Harkive: ‘A Year of My Life’

‘A Year of My Life’ appeared in October of 1891 in The New Review (1889–1897), a short-lived journal edited by the Labour politician Archibald Grove. The article details some of Harkness’s experiences traveling through Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, and briefly, America. This article is significant for its consideration of the status of ‘slummer’ in these countries, and the ways in which the poorest – and often unemployed – residents of urban centres are deeply important to what she refers to as the ‘Labour question’. This article also provides an account of Harkness’s ambitions to move beyond what she believed to be the limited achievements of the 1889 London Dock Strike, and offers some suggestion of her personal methods of endurance and persistence in the face of political disappointment.

Source: ‘A Year of My Life’. The New Review, October 1891, p. 375–84. Accessible via 19th Century British Periodicals, sourced from the British Library.


A Year of My Life

When Lord Carington was Governor of New South Wales he frequently made use of the following story in his speeches, in order to show how much worthless information is carried back to England by people who think a few weeks, or months, sufficient time in which to study the Colonies.

“Australia,” wrote a man, “abounds with Kangaroos and Boomerangs.”

I wish to bear this anecdote in mind while writing my short sketch of the past year; for although I have visited many countries and peoples, I have not seen much of them. At the same time I must confess to what the past year has taught me; for I believe that many members of the English Labour Party would think as I do at present had they spent twelve months on the continent of Europe, in America, in the Australian Colonies, and New Zealand. I will ask my readers to pardon the personal tone of the sketch, because in no other way can I bring it into compass.

It is a year since I said to myself, “I must see and know more before I can do any further work as a member of the English Labour Party.” The Dock Strike had made an epoch; for with it the unskilled worker had taken his place amongst men, had become a “divine animal.” It is well for the old and the new Trades Unionists to forget the chasm that lay between the skilled and the unskilled workers in England before the Dock Strike; for harmony is increased by such forgetfulness. But people who are not Trades Unionists remember very well that two years ago the skilled workers looked down upon the unskilled workers, and that the unskilled workers had no friends in England except the Socialists.

“My father’s a tradesman,” boasted the little School Board snob to the labourer’s son; in other words, “My father’s a member of the English Labour Aristocracy.” The Dock Strike bridged the chasm between the skilled the unskilled workers; and the leaders of the latter were the first to stretch out a hand to the old Trades Unionists. “We work for all, instead of for some,” said these leaders. “We are young and aggressive, but we wish you well.” The old Trades Unionists accepted the proffered hand, and said, “You shall see that we – the aristocracy of labour – are not prejudiced or narrow-minded.”

The real fundamental difference between the two parties lies in the fact that the old Trades Unionists dread State interference, while the new Trades Unionists look upon the State as their servant. The latter are the pupils of the Socialists. There is no doubt that the brief success of the Socialist Party in England was due to its advocacy of the cause of the unskilled worker just before he broke his shell and became a “divine animal.” In history this will be written down, and those men who made the bravest and most unselfish efforts on behalf of the unskilled workers before the Dock Strike will not be forgotten, although their Socialistic dream may be called a mistake and foolish.

The chief matter for regret at the present time is that the energy spent in declamation, personal vilification, and the advocacy of wholesale methods of salvation cannot be directed into useful channels. Alas! The people who did such good work a few years ago now stand still, with their eyes fixed on a far-off Millennium for which we all hope and pray, but which is very distant. Instead of working they kick up dust to blind themselves, and stifle their companions. They cannot realise the infinitesimal part which Socialism played in the evolution of the unskilled workers; if they could understand this, humility would lay the dust, and they would learn patience. Improved educational opportunities and the lowering of the Franchise helped most of all in the evolution of the masses who now call themselves “New Trades Unionists” and “Members of the Labour Party.” Bitter cries from people who felt the position of the unskilled workers a disgrace to England, angry threats from Socialists, the patient work of certain modern economists, and the quiet but effective labours of “Trades Union” ladies amongst working women, all helped to bring about the crisis, but these things only helped because they worked with, and not against, the great natural laws which we must all obey, although most of us obey blindly.

Now, my principle interest is with a class below the unskilled labourers: I mean the scum of our population that haunts the slums of our great cities. The skilled and unskilled workers have always had my best wishes that they may enjoy more of this world’s good things, and become nobler men and women. “What can be done for the slummers?” I asked myself after May Day, 1890. Their cause appeared to be put back by the Dock Strike , for everyone’s attention seemed to be absorbed by the New Trades Unionists.

I had fixed my hopes on a Labour Party in Parliament, composed of men representing the unskilled workers and the slummers; but the Dock Strike had taught me that it is almost useless and sometimes dangerous to represent people whose demands have not been made clear by themselves. The idea that if Parliament is laid hold of by the workers, capitalists can be rendered important, and the workers can enter the land of promise, has always seemed to me but the ranting of middle-class people whose limited experience and influence make them harmless. Put before the slummer (who has not gone beyond the mere desire for animal gratification) the means of physical and intellectual refinement, and he will only use such thinks for purposes of demoralisation. The Dock Strike showed me clearly that a large section of the unskilled labourers can now be represented in Parliament; but that no Labour Party can supply improved conditions for the slummers until the slummers rise in the social scale and make their demands effective.

So I determined to study the Labour question upon the Continent. The German Emperor had just issued his Labour Manifesto, and I thought that I would see what was likely to come of it. The Kaiser was most gracious. I learnt his intentions, and these were very simple, namely, to remove every reasonable ground of complaint from the workers, but to shoot them down if they attempted insurrection. Prince Bismarck had feared the Socialists; the young German Emperor fears no one. So he had cut the ground from beneath the feet of the Socialists, and had left their leaders with nothing to do but to quarrel who should, and who should not, lead a party of middle-class discontents.

The workers of Europe are obliged to use Socialists and Anarchists as mouthpieces; but this does not mean that they advocate Socialism or Anarchism. If they were allowed freedom of organisation we should not hear so much of the Socialist parties and Anarchist plots on the Continent. It is only by going amongst the workers of Europe that one can learn the real strength of Socialism and Anarchism, for the organs of these parties are very misleading. I was amused to read in a German Socialist paper that the Dock Strike had been the outcome of Marxist agitation in England. This information had been given by some Socialists in London, and it was firmly believed by the Socialists who read it on the Continent.

I visited the Felshammer district, where the great strikes had taken place before the Emperor called the Labour Conference in Berlin, and I found that the proposed legislation would satisfy the miners, but that if the new laws were not passed the people would rebel. “Why?” I asked myself. Because the workers in Germany had reached that stage in their evolution when less work and more money had become absolutely necessary for their mental and moral development. They demanded a ten hours day, protection of machinery, and legislation lessening the hours of labour for women and children all over the Fatherland.

I did not find any aristocracy of labour in Germany, but a low average of wages all round, much Sunday work, and twelve, fourteen, and sixteen hours daily labour for me both in town and country. A very large number of the workers were out of employment, although Germany has no huge industries like those in our islands. There was more outward comfort, more thrift, and cleanliness than in England; but also real poverty – such poverty as eats into the very hearts of men and women. I looked in vain for slums in German cities. Such places would not be allowed in a country where everyone is under military discipline from the Emperor’s little son to the milkwoman. The Berlin police have the name and the address of every man and woman in the city, so they know what everyone is doing. Of course this would be a difficult system to carry out in a wilderness like London, moreover, Englishmen would not submit to such interference; but it works well in German cities, and prevents wholesale hunger and wretchedness. While I was in Berlin a man was found dead from starvation in the Thiergarten, and the fact sent a shudder through the whole country. What were the police about? the papers demanded.

I would like to take this opportunity of impressing upon the members of the Labour Commission that if they wish wise legislation to follow upon their inquiries, it is important that they should send responsible people to study the labour questions on the Continent. We have much to learn from Germany, and still more from Austria, with regard to the treatment of paupers, loafers, and out-of-works. These people have not been ignored on the Continent, as has been the case with us; and we, the laisser-faire nation, should not be above learning from our neighbours. We need not copy them in everything; the character of each nation has to be taken into consideration; but we should confess our stupidity and ignorance, for we let our people starve, and then say that we cannot help it.

Every student of social subjects should visit Vienna. There the Arbeitscheuer, or loafer, meets with very severe treatment; but the old citizens have beautiful homes of rest where they can enjoy themselves, without restraint, and with independence.

The way we punish ancient paupers for the sin of poverty is simply barbarous. The saddest sight I ever witnessed was an old man making coffins for paupers in a London workhouse.

“I’ve been making coffins fifteen years,” he told me, “and I wish I was making one for myself.”

In Vienna every old man or woman, over the age of seventy, or younger if in feeble health, can obtain admittance to a Versorgungs Haus. Men and women are lodged in different wings of the building, but the married people meet in the corridors and gardens whenever they like, husbands and wives go out together every afternoon, and spend one whole day out together each week. All day long friends and relations come and go, bringing food and clothes, and sometimes money with them. The institution provides a uniform, but the inmates can wear their own clothes if they like. Meals are served in a refectory, and it is delightful to see the old men and women enjoying their dinners, which they bring themselves from the kitchen. Every five days each inmate receives 1 gulden 30 kreutzers (about 6d. per day), which is supposed to cover all the expenses of the institution; the money gives the inmates a feeling of independence, and when friends and relations furnish a little assistance, the lives of the old men and women in the Versorgungs Haus are very comfortable and pleasant. The old women sit in the corridors with their knitting, the old men smoke in the beautiful gardens, while grandchildren play about, and babies supply “family music.”

In the asiles, or casual wards, men and women receive supper, bed, bath, and breakfast, and are sent off at daybreak to look for work. If no successful they come back in the evening. The idea of making casual work in return for food, bath, and lodging would seem to the authorities very ridiculous, because all the loafers and beggars are sent to the Zwangarbeit Haus. There is no disgrace attached to the asile or the workhouse in Vienna. In the latter place light work is done by men and women; but Sundays and holidays they do not work, and once a week they spend the whole day looking for employment. The food is good in the workhouse, the rooms are comfortable, and there is no prison discipline. If a man proves to be idle he is sent to the Zwangarbeit Haus; but if he is industrious the workhouse authorities try to help him, and recognise the fact that it is not a crime to be out of work.

At least 30,000 men will be out of work in the East End of London this winter, and all over England people will want employment. The State recognises the fact that citizens who are destitute of food and shelter must be provided for in the workhouse; but many men would rather die than accept workhouse assistance, and the State does not as yet believe in the right to work, although the condition of the labour market is so artificial that large numbers of men must be constantly out of employment.

When the Labour Commission meets again it will turn its attention to municipally controlled workshops. “A municipal workshop which shall solve the difficulty, should, if possible, develop some new industry, and supply a new want,” says one Commissioner. “No, it must only supply the wants of the people it employs, and not compete with the outside public,” says another.

All agree that the out-of-work question presses for a solution. Mr. Tom Mann, who has been commissioned by Lord Hartington to get up the subject of Municipal Workshops, and present it to his colleagues on the Labour Commission, would be greatly helped if he knew how these things are done on the Continent, where loafers and honest men are not mixed together as with us, and Labour Colonies have been established.

My inquiries on the Labour question were brought to an abrupt conclusion in Vienna by an illness that nearly ended my life. I returned to England just when “General” Booth’s book was published. Darkest England was read by all classes, from the Queen to the washerwoman, and it was patent to us that we had reached a point in our civilisation when it is recognised as a disgrace to have hundreds of thousands of English people starving in dens, leading lives worse than savages. The filth and moral degradation of the English slums fill one with despair. Ink turns to blood when one writes about them, tears make words fall like lead form one’s pen, and despair stretches its gaunt hand over the paper when one sits down to describe the slums of England.

I was once present at a slum christening. It was in a public-house, where I had gone with a Salvation Army Captain to see how the slummers spend their evenings. The mother held the child over the bar, she dipped her fingers in beer, and she marked the child’s forehead with the cross, “in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Hold Ghost.” Is it not a happier fate to be born in an island in the Pacific than in a slum? Who would not rather be a savage than a slum Christian?

I could see that General Booth’s book would do good, but that it could not clear the slums out of England. “What can be done for the slummer?” I asked myself. “The pope’s manifesto is written in milk, but it is suited to the demands of the workers on the Continent,” I said. “The German Emperor’s legislation will satisfy his subjects. But hundreds of thousands of English men, women, and children are starving.”

In March I left England to go round the world because of my health, and it was some weeks before I could think of anything else. But by the time I reached New Zealand, the sea and the stars had taught me lessons which all those who have the Labour cause at heart should learn and practise. I cannot teach these things. Men must go to the sea and learn from Nature. She will sing to them “songs of the universe” that will stop them from fretting and fuming because their own lives seem to be so useless. “What is your sacrifice?” she will ask, pointing to the Southern Cross, “Who are you?” she will demand, when the shop lies deep down in the billows of the ocean.

Then at last she will whisper “Hope,” “Patience.”

They will wonder where the words came from; and while wondering, will recall how they shook a puny fist at evolution because it is slow, how they cursed Progress because it is cautious.

The Labour demand is the same in New Zealand as in Europe. Wages are high, and hours of labour are short, yet workers ask for more money and less work. The slums are on a small scale in the New Zealand towns, and the colonial slummer is, if possible, a lower animal than his brother in England. The great cry of the working men in New Zealand is “One man, one vote,” and Sir George Grey, who advocates this principle, is worshipped by the workers. They forget his threat that grass shall grow again in the streets of the very city that now sends him to Parliament! The country is in debt; for too much money has been spent on railways and roads. No doubt it will have another boom before long, but just now there is a deadness about the place, a sort of lifelessness that depresses visitors. Large fortunes are not made there at present; and the most promising young colonists are leaving for Australia. The men and women born in New Zealand do not care for the Old Country; it is only the colonists who speak of England as “Home.” England counts for nothing with the young people.

I arrived in Australia about the time of the Sydney Election, and found the working men full of what was going to be done by their Labour members in Parliament. Mr. H. H. Champion had been gone some months, and they were recovering from the bitterness of the failure he had prophesied at the time of the strikes. But they were hoping for too much from Parliament. Doubtless, before long, they will cease to pin their faith to wholesale legislation; but now they are inclined to scoff at sectional work – they wish to be universal providers to the labouring public. They have not grasped the truth that humanity is composed of sections; and that only those sections who have made a demand can be represented in Parliament. They ignore the fact that it is of greater importance to be at work increasing the effective economic capacity to consume than it is to supply the relatively small demands of a few sections. However, they ought to be gently handled at present, for they are very sore after their defeat, and very bitter against the capitalists. They need someone to point out that the only way to improve the condition of the workers all over the Colonies is by the development of qualities that will not allow the possessors to be content with animal gratifications and sensual amusements. At present more money means more beer with the greater number of the workers; only a small percentage know how to use high wages for the purpose of mental and moral development.

“Less work, more wages,” is the demand in Australia, as in New Zealand. These things the workers will get, but not without a struggle with the capitalists. The slums of the Australian cities are very bad, and the presence of Celestials makes them worse in many respect than the slums in England. Now that John Chinaman has to pay a heavy poll tax he will, perhaps, stay in his own country. The lesson I learnt in the Colonies is briefly this: “People make their surroundings like themselves, and carry their faults with them into new countries.”

No doubt Australia is the Workman’s Paradise. There is plenty of work there for men, and still more for women. But the work is hard, and the hot climate makes all labour unpleasant in many parts of the Colonies. No one has any idea what a curse drink is who has not seen it in colonial cities. Why do the workers drink so much? Because they have high wages, and the greater number of them have not evolved far enough to enjoy other than the animal gratifications and sensual amusements. John Bull is strong, and he rules the ocean, he has more grit than other nations, his character is magnificent. It is necessary to travel round the globe to understand and appreciate John Bull, for he has planted the standard of Old England everywhere, either under the name of American or Briton. He is capable of endless growth; but he grows slowly, like all big things, and we must wait patiently for his development.

I found social problems the same in America as in the Colonies and in Europe. The Labour question is a world-wide question, and the demand is the same everywhere. “Less work, more wages,” is the universal cry of the workers.

Now I will end my sketch by saying what I have learnt during the last year. I have been taught hope and patience. The slums of England will pass away, but not yet. Just as the unskilled labourer slowly rose up and asserted himself, so the slummer will one day become a “divine animal.” He will need help. Legislation, bitter cries, individual efforts will all be wanted to bring about the crisis; above all things self-abnegation on the part of those who pulse beats with the world’s progress, who cannot be satisfied with narrow ambitions and small interests. We must go to the slummer, and patiently help him to life his heavy feet from the mire; we must give him hope.

A little story I heard in New York will show what I am aiming at. An old woman there, who had spend her life almost entirely in the Tombs, one day received a bunch of flowers from a gentleman who visited the prison. She was sitting with her head in her hands, and her elbows on her knees; and she took no notice of the flowers when the gentleman laid them in her lap. He went away, but presently he heard loud thumping on the prison door. The gaoler went back to see what was wanted. “She wants a cup of water,” the gaoler explained when he returned. “She says that she can strike one of the flowers and make it grow into a plant. She says the flower grew in her garden when she was a small child, somewhere near Boston. Please wait, sir, while I give her the cup of water.” That old woman is now a successful florist. She has never been in the Tombs since she struck the plant.


John Law


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