You can read The Road to Wigan Pier on-line free at Gutenberg-Australia.
Wigan Pier was a coal landing jetty on the Leeds-Liverpool canal where it passed through Wigan. It is an ironic appellation, Wigan’s Pier bearing no more relation to a seaside pier than a lump of coal to a diamond. The Pier does not actually feature in the book at all, for the simple reason that it had been demolished some years before Orwell visited Wigan. You, dear reader, would be luckier if you visited Wigan today for the Pier has been rebuilt – perhaps because the locals got fed up with tourist types asking the way to something which did not exist. I wouldn’t bother making a special trip if I were you.
Whatever Wigan might be like today, it was not beautiful in 1936. But, as a Mancunian, and hence on the Lancastrian side of the Pennines and thus in opposition to Yorkshire by long tradition, I note Orwell’s remark,
“Even Wigan is beautiful compared with Sheffield. Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.”
But enough frivolity…
I have just re-read “The Road to Wigan Pier” for the first time since I was a teenager. Blame Jordan Peterson, he’s always banging on about it. Orwell’s book is a valuable historical record of working class lives in the north of England at the height of the great depression of the 1930s, particularly that of miners and their families. Though published in 1937, the book describes Orwell’s visits to northern working towns in the Spring of 1936 (by the end of 1936 Orwell was in Spain). This is the pre-WW2 Orwell, and hence the Orwell before Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). You need to be aware of the date because when Orwell uses the phrase ‘pre-war’ he is referring to WW1.
If you have never read an account of the working conditions of coal miners at that period, you should – and Orwell is as good a source as any. Simply put, the sheer physical arduousness of the work would be unsustainable by men today, even men used to labouring. British coal mines were generally very deep. Once underground a miner would need to ‘travel’ to the coal face – a distance of up to 3 miles along an excavated tunnel mostly little more than around four feet high. This ‘travel’ had to be undertaken doubled-up, with the back almost horizontal. You will appreciate why miners were generally small men. But the time taken for this ‘travelling’, typically between one and three hours daily, was unpaid. The miners’ working day began only upon reaching the coal face where he would hack away for some seven and a half hours on top of his ‘travel’ time. Orwell himself ‘travelled’ only one mile, a comparatively short ‘travel’, but was barely able to manage it and was certainly not capable of then putting in a full days labour – even had he otherwise been capable of doing a miner’s job, which he was not. And all this is done in the heat and blackness of a deep mine with the ever present threat of roof falls and death.
Orwell emphasises the extent to which all aspects of life in Britain were dependent upon coal, and hence upon the miners.
“You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and the nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of “Marxism for Infants” – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.”
But “The Road to Wigan Pier” is also a rare account of working people’s daily lives; their homes, their eating habits, their poverty, their standards. It is an account of the class divide which, at that time, was still absolute. It is the book in which Orwell describes himself, with admirable precision, as lower-upper-middle class. Whilst he was invariably taken as a toff by those he was anthropologising, Orwell barely earned as much as they. On this ‘genteel poverty’ Orwell is particularly good. He describes a sinking mass of the middle class – left stranded by the decline in the British national fortune after WW1 – whose class status depended entirely on education, pretension and ‘appearances’, the latter accomplished in the teeth of secret poverty.
On the one hand, 1936 cannot be regarded as ancient history: it is within the lifetime of many people still living. On the other hand, 1936 is almost as distant from the present as it is from Wordsworth. Well it might be, for the conditions of life in the UK now bear little relation to those times, whatever people may insist. And yet, despite being a mere single lifetime distant, already the truth of those times – as described by Orwell – is submerged beneath the propaganda of ‘the historical oppression of women’. No. If you must have history in a sound bite it was this: the oppression of the many by the few. And both the many and the few consisted of both sexes.
Women and children used to work down the mines too, but the Victorians put a stop to that in 1842 – the nasty old patriarchs!
There were to be some changes in Orwell’s politics between the 1930s and the 1940s, and not only because of the cataclysm of WW2. “The Road to Wigan Pier” sees Orwell as a Socialist apologist. It is not hard to understand why given the conditions of the working class he describes in the book. Moreover, Orwell was already aware in 1936 of the growing menace of Fascism in Europe. He literally fought against Fascism in Spain the following year (Homage to Catalonia refers). Orwell’s view in 1936 is summed up thus,
“At this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.”
“There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong enough to act….. In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming”
If I recall Homage to Catalonia correctly, his experience in the Spanish civil war caused Orwell to believe that Socialism really could work – thus revealing his earlier doubts about the matter – though it was also Orwell’s experiences in Spain that made him an ardent anti-Stalinist. For Orwell was a realist and was never a great fan of Marxist theory, and still less of those who espoused it. In addition to the urgency of thwarting the Fascist threat, Orwell clung to Socialism only because he could see no other way of affecting a change in the appallingly degraded conditions in which the bulk of humanity lived – and he was convinced that there was no economic necessity for it. He placed the blame squarely on the class system, as a good Socialist would. But for Orwell it was all about mass poverty.
“Socialism means the overthrow of tyranny, at home as well as abroad…..the profoundest philosophical difference is unimportant compared with saving the twenty million Englishmen whose bones are rotting from malnutrition”
In regard to philosophical differences (for which read Marxist doctrines), Orwell opined “the time to argue about them is afterwards” – after the elimination of endemic poverty and the defeat of Fascism, that is. With the benefit of hindsight, Orwell’s Socialism seems remarkably naive – the perennial failing of the good man – and all the more so given his crushingly incisive insights into the nature of collectivist totalitarianism just a few years later. In 1936 he thought that,
“All that is needed is to hammer two facts home into the public consciousness. One, that the interests of all exploited people are the same; the other, that Socialism is compatible with common decency.”
Orwell was never one to bang on about dialectic materialism or other Marxist doctrines. He knew too much about working men to confuse Marxist theory with reality.
“As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it. It is of course true that plenty of people of working-class origin are Socialists of the theoretical bookish type. But they are never people who have remained working men; they don’t work with their hands, that is. They belong either to the type I mentioned in the last chapter, the type who squirms into the middle class via the literary intelligentsia, or the type who becomes a Labour MP or a high-up trade union official. This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of ‘bettering’ himself. Not merely while but by fighting the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois himself. And meanwhile it is quite possible that he has remained an orthodox Marxist. But I have yet to meet a working miner, steel-worker, cotton-weaver, docker, navvy, or whatnot who was ‘ideologically’ sound.”
It was not just as regards Marxism that the working man was politically uninvolved. Orwell notes,
“I happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler, Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury.”
Indeed, the working class seemed to be just as in need of consciousness raising as they had been when they frustrated Robert Tressell so. People will accept almost anything if it’s all they have ever known – at least they did when TV was not around to make them envious of others.
“Talking once with a miner I asked him when the housing shortage first became acute in his district; he answered, ‘When we were told about it’, meaning that till recently people’s standards were so low that they took almost any degree of overcrowding for granted. He added that when he was a child his family had slept eleven in a room and thought nothing of it, and that later, when he was grown-up, he and his wife had lived in one of the old-style back to back houses in which you not only had to walk a couple of hundred yards to the lavatory but often had to wait in a queue when you got there, the lavatory being shared by thirty-six people. And when his wife was sick with the illness that killed her, she still had to make that two hundred yards’ journey to the lavatory. This, he said, was the kind of thing people would put up with ’till they were told about it’.”
Orwell regarded the middle class leftist zealots as an embarrassment. He is amusingly politically incorrect (not that there was any inhibition at the time), referring derisively to vegetarians, the Temperance movement (“fruit-juice drinkers”), Pacifism and a host of other holy cows, including feminism. Here’s some lovely rants,
“It would help enormously, for instance, if the smell of crankishness which still clings to the Socialist movement could be dispelled. If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!”
“The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical Socialist is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years’ time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in Socialist parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together.”
“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.”
I love that “secret teetotaller with vegetarian leanings” (speaking as an unreconstructed beer drinking carnivore myself). And as for the so-called left being dominated by the middle class, what resonance that has today. Orwell is scathing about what we would later call “champagne socialists”. He sees through their pretensions to the unchanged class distain beneath.
“Look at Comrade X, member of the CPGB and author of “Marxism for Infants”. Comrade X, it so happens, is an old Etonian. He would be ready to die on the barricades, in theory anyway, but you notice that he still leaves his bottom waistcoat button undone. He idealizes the proletariat, but it is remarkable how little his habits resemble theirs. Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on, but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. I have known numbers of bourgeois Socialists, I have listened by the hour to their tirades against their own class, and yet never, not even once, have I met one who had picked up proletarian table-manners. Yet, after all, why not? Why should a man who thinks all virtue resides in the proletariat still take such pains to drink his soup silently? It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting. So you see he is still responding to the training of his childhood, when he was taught to hate, fear, and despise the working class.”
[CPGB = Communist Party of Great Britain].
Orwell was equally scathing about Socialist literature. Here is a passage in which he reveals that, in 1936, he was still ignorant about the situation in Russia.
“If one faces facts one must admit that nearly everything describable as Socialist literature is dull, tasteless, and bad…..Every writer of consequence and every book worth reading is on the other side. I am willing to believe that it is otherwise in Russia – about which I know nothing, however – for presumably in post-revolutionary Russia the mere violence of events would tend to throw up a vigorous literature of sorts. But it is certain that in Western Europe Socialism has produced no literature worth having ….The real Socialist writers, the propagandist writers, have always been dull, empty windbags – Shaw, Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, Waldo Frank, etc., etc….I do think it a bad sign that it has produced no songs worth singing.”
Orwell is frequently critical of Soviet-worship in “The Road to Wigan Pier”. However, it appears that his education about the true nature of Stalin’s Russia only really started in 1937 in Spain. Naively he imagined that the leftist forces in Spain would be united against the Fascists. Essentially by chance he happened to join a militia (the POUM) which, though Marxist and hence fighting the Fascists, was also an anti-Stalinist communist party. He would, initially, have been equally content to join the Soviet supported communist-run International Brigades. But Stalin had his own agenda in Spain, and he did not take kindly to interference. That the POUM was also Marxist was of little significance to Stalin. He decided to eliminate them. In May 1937, Orwell in his POUM militia was attacked, not by the Fascist forces he had gone to Spain to fight, but by the Soviet controlled forces which he had thought were allies. Thus were Orwell’s eyes opened and the author of the post-WW2 books was born.
But let not the reader imagine that the Orwell of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four had relinquished his Socialism. He is reputed to have written, after Spain, “At last I really believe in Socialism which I never did before“. And many years later, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it“.
At the risk of straying too far from my subject, if you have not read Orwell’s Preface to Animal Farm, you must – it’s here (somewhat annotated).
In respect of Socialist literature, though we must largely agree with Orwell, he is perhaps being a little harsh. What about “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” for heaven’s sake? And what about Greenwood’s “Love On The Dole”, published 4 years earlier, and also a response to the mass unemployment of the 1930s? “Love On The Dole” addresses the same issues as “The Road to Wigan Pier”, but does so through emotionally engaging fiction. Like the theme of “Love On The Dole”, Orwell also recognised the significance of the working class being willing to marry whilst unemployed – a habit which struck the middle classes as evidence of irresponsibility. Moreover, in contrast to today in which the benefit system can discourage cohabitation and marriage, Orwell noted in 1936,
“There is just this to be said for the unemployment regulations, that they do not discourage people from marrying. A man and wife on twenty-three shillings a week are not far from the starvation line, but they can make a home of sorts; they are vastly better off than a single man on fifteen shillings.
A working man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So that in one way things in the distressed areas are not as bad as they might be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken up.”
This is one very significant way in which the present is worse than the 1930s (the family system has now broken up in the lower socioeconomic classes). This is particularly worth noting because, whilst the beneficial changes since the 1930s can be attributed to science and technology, this disbeneficial change must be laid squarely at the door of politics. Orwell was wrong about Socialism being the answer to mass poverty. He had the Romantics’ negative view of the ‘machine age’, and so he failed to predict that science, technology and birth control would provide the path to greater social justice, not Socialism.
To consolidate this picture of the benefits of marrying in 1936, regardless of unemployment, Orwell notes,
“The life of a single unemployed man is dreadful. He lives sometimes in a common lodging-house, more often in a ‘furnished’ room for which he usually pays six shillings a week, finding himself as best he can on the other nine (say six shillings a week for food and three for clothes, tobacco, and amusements). Of course he cannot feed or look after himself properly, and a man who pays six shillings a week for his room is not encouraged to be indoors more than is necessary. So he spends his days loafing in the public library or any other place where he can keep warm. That keeping warm is almost the sole preoccupation of a single unemployed man in winter. In Wigan a favourite refuge was the pictures, which are fantastically cheap there. You can always get a seat for fourpence, and at the matinee at some houses you can even get a seat for twopence. Even people on the verge of starvation will readily pay twopence to get out of the ghastly cold of a winter afternoon. In Sheffield I was taken to a public hall to listen to a lecture by a clergyman, and it was by a long way the silliest and worst-delivered lecture I have ever heard or ever expect to hear. I found it physically impossible to sit it out, indeed my feet carried me out, seemingly of their own accord, before it was half-way through. Yet the hall was thronged with unemployed men; they would have sat through far worse drivel for the sake of a warm place to shelter in.”
And here are a couple of interesting insights into class distinctions, one in gender roles and one regarding the pressure of aspiration,
“A working-class bachelor is a rarity, and so long as a man is married unemployment makes comparatively little alteration in his way of life. His home is impoverished but it is still a home, and it is noticeable everywhere that the anomalous position created by unemployment – the man being out of work while the woman’s work continues as before – has not altered the relative status of the sexes. In a working-class home it is the man who is the master and not, as in a middle-class home, the woman or the baby.”
“I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealizing them, but I do know that you can learn a great deal in a working-class home, if only you can get there. The essential point is that your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others which are not necessarily better but are certainly different. Take for instance the different attitude towards the family. A working-class family hangs together as a middle-class one does, but the relationship is far less tyrannical. A working man has not that deadly weight of family prestige hanging round his neck like a millstone. I have pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his family – to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering him night and day for failing to ‘get on’.”
Despite some incongruous disparaging remarks about birth control, Orwell makes the following observation which is surely bang on the money.
“Even if you live in a back to back house and have four children and a total income of thirty-two and sixpence a week from the PAC, there is no need to have unemptied chamber-pots standing about in your living-room. But it is equally certain that their circumstances do not encourage self-respect. The determining factor is probably the number of children. The best-kept interiors I saw were always childless houses or houses where there were only one or two children; with, say, six children in a three-roomed house it is quite impossible to keep anything decent.”
PAC stands for ‘Public Assistance Committees’. These were introduced in 1934. This was the first time that unemployment benefit had been paid nationally via taxation. Prior to that the ‘poor relief’ funded by local rate payers was still in operation as it had been for centuries. The huge demand for unemployment assistance due to the 1930s depression was responsible for the switch to national funding for the first time. With the benefit of hindsight this was a significant shift to more centralised State power, though at the time it was simply essential. The PAC-controlled dole was strictly means tested. If people on benefits today are aggrieved at having to ‘sign on’ every month, take a look at the practice in 1936…
“The Means Test is very strictly enforced, and you are liable to be refused relief at the slightest hint that you are getting money from another source. Dock-labourers, for instance, who are generally hired by the half-day, have to sign on at a Labour Exchange twice daily; if they fail to do so it is assumed that they have been working and their dole is reduced correspondingly.”
In recent years the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ has been causing unrest. This is a reduction in Housing Benefit payable to people who live in a housing association or council property that is deemed to have one or more spare bedrooms. Housing Benefits may also be reduced, or stopped completely, if partners decide to live together. This feature of the current system leads to much cohabitation being kept quiet or being effectively discouraged. Here is the 1936 equivalent,
“The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which it breaks up families. Old people, sometimes bedridden, are driven out of their homes by it. An old age pensioner, for instance, if a widower, would normally live with one or other of his children; his weekly ten shillings goes towards the household expenses, and probably he is not badly cared for. Under the Means Test, however, he counts as a ‘lodger’ and if he stays at home his children’s dole will be docked. So, perhaps at seventy or seventy-five years of age, he has to turn out into lodgings, handing his pension over to the lodging-house keeper and existing on the verge of starvation. I have seen several cases of this myself. It is happening all over England at this moment, thanks to the Means Test.”
What is forgotten today is the revolutionary ambiance which was all-pervasive just after WW1. Not only were the workers and the intelligentsia ‘Bolshie’, but the feeling was common amongst the ‘posh’ classes too, especially the young. Of the workers, Orwell writes,
“Immediately after the war, the English working class were in a fighting mood. That was the period of the great coal strikes, when a miner was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there….The men who had fought had been lured into the army by gaudy promises, and now they were coming home to a world where there were no jobs and not even any houses. Moreover, they had been at war and were coming home with the soldier’s attitude to life, which is fundamentally, in spite of discipline, a lawless attitude. There was a turbulent feeling in the air. To that time belongs the song with the memorable refrain: There’s nothing sure but the rich get richer and the poor get children.”
[Robert Smillie was the Arthur Scargill of his day, a miner’s trade union leader].
Of the upper-middle classes Orwell writes,
“But those years, during and just after the war, were a queer time to be at school, for England was nearer revolution than she has been since or had been for a century earlier. Throughout almost the whole nation there was running a wave of revolutionary feeling which has since been reversed and forgotten, but which has left various deposits of sediment behind. Essentially, though of course one could not then see it in perspective, it was a revolt of youth against age, resulting directly from the war. In the war the young had been sacrificed and the old had behaved in a way which, even at this distance of time, is horrible to contemplate; they had been sternly patriotic in safe places while their sons went down like swathes of hay before the German machine guns. Moreover, the war had been conducted mainly by old men and had been conducted with supreme incompetence. By 1918 everyone under forty was in a bad temper with his elders, and the mood of anti-militarism which followed naturally upon the fighting was extended into a general revolt against orthodoxy and authority. At that time there was, among the young, a curious cult of hatred of ‘old men’. The dominance of ‘old men’ was held to be responsible for every evil known to humanity, and every accepted institution from Scott’s novels to the House of Lords was derided merely because ‘old men’ were in favour of it. For several years it was all the fashion to be a ‘Bolshie’, as people then called it. England was full of half-baked antinomian opinions. Pacifism, internationalism, humanitarianism of all kinds, feminism, free love, divorce-reform, atheism, birth-control – things like these were getting a better hearing than they would get in normal times.”
“One day the master who taught us English set us a kind of general knowledge paper of which one of the questions was, ‘Whom do you consider the ten greatest men now living?’ Of sixteen boys in the class (our average age was about seventeen) fifteen included Lenin in their list. This was at a snobbish expensive public school, and the date was 1920, when the horrors of the Russian Revolution was still fresh in everyone’s mind.”
I have speculated previously that the British Establishment’s fear of revolution at the end of WW1 might have been part of the motivation behind the 1918 Representation of the People Act – which gave the vote to all men (aged 21 and over) and all women (aged 30 and over) for the first time. This Bill was debated in Parliament in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution, which started in the ranks of the Russian army. It is not unreasonable to suppose that parliament’s previous reluctance to extend the franchise might have been overcome, in part, by fear of the contagion of revolution spreading to Britain, especially after the horrors of the WW1 trenches. Orwell’s words lend some support to the thesis. However, whatever fears inhabited the minds of the ruling classes, it is unlikely that the workers were for violent revolution. At least, any revolutionary fervour was easily quelled…
“It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution.”
Bread and circuses, I guess.
The physical, as well as emotional, effects of WW1 were still in evidence. On witnessing a parade of Guards Orwell laments dolefully,
“Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my child-hood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats – the truth being that in modern England a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else. If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed.”
Ah, male privilege.
And those who are into gender-scripts may wish to contemplate whether they should be focussing on class-scripts instead, at least in 1936, as Orwell remarks,
“Having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon.”
And finally, you may find current resonance in Orwell’s summing up,
“If you present Socialism in a bad and misleading light – if you let people imagine that it does not mean much more than pouring European civilization down the sink at the command of Marxist prigs – you risk driving the intellectual into Fascism.”
“We have got to admit that if Fascism is everywhere advancing, this is largely the fault of Socialists themselves. Partly it is due to the mistaken Communist tactic of sabotaging democracy, i.e., sawing off the branch you are sitting on; but still more to the fact that Socialists have, so to speak, presented their case wrong side foremost. They have never made it sufficiently clear that the essential aims of Socialism are justice and liberty.”
No, George, and they still don’t.
Added 12/4/17: Recall Orwell mockingly referring to “Comrade X, author of “Marxism for Infants“? Well, a book published last month by MIT Press is Communism for Kids – aargh!!
Everyone should know that in the past life was very hard for almost everyone. The idea of a patriarchal society in which men lived a life of relative luxury supported by women is a fantasy the falsity of which should be obvious false to anyone with the most basic knowledge.
In a mostly agricultural society in which subistence is not something that can be taken for granted this is self evident. In the early industrial age the most telling refutation of the feminist view of history is the average life expectancy of men and women. See http://www.longevitypanel.co.uk/_files/life-expectancy-by-gender.pdf . Women lived longer than men and this surely reflects a substantial advantage in how they were treated especially when the risks of child birth are considered. Life itself is surely the most precious thing and therefore a society dominated and controlled by men for men’s advantage above women would be characterised by a longer life expectancy for men and not the opposite.
Even now the influence of such heavy industry is still clear in the health stats. The really big health gaps are the decade difference between male life expectancy in wards of former heavy industries and those of wealth. Public health data clearly shows the influence of industries that started to disappear in the mid eighties (well move to other countries in eastern Europe and the far east). I was educated at a secondary modern in the mid seventies, it had extensive relationships with local industries and had opportunities to visit or spend time in those industries. For me this included the (still very busy) Port in Manchester at the end of the Ship Canal, The celebrated Agecroft Pit (brass band and rowing club) an obsolescent coal fired power Station, the giant main turbine halls of GEC and JCB Diggers. I have bored my offspring about just how big and terrifying these were. Of course there are still some such industrial giants in the region and many factories large and small with repetitive work.
I also think Orwell’s observations about relative values are important. I think our legislators and elites simply don’t “get” how significant what, I’m sure, are trivial amounts of money to then, are to people who don’t have much money and /or rely on unreliable employment. So locally a really common scenario is a “family” that secures the basic living income through benefits (including the vital housing benefit) paid has to a “single mother” and “her” children. To maintain this the male partner, officially, is a shadowy presence. However in fact the male partner is “my fella” and often can contribute considerably but intermittently due to short term contracts etc. in the many “trades” that have become more “flexible”. So there is a state subsidised “matrilocal” “matrilineal social structure.
If I recall correctly, a new growth industry now occupies the site of the demolished Agecroft power station – namely a men’s prison. The power station in that area which would have been new at the time of which you speak, Fiddler’s Ferry, is now on the point of closure. (In fact, the last I heard, their contracts expired today, coincidentally).