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A childhood in poverty in the 1950s, 19th century British democracy and a piece of WorldbyStorm family history… August 5, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, History, The Left.

I’d meant to post this up quite a while back, but events got in the way. Anyhow, the Guardian review had a number of book reviews which touch on concerns here I think.

I have to admit I’m intrigued by this memoir by Alan Johnson, serviceably Blairite Minister in the 2000s, but one of the few who due to his clear working class antecedents stood out in that glum line of mediocrity – who weeps for Alan Milburn, who indeed?

Anyhow Peter Wilby’s review is fascinating noting that:

Johnson’s track record may be that of a loyal Blairite, but he is a rare example, and perhaps the last example, of a leading politician who was born into the working class – perhaps even what we would now call the underclass – and stayed in it or close to it, first as a postal worker, then as a full-time official for the postal (later communication) workers’ union.

And there’s much more, but a lot of food for thought on the way:

As Johnson points out, benefits in the 1950s “welfare state” (his quote marks) were administered through the head of household who, until Lily managed to track him down and organise a divorce, was still technically her husband. Lily supported herself and her two children, barely at subsistence levels, from a medley of part-time jobs, mostly serving in shops and cafés and domestic cleaning. She was constantly in debt, sending her children to shops to get food and other essentials on credit. The electricity, to which the family wasn’t even connected until 1956, was frequently cut off. The main supply of coal was lumps spilled in the street during deliveries. Clothes were always second-hand, or gifts from Lily’s employers. There were just half-a dozen books, mostly handed out at a private club where Johnson’s father played the piano for an annual children’s party. Johnson was nearly always hungry: “I’ve never forgotten that emptiness and craving for food.”

Wilby notes that:

Many readers will want to know why, given this background, Johnson, though initially a Marxist and later a militant union general secretary, eventually moved to Labour’s Blairite right. The book has a lot about football, his youthful ambitions to be a pop musician (which came much closer to realisation than those of his patron Tony Blair) and his careful cultivation of Mod style. But Johnson makes no attempt to relate childhood experiences to his later political development, and rightly so. This is about two extraordinary women who waged a battle for survival, with neither time nor energy left for politics. Johnson has given them a handsome and eloquent tribute.

And let’s dig a bit deeper in the roots of those times, and ours come to think of it. For, in an excoriating review of Antonia Fraser’s book on the Great Reform Bill of 1832, John Barrell points up a few home truths:

Two hundred years ago the world’s “oldest democracy”, as Margaret Thatcher liked to call it, was staggeringly undemocratic. The total electorate in England and Wales was a mere 366,000, about 11% of the total of adult males. Constituencies were so unequal in size that more than half the 513 MPs were returned by a grand total of 11,000 voters. Scotland, then a country of two million people, returned 45 MPs, chosen by a total electorate of less than 3,000. More than half of all supposed representatives of the people, in the Commons, were put there by members of the House of Lords, who claimed constituencies as their personal property, to be bought and sold at will. There was a yawning north-south divide: Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham had no representatives, while 21 little towns in Cornwall returned two members each, and the counties along the south coast, with 15% of the population of England, returned a third of all English MPs.

There’s more. Much much more. No secret ballot there:

The secret ballot, according to apologists for this system, would have been inimical to the “manly spirit” of the British people – though, as the eloquent radical Henry Hunt pointed out, in gentleman’s clubs no other system of election would have been tolerated. This was the constitution, palpably chaotic and corrupt, that some defended as “the perfection of human reason”. Two years before the “great” Reform Act of 1832, the Duke of Wellington, the Tory prime minister, declared that the state of the representation of the people had been designed by providence: it “could not be improved”; it had, because it deserved to have, “the full and entire confidence of the country”.

And when did the secret ballot finally appear? 1872. And women’s suffrage, well 1918, to an extent. But only in 1928 was the franchise extended to all eligible women over 21 years of age.

And that family history?

Recently the English branch of the WorldbyStorm family discovered an interesting anomaly in the historical record. This only came to light when it appeared that one member of the family, a woman, had been married twice, first to one man and then subsequently to another man, though there was no record of what had happened to the first man. Or not initially (indeed one theory was bigamy – and why not?).

But then someone did a check of legal records and it became apparent that the first man, a great great great grandfather was transported to Australia in 1851 as a criminal (apparently for stealing a chicken).

I looked up the record on convictrecords.com.au. He was sentenced to 7 years, arrived in May 1852 in Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania. It’s kind of strange to see that history online. Very strange indeed. One is, in one way, closer to that history. But in another it merely opens up questions that may never be answered. Nothing is known, as of yet, about what sort of life he had – if any – there. My own knowledge of that period of British history is poor and of the transports to Australia next to nothing. Though it would appear he was, in many respects, desperately unlucky given that transportation to Van Diemen’s Land/Tasmania ended two years later. Obviously he never returned home, and wife and child had to exist as best they could in those circumstances.

And it gives an indication of the times, and their casual brutality, a brutality reflected in the political and social systems themselves both then and after.


1. rockroots - August 5, 2013

On the subject of transportation, I know from accessing the papers some years ago that the National Library’s collection of the correspondence of Irish rebel William Smith O’Brien provides some insight into the experiences of transported convicts. However, the same class advantages that gave O’Brien the literary abilities to record his adventure also gave him somewhat preferential treatment compared to the average criminal. I don’t know if the papers have been the subject of any published works.


WorldbyStorm - August 5, 2013

Interesting question.

That’s a depressing thought re class advantages. But I’d think you’re absolutely right. I wonder how much of this history previously out of sight is coming to light due to genealogical enquiries.


2. benmadigan - June 15, 2015

here’s something about the way we were in ireland north and south at the time https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/the-way-we-were-spot-the-difference/


3. Joe - June 15, 2015

WbS, I’ll sing The Wild Colonial Boy just for you at the next gathering of CLRers. I love the sarcasm of these lines:
At the tender age of sixteen years he left his native home
And for Australia’s sunny shores he was inclined to roam


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