Harkive: Labour Leaders in the Pall Mall Gazette – John Burns


This month we continue our series of Harkive entries chronicling Margaret Harkness’s relationship with the Pall Mall Gazette (PMG).

When W.T. Stead resigned from the editorship of the PMG in 1889 in order to found the Review of Reviews, the newspaper became increasingly conservative. While Harkness’s association with the PMG continued into the early 1890s, she often made use of its pages to express her enduring commitment to socialist thought and radical politics.

We begin with the first in a series of four portraits by Harkness of the ‘labour leaders’ with whom she worked during the London Dockworkers’ Strike of 1889. By 1891, the PMG had already published several articles by Harkness in which she had voiced her disillusionment with the socialist and labour movements, and particularly with the lack of cooperation she saw between different leaders in the movement. In October 1890 she had written: ‘Mr. Stead tells us that the success of the dock strike was the result of a series of flukes. Well, the greatest fluke of all was that last autumn three of the Socialist leaders happened to be working together in amity. If the strike had come a few weeks sooner or a few weeks later the dockers would not have had John Burns’s strong lungs and cheery presence; H. H. Champion’s diplomatic skill, and Tom Mann’s organizing genius united in one common cause’.

Harkness’s ‘Labour Leaders’ portraits are highly personal: each one offers a critical assessment of a ‘leader’s’ particular qualities, but evades acknowledgement of the deep personal disappointment that is evident in some of her other articles. The portraits include personal memories of their subjects; but Harkness does not state her relationship to the ‘labour leaders’ outright. Each article is signed only with ‘J. L.’, which suggests a degree of anonymity, but one that would also be easily recognisable to any reader familiar with her work in the socialist and labour movements as ‘John Law’.

Source: Pall Mall Gazette, 10 January 1891. Accessible via Gale.




OUR friends the Socialists, who divide their fellows into two classes, knaves and fools, have been sorely puzzled by “honest John.” A man who neither drinks nor smokes, is devoted to his charming wide, and can give an account of every penny that comes in and passes out of his pocket, cannot be a knave. Is he a fool, then? Certainly not; for fools go to the wall, and John Burns is on his way to the House of Commons.

Socialists ignore the fact that we expect others to be always what we ourselves are at our best moments; that we judge ourselves by our best, others by their worst moments, forgetful that a constant flux of good and evil (folly and knavery) goes on within us all, from the hour we begin to speak to the day when death seals our lips. We are all fools, with a large or small dash of knavery in our composition, and “honest John” is no exception.

There is something about John Burns that makes all his friends love him. This is his boyishness. When he has white hair (if he lives so long) he will still be a boy in many respects, because he is a bit of a genius. Probably the happiest moments he enjoyed during the dock strike were those he spent throwing packets of soap (it had been sent as an advertisement) to the ragged urchins outside the Wade’s Arms. “Mind, no one is to touch that soap but myself,” he used to tell the people in the room; and, whenever he had a few spare moments, he filled his straw hat with soap packets, and enjoyed the sight of boys and girls scrambling for Messrs. — and —’s advertisement, in the narrow street. The writer has a vivid recollection of John Burns sitting in an armchair one evening last spring, giving vent to his feelings in violent language. A spoon and a pot of jam were on the table beside him. Suddenly he stopped in the midst of his diatribe, jumped up, seized the jam and the spoon, and continued his discourse, alternating angry words with spoonfuls of jam, just like a schoolboy. But this boyishness is only one part of Burns’s nature. Sometimes his bright, sparkling eyes grow dim, and a look of something akin to despair creeps over his strong face. Those who have watched him at such moments, and have contrasted the gloom with the boyishness, know that John Burns has felt the pangs of the occult force we call genius. Brave as a lion himself, he respects courage in others, and despises no one except the poltroon. But his courage is of the noisy sort, and it has been well said of him that, although he would not hesitate to die for the people, he would let every one know why he was dying. He is not the kind of man to die in silence. His stentorian voice would be heard on the way to execution; and his magnificent lungs would do their last piece of work helping him to send a dying message to his countrymen.

John Burns was once tried for his life. People forget the fact because he was acquitted, and he does not speak of it; but his grey hair testifies to the mental anxiety he suffered then, and those who wish to understand the power he has become with working men should bear in mind that this trial took place when he was a very young man, full of enthusiasm. Socialism reached its acute stage in England at that time; and, looking back on his trial, John Burns asks himself, “Will those fiery days ever come again?” Leaning on his arms on the parapet of Trafalgar-square, he thinks. His face grows gloomy. He, like all of us, has had to learn that this little earth is but a tiny speck of the universe, and that the dreams of the “cheesemite man” pass by, leaving little behind them. But the gloom soon fades away. Much has been done since John Burns threw in his lot with the oppressed.  He believes in John Burns. So he lays his hand on the roll of blue paper in his pocket, and trudges off to his work under Sir John Lubbock.

Some people think that his conceit—namely, his naïve belief in himself—is his greatest fault. They are altogether mistaken. This belief in himself is merely a part of his boyishness; it is the most loveable thing about him, and perfectly harmless. Without it he could not get on, for the workers require “bluff” in their leaders, and “side” goes down with the Press and the British public.

John Burns’s greatest misfortune (it is useless to call it a fault, because he cannot help it) is his suspicion of his fellow-men, his deeply-rooted conviction that no one is to be trusted. A newspaper reporter can chatouille him with a well-turned compliment, an editor can make him dance with a neat paragraph; but not for long. John Burns mistrusts people, and is always on the look-out for a conspiracy, a plot. He knows that as the workers’ representative editors flatter him and politicians try to wheedle him; he over-values the power he represents, and at the same time he feels himself very ignorant. He is self-educated. All the more honour to him. He never had greater power with the workers than when he went black and untidy to meetings—hungry as a wolf and roaring like a lion. “The ’Varsity smile’ bores us, and we keep away from the borne men who smole [sic] it; but these men have one advantage the self-educated never get—they know the right proportions of things, so they neither over-estimate nor underrate people and circumstances.

If John Burns had more experience and greater knowledge he would not be so suspicious. Fortunately the consension of many men leads him; and as his work will be done in the County Council and the House of Commons he is not likely to go far wrong. But he is a dangerous man when left to act by himself, because his judgment of people and circumstances is generally mistaken. In the House of Commons he will be a Samson shorn of his strength, but nevertheless a most valuable man. He will remain true to the people. No price will ever buy “Honest John.” He will keep labour questions to the front, and his loud voice will rouse sleepy members. Mr. Gladstone will not be able to smile him down; and Mr. Bradlaugh will rue the day when “the use of my library” was refused by a man whose misfortune is “damned suspicion.”

J. L.


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