Harkive: ‘The Loafer. What Shall We Do with Him’

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 article below is a contribution by Harkness to the Labour Elector, printed at the height of the London Dockworkers’ Strike of August-October 1889, in which Harkness was actively involved. The explicitly political weekly under the editorship of H. H. Champion reported extensively on the Strike. Harkness’s account of her conversations with striking dockworkers reflects some of the periodical’s priorities, such as the movement for an eight-hour working day, which the Labour Elector had been arguing for throughout the summer of 1889. Her primary personal concern in this article, however, is the ‘loafer’ – the casual worker perceived as undermining other workers’ efforts to organise.

The notion of the ‘loafer’ as opportunistic and parasitical emerges repeatedly in Harkness’s work. In A City Girl (1887) and Captain Lobe (1889), the term ‘loafer’ functions as shorthand for a social ‘type’, generally male, who is reluctant to work and willing to allow friends and relations to maintain them. In this article, the definition includes those who are willing to accept casual labour.

Harkness would remain preoccupied with social schemes to solve what she perceives to be the problem of ‘loafers’ competing for casual work with unionised workers; in this article, she expresses herself strongly in favour of institutional solutions such as labour colonies.

Source: The Labour Elector, 21 September 1889, p. 180. Available from the British Library.



I am told that the apostle of the East End, the Rev. SAMUEL BARNETT, who is away for a holiday, says that, instead of coming back to help with the Strike, he will spend his time in cogitating over the future of those Dockers, who must, when work at the Docks becomes more regular, be thrust off the lowest rung of the social ladder into the limbo beneath.

That limbo consists, Mr. CHARLES BOOTH (the Apostle of Statistics), tells us, “of some occasional labourers, street-sellers, loafers, criminals, and semi-criminals.” Mr. BOOTH puts this lowest class at 11,000, or 1.40th of the population of East London. The class above it, which consists of casual workers, THE VERY POOR, Mr. BOOTH places at 100,000, or 11¾ per cent. of the whole population. These two classes he tells us are mixed up; that is to say, many men call themselves casual labourers, who are nothing better than loafers and semi-criminals, while many men fall every day from the ranks of the casual workers into the deeps below. When dock work becomes more regular, a large number of Dockers will no doubt be thrust down amongst the loafers, criminals and semi-criminals, will starve, or go into the workhouse. It is over these men the apostle of the East End is cogitating.

So far as I can see, the only thing that can be done for them is to press on with the Eight Hours Movement; to relieve them by drawing of from the Docks those men who are willing to work in any other direction when they can find an opening. An Eight Hours Bill would absorb the surplus supply of labour, it seems to me, not only at the Docks, but at similar places to which men flock when they cannot get permanent employment. We must remove the cause of the evils from which they are suffering, instead of tinkering at the effect. Let the apostle of the East End think of it.

But sorry as I feel for these men, I know that it is better, far better, to have 15,000 men in the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association, than a mass of people struggling at the Dock gates for a few pence. It is a case, a hard case, of the survival of the fittest. The unskilled worker is by this “Tanner” Strike showing that he is determined to throw off incapables, loafers, and parasites.

“ ‘Dock rats,’ people call us,” a docker said to me bitterly last night. “The public has mixed us up with the miserable rabble that infests the East End. ‘Only a dock-rat,’ that’s what I’ve been called ever since I lost my place, and became a docker.”

This man had been a skilled artisan.

“I’ve worked side by side with a doctor that had sunk down through drink,” he continued, “and I could tell you the names of half-a-dozen men that used to be clergymen. All the scum of London come to the Docks, and an honest man has no chance. I’ve seen mates crushed, one of my mates had both his legs broke, just struggling for a crust of bread. There, I can’t talk of it.”

He walked away, leaving a group of half a dozen men earnestly discussing the Strike, and the future of the Docker.

These men had all been members of the Tea Operatives and General Labourers [sic] Association for eighteen months.

“What about the rest?” I asked.

“Well,” one man said, “the landlords know there will be a lot of work for us when we do go in, so they are not so very pressing, but the lodging houses are full, for so many people have had notice to quit. The street I live in was near cleared out this morning.”

“Are you going to give in?”

“Give in,” they said, “why we’d be treated worse than dogs if we went in now, better die in the streets than that.”

“What about the 1st of October?”

They shook their heads.

“If we don’t get the ‘tanner’ now, we’ll never see it,” they answered. “Mr. BURNS and all of ’em will go away. We’d have to strike again, and if we’d not got JOHN BURNS to help us we’d get no money from the public.”

“What do your wives think?”

“Well most of them wish Mr. BURNS would clear out of the job. They’ve the landlord at them all day, and the children hungry. But it’s no good to give in, we must go on with it.”

Then I asked where the loafers had been all this time, because I know them well, and have not seen them at the meetings, or in the processions.

“They’ve just cleared out,” was the reply. “They don’t belong to us. It’s them that’s given us a bad name. When we get this tanner and go in we’ll take good care that the loafer doesn’t interfere with us.”

I walked away thinking of the class which is no class, of the loafers, incapables and semi-criminals who drag down the working man, confuse the minds of the philanthropists, and escape police supervision. Fortunately, they are not numerous; “a disgrace but not a danger.” Yet all the same they act as parasites, they attach themselves to the working-man; and this Tanner Strike means that he will not be hampered by them any longer, that once for all he will emancipate labour from their pernicious influence.

All honour to him.

Now, I would recommend the loafer as a subject of analysis to those ladies and gentlemen who are on the look out for advertisement, social promotion, and what not. He is new ground. His species consist, roughly speaking, of 11,000 in the East End. What can we do with him? I would suggest that the State should send him to a Home Colony, where he will be kindly treated, but not allowed to do mischief by propagating. We lock up thieves and murderers, but we give liberty of action to a set of men and women who do more harm than criminals; we let these drunkards and vagabonds infest our streets, drag down the working-men, and run riot with the sympathies of an ignorant public. The working-man is doing his best by this strike to show that he means to protect himself from loafers, incapables, and parasites. Will not some lady or gentleman, on the look out for social promotion, bring their dissecting scalpel to bear on the class that is no class? Will not the Star give the loafer a place in its galaxy of fixed planets?



8 comments on “Harkive: ‘The Loafer. What Shall We Do with Him’

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