Letter from London

Daily Alta California/October 21, 1872

Extraordinary Condition of British Labor—What it has Proven: a Lesson—Results of the Last Parliament—The Melancholy End of Three French Gentlemen of Distinction—The Lightning Becomes Dissatisfied with the Imperfect Administration of Human Justice— Makes Known its Wishes—Interesting Interview Between a Pair of Californians—They Weep

I don’t know if I can give you any adequate idea of the condition of the labor market in England, without occupying too much of your space. In some of its aspects, it is truly alarming; and there is a well-defined uneasiness pervading all classes of society respecting it. It has for weeks formed the chief topic of discussion in the press, the views of which are as diverse and irreconcilable as if they had all been written by a single salaried Bohemian. Meagerly stated, the situation is something like this: Within the past twelve months the wages of nearly all classes of workmen have advanced very considerably. Those of some classes as much as a hundred per cent! Though the average increase is, of course, much less. This advance has, in nearly every case, been brought about by strikes, and each advance is followed by a new demand and another strike. Of course the workmen have, in some instances, failed to carry their point, and in hardly any have they wholly succeeded; but the general result is an enormous advance in the price of labor, representing a proportionate, or rather an equal, increase in the cost of production. This exceptional and extraordinary tax upon production has borne its fruit of high prices, and the cost of living is immensely greater than ever before. As it was the high price of living that mainly provoked the original strikes, it is evident that these will continue; and it is equally evident that as long as they continue there will be a constant increase in their exciting cause. This is exactly the nature of the incline down which industrial England has begun to slide; and it is not wonderful that there is some anxiety as to where she is going to stop.

Qualifying Details

As a matter of course, the case, as I have stated it, is not the whole case: there are considerations of minor magnitude which materially alter the conditions, and complicate the operation of causes to the production of mixed effects. For example the agitation among the labourers is not wholly due to the cost of living: it is partly owing to a natural desire upon the part of the producer to participate in the recent extraordinary profits upon what he produces. For some years England has been enjoying a season of unexampled prosperity; and it is a general truth that a season of unexampled prosperity is commonly followed by a marked discontent among those who are only indirectly benefited by it—the working classes. Much, too, is undoubtedly due to the machinations of the International Society. Through this organization, with its central power and extended ramifications, a real or supposed grievance having its origin in one country, may be avenged in another, and so the labor market of England is sensitive, not only to local disturbance, but is susceptible to continental influences.

Nor has the increase in the cost of living its origin solely in the increased cost of production from the higher rate of wages. A good deal must be attributed to the decreased purchasing power of money, from the abundance of the precious metals caused by improved processes of mining, “absorption” from America, less consumption of them in French and German arts and manufactures, etc. Also, we must attribute a part of the high price of coals to their increased consumption in machinery, the world over, and a portion of the cost of meat to the rinderpest with which the cattle of nearly all Europe have, for some years, been afflicted. A dozen other factors to the problem suggest themselves, but I believe (against eminent authority, it must be confessed) the causes are, in the main, as I have stated them. The accumulated discontent of generations has incited the working classes to demand a better compensation, and in the obtaining it has saddled them with burdens more grievous than the ones against which they rebelled.

Grand Moral of It

And so it has been clearly proven that, generally and broadly speaking, in all unnatural and extraordinary attempts to increase the price of labor, success is failure. The laborer must, or should, learn that, as a contemporary has clearly expressed it, “The more money he receives a s a producer, the more he must pay as a consumer.” There may be, temporarily, a balance in his favour—perhaps nearly enough to reimburse what he has expended while striking—but in the long run it is against him. This fact, which has long been well enough known to intelligent observers, has never before been subjected to a test by so wide a range of events as this year’s industrial history of England has supplied. There is a lesson in all this which the American labourer would do well to heed, and which I observe he intends to wholly ignore.

The Last Parliament

Concerning the work done by Parliament during the past session, there are as many opinions as there are shades of politics. Judged from an enlightened American standpoint, it has been, upon the whole, gratifying. I mean that the tendency of it has been toward the freedom of the individual to work out his own destiny—that is, toward (though at an infinite distance from) the Republican idea. The Liberal, or Whig party—with which an American must sympathise, if with either—is today stronger than at the beginning of the session, and deservedly so. Even the Standard newspaper, the organ of the Conservatives, is constrained to admit that the net result of the session is, in a party point of view, a Conservative disappointment. From a journal which regards the French toleration of M. Thiers as an evidence that France hates a Republic which looked upon the success of the Ballot Bill as a proof that it was unpopular with those who passed it, which … the withholding of a vote or a lack of confidence in the Liberal Ministry denotes that Parliament is tired of Liberalism, and which, generally speaking, construes the fact that water runs down hill as evidence that it does nothing of the kind—from this journal, I say, a confession of defeat has a peculiar significance. It means that all is lost, except the duty of swearing that all is well.


I don’t know if you got on the other side of the water a despatch from France, announcing the accidental death of M. Delanny at Cherbourg. It was in all the papers here, and excited a deep and general grief; not so much on M. Delanny’s account as for the eminent gentlemen who went down with him (M. Delanny was drowned while boating.) These persons were stated by the despatch to be “MM. Canot, Chavire and Bourrasque”—in other words and another tongue, “Messrs. Boat, Capsize and Squall!” If you did not get this remarkable despatch, you will be very much grieved to learn of the death of these excellent gentlemen. The French press, I am sorry to say, treats the subject with the most heartless hilarity.

The Lightning as a Police Commissioner

I believe I wrote you some weeks ago the particulars of a most horrible double murder, in which two respectable shopwomen were butchered in broad daylight in their own shop, opening upon a crowded street. At that time, notwithstanding the whole town was excited and indignant, and the entire police detective force was “working up the case,” not the slightest clue to the murderer’s identity had been discovered. Not the slightest clue has been discovered yet. The detectives, however, have been called in, and the town has resumed its apathy. I mention this matter now to note a singular superstition entertained by many of the lower, and probably a few of the middle classes. It is that the recent severe thunderstorms with which London has been afflicted are in consequence of the crime, and will continue until the discovery and punishment of the criminal. A similar belief prevails with reference to the vicinity of Eltham, where another woman was murdered somewhat more than a year ago.

In this case, the first storm of the season occurred on the anniversary of the murder, and there has been a frightful sequence of them, during which the police station has been singled out as a special target for the bolts. Not having had a revelation from heaven recently, I can’t say whether or no there is any truth in the theory that the police are to be reformed by electricity. I know it would require a good deal of knocking about to make much of a man out of a British policeman. I should say about ten, or a hundred and ten, strokes of lightning a day would be enough to begin with.

“Dave Anderson My Joe”

San Francisco theatre-goers all remember “old Dave Anderson.” I met him the other day, and we had a long chat, all about the Cliff House, the Presidio, Hunter’s Point, and the old Niantic, with the hotel built on her. We also made honourable mention of the climate, the earthquakes, Steve Massett, the dear old sand in Market street, and many other excellencies such as we could remember between drinks. You should have seen us standing there hand in hand, with tears in one another’s eyes, lying ourselves black in the face about California, to the amazement of a circle of credulous Britons! It was a thing to be remembered of us ten years hence, when I am back in ’Frisco, and Dave is dead of old age.

(Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgibin/cdnc?a=d&d=DAC18721021.2.26&e=——-en–20–1—txIN——–1)