1874: The dignity and rights of labour

THE DIGNITY AND RIGHTS OF LABOUR

A Lecture delivered at the Mechanics’ Institution, Leeds, on the 28th January, 1874

MR. MAYOR,

When I received from your Secretary the invitation of the President and Committee of the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, I had great hesitation in accepting it; not that I doubted the kindness with which it was tendered, nor that I doubted my own entire will to do the utmost that I could to meet your wish: but I felt that the invitation called me to launch upon a venture so far beyond my ordinary navigation, and into a deep that I had not sounded, that prudence would have counselled me to decline the honour that you offered. Nevertheless I had rather do what I am about to attempt feebly, and I must say very imperfectly, than seem to be wanting to you in respect and good-will, and in the desire which I truly have to promote, if it be in my power, not only the good, but even the recreation, of my neighbour. And when I was assured that we meet upon what your President has called the neutral platform, it so entirely fell in with what I conceive to be a high dictate of our duty that I could not longer hesitate: I mean this – that in everything of private life, and everything of domestic and civil and political life, we have but one common interest – the welfare of our common country. If there be divergencies, as there must be, as always have been, and as I fear there always will be, it seems to me that it is the duty of every one of us to strive that they should be suspended at least in every region of our public and private life wheresoever it is possible.

When therefore I had ventured to accept your invitation, I was asked what subject should be put upon your programme, and thinking to choose an easy matter, I found I had taken myself in a snare. I thought that the ‘Dignity and the Rights of Labour’ would be a subject common to us all; one in which you and I are united, though in a different way; and that, as our interest is common, the subject would not be difficult. But I confess, when I began to examine what I had done, I felt that I had imposed upon myself a task of no ordinary difficulty; for the plainer and commoner a subject is, the harder it is to treat it in any other than a familiar and a commonplace way. And easy as it would be to heap up mountains of truisms and to spread out continents of platitudes on the subject of labour, it is very difficult, at least for me, to say anything with which you are not altogether familiar. Nevertheless what I can do I will endeavour to do.

Now Lord Macaulay, in his History of England, tells us that in the reign of Charles II the town of Leeds was already a town of clothiers and clothmakers; but, he said, it had only in the time of Charles I received its municipal privileges; it obtained the power of electing a member to Parliament in the time of Oliver Cromwell. It was a town of 7000 inhabitants. It had a cloth trade, which upon a brisk market-day, as he says, might sell in the open air upon the bridge some thousands of pounds’ worth of cloth, and the men of Leeds were well satisfied with such a market. The oldest inhabitants of that day could remember the building of the first brick house, which was called for a long time after the Red House which, as I am told, still exists.

Now I suppose at this moment there are single firms in Leeds that turn over a larger capital than the whole town of Leeds at that day. At that time Norwich was a far greater town in importance than the town of Leeds. Norwich was a city of eight or nine and twenty thousand people. It had already a flourishing trade. What is the relative condition of things now? Leeds has from two to three hundred thousand people.[1] It has a manufacture which is amongst the most renowned in England, perhaps standing at the head of its kind. The capital of Leeds I will not venture to conjecture. It has become the sixth or seventh great city or town in the British Empire. While Leeds has grown to this vast importance in commerce and in wealth, the whole of the British Empire has increased likewise. There has been a development of its commercial power, of its productiveness, of its labour, its skill, its capital, which is almost fabulous. I will give but one fact, which will be sufficient. A French gentleman, well conversant with commercial subjects, gave in evidence before a committee of commerce in France that at this time Great Britain, with its population of some 30,000,000, has a larger mercantile marine than all the other maritime powers of the world put together. Whereas the mercantile marine of all other powers reaches 6,600,000 tons, the mercantile marine of Great Britain reaches 6,900,000 tons. What is the cause of all this enormous development of wealth? Some may say it is capital. I say there is something before capital – there is skill. Some then may say it is skill. I say there is something before skill – there is labour; and we trace it up to labour strictly. The first agency and factor of this great commercial wealth, and therefore of the greatness of our country in this respect, is labour. In a book with which I have no doubt you are all familiar, one of the series of the Useful Knowledge Library, published first about the year 1830, when the insanity of certain uneducated persons set on foot an agitation to destroy agricultural machinery – and perhaps many who hear me reach back in their lives sufficiently long to remember personally what I mean – in this book, then called the Results of Machinery, and afterwards published some ten or fifteen years ago under the title of Capital and Labour, is to be found this sentence: ‘In the dim morning of society Labour was up and stirring before Capital was awake.’ There is no doubt of this; and therefore I may affirm that labour is the origin of all our greatness.

I am speaking, as you will remember, strictly upon that one point; I am not now speaking on the moral conditions of labour, though I may touch that hereafter slightly, but I speak of labour as a political economist would speak. I will not try to define labour, but will describe it to be the honest exertion of the powers of our mind and of our body for our own good and for the good of our neighbour. I say honest, for I do not account any labour which is not honest – which is superficial, tricky, and untrustworthy – as worthy of the name of labour. I call it exertion, because unless a man puts forth his powers, and puts them forth to the full, it is not worthy of the name of labour. Unless he puts forth his powers honestly for his own good, I call it his destruction: and if he does not put forth those powers for his own good, and also for the good of his neighbour, I call it selfishness. I think, therefore, that my description is a just one: it is the honest exertion of the powers of mind and body for our own good and the good of our neighbour. And here I must put in a plea in passing for the exertion of the powers of the mind, and I feel confident that in the Mechanics’ Institute of Leeds I shall be safe in saying that those who exert the powers of the mind and of the brain are true labourers. They may never have wielded an axe, they may never have guided a locomotive, and they may never have driven a spade into the ground; but I will maintain they are true labourers, worthy of the name. But this I pass over, and shall only touch it again hereafter for the purpose of applying it strictly to our subject.

I. We will now come to what we call, for the present, bodily labour. I may say that this bodily labour is in one sense the origin of everything, though it is clear that mind must precede it. The first man that ever bent a hook to take a fish, the first man that ever constructed and laid a snare to take a bird or a beast – that man exercised a mental action before his hand accomplished what he designed. This stands to reason.

In these days, perhaps, men are inclined to depreciate mere strength without skill, because our labour is become half-skilled and fully skilled, and our industry is becoming scientific. Nevertheless in the mere labour of the body there is a true dignity. The man who puts forth the powers of the body, and that honestly, for his own good and the good of his neighbour, is living a high and worthy life, and that because it is his state in the world. It is the lot in which we are placed, and any man who fulfils the lot of his existence is in a state of dignity.

The condition on which we obtain everything in the world has always more or less of labour. Nature, it is quite true, offers to us certain of her gifts as if she held them out in her hands. The trees bear fruit over our heads, and they seem to be offered to us to eat; and yet we must take them. The gold is in the earth, coal is in the mine, and we must take them too; and the taking is more laborious. And the bread that we eat is in the grain, and before that grain will nourish us there is a great deal of labour in raising it and in preparing it. So in the smaller things; and that which is in the smallest becomes more complex as we advance.

Now there is no limit as yet ascertained to the fertility of the earth. We are told that in the time of King John the productiveness of the soil of England was about one-fourth as compared with the productiveness of the soil all over the face of England at this time, and as about one-fifth compared with the productiveness of the soil round about London. What makes the difference? Labour, skill, capital, science, and the advancement of agriculture. This calculation shows that we have been steadily advancing in the productiveness of our soil, and have never reached its limit. Only the other day, I saw a statement which seemed to me at first so incredible that I bought the Report, and verified it by examining the passage. Till then I believed that there must be some inaccuracy in it. The committee of the House of Lords last year upon the drainage and improvement of land has this statement, resting upon the authority of two very eminent agriculturists. The one stated that of 20,000,000 acres in England only 3,000,000 are adequately drained; and the other said that of the land in England only one-fifth is as yet adequately treated by agriculture. Therefore labour may be only in the dawn of its work; and if England has developed itself by its labour – as I began by saying – to so vast an extent, do not let us for a moment imagine that we have reached the limit of what may be done by the advancement of that labour.

I am old enough to recollect when the political economists of England startled us by a statement that there did not exist in England coal under the earth for more than 800 years. It seemed to me then that our nerves might stand the announcement. Nevertheless it is clear that we never yet have ascertained what is the limit of the coal-mines in England. I do not know that any man can make even a probable conjecture.

But not only is labour the law of our state, it is also the law of our development – it is the law of the development of mind and body. Just as labour cultivates the earth, so labour cultivates and civilizes man. I do not know whether those who hear me are familiar with the book of Mr. Pritchard, published some years ago, on Man. The first chapter contains a contrast which I always thought both just and striking, proving what I say. He says: ‘Who could ever imagine that a bushman sitting in a hole of the earth, and watching for spiders as his daily food, was of the same race as the civilized and cultured Englishman whom we see in the streets of London? ‘ I have shown that the soil of England in King John’s time, as compared with the soil of England in the time of Queen Victoria, represents the same law of advancement. Now what has been the cause of this? Call it education, call it civilization, if you like; it is, after all, labour bestowed upon ourselves – self-culture, self-improvement – that for which, I suppose, all Mechanics’ Institutes were formed.

But, further than this, labour is the condition of all invention. I quoted before a very expressive sentence, that ‘in the dim morning of society Labour was up and stirring before Capital was awake’; I may say that not only in the ‘dim morning,’ but through the noontide of society, mind must be up and stirring before labour is awake. For mind must precede labour; and the whole history of inventions of every form, scientific and social, all show this law, that mind carries the light before the hand – mind goes first, and labour follows. I need not dwell upon this, because it is a truism. Nevertheless an illustration or two may show more clearly what I mean. Between the intelligence and the hand there is a correspondence so delicate, so minute, that it bears one of the strongest evidences of the wisdom of our Maker. The versatility of the mind in its operations can never be measured; nevertheless the flexibility of the hand is such that it corresponds with the versatility of the mind. The man who in the dim morning of society made a flint knife had a hard labour to execute works of skill. The man who succeeding him had a Sheffield blade could do perhaps a thousand operations which the flint knife could not accomplish. Now we read that in the time of Edward III a tax was laid upon the property of England for a war against France, and in Colchester, at that day one of the largest towns, a tax was laid upon all property. The names of all the tradesmen, artificers, and residents were taken down, with the value and description of their property, and I think the whole amount came to something like £3000 or £4000; and yet Colchester was then about the tenth town of importance in England. There was a carpenter in the town, whose whole stock-in-trade was taxed, and the value of his implements and tools was put down at one shilling. We will not calculate the difference of the value in money; he possessed two axes, one adze, a square, and a naviger for making wheels. Supposing that this carpenter, who was far beyond the man with only a Sheffield blade, and still farther beyond the man with the flint knife only, were to find himself in such a shop as Holtzapffel’s in Long Acre, and were to see himself surrounded with planes and bevel planes and finishers and centre-bits, and I know not what, he would believe that he had got into a magician’s palace, or that he himself had a hundred hands, and every one of those hands had a hundred operations: that is to say, mechanical instruments give to the intelligence an outlet, arm it with power, invest it with a variety and a tact and a delicacy of execution so great that we can set no limit to its capacity.

Next, labour with invention is the condition of all creation. I should like to know – if the Mayor of Leeds, who is the highest authority here, will tell me – how many hands were employed in making a yard of cloth when cloth was sold upon the bridge? Compare it with the number of hands employed in making a yard of cloth now, when we are seated here in the Mechanics’ Institute. The other day I made a calculation on this point. You will find in the little book to which I have already referred, and from which, if there be anything that I am saying worthy of your hearing, I may confess it is in most part derived – that there must be now some five-and-twenty operations before ever we get a coat of Leeds cloth on our back. I will throw out the farmer, and the factor, and the shipper, and the carrier, until we get the wool into Leeds: and I then find certain operations which were to me occult and mysterious, the very names of which I had never heard before, and cannot even now understand, but I have no doubt to practised ears I shall only be speaking words of a most familiar language. I find there were sorters and scourers and dyers and carders and slubbers and spinners; and that there was warping and weaving and burling and muling and dressing and gigging and brushing and singeing and friezing, as I suppose it ought to be, and drawing – that is to say, sixteen distinct skilful operations. Invention has separated the tangled skein of labour, and has thrown off separate threads into a multitude of hands – these operations have become finer and finer and continually more perfect by that operation. I suppose that I ought to add that the calculation says there are still five-and-twenty thousand stitches before the coat is put on our back; and this too shows how minutely labour is subdivided, and how in that minuteness of labour perfection is ever advancing.

Well, further than this, I have already said I can remember the time of what were called the Swing riots. I daresay in the North of England the fame of Swing may not be so familiar as it is to me, who have lived all my life in the South; but I remember well at that time I was living in the county of Kent, and night after night I saw the horizon red with the burning of threshing machines and of rick-yards. Madness had been infused into the minds of our simple agricultural population. They believed that machinery was their ruin. We have now happily, and I think through the action of Mechanics’ Institutes more than any other agency, come to a period when our whole population, agricultural and manufacturing, recognize that the advancement and multiplication of machinery is the greatest aid to them in creating labour.

In order to give the simplest proof of this – if proof be needed, and from your response I see it cannot be – I will mention one or two facts which may not be familiar to some who hear me. Until the other day they were not familiar to myself. First of all, in the last century, inventions followed one another in a rapid succession. As you are well aware, in 1743 the fly-shuttle was invented; in 1769 the son of the inventor constructed what is called the drop-box; in 1767 came the spinning-jenny, in 1769 the water-frame, in 1779 the two were combined into the mule, in 1813 the power-loom followed; in 1765 the steam-engine had been completed, in 1811 steam was applied to ships, and in 1824 it was applied to railroads. That is to say, taking only one line of invention that which applies to the manufacture of cotton and wool – this extraordinary advancement in machinery was attained in two-and-twenty years. Then the power of locomotion by land and by sea was added. Now what was the effect of this? At first sight it might have been supposed that it would have thrown out of employment a vast number of hands.

M. Say, the French political economist, in his complete Course of Political Economy, states, upon the authority of an English manufacturer of fifty years’ experience, that in ten years after the introduction of the machines the people employed in the trade-spinners and weavers-were more than forty times as many as when the spinning was done by hand. According to a calculation made in 1825, it appears that the power of 20,000 horses was employed in the spinning of cotton, and that the power of each horse yielded, with the aid of machinery, as much yarn as 1066 persons could produce by hand. But if this calculation be correct – and there is no reason to doubt it – the spinning machinery of Lancashire alone produced in 1825 as much yarn as would have required 21,302,000 persons to produce with the distaff and spindle. In order to bring down our calculation to a nearer time, I find in Mr. Brassey’s most interesting address on wages the other day, before the Social Science Association at Norwich, this statement: he says: Messrs. Bridges and Holmes estimate that the proportion of spindles in 1833 (eight years later than the date I have quoted) was 112 to each hand, while the corresponding number at the present day would be 517. The speed of the mule has been so much increased that more stretches are now made in ten and a half hours than formerly in twelve. In 1848 a woman would have had only two looms; now she will attend to four. The speed of the power – loom in 1833 varied between 90 and 112; it now varies between 170 and 200 picks in a minute.[2] The great Pyramid in Egypt is one of the mechanical wonders of the world, and we have no certain knowledge of the mechanism by which the stone was lifted into its place from the quarry, but we have one mode of estimating the amount of labour that was employed on it. The Egyptians, according to Herodotus, hated the memory of the kings who built the Pyramids, and he tells us that the great Pyramid occupied 100,000 men for twenty years in its erection. Now it has been calculated that the steam-engines of England, worked by 36,000 men, would raise the same quantity of stones from the quarry and elevate them to the same height as the great Pyramid in eighteen hours. If this be so, it seems to be a proof that while labour has been advancing, skill has been developing, invention has been increasing, and the creation of every kind of capital has been augmented beyond anything we could have conceived. So that there has been a perpetual accumulation of muscular power, of mental power, of manual power, and of mechanical power; and this is the true capital of our country, not money alone.

Let us, then, enlarge our idea of capital, and take into that conception all that I have enumerated – the muscular and mental and manual and mechanical power which has been created by labour. Therefore, as I said before, I claim for the man that can only bring to the field of labour his strength without skill, as well as the man that brings his strength with a half skill, or with a complete skill, or with a scientific industry – I claim for them all the name of honest labourers; and I believe that if they be honest – that is, mentally and morally exerting their power for their own good and the good of their neighbour – they are entitled to all respect for the dignity of their state and of their work. And I cannot better express what I mean than in these words, which I find also quoted by Mr. Brassey, and his selection of them shows how he sympathised in what I am saying. Quoting some words of Mr. Ruskin, who has written lately with great sympathy for working men, and for all who are engaged in labour, Mr. Brassey says that ‘there is one thing necessary for us all, and that is “reverence.”

I know nothing that is more undignified than for a man to think there is nobody of higher stature, morally or intellectually, than himself. The smallest man on earth is the man who thinks there is nobody greater than himself. A man who is able to lift up his eyes to excellence wherever he finds it, and who has an honest and earnest admiration for it, without a spark of jealousy and without a particle of envy – I think that man is worthy of the name of a true labourer. ‘Now,’ Mr. Ruskin says, ‘this is the thing which I know, and which you labour people usually know also, that in reverence is the chief power and joy and life; reverence for what is pure and bright in your own youth, for what is true and tried in the age of others, for all that is gracious among the living, and great among the dead, and marvellous in the powers that cannot die.’[3]

II. I will turn now to the other part of my thesis; that is, to the rights of labour. I am not going to be communistic, and I have no will to be revolutionary. Adam Smith says, The property which every man has in his own labour, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable. The patrimony of a poor man lies in the strength and dexterity of his hands; and to hinder him from employing this strength and dexterity in what manner he thinks proper, without injury to his neighbour, is a plain violation of this most sacred property.’ Therefore, first of all, I claim for labour the rights of property. There is no personal property so strictly one’s own. It is altogether and entirely personal. The strength and skill that are in a man are as much his own as his life-blood; and that skill and strength which he has as his personal property no man may control. He has this property in him. Lawyers say a man’s will is ambulatory, that is, it travels with him all over the world. So the working man carries this property with him as ready money. He can buy with it, and he can sell it. He can exchange it. He may set a price on it. And this ready money which he carries with him, he may carry to every market all over the world; and, what is more, he will not be impeded by any foreign currency. No coins, no difficult calculations, decimal or otherwise, obstruct his exchange with other nations of the world. And further, in one sense it is inexhaustible, except that we all have limits and dimensions, and our strength and skill are bounded by what we are. But there it is, perennial, going on always through his life till old age diminishes it; then what remains in him is to be honoured with a reverence of which I spoke just now. Shakespeare gives an account of what a true labourer is in this way. He says in As You Like It, and puts it into the mouth of a labourer: ‘I am a true labourer; I earn that I eat, get that I wear; owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness; glad of other men’s good, content with my harm.’ Well, then, I claim for labour (and the skill which is always acquired by labour) the rights of capital. It is capital in the truest sense. Now our Saxon ancestors used to call what we call cattle ‘live money ‘; and we are told that what we call chattels, and cattle, and the Latin word capita are one and the same thing; that is, ‘heads’ of cattle, or workers or serfs. This was ‘live money.’ And so is the labour, the strength, and the skill in the honest workman’ live money.’ It is capital laid up in him; and that capital is the condition of production. For capital which is in money, which I will call dead capital, or dead money, receives its life from the living power and skill of the labourer. These two must be united. The capital of money and the capital of strength and of skill must be united together, or we can have no production and no progress. And therefore labour and capital must,’ as the book I quoted from before puts it, ‘ ride on the same horse’; and that book says, in a sort of mother-wit way, that ‘when two men ride on a horse, one must ride behind.’ It says that capital rides before. Well, now, if they cannot ride side by side, they ought to walk hand in hand. Whatever rights, then, capital possesses, labour possesses.

Once more: labour has a right of liberty. We read in Columella, who wrote a book on Roman agriculture in the first century of our era, that the soil all around Rome became so sterile, barren, and unproductive, and year after year so perceptibly lost its fertility, that the philosophers of Rome accounted for it by saying that the earth was growing old. We do not find that England has grown old, as comparing King John’s time with our own. But the secret of this diminution in its productiveness was very easily discovered. It was cultivated by slaves; and slave labour is labour without a heart, it is labour without a will. It is not the strength of the arm, but it is the vigour of the will that makes the axe ring upon the root of a tree. Every labourer has a right to work or not to work. If he refuses to work, as an idler there is an old law which says, ‘If a man will not work, neither let him eat.’[4] That law has never been repealed. And the same law says that ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’[5]; and I am happy to say that law still stands in the sacred statute-book. Well, a labourer has a right to determine for whom he will work and where he will work. I do not mean in any capricious and extortionate way, but he must be first and last the judge and the controller of his own life, and he must pay the penalty if he abuses that freedom. This carries with it also the right to say whether he can subsist upon certain wages. This is undeniable.

He may set too high a price upon his labour, but then he will pay the penalty. No man can appraise it for him. Another man may offer him his wages, and if he is not content he may refuse it. He cannot say, ‘You shall work.’ Well, now, in England serfdom lasted until the fourteenth century, and I have no doubt that serfdom was one of the reasons why the fertility of England was not what it is now – one, I say, for I do not forget capital, skill, and science. Serfdom died out under the benign action of Christianity. Then for many centuries there existed a state of labour in this country which, though it was free in one sense, was not altogether free in another. It was under certain social circumscriptions which limited the freedom of the labourer – the old law of settlement and the like, into which I will not enter. At the present time the labour of Englishmen is, I may say, as free as the air. They may go where they will; they may labour where they will; they may labour for whom they will; they may labour for what they can obtain; they may even refuse to labour. This again is undeniable. I do not see how anybody can deny this without denying a right which belongs both to property and to capital.

Let me here enter a protest, though I have no doubt you do not need it. I have said it before, in Manchester, some years ago; and I cannot help saying it again in Leeds. There are some people who are trying to force into the mouths of Englishmen a very long word – the proletariat. I have no doubt you have all heard it and all read it. When I see it in a book, I suspect the book at once. When a man says it to me, I doubt whether he is an Englishman. Our old mother-tongue has a great many more monosyllables than polysyllables in it, and I love it all the more for that, for I think our old Saxon monosyllables have the strength of a strong race in them. Now I had ten thousand times rather be called a working man than a proletaire. I will tell you my reasons against the name of proletaire. It is pedantry; it is paganism; it is false; and it is an indignity to the working man. It is pedantry, because it was dug up out of the old Roman law by certain French writers, chiefly in or about the time of the first French Revolution; and that accounts, perhaps, for its paganism in its revived state, because that was a period very rank with paganism. It is strictly pagan in its origin; it belongs to the Roman civilization such as it was before the Christian era. But further, it is utterly inapplicable to our present state, and I will tell you why. The population of Rome was distinguished into classes. There were those that were called in legal phrase capite censi, or men told by the head. They were mere numbers; they possessed nothing; they were nothing; they could do nothing; they had two eyes and two hands and two feet, and they were entered in the poll-tax by the tale. These were the lowest of the Roman population. Next to them were the proletarii, or men who had homes and families – if you call a home a roof or a shelter where a man could lie down; but they were destitute of property. They had nothing but their children.

They could only serve the State by themselves and by their children in military service, or something of that sort. Moreover, they were slaves, or to a great extent they were slaves. They were the greatest of idlers, and the most profligate and the most dependent of the Roman populace. They lived on alms; or, what is worse, they were the followers and the flatterers of those who had anything to give them. Well, now, I ask whether it is not an indignity to English working men to call them proletaires?

Labour has a right not only to its own freedom, but it has a right to protect itself. And now, gentlemen, I know I am treading very near to dangerous ground; nevertheless I will speak as an historian or as a political economist, but certainly not as a demagogue. If you go back to the earliest period of our Saxon history, you will find that there always were associations distinct from the life of the family on the one side and from the State on the other. The family has laws of its own – laws of domestic authority, laws of domestic order, and – I will say, after King Solomon – laws of a very salutary domestic punishment. On the other hand, the State has its public laws, its legislature, and its executive. But between the public and the domestic life there is a wide field of the free action of men and of their mutual contracts, their mutual relations, which are not to be controlled, either, by domestic authority, and cannot be meddled with by the public authority of the State – I mean the whole order of commerce. Commerce existed as soon as there was the interchange of one thing for another, and these free contracts between man and man – between employer and employed – are as old as civilization. Clearly, therefore, there is a certain field which must be regulated by a law of its own, by tribunals of its own; and as soon as we begin to trace anything in our Saxon history, we begin to trace the rise of guilds. They were of a religious character at first. Some have thought they were religious only, but that is a mistake; they were also for protection; they were again for the vindication of liberty from the oppressive jurisdiction of those who held local authority. There were guilds, or gilds, of many kinds – some were called ‘frith-gilds,’ and others were called ‘craft-gilds,’ and these craft-gilds were composed of masters and of men – of employers and of employed.

In all the history of civilization, if you go back to the Greeks or to the Romans, you find that trades and professions always had their societies and fellowships by which they were united together. It seems to me that this is a sound and legitimate social law. I can conceive nothing more entirely in accordance with natural right and with the higher jurisprudence, than that those who have one common interest should unite together for the promotion of that interest. I hope to show before I have done that this has always been a principle of the most solid civil and political order, and it is that with which I am now concerned. To tell the truth, the Leeds Mechanics’ Institute, as described to me by its excellent President before I came here, appears to me to be a ‘craft-gild’; for, as I understand, there are in it both employers and employed – there are both capitalists who hold what I have called the dead money, and there are capitalists who hold the live money – and therefore you are united in a common interest. You seem to me, if ‘craft-gilds’ are dangerous bodies, to be a very dangerous body. Well, the whole of our social order in England springs from organizations of this sort. First of all, let me refer you to a book which I can only name, because I heard the clock just now, and though I was kindly told that I might have a large margin, for very shame I should not venture to go up to the frontier that was assigned to me. Therefore all that I can do will be to refer to a book by Brentano, a Bavarian writer, on the history of craft-gilds, tracing them down to present associations of trades in various kinds; and I confess that book took out of my mind entirely the erroneous conception which in some degree I had formed, that such associations have anything about them which is not perfectly innocuous if they are rightly conducted. Only let us remember this one fact. All the great mercantile cities of England are little more than the aggregation of these gilds. In Norwich there were 12; and that was when as yet Leeds was nothing. In King’s Lynn there were 12; in Bishop’s Lynn there were 9; in Cologne there were 80; in Lubeck there were 70; in Hamburg there were 100; in London there were 70; and, as I think I can show, London itself is the greatest example of an aggregation of craft-gilds, for, as Brentano says, ‘The oldest reliable and detailed accounts which we have of gilds come from England. They consist of free gild statutes. The drawing up of these statutes took place in England in the beginning of the eleventh century. In the case of one of these gilds, there is no doubt whatever as to the accuracy of this date. This gild was founded and richly endowed by Orcy, a friend of Canute the Great, at Abbotsbury.’[6] He says again, ‘The forbiddance of gilds in the Frankish Empire, for abroad they were not well regarded, could only be justified from certain motives relating to their mode of being conducted; but from England we hear nothing whatever of any evil in these gilds.’[7] ‘It appears that Englishmen at all times knew better than Continentals how to maintain their right of free and independent action, and their Government seems to have known, even at that time, how to make use in an excellent manner, and in the interest of public order, of organizations freely created by the people.’ At Canterbury a gild following the same ends stood at that time at the head of the city, whilst two others existed by the side of it. There are also accounts of a ‘Gildhall’ at Dover, from which a craft-gild may be inferred; and charters of a somewhat later time frequently mention many other gilds besides these as having been long in existence. The organization of the gilds was thus, in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, not only completed, but probably already widely extended amongst the Anglo-Saxons, who even recognized all their ordinances, or at least permitted them, in legislation. The gilds enjoyed already such authority in England that their agreements bound even non-members, and town constitutions were already developing themselves from them. I may say, in passing, that York at that time had three and Beverley had four. As an example of what they were, here is a curious extract from the gild of Killingham in Lincolnshire: If a brother or a sister is unlucky enough to lose a beast worth half a merk, every brother and sister shall give a halfpenny towards getting another beast. If the house of any brother or sister is burned by mishap, every brother and every sister shall give a halfpenny towards a new house.’[8]

Brentano then goes on, but I must not venture to give you all the matter which I have before me. He says that a much higher degree of development comes in with the amalgamated gilds. These amalgamated gilds had each grown up distinctly and separately; then they were amalgamated together. ‘The fact of London preceding other places in this development presents no difficulty, since England must be regarded as the birthplace of gilds, and London, perhaps, as their cradle. At least there is documentary evidence that the constitution of the city was based upon a gild, and it served as a model for other English towns. According to the Judicia Civitatis Lundoniæ of the time of King Athelstane, the frith-gilds of London united to form one gild, that they might carry out their aims more vigorously. This London gild governed the town, as is proved by the fact that their regulations bound even non-members. The occasion of this union was, perhaps, that here, as afterwards in other places, other gilds had gradually been formed at the side of the original old gild, and the rivalries between the old and the new prejudiced the objects of the gilds – the protection of freedom and of right.’ Brentano shows that ‘a similar union took place three centuries later at Berwick-on-Tweed in the year 1283-4. The townsmen of Berwick agreed upon the statute of a single united gild, that where many bodies are found side by side in one place, they may become one and have one weal, and in dealings of one with another have a strong and hearty love.’[9] Now London at this moment has, I think, some 73 or 74 liveries or companies, which are strictly the old traditional gilds surviving to this day. The Lord Mayor of London invites them to a great banquet once a year, and they are solemnly introduced to him with all the ceremonies of the City of London, as representing the original gilds.

From this it would seem to me to follow that the protection of labour and of industry has at all times been a recognized right of those who possess the same craft: that they have united together; that those unions have been recognized by the legislature; that whether they be employers or employed, whether they possess the dead capital or the live capital – the dead money or the live money – all have the same rights. And I do not see, I confess, why all men should not organize themselves together, so long as they are truly and honestly submissive to one higher and chief, who is superior over us all – the supreme reign of law which has governed, at all times, the people of England. There is a passage of great interest quoted in this same book. I verified it, lest there should be any inaccuracy on the part of a foreign writer, and I found it entirely correct. At a time in the early part, I think, of this century, or at the close of the last, when there was great suffering at Nottingham, when the stocking-weavers were under severe depression, and there were very painful and hostile conflicts between the employed and the employer, Mr. Pitt said in the House of Commons, The time will come when manufactures will have been so long established, and the operatives not having any other business to flee to, that it will be in the power of any one man in a town to reduce the wages; and all the other manufacturers must follow. Then, when you are goaded with reductions and willing to flee your country, France and America will receive you with open arms; and then farewell to our commercial state. If ever it does arrive to this pitch, Parliament (if it be not then sitting) ought to be called together, and if it cannot redress your grievances, its power is at an end. Tell me not that Parliament cannot; it is omnipotent to protect.’[10] I think it remarkable that Mr. Pitt at that day should have foreseen the questions which are before us at this moment; but it is not remarkable that he should have had the statesmanlike prudence of seeing that the remedy lies in the supreme control and protection of the law. I am now, I fear, going to utter a politico-economical heresy. I have great respect for Political Economy. I entirely believe – as you may have seen – in the law of supply and demand and free exchange and safety of capital, which are the first conditions of industry; but there is one point on which I am sorry to say I am a very lame political economist, and I cannot keep pace with others. I find political economists denouncing all interference, as they call it, of Parliament, with the supply and demand in any form of any article whatsoever. They argue that as a reduction of the price of bread gives the poor more food, and as the reduction of the price of cloth gives the poor more clothing, so the reduction of the price of intoxicating drink gives the poor a greater abundance of comfort. Now, gentlemen, I do not introduce this for the purpose of giving any expression on the Permissive Bill. I have done that at other times and elsewhere; this is not the place for it, neither was I invited for this purpose. But I give that instance to show that the principle of free-trade is not applicable to everything. Why is it not applicable? Because it is met and checked by a moral condition. There is no moral condition checking the multiplication of food and the multiplication of clothing – the multiplication of almost every article of life which is not easily susceptible of an abuse fatal to men and to society. Well, now I am afraid I am going to tread upon difficult ground, but I must do so. I am one of those which is of no importance, but Mr. Brassey is also one of those, and that is of a great deal more – who are of opinion that the hours of labour must be further regulated by law. I know the difficulty of the subject; but I say the application of unchecked political economy to the hours of labour must be met and checked by a moral condition.

If the great end of life were to multiply yards of cloth and cotton twist, and if the glory of England consists or consisted in multiplying, without stint or limit, these articles and the like at the lowest possible price, so as to undersell all the nations of the world, well, then, let us go on. But if the domestic life of the people be vital above all; if the peace, the purity of homes, the education of children, the duties of wives and mothers, the duties of husbands and of fathers, be written in the natural law of mankind, and if these things are sacred, far beyond anything that can be sold in the market – then I say, if the hours of labour resulting from the unregulated sale of a man’s strength and skill shall lead to the destruction of domestic life, to the neglect of children, to turning wives and mothers into living machines, and of fathers and husbands into – what shall I say? – creatures of burden – I will not use any other word – who rise up before the sun, and come back when it is set, wearied and able only to take food and to lie down to rest – the domestic life of men exists no longer, and we dare not go on in this path. I am not going to attempt a prescription – I should fail if I were to attempt to practise in an art which is not my own – but this I will say:

Parliament has done it already. Parliament, at the instance of Lord Ashley, now Lord Shaftesbury, whom all men honour for his life of charity, has set the precedent. Lord Shaftesbury, about the year 1834-5, as I remember, obtained a committee, by which he brought to light – he unearthed and brought on the surface of the earth, under the light of the sun – all that was hidden in the mines, and Parliament forbade the employment of the labour of women and of children.

Parliament has again and again interposed to forbid the employment of children in factories before a certain age. In some they cannot be employed as whole-timers till after eleven years of age; in others not until after fourteen years of age; in agricultural labour not before ten years of age. Parliament has interposed over and over again with the freedom of labour. More than this; Parliament has interposed to prevent fathers and mothers from selling the labour of their children. It has forbidden it, and Mr. Walpole, the other day, extended to other trades the Acts by which the employment of children in certain noxious trades is limited or forbidden altogether. It has forbidden even the parents themselves to employ their children in those trades. They may not use the labour of their own children, to enrich themselves, if the employment of that labour be injurious to the child. Do not let it be said, therefore, that Parliament has not interposed in the question of labour, and in the question of the hours of labour. I will ask, is it possible for a child to be educated who becomes a full-timer at ten or even twelve years of age? Is it possible for a child in the agricultural districts to be educated who may be sent out into the fields at nine? I will ask, can a woman be the mother and head of a family who works sixty hours a week? You may know better than I, but bear with me if I say I do not understand how a woman can train her children in the hours after they come home from school if she works all day in a factory. The children come home at four and five in the afternoon; there is no mother in the house. I do not know how she can either clothe them or train them or watch over them when her time is given to labour for sixty hours a week. I know I am treading upon a very difficult subject, but I feel confident of this, that we must face it, and that we must face it calmly, justly, and with a willingness to put labour and the profits of labour second – the moral state and the domestic life of the whole working population first. I will not venture to draw up such an Act of Parliament further than to lay down this principle.

I saw in my early days a good deal of what the homes of agricultural labourers were. With all their poverty, they were often very beautiful. I have seen cottages with cottage-gardens, and with a scanty but bright furniture, a hearth glowing with peat, and children playing at the door; poverty was indeed everywhere, but happiness everywhere too. Well, I hope this may still be found in the agricultural districts. What may be the homes in our great manufacturing towns I do not know, but the homes of the poor in London are often very miserable. The state of the houses – families living in single rooms, sometimes many families in one room, a corner apiece. These things cannot go on; these things ought not to go on. The accumulation of wealth in the land, the piling up of wealth like mountains, in the possession of classes or of individuals, cannot go on, if these moral conditions of our people are not healed. No Commonwealth can rest on such foundations.

I have endeavoured to draw out before you what is the dignity of labour. It is the law of our state, the law of our development and perfection, the source of invention, the power of creation and the cause of manifold capital in money and in skill. And as to its rights, I have shown that it is true property, true capital; that it has a primary right of freedom, a right to protect itself, and a claim upon the law of the land to protect it. I will only add that there can be nothing in a working man undignified unless he be himself the cause of it. Forgive me if I use a very common proverb, and if I make another like it: An idle man is the devil’s playfellow’; and ‘An intemperate man is the devil’s slave.’ As to the rights, I know nothing that can ever limit the rights of a working man excepting his committing wrong. If he commits wrong, the strong may retaliate; if he does no wrong, the supreme power of law will protect him.

Now, gentlemen, I have detained you a great deal longer than I ought – a great deal longer than I intended. I will therefore bring what I have said to an end.

I said at first that I should claim for those that labour with the head a share with those who labour with the hand. Without brain-work where would have been all the inventions which have created our new continents of toil – our new worlds of industry? And the brain-work, how long, how continuous, how exhausting it has been before it has reached its end. How many have been worn out by it in the search after some invention which they never found: but though they died in disappointment, they laid the trains of the discovery for those who came after them. It was well said by a writer of the last century, ‘We cannot reasonably expect that a piece of woollen cloth will be wrought to perfection in a nation which is ignorant of astronomy, or where ethics are neglected.’ The intelligence of a country does not rise like the peaks of mountains, nor like artesian wells, in isolated spots. The intelligence of a country rises equably all over the surface, like the waters of a lake. The cultivation of science in its highest ranges enriches the lowest valleys and plains of labour. The science of Davy gave the safety-lamp to mines; the chemistry of Liebnitz has multiplied the fertility of our fields. And it is not only astronomy that helps the clothiers of Leeds, but ethics; and in morals I ought to have my say, but at the beginning, not at the end, of an evening; and therefore with ethics I will conclude. The science of morals rests on four foundations – on prudence, which guides the intellect; on justice, which guides the will; on temperance, which governs the passions; and on fortitude, which sustains the whole man in the guidance and government of himself. These four cardinal virtues of the natural order perfect the character of man; and to-night I am not speaking in any other sense. They underlie all the dignity of man, and they justify all his rights. The labourer in our common field of toil who is prudent, just, temperate, and brave is indeed a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.’[11]


[1] The population of Leeds in 1931 had grown to 483,000, and the population of Great Britain to nearly 45,000,000.

[2]Wages in 1873, p. 39. By Thos. Brassey, M.P. (Longmans, 1873.)

[3]Wages in 1873, p. 53. By Thos. Brassey, M.P. (Longmans, 1873.)

[4]2 Thess. iii, 10.

[5]Luke x, 7.

[6]Brentano on Gilds, p. 1. (Trubner, 1870.)

[7]Id., p. 15.

[8]Toulmin Smith on English Gilds, p. 185.

[9]Brentano, p. 35.

[10]Pitt’s Speech on the Arbitration Act, quoted in vol. xxiii, P. 1091, Hansard.

[11]2 Tim. ii, 15.