Tradesmen entranced

Radical Artisans in England and France, 1830-70

April 17, 1998

Iorwerth Prothero's magisterial study of artisans in early 19th-century London was published nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has been working on a comparative study of British and French artisan movements in the 19th century, originally, it seems, as part of a wider team effort to draw together a group of European countries for comparison. Since the present volume is almost bulging out of its covers it is perhaps as well that only two nations are covered, but the richness and variety of the questions which it raises - and in some cases answers - may inspire other writers to look at them in different environments.

Social history, we are told, is out of fashion, political history is back in the centre of historical research. Were it necessary to do so, this book makes clear that the arbitrary divisions of historical studies implied in that kind of judgement are themselves totally out of date. Political history can no longer be seen simply as the study of the personalities and behaviour of the people in power and in government, or, even more short-sightedly, as a series of texts on political subjects. The populations under the control of the governors and the reactions of the readers of the texts are key elements in the story or the stories under consideration.

In his title Prothero proposes a study of radical artisans in the two countries. Both artisan and radical are terms which may be used in a number of ways, and Prothero spends time in defining them. He ends up with fairly liberal open-ended definitions. His artisan is not the skilled upwardly mobile family man of Dekker's 17th-century shoemaker, but nevertheless retains a sense of skill and status that differentiates him from the common labourer. In both countries the 19th-century artisan is an almost universally male worker usually time-served with a recognised trade while a labourer may perform unskilled work among different trades and occupations. In both countries some of the divisions within the ranks of the working people are between the men with a trade and the women or unskilled workmen who may be trying to practise their trade or a part of it.

The life and customs of artisans varied between trades, regions and nations. The aspect examined here is the radical ideas and activities which informed the artisan communities and which represented a significant dimension of the political life of France and England roughly between the 1830 revolution and the Paris Commune in France and the Reform crisis of 1831-32 and the Second Reform Act in Britain. "Radicalism" is again defined in general terms - it is "against privilege and for equality. These two fundamental elements are not unambiguous and can be understood in different ways, and radicals differed among themselves. Radicalism should therefore be seen not as a uniform philosophy or programme but as a diverse and contradictory array of people, concepts and strategies leading to loose coalitions with broadly agreed outlooks and aims."

With these two definitions as guides, Prothero looks at organisations and actions in the workshops, the chapels, the pubs, clubs and friendly and trade societies in towns and villages and in the capital cities of both countries. There has been a great deal of work on popular politics in France and Britain in the past half-century, but, as with most aspects of social history, comparisons cannot be usefully made using only secondary sources for either country. Prothero has made full use of excellent work on France and on Britain, but his analysis and judgements are based on primary research into the archives - into contemporary publications as well as into memoirs, official reports and the other sources of information about the lower orders in both countries.

The result is a book that everyone interested in the life, manners and beliefs of the articulate working men in the 19th century will find absorbing and enlightening. One may regret, as the author to some extent does, that it is an almost entirely male narrative. One may also feel that the metropolis, especially in England, gets rather too much attention at the expense of provincial centres of artisan activity and culture. More seriously, perhaps it could be argued, especially in the marvellous final section on the culture of radical clubs, that the institutions and customs referred to are by no means restricted to the artisans - as Nev Kirk and others have shown, the supporters and organisers of the early cooperative stores in the north of England were as likely to be unskilled as skilled workers; that it was more of a mind-set among mid-century radicals than an economic or social division that produced the qualities that got the co-ops off the ground. The same may be true of the London clubs that provided for so long an alternative venue for the radical workmen to the officially licensed and supervised commercial music halls, which had in fact been encouraged by the authorities precisely because a licensing system and large institutions made it easier to control the powerful weapons of satire and ridicule exercised in goguettes and free-and-easies. But the book is full of ideas and accounts that shed light on the historical analysis of aspects of popular culture in a specific period and a specific historical situation, and could provide a starting point for plenty of further work on the subject.

Dorothy Thompson is at the Institute for Advanced Research in the Humanities, University of Birmingham.

Radical Artisans in England and France, 1830-70

Author - Iorwerth Prothero
ISBN - 0 521 58299 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 424

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