Harkive: ‘Salvationists and Socialists’ – letters to Justice

This month we continue our series of examples of Margaret Harkness’s periodical publications during her active engagement with socialist politics in Britain in the late 1880s and early 1890s. These excerpts, ranging from letters to the editor to snippets of social investigation, respond both to current events and to representations of herself, her beliefs, and her work in the press, and therefore offer a unique insight into Harkness’s ideological development and self-representation.

The first series of publications is taken from Justice, the organ of the Social Democratic Federation with which, as Deborah Mutch and Terry Elkiss state in their chronology of Harkness (Mutch, ed., A City Girl (2015), pp. 31), Harkness was personally affiliated roughly between 1885 and 1887. Perhaps for this reason, many of her contributions to this periodical, both her letters to the editor and her articles, are signed with her own name, rather than the pseudonym John Law which she had begun to use to sign most of her publications following the appearance of A City Girl in 1887.

This month we explore the dialogue between Harkness and the editor of Justice on the subject of the Salvation Army in early 1888. Harkness had shown her interest in the Salvation Army in A City Girl, and it is the focus of her novel Captain Lobe, serialised in the British Weekly in 1888. The dialogue develops over a contribution by Harkness on an eating house run by a Salvationist, a note on the text from the editor, a letter to the editor from Harkness in response to the note, and a final note from the editor on the letter. In these short passages, a conflict is posited, but not resolved, over the question of whether the provision of affordable food to the very poor works on socialist principles or not. The immediate relief of distress versus the pursuit of political ideals would remain central to Harkness’s political engagement.

Source: Justice, 24 March 1888, p. 2. Microfilm held at the British Library.

SALVATIONISTS AND SOCIALISTS.

Probably the most communistic place in London at the present time is the “feeding place” the Salvation Army has opened in the far East. The officer who took me over it last week interested me very much. He was about fifty, and had been an employer of labour before he joined the army. “I gave up business,” he said, “because somehow or other I felt that the devil was in it.” Of course, Salvationists are so much occupied with endeavours to save sinners from the burning pit that they have little or no time to study the economic questions that occupy the minds of Socialists. “You are servants of man,” said the officer who had found the devil in business when I talked to him about competition. “We are servants of Jesus Christ. There is all the difference.”

The day before my visit 4,000 men and women had been fed in that place, and 500 farthings had been taken from children for basis of soup. The rooms were crowded then with people. While I stood at the bar talking to an officer a small boy came up, followed by three little chaps smaller than himself. It was amusing to see the importance with which he laid down a penny, and order four basins of soup “for all of us.” I  went over the kitchen, and had a long talk with the man who caters for the place. “I mean to make it pay its way,” this man said.  “I had an eating-house outside the London Docks, and that paid me, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t do as much by the army. The General intends to open places like this all over the East End, if this can be made self-supporting, and I mean to do my best by this business. I know the way to buy, and I see that nothing is wasted. Sixteen hours work a day is what I give to the army. I didn’t get my dinner last night till eleven o’clock. The sleeping accommodation is very cheap; by paying one penny a man can get a clean bed, for the sheepskin he ties round his neck and his mattress are constantly baked, the only way in which they can be kept free from vermin. Many a respectable man ‘out of work,” [sic] prefers to sleep on a door step, if the weather is at all fine, rather than lie between the filthy sheets in a “doss house.” A “doss house” bed costs threepence or fourpence; salvation beds cost only one penny. The room is heated by hot water pipes. The officer in charge has exactly the same mattress and sheepskin as the lodgers. Only men can, as yet, be accommodated; but later on they hope to have accommodation for women.”

Perhaps readers may think that a man who sleeps in a salvation bed is pestered about his soul, is kept awake by prayers and thanksgivings. This is a mistake. He may be asked if he is saved—the officer asked me this while standing on a bed, showing me how sheepskins are fastened round the neck; but the officers are busy men, and have not time to spend in pestering sleepy people about salvation. And after all if a man says “God bless you,” instead of “Good morning,” and signs himself, “Yours in the service of the King,” instead of “Yours sincerely,” what does it signify, supposing he is in earnest?

Above the beds is written, “Remember the last words your mother said to you,” or something to that effect; I do not remember the exact text; but it reminded me of the German peasant, who says that he is “alone with his mother’s soul,” when he wishes to express absolute loneliness. Mr. Karl Pearson has spoken of this in one of his essays on socialism. He thinks it a relic of the mother age, confined to Germany. But it is not only the German peasant who says to himself when lonely and hopeless, “Die Mütter! Mütter! Es klingt so wunderlich!” The Englishman feels the same thing under similar circumstances, only he takes care not to let people see what he is feeling. Salvation beds are certainly preferable to free accommodation in the casual ward of a workhouse, where brotherly love is reduced to a bit of bread, or a small tin of thin gruel. In one of these places I saw last Christmas the following inscription; it was written in large, uncouth letters, under the gas jet, on the whitewashed wall, just above the bedstead: —

“I’ve served my queen and my country for fifteen years, and this is what I’ve come to!” That cell had a small stone pit attached to it in which the soldier had been breaking granite. It was cold and dark. The floor dipped in the middle, so a man could not well stand upright. Picking oakum is bad enough, even when one knows how to do it on an old boot, but breaking stones requires a knack that many men never get. The casual who breaks stones best (so the master of that casual ward told me) is a little hunch-back; he squats down on the ground and enjoys his own cleverness.

It will be interesting to see if this Salvation feeding-place really becomes self-supporting. The soup is good, and has meat in it. Coffee and tea are of the same strength as Lockhart’s; and other provisions resemble the fare that Lockhart puts before the public. A man can live there for threepence per day, and get a bed for another penny. The rooms are warm and clean. Men are free to come and go; no restraint is put on anybody. Of course people like Professor Leone Levi will say that such a place does mischief, by keeping alive the scum of London. But the scum does not come there in any appreciable quantity; it has generally something better to do than to sleep in a penny bed and eat a penny breakfast. The scum consists of parasites, not hungry men and women. “We’ve got to know the loafers about here already,” one of the officers told me. “A loafer never has the fierce look that you see on the face of a man who is starving.” That loafers can easily be left out in any attempt to help hungry men I can bear witness, for this winter I have distributed food tickets and newspapers to these men at the London Docks, or St. Katherine’s, who are turned away by contractors at half-past seven o’clock in the morning. After a fortnight I learnt to know the East End loafer’s face as well as I can recognise a West End masher by his dress and movements. Both are parasites; both have an inane expression of countenance that seems to say, “I ought to be swept clean off the face of society.” I am not aware what Socialists think of Salvationists, but I know that the latter are very favourably disposed towards “the servants of men.” General Booth has lately expressed his respect for Socialists in public. The two organisations ought to work more together than they do at present, they have many points of common interest. For our respect the army teaches us a great lesson. It has never split up. It is one large labour union.

MARGARET E. HARKNESS.

(The Salvation Army is a remarkable product of modern-day Christianity and its extraordinary development and energy form a standing rebuke to the orthodox churches. While giving them the fullest credit, however, for their good intentions in the matter dealt with by our contributor we cannot forbear pointing out that the providing of cheap “feeding-places,” a la [sic] Lockhart is scarcely communistic, and indeed it is very questionable if it does not ultimately aggravate the evils it aims at remedying.—ED.)

 

Source: Justice, 14 April 1888, p. 2. Microfilm held at the British Library.

To the Editor of JUSTICE.

Sir,—I am sorry my article on Salvationists and Socialists led you to think that the “feeding-place” in the West India Dock Road is “a la [sic] Lockhart.” It neither overworks its hands, nor does it attempt to make a profit. I call it communistic because it is carried on in the socialist spirit.

“We are all Socialists now,” a young stockbroker said to me last week at the headquarters of the Army in Queen Victoria Street. Socialism must be looked at from its moral, as well as its economic aspect. Men and women cannot be left to starve while Socialists are waiting for a Social Revolution, or laying siege to the ballot box. Nothing saps a man’s energy like being hungry.

Surely those men who showed the white feather in Trafalgar Square last November must have been starving. Otherwise they would not have run away and have left those few well-fed Socialists who were willing to face swords or bullets.

The theory that the worse things get the more people will become Socialists is not true with regard to hungry men and women. They grow hopeless. A man cannot be fed or housed at present by economics. But let a man of normal strength see that Socialism must come, because it is the next step in the evolution of society, and he will work for it, he will influence other men to become Socialists.

The real enemies of capitalists and landlords are men above line the [sic] of starvation. Much energy is wasted among such men at present. They know what they want; but they do not know how to get it.

Yours fraternally,

MARGARET E. HARKNESS.

[We quite agree with our correspondent in what she says about starving men and women but we believe that the provision of food—and work—for these should be made a public function, and the fact that such organisations as the Salvation Army provide cheap or free meals in the worst districts is likely to militate against this being done, much in the same way as the charity dinners now being provided in some of the poorer schools militate against the provision of free meals all round. As to the place being “a la [sic] Lockhart,” our correspondent told us that the meals were of the same quality as those provided by that well-known caterer of cheap—if not nice—food and drink. We understood, too, from our correspondent that the man in charge works 16 hours a day.—ED.]

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