Sybil/Book 3/Chapter 4

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Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli
Book 3/Chapter 4


Wodgate, or Wogate, as it was called on the map, was a district that in old days had been consecrated to Woden, and which appeared destined through successive ages to retain its heathen character. At the beginning of the revolutionary war, Wodgate was a sort of squatting district of the great mining region to which it was contiguous, a place where adventurers in the industry which was rapidly developing, settled themselves; for though the great veins of coal and ironstone cropped up, as they phrase it, before they reached this bare and barren land, and it was thus deficient in those mineral and metallic treasures which had enriched its neighbourhood, Wodgate had advantages of its own, and of a kind which touch the fancy of the lawless. It was land without an owner; no one claimed any manorial right over it; they could build cottages without paying rent. It was a district recognized by no parish; so there were no tithes, and no meddlesome supervision. It abounded in fuel which cost nothing, for though the veins were not worth working as a source of mining profit, the soil of Wodgate was similar in its superficial character to that of the country around. So a population gathered, and rapidly increased, in the ugliest spot in England, to which neither Nature nor art had contributed a single charm; where a tree could not be seen, a flower was unknown, where there was neither belfry nor steeple, nor a single sight or sound that could soften the heart or humanise the mind.

Whatever may have been the cause, whether, as not unlikely, the original squatters brought with them some traditionary skill, or whether their isolated and unchequered existence concentrated their energies on their craft, the fact is certain, that the inhabitants of Wodgate early acquired a celebrity as skilful workmen. This reputation so much increased, and in time spread so far, that for more than a quarter of a century, both in their skill and the economy of their labour, they have been unmatched throughout the country. As manufacturers of ironmongery, they carry the palm from the whole district; as founders of brass and workers of steel, they fear none; while as nailers and locksmiths, their fame has spread even to the European markets, whither their most skilful workmen have frequently been invited.

Invited in vain! No wages can tempt the Wodgate man from his native home, that squatters' seat which soon assumed the form of a large village, and then in turn soon expanded into a town, and at the present moment numbers its population by swarming thousands, lodged in the most miserable tenements in the most hideous burgh in the ugliest country in the world.

But it has its enduring spell. Notwithstanding the spread of its civic prosperity, it has lost none of the characteristics of its original society; on the contrary it has zealously preserved them. There are no landlords, head-lessees, main-masters, or butties in Wodgate. No church there has yet raised its spire; and as if the jealous spirit of Woden still haunted his ancient temple, even the conventicle scarcely dares show its humble front in some obscure corner. There is no municipality, no magistrate, no local acts, no vestries, no schools of any kind. The streets are never cleaned; every man lights his own house; nor does any one know anything except his business.

More than this, at Wodgate a factory or large establishment of any kind is unknown. Here Labour reigns supreme. Its division indeed is favoured by their manners, but the interference or influence of mere capital is instantly resisted. The business of Wodgate is carried on by master workmen in their own houses, each of whom possesses an unlimited number of what they call apprentices, by whom their affairs are principally conducted, and whom they treat as the Mamlouks treated the Egyptians.

These master workmen indeed form a powerful aristocracy, nor is it possible to conceive one apparently more oppressive. They are ruthless tyrants; they habitually inflict upon their subjects punishments more grievous than the slave population of our colonies were ever visited with; not content with beating them with sticks or flogging them with knotted ropes, they are in the habit of felling them with hammers, or cutting their heads open with a file or lock. The most usual punishment however, or rather stimulus to increase exertion, is to pull an apprentice's ears till they run with blood. These youths too are worked for sixteen and even twenty hours a day; they are often sold by one master to another; they are fed on carrion, and they sleep in lofts or cellars: yet whether it be that they are hardened by brutality, and really unconscious of their degradation and unusual sufferings, or whether they are supported by the belief that their day to be masters and oppressors will surely arrive, the aristocracy of Wodgate is by no means so unpopular as the aristocracy of most other places.

In the first place it is a real aristocracy; it is privileged, but it does something for its privileges. It is distinguished from the main body not merely by name. It is the most knowing class at Wodgate; it possesses indeed in its way complete knowledge; and it imparts in its manner a certain quantity of it to those whom it guides. Thus it is an aristocracy that leads, and therefore a fact. Moreover the social system of Wodgate is not an unvarying course of infinite toil. Their plan is to work hard, but not always. They seldom exceed four days of labour in the week. On Sunday the masters begin to drink; for the apprentices there is dog-fighting without any stint. On Monday and Tuesday the whole population of Wodgate is drunk; of all stations, ages, and sexes; even babes, who should be at the breast; for they are drammed with Godfrey's cordial. Here is relaxation, excitement; if less vice otherwise than might be at first anticipated, we must remember that excesses are checked by poverty of blood and constant exhaustion. Scanty food and hard labour are in their way, if not exactly moralists, a tolerably good police.

There are no others at Wodgate to preach or to control. It is not that the people are immoral, for immorality implies some forethought; or ignorant, for ignorance is relative; but they are animals; unconscious; their minds a blank; and their worst actions only the impulse of a gross or savage instinct. There are many in this town who are ignorant of their very names; very few who can spell them. It is rare that you meet with a young person who knows his own age; rarer to find the boy who has seen a book, or the girl who has seen a flower. Ask them the name of their sovereign, and they will give you an unmeaning stare; ask them the name of their religion, and they will laugh: who rules them on earth, or who can save them in heaven, are alike mysteries to them.

Such was the population with whom Morley was about to mingle. Wodgate had the appearance of a vast squalid suburb. As you advanced, leaving behind you long lines of little dingy tenements, with infants lying about the road, you expected every moment to emerge into some streets and encounter buildings bearing some correspondence in their size and comfort to the considerable population swarming and busied around you. Nothing of the kind. There were no public buildings of any sort; no churches, chapels, town-hall, institute, theatre; and the principal streets in the heart of the town in which were situate the coarse and grimy shops, though formed by houses of a greater elevation than the preceding, were equally narrow and if possible more dirty. At every fourth or fifth house, alleys seldom above a yard wide and streaming with filth, opened out of the street. These were crowded with dwellings of various size, while from the principal court often branched out a number of smaller alleys or rather narrow passages, than which nothing can be conceived more close and squalid and obscure. Here during the days of business, the sound of the hammer and the file never ceased, amid gutters of abomination and piles of foulness and stagnant pools of filth; reservoirs of leprosy and plague, whose exhalations were sufficient to taint the atmosphere of the whole kingdom and fill the country with fever and pestilence.

A lank and haggard youth, ricketty and smoke-dried, and black with his craft, was sitting on the threshold of a miserable hovel and working at the file. Behind him stood a stunted and meagre girl, with a back like a grasshopper; a deformity occasioned by the displacement of the bladebone, and prevalent among the girls of Wodgate from the cramping posture of their usual toil. Her long melancholy visage and vacant stare at Morley as he passed, attracted his notice, and it occurring to him that the opportunity was convenient to enquire something of the individual of whom he was in search, he stopped and addressed the workman:

"Do you happen to know friend a person here or hereabouts by name Hatton?"

"Hatton!" said the youth looking up with a grin, yet still continuing his labour, "I should think I did!"

"Well, that's fortunate; you can tell me something about him?"

"Do you see this here?" said the youth still grinning, and letting the file drop from his distorted and knotty hand, he pointed to a deep scar that crossed his forehead, "he did that."

"An accident?"

"Very like. An accident that often happened. I should like to have a crown for every time he has cut my head open. He cut it open once with a key and twice with a lock; he knocked the corner of a lock into my head twice, once with a bolt and once with a shut; you know what that is; the thing what runs into the staple. He hit me on the head with a hammer once. That was a blow! I fell away that time. When I came to, master had stopped the blood with some fur off his hat. I had to go on with my work immediately; master said I should do my stint if I worked till twelve o'clock at night. Many's the ash stick he has broken on my body; sometimes the weals remained on me for a-week; he cut my eyelid open once with a nutstick; cut a regular hole in it, and it bled all over the files I was working at. He has pulled my ears sometimes that I thought they must come off in his hand. But all this was a mere nothin to this here cut; that was serous; and if I hadn't got thro' that they do say there must have been a crowner's quest; though I think that gammon, tor old Tugsford did for one of his prentices, and the body was never found. And now you ask me if I know Hatton? I should think I did!" And the lank, haggard youth laughed merrily, as if he had been recounting a series of the happiest adventures.

"But is there no redress for such iniquitous oppression," said Morley, who had listened with astonishment to this complacent statement. "Is there no magistrate to apply to?"

"No no," said the filer with an air of obvious pride, "we don't have no magistrates at Wodgate. We've got a constable, and there was a prentice who coz his master laid it on, only with a seat rod, went over to Ramborough and got a warrant. He fetched the summons himself and giv it to the constable, but he never served it. That's why they has a constable here."

"I am sorry," said Morley, "that I have affairs with such a wretch as this Hatton."

"You'll find him a wery hearty sort of man," said the filer, "if he don't hap to be in drink. He's a little robustious then, but take him all in all for a master, you may go further and fare worse.

"What! this monster!"

"Lord bless you, it's his way, that's all, we be a queer set here; but he has his pints. Give him a lock to make, and you won't have your box picked; he's wery lib'ral too in the wittals. Never had horse-flesh the whole time I was with him; they has nothin' else at Tugsford's; never had no sick cow except when meat was very dear. He always put his face agin still-born calves; he used to say he liked his boys to have meat what was born alive and killed alive. By which token there never was any sheep what had bust in the head sold in our court. And then sometimes he would give us a treat of fish, when it had been four or five days in town and not sold. No, give the devil his due, say I. There never was no want for anything at meals with the Bishop, except time to eat them in."

"And why do you call him the Bishop?"

"That's his name and authority; for he's the governor here over all of us. And it has always been so that Wodgate has been governed by a bishop; because as we have no church, we will have as good. And by this token that this day sen'night, the day my time was up, he married me to this here young lady. She is of the Baptist school religion, and wanted us to be tied by her clergyman, but all the lads that served their time with me were married by the Bishop, and many a more, and I saw no call to do no otherwise. So he sprinkled some salt over a gridiron, read "Our Father" backwards, and wrote our name in a book: and we were spliced; but I didn't do it rashly, did I, Suky, by the token that we had kept company for two years, and there isn't a gal in all Wodgate what handles a file, like Sue."

"And what is your name, my good fellow?"

"They call me Tummas, but I ayn't got no second name; but now I am married I mean to take my wife's, for she has been baptised, and so has got two."

"Yes sir," said the girl with the vacant face and the back like a grasshopper; "I be a reg'lar born Christian and my mother afore me, and that's what few gals in the Yard can say. Thomas will take to it himself when work is slack; and he believes now in our Lord and Saviour Pontius Pilate who was crucified to save our sins; and in Moses, Goliath, and the rest of the Apostles."

"Ah! me," thought Morley, "and could not they spare one Missionary from Tahiti for their fellow countrymen at Wodgate!"