Journals 3.2 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 2)

This is the second part of my article on George’s journal.  For the first part, please see the entry posted on 15th June 2015.

exchange manchester

The Exchange in Manchester, pictured in 1835.

George offered his opinions as to the state of Ireland in general, attributing much of their problems to ‘internal discord’, particularly in the world of politics, with parties that ‘agree in scarcely a single point; and their interests and sympathies are so different, that they cannot unite on common ground for their mutual good.’ However, the worst culprit, according to George, was England:

It is well known, that since the conquest of Ireland, nearly 700 years ago, the English have done all in their power to destroy, or at least, completely Anglicize, the ancient Celtic race; and, at different times, have made use of various means, both peaceful and warlike, to accomplish their design.

Especially onerous for Ireland, according to George, was English taxation:

Ireland, too, is crushed by taxation. English laws press heavily upon the wealthy classes of Ireland, as well as the poor. Every energy, – every interest – is taxed. But the most unjust of all taxes, is the “Church rates.”

This was a source of considerable resentment in Ireland, where the predominantly Catholic population was taxed in order to support the Protestant churches. Even George, whose anti-Catholic sentiments are a recurring theme throughout the book, considered this to be unfair. The Compulsory Church Rates Abolition Act was eventually passed in 1868.

George headed for Scotland next, and even before he arrived on dry land an issue arose that would prove to be the theme of his tour of Scotland: the Scottish liked a drink. On board the Royal Mail steamer Thetis, bound for Glasgow, he was offered some ale by a young Scottish lady:

Only think of a nice Scotch lassie, just out of her teens, and withal very pretty, lady-like and intelligent, – with a beer jug in her pocket! – and with a hearty “good morning to ye,” poking it directly in one’s face at such an early hour in the morning! In New England, she would be considered a fit subject for the Insane Hospital; but here every body drinks ale, – every body has their jug, – and beer jugs and sandwiches are as plenty here as apples and cakes at a Yankee muster. Their drinking, besides, is accompanied by smoking and snuffing that knows no end.

George, an advocate of temperance, was disappointed by the alcoholism wherever he went in Scotland, and was particularly troubled by the church’s silence on the issue:

I have heard four prayers today, and in each of them the fervent petitions were offered up for the health, prosperity, and final salvation of the Queen, her loving consort, and all the members of the Royal family; but no prayer have I heard yet, for the destruction of the innumerable grog-shops, that have been open in the city this whole day, to make thousands drunk. I think I never saw a more motley crowd than throngs High Street on the Sabbath. I can count from my window more than a dozen grog-shops, with groups of idlers and drinkers standing before each; and if two-thirds of them are not drunk, it is probably because it is too early in the evening.

This observation was made in Edinburgh, where George visited the ‘Closes’, a series of narrow alleyways and courtyards. He found the architecture imposing, with alleys passing between houses of many stories, ‘more like immense fissures or rents in a wall of rock, than the streets of a populous city.’ The Closes were sadly the site of even more poverty for George to witness:

All these Closes are now inhabited by the poorest people. From top to bottom, every room in these lofty houses, is occupied by a family; here they eat, drink, sleep, perform their daily tasks, sicken and die, in a room not more than fifteen feet square, at best, and many of them much smaller; and in the midst of filth and wretchedness such as can be found only in European cities. A large share of the crime in Edinburgh, is committed in these Closes, and they give a shelter to dark depravity that seldom sees the light of day.

Returning to Glasgow, George found some hope for the future amongst the poverty:

On my return from the church, however, I found Christianity in the street. There is a Ragged School in Glasgow, where one hundred and forty boys are acquiring the elements of a useful education, and learning trades. They are the children of drunken parents residing within the limits of the city. We saw all these boys marching home from meeting, in regular rank and file, the pictures of health and neatness. Blessings on those institutions which take ragged and starving children from homes degraded and miserable, and make them good men and women.

Back in England, George visited Manchester, which he found to be very similar to Liverpool, ‘though in many respects more gloomy and forbidding. The sun is so completely veiled, that it cannot be said that the inhabitants enjoy its beneficient influence.’ Manchester had been completely transformed by the Industrial Revolution, and during the 19th Century came to be known as ‘Cottonopolis’, due to its enormous textile industry. This had some unfortunate consequences for the machine operators. At the Royal Infirmary, which impressed George greatly, he was struck by the huge number of injured children:

A very large per centage of the whole were boys: and one little fellow, not more than twelve years old, showed us his right arm, from which his hand had been taken three weeks before. He told us his hand had been crushed in machinery.

George visited several factories and was very concerned about working conditions.

They do not appear to be fit places for human beings, especially women and children. These constitute the greatest part of the operatives, and as improvements in machinery are made, their numbers, in proportion, are greatly increasing. The moral and physical effect of the factory system cannot but be injurious. The children employed are mere machines, employed to keep other machinery in motion. There is no exercise for the mind; the machine is before them, and their task is to keep pace with it.

George also found a large number of children at the New Bailey, one of the largest prisons in Europe at the time, following extensions earlier in the century.

Unfortunately for us, the Court was in session, and the magistrates, from whom orders of admission had to be procured, were all engaged, and we were not permitted to see but a small part of it; but we saw enough to confirm what we had already suspected, that a large proportion of the convicts were boys, many of them quite small; a large number of them were there for the second, and even the third time; some of these boys were confined in dark, gloomy cells, for a breach of prison rules, and others had suffered still more rigorous punishments for crimes actually committed after they entered the prison.

George believed that the problem of youth crime was due to a lack of education, and being born into a life of crime: ‘the want of education and moral culture, the bad example of parents, and the seductive influence of bad associates of their own age’. He offered some statistics from a recent prison report:

Of 13,345 persons committed to prison during one year, 6971 could neither read nor write; 5162 could read and write imperfectly; 992 could read and write well, and 220 had received a superior education. Of 3420 women, who were imprisoned during the same time, 2070, or more than half, could neither read nor write, and only 132 could read and write well!

Birmingham proved to be a more positive destination for George, and he was impressed by the range of skills, and how accomplished the local workers had become at their local trades. He was astonished at the degree to which people specialised in one particular aspect of a trade:

The divisions and subdivisions of mechanical labor here are astonishing. No man is allowed to attend to but one branch of work, and this never forms but a small part of the labor that is necessary to finish any article of merchandise. What is considered a trade in America, is here divided into an hundred branches, as distinct and separate as the business of a watchmaker and a blacksmith. What should we think in New England of a man devoting his whole life to making coffin-nails, or dog-collars, or tooth-picks, or fishhooks, or cock-heel spurs, or dog-chains, yet these, and thousands of others of less importance, are distinct occupations. From this it will be seen, that a great variety of trades in Birmingham, are divided and subdivided into many distinct branches; and probably this is what gives to its merchandise such an enviable reputation all over the world. It is the most perfect in its kind, and this perfection is derived from consumate art and practice. When a man, for instance, devotes his whole life to the manufacture of coffin-nails, it might be reasonably expected that he would become somewhat perfect by the time he had need to use articles of his own manufacture. But for a man to be always confined to that business, to the exclusion of everything else, or to be bound to a pin-head, from his cradle to his grave, does not appear compatible with the dignity of human nature, or consistent with the proper aims of human life.

We will return to George’s journal in a few days.  In the meantime, please click the “Follow Windows into History” button on the right of the screen if you would like to receive an email each time a new entry is posted on this blog.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to Journals 3.2 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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