Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter V.: NOTHING BUT A VOICE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter V.: NOTHING BUT A VOICE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 7 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1834). Vol. 7.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
NOTHING BUT A VOICE.
In process of time, the Deep Cut was finished, and announced to be formally opened on a certain day, when the tide should be favourable for showing it off to the greatest advantage.
It was thought that a damp would be cast over the proceedings by the present unprosperous state of the coal trade, which seemed to render it less probable than it had at first appeared that the undertaking would soon repay its expenses. The war still continued, and with it the practice of impressment; so that colliers could not be manned but at a very high cost. Wages in colliers were now just four times what were given in king's ships. The difficulty mentioned by uncle Christoper of getting colliers worked up the Thames was also greater than ever; and the price of coal rose so much that the demand slackened, week by week. This was an awkward state of things in which to begin a grand new experiment; but the cost of the Deep Cut had been already incurred, and the only thing to be done was to make use of it, as fast as possible. Some persons wondered that Mr. Otley, who loved a joke, did not make use of this season of adversity for ridiculing a scheme whose execution he had been unable to prevent. No light sayings of his upon the matter were going the round of his neighbour hood; and such members of the Company as had the honour of his acquaintance, were surprised that they had not yet been jeered by him about the large attendance they were likely to have at the opening, from the great number of people about the collieries who were out of employment. But Mr. Otley was quite as loyally occupied in another way—in attempting to draw tighter the restraints of the apprenticeship laws, and to extend the infliction to the flourishing towns which had grown into their prosperous maturity exempt from the privilege, or curse. (whichever it might be called.) of a law of apprenticeship. It was quite the fashion, just now, among loyal men, to petition after the manner which the rector had adopted; and an opposite fashion spread, among those who had been tripped up in the 'old paths,' of going down to the origin of things, and mounting up to their consequences. These latter began to discover not only how impracticable was the apprenticeship law of Elizabeth, how nearly it went to subvert the common law, how it could retain even a nominal force only by evasion; but they saw that if parliament should be prevailed on to enforce it afresh, the next step of the loyal might be to revive the old statutes, that he who should sell abroad sheep, rams or lambs, should lose all he had, then part with his left hand, and for a second offence suffer death; or that a like penalty should be made once more to visit an exporter of fullers' earth; or of tobacco-pipe clay, because such clay is like fullers' earth.
While Mr. Otley was trotting about the country, representing the blessings that arise from compelling every merchant ship to have so many apprentices and no more, and the advantage of keeping businesses within bounds by allowing the corporations of towns to regulate the number of apprentices,—that the Sheffield cutler shall take but one. the Norwich weaver only two, hatters every where at home and in the colonies, only two,—while the rector was thus straining his sight into the regions of times long past, he seemed to have no leisure for observing what was before his eyes. Long rope-walks were extended beside the sluice; the boat-builder's mallet made itself heard from among the rocks; the fisherman's cottage began to show itself on the narrow strip of beach below; and the last finish was being given to the rail-road which led to the sluice. If there had been no practical evasion of corporation laws, this supply of skilled labour would not have been in existence to answer the demand. If all kinds of skilled labour had been subjected to corporation laws, there would have been no liberty to settle in a new field, without the loss of such privileges as would not have been risked on such an uncertainty as the speculation offered at best.
The day of opening was the brightest of April mornings; and it brought spectators from all parts of the country. Long before the Company's train of carriages was looked for, the fruit and gingerbread stalls were resounding with mirth and gossip. Troops of little children, already as black as if coal had been their plaything from their birth, were accosting strangers, to ask for a token to remember the day by.
Business-like-looking men walked straight to the Cut, and seemed to be computing its width and depth,—most of them expressing great admiration of the work. To the lover of beauty there was much to admire, when he had turned his back on the wooden bridge, and the gates, the vehicles of those who came to see these gates swing open, and the stalls which were but a temporary feature of the landscape. The hewn rock, raw and bright coloured as was its upper part, was already more favourably tinted below by its contact with the water. Small shell fish were clustered upon it, and weed rested wherever a ledge or crevice could be found. The water in the inlet showed the purest green, over its deep bottom of white sand, on which a star-fish here and there was distinctly visible, and from which the sea-anemone slowly rose, like a variegated parachute, which astonished the watcher by its tokens of being alive. Now and then a stray fish came in by mistake, not being aware that any sea path led so directly into the regions of art. As such a poor wanderer darted from side to side of the narrow inlet, striking against the rock and bewildering itself, many a child shouted in glee from the parapet, and ran to and fro to watch till the fish had disposed of itself, either out at sea once more, or beneath some friendly shadow.
These new operations must have been very perplexing to the fishy tribes in general, which might happen to pass that way. Not only was there this treacherous Cut to beguile them landwards, when they least dreamed of such a destination, but there was a labyrinth at sea, in the shape of the foundations of the new pier. The young fry had not yet been taught by their wiser parents (if indeed the parents knew any better themselves) to avoid these piles, and the perils that lurked among them: and young fry of a more powerful species were already kneeling on the beams of the pier, and catching, through the interstices which were left between the planks, a goodly prey of infant fish,—the greater part of which were mercifully thrown over from the end of the pier. Flags waved from every con spicuous point of the rocks and the works. A medley of music came from the midst of the throng about the parapet; and all bore the appearance of a new settlement as completely as if a slice of an American shore had been once more annexed to his British Majesty's dominions.
On the parapet sat one of the last persons who might have been expected to join in the festivity—little Tim. His mother had taken him to the ferry-house, to know if any of the family thought of going, and would take her poor boy, who was fond of doing what other people did, if he could not see what they saw. Walter meant to go, and he readily took charge of Tim. Effie did not quite like the tone in which this request was made. There was a despondency in it which alarmed her, especially as she knew that there was, just now, a scarcity of work at the pitmouth, and low wages to the women and boys employed there. Mrs. Eldred made so much difficulty about accepting the little she could do for her, that to press more upon her was certainly to offend her. But Walter feared she was in great poverty; and when he observed how she was wasted and worn with long looking for her husband's return, the apprehension suddenly crossed him that she had some design to get rid of her miseries in the most fearful way in which impatience exhibits itself. The idea was but momentary, however, as she had immediately referred to things to be done by her own hands, and to be told when she should have more time to stay with her daughter. Tim had quitted her apron, (which he continued to hold for guidance, great boy as he was.) surrendered her for Walter, in the prospect of this trip, and was now seated on the parapet, with Walter's arm about him, and apparently enjoying the bustle as much as those who more reasonably came into it.
“Let me run along by the wall with them!” said he, struggling to be set down. “Let me run with those boys!”
“Better not, Tim. They are only running to see a fish that swims away faster than they can follow.”
“I know that; but I can always run along by a wall.”
And away he would go, his brother-in-law keeping an eye upon him, to see how he defended himself from the knocks and pushes he was exposing himself to. He managed very well, always being one of the first to turn when others were about to do so, from his quickness in gathering up the guiding remarks of those about him. He had generally a word for Walter when he came back towards him.
“Walter, have you spoken to Adam yet?”
“Adam, no; you don't suppose Adam is here, do you?”
“Yes, but I do. I am sure it was his voice I just heard from over yonder, You will see him soon.”
And away went Tim again. The next time it was,—
“The show will soon be here now, Walter.”
“How do you know?”
“Because of the tide coming up. Don't you hear it,—lap, lap, lap?”
“How do you know it is not going down—if you can hear it at all, in this din?”
“O, it is quite a different sound, going out; a—a—I can't tell you what; but quite a different sound.”
“Poor boy!” said a by-stander. “I wish you could see how pretty the water looks, with all the gay flags above it, and the smart people.”
“Thank you,” said Tim, and he shuffled off once more.
“Do you think that is the best way of comforting people for such a loss as that poor boy's?” asked Walter, who was not the person to ask such a question, unless roused on poor Tim's behalf.
“Why, it is what one feels, you see; and what one hears people say every day,” replied the man.
“Well, that's true; but I don't think it is the kindest thing to say. If you can give him a knowledge of what is going on, it is all very well; but not merely to put him in mind uselessly that he cannot enjoy it. At least, such is my rule.”
“And a very good one, I have no doubt. To be sure, to make it one's own case for a minute, one can hardly fancy what answer one would make.”
“Ah! it is not every one that could say, like Tim, 'thank you,' and directly run off to amuse himself.”
“Indeed there are but few; and the great thing is to find out how they take their misfortune themselves. There are some that look as if they would knock you down if you do but come near the matter with them; and others shake all over, or put on a sort of affectation that is worse; and some like to talk and be talked to about it; and others (and they are the wisest) just take it simply and naturally, so as to remove one's difficulty, almost entirely.”
“Tim is one of these last,” said Walter, patting the boy's head, as he came near.
“What am I, Walter?”
“Heating yourself sadly, with getting so pushed about.”
“O, I'll get cool when the show comes, and I sit on the wall again. But if you want to go somewhere else, I'll come any minute ; only, the water is getting so high, it would be a pity to go away and lose our place.”
“So it would, pray away, as you like.”
“Just as if he could see! He talks about the show like any other boy.”
“Ay, and you would be surprised to hear the account he will give his sister when we go home. He picks up a world of odd things that we let slip: and that, and his great mistakes together, make his stories very strange ones sometimes.”
“Yet he seems easy enough to treat and deal with. A kind heart and a little thought may do all that he wants from us.”
“And all that the others want that you mentioned just now. If we let our good will have its way, without being held back and twisted by shyness and doubt, we shall be sure to please people who depend upon kindness more than any others. The only thing I cannot pardon is the giving way to shyness when—”
“And yet I should guess you to be shy your self.”
“Well, so I am; and yet I should be more struck with any body being shy about helping Tim in his little devices than he himself would, though he has no shyness. It always strikes me that when these sufferers have had so much more awkwardness to get over, it is not to be pardoned that we should renew their trouble with ours. But where is Tim gone now? Slipped away in a minute ! He cannot be far off, but what were we about?”
Walter cast an involuntary fearful glance down the inlet, where nothing was happening, however, to disturb the solitary sea-gull which was very quietly balancing itself on the surface.
“Were ye looking for the little blind lad?” asked a woman near. “He met with a friend in the throng, and they went off together.”
In another minute, Tim merged from behind the awning of a stall, holding Adam by the right hand, and a huge orange in the left.
“Tim said you were here,” observed Walter, “and I did not believe him. He heard you half an hour ago.”
“Tim, what did you hear me saying?”
“I did not catch your words, but I was sure it was your voice.”
“I am glad to see you buying oranges, Adam. I suppose this orange came out of yonder rope-walk.”
“Not it; and it is the last I am likely to buy; and I would not have got it for any one but Tim. I am not going to lose my settlement, I can tell you. The place that took such pains to settle me may keep me till there is work for us all again.”
“Keep you ! How?”
“There is no lack of means. There are the rates, and fine corporation funds.”
“And pienty of your sort of work wanted to be done here, it seems. There is a great call for rope-makers.”
“And a great call for work among the rope-makers belonging to the town. But we of the town hold back, you observe, to see who will come forward first and lose his privileges. For may part, I mean to hold back till I can be a master, and have apprentices, and do things in proper style; and then Tim shail turn the wheel, and get money like other lads. “Will you, Tim?”
Walter allowed that it was a thing out of the question to give up a settlement in a corporate town in exchange for one in a district like this, whose prosperity must long remain precarious. He scarcely saw how this precariousness was to be remedied if there was a dearth of workmen to do the business essential to the improvement of the place, while there was elsewhere a super abundance of the very sort of workmen wanted. If it was necessary to give very high wages here for work which received very low wages elsewhere, it was difficult to perceive how any fair competition was to be maintained, and the subsistence fund duly husbanded.
“I suppose,” said he, “you may thank the law that gave you your apprentice privileges for the low wages you have had of late, Adam?”
“O yes; plenty to thank that law for. People generally complain that it raises wages higher than natural. I am ready to testify to its sinking them lower.”
“Both are right, I fancy. Wages are raised, as said, by crafts being confined to fewer hands than need be; and this mischief goes on from generation to generation.”
“Why, yes ; if they first make it necessary to be an apprentice, and then forbid the taking more than a certain number of apprentices, It is easy to see how many willing folks will be hindered of entering into a trade; and those that are in it may keep up wages as long as their handwork is wanted. But when——”
“Ah! when the balance turns, and times are bad, wages may fall to the very lowest point, or cease, if the craftsmen are hindered from with drawing some of their number, and turning their hands to some other trade, it does seem an uncommonly stupid plan, to be sure; and when men were beginning to get the better of it, and outgrow and step over it, what a strange thing it seems that a clergyman, like Mr. Otley, should be doing his best to fasten us down under it again, tighter than ever!”
“And at the very time that his lady is sending here and sending there for articles that she cannot content herself to buy in her native place. If the gentleman does his best to prevent his neighbours working out of corporation bounds, the least his lady can do is to employ those neigh hours, instead of buying what she wants from a distance.”
“I think so. But what puts such a fancy into her head?”
“She complains that the workmanship of articles is inferior at home to what it is in newer places. And if it is, who is to blame for it but those who meddle to spoil competition, and persuade their own workmen that they have a sure dependence otherwise than on their own skill?”
“I have heard of such a thing happening, in some strict corporate towns, as the very gentlemen of the corporation themselves passing by their own people to get their work done in the out-lying villages, and having it brought in secretly. Such men are guilty, one way or an other, it seems to me. Either let them bestir themselves to have trade allowed to go free, or submit themselves to the restraints they put on others.”
“They are full as foolish as wrong, however; for what do they do by such management but bring so many more paupers on themselves to be maintained? It won't do to try to persuade their idle workmen to go elsewhere. The masters elsewhere do not like hiring so as to give a settlement, any better than we like being so hired. We stick like burrs to those who fastened us upon them, and they may make what they can of us.”
“I wonder what they think of all this in other countries.”
“In America (our seamen tell me) they laugh mightily at us for tying our legs, and then complaining that we cannot walk. In America, they have none of this mischief of trade corporations and apprenticeships; and how are they the worse for their absence? If American handiworks, and the handiworks of our own new, free towns are better (as every one knows they are) than those of our corporate towns, what can we conclude but that corporate restraints are bad things? I have half a mind sometimes to step away into a free country myself.”
“A free country! As if England was not a free country!”
“It is freer than most; and so much freer than it used to be, that I have hopes of our grandchildren seeing themselves as unfettered in their callings as the Americans. But just now, none of us are practically free. Everybody is ready enough to call out about poor Cuddie ; and with just reason. But my case, though not so hard an one as his, is not altogether to be over looked beside it. Instead of being forcibly turned from a labour I like to one that I did not choose, there is a moral force used to prevent my turning from an unprofitable occupation to a profitable one. Now, the labour of a man is his birthright,—his sole property; and any power that comes between him and its exercise is tyranny. Never mind how it may be softened down, and disused, and in some places nearly forgotten. As long as there is such a power lying ready to be put forth against the labourer, that labourer is not a free man.”
“These powers will grow less and less mischievous as time rolls on. No corporation in the world can stand against the will of the public to be supplied with what they want. There will be apprentices enough in Norwich and Sheffield to keep the trade going as it should, if the world really wants more knives and stuffs.”
“Yes, yes; and look what a list of great men we have got,—no thanks to our trade rules! but in spite of them. Think of Arkwright, and Brindley, and Brunel!”
“And Smeaton. and Rennie, and Watt, and Fergusson, and Hunter. These were never apprenticed.”
“No, nor many more that have made themselves a great name. My doubt is whether they would have had such a name if they had been kept listless and longing,—or downright idle, from having no interest in their seven years' work. If,—I will not say I.—but many others, had been kept at our education a year or two longer, who knows what we might have done in the world?”
“Especially if you had been born in some of the spirited new towns, which were little more than villages a hundred years ago, and now rank far before York, and Canterbury, and Norwich, and Lichfield. As for London itself, the most blessed day in its existence will be when its hundred companies dissolve their monopolies, if not themselves. I venture to say this, because we have before our eyes what has happened else where. Look at Spain, now full of corporation glories; and France, where industry and art began to thrive from the day that her corporation and apprenticeship laws were swept away.”
“In France, I'm told, they have made an experiment of everything, from the worst meddling to perfect freedom. I do not know that it was ever settled there, as it is in India, that every man must follow his father's profession, but they did some things almost as wise, in old times.”
“And some with such good intentions as to afford a fine warning against governments meddling at all with production. In one sense, to be sure, governments influence production by whatever they do; (which should make them very careful about every step they take.) But I now mean direct interference. It seemed only prudent and kind to the people to make rules about felling trees, some parts of the soil being absolutely good for nothing unless they had trees in the neighbourhood to encourage moisture; yet the first consequence of these rules was to prevent people planting trees.”
“That is good; but the story of the cock-chafers is better. Do not you know that story? Some district abroad, in Switzerland, I think, was plagued with cockchafers; and to get rid of them, the government obliged every landholder to furnish certain quantities, in proportion to the land he held. The landholders paid the poor people for collecting them; and after a time it was found out that cockchafers were regularly imported in sacks from the other side of the lake.”
“Very good. But there was one instance among many of positive loss in France, through meddling with industry, which is a fine warning to such men as Otley, if they would take it. Before the revolution broke the corporation fetters of the workpeople, there could be no manufacture of japanned hardware in France. The process requiring the art and tools of several different trades, and that a man should be free of them all, this kind of production was left to strangers.”
“This is very like passing a law that there shall be no new inventions; or that every man shall follow his father's occupation.”
“And the practice of these lawmakers agreed with their principle. Did you ever see an Argand lamp?”
“O, yes. Not so good as some gas lamps.”
“But yet giving out three times as much light at the same cost as any lamps that were known before. Argand was publicly persecuted by the company of tinners, locksmiths, and ironmongers, who disputed his right to make lamps.”
“And if they would do that, they would most likely not admit him of their company if he had chosen to trouble himself to canvass for it.”
“Then there was Lenoir, the great French philosophical instrument maker. He set up a little furnace to heat his metals in; and straightway came certain of the Founders' Company to pull it down; and Lenoir was obliged to appeal to the king.”
“There might just as well have been a hotbed company that would not have let you growcucumbers without their help; or a scare-crow company to prevent your hanging up your old coat among the cherry-trees.”
“And here comes a company that would give you plenty of rope-making to do, if you would leave your privileges behind you, and bring your still to their market.”
“Aye: and then as soon as people at home have forgotten me, and my place there is fairly filled by some one else, and there begins to be a talk of business falling off. I may be warned out of this field by some frightened old woman of a church-warden, or some spiteful overseer, who will bid me be gone to my own place. No, no. The company must make a hue and cry for rope-makers indeed, before they will get me to pass out ot bound. Yet, trespassing out of bounds was what I best liked to do, when I was not my own master.—How bravely they come on, in their open carriages, with their flags and their boughs! Well! really it is a pretty sight.”
“Do look at Tim, with his oak bough as big as himself! He must be a fine fellow that gave it him,—that tall lad who keeps a hand on Tim's shoulder to guide him. I'll go and take his place. It is not fair that a stranger should have the trouble of poor Tim.”
“And I think it would be a charity in me to offer myself to some of the gentlemen as a handshaker. Did you ever see? How the folks are reaching up to shake hands! The black pitmen, and the keelmen, with their brown hats in the other hand, and their wives holding up the little ones that will be pitmen and keelmen some time or other.”
“And Mr. Severn too! Look! there he is on the box of yonder barouche, smiling and nodding so cheerfully, thin and worn as he looks.”
“Aye: when we make our many trades as free as we boast we already are, Mr. Severn will get something like a recompense of his toils. In those days, if he but lives to see them, it will happen always as it happens by accident to-day, that he will be full in view of the people that are always ready to welcome him, while Otley slinks away, to follow his own devices out of sight.— Stand back! stand back, and make way for them! Now is your time to look to Tim!”
The gates were now beginning gently to open one way, and the little bridge to swing round the other way. The din was hushed,—music, laughter, children's cries, men's shouts, the whining of dogs, and the tramp of horses. All was still, except the ripple and lapse of water, as a thousand eyes were bent to watch the first vessel that ever passed this way, noiselessly turning the point from the open sea, and gliding along the Cut. It was the first time that the gazers had ever had an opportunity of looking down into a vessel so immediately beneath their feet, (except during the few moments required for shooting a bridge.) It was a singular sight,—some of the tackle almost sweeping the rocks as it passed, and its bulk casting a black moving shadow on the bed of pure sand below the green water. The smutty-faced crew looked up to the thousand eager faces far above their heads, and gave a silent signal that all should be ready to cheer when the gates should be passed.
“There it goes!” said Tim, softly, as he sat on the parapet, with Walter's arm about his waist, and the vessel passing just beneath him. “There it goes!” he whispered again, turning his head in due proportion to its progress.
“Does it graze the rocks or the sand?” asked Walter, wondering at the boy's accurate knowledge of what was going on.
“No: but it makes a great stir in the air. I feel the wind upon my face. Tell me when I may speak, Walter. I have something to tell you.”
A vehement shout now rose on all hands, to put an end to Tim's scruples about speaking amidst a dead silence. All the seamen present pushed, cuffed, and scrambled to get a good sight of the vessel's farther progress when she had passed the gates. While the rivalry of blue jackets and gruff voiccs was going on, Tim uttered his strange communication.
“Waher ! Walter ! I am sure Cuddie is here.”
“My dear boy, what a fancy!”
“Ah ! it seems an odd thing; but I heard Cuddie's voice, just as I heard Adam's before.”
“You know Adam's voice well, hearing it so often as you do. But, remember, it is four years since you heard Cuddle's; and I am afraid it may be more than four years before you hear it again.”
Well! Tim thought it better to be only almost sure.
“Besides,” said Waiter, “there is no king's ship near us now. All the king's ships are at the wars.”
Tim had no more to say. The next thing that happened was an outcry on the skirts of the crowd. Everybody thought it was an accident, and rushed towards the spot, or, in order to inquire, stopped others who were doing so. It was only some thief or quarrelsome person, or other kind of vagabond, that the constables and their helpers had failed to catch. The fellow had got off. Who was he? what had he done? everybody asked. Nobody at a distance could tell, and nobody near would tell. It was hinted that, whatever the offence might be, it was of some popular kind; and that the offender had been helped by the people to escape. The incident took a firm hold of Tim's imagination. He cared no more about what took place during the next hour than the many spectators present who belonged to the class that, having eyes, see not. When the parapet was left to him and Walter, when the tide had gone down, when the train of carriages had disappeared, he was still plying his brother-in-law with questions about his conjectures: and when at length advised to go to sleep in his unaccustomed lodging in a public-house, he went on to weary the sleepy Walter with—
“I should think he will lie in the fields tonight, while we are so snug and comfortable here? If he has murdered anybody, perhaps a ghost will come and scare him? I wonder whether his wife or his mother know where he is? Every foot that stirs, he will think it is the constable come to take him up. Do you know, I have been thinking whether that might not have been Cuddie's ghost that I heard to-day. They say many seamen are shot in these wars, and if we should find that Cuddie was killed just at the very time—What o'clock do you think it was?”
Walter now replied in no sleepy tone. He was not a believer in ghosts, but his mind was interested, more than he could justify, in Tim's persuasion that he had heard Cuddie speak, Tim was so seldom mistaken about these matters! Yet the war was still prolonged, and if poor Cuddie was not ere this at the bottom of the sea, he must be too far off on its surface for the fairy Fine-Ear to have caught the tones of his voice, if Fine-Ear had been this day among the crowd.