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Keep calm we’re British

Workhouse antique 2

I’ve watched a couple of TV programme this week about life in 18th and 19th century Britain. They didn’t paint a pretty picture. Life for many people was one of exploitation and hardship. Life for others was much nicer, stately homes, cream teas and lots of money. Have things changed? Yes, but we’re still divided.

Many people had to plead with the guardians of the workhouse for help when they were sick or impoverished. The conditions in the workhouses were inhumane. The inmates were given mindless work to do like breaking stones or even crushing bones for fertiliser. A scandal broke at one workhouse when it became public that inmates were sucking the marrow from the bones, because they were so hungry. This was life for many British people.

While the poor lived in squalor, the rich lived in their mansions and had a life style so well described by Jane Austen. It was all very Victorian and Downton Abbey.  The rich enjoyed their food, their wine and the good life. Did it protect them from the disease that infested the workhouses? There were epidemics and the rich weren’t immune.

I think the culture of cruelty was a bigger problem than anyone imagined. The cruelty and indifference of the rich to the plight of the poor spread to other cultures. The stiff upper lip approach to anyone they thought were inferior brought about a racist approach to dealing with the people of other lands who they saw as inferior and there to be exploited. They conquered the world and the British Empire grew and grew, until eventually it was so big they lost control of it. They sent children from the workhouse to Australia, to ‘a better life’, but in reality it was often to a life separated from their families and one of more abuse.

The Victorian elite called the sick and uneducated malingerers, today they called them skivers. They made the workhouses inhumane to give them an incentive to become self reliant. Today they make the benefits system inhumane in an effort to make them strivers, not skivers. The Victorians built ornate town halls, art galleries and museums. Now they build ‘iconic’ art galleries, civic centres and others structures for us to admire.

The Victorians built railways and transport revolutionised life for the rich and the middle classes. The elite are still obsessed with travel; building roads, airports and now they want  high speed rail links. Workers in the 20th century did get the odd excursion to the seaside. Technology reduced the price of food and clothes, but there was never very much left over when they had paid for water, a roof over their heads, food to eat and other essentials. Many will argue that money went on tobacco and alcohol, both addictive substances that were used as a modern day incentive to make them work. They are now going out of fashion for many people as they are encouraged to live healthier life styles. The poor and uneducated are the main users of tobacco and alcohol and although these might not seem like a threat to the rich. Just like the contagious diseases of the 19th century, culture is contagious too. Tobacco, alcohol and illegal drug use does involve a culture that can engulf the young people who are the children of the class that exploits the poor. They are still endangered by their own culture of selfishness.

A working class man in one of the programmes on television said something that was very poignant. He talked about the pride that people who worked on the railways had in the  industry and how that culture was passed on to the newer workers. A pride in keeping the railways running and running on time. It wasn’t very efficient, but it did a job, it transported people and goods from A to B. It did need to change gradually and people dislike change. The rich got greedy though and changed it drastically. Lots of lines and stations closed, people lost their jobs. Greed  won the day. Nature tends to change gradually, it evolves, it’s not greedy. We can learn a lot from nature, after all, it is nature that provides all the wealth, that the rich squabble over.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments box. You can also follow me on Twitter!

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