Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists
By Robert Tressall
(The life-story of an English house-painter who died of consumption, leaving behind him a manuscript portraying the pitiful lives of the half-starved English artisans. Published in book form, it proved to be one of the literary events of the year 1914. In the character of Owen, the author here tells of his own efforts to awaken his fellow-workers in England)
TOWARD the end of March the outlook began to improve. By the middle of April Rushton and Company were working eleven and a half hours a day. In May, as the jobs increased and the days grew longer, they were allowed to put in overtime; and, as the summer months came round, once more the crowd of ragged-trousered philanthropists began to toil and sweat at their noble and unselfish task of making money for Mr. Rushton. Papering, painting, white-washing, distempering, digging up drains, repairing roofs, their zeal and enthusiasm were unbounded. Their operations extended all over the town. At all hours of the day they were to be seen going to or returning from jobs, carrying planks and ladders, paint and whitewash, chimney pots and drain pipes, a crowd of tattered Imperialists, in broken boots, paint-splashed caps, their clothing saturated with sweat and plastered with mortar. The daily spectacle of the workmen, tramping wearily home along the pavement of the Grand Parade, caused some annoyance to the better classes, and a letter appeared in The Obscurer suggesting that it would be better if they walked on the road. When they heard of this letter most of the men adopted the suggestion and left the pavement for their betters.
On the jobs themselves, meanwhile, the same old conditions prevailed, the same frenzied hurry, the same scamping of the work, slobbering it over, cheating the customers; the same curses behind the foremans back, the same groveling in his presence, the same strident bellowing from Misery: Get it Done! For Gords sake, get it Done! Avent you finished yet? Were losing money over this! If you chaps cant tear into it well have an Alteration! and the result was that the philanthropists often tore into it to such an extent that they worked themselves out of a job, for business fluctuated, and occasionally everybody was stood off for a few days.
They were putting new floors where the old ones were decayed, and making two rooms into one by demolishing the parting wall and substituting an iron girder. They were replacing window frames and sashes, replastering cracked ceilings and walls, cutting openings and fitting doors where no doors had ever been before. They were taking down broken chimney pots and fixing new ones in their places. They were washing the old whitewash off the ceilings, and scraping the old paper off the walls. The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes and the scraping of the stripping knives. It was also heavily laden with dust and disease germs, powdered mortar, lime, plaster, and the dirt that had been accumulating within the old house for years. In brief, those employed there might be said to be living in a Tariff Reform Paradisethey had Plenty of Work.
At twelve oclock Bob Crass, the painters foreman, blew a prolonged blast upon a whistle and all hands assembled in the kitchen, where Bert the apprentice had already prepared the tea in the large galvanized iron pail placed in the middle of the floor. By the side of the pail were a number of old jam jars, mugs, dilapidated teacups, and one or two empty condensed milk tins. Each man on the job paid Bert threepence a week for the tea and sugarthey did not have milkand although they had tea at breakfast time as well as at dinner the lad was generally considered to be making a fortune.
As each man came in he filled his cup, jam jar, or condensed milk tin with tea from the steaming pail, before sitting down. Most of them brought their food in little wicker baskets, which they held on their laps, or placed on the floor beside them.
At first there was no attempt at conversation and nothing was heard but the sounds of eating and drinking and the frizzling of the bloater which Easton, one of the painters, was toasting on the end of a pointed stick at the fire.
I dont see no sense in always grumblin, Crass proceeded; these things cant be altered. You cant expect there can be plenty of work for everyone with all this ere labor-savin machinery whats been invented.
Of course, said Harlow, the people what used to be employed on the work whats now done by machinery has to find something else to do. Some of em goes to our trade, for instance. The result is theres too many at it, and there aint enough work to keep em all goin.
It doesnt seem to me to amount to the same thing, Owen replied. In my opinion we are all in a state of poverty even when we have employment. The condition we are reduced to when were out of work is more properly described as destitution.
Poverty, continued Owen after a short silence, consists in a shortage of the necessaries of life. When those things are so scarce or so dear that people are unable to obtain sufficient of them to satisfy all their needs, they are in a condition of poverty. If you think that the machinery which makes it possible to produce all the necessaries of life in abundance is the cause of the shortage, it seems to me there must be something the matter with your minds.
If there wasnt something wrong with your minds, continued Owen, you would be able to see that we might have Plenty of Work and yet be in a state of destitution. The miserable wretches who toil sixteen or eighteen hours a dayfather, mother, and even the little childrenmaking matchboxes, or shirts or blouses, have Plenty of Work, but I for one dont envy them. Perhaps you think that if there was no machinery, and we all had to work thirteen or fourteen hours a day in order to obtain a bare living, we should not be in a condition of poverty? Talk about there being something the matter with your mindsif there were not you wouldnt talk one day about Tariff Reform as a remedy for unemployment, and then the next day admit that machinery is the cause of it! Tariff Reform wont do away with machinery, will it?
In the near future, continued Owen, it is probable that horses will be almost entirely superseded by motor cars and electric trams. As the services of horses will no longer be required, all but a few will die out; they will no longer be bred to the same extent as formerly. We cant blame the horses for allowing themselves to be exterminated. They have not sufficient intelligence to understand whats being done. Therefore, they will submit tamely to the extinction of the greater number of their kind.
As we have seen, a great deal of the work which was formerly done by human beings is now being done by machinery. This machinery belongs to a few people; it is being worked for the benefit of those few, just the same as were the human beings it displaced.
These few have no longer any need of the services of so many human workers, so they propose to exterminate them! The unnecessary human beings are to be allowed to starve to death! And they are also to be taught that it is wrong to marry and breed children, because the Sacred Few do not require so many people to work for them as before!