Saturday, 17 December 2016

The Ballad of the Needlemen

A Street Song of the Chartists, from June 1887,
the month of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Alton Locke, Tailor & Poet (1850) by Charles Kingsley,
a novel descriptive of the Chartist Movement and notable
for its indictment of ‘sweating practices’ in the tailoring trade. 

                It was a fine May morning when the Queen called all her Men: 
                ‘The Empress of the Sea and Shore bids ev’ry Warrior 
                To muster in your finery. Hurray my Jubilee!’ 
                ‘Gad! Fetch my bloody tailor!’ roared General Slaughtermore.

                So summoned from his Sweatshop lair the Tailor in despair
                Knocked, cap in hand, upon the Door where Fate held much in store.
                ‘Here mend my Scarlet Jacket for my best dress Uniform!
                ‘Be quick about it, damn you,’ swore General Slaughtermore.

                ‘But Debt there is, no small amount, you owe on your account,’
                The Poor Man begged his senior, who yelled, ‘I’ll have no more
                Of your impertinence! Be gone! And sweat ’til Tunic’s done
                Lest your Milords put to the Sword the Lower Order Hordes!’

                And so, dismayed, with Jacket frayed, the Tailor sped unpaid
                To Cellar floor where he deplored the Laws that scorn the Poor,
                ‘By Rogues we’re led to bow unfed to Queen, denied our Bread!
                Comrades, abhor this Man of Straw, General Slaughtermore!

                ‘My Lads, our Purse,’ the Tailor cursed, ‘is empty and, what’s worse,
                Our Plight’s ignored and set as naught; none spares a second thought
                For men as pale as Tailor’s Chalk that are by Hunger stalked,
                Who suffer Fraud so splendour gauds General Slaughtermore!’

                Such men must thence seek recompense. Denied their daily pence,
                They barter tawdry Rags well-worn with Shylock Usurers
                For Farthings paid to stay the Pain of Starving that’s profaned 
                By Evil’s most Outrageous Cause: General Slaughtermore!

                So through the Night, by Candlelight, they sewed, their Faces White
                With Morbid Thoughts of Cholera that no man should endure,
                Until the Dawn, their souls in pawn, they paused with fingers torn
                To ask wherefore was Squalor borne to vaunt Lord Slaughtermore?

                No clothes they had, they sat unclad, for Destiny forbade
                Them fuel and gruel, Fair Dues for All that each man sweated for.
                Among aigrettes and epaulettes, gold frogging and bad debts
                They sat forlorn, their hopes outworn, suborned by Slaughtermore.

                But then a deadly chill there crept into that room unslept,
                ‘Alack! Because a bed of straw is all we have that’s warm,’
                The Tailor said, ‘Let’s make our Bed from Cloth that’s Scarlet Red
                It’s Time we wore the Uniform adorning Slaughtermore!’

                So turn by turn, their Labours spurned, the men slept, for they’d earned
                The right to slumber dressed for Wars far worse than Soldiers fought 
                And so they lay, until a Maid arrived to fetch away 
                The Splendid Mended Uniform of Our Lord Slaughtermore.


                In mansion grand, a gay riband was tied by fondest hand
                On hair that gloried the adorèd daughter of Slaughtermore.
                ‘For fun! A game!’ the child exclaimed. ‘The Coat of Papa’s fame,
                I’ll wear with skirts to frighten Nurse astride my rocking horse!’

                Thus Daughter straightway sealed Her Fate. Death Indiscriminate
                Sent Plague marauding Tailors Poor and Infant Eleanor.
                When dreaded Scarlet Fever’s bred in Scarlet Jacket thread
                Whom should we mourn as Maggots gnaw the Slain of Slaughtermore?

A Champion of Sweatshop Workers.

A close relative of mine and an incisive social historian reminds me that 1866 – one hundred and fifty years ago – saw the founding of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses, and he draws interesting parallels between the reformist campaigns of the Chartist Movement and the polemics that scorch the pages of one of the most popular works of that great Champion of Sweatshop Workers, Charles Kingsley, whose Alton Locke, Tailor & Poet (1850) inspired the foregoing verses. The contemporary cartoon, above, is by the Punch artist, John Leech. 

This Ballad was prompted by the passage from Alton Locke cited below, a novel descriptive of the Chartist Movement with which Kingsley was involved in the 1840s, and notable for its indictment of 'sweating practices' in the tailoring trade. In this novel, Kingsley set out to expose the social injustices suffered by workers in the clothing trade, with the tale told through the trials and tribulations of a young tailor-boy.

The Testimony of a Tailor.

[From Alton Locke.] ‘Men ought to know the condition of those by whose labour they live [for they put on] their backs accursed garments, offered in sacrifice to devils, reeking with the sighs of the starving, tainted—yes, tainted, indeed, for it comes out now that diseases numberless are carried home in these same garments from the miserable abodes where they are made. Evidence to this effect was given in 1844; but Mammon was too busy to attend to it. These wretched creatures, when they have pawned their own clothes and bedding, will use as substitutes the very garments they are making. So Lord —’s coat has been seen covering a group of children blotched with small-pox. The Rev. — finds himself suddenly unpresentable from a cutaneous disease, which it is not polite to mention on the south of Tweed, little dreaming that the shivering dirty being who made his coat has been sitting with his arms in the sleeves for warmth while he stitched at the tails. The charming Miss — is swept off by Typhus or Scarlatina, and her parents talk about “God’s heavy judgment and visitation”—had they tracked the girl’s new riding-habit back to the stifling undrained hovel where it served as a blanket to the fever-stricken slopworker, they would have seen why God had visited them, seen that His judgments are true judgments, and give His plain opinion of the system which “speaketh good of the covetous whom God abhorreth”—a system, to use the words of the “Morning Chronicle’s” correspondent, “unheard of and unparalleled in the history of any country—a scheme so deeply laid for the introduction and supply of under-paid labour to the market, that it is impossible for the working man not to sink and be degraded, by it into the lowest depths of wretchedness and infamy—a system which is steadily and gradually increasing, and sucking more and more victims out of the honourable trade, who are really intelligent artizans, living in comparative comfort and civilization, into the dishonourable or sweating trade in which the slopworkers are generally almost brutified by their incessant toil, wretched pay, miserable food, and filthy homes.”

Sartor Resartus . . . Thomas Paine, ‘the Rebellious Needleman’.

The use of the term ‘needleman’ (for tailor) attracted the notice of Thomas Carlyle whose 1836 novel, Sartor Resartus (meaning ‘the tailor re-tailored’), is supposedly an oblique nod to republican Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man, the revolutionary Carlyle dubbed ‘the Rebellious Needleman’. Paine was the son of a corset-maker and practiced in stay-making when young.

No comments:

Post a Comment