Mary Barton – Elizabeth Gaskell

“The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment.”

Q. What was it that prompted so many people to vote for Brexit, and what is fuelling Donald Trump’s campaign, if not the perception that those currently in power have not listened carefully enough to the voices of those who feel they are taking the brunt of the economic downturn?

From Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell (of Cranford fame)

For three years past trade had been getting worse and worse, and the price of provisions higher and higher.  This disparity between the amount of the earnings of the working classes and the price of their food occasioned, in more cases than could well be imagined, disease and death.  Whole families went through a gradual starvation.  They only wanted a Dante to record their sufferings.  And yet even his words would fall short of the awful truth; they could only present an outline of the tremendous facts of the destitution that surrounded thousands upon thousands in the terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841.  Even philanthropists, who had studied the subject, were forced to own themselves perplexed in their endeavour to ascertain the real causes of the misery; the whole matter was of so complicated a nature,  that it became next to impossible to understand it thoroughly.  It need excite no surprise, then, to learn that a bad feeling between working-men and the upper classes became very strong in this season of privation.

The indigence and sufferings of the operatives induced a suspicion in the minds of many of them, that their legislators, their magistrates, their employers, and even the ministers of religion, were, in general, their oppressors and enemies; and were in league for their prostration and enthralment. 

The most deplorable and enduring evil that arose out of the period of commercial depression to which I refer, was this feeling of alienation between the different classes of society.  It is so impossible to describe, or even faintly to picture, the state of distress which prevailed in the town at that time, that I will not attempt it; and yet I think again that surely, in a Christian land, it was not known even so feebly as words could tell it, or the more happy and fortunate would have thronged with their sympathy and their aid.  In many instances the sufferers wept first, and then they cursed.  Their vindictive feelings exhibited themselves in rabid politics.

And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent — of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night, for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family — of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter)–of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their excited feelings, and their desolate homes–can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation?

An idea was now springing up among the operatives,  that originated with the Chartists, but which came at last to be cherished as a darling child by many and many a one.  They could not believe that Government knew of their misery; they rather chose to think it possible that men could voluntarily assume the office of legislators for a nation who were ignorant of its real state; as who should make domestic rules for the pretty behaviour of children without caring to know that those children had been kept for days without food.

Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury.

So a petition was framed, and signed by thousands in the bright spring days of 1839, imploring Parliament to hear witnesses who could testify to the unparalleled destitution of the manufacturing districts.  Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester, and many other towns, were busy appointing delegates to convey this petition, who might speak, not merely of what they had seen, and had heard, but from what they had borne and suffered.  Life-worn, gaunt, anxious, hunger-stamped men, were those delegates.

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