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'The Good Old Days' - Glasgow in the Nineteenth Century

The accommodation in which my family lived up to my teens was a crumbling Glasgow tenement at whose age I will not hazard a guess, though some idea of it can be gained from the knowledge that the lavatories were added many years after its original construction.

I recall my mother telling me that there used to be dry latrines in the back-courts which were emptied by men with leather-lined wicker baskets. This information, even then when I was ignorant of social problems, filled me with disgust: to think that men should find it necessary to take up such employment in order to gain cash sufficient to purchase the bare necessities of life.

Doubtless some of those early sewage workers considered themselves better off than their neighbours, for they had a steady job with little chance of being made redundant. As an added bonus they at least were outside in the streets away from the "dark satanic mills" and the ever-watchful eye of a charge hand ready to threaten with dismissal any lazy workers who fell asleep on the job during their 14-18 hours' shift.

Although it is true that these sewage workers risked contracting some disease in such unhygienic and noisome employment, were they any worse off than their neighbours who worked in a factory where machinery lay unguarded, and a moment's inattention (common among workers fatigued with long hours of labour, and bad diets), could result in their being caught up by the gigantic strength of the machine and "rent asunder, not perhaps for his own good; but, as a sacrifice to the commercial prosperity of Great Britain" — as Henry Morley so satirically puts it in his article Ground in the Mill? Morley tells us of:

    "The boy whom his stern master, the machine, caught as he stood on a stool wickedly looking out at the sun-light and flying clouds. These were no business of his, and he was fully punished when the machine he served caught him by one arm and whirled him round and around till he was thrown dead."

There were, of course, workers who protested against such conditions. In lots of cases they were marked as trouble-making radicals in some black book, and dismissed at the first opportunity presented to a vengeful employer fearful of workers learning the power of combination and political action. The sacked workers' places would be quickly filled from the ranks of the Irishmen and Highlanders who, forced from the land that their fathers had lived on for hundreds of years, all in the sacred name of improvement, found it necessary to flock in their hordes to the cities like Glasgow in the hope of earning a living from the newly-emerging industries: filling to over-flowing the tenements in that city, making it necessary for the ruling class to erect more because of the epidemics which broke out, threatening the health of the rich in their comfortable mansions.

We must not think that the Glasgow tenements erected in the tremendous boom period that was the Industrial Revolution were built because the capitalists were full of altruism for the working class. In 1840, for example, W. P. Allison in a pamphlet criticizing the Scottish Poor Law, wrote: "The higher ranks in Scotland do much less for the relief of poverty than those of any country in Europe." The tenements were erected firstly to ensure a profitable income in rents and fees to the capitalists, and secondly to have the labour convenient to the large factories or industrial sites. When the "five minutes horn" sounded, the streets would become alive with men and women rushing to clock-in before the gates were closed, and they were either "quartered" or sent home for being late.

Just opposite the tenement in which we lived was a vast piece of waste ground known as "The Foundry". This was formerly owned by the firm of John Neilson & Co., who built the first iron-ship, "Fairy Queen", in 1831. C. A. Oakley in his excellent (but expensive) book The Second City informs us that the ship was "transported through the streets accompanied by great crowds [of unemployed?] and launched by steam-crane at the Broomie Law", on the edge of the River Clyde.

Since the route from Garscube Foundry to the Clyde led downhill through the new working-class tenement areas, the sight of the ship must have been a mixed blessing, for in Glasgow when a ship was launched large numbers of hands were laid off work till their masters required their skills once more to use in their labour process — only in those days there was no Social Security payment (given out of the surplus-value created by workers) to keep them from dying of hunger if they were unemployed with no cash to buy food, for this was the period when men with no legs were exhorted to stand on their own feet.

Thomas Carlyle in his tract on Chartism made a slashing indictment of this attitude, saying:

    "The master of horses, when the summer labour is done, has to feed his horses through the winter. If he said to his horses: "Quadrupeds, I have no longer work for you — go and seek cartage" — They finally, under pains of hunger take to leaping fences, eating foreign property, and — we know the rest."

But this was the age in which the theories of Thomas Malthus found favour, who said that population growth tended to exceed food production; and sad though it might be, some would have to suffer deprivation lest the delicate balance of nature be upset.

It is not as if food was scarce in those days. Proof of this can be found in William Cobbett's Rural Rides. In it he tells of folk starving in the 1830s while livestock in abundance fed in the fields for the rich — because insufficient profit could be realized in the markets for meat. Under the capitalist economic system goods are not produced simply to feed, clothe or shelter people. In many countries even today workers who cannot afford the prices asked for goods can tighten their belts on their empty stomachs; lie down in their under a hedge, and die. If they should attempt to seize the food which lies in shops and warehouses, the law-enforcement officers will beat and shoot them down in fulfilment of their job as protectors of property.

It was a great boast of the Church of Scotland that they could provide for the poor out of the offerings placed in the poor-box at the front door. Since the distribution of this charity was in the hands of domineering Elders, doubtless many workers in Glasgow went hungry rather than submit to their will, until sheer desperation drove them into the invidious position of "rice Christians". He who would sneer at such an attitude as "obsequious" should realize that the threat of starvation to a man and his family can make even the most proud humble himself at the feet of him who can relieve the hunger.

One of Glasgow's most famous citizens was Thomas Chalmers, whose name is mentioned by Marx in Capital. He was a preacher with a tremendous gift of oratory (he must have had, for he actually made the rich cry — surely a most difficult task?). He originated a scheme for aiding the poor for which, for some strange reason, he has become famous. He undertook to "relinquish all claim to the fund [for relieving the poor] raised by assessment", and provide for the poor of his own parish by the church-door collection alone. W. Gordon Blake in his short Life of Chalmers tells us:

    "Hitherto the cost of the poor in the parish had been at the rate of £1,400 per annum, whereas the collections amounted to only £480."

Under the diligent hands of Dr. Chalmers the original requirement of £1,400 was reduced to £280. He did this by sending his Elders into the teeming slums, that were a blot on the face of Glasgow before the College was razed to the ground to make way for the railway station that was set up on that site. These Elders used their "spiritual" authority over the relatives of the poor (themselves desperately poor) and exhorted them to face up to their family responsibilities, and support their destitute relatives so as not to make them a burden on the rates or church.

Let us seriously consider this question, putting aside any bias we may feel towards religion and those who imbibe it. Was Chalmers' scheme to relieve the poor a success? Did his efforts really aid the poor materially? No better answer can be given than that supplied by the gigantic Edward Irving, who was Chalmers' assistant in Glasgow during the period before and after the 1820 radical insurrection. In Mrs. Oliphant's Life of Edward Irving, one of Irving letters to a friend says "I have visited in about 300 families - and have seen them in nakedness and starvation." He writes in another letter of

    "their wants, their misfortunes, their ill-requited labour, their hopes vanishing, their families dispersing in hope of better habitations, the Scottish economy of their homes giving way before encroaching necessity; debt rather than saving their condition; bread and water their scanty fare; hard and ungrateful labour the portion of their house."

It is little wonder that John Galt in his interesting book Annals of the Parish (interesting because it shows the ideas that were commonly held in those times) says in his description of the Glasgow weavers:

    "It cut me to the heart to see so many fine young men, in the rising prime of life, already in the arms of pale consumption."

The phrase "the good old days" is used to make the myth of an era when life was good and men happy. Capitalism has never provided, and cannot provide, such a time.

H. Cunningham