Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mindful Of Th' Unhonour'd Dead

This is a true story. My great-grandad told it to my grandad, my grandad told it to my mother, and my mother told it to me. They didn't want to let the memory of such an unrecorded incident die; and since I have no children, I am doing the next best thing and putting it on the web, so that he who runs may read.

My great-grandad was the son of a farm labourer, born in the West Country at the end of the nineteenth century. He left school at twelve, like all his ilk, and went to work for the landowner who employed his father and owned their cottage. What else could he do? He'd been educated at the village school, owned (and its syllabus dictated) by the same landowner, attended (whether he liked or not) the village church, owned ditto. He'd learnt to read, write, and do simple arithmetic; maybe a few dates of kings and battles, for history, and the British Empire countries, for geography. Course, he was a freeborn Englishman, he had a choice: he didn't have to work for the man who owned all the land as far as he could see. He could have joined the Army or the Navy, or left home to work in the industrial Midlands or North, in even worse conditions, or starved. Which was also the choice of anyone unwise enough to upset the squire. Greatest Empire in history, right?

He may not have had that much initiative, but he wasn't stupid either. He didn't just unthinkingly accept things: The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate, sort of thing. That may have meant All Things Bright And Beautiful for the landowning class, but my great-grandad had a different experience.

When walking back home from work one evening with the other labourers (children worked the same hours as adults, and you worked when farmer needed you, no nonsense about unsocial hours, Bank Holidays, Holydays, or weekends) my great-grandad noticed one of the other guys, an old man - in his seventies; no retirement age nor Old Age Pension before 1911 - crying. The child was shocked, and asked why.

The old boy replied that farmer had taken him aside and said, "You are too old and infirm to be worth your wages to me any more, so I am letting you go at the end of the week."

Now this old chap - his home, a tied cottage, belonged to his employer. He would have to get out then and there. The cottage was in lieu of cash wages, all but a few shillings, because he had the use of its garden to grow vegetables for his family, and maybe keep a pig. Milk he might get from the farm, if the employer was generous, likewise leather for shoes; he would be allowed to collect wood for firing (cooking and heating and washing) but there would never be enough cash money to save anything. And there was no other employer around, apart from the fact that he had no other skills. No Unemployment Benefits, Disabled Benefits, Income Guarantees then. Trade Union? For farmworkers? You must be joking. Any children he might have would be as poor and trapped as he.

So what was his future, after a lifetime of service? To go to the workhouse, where he and his wife would be separated, placed in communal dormitories, and allowed to see each other for maybe an hour once a week, at compulsory Sunday church service, and to stay there until they died. To see his children and grandchildren even more rarely, possibly never. Their few possessions sold, given away or scattered, even their clothes replaced by the shameful compulsory uniform of the indigent.

That scene took place in the twentieth century, just before the First World War. Over and over again, probably. In a country which was then a world leader, rich and powerful, able to command the luxuries of the earth for its ruling classes. And people wonder why working people left the countryside for the towns in their thousands, why trades unions were so militant, why after the Second World War, the Conservative Party was thrown out of office despite Winston Churchill's war record.

What happened to my great-grandad? The First World War came along; he got drafted, as did every man who could be spared by the landowner, who thought the least he could do, being patriotic, was send "his people" off to war. He survived the Western Front, unlike most of his peers, but he never went back to the village. And he never forgot those tears.

3 Comments:

Blogger Sally's Life said...

Charles, you write very powerfully, of all our pasts, those of us who are not decended from the landed classes.

My forefathers who lived from the sea, and were small boat owners, had independence which formed their characters, but when fishing was no longer economic they took their independence into industries such as mining with resulting effective unions.

Many elderly people who would benefit now from intervention from social services, have a living memory of the workhouse, which may explain their reluctance to ask for help, they fear losing their independence and control over what happens to them. Not unreasonable in some areas.

10:22 pm  
Blogger BloggingMone said...

That was a very touching story. It is good that there were people strong enough to form workers' unions. I have read a book once which has deeply impressed me. I have forgotten who the author was, but the German title (retranslated) was " How green was my Valley" I don't know, what the original title in English was. It is a tale about a family in Wales, working in the mines and the upcomming of workers's unions. Their lifes were absolutely dreadful and full of hardships, with no security and in absolute dependance. There was some kind of lovestory too, including an unwanted pregnancy and the church making a bit fuss about it. But the most impressive part was the detailed description of workers' lifes during that days. My mother gave this book to me as she has been reading it in her teens and was equally impressed.

1:54 pm  
Blogger Charlesdawson said...

Thank you Sally and Bloggingmone for your comments.

Bloggongmone, the author was Richard Llewellyn; he wrote a fair number of novels and also a sequel to the one you read, called something like "Green, green my valley now".

3:46 pm  

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