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Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class: Extract

In this extract, Thompson addresses one of the most difficult aspects of researching working class history in the early nineteenth century, the fact that the antipathy between rich and poor was so bad at the time that, on the one hand, the authorities used spies to penetrate working class organisations and networks, and on the other hand the workers themselves imposed codes of secrecy which protected them from the authorities but pose problems for historians.

And here we are close to the heart of the problem. For the third great reason why the sources are clouded is that working people intended them to be so. And ‘intention’ is too rational a term. There were, indeed, two cultures in England. In the heartlands of the Industrial Revolution, new institutions, new attitudes, new community-patterns, were emerging which were, consciously and unconsciously, designed to resist the intrusion of the magistrate, the employer, the parson or the spy. The new solidarity was not only a solidarity with; it was also a solidarity against. From the point of view of the authorities, two-thirds of their problem was to obtain any reliable information at all. Magistrates rode through thronged neighbourhoods a few hundred yards from their seats, and found themselves received like hostile aliens. They were more powerless to uncover tarde union lodges than Pizzarro’s free-booters were to uncover golden chalices in the villages of Peru.
Hence the Home Office records (our main first-hand sources) often make perplexing reading. Like uncomprehending travellers, the magistrates and commanding officers were at the mercy of their informants. A friendly society might appear as an engine of sedition to a man who had never thought of the cost of burial to the poor. A ranting field preacher might sound like an agent of Despard. Employers might wish to freeze the magistrate’s blood with tales of Jacobins in order to ensure harsh treatment for trade unionists. The JPs hawked for scraps of news from informers (paid or anonymous), and miscellaneous go-betweens such as publicans, travelling salesmen, and soldiers. Here we find one solemnly passing on to the Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding the gossip which his barber had brought that morning. There we find another, writing from Barnsley in 1802, to say that ‘the women all talk mysteriously. There is a general expectation of they know not what.’ And there we find a Methodist minister writing to the Duke of Portland about a Grand Association of revolutionaries, based on Bolton in 1801 – the story having come from a ‘confidential friend’ who got it from the ‘leader of the Methodist Singers’ at a Sheffield chapel, who in turn got it from someone else.1

E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin 1980; first published 1963) pp.531-2

1Fitzwilliam Papers F44(a), 45(d); RF Wearmouth Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England, 1800-1850 p.60. Compare TA Abdy to Duke of Portland, 20 December 1795, passing on information from ‘my own Gamekeeper, who from his situation has opportunities of learning more than I, as a Magistrate can…’;HO 42.37.

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