Autobiography of a Working Man

Finished reading Alexander Somerville’s “Autobiography of a Working Man”, first published in 1848. To publish, it would be good to write a summary, write a C.V. of the author, get a map of the local area of that time, and design a nice cover.

Here I’ll reproduce the preface of the latest edition, written by Brian Behan.


SOMMERVILLE’S England was a turbulent place. A pastoral heaven was being changed by the industrial revolution into a smoky, fiery hell. Human beings counted for very little in the scales of the great (they st:ill count for nothing in the councils of the world). Men have always risen to challenge this madness, to say that we should make love not war. We live in a world invented by criminals whose only sex is power, who have nationalized Christ and declared him a god of war. Somerville was a part of this eternal struggle. He intervened at a decisive moment in our history and played his part to make the world a little better for working people. He supported the movement for parliamentary reform. He opposed the Duke of Newcastle who, arguing against the extension of the vote, said, ‘Why cannot I do what I like with my Own?’
Sommerville, the soldier, didn’t believe lie was the noble Duke’s property, and he was flogged for it. A hundred lashes of the cat-o’-nine tails with six stripes to each tail. He was wounded 5,400 times before they cut him down. And this because he had dared to say that he and his comrades would never allow, a military dictatorship to be set up in this country&#8217;</span>. He and his fellow soldiers dropped letters in the streets of Birmingham assuring the locals that their swords would never be turned against them. At a meeting in that city 200,000 people had sworn to march on London if the Reform Bill wasn&#8217;t passed without delay. There was a real danger of a military dictatorship being established. The army had been ordered to stand-to and have their swords rough- edged for jagged action against the machers. The wealthy foretold doom and disaster if the bill were passed. Despite a vote in favour in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, packed tight with feverish bishops, threw the bill out. The masses rioted and burnt down Newcast1e&#8217;s stately home. England moved nearer to revolution. The shadow of the French revolution of 1789 stretched long enough to chill the bones of the great. Frightened, the King sent a message to the Lords requesting, <span style="font-style: italic">in view of the alarming situation that now exists’, that nothing further be done to hinder the passage of the bill.
Before Somerville was flogged, a trooper offered him rum.
Not one drop for me, Charley Hunter. I shall not sing out I promise you, if they cut me to pieces. Take away that rum. I shall not drink it, nor the half of it. Not a drop of it shall I touch.&#8217;</span> They did nearly kill him. As they shredded the living flesh from his bones he wondered if he had ever known anything except this eternity of torment. He didn&#8217;t cry out, and even though he nearly bit his tongue off, he endured his Calvary with dignity. Word of his punishment leaked out and a Court of Inquiry was set up by parliament. It reprimanded the major in charge of the regimental court martial to such good effect that he not only succeeded to the command of his regiment, but wound up Lord-Lieutenant of the Tower. For his part in this action alone Somerville would deserve to be remembered. But he was more than a landless labourer turned journalist. His <span style="font-style: italic">Autobiography of a Working Man</span> gives a fascinating picture of life in the Eastern lowlands of Scotland. His book is full of people, how they lived and worked, told in a lively romantic way that flows as easily as his native brooks. He tells of his father working eighteen hours a day to realize the labourer&#8217;s dream, that his sons might become tradesmen. Somerville&#8217;s mettle can be traced to his father, who apologized for the luxury of a pipe with the plea, <span style="font-weight: bold; font-style: italic">it helps me to get through the hard long day.’

His mother was a gentle, kind woman, who died nursing a sick neighbour. He paints a picture of a rural community that, though poverty-stricken, was richly tied together by strings of humanity in a way that is painfully absent now. An intelligent boy, his struggle for knowledge was a hard one. He walked six miles just to look at and handle a book in the hope that some day he would be able to buy it. Sensitive to the feelings of others, he hated injustice. Not in an abstract way, of posing class against class. He went deeper and saw that those who would be free must never enslave others. Watching some stone masons beat one of their labourers, he stepped forward to intervene with the challenge,
`How can you hope to oppose tyranny when you are the greater tyrants?’

He wandered around hiring himself out, harvesting and wood- cutting. Always he found the poor ready to share their bed and board with him. The more people had, the less they would give. His impressions are one of life, of people suffering the outrages of wind and sun but of living. They danced and drank at harvest time. They knew each other as people and not through television shadows. They knew nature and not the battery-hen existence that we have become cooped up in. His family was an adventurous one. He had a brother who took to smuggling spices into South America, then crossed the Andes four times seeking gold, and finally wound up sailing the seas in a man of war.
Somerville’s strength, and weakness, was that he was not a politician. He had a narrowness of view, compounded of his peasant background and his army training, which made him hostile to revolutionary change. He couldn’t see that events deeper than the immediate question of the vote were bubbling and boiling up, pushing the crust of class-peace to breaking point.
The first of these was the cost of the Napoleonic wars, which sent the price of food sky high. Then came the first of capitalism’s little slumps, which forced wage cuts in various trades. They were as much as twenty-five per cent in some cases, forcing one man to cry out, ‘the longer and harder I have worked the poorer and poorer I become, untill at last I am nearly exhausted. I would put an end to my existence sooner than kill myself working twelve hours a day in a cotton factory, eating potatoes and salt’.
The unions, despite the Combination laws, grew in strength. One declared that as labour is the source of all wealth, then let us bring about a different order of things, in which the really useful and intelligent part of society shall have the direction of its affairs&#8217;.</span> The Chartists sprang up, to take independent political action. Socialists like <span style="font-weight: bold">Robert Owen</span> began their experiments in co-partnership in industry. Owen found he could increase wages, grant vastly superior social services and still make a greater profit than his competitors. Others have followed him since, in much the same path, but in those days to suggest that any profit should go back to the worker was regarded as lunacy, if not worse. The Chartists went a little further and founded <span style="font-weight: bold">O’Connors- ville’.
This was an agricultural community bought by funds raised publicity for the purpose of `demonstrating to the working-class of the kingdom, the value of land as a means of making them independent of the grinding capitalist’. Mankind has always had this Jekyll-and-Hyde face, the struggle for survival coupled.with the tendency towards mutual aid. In fire, flood and farnine, the mutual aid tendency comes out in everyone. When society stands naked, exposed as a greedy war-making animal, movements grow in opposition. It is not natural for man to elevate a struggle for survival into a dogma that becomes `rend and tear’, regardless of your fellow man. In this society, even the very rich are deeply unhappy. Property developers find that the only thing that attracts them sexually is a brick.
People are not taught in schools how to live, they are taught how to compete. which can be vastly different. Nations base themselves on their strong competitive position. which demands a vast army, forgetting that if your trading position becomes stronger at the expense of someone else’s, you merely succeed in beggaring your neighbour. This leads to slumps and so to wars, local and national. The defence of private property is the most sacred law in our society. You have only to look at the treatment of the train robbers to see that. Because they stole old, burnable bank notes, they are to live in a land of eternal light, poor fluttering moths pinned to lime-washed walls. Is this society to go down in history as the most efficient defenders of the banker? If the whole educational system was devoted to really educating people for life, what changes could be brought about. If we don’t do this, how can we wonder that the twisted beings we produce become the child murderers of the future?
Why can’t we set up communities like the Chartists, communities which forswear war and resolve to help each other. We can contract out of the rat race if we can live closer to our fellow man.

Of course Somerville couldn’t see all this, in the same way that we can’t evaluate properly the social tendencies of our time. But it helps to understand his later attitude. He quarrelled with and denounced most of the revolutionary movements he came in contact with. He hated the mob, and this was a pity, because your definition of what is a mob very often is conditioned by your place in the theatre of life. For example, many people thought Somerville part of a lawless mob when he refused to turn out against the people of Birmingham. But when the army officers mutinied in the Curragh, were not they a mob? A mob is simply people and not always the ones we associate with the word. George Rude, in The Crowd in History, shows that the mob was not the very poorest and declassed; on the contrary, it was mainly artisans and upper-working class. Again, even where the mob doesn’t succeed in its immediate demands, its presence can have a salutary effect on author- ity. Somerville himself would hardly have escaped hanging if the mob outside hadn’t been so powerful. Again, mobs are provoked into rioting when it’s obvious they have no other lawful means of redress. The mobs that rioted and sacked the Bishop of Bristol’s palace only did so after the Lords had rejected the Reform Bill. Thirteen of those died of the effects of drink, having gorged themselves in his grace’s well- stocked cellar. After the Court of Inquiry, when Somerville was discharged from the army in double-quick time, he became a journalist and gradually began to take himself too seriously. Believing that he now had a mission to save the constitution, he saw conspiracies everywhere. One that he informed about, a plan to kidnap the Cabinet, I find fascinating. He refused to go to Australia because, as he told the Colonial Office, `they are plotting against me there’. He did go to Canada, where he died a staunch conservative. Still, we have to take people as we find them, good and bad, with all their warts and wrinkles. Whatever he may have said or done in later life, on that day they flogged him, Somervi1le stood up for us all.


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