Elaine commented in her blog on the history she learned from writers. I’d seen movies and plays that reconstructed history and showed inequalities in the different social classes in the UK but two radio documentaries had the most influence on my youthful thinking.
From the age of nine, my parents left me on my own and, since my dad refused to buy a TV, I’d listen to the radio. One documentary re-enacted court trials with the goal of showing how justice could be sabotaged by prejudice. One trial I particularly remember was that of a man accused of killing his wife. He was tried during times when adultery and one night stands were not discussed in polite society. Since he was an adulterer, it was much easier to convict him of murder. Long after he was hanged, his innocence of any crime was discovered.
Another documentary chronicled the efforts of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper. He fought long and hard to have a law passed to forbid the employment of women and children in coal mines. Many British people in the nineteenth century didn’t know women and children worked in mines. Lord Ashley’s vivid portrayal of the working conditions of these women and children was an eye opener to people of the time and to me. Women had carts strapped to their bodies and they pulled these carts to the surface. He also persuaded the government to pass the 1833 Factory Act ( a bill not as extensive as he would have liked) that forbade the employment of children under nine in textile mills, and limited the working hours of children, nine to thirteen, to eight hours a day. When I listened to these documentaries, I identified with the children about the same age as I was.
When I was a student at Northeastern University, a woman from Iran told us that the many Persian carpets we wanted in our homes were made by children working in dark, uncomfortable surroundings. That may not be true today.
One professor who taught British literature at that university stepped outside the usual curriculum and spent twenty minutes discussing Victorian working class poetry. A woman wrote an erotic poem using the imagery of her hand loom and a shuttle. The professor hastily explained that he didn’t think the woman had a loom fetish. No, she was using images and lightening her working day with a poem.
They weren’t taught in this class but other Victorian poets wrote political poems. This poem appeared in a newspaper called The Northern Star.
How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel men who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress, and leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?
The sex and identity of the poet, AW, is unknown. There were many other anonymous poems printed in the newspaper between 1838 and 1852. One poet wished she could write better and blamed her poor education for the quality of her work.
Aware of the many inequalities that existed throughout history, I was entranced by a constitution that promised equality. I had no idea that the men who drafted that constitution left voting to white men with property. I thought Americans fought for freedom from British rule and taxation, and then had to set up laws for their new nation and society.
Are there pieces of history that echo down time for you, even in today’s world where children learn to value the future above all else?