Saturday, 7 February 2009

Let me not live to be useless

Lord, tet me not live to be useless. (John Wesley)

John Wesley’s care and concern for the poor; his work for prison reform; and his opposition to slavery were commendable.

But he was a high Tory, and his concern for the poor was rooted in the notions of self-improvement. That concern, laudable as it was, did not take into account that the cards were stacked against the labouring classes.

In 1799/1800 the Government of William Pitt the Younger passed what are known as the “Combination Acts”

Pitt the younger was a reactionary, unlike his father William Pitt the Elder who had also been Prime Minister.

(Pitt the Elder was most sympathetic to the cause of the American Colonists, and for him are named Pittsburgh, PA, and also Pittsfield, MA [where I served for 16 years])

But under Pitt the Younger, various reactionary Acts were passed. Habeas Corpus was suspended (shades of George Bush the Younger), and Combination Acts were passed by Parliament in 1799 and 1800.

These Acts forbad the combination of two or more workers, or two or more employers, for the purposes of what we now call “collective bargaining” re: wages etc.

The Law was never enforced against employers, but it was used against employees - in effect banning the formation of Trades Unions, (shades now of Ronald Reagan).

The Combination Acts were repealed in 1824, thus Trades Unions became legal.

In 1833 a number of farm labourers in the Dorset shire Town of Tolpuddle joined together to form the “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers”.

Led by George Lovelace (a Methodist Local Preacher) their avowed intent was to resist the reduction of the pay of labourers, from 10 shillings a week to 8 shillings a week.

Their joining together (a combination) was by now legal, but their actions created alarum for their farmer employers. One of these farmers took action when he learned that the labourers, under Lovelace, had taken an Oath of Mutual Loyalty.

So it was that they were prosecuted under the “Unlawful Oaths Act” of 1797, an Act which had been all but forgotten.

They were convicted under this Act. The Judge stated that though they had done nothing wrong, he would hold them guilty to set an example to others.

They (six in all) were sentenced to be transported to a penal colony in Australia.

Within two years the public outcry was so great that their sentences were remitted. Returning to Plymouth, England, five of them promptly emigrated to Canada, and only one returned to Tolpuddle.

These six men have been branded as “The Martyrs of Tolpuddle”, and they are counted as the founders of Trades Unionism in Great Britain.

Their impulse was religious, as was the founder of a political party for working people. He was also a Methodist preacher. His name was Keir Hardie (1856 -1915) He founded the “Independent Labour Party”. More about that tomorrow.

At one time my Methodist born parents had been keen supporters of the Labour party. Thus I grew up with tales of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and of Keir Hardie.

Friday, 6 February 2009

A way station en route to the birth of Trades Unions

Just over 50 years after the end of the English Commonwealth, and the demise of the Levelers a new movement, towards a more egalitarian society, was spawned with the birth of John Wesley (1703).

I can certainly remember events from 50 years ago, and with the tales of my parents and grandmother I am aware of the events of 100 years ago (for example, my grandmother told me of the time when she, as a school-girl, saw Queen Victoria).

So it is at least possible that John Wesley had heard of the Commonwealth period, and of the Levelers.

Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, to his parents Susannah and Samuel Wesley; young John (following in his father’s footsteps) was ordained as Priest in the Church of England when he was 24 years old.

He served for a while as a Chaplain in the colony of Georgia, but priggish as he was, he fell afoul of Governor Oglethorpe.

Returning to England he experienced a change from head religion to heart religion, through the influence of Moravian Christians. This took place on May 24th 1738 (when he was 35 years old).

The “conversion” changed John Wesley, and it is possible that it changed English society.

For in 1739 Wesley was persuaded by George Whitfield to preach, not from Church pulpit, but to the masses in the open air.

(I am happy to remind you that this took place in the district of Hanham in Bristol - my home City!)

Wesley message appealed to the poor and downtrodden who had been ignored by the Church of England.

His message was not only about personal salvation. It was also about social improvement and reform.

Wesley was an abolitionist. He advocated prison reform.

So the followers of Wesley, (eventually known as Methodists) became social reformers. From their stock arose an important British political movement, known today as the “Labour Party”.
The history of the Labour Party is a couple of days away. We must address the “Combination Laws” and the “Tolpuddle Martyrs” before we get there.

For now let’s celebrate John Wesley and his influence for and with the poor.

Let’s also remember that Wesley’s programmes were not radical in themselves. Instead they enabled the emergence of a “respectable” working class. That class was the stock from which I emerged.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

When Adam delved and Eve span...

In England in 1536 there came about what was in due course labeled the “Pilgrimage of Grace”.

This was a popular protest against the policies of Henry VIII.

First in Lincolnshire, and then in Yorkshire these “spontaneous” protests were aimed not at Henry, but at his henchman, Thomas (not Oliver – he comes later) Cromwell. The issues were the unpopular dissolution of the monasteries and seizing of Church lands, and “believe it or not) high taxation.

The Lincolnshire group dispersed under the threat of military action. The Yorkshire group was ably led by one Robert Aske, who was determined that this would be a well organized and peaceful demonstration.

35,000 protesters converged on Pontefract in Yorkshire. A deputation met with the Duke of Norfolk in Doncaster, Yorkshire where they presented their claims. A smaller deputation went to London, leaving Aske in charge of the larger group in Yorkshire.

Henry VII played for time and stalled in his response to the protesters. Cunning as he was, he knew that Aske could not possibly maintain a force of 35,000 men for anything but a short time, and his cunning (or was it skill) payed off.

This protest against Henry’s policies involved not only “working people”, but also lesser nobles, and members of the emerging middle class. Robert Aske himself was a lawyer.

And the “pilgrimage” was led with men bearing religious banners. It was a religious impulse which led people to resist Henry’s growing tyranny.

Just over one hundred years later another “movement” arose. It was not so much an organized group or faction, but a spirit of the age.

This was in the era of the Civil War, an War in which Parliament fought for its rights and prerogatives against King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell raised what was called the “New Model Army” an army designed to resist and rout the King’s armies.

Many of the members of the New Model Army were men of a distinctively radical mind. They were called (by their opponents) “Levellers”.

Among them was a man of great integrity and brilliance named John Lilbume.

In 1649, Lilburne published the “Agreement of the People”, a manifesto for constitutional reform in Britain. This particular version was smuggled out of the Tower of London, where Lilburne and the others were being held captive. All Leveller soldiers, and they were the majority in many regiments, carried this agreement proudly tucked into their hat-band. The agreement proposed a written constitution to define England’s government, abolish arbitrary power, set limits to authority, and remove grievances.

Included in the Agreement of the People (1649):

right to for all people to vote for their representatives
right against self-incrimination
freedom of religion and press
equality of all persons before the law
no judgment touching life, liberty or property but by jury trial
abolition of capital punishment except for murder
no military conscription of conscientious objectors
no monopolies, tithes, or excise taxes
taxation proportionate to real or personal property
grading of punishments to fit the crime
abolition of imprisonment for debt.

(Italicised portion "taddled" from the web)

Many of these ideas found fresh roots in the American Declaration of Independence, and our subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights.

It is of interest to note that the United Kingdom still does not have a written constitution!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Peasants are revolting

There have been a series of “wildcat strikes” in Britain, for what I believe are good enough reasons.

They have been in response to the practice of Companies hiring workers from outside of Great Britain for various (mostly construction) jobs in the country.

We are not talking here about undocumented immigrants (too often known as “illegal aliens”) .

(Nor are we talking about racism, or primitive xenophobia)

Rather the strikes are precipitated when (for instance) Companies from the European Union win contracts for projects in Britain (all fair and square), then import workers from their native lands, possibly/probably pay them below market rate wages, and in at least one case, house these workers in barges moored in a local river or harbor.

The following Guardian story may give you some background.

What has pissed me off is the reaction of Britain’s ruling Labour Party. It’s leaders have been less than supportive, and indeed more than dismissive of the actions of British workers.

I am old enough to remember that this is the LABOUR party, formed by and for the laboring classes. Now this party, gelded by the infamous Tony Blair, is the party of Government which works against the best interests of working people.

It was with this in mind that I posted the Chartist hymn the other day. In response to “God save the QUEEN” the Chartists sang “When wilt thou save the PEOPLE?”

In the next few days I will try to trace some histories of the struggle of working people in England and Great Britain.

We begin with the Peasants’ Revolt, A.D. 1381. You can read a very fine account of this from the url posted below.

Essentially this was a revolt against unfair taxes, and the suppression of wages. It was a stupendously brave protest by the peasant classes against the oppression of the ruling oligarchy.

Three of its leaders have names which should yet be remembered.

One was Wat Tyler who cared not a fig for the “dignity” of the 14 year old King Richard, and for his pains was murdered during the course of the revolt. He would never have fawned over the current playboy Princes, William and Harry.

Another was Jack Straw for whom a London pub on Hampstead Heath is named” “Jack Straw’s Castle”. It is believed that Jack Straw addressed a crowd from the back of a hay wagon - the hay wagon was his castle.

(Incidentally, a British Labour Party member, part of the leadership cabal, is one John Straw, Member of Parliament for Blackburn, Lancashire. He chooses to be known as “Jack Straw”.
John Straw M.P. is an odious semi-fascistic creature. His adoption of the Jack Straw moniker is an insult to the memory of the 14th Century peasant leader).

Last of all is John Ball (yes, Ball not Bull). He was a reforming Priest, a Lollard. He understood the radical nature of the belief that all people are created equal - almost 400 hundred years before the American Declaration of Independence!

It is to John Ball that we attribute the penetrating understanding of:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,/Who was then the gentleman?”

(Delved = dug).

"When Adam delved and Eve span,/Who was then the gentleman?” was repeated all over England, and became the “mantra” for an egalitarianism which would surface again and again in English/British history. More about that tomorrow.

For a full account of the Peasants’ revolt see:

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

e-mail from Budapest

I planned to start a four part series about the labour movement in England (c.f my Chartist Hymn posted yesterday). But togther with Gabriel I was at dinner with the Thompsons tonight. We had a splendid time with them and with their Brasilian friend Vera - and her American husband Phil.

So I have run out of time for my series which I'll begin tomorrow.

For today, here is a copy of an e-mail I received from Budapest. (It shows that you cannot hide from Goo-gle!)

Dear Reverend Povey,

I read your blog and was happy to read that you enjoyed our orchestra’s concert. We certainly enjoyed our recent stay in Sarasota. In fact, our whole tour, starting in Carnegie Hall in New York, was a great success. All being well, we’ll be back in Sarasota soon.

We are now publishing an international newsletter for the orchestra. If you would like to receive it as an email attachment, please let me know.

Christopher Daniels
International Development Director
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Alkotas u. 39^c
H-1123 Budapest, Hungary

Monday, 2 February 2009

A Chartist Hymn

God save our Gracious Queen. Why?

God bless America. Why?

God save the people - YES.

See this 19th Century Chartist Hymn (below).

And if you care for working people, please do your own research on Chartism.

When wilt Thou save the people?O God of mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations,Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they;Let them not pass, like weeds, away;
Their heritage a sunless day:
O God, save the people!

Shall crime bring crime forever,Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it Thy will, O Father,That man shall toil for wrong?
“No,” say Thy mountains; “No,” Thy skies;
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs ascend, instead of sighs:
O God, save the people!

When wilt Thou save the people?O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people,Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God save the people; Thine they are,
Thy children, as Thine angels fair:
From vice, oppression, and despair,
O God, save the people

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Friday's Concert





I was back at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Centre in SRQ for a concert given by the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Gabriel joined me, and first we had dinner at Sangria, a very good Tapas Bar on Main St., SRQ
Of course I had mussels. Every other item on a menu blurs into nothing once I have seen that a restaurant offers mussels. The more the merrier.

It was an excellent concert.

In the first part we enjoyed two Hungarian Dances by Brahms, and the Hungarian Rhapsody # 3 by Liszt.

Ivan Fischer, the Music Director introduced these pieces and told us about the Hungarian Gypsy melodies which inspired Brahms and Liszt.

His comments came to life, as also on stage were two Gypsy musicians, father and son - both named Jozsef Lenvay.

In the Gypsy tradition the father, who has been taught by his father, then teaches his son. And it’s always the same instrument which is passed through the generations. In the Lenvai (or Lenvay) family the instrument is the violin.

The training is quite unlike formal musical education - in fact these musicians do not read music. They do not need to for they create it from their hearts and skills.

This father and son were simply terrific. They played solo, in duet, and with the orchestra.

The son in particular created sounds which were both sublime and electrifying. He was able to bow and to pluck his violin at the same time - eye and mind boggling stuff.

Also on stage was Oskar Okros, a Cimbalom player. I had never heard of this instrument, let alone heard one played. The cimbalom is in the same family as the hammered dulcimer. But is it much larger than a hammered dulcimer, and stands on four legs.

As Maestro Fischer told us, Mr. Okros is a wizard on the cimbalom.

After the intermission we heard Brahms’ First Symphony - one of my favourites.
For me, the first three movements speak of an impassioned struggle leading to a joyful resolution in the fourth movement.

It was another superb evening, for which I am grateful