birth, an’ death, an’ marriage takin’ place, an’ the folk maun hae their braw new claes at a day’s notice, never considerin’ that my shoothers maun pay for’t. An’ I maun say that the workin’ classes are as oonreasonable as the rich folks, an’ maybe mair, some o’ them. They joost tell me—’Noo, Tammas, ye maun hae them dune by sic an’ sic a time,’ an’, of coorse, I’m obligated to submit to their dictation withoot daurin’ to say that my lugs are my ain, for it wad joost be—’Weel, weel, then, if ye winna anither will,’ an’ sae the matter ends. That’s what I ca’ tyranny, an’ I wad thank ony body wha could tell me hoo to get quit o’t. An’ them, if I dinna hae the duds ready at the preceese time appointed, its ‘O, ye’re joost like a’ the tailor tribe—a set o’ doonright leein’ scoundrels!’ ‘Od, they’re weel aff that hae only ae maister to serve, an’ regular oors to work in, for me, I’ve as mony maisters as I’ve customers, an’ I’m sure there’s no an’ oor o’ a’ the four an’ twenty that I can ca’ my ain!” “Tammas,” quoth he, “it’s a’ true ye say, but ye see machinery has dune sae muckle to lighten oor kind o’ wark, that the human machine can surely afford to tak’ it easy, or what’s the use o’ machinery ava? Ye hae lang oors, Tammas, that’s true, but ye maun remember that ye’re no daidled wi’ dirt, and weet, an’ cauld the way we are. Ye’re aye at hand to steer about the pat an’ lick the theevel, an’ lunt ye’re cutty whenever ye weary; but we mason chields maun trudge awa’ wi’ a piece in oor pouch an’ a pitcher o’ milk in oor hands for maybe sax or aught miles to oor wark, an’ the same distance hame again at nicht, an’ sair as yer shoothers may become wielding that wechty steel bar o’ yours, they wad be still sairer, I’m thinkin’, if ye had to knock, knock, knock awa’ wi’ a meil aboot a stane wecht frae sax to sax, wi’ nae mair time ye could ca’ yer ain than joost to swallow yer steerabout at nine o’clock an’ mump up yer bit aitmeal bannock at twa i’ the afternoon.” “A’ very true, Jamie,” said I, “but hoo will yer maisters stamack that nine oors’ ploy?” “I dinna see what objections they can hae,” said he, “seein’ that we are willin’ to tak’ a reduction o’ pay correspondin’ to the reduction o’ labour.” “Ay, ay, that’ll do a’ weel enuch,” said I, “as lang’s there are planty o’ hands, but as soon as the labour market is no able to supply the demand, the wages will soon rise as high as ever.” “That may happen, Tammas, an’ it canna’ happen ower sune,” quoth Jamie, “an’ if it do happen, the maisters maun joost estimate their jobs a wee thocht higher; that’s a’. Wages o’ a’ kinds are gaen up, an’ what for no masons’ wages? The ministers are gettin’ three or four chalders added to their stipends, an’ the very sweeps are lookin’ for a glass o’ whisky to draik the stour in their thrapples in addition to their ordinary chairge.” “Gin that be the gait o’t, Jamie,” quoth I, “I maun raise my scale o’ chairges too, sae ye winna grudge to gie me saxpence mair for makin’ a waistcoat, ninepence mair for a pair o’ breeks, an’ auchteenpence mair for a coat. At that rate I could afford to keep a journeyman, and sae I could hae my workin’ oors shortened by aught or nine oors, an’ be nae loser.”

This proposal didna gang sae weel doon wi’ Jamie though, for he hummed an’ haed for a while, and said naething, an’ he was visibly relieved when Willie Wabster drapt in frae the Scourin’burn, to see if his waddin’ coat was aff the irons, as Willie’s arrival gae an opportunity o’ changin’ the subject o’ discoorse. Willie had been at the meetin’ o’ ratepayers in the school-room, Scourin’ burn, a nicht or twa afore, where it was reselved to memorialize the heritors o’ Liff an’ Benvie to get them to change the mode o’ assessment frae means an’ substance to rental. Of coorse Willie was quite fu’ o’ the subject, an’ poored out his griefs at nae allooance. Willies awa young chield, wi’ nae encumbrances, an’ sae he had his auld mither to keep, a thing he didna object to sae lang as he was able to work—but that didna hinder him frae bein’ assessed to the tune o’ seven shillings an’ elevenpence three farthin’s to help to keep some ither body’s auld mither, an’ maybe, too, some worthless vaig’s illegitimate offspring. “Hae ye seen the letter o’ yon Quaker body aboot the Liff an’ Benvie Lodgin’ Hooses?” quoth Jamie. “That I hae,” quoth Willie, “an’ if yon’s true—an thae Quakers are no gi’en to leein’, I’m tauld—the Hoose maun be in a disgracefu’ condition. Feint ane o’ me wad grudge to pay a fair share o’ poor rates if I thocht it was made a gude use o’, but that systen [sic] o’ squanderin’ awa’ public money on Lodgin’ Hooses, an’ the lodgers feint a muckle better than they wad be at their ain firesides, is what pits me in a rage to think o’t.” “Deed Willie,” said I, “there’s ower muckle public money flung awa’ needlessly in this place, for I’m sure there’s scarcely a week passes ower but there’s some publican or anither makin’ demands on yer purse. Ane wad need to be made o’ money in Dundee.” “’Od there’s a poetical acquaintance o’ mine,” quoth Willie, “wha has had the honour o’ gettin’ several o’ his pieces consigned to the Editor o’ the Journal’s waste basket, an he has made a real capital sang on the subject.” “Can ye sing it?” said Jamie. “That I can,” said Willie. “Then let’s hear it,” quoth I. So Willie gaed to wark as follows:—

It’s Bonnie Dundee, I do agree

A’ ither toons surpasses, O,

For Parish Rates and Police Rates,

An’ money ither cesses, O.

 

The Parochial Board it can afford

Three hundred pounds good money, O,

For Parochial sparks and office clerks;

Indeed, I think its funny, O.

 

The Committie they do agree,

For every year that passes, O,

To give a man three hundred pounds

To screw the working classes, O.

 

A workin’ man wi’ thirty-one,

For every year that passes, O,

They will come in an’ think nae sin

To gar him pay the cesses, O.

 

Indeed, I’m sure the workin’ poor

Stand mony brags and snashes, O,

Frae parochial sparks an’ police clerks,

An’ mony ither asses, O.

 

Here’s Heather Jock your door will knock,

An’ then look ower his glasses, O,

An’ ben the hoose he’ll roar fu’ croose,

“Come pay the Police cesses, O!”

 

They pay for stanes to mend the street,

An’ men to licht the gasses, O,

An’ when the tin is dour to spin

They screw the workin’ classes, O.

 

There’s Doctor’s bills for physic pills,

An’ purgative potations, O,

There’s no a toon sae trodden doon

In fifty thoosan’ nations, O.

At the conclusion o’ his sang we gied Willie a hearty roond o’ applause, an’ had it no been that it was growin’ rather late, I’m no sure but we wad ha’e gi’en him an encore. I advised him to come forrit wi’t at the next Saturday Evening Concert in the Corn Exchange, an’ I wad be there to ruff wi’ a my micht; but Willie hasna impudence eneuch for that. Losh, this letter is ower lang, an’ sae, withoot anither word, I am yours,

Tammas Bodkin.

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