You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring.
George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)
I don’t often write about where I am from, mostly because it depresses me, and the majority of my life has been spent in failed attempts to get away. Recently however a renewed interest in the history of the town has made me appreciate it with new eyes, even if hasn’t contributed anything in making me want to stay. Stockport is an old industrial town on the outskirts of Manchester which was formerly a centre of manufacture. Although recorded as being in existence as early as 1170, Stockport is really a baby of the industrial revolution, the traces of which still form a large part of the landscape of the town today. Terraced houses. Cobblestones. Mills. Chimneys. Rats. Soot blackened red brick. Canals. Poverty. Rain.
As the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the north of England, but especially in Manchester throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Stockport’s mills sprang up in earnest to take advantage of the roaring international trade in cotton. Impoverished agricultural labourers and hand weavers who had been put of business by new machines flocked to towns to work in the factories, producing a quantity and quality and woven cotton that had not been possible before. So far so good, I learnt all this in school without any particular interest . . . but then I picked up a copy of ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ by Friedrich Engels, and suddenly the industrial revolution has come back to haunt me.
Engels was born in Germany, and at the age of 22 in 1842 his parents sent him to Manchester to work in the ‘Ermen and Engels Victoria Mill’ in the hopes that it would encourage him to reconsider a career in business, as his father had intended. Far from this, Engels began an in depth study of Manchester’s mills and slums, carefully considering the horrendous conditions of the working class and their station in society. The outcome of his work was a call to revolution; ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ (which also prominently mentions Scotland, Wales, and Ireland). It was a detailed and disparaging study, which surely would have scandalised the mill owning bourgeoisie had it been published in English (which didn’t happen until 1887, when a number of improvements had necessarily already been made).
He describes my hometown of Stockport in somewhat uncomplimentary terms, ‘There is Stockport too . . . [which] is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town and valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.’
Stockport in my opinion is still ‘excessively repellent’, and the recession has not been kind to the town centre; now containing a familiar financial downturn collection of payday loan shops, betting shops, £1 shops, charity shops, and of course the pre-requisite large number of empty premises. The mills these days (where they are still standing) have been divided into units of furniture show rooms, museums, cafes etc. and are in various states of disrepair. Several are now listed buildings, but the mills in general are so numerous and just so big that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain them all. Some attempt has been made to convert them into luxury apartments, but I’m inclined to think they would probably make draughty homes, and wandering around the ones I visited today I would guess it probably takes a lot of work to convert them into something liveable.
The cotton trade relied on slave labour on both sides of the Atlantic, from the slaves in America who picked it to the mill workers who wove it. Engels suggests that the mill workers, ‘are worse slaves than the negroes in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, and shall think like free men . . . the bourgeoisie [exploit] the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones’. While I wouldn’t like to make a comparison between the slaves and the mill ‘hands’, it is a cruel type of freedom that offers a choice between starvation in the streets or a short lifetime of toil, misery and boredom in the mills for barely subsistence wages. What is obvious is that the success of both England and America, and perhaps every nation that has undergone/is undergoing industrialisation owes much of its development to human exploitation, ‘the destruction of their health, the social, physical, and mental decay of whole generations’.
This is particularly poignant when considering countries such as Bangladesh which have made headlines in the past year over working conditions, pay, and even the safety of the buildings. Engels noted that Manchester had been constructed in such a way that the bourgeoisie could go about their business without ever having to enter a working class slum, and the same might be said of the west today. We outsource manufacture to developing countries to exploit cheap labour, keeping the factories quietly tucked away in corners of the world we are unlikely to go to – saving us from being confronted by terrible conditions that capitalism has created.
The more I read of Engels, the more I was able to apply his descriptions directly to what I see happening in front of me in England today, and I have been reflecting on this more acutely since watching the controversial new Channel 4 series, ‘Benefits Street’. This program, which documents the lives of benefit claimants and low paid workers on a street in Birmingham has clear parallels with many of the things that Engels discusses in ‘conditions of the working class’. Although the clear difference is the government issued benefits, which outside of workhouse provision for the most desperate, did not exist in 1844.
Last week’s episode featured a number of Romanian workers, Britain’s most recent influx of ill received migrant workers, who had arrived on the street. Working exhaustive hours for low wages, living in cramped conditions and derided by their unforgiving British neighbours, the Romanians received a raw deal in their hopes for a better life in England or of saving enough money to send home. Engels, too, discusses migrant workers, but in 1844 the majority were from an impoverished Ireland, and from 1845 onwards an impoverished Ireland starving in the grip of a potato famine. Desperate families left Ireland, only to receive a predictably hostile reception in England and were bound to slave away in a squalor which Engels described as being synonymous with the Irish. The very worst slums in Manchester (a quarter known as ‘Little Ireland’) were those inhabited by the immigrant workers;
‘The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by the Irishmen. Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces . . . the Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he is accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air . . . The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves is impossible to describe. The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch . . . When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door posts, mouldings . . . finds its way up the chimney. Moreover, why should he need such room? At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England. So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by Irish immigration. And since the poor devil must have some enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself of the drinking of spirits. Drink is the only thing which makes the irishman’s life worth having . . . so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness.’
The concerns of English workers at the time were much as they are now, that the immigrants would bring unwanted competition by agreeing to work for less money and in worse conditions, and so would undercut the natives and bring standards of living down; not to mention introducing an element of moral decay. Descriptions of the poor treatment of Irish workers was slightly painful for me to read, given that this almost certainly would have applied to my own great grandfather (from a family of Irish immigrants working in the mills in the late 19th century).
Those who have seen ‘Benefits Street’ might recognise a few of the things described above; namely rubbish supposedly scattered by immigrants, overcrowding, and alcohol consumption as a means of escape. With so much against the workers of the industrial revolution, I wonder how the members of the upper class could reasonably have expected the working class to better themselves? It is easy to casually suggest (especially from a height) that if people work hard and ‘get on’ then they can clamber their way out of poverty, but I believe that unless you are made of exceptionally stoic and inexhaustible stuff, as well as having a little luck – then it is nearly impossible now, just as it was then. Engels regrets the decline of social mobility as he sees it, ‘The disappearance of the lower middle class deprived the working man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself’ and this well applies to England today.
I haven’t had the time to talk about many other things that Engels mentions; the health issues suffered by workers, child labour, widespread illiteracy, industrial action etc. However, Engels was outraged by all that he saw, damning ‘the property holding class, when it is so blinded by its momentary profit that it no longer has eyes for the most conspicuous signs of the times’. I think this is a sentiment well worth remembering.
Photographs my own. If you’re interested in ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ then it is can be downloaded for free off the amazon, go check it out 🙂 And if you’re interested in unearthing a bit more of Stockport’s industrial past, than I highly recommend taking a look at some off road urban exploration of the town here.
I’m reading Germinal at the moment and I can’t get enough of it; it really is the most astonishing thing I’ve read in a long time. It’s so good that I’m torn between wanting to read it all day, and yet also wanting to savour each word because I don’t want it to end. I’m sure an extract would convey this better, so:
‘He was Bataille, the doyen of the mine, a white pony who had been ten years below ground. For ten years he had lived in this hole and occupied the same corner of the stable, performing the same task along the black galleries without ever seeing daylight . . . Now, with advancing years, his cat-like eyes sometimes took on a far-away wistful look. Perhaps in his misty dreams he could dimly see the mill near Marchiennes where he was born, by the banks of the Scarpe amidst broad, wind-swept meadows. Something used to burn high up in the air, a sort of huge lamp, but his animal memory could not quite recollect what it was like. And there he stood shakily on his old legs, vainly trying to remember the sun.’
Zola has a way of making my soul bleed.
This is the fourth book that I have read from the Rougon-Macquart series which follows the course of one family through Second Empire France. I started with L’Assomoir, then Nana and The Masterpiece. Up until now I think L’Assommoir was the most powerful. Zola plumbs the depths of poverty and despair in a Parisienne slum. Just as it seems like things might be about to improve some disaster befalls the family and they end up worse than they started. This cycle is repeated and eventually they are all but living in the gutter pickled in absinth and cheap gin. I read Nana immediately after this and the contrast was a bit of a shock. Having somehow crawled her way out of slums Nana makes a meteoric rise from a two bit street whore to a decadent courtesan, fawned over by all the rich and powerful men of Paris. Although Nana was good I identified a big flaw which became increasingly apparent towards the end. It felt as if Zola was struggling with his own conscience over the character he had created. It was as if he realised that he had created a high class prostitute who was also a likeable character, and these two things could not be allowed to mutually exist. In the final chapters he tried his best to turn Nana into a monster . . . but alas, I still liked her a lot. Nana might be morally bankrupt but the extravagant luxury she lived in was infinitely better than the crippling poverty of her childhood in L’Assommoir, no matter how she acquired the money. Now that I am reading Germinal Nana’s journey from rags to riches seems all the more poignant. The miners in Germinal reflect on how they are trapped and oppressed by a wealthy class who lives off their misery and toil. Nana managed to turn the tables for her own selfish gain, but I have a nasty feeling that her brother Etienne will not be able to save the weary masses in Germinal.
Germinal (1885) reminds me a lot of Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Published as a series in 1854 Hard Times is the story of a northern industrial town and the struggle between mill workers ‘the Hands’ and the mill owners. Although Zola was starting his career just as Dickens’s was ending, I often feel the need to compare the two. I think there is much similarity in content, theme, social and political commentary etc. and most importantly, the desire to record contemporary life – especially the life of the lower classes. I often find Dickens to be a little dull, the stories feel allegorical and preachy – like a manifesto thinly disguised as fiction. Although Etienne’s socialist sympathies loom large in Germinal I still feel like the politics are secondary to the story. Zola’s characters are first of all human beings, conjured up by beautifully rendered descriptions – not the puppets of social progress I always seem to find in Dickens.