Reviewed by Keith Evans for Bristol Trades Union Council
Cry of the Poor “being a Letter from Sixteen Working Men of Bristol to the Sixteen Aldermen of the City”
First published by
W. And F. Morgan, Bristol, 1871.
This 2021 edition is published by Bristol Radical History Group with an afterword by Trish Mensah, Ian Wright and Barbara Segal. ISBN: 978-1-911522-61-4
Bristol Radical History Group
The reprinted letter in the pamphlet and the commentary by the Bristol Radical History group forms a concise and easily accessible case history on the topic of municipal social reform. A line from the final paragraph of “Final Thoughts” by group members Trish Mensah, Barbara Segal and Ian Wright offers a central conclusion, or lesson, to be drawn. “The current situation in Bristol, as elsewhere, is a salutary reminder that even when improvements in workers’ quality of life have been won, they can’t be taken be taken for granted.”
At the time of the letter itself there were generally sixteen aldermen in the council who wielded considerable power and were overwhelmingly Conservatives. The sixteen working mens’ letter sets out six demands that the writers considered necessary to alleviate the poor living conditions of the labouring classes in Bristol – clean air, free public parks, swimming pools, no tolls for using bridges, public libraries and a fish market. The last demand actually encompassing better facilities for obtaining food generally.
The letter is carefully crafted. Underlying its six demands are found unfavourable comparisons such as Bristol lagging behind other cities of lesser antiquity in implementing reforming acts of parliament, as in the plea for purer air “ There is an act for the Consumption of Smoke made by factories: we call upon you to enforce it without respect to persons, this is done effectually in London and elsewhere – let it be done in Bristol”. (The acts granting powers for welfare and social reform are detailed in the Radical History Groups Afterword.) Again, under parks, the letter refers to the parks existing in towns in the north “ most of which were mere villages when Bristol was a famous sea port”
In its final paragraphs the letter is more forthright in its complaints, particularly around the inequality in benefits from contributions to rates and taxes of the city. Whether there were exactly sixteen workmen to match the number of aldermen or not, we find in the complaints a comparison of the lives of each class. “you can … do much to lessen and to remedy the evils under which we labour … we should no longer grudge you your beautiful houses … or grumble so much at having to pay such a large part of the £300,000 you are spending to bring your big ships up the river …”, the last point being a reference to the typically Bristolian saga of the debate on “dockisation” of the Avon, still very much raging and concerning ratepayers and councillors in 1871.
The history group’s writers, in describing the effects of the letter, report the length of time it took to acheive the desired gains, writing “However, apart from a brief period in the 1870s, working class militancy , with its more organised threat to middle class privilege , did not emerge until the late 1880s “ and in the pamphlet’s Afterword they refer to the increasing trades union membership between the early 1850s and 1874.
Bristol Trades Council was established in 1873. Research for my dissertation Social Reform and Welfare Issues in Bristol Municipal Elections 1885 -1914 found Frank Sheppard, the prominent Socialist and Labour councillor, rueing “what could be achieved if the electorate was to show the same interest in the local elections as it did in general elections”. For Labour the factor which swung the [municipal] votes to that party was industrial unrest. A struggle with employers, whether successful or unsuccessful, brought together assemblies of trade union members and enabled the trade union leaders and Labour candidates (sometimes the same people) to use the platform to get across to the workers the political message that representation on the city council could affect pay and conditions across the district. After the city’s extension, which took in wards in the working class east , the establishment of a solid electoral base was enabled in which the interests of the classes who had need for improvement in their conditions were likely to be advanced as issues in municipal elections.
The Cry of the Poor is a valuable text; concise, informative and timely in its lesson around the unsatisfactory situation around health and welfare which exists 150 years after original calls were made on behalf of the working class. As the Radical History Group writers say “This account has shown that progressive change requires both time and persistence.”
Reviewed by Keith Evans : UNITE Retired Members Branch delegate to Bristol Trades Union Council.