Book Review: Roads to Ruin

“Roads to Ruin: The Shocking History of Social Progress,” by E. S. Turner. (Published by Michael Joseph, Ltd., 256 pages indexed with 11 illustrations. Price 12s. 6d.)

Nowhere in the book does the author claim to be a Socialist. Written entertainingly, without indignation, but sympathetically for the exploited, he deals with some of the lesser known social legislation which caused much controversy—and is now almost forgotten. Forgotten because we accept and can hardly conceive of modern society without such legislation.

Among others he writes of the Bills for the abolition of spring guns (1825-1827); the struggle to stop the employment of climbing boy chimney sweeps (1780 approx-1875);: the acts to legalise the Saturday half holiday (1825-1911) and the agitation for the Plimsoll Line (1850-1906). These are the chapters that will have most interest for Socialists, although the accounts of other minor political disturbances are not without their value in exposing the depths of hypocrisy, cant, humbug and self interest to which the defenders of the existing social system descended in order to safeguard their position, profits and pleasure.

A justifiable criticism against the work is that it tends to foster the discredited idea that the main participants in these movements were the original innovators of the reform. The fact is that the general rising discontent of the working class against their oppressive conditions, both rural and urban, first posed the question. Only then did certain individuals or groups see the need and voice the demand for the particular reform. A modern parallel could be drawn if one overemphasized the importance of A. P. Herbert and his small group of supporters, who so successfully steered marriage and divorce reforms through the House of Commons in the nineteen-thirties, and underemphasized the hardships that impelled him to do so. Mainly they were the changing relationships between the sexes, consequent upon more and more women becoming wage earners and participating in activities outside the home. Since the Married Women’s Property Bill (1856-1882), described in this book, women have striven for more equal status and more control over their own property and earnings. It was some of these difficulties showing themselves in the marriage relationship that A. P. Herbert tried to resolve with his Bill.

It is not difficult for Socialists to believe that squires and owners of game preserves claimed the right to kill by hidden guns attached to trip wires any poacher of their fattened birds or indeed any unsuspecting stranger accidentally trespassing. Not difficult, that is, after the experience of two world wars which were the defence of private property raised to national level.

An established phenomenon in 1776 and not abolished until 1827 their retention was upheld by some of the most inhumane arguments. On page 17.

“If the market gardener can use spring guns to protect his cabbages why not squires to protect their game?”

Guns were cheaper than keepers and on page 26 we read that the Duke of Wellington supported this view point. Further on page 29.

“The object of setting spring guns was not personal injury to anyone but to deter from the commission of theft and that object was as completely attained by hitting an innocent man as a guilty man.”

Throughout the shocking history of the exploitation of children, in mines, factories, mills and workshops, in the early nineteenth century, there also runs the brutal story of the climbing boy chimney sweep. The detailed description of the horrifying experiences of these boys (and not only boys, for the author states on page 51 that the flues of Windsor Castle were at one time swept by two girls) form a chapter which will not be lightly forgotten. The gruesome accounts of tragedies, wherein children died of asphyxiation or brutal treatment from vicious master sweeps, stirred the country from time to time reviving the agitation, which lasted for 100 years, for the abolition of the practice. Death was not the only horror. Quoted on page 38:

“. . . they suffered from inflamed eyes and throats and all manner of skin irritation, the worst of which took the form of a scrotal infection known as chimney boys cancer. .. . There was no cure but the knife and the less fortunate chimney boy might find himself in his teens, not only a bandy-legged hunch back, but a eunuch.”

Self-interest defended this employment and the Church was no better. On page 46:

“. . . this witness had twice been stuck in chimneys in his youth—once at the Bishop of Lincoln’s and once at Lord Melbourne’s . . .”

The Religious Tract Society published a booklet entitled “The Young Chimney Sweepers” (C.1830) in which the following paragraph is deservedly quoted on page 51.

“This little book will show you that little boys like you have gone to Sunday School and have learned to read and become good. Mind that you go also. Get yourself well washed on Saturday and mind that you are in time on Sunday morning. Your teachers will be glad to see you with a smiling face.. . . learn your lessons and try to read the blessed Bible and to think about the gracious Saviour of whom it tells you.. . . Thus you will be happy little sweeps and you will learn to praise the gracious God, who can make our situation in life comfortable whatever be the circumstances in which Providence has placed us.”

In these days when the claims are all for a five day week, the arguments for a Saturday half-holiday may seem outmoded but when it is realised that shop assistants worked a fourteen and sometimes a sixteen hour day it is easy to understand the growth of the Early Closing Association formed in 1842. Not wishing to be associated with the radical movements of that day the Association attempted to effect a limitation of hours by voluntary negotiation and met with the failure one would expect. Eventually after a welter of moralizing on both sides the struggle entered the political field and an effective Shops Act reached the Statute Book—but not until 1911.

Early Closing Bills had been rejected as “un-English” and “grandmotherly” and Charles Bradlaugh supported these views in 1888. He further argued that a Bill to reduce hours to twelve on five days and to fourteen on Saturdays was “opening the door to legislation which might be of the most terrible character.” He regarded the Bill as “immoral” because it struck a blow at the self-reliance of the individual. Evidently the advocacy of atheism did not extend to the granting of leisure to workers to further study and propagate its cause.

Finally to the fight to save the lives of seamen sent afloat in “coffin ships” from which unscrupulous owners gained greater financial advantage if the vessel foundered and the insurance company paid without demur, than if the rotten hulk reached port safely. It had been shown (page 179) that “. . . I seaman in 60 met a violent death as against 1 in 315 in the mines.” On page 143 a ship owner, Sir Walter Runciman is quoted when he describes those times as:

“days of aboriginal stupidity and sordid bloodsucking” when ships were . . . “scandalously unseaworthy, rotten, leaky, badly found, badly manned, abominably fed and always overloaded.”

It was against those prevailing conditions that seamen organised themselves. They were aided in no small measure by the vociferous agitation of Samuel Plimsoll and his supporters, for a load line on all seagoing vessels. On Samuel Plimsoll there is quoted (but not supported by the author) on page 144 the following:

“. . . But he (Plimsoll) was not a reformer, he was a propagandist and the famous ‘Plimsoll Mark’ indicating the maximum safe draught of a ship remained a valueless safeguard for no less than sixteen years after he secured it, for the simple reason that the selection of its position on the ships side was left to the ’murderers’ (i.e. the shipowners) themselves.”

As confirmation of this there was one “whimsical Cardiff captain who inscribed the device on his funnel” (page 170).

The scandal of coffin ships had exercised the deliberations of a committee of fifteen set up as far back as the eighteen thirties—over thirty years before Plimsoll was elected Liberal member for Derby in 1868. Nevertheless it was not until 1890 that the owners load line gave way to the Government load line, based upon scientific tables issued by Lloyds. Chambers of Commerce, Lloyds, shipowners, miners and engineers’ unions and not least of them, the Seamen’s Unions all played their part in the establishment of this and other regulations for sea-going vessels. The tragedy of it all is shown when we are informed that a thousand years before, Venetian and Sardinian sailors had a load mark, a disk similar to the Plimsoll Line. The Hanseatic League also used a mark, and, a glaring mockery to British sailors, so did the British Navy, based on fighting efficiency.

Who can doubt the accuracy of the Socialist case, with regard to reforms, in view of the length of time and enormous efforts which went into the establishment of even these minor reforms? Stated simply it is that whilst we accept all and every reform, grudgingly granted or strenuously wrenched from the capitalist class we do not advocate organising nor working for them. Our work is to organise for Socialism, knowing that when large numbers of Socialists exist the capitalists will be most lavish in the distribution of reforms in an attempt to retain their privileged position.

We recommend this book for reading by Socialists, and for all social reformers we suggest it as an “awful warning” to them for their future activities.


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