29 April 2014

Robert G. Hall and Stephen Roberts (eds): William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth Century working Man (1996)

Hall and Roberts's William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth Century Working Man is dedicated to an unfairly forgotten man of Greater Manchester. Aitken (1812– or 1814–69) was born in Dunbar, Scotland, although his family moved to Ashton-under-Lyne when he was a child. He began work in a cotton mill at the age of twelve and was largely self-taught. He opened a school in Ashton in 1833, where he and his wife Mary taught mainly working-class children. He had a strong sense of justice and spent much effort on the Chartist cause and fighting for the ten-hour working day.

After the Chartist defeat of 1842 Aitken left with two friends for America for a year, and wrote the short book A Journey up the Mississippi River from its Mouth to Nauvoo, the City of the Latter Day Saints (1845).

Depressed, he died by slitting his throat at his home.

This book briefly details Aitken's life in the Introduction, and then moves to Aitken's unfinished autobiography, which was called 'Remembrances and Struggles of a Working Man for Bread and Liberty', and the first paragraph is concerned with a kind of revisionism:

'It has not been by timidity or fear that the battles of liberty have been won, but by a moral courage equalling, if not surpassing, the hero who marches to victory over his slaughtered enemies and vindictive foes.'

History now remembers some of those fighting for freedom against an oppressive state – such as the Chartists and the suffragettes – as heroes. (Let's hope that at some time in the future it will see in the same light the often highly dangerous efforts of asylum seekers to escape from tyranny.)

Slavery is also tyranny of course, but Aitken – very wrongly, in my view – supported the American South because the blockade on Southern ports exporting cotton was causing hardship to English workers such as those in the cotton town of Ashton.

Aitken's autobiography unfortunately ends at 1840, the point he had reached before he killed himself, thus leaving out twenty-nine years of his life. Unsurprisingly, it is full of the injustices meted out by the more fortunate on the less fortunate, and of Aitken's and others' concerns to eleviate the conditions of working people. As might be expected, Aitken speaks of the roles played by such Chartist activists as Feargus O'Connor and Joseph Rayner Stephens, but two lesser known activists were Aitken's friends Dr Peter Murray McDouall, and John Bradley from Hyde. They were both imprisoned for 'seditious' activities in 1840, as was Aitken, who in a note before his utopian prison poem 'The Captive's Dream' – printed here along with several of his other poems – wryly states that the meaning of 'seditious conspiracy' means 'haters of poverty and oppression'.

I was surprised that this book is still on sale eighteen years after publication. And this is the first publication of the autobiography since the original instalments in the Ashton News. Very interesting it is as well.

I find the front cover a little surprising too: it shows a cropped, reverse image of a portrait reproduced in greater detail on the title page, where Aitken's buttons can clearly be seen in the correct position!


Patrick Murtha said...

May this be ordered from the publisher? Or a particular bookstore?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Yes, Patrick, you can order it online, and here's the URL: http://www.tameside.gov.uk/webapps/shopping/moreinfo.php3?4

Patrick Murtha said...

Thanks so much! That is a quite reasonable price, too.

I truly enjoy your blog and learn a lot from it.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

And thank you very much: I really appreciate your comment!