‘Unnecessary Evils Connected with Honest Labour’ by A Christian Democrat (28 February, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. This patronising letter exemplifies the paper’s aim to foster self-improvement among its readers.

Sir,— To win their bread by honest labour is the lot of the great majority. I do not consider this a misfortune. On the contrary, work is to us all a discipline, a privilege, and in itself far from injurious in any way. But, sir, workmen have often to submit to evils connected with their labour, which they feel all the more keenly that they know they are not necessary. Since I feel sure that many of these evils exist from pure want of consideration, I think much good may result from attention being called to them. First of all then, when a family is out of work there is no open labour market. Especially is this the case in country districts. The farmer has the corn market; the flax merchant has a weekly exchange; but for labour there is no proper open market. Employers would often be glad to buy labour which is abundant within a few miles of their works, while working people often sell their labour for less than its real market price. Strikes, too, are not infrequent from pure ignorance. To employed and employers alike a labour exchange would be a real advantage. The want of it leads to feeing markets in the country, and to arrangements (in towns) with foremen not at all favourable to the elevation of the operatives.

Again, in the best works persons out of employment are admirably met. There is a fire in winter, a comfortable seat, and a civil, kindly word, but in other public works the arrangements are very different. It is always a painful thing to refuse employment to a person willing to work, and when this must be done it should always be in a kindly way. In many country districts wages are still paid in public-houses. Woodcutters, labourers, and quarrymen often are so paid, and this is a custom fraught with countless evils.

Another and perhaps the very worst influence to which workmen have to submit is irregular employment. In many seaports engineers are made to work night and day to refit engines and boilers, then for days together they are idle. Sailors, miners, porters, and other whole classes of workmen are subject to irregular employment. More still, their work is generally far too severe while they are at it. A very littler arrangement would often obviate this irregular mode of working and save workmen from a strain which few natures can bear. All overtime, night work, and extra hours should as far as possible be avoided. When extra labour is needful care should be taken to secure relays of men, or where this is quite impossible, proper food should be provided. At a recent breakdown on a railway, which is usually well managed I found many of the workmen who for twelve hours had not tasted food except the bit of dry bread they had with them. Appliances for supplying hot milk, coffee, or soup are so simple that employers should see that they are at hand. At all great works they are sure to be required. Now and then managers think that there will be no more use for extra appliances. A dram of wretched whisky instead of good food is often given, not grudging of expense, it is pure want of taking proper thought a little beforehand.

One other want, I have noticed, which leads to evil is that there is no proper hotel accommodation for the working classes. A workman can now in all our cities get food cheap and excellent, but lodging for the working classes there is often none. If workmen’s hotels with clean beds, perfect order, and reasonable charges existed, I feel sure they would be of immense value. Often a workman on a journey or in search of work rather seeks a bed from an acquaintance than go to an inferior lodging-house. Evils of a serious kind arise in this way. Indeed it often happens that a lodger in a two-roomed house means certain sorrow. I ask our public-spirited men who have done so much already to look at this real difficulty and solve it.

I speak from personal knowledge on these subjects, and while far from dictating, still I trust these hints will be taken in the proper spirit alike by employers and employed. Some men are so foolish that if any course, however excellent, is pointed out to them their vanity prevents them from taking it because it was suggested to them. Sir, I hope for better things from the intelligent readers of the People’s Journal. In very many country districts workshops are old and ill-ventilated. Works have increased without an adequate provision being made for house accommodation. Houses are damp, low in the roof, old, and have small windows. Sanitary appliances are few, and the physical condition of the workers is neglected. All this leads to rudeness of manners, coarseness, and a low moral tone. In this way many parents who train their children well and act them a good example have a horror of public works. They do not complain because their children have to work, but they do bitterly feel to expose their children to work with very inferior associates. It is truly painful to a Christian man to have to send his little girl to work among coarse, profane people. Why should the general feeling of workmen themselves not repress this coarseness? In some of our engineeringshops and higher class works the men by their dress and general deportment show a becoming self-respect, while in other works the whole tone is low to the last degree. In the streets talk is loud, rude, and even worse; the dress untidy, slovenly; the whole appearance of the people disheartening. Among farm servants, too, the same evils prevail. House accommodation on farms is often shamefully inadequate, leading to innumerable evils. Pure family life is made exceedingly difficult, coarseness of feeling is created, and other evils which are perplexing social reformers. Profane swearing is no proof of manliness, and objectionable language will never win the esteem of a man whose opinion is of any value. Sir, I will plead for justice being done to the workmen. Let me entreat them to do justice to themselves. Let me ask the workmen of high spirit to use their influence to discountenance all that is coarse, rude, and impure. By doing so they will elevate the whole people, and compel respectful attention to their just claims. The surest way to gain the respect of others is for men to show that they respect themselves.—I am, &c.,

A Christian Democrat.

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