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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter XII


At the close of the last chapter, it was said I must hasten to other scenes. I am hastening. Yet this chapter is still to tell of scenes not much different from those in the last: it is still a chapter of picks and quarry-hammers—of wheel-barrows, spades, and shovels. I am about to leave the Cove Shore, and .go to a garden nursery at Edinburgh. But before I go, let me tell some events which occurred while I was still at the works of the Cove Shore. One bleak day in November, 1830, the wind strong from the north, and the sea rolling heavily upon the rocks at the Pan Doocot (dovecot), where twenty or more of us were quarrying blocks of stone to be conveyed to the Cove Shore, two miles distant, by sea, a little boy came and stood behind us for a time, shivering in the cold. He said nothing; and one of the men at last asked what he wanted. He replied that he wanted me, mentioning my name, but he did not know which was I. Mary Lowe had sent him down from Linkheads, he said, with a newspaper, for us to read something that was in it: he was to take ib back again with him when we had read it. They had all read it at Mary Lowe’s, at Linkheads, and they were mostly all “fou" already, they were so glad of the news.

Hearing this, we agreed to get under shelter of the ruins of the Pan Doocot at once, and see what the news could possibly be which the visitors at Mary Lowe’s hostelry were already getting “fou” about. On opening the paper, there were in bold letters, on the top of a column, these words, or nearly these, “The tories driven from power at last!—Glorious triumph of the people!— Henry Brougham, Lord High Chancellor of England; Earl Grey, prime minister!”

Those of us who knew least of politics knew enough to understand the importance of this announcement. We took off our hats and caps, and loud above the north wind, and the roaring sea, shouted “Henry Brougham for ever!” At that time we knew little of Earl Grey. His career as an opponent of the tories was before our time. His career as a minister was only then beginning.

We were not unprepared to hear such news as this, as a previous newspaper informed us that Sir Henry Parnell had made a motion for inquiry into the expenditure of the civil list; that the government of which the Duke of Wellington was prime minister had opposed him, were defeated, and had resigned; and that Earl Grey, a reformer, had been summoned to form a new government. I had charged Mary Lowe to send us a newspaper to the Pan Doocot quarry as soon as one could be got, to let us know the result. We read over the list of the new ministry. Some of the names were unknown to us, and some familiar names that toe thought should have been there were not there, the name of Hume especially. We one and all thought it wrong that Joseph Hume should not be a member of the new government. We were ignorant of party connections and differences,—ignorant of the atomic nature of some politicians, of the gregarious nature of others.

At another time we got a paper, and read Earl Grey’s declarations that the principles of his government would be Peace, Retrencbment, and Reform. Joseph Douglass, a labourer, was the only man among us who found fault with that declaration. He objected to the word “ peace.” He said Britain had never had a prosperous day since there was peace. War was the thing for the country, and especially for such a country as this, which had so many war-ships that it could lick all the world. War was the thing to make good wages. Two or three of the fishermen who were beside us knew otherwise, and called Joseph a blockhead, and asked him if he would like to see the press-gang at them and their families again, as it used to come in the time of war, and force them away from home and family, put them in irons if they did not go willingly, and carry them in carts, to man the ships of war. Joseph replied that he was not afraid of war; if the king wanted men that minute, he would go on board a man-of-war, rather than the French should not be well licked again. One of the fishers in rejoinder said he might first learn to take his wheelbarrow on board of that plank in the quarry without stumbling off ten time3 every day as he did. Joseph was rather blind, and used to stumble off the plank. Yet no ridicule would put him down; his voice was still for war. But I have met people since that time, who should have understood such a question much better than poor Joseph could do, who were as politically stupid upon it as he was personally ignorant.

Such was the place and manner of our reception of the news of the tories being out of office, and of the whigs being in.

During the winter I continued at the Pan Doocot quarry. It was between two and three miles from the Cove Shore, and about one mile from Thriepland Hill. This was convenient, and I now lodged at home. A number of masons were hewing the blocks of stone, and each hewer had a labourer allotted to him to do the rougher work upon the stone with a short pick, technically to “scutch” it. The masons were intolerable tyrants to their labourers. I was in the quarry, cutting the blocks from the rock when the tide was out: and when the tide was in, I went and scutched with some of the hewers, chiefly with my friend Alick. One day, when we had been reading in the newspapers a great deal about the tyranny of the tories, and the tyranny of the aristocracy in general, and some of the hewers had been, as usual, wordy and loud in denouncing all tyrants, and exclaiming, “Down with them for ever!” one of them-took up a long wooden straight-edge, and struck a labourer with the sharp edge of it over the shoulders. Throwing down my pick, I turned round and told him that so long as 1 was about the works I would not see a labourer struck in that manner without questioning the mason’s pretended right to domineer over labourers. "You exclaim against tyranny,” I continued, “and you yourselves are tyrants, if anybody is.” The hewer answered, that I had no business to interfere; that he had not struck me. “No,” said I, “or you would have been in the sea by this time. But I have seen labourers, who dared not speak for themselves, knocked about by you-and by many others; and by every mason about those works I have seen labourers ordered to do things, andj compelled to do them, which no working man should order another to do; far less have the power to compel him to do. And, I tell you, it shall not be done.”

The labourers gathered around me; the masons conferred together. One of them said, speaking for the rest, that he must put a stop to this; the privileges of masons were not to be questioned by labourers, and I must either submit to that reproof or punishment which they thought fit to inflict, or leave the works; if not, they must all leave the works. The punishment hinted at was, to submit to be held over one of the blocks of stone, face downward, the feet held down on one side, tbe bead and arms held down on the other side, while the mason apprentices would back the offenders with their leather aprons knotted bard. I said that, so far from submitting to reproof or punishment, I would carry my opposition a great deal farther than I bad done. They bad all talked about parliamentary reform; we bad all joined in the cry for reform, and denounced the exclusive privileges of tbe anti-reformers, but I would begin reform where we then stood. I would demand, and I then demanded, that if a hewer wanted his stone turned over, and called labourers together to do it, they should not put bands to it unless be assisted; tbat if a hewer struck a labourer at his work, none of the labourers should do anything thereafter, of any nature whatever, for that hewer. (The masons laughed.) “And farther,” said I, “the masons shall not be entitled to the choice of any room they choose, if we go into a public-house to be paid, to the exclusion of the labourers; nor, if there be only one room in the house, shall the labourers be sent outside the door to give the room to the masons, as has been the case. In everything we shall be your equals, except in wages; that we have no right to expect.” The masons, on bearing these conditions, set up a shout of derisive laughter. It was against the laws of their body to bear their privileges discussed by a labourer; they could not suffer it, they said, and I must instantly submit to punishment for my contumacy. I told them that I was a quarry man, and not a mason’s labourer; that as such they bad no power over me. They scouted this plea, and said, that wherever masons were at work, they were superior, and their privileges were not to be questioned. I asked if the act of a mason striking a labourer with a rule was not to be questioned. They said, by their own body it might, upon a complaint from the labourer; but in this case the labourer was insolent to the mason, and the latter had a right to strike him. They demanded that I should at once cease to argue the question, and submit, before it was too late, to whatever punishment they chose to inflict. Upon hearing this, I put myself in a defensive attitude, and said, “Let me see who shall first lay hands on me?” No one approaching, I continued, “ We have been reading in the newspaper discussions about reform, and have been told how much is to be gained by even one person sometimes making a Resolute stand against oppressive power. We have only this day seen in the papers a warning to the aristocracy and the anti-reformers, that another John Hampden may arise. Come on, he who dares! I shall be Hampden to the tyrannies of masons!”

None of them offered to lay hands on me; one said, they had better let the affair rest where it was, as there would only be a fight about it, and several others assented ; and so we resumed our work.

Had it been in summer, when building was going on, they would have either dismissed me from the works, or have struck and refused to work themselves. It was only about the end of January, and they could not afford to do more than threaten me.

On resuming work at Alick's stone, he and I discussed the matter privately. He admitted that for a mason to chastise his labourer was wrong; but adhered to the abstract principle that masons, having trade privileges, were bound to maintain them, without submitting to have them discussed by any other body of men, not even by labourers who might be subject to the injustice of those privileges. He could see no analogy between the question of the labourers rising against the exclusive privileges of stonemasons, and that of the unenfranchised classes of th6 community rising against the exclusive privileges of the boroughmongers. He said building could never be carried on, if labourers were to have equal rights with masons. And, finally, that I had made myself look exceedingly ridiculous in setting myself up as an opponent of usages and trade regulations which nobody bad ever before presumed to question. I maintained tbat stonemasons bad no excuse in calling for the reform of exclusive privileges of the landed gentry and aristocracy, until they abolished tbeir own exclusiveness and tyranny.

About this time I began to reflect gravely on the life that was before me. I bad learned no trade. I bad declined to go to my brother the forester, to follow his profession, because I thought of staying at home to be a; ploughman. I bad not always succeeded in getting hired as a ploughman; and had become a labourer at any kind of work that presented itself. Was I to continue, and do nothing better? I called to mind that my brother had been a working hedger and ditcher until he was older than I; that he educated himself for a situation above that of a working man; but that I had heard:-him say, that had he been a year or two in a nursery at his outset, to have learned the practice of arboriculture, he would have found it beneficial.

I resolved to try what I could do for myself in that respect. Going to Edinburgh, I sought and obtained' employment at the nursery of Messrs. James Dickson and Sons, Inverleith How. I entered the grounds about the* beginning of February, 1831. My first work there was; trenching and digging the beds for the seeds of trees and shrubs to be sown in March, wheeling manure through the long, narrow alleys, and so forth. My wages were six shillings a week, and no more, in consideration that I Was to have instruction for the labour performed. I had lodgings in the bothy within the grounds. Five other ?nen, professional gardeners, were in the bothy; four of whom slept in a small room, which, though small, was not so uncomfortable as the place where I and the other slept. Our bed was a narrow space within a recess in the kitchen compartment of the bothy. It was hardly wide enough to have held our two coffins had we been dead; and had we been coffined alive, we could have hardly been in worse confinement than when in bed# The kitchen fire, at which we cooked our victuals, was within two feet of the bed; and a thin wall was all that separated our heads from the stove pipes in the greenhouse. We had no ventilation; and, when summer came, the place was as bad as any steerage berth I have ever occupied on board a ship, and I have been one of four hundred and fifty persons between decks. Outside the bothy, all was flowery, green, and ornamental. Visitors came often, and admired always; yet behind the bricks in that floral paradise, the greenhouse, there was our sleeping place, as odiously unhealthy as it has ever been my misfortune to know a sleeping place to be.

Two of the gardeners had, like me, 6s. a week; one had 6s. 6d.; the other three had 7s. One of them, Mr. F , is now a gardener and land steward, standing alike distinguished for intellectual and professional excellence. There were twenty or thirty other young men, who lodged without the grounds, working in the nursery at the inferior wages of 8s. a week, in the hope of getting a situation through the interest of the employers. A few were master gardeners out of place, submitting to, work for 9s. a week, in the hope of getting other, situations as masters. A few were regular hands, continued from year to year at 9s. a week,—men who had broken down in reputation as gardeners, and who had no chance of other situations, though not without hope. All these, save the six in the bothy, lodged and boarded themselves without the grounds.

Thus the best gardening ability of well-educated young men who had served apprenticeships and had studied botany, and of master gardeners who had been in good situations, was secured for the nursery business considerably below the pay of street scavengers. The men had some hope that they might, by serving a few months there, or even a year or two years, obtain appointments to good places; to journeyman’s places in the nobility’s gardens, if their ambition or abilities ranged no higher; to the places of foremen, if they sought that much and no more; or to the places of masters, if they looked so high, The gentry and nobility were then, and still are, in the habit of applying to nurserymen for master gardeners; and the master gardeners apply to them for foremen and journeymen. This is done in the English nurseries as well as in the Scotch. But in England the nurserymen do not cultivate their grounds by employing men at half-wages, as they do in Scotland, making the other half of the wages be the reversionary interest of a place, not unfrequently the promise of a place. Of broken hopes, or of hearts sick with hope deferred, you shall hardly reckon so many in all the world, on the same limited surface of earth, as in the grounds of the Scotch nurseryman.

To me individually, the employers (father and sons) were just, and even kind. When I was about to leave them, at the end of eight months, the elder Mr. Dickson gave me a written- testimonial of character that almost surprised me. I had heard him accused of seldom saying as much of men as they deserved, in his written testimonials. Of me he wrote that I was steady, indefatigable in study, always at hand when wanted, and ever willing and obedient. I was aware tbat be could not say anything to the contrary; yet I hardly expected him to Bay so much. Possibly 1 was indebted to the good reports of the foreman, Mr. William Howden.

Two months, at least, of my stay there were taken up with building. During the winter, main drains, or conduits, deep and wide,, had been dug out, and they still stood open in spring, to be built and covered in at leisure in summer. Mr. Howden one day said that a mason must be sent for to flag the bottoms, build the sides, and cover them in. I rejoined that I could do it well enough. He smiled, and asked if 1 had been a mason; to which I replied no, but I could do all the building he required. He said I might try; and having tried, I was allowed to go on until the whole were finished. There was such a thought in my head as this, I shall not deny, that the wages of masons being 20s. per week, while my wages were but 6s. a week, the employers might possibly add something to mine; but, as it appeared, such a thought did not occur to them.

We lived meagrely in the bothy; oatmeal porridge of small measure and strength in the mornings, with “sour dook,*' a kind of rank butter-milk peculiar to Edinburgh; potatoes and salt, occasionally a herring, for dinner; and “sour dook” and oatmeal for supper. We never had butcher’s meat, and seldom any bread. To have had even enough of this food it would have required all my wages. But I confined myself to 4s., occasionally 3s. 6d., per week for food. The remainder I expended on books, stationery, newspapers, and postage of letters.

Postage was a heavy tax at that time to persons like I, who took pleasure in writing letters. My washing was sent to Thriepland Hill by the carrier. I never, for so many months at any other time of my life, suffered so much from hunger and philosophy as then. I devoted much time, frequently sitting up half the night, or rising at day-break in the summer mornings, to reading, writing, arithmetic, and other studies; and an expenditure for books and stationery could not be dispensed with. Nor could newspapers be omitted at that time. The Reform Bill had been laid before parliament, and the public anxiety was excited by the debates, to an extent beyond the power of any one to believe whoAid not live then. Three of the men in the bothy cared nothing for newspapers, at least, they did not choose to pay for them. But the other three, of whom I was one, joined funds together, and got the Caledonian Mercury on the second day after publication, for half price. It came out three times a week, and gave the debates at considerable length, the leading speeches at full length. It was the 7th or 8th day of March before we got the report of the great speech of Lord John Russell on the 1st of March. I was selected to read it in the bothy, and as many men as the small place could hold were packed together to hear it. The report began thus:—“At half-past six o’clock Lord John Bussell rose amid the breathless silence of the crowded house, and said: ‘Mr. Speaker, I rise with feelings of the deepest anxiety to bring forward a measure as unparalleled in importance as in difficulties,’ and so forth. He said the grievances which the people chiefly complained of in parliamentary representation were three; first, the nomination of members by individuals; second, elections by close corporations ; and thirdly, the expense of election. It was proposed to meet the first grievance by the disfranchisement of sixty boroughs, having each a population of less than 2,000 persons; and by taking all the members above one from each of 47 boroughs, containing only a population of 4,000 persons each.. Weymouth, which sent four members, was to send two; which reductions would lop off 168 members. Those vacant seats in the house were to be filled up by enfranchising large towns, which had not before sent members to parliament, and by augmenting the number of county members. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, and about twenty other towns not before-represented, were brought within the pale of the constitution. Edinburgh, which sent one member by the votes of thirty-three individuals, was to have two members. The propositions were not all carried out as at. first laid down; but in disfranchising the “rotten, boroughs,” and in giving the members to more popular, constituencies, the chief arrangements in the original plan were adhered to. Subsequently, the Marquis of Chandos, now Duke of Buckingham, proposed and carried a clause to enfranchise all tenants-at-will paying rent to the amount of £50 a year, or upwards. Lord John Russell and the ministry opposed this. But it was supported by Mr. Hume and other radical reformers, who said their object was to enfranchise as many of the population as possible; not to exclude any class, not even tenants-at-wijl. The proposition to give new members to counties was not popularly welcomed. But the power given to the forty-shilling freeholders, by these additional measures, was not then understood as it is now.

For lessening the expense of elections non-resident electors were to be disfranchised, and the polling was to be reduced from fourteen days to one day in boroughs, and two days in counties, with numerous new facilities for polling. His lordship expressed himself favourable to shortening the duration of parliaments, but postponed that question as not necessarily a part of the Reform Bill.

The bill was read a first time without a division, after An animated debate which lasted seven days. On the motion for the second reading the debate lasted two days. The speeches were perused with intense interest everywhere, even in such places so socially remote as our bothy, and by persons who, like us, ate less than enough of oatmeal porridge and “sour dook” that we might get the newspapers.

On the 22nd of March the second reading was carried by a majority of one, the votes for the hill being 302, against the hill 301. On the 18th of April, on the motion that the bill be committed, General Gascoyne moved an amendment that the number of members ought not to be diminished, which was carried by 299 to 291, giving a majority against the reform ministry of eight. Three days after this, the ministers were again defeated by 151 to 112, upon a question of adjournment which postponed the voting of supplies. The ministers tendered their resignations to the king, which his majesty would not accept. They were desired to proceed and carry the Reform Bill as best they could, but not to abandon it. They then advised the dissolution of parliament, to which the king readily gave assent, and parliament was instantly dissolved.

Never did the act of a sovereign of England encircle the throne with such popular enthusiasm as this act of King William IV. The bill was looked upon as the king’s own measure. The country was divided into two parties, the anti-reformers, few in number, though politically powerful; and the reformers, including the vast majority of the population. All the different classes of parliamentary reformers united at the elections, and the cry was, “The bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill! ” The anti-reformers were signally defeated in England and Ireland, though in most cases successful in Scotland. Of eighty-two county members in England, all were pledged to support the bill except six, returned for Westmoreland, Bucks, Shropshire, Huntingdon, and Monmouth.

At Edinburgh there were only thirty-three electors, the self-nominated town council. They were entitled to return one member. The candidates were a young man named Bobert Adam Dun das, now known as Robert Adam Christopher, one of the members for Lincolnshire; and Francis Jeffrey, Lord Advocate of Scotland, an eminent lawyer and orator, and distinguished as a literary essayist and reviewer. Four-fifths of the entire male inhabitants of Edinburgh above twenty years of age petitioned the council to elect Mr. Jeffrey; so did the members of the Merchant Chamber, and nearly every other public body. They, however, elected Mr. Dundas. The first petition I ever signed was to the Edinburgh town council in favour of Francis Jeffrey.

Terrible riots ensued, which were in fact only a continuance of the riots which occurred at the illumination of the town on receipt of the news that the second reading of the bill was carried by a majority of one, I was present at the first of those riots.


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