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There being no railways and many more small employers, he seldom spent anything in going to and from his work; while, as access to the country was then easier, his holidays cost him less, with more enjoyment, than going by rail to some place fifty miles away. It is also absolutely certain that the food of the workman was quite as good as it is now or even better, and that meat and beer formed regular articles of consumption by the average mechanic.
Now, these almost incredible errors as to matters of fact teach us that Government officials are quite unfitted to deal with such questions as these, mainly because they know nothing at first hand of the lives of the workers and thus omit to take account of some of the most essential factors in the problem at issue.
Thus Mr. Giffen slurs over and minimizes the universal increase of rent. In the report already quoted, Miss Edith Simcox gives the results of two inquiries into the poorer districts of Westminster. A communication to the Statistical Society in 1840 showed that at that time somewhat less than a quarter of the wages went to pay rents; while a somewhat similar inquiry in 1884 by the Pall Mall Gazette showed that in another part of Westminster rents were on the average, for the same accommodation, nearly three times as much as those recorded forty years before. Combining these two results, it is clear that, even if workmen have smaller or fewer rooms than at the earlier period, they must still pay nearly twice as much rent, and this enormous increase will absorb a large portion, and in some cases the whole of the increase in wages.
Another point which Mr. Giffen omits to notice and allow for is the fact, well known to all workmen who remember the earlier period, that the decreased cost of clothing is quite illusory; the badness of the materials, made for show rather than for wear, render them really dearer. At the early period referred to shoddy was not invented, and paper as part of the soles in workmen's boots was unknown. The corduroys and fustians then generally worn by mechanics would last twice or thrice as long as the cheaper articles now sold under the same name. Boots were then all good leather and handsewn, and though not so highly finished and a little dearer than the cheapest kinds now made, would outlast two or three pairs of the latter. At about the same period my strong surveying boots cost 145. a pair, but were really better in quality than what I should pay 20s. for now. The general result was, that the workman's clothing cost him rather less then than they do at the present day.
Another point Mr. Giffen overlooks which is of considerable importance. In the earlier period referred to almost all workshops and factories were much smaller than they are now, and employed each a much smaller number of men, who were therefore able to live within about half a mile or less of their work. If they were sent to work at a distance they went in their master's time, or if by omnibus at their master's expense. Now, however, the hundreds of men in each large builder's or contractor's shops frequently live a mile or several miles away, and can only reach the shop when work begins either by a long and hurried walk or by paying tram or railway fare to shorten the distance. Under average circumstances, having often to lose time waiting for train or tram, and having a walk at both ends from home to station and from station to work, each often half a mile or more, the loss of time morning and evening fully makes up for any shortening of actual working hours, while the daily fares are a not unimportant deduction from the increased wages. Taking all these things into consideration, we see clearly how it was that the mechanic of the thirties and forties of the last century was able to afford quite as much meat as his successor of to-day, and was, on the whole, quite as well off.
As my brother was, at the time I am now speaking of, nearly nineteen and a very good workman, he had complete liberty in the evenings after seven o'clock, the only limitation being that he was back about ten; while on special occasions he was allowed to take the door-key. He often took me with him on fine evenings to some of the best business streets in
London to enjoy the shops, and especially to see anything of particular interest exhibited in them. Among these objects was one of the earliest of the large plate-glass windows now so universal, which, though of quite moderate size, perhaps five feet high by four or five wide, was at that time a wonder. I also remember some curious clocks so constructed as to look like perpetual motion, which greatly interested and often puzzled us. But our evenings were most frequently spent at what was then termed a "Hall of Science," situated in John Street, Tottenham Court Road (now altered to Whitfield Street). It was really a kind of club or mechanics' institute for advanced thinkers among workmen, and especially for the followers of Robert Owen, the founder of the Socialist movement in England. Here we sometimes heard lectures on Owen's doctrines, or on the principles of secularism or agnosticism, as it is now called ; at other times we read papers or books, or played draughts, dominoes, or bagatelle, and coffee was also supplied to any who wished for it. It was here that I first made acquaintance with Owen's writings, and especially with the wonderful and beneficent work he had carried on for many years at New Lanark. I also received my first knowledge of the arguments of sceptics, and read among other books Paine's “Age of Reason.”
It must have been in one of the books or papers I read here that I met with what I dare say is a very old dilemma as to the origin of evil. It runs thus : “Is God able to prevent evil but not willing? Then he is not benevolent. Is he willing but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil ?” This struck me very much, and it seemed quite unanswerable, and when at home a year or two afterwards, I took the opportunity one day to repeat it to my father, rather expecting he would be very much shocked at my acquaintance with any such infidel literature. But he merely remarked that such problems were mysteries which the wisest cannot understand, and seemed disinclined to any discussion of the subject. This, of course, did not satisfy me, and if the argument did not really touch the question of the existence of God, it did seem to prove
that the orthodox ideas as to His nature and powers cannot be accepted.
I was also greatly impressed by a tract on “Consistency," written by Robert Dale Owen, the eldest son of Robert Owen, and as a writer superior in style and ability to his father. The chief subject of it was to exhibit the horrible doctrine of eternal punishment as then commonly taught from thousands of pulpits by both the Church of England and Dissenters, and to argue that if those who taught and those who accepted such dogmas thoroughly believed them and realized their horror, all worldly pleasures and occupations would give way to the continual and strenuous effort to escape such a fate. I remember one illustration quoted from a sermon, to enable persons to realize to some extent what eternal punishment meant. After the most terrible description had been given of the unimaginable torments of hell-fire, we were told to suppose that the whole earth was a mass of fine sand, and that at the end of a thousand years one single grain of this sand flew away into space. Then-we were told-let us try to imagine the slow procession of the ages, while grain by grain the earth diminished, but still remained apparently as large as ever,and still the torments went on. Then let us carry on the imagination through thousands of millions of millions of ages, till at last the globe could be seen to be a little smaller-and then on and on, and on for other and yet other myriads of ages, till after periods which to finite beings would seem almost infinite the last grain flew away, and the whole material of the globe was dissipated in space. And then, asked the preacher, is the sinner any nearer the end of his punishment ? No! for his punishment is to be infinite, and after thousands of such globes had been in the same way dissipated, his torments are still to go on and on for ever! I myself had heard such horrible sermons as these in one of the churches in Hertford, and a lady we knew well had been so affected by them that she had tried to commit suicide. I therefore thoroughly agreed with Mr. Dale Owen's conclusion, that the orthodox religion of the day was degrading and hideous, and that the only true and wholly beneficial religion was that which inculcated the service of humanity, and whose only dogma was the brotherhood of man. Thus was laid the foundation of my religious scepticism.
Similarly, my introduction to advanced political views, founded on the philosophy of human nature, was due to the writings and teachings of Robert Owen and some of his disciples. His great fundamental principle, on which all his teaching and all his practice were founded was that thecharacter of every individual is formed for and not by himself, first by heredity, which gives him his natural disposition with all its powers and tendencies, its good and bad qualities; and, secondly, by environment, including education and surroundings from earliest infancy, which always modifies the original character for better or for worse. Of course, this was a theory of pure determinism, and was wholly opposed to the ordinary views, both of religious teachers and of governments, that, whatever the natural character, whatever the environment during childhood and youth, whatever the direct teaching, all men could be good if they liked, all could act virtuously, all could obey the laws, and if they wilfully transgressed any of these laws or customs of their rulers and teachers, the only way to deal with them was to punish them, again and again, under the idea that they could thus be deterred from future transgression. The utter failure of this doctrine, which has been followed in practice during the whole period of human history, seems to have produced hardly any effect on our systems of criminal law or of general education; and though other writers have exposed the error, and are still exposing it, yet no one saw so clearly as Owen did how to put his views into practice; no one, perhaps, in private life has ever had such opportunities of carrying out his principles; no one has ever shown so much ingenuity, so much insight into character, so much organizing power ; and no one has ever produced such striking results in the face of enormous difficulties as he produced during the twenty-six years of his management of New Lanark.