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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.
Tuesday, 18th August 2020
College Green, Bristol, BS1 5UY
More information on Facebook: Not a penny more to Serco – BRISTOL action
This Bristol event is part of a national Day of Action: show your support for safe, local track and trace in your community!
Saturday 8th August
11am, College Green, Bristol
Facebook event: Bristol Protest for Pay Justice
Bristol health and social care workers will be protesting along with colleagues across the country demanding a 15% pay increase paid from 1 December 2020, in order to start recovering a decade of lost wages.
From the organisers: “We are calling on NHS staff and supporters to join us to send a clear message to the government. We do not accept your plans to exclude us from the public sector pay increase, and we will make ourselves heard until you listen.”
All attendees are asked to respect social distancing as much as possible and the planned route gives as much space as possible. Mask wearing will be mandatory, and masks will be available on the day for those that don’t have them. Attendees are asked to wear blue, or a blue ribbon in solidarity.
There will be several speakers including Sheila Caffrey President of Bristol Trades Union Council.
At 11.58 there will be 2 minutes of still silence for all our brave colleagues that lost their lives.
The march will then proceed to Castle Park, making as much noise as possible!
An online rally will also be taking place from 11:30am to 1pm for anyone who cannot join outdoor protests. Details can be found here Online DEMO for NHS PAY Justice
On 13th July 2020 the Gloucester, Avon & Somerset region of the National Pensioners’ Convention (NPC) issued the following press release
NPC blames Government over BBC’S decision to end free TV licence for over 75’s
The news that the free TV licence for over 75s is to end from 1st August is absolutely devastating for the millions of pensioners who rely on their television for information, entertainment and company.
The NPC lays the blame for this draconian measure squarely at the door of the government, who have handed responsibility for this universal entitlementto the BBC, knowing that many of our oldest and most vulnerable people will struggle to find the money to keep their TVs switched on.
It is a cruel decision for the government to force the BBC to take, particularly while a great many over 75s are still self-isolating and afraid to go out because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
The majority of over 75s are not online – so forcing them to switch off unless they pay for a licence is depriving them of their only means of obtaining key messages and, for many, their only companionship. This may well have a profound impact on their health and well-being in general, particularly if, as predicted, the coronavirus spikes again this winter.
Over 75s will now have to choose between switching off permanently or finding the money for the licence to stay switched on – which could leave many having to decide between their TV or eating and heating. It is a choice that they should never have to make in the 21st century.
The Chancellor is busy handing out money to save businesses, but this government clearly has no concept of how most of our elderly live and how even those whose income goes just beyond the Pension Credit level, still struggle daily to make ends meet.
At it’s meeting on 18th December 2019 Bristol Trades Union Council agreed the following resolution –
We are truly devastated by the general election result, and devastated that we didn’t win the Labour Government that Bristol so desperately needs. We know that a Tory government will mean more pain for working people – with jobs, rights and public services under threat.
Whilst we are heartbroken about the result, we are also incredibly proud of the role that trade unionists played in the election, as Labour campaigners in our workplaces and communities.
This is a moment that requires us to draw on all of our reserves of strength and stand in solidarity with one another. We now need to step up and be ready to defend our communities, defend our jobs, workplaces and public services, and defend our unions and rights at work.
We will continue the fight to ban zero-hours contracts and take on the big corporations that pay poverty wages.
We will continue the fight for council housing for all who want it, a transport system that allows us to get to work and play at reasonable cost and for an environment that doesn’t poison us.
As ever, trade unions will be a vital line of defence against the impact of a Tory Government. At this moment we cannot say it loudly enough – if you’re not a member of a trade union join one and do everything you can to get colleagues and friends to join one too. Above all and whatever you do participate in the activities of your trade union.
History can also provide some solace in moments like this. The labour movement has suffered big defeats in the past and we have always come back, rebuilt our strength and fought another day.
Bristol Trades Union Council
Mike Levine, a local historian and NHS activist, has written a pamphlet that gives details of this process, which has been going on since 1990. He says that we will eventually have a two-tier health service with less and less care for those who cannot afford to pay.
Mike argues that IT CAN BE STOPPED IF PEOPLE KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING.
A copy of the pamphlet can be downloaded by following this link Privatisation of the NHS – NHS not for sale
If you want to support the NHS get your trade union campaigning for the NHS and get involved in Protect our NHS.
Postal workers in Keynsham are to go on strike on the two days before Christmas – in support of a Communications Workers Union (CWU) member who was sacked by the Royal Mail.
The sacking has caused outrage and the CWU has issued the Royal Mail with a strike notice, There will be no mail collected or delivered in BS31 from Saturday, December 21 to Friday, December 27.
The CWU said the member was sacked under the sickness process which was wrongly applied.
Messages of solidarity can be left on the Bristol CWU facebook page
On Black Friday (29th November 2019), the GMB will be staging a protest at the Amazon Fulfilment centre – Bristol Avonmouth to highlight the anger at the ‘inhuman conditions’ people work under at the company’s warehouses.
Bristol TUC urges all affiliates to support the protest of which details can be obtained from the local GMB office in Old Market, Bristol
Bristol TUC takes the view that the recent decision (13th November 2019) at the Royal Court of Justice to stop Communication Workers Union members from striking is an attack on the entire trade union movement and must be resisted.
The Communication Workers Union balloted over 110,000 members who voted by over 97% in favour of strike action in a massive 76% turnout. The strike was to oppose the casualisation of the Royal Mail
Bristol TUC extends its support and solidarity to postal workers and their union the Communication Workers Union in what is now a battle for democracy itself.
A full statement by the CWU can be found by following this link CWU’s voice of defiance rings out around the country