1930s >> 1937 >> no-399-november-1937

The Wealthy Duchess and
 the Factory Girls

The late Duchess of Bedford died possessed of a beautiful estate at Woburn Sands, in Bedfordshire. All round the estate is a brick wall ending in massive gates, through which the curious can obtain a glimpse of the ancestral hall beyond. Set in acres upon acres of England’s most gracious parkland, the mansion strikes a note of peace and prosperity, which is the heritage of capitalism’s favoured ones.

The late Duchess’s will was recently reported in the Manchester Guardian. Nearly £331,000 was left in bequests to various individuals. This is a lot of money, especially when one considers that the Duchess of Bedford was a lady who certainly never denied herself anything that fancy or necessity dictated during her very long lifetime. During her old age she took up the expensive hobby of flying—upon which she must have spent thousands of pounds.

Passing from one extreme to another, the same newspaper, in its correspondence columns, issues an appeal by the “Factory Girls’ Holiday Fund Committee” for help. A pathetic paragraph says : “A large number of the girls sent away are hardly more than growing children, having recently left school for work in factories and warehouses.” It pleads for a week in the country “to help make life fuller and more complete ” for these girls.

A very old lady has left in her will enough money to give thousands of those girls a real good holiday, but she thought fit to leave it to diverse other people who had ministered to her personal comfort during her lifetime. The Duchess of Bedford was interested not in factory girls, but in herself and her friends, and who shall blame her? The significance of these two reports lies in the glaring instance it reveals of the gross inequality of opportunity for sections of the people. On the one hand we have an elderly woman representing the wealthy and leisured community, possessed of wealth, part of which takes the form of a vast country estate, closely walled and secluded from the eyes of the vulgar. On the other a number of poor, undernourished work girls, whose only knowledge of the country comes secondhand from the pictures or from books, and who represent the working class.

But even if the Duchess of Bedford had thought fit to open wide the iron gates and invite the Factory Girls Committee to cover the pleasant green fields with their white-faced protégés the problem would still be unsolved. Once more the Manchester Guardian, in the same issue (August 24th), points the moral.

The suicide of Mr. John Brown, a Manchester philanthropist who took his own life because of financial difficulties, which unhinged his mind. “He spent a large amount of money in providing holidays for poor Birmingham children.” The last sentence should be put upon his tombstone as a suitable epitaph and a warning to all other kind hearted dabblers with things as they are. Not all philanthropists ruin themselves financially, but they are nearly all mentally bankrupt. That is the fate of all those who compromise with the existing state of affairs.

The revolutionary Socialist movement becomes almost suffocated by these reformers. Every crying evil of capitalism has its devoted band of would-be reformers. What a vast and formidable front could they oppose to the capitalist class were they united for its abolition. But some of the capitalist class are even among the reformers. The horrors of capitalism are world-wide and ever growing, they cannot be cured a bit at a time. All over the world, in all the great cities, are horrible and indescribable slums. People are mentally and physically starved, and repressed in a thousand different ways. The throw-outs of society fill the hospitals and mental wards, whilst the huge majority of the workers hang on by a very narrow margin. Yet all over the world there are acres and acres of habitable and unpopulated country for people to spread out in. It is possible to produce everything that we need in spacious surroundings and decent buildings, and for people to enjoy life to the full. People live on top of their jobs because of the time and expense of getting to them. The motive of industry all the time is profit-making, not the supplying of things for the people’s use.

All the means of production lie in the hands of private holders. These owners, not only of inanimate things but of workers’ lives, constitute not one tenth of the population. The rest of the people who, not by our wish to tabulate them as such, but by their own class portion, form that vast working majority who must gain permission to work for wages for the small minority who have the power to say yea or nay.

At times of slump and depression it is “nay,” and then the belts must be tightened and those few little luxuries previously enjoyed altogether discarded. The worker’s wage, whether £2, £3 or £5 per week, determines his standard of living. It is our object to abolish wages altogether.

Socialism means a system of society where men and women organise together to produce the things they need, and having produced them in co-operation enjoy them freely. This does not mean a stilted uniformity, but a satisfaction of individual requirements. Socialism means that all men and women will become individuals for the first time and will have individual expression of thought and feeling. If all the people engaged in useless effort, such as those in the repressive and fighting forces, canvassers, clergymen and others, were diverted to useful channels of production and distribution we could considerably shorten hours or increase the amount of goods produced. There is only one thing in the way of realising this wondrous state of things, and that is the realisation of its possibility by the rest of the workers. Help us to spread the knowledge, fellow-workers, to waken the “dreamers” and teach the ignorant.

May Otway