Thursday, November 19, 2015

John Tully - Silvertown

In 1889 nearly 3,000 workers at Silver's, an enormous factory in East London, in Silvertown went on strike. The men and women who walked out were inspired by the New Unionism that was sweeping the city. They'd seen mass strikes by dockers in the East End that had won major victories and they wanted improvements too.

Their twelve week strike has almost been forgotten today. Perhaps because it ended in defeat. But John Tully's important book rescues the struggle for readers today, and, perhaps surprisingly, the reader will find that we can learn much from those brave men and women.

Silver's was enormously profitable. Having made a fortune from rubber, the plant was now a central part of a world-web industry. Their products literally stretched across the globe - a key, and very profitable, part of their work was manufacturing the telegraph cables that spanned oceans. Silver's even owned the ships that laid the cables, as well as the plantations that provided some of the raw material. Even after the twelve week strike, with production badly hit, Silver's could still declare "a half yearly dividend of 5 percent, or 10 shillings a share, tax free". Its shareholders, which included some of the most important political figures in the country, could breathe a sigh of relief. Not only were the profits still rolling in, but the company had faced down New Unionism.

For the workers who made these profits possible, life in the East End was appalling. Tully quotes some figures.
In 1906, Silvertown suffered infant mortality rates of 181 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 141 per 1,000 in West Ham's central ward. Twenty to thirty years earlier, up to one-quarter of all babies in huge swathes of the East End died at birth of shortly afterward. By way of comparison, the UK's rate between 2005 and 2010 was 4.,91 deaths per 1,000 and that of war-devastated Afghanistan during the same recent period was 135.95 per 1,000..... [those for] Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were respectively, 100,15, 105.37, 106.67 and 115.81 per 1,000.
As Tully comments, behind these figures "was a universe of human pain and sorrow".  Low wages meant poverty and hunger, lack of medical care and appalling living conditions.

The strike was impressive. At the forefront of it were women workers who led the collections, walking mile after mile to collect money for the strike fund. Some of them walked so far they wore out their shoes and new ones were purchased out of funds to enable them to carry on raising solidarity.

Eleanor Marx, who played a central role in the dispute argued explicitly for the equality of women and men in the struggle. Tully quotes one account of her speaking:
"she... appealed strongly to the women. They must form unions and work in harmony with the men's trade unions. As the dock strike had taught them the lesson that skilled and unskilled labour should work together, so the present strike should teach them a further great lesson, that they could only win by men and women working in combination. The capitalist was using women to underwork men and that would be the case until women refused to undersell their brothers and husbands."
Eleanor Marx was tireless in her work in support of the Silvertown strikers. But this was matched by the enthusiastic hard work of the strikers and their families. Regular marches, protest meetings and rallies took place from Hyde Park out to Silvertown itself. Large pickets tried to stop scabs going in, and encourage those workers who remained inside to come out.

For the strikers this was the crucial problem. New Unionism is so called because it represented a break from the old craft unions. By the late 1880s, these unions were still powerful (and sometimes very wealthy). But they represented a small and distinct layer of a growing working class. The power of the union was mostly used to protect the interests of a tiny minority of skilled craftsmen, and their leaders often looked snobbishly down on the new, mass based, trade unions. The failure of a handful of engineers to join the strike meant that Silver's management were able to keep the plant running and provide work for scabs imported from outside London to undermine the strike.

One can speculate about the debates inside the Silvertown strike meetings about how to win. Tully doesn't provide us much information on what took place on a day to day basis - perhaps because none is to be had. We can guess mass pickets by the strikers weren't enough to stop the scabs going in. Perhaps solidarity action by other groups of workers would have helped shut down the plant in the face of such determined management. Certainly the government and the state were doing everything they could to intimidate, imprison and occasionally beat the strikers back to work. In the face of this, only mass solidarity action could have won - though had the engineers walked out it would have made victory much more likely. History can only judge the AES in East London as helping management win in Silvertown.

The defeat of the Silvertown strikers came with a bitterly cold winter as the strikers were starved back to work. Hundreds were victimised for their roles and some never worked again. The defeat helped pave the way for a renewed employers offensive against the workers, which together with an economic down turn helped undermine the gains of New Unionism.

John Tully has done the working class movement and labour history a real service with this detailed book on our forgotten history. Sadly it reads all to familiarly, the story of greedy bosses and shareholders and underpaid, poverty stricken workers desperate for better conditions. But there is much in this book that can teach the modern trade unionist. The Silver's workers were considered unorganisable, and yet they fought a powerful industry nearly to a standstill. From their tragic, and unnecessary defeat, we can learn lessons and be inspired to fight ourselves.

Related Reviews

Marriott - Beyond the Tower: A History of East London
Mayhew - London Labour and the London Poor
Branson - Poplarism 1919-1925
Wise - The Blackest Streets
Fishman - East End Jewish Radicals 1875 - 1914

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

John Sturt - Revolt in the West: The Western Rebellion of 1549

Despite it's short length, John Sturt's Revolt in the West gives an excellent over-view of the events that took place in South-Western England during the 1549. This rebellion, more traditionally known as the Prayer-book Rebellion, saw thousands of peasants, rural labourers led by key figures in the gentry in open revolt against the Lord Somerset and King Edward VI's protectorate.

While noting that the rebellion was probably "the most formidable opposition to the Reformation that England saw", Sturt doesn't simply characterise the events as being just about religion. The seeds of discontent lay in much wider issues, that related to changes in land ownership, taxes as well as the events of the reformation. But even these often had economic and political overtones.

But the bulk of this book is a detailed narrative account of the rebellion and its military defeat. 1549 marked the first time in English history that European mercenaries were used against the country's own population. In part this reflected the weakness of the English ruling class at this time; as well as plans to invade Scotland. But it also reflected the fear that Somerset had that the Reformation might be set back.

The formidable uprising in the South-West brought tens of thousands of others into open rebellion. Had this army they amassed not got bogged down in the siege of Exeter, its likely they could have made it to London before Somerset could have mobilised his forces. This, combined with Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk, a second significant rising and other, more minor, rebellions in the Midlands, would have severally stretched Somerset and his forces.

Somerset failed to survive the aftermath of the 1549 rebellions, and one disappointment with Sturt's book is that he fails to discuss wider events in any detail. Nonetheless this is a useful read for those interested in  the more forgotten history of Cornwall and Devon, particularly that sort of history writing that doesn't obsess with smugglers.Visitors to the South-West may get more out of Sturt's book because he helpfully identifies many of the modern locations of events.

Related Reviews

Cornwall - Revolt of the Peasantry 1549
Mudd - Cornwall in Uproar
Caraman - The Western Rising 1549

Friday, November 13, 2015

Kim Stanley Robinson - Aurora

One of the surprising things I found while reading Aurora, is that all the reviews I had read managed to not give away the central plot twist to the whole novel. So I will endeavor to do exactly the same in this brief review, limiting my comments to mostly arguing that this is an excellent novel which is somewhat of a return to form for Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction after the disappointing and confusing 2312.

Science fiction traditionally overcomes the inherent boredom of long distance space travel by inventing faster-than-light technologies. These "warp-drives" enable space-exploration, colonisation and warfare to become simply galactic expansions of what humans did on the Earth. The reality would, as Robinson points out, be much more mundane. Slow, dangerous, complex and technologically challenging travel that requires decades of time to get anywhere. Robinson doesn't just point this out, he makes a novel out of it. His spaceship, on the way to a moon around a planet around the star Tau Ceti is a gradually failing technological marvel. Bits are breaking off, the lights are failing, there's poison in the soil because the designers didn't anticipate the nuances of closed system agriculture and there's population pressure. It's a race against time for the colonists, descended from the original settlers, to make it to their new home.

Again, ignoring the central plot twist..... *whistles*.... there some really clever themes running through this book. Partly it is an ecological novel. KSR gives away some of his thinking on this early on when he uses the phrase "metabolic rift" a key concept in Marxist ecological studies. His spaceship as a closed system, where natural processes gradually overcome technology's ability to cope, is a clever, if obvious, commentary on our own planetary emergency. Secondly I liked the way that political discussion, political parties and argument were central to the process of decision making. Even if, at times, that descended a little into crude stereotypes.

This is a monumental novel. Some science-fiction fans have felt disappointed by what they see as a pessimistic approach to humanity's ability to colonise the galaxy. But they're missing a wider point that KSR is making - this is not a novel about the far future, but one about today.

Related Reviews

Robinson - Shaman
Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt
Robinson - 2312
Robinson - Icehenge

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Julian Rathbone - A Very English Agent

Throughout much of the 19th century the British government was fearful of revolution. In every dark corner, every working men's pub and every rural village they imagined agitators plotting the violent over-throw of their order. There was, of course, some substance to these fears. There were plenty of people who had reason to despise those at the top of society. Poverty, unemployment and underemployment, hunger and fear of the future were the reality for most working people. Which is why mass movements arose, and why localised rebellions did occur. People burnt hayricks and threshing machines to defend their jobs; attended protest meetings to demand the right to vote and have some say in politics and some, went further and plotted revolution.

The British government had a extensive network of agents. These fed back news to London, and often helped inflame the fears of the ruling classes. But these spies might also have had darker, nastier roles than simply gathering information. We only have to look at recent undercover activity by British police to know that this was likely true back in the 1800s.

Julian Rathbone's romp though the underbelly of British 19th century social history focuses on the life of one of these agents. Charlie Boylan arrested attempting to break into Parliament with a loaded gun claims that he is owed a pension and some money for services rendered to the Crown.  A hired thug, assassin and agent provocateur he helped undermine and finish off rebellious movements and uprising; and in this version of history, he did for some of history's greatest revolutionary minds. The problem is that Boylan's role was never really recorded, so know one is quite sure whether to believe him. And Boylan's role in undermining social movements and being a hired gun also meant he had some insights into the darker side of the lives of the rich and famous.

Its an enjoyable book, though Rathbone works too hard to entertain the reader with knowing puns and historical jokes. Saying that though, Rathbone knew his stuff and there is a surprising amount of forgotten history here, with the occasional cynical comment on the fate of revolution and rebellion. Lefty readers who know their history might raise the odd wry smile and have to ignore the fact that they are reading a book whose central character spent his life helping deny freedom and democracy to ordinary people. But the book might also encourage the reader to explore further the forgotten radical history of Britain, that is just as exciting as any novel can make it. That said, A Very English Agent is well written and quite amusing in places.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Flora Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford

Flora Thompson's account of her childhood and early adult years in the semi-fictionalised hamlet of Lark Rise and then the village of Candleford is considered a classic of that peculiarly English book, that celebrates the countryside of yesteryear. But unlike much of that genre, Thompson's book is has much to recommend it. Firstly it is beautifully written. More importantly, while unashamedly sentimental, Thompson is not afraid of discussing the darker aspects of rural life. In this she is shaped by her father, whose political liberalism was unusual for Lark Rise. Take for instance, a near throwaway comment by Thompson when describing the celebrations as Lark Rise's labourers complete the harvest, they sang and shouted

Harvest home! Harvest home!
Merry, merry, merry harvest home!

Thompson comments "The joy and pleasure of the labourers in their task well done was pathetic, considering their very small share in the gain". Later when discussing the elaborate (and extensive) feast given by the farmer to those who'd laboured on the harvest, a celebration that was even extended to any passing "tramp", Thompson has her father comment that
the farmer paid his men starvation wages all the year and through he made it up to them by giving that one good meal. The farmer did not think so, because he did not think at all, and the men did not think either on that day; they were too busy enjoying the food and the fun.
Running through all three books collected within Lark Rise to Candleford is a sense of change. This manifests in many ways. The death of the old vicar of Candleford and the arrival of a new man with modern ideas and sermons. The coming and going of fashions, a little behind the larger villages and towns with their more immediate connections to the cities, new names for babies and "wages rose, prices soared and new needs multiplied". This is the coming of the modern world, though its continuities are perhaps greater than Thompson suggests. Most importantly for the author  are the changing attitudes to women and work, and as she secures her first job working in the post office, she is overseen by a woman with a very modern attitude. Had this been a major town, her mentor would have been a suffragette, and probably a socialist. As it stood she was a individual woman with advanced ideas who ran the post office and managed the village smithy.

Thompson's story is fascinating, though I was more taken by the incidentally details and given small insights into rural life at the turn of the 20th century. Take this demonstration that the class struggle is sometimes hidden and sometimes open:
A new field had been thrown open for gleaning... Bob Trevor had been on the horse-rake when the field was cleared and had taken good care to leave plenty of good ears behind for the gleaners. 'If the foreman should come nosing round, he's going to tel him that the ra-ake's got a bit out of order and won't clear the stubble proper. But that corner under the two hedges is for his mother. Nobody else is to leaze there.'
Class differences run through this book. Thompson makes clear that the gentry are admired by the majority, forelocks are touched repeatedly. But the gentry are not part of village life. They are separate and keep themselves aloof. Its summed up well at the huge party thrown at a nearby country house for Queen Victoria's jubilee. The gentry show themselves, then quickly retreat from the fun and games and the ordinary labourers and their families show barely disguised relief when released from the need to mind their manners and behave properly.

There's  no open class struggle here. But it is indicated with resentment over low wages a common complaint. Thompson repeatedly suggests that no-one really starved because the village looked after each other, but frequently she mentions charity from the church and on occasion the workhouse.

Thompson's book remains popular no doubt because it is beautiful. Published in the midst of World War Two, its passing references to those (including her beloved younger brother) who died in the First World War must have helped its popularity. Reading it today I can't but help think that its precisely because it covers an era of enormous change in English society that it is so fascinating. Though ironically as she was writing it 75 years ago, this was precisely what Flora Thompson was noting too.

Related Reviews

Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Bell - Men and the Fields
Berger - Pig Earth
Mingay - Rural Life in Victorian England