• sootallures

'The Smoke' and 'The Sticks' and Railway Time

People such as Stroud’s MP, Lord John Russell,

Hated plebeian beer houses,

Where labourers, blacksmiths and artisans

Listened intently as the village cobbler

Read out the news from some radical tract,

And where plumes of clay-pipe smoke wreathed debate,

Out there in the countryside, ‘in the Sticks’.

News then travelled its path along the turnpike roads,

Mail coach and stage coach racing along,

From London coaching inn to town and city coaching inn,

Before the news crept along the back streets,

Miry lanes and holloways to reach the village beer-shop,

Out there, in the Sticks.

And so, to one 1830 echo chamber for the rich,

Such as Lords Bathurst and Russell,

Another for the middle-classes,

Such as Stroudwater mill owners,

And yet another for the poor,

In their beer houses and kitchens,

Out there in the Sticks,

Where demands for the vote met demands for a just wage,

With news of the Captain Swing riots:

With consequent machine breaking,

Threatening letters, and rural arson,

Spreading like wild fire all over southern England.

Trade unionism and support for the Tolpuddle Martyrs

Would also follow along these hedgerow country lanes,

Hatred of the New Poor Law and the workhouse, too,

Together with the first stuttering of the Six Points,

And a nationwide working-class political movement:


But just as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers

Portrayed a disappearing world of the coaching inns,

Just as railway lines began to crisscross the country,

So, the new working-class political movement

Faced a new world of railways too,

And a new world of speed,

Leaving those radical beer houses as backwaters,

Out there, in the Sticks.

Railway time and railway timetables

Meant uniformity rather than local variety;

It also meant troops could be carried at speed,

To quell working class and Chartist protest;

Troops now in their new barracks,

Rather than billeted in houses

where they could become disaffected,

Disloyal, and disobey their orders.

London news travelled fast,

Beer house village discourse and local dissension

Became more difficult to sustain,

Even though the Chartist newspaper

The Northern Star outsold The Times et al;

But it was far easier to get that paper in town and city,

Rather than in the now isolated villages

away from the new main lines.

And so,

Village labourers lost their militancy,

Hodge now obeyed his master;

And in the towns and cities and along the branch lines,

A new uniform railway time with uniformed troops,

Along with a laissez faire economy,

And self-help and thrift, and an ideological attack

On the idea that profit was stolen wages,

Led to a new collaborative trade unionism,

Whereby greater profit for the master

was seen as the route to higher wages,

And where you stood on your own two feet,

Rather than link hands collectively.

These were the lines of steel

That marked the end of the moral economy,

This was Railway Time,

No more a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work;

Instead the laws of supply and demand,

And the New Poor Law,

Where conditions inside the workhouse

Were to be worse than with the worst paid jobs outside.

No more Moral Economy.

Instead, Market Economy.

Railway Time.

Lines of steal.

Railway Time.

Where workers forgot that profit was stolen wages.

Railway Time.

An unfair wage for a fair day’s work.

Railway Time.

Lines of steal,

Where the master stole your time

And didn’t pay you for it.

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