The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes Summary

Jonathan Rose


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, historians have become increasingly interested in the lives of ordinary people. Most of the research and publication in this area has focused on material culture: what the working classes ate, where and how they lived, how they voted, what their life was like inside the workplace and within the family. Rose’s study looks instead at the intellectual life of these people, and he reveals that many laborers worked as much with their minds as they did with their hands.

Among Rose’s revelations is the hunger for books among the working class. The 1796-1797 Scots Chronicle reported thirty-five reading societies among laborers, some of these organizations owning as many as a thousand volumes. By 1822, fifty-one Scottish working class libraries had been founded, all in towns with populations under ten thousand. In 1817, the merchant Samuel Brown created the East Lothian Itinerating Libraries, which sent boxes of fifty books to Scottish villages. Most of the volunteer librarians who oversaw these traveling collections were laborers. Similarly, in Carlisle between 1836 and 1854, twenty-four reading rooms were established, often by handloom weavers.

As books became more readily available and less expensive over the next century, laborers built personal libraries. A 1932-1933 survey of mainly working-class neighborhoods in London found that 23 percent of the households owned more than a hundred books, and only 6 percent had fewer than six volumes. Another survey in 1944 revealed that 63 percent of skilled workers and 42 percent of unskilled workers grew up in homes having many books. Asked whether their parents had encouraged reading, 48 percent of those in the upper working class and 38 percent of those in the lower responded affirmatively. According to this survey, members of the middle class in 1944 spent 8.7 hours a week reading books, another 5.4 reading newspapers and magazines. For the upper working class the figures are somewhat lower: five hours a week each for books and periodicals. The lower working class averaged 3.1 hours a week reading books, but nearly another 5 for periodicals.

This love of reading is evident in the coal mines as well. Around 1850, nineteen of the fifty collieries in Northumberland and Durham boasted a library or reading room. By 1934, the Welsh coalfields contained some hundred libraries averaging three thousand volumes each. These books were for use as well as delight: On the eve of World War II, the Tredegar Workmen’s Institute, which housed the largest of these collections, circulated about 100,000 books. The Tylerstown Workmen’s Institute in 1941 registered 7,783 loans. In the late 1920’s in Ynyshir, three hundred unemployed miners borrowed five hundred books a week.

Rose found wide divergence in reading tastes. He rejects the claims by Barbara Hernstein Smith, a past president of the Modern Language Association, that the classics are irrelevant and unappealing to those lacking formal education. Rose cites repeated references to the joys that the canonical authors brought to working-class lives. The servant Dorothy Burnham, who grew up in a Catholic hostel, wrote of her response to the poetry of John Keats, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold:

Communication between these poets and myself was instantaneous. I saw with delighted amazement that all poetry had been written specially for me. Although I spoke—in my back street urchin accents—of La Belly Dame Sans Murky, yet in Keats’s chill little poem I seemed to sense some essence of the eternal ritual of romantic love. And Tennyson’s “Morte D’Arthur” bowled me over. . . . So the poets helped me escape the demands of communal living which now, at thirteen, were beginning to be intolerable to me.

The shoemaker and poet Thomas Cooper praised Homer’s Iliad for its “matchless beauty, . . . life-like pictures of humanity, [and] opulence of moral.” For Birmingham factory worker V. W. Garratt, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Tennyson “swamped the trivialities of life and gave my ego a fulness and strength in the lustre of which noble conceptions were born and flourished.” At the Birmingham Central Free Library he read Homer, Plato, Epictetus, and Longinus, and when he went to France in World War I he carried in his knapsack F. T. Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, an anthology of classic poetry. Richard Hillyer, son of a cowman, found Tennyson’s poetry among the two dozen books in his classroom library. Recalling...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)