In the wake of the Government’s not entirely successful attempt to sell the idea that one way of helping poor people is by giving tax cuts and bonuses to rich people, I thought this week might be a good time to dig out this rather spirited piece of class warfare by the Victorian poet Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849). Of course, as a poem it’s a bit of a blunt instrument, and belongs more properly to a time when we had a government that was actively and malevolently repressive towards the working classes rather than a government that is, let us charitably assume, doing its possibly inadequate best to deal with a complex spiral of demands and expectations while weathering an economic tempest. I was brought up on tales of Victorian ancestors extracting their own rotten teeth and attempting to perform their own abortions, of hungry children waiting behind their father’s chair to get the kipper skins when he had finished eating the fish (this was practical, not cruel: the breadwinner must be given the energy for his labour or there would simply be no bread), and of old couples being kept apart as they lived out their pensionless days in the workhouse.
In our times we have somewhat different concepts of ‘hardship’ and ‘poverty’, and while it may no longer be true that we have never had it so good, it is perhaps salutary to remember that we have certainly had it worse. Not that that is much consolation to young people in my area faced with starter home property prices at least fifteen times the average starting salary (my first house cost four times mine), and that after emerging from further education saddled with huge debts even after an injection of parental help (in my days a student grant didn’t exactly allow one to lead the high life, but it came without strings and was just enough to give a measure of financial independence). Were my generation truly the lucky ones, living through the last good times of our country? I don’t know, but I worry for my grandchildren.
Elliott had a difficult early life, at one point going bankrupt, and though he eventually became a successful iron merchant and steel manufacturer, the experience of being homeless and out of work gave him a deep and lasting sympathy for the poor. He was a notable opponent of the Corn Laws, basically restrictions on the import of cheap grain in force from 1815 to 1846, which operated to enhance the profits and political power of the landowning class but caused hardship and starvation among the workers. This did not make him popular with his fellow entrepreneurs, and the workers were too busy starving to have much time for poetry, but at least he tried.
Ye coop us up, and tax our bread,
And wonder why we pine:
But ye are fat, and round, and red,
And fill’d with tax-bought wine.
Thus, twelve rats starve while three rats thrive,
(Like you on mine and me),
When fifteen rats are caged alive,
With food for nine and three.
Haste! Havoc’s torch begins to glow –
The ending is begun;
Make haste! Destruction thinks ye slow;
Make haste to be undone!
Why are ye call’d ‘My Lord’ and ‘Squire’,
While fed by mine and me,
And wringing food, and clothes and fire,
From bread-tax’d misery?
Make haste, slow rogues! prohibit trade,
Prohibit honest gain;
Turn all the good that God hath made
To fear, and hate, and pain;
Till beggars all, assassins all,
All cannibals we be,
And death shall have no funeral,
From shipless sea to sea.