Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet

[+] | [-] | reset

Another change I must notice in the tone of young gentlemen, not only at Cambridge, but throughout Britain, which is most wholesome and most hopeful. I mean their altered tone in speaking to and of the labouring classes. Thirty years ago, and even later, the young men of the labouring classes were "the cads," "the snobs," "the blackguards"; looked on with a dislike, contempt, and fear, which they were not backward to return, and which were but too ready to vent themselves on both sides in ugly words and deeds. That hateful severance between the classes was, I believe, an evil of recent growth, unknown to old England. From the middle ages, up to the latter years of the French war, the relation between the English gentry and the labourers seems to have been more cordial and wholesome than in any other country of Europe. But with the French Revolution came a change for the worse. The Revolution terrified too many of the upper, and excited too many of the lower classes; and the stern Tory system of repression, with its bad habit of talking and acting as if "the government" and "the people" were necessarily in antagonism, caused ever increasing bad blood. Besides, the old feudal ties between class and class, employer and employed, had been severed. Large masses of working people had gathered in the manufacturing districts in savage independence. The agricultural labourers had been debased by the abuses of the old Poor-law into a condition upon which one looks back now with half-incredulous horror. Meanwhile, the distress of the labourers became more and more severe. Then arose Luddite mobs, meal mobs, farm riots, riots everywhere; Captain Swing and his rickburners, Peterloo "massacres," Bristol conflagrations, and all the ugly sights and rumours which made young lads, thirty or forty years ago, believe (and not so wrongly) that "the masses" were their natural enemies, and that they might have to fight, any year, or any day, for the safety of their property and the honour of their sisters.

How changed, thank God! is all this now. Before the influence of religion, both Evangelical and Anglican; before the spread of those liberal principles, founded on common humanity and justice, the triumph of which we owe to the courage and practical good sense of the Whig party; before the example of a Court, virtuous, humane, and beneficent; the attitude of the British upper classes has undergone a noble change. There is no aristocracy in the world, and there never has been one, as far as I know, which has so honourably repented, and brought forth fruits meet for repentance; which has so cheerfully asked what its duty was, that it might do it. It is not merely enlightened statesmen, philanthropists, devotees, or the working clergy, hard and heartily as they are working, who have set themselves to do good as a duty specially required of them by creed or by station. In the generality of younger laymen, as far as I can see, a humanity (in the highest sense of the word) has been awakened, which bids fair, in another generation, to abolish the last remnants of class prejudices and class grudges. The whole creed of our young gentlemen is becoming more liberal, their demeanour more courteous, their language more temperate. They inquire after the welfare, or at least mingle in the sports of the labouring man, with a simple cordiality which was unknown thirty years ago; they are prompt, the more earnest of them, to make themselves of use to him on the ground of a common manhood, if any means of doing good are pointed out to them; and that it is in any wise degrading to "associate with low fellows," is an opinion utterly obsolete, save perhaps among a few sons of squireens in remote provinces, or of parvenus who cannot afford to recognize the class from whence they themselves have risen. In the army, thanks to the purifying effect of the Crimean and Indian wars, the same altered tone is patent. Officers feel for and with their men, talk to them, strive to instruct and amuse them more and more year by year; and—as a proof that the reform has not been forced on the officers by public opinion from without, but is spontaneous and from within, another instance of the altered mind of the aristocracy—the improvement is greatest in those regiments which are officered by men of the best blood; and in care for and sympathy with their men, her Majesty's Footguards stands first of all. God grant that the friendship which exists there between the leaders and the led may not be tested to the death amid the snow-drift or on the battle-field; but if it be so, I know too that it will stand the test.