Roots of Radicalism

Traditional British folk song


INDUSTRIAL songs drew on the same literary form and music as other urban and rural songs, and are just as much part of the British folk tradition. The characteristic industrial ballad was associated with one of the two major early industries, textiles and mining.

Hand-loom weavers and miners had long enjoyed lyrical songs with occupational references, but it was the industrialisation of these occupations at the end of the eighteenth century that gave birth to the truly industrial folk song, characterised as it was by technical references and a general mood of discontent and protest.

Industrialisation led to increased efficiency in production, but it was attended by social disruption and the dehumanising drudgery of factory life. Industrial folk songs dwell on the long hours, bad conditions, poor wages, ill-health and the ever-present risk of accidents.

An Ulster song, The Doffing Mistress, reveals the physical deformity caused by a lifetime of stooping. The doffing mistress hangs her coat on the highest peg as a favour to her fellow workers:

O do you know her or do you not

This new doffin' mistress that we have got?

Elsie Thompson it is her name

And she helps the doffers at every frame



On Monday morning when she came in

She hung her clothes on the highest pin

She turned around for to view her frames

Shouting: Damn you, doffers, tie up your ends

Tie up your ends we will surely do

For Elsie Thompson, but not for you

We'll tie up our ends and we'll leave our frames

And wait for Elsie Thompson to return again

A more dissatisfied view of conditions in the textile industry was taken in the Yorkshire song Poverty knock, in which the chorus appears at the beginning and end:

Poverty, poverty knock!

Me loom is a-sayin all day.

Poverty, poverty knock!

Gaffer's too skinny to pay.

Poverty, poverty knock!

Keepin' one eye on the clock.

Ah know ah can guttle

When ah hear me shuttle

Go: Poverty, poverty knock!

(guttle = eat)

Up every mornin' at five.

Ah wonder that we keep alive.

Tired an' yawnin' on the cold mornin',

It's back to the dreary old drive.

Sometimes a shuttle flies out,

Gives some poor woman a clout.

There she lies bleedin', but nobody's 'eedin',

Who's goin' t' carry her out?

The second of the two verses we quote here apparently refers to the fact that the workers were on piecework, and could not afford to stop.

Mining is an ancient occupation but the Industrial Revolution gave the mining of coal and iron a new importance. Accidents were frequent, and ballads about pit disasters were composed and sung as charity appeals to raise money for widows and orphans:

We never shall forget them, though they have lost their lives,

So let us pay attention to their children and their wives.

It simply is our duty now, and let us all beware;

Their fathers died a noble death and left them in our care.

Such conditions were not meekly accepted. Despite political and legal suppression, trades unions were formed and strikes organised. The Blackleg Miner tells its own story:

Oh, early in the evenin', just after dark,

The blackleg miners creep te wark,

Wi' their moleskin trousers an' dorty short,

There go the blackleg miners!

They take their picks an' doon they go

Te dig the coal that lies belaw,

An' there's not a woman in this toon-raw

Will look at the blackleg miner.

Oh, Deleval is a terrible place.

They rub wet clay in the blackleg's face,

An' roond the pit-heads they run a foot-race

Wi' the dorty blackleg miners.

They'll take your tools an' duds as well,

An' hoy them doon the pit o' hell.

It's doon ye go, an 'fare ye well,

Ye dorty blackleg miners!

So join the union while you may.

Don't wait till your dyin' day,

For that may not be far away,

Ye dorty blackleg miners!

Now that the term 'blackleg' has been judged offensive to Britain's Coloured minorities, we await the deletion of this song from the Socialist Workers' Party songbook!

As traditional British folk song ― albeit of a less agreeable type ― continued to survive and flourish in an industrial environment, it may be concluded that it was not industrialisation in itself which all but extinguished it.