The Poor Man and His Beer
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Introductory Note: “The Poor Man and His Beer” recounts the story of a nobleman’s attempt to improve a small agricultural community by instituting a working men’s club. Through this narrative, Dickens uses Friar Bacon’s project to model an ideal relationship between land-owners and workers, a relationship that would discourage men from drinking irresponsibly. A responsible and forward-looking social organization, according to the logic of the story, would encourage a man to “use his beer and not abuse it.”
MY friend Philosewers and I, contemplating a farm-labourer the other day, who was drinking his mug of beer on a settle at a road-side ale-house door, we fell to humming the fag-end of an old ditty, of which the poor man and his beer, and the sin of parting them, form the doleful burden. Philosewers then mentioned to me that a friend of his in an agricultural county—say a Hertfordshire friend—had, for two years last past, endeavoured to reconcile the poor man and his beer to public morality, by making it a point of honour between himself and the poor man that the latter should use his beer and not abuse it. Interested in an effort of so unobtrusive and unspeechifying a nature, “O Philosewers,” said I, after the manner of the dreary sages in Eastern apologues, “Show me, I pray, the man who deems that temperance can be attained without a medal, an oration, a banner, and a denunciation of half the world, and who has at once the head and heart to set about it!”
Philosewers expressing, in reply, his willingness to gratify the dreary sage, an appointment was made for the purpose. And on the day fixed, I, the Dreary one, accompanied by Philosewers, went down Nor’-West per railway, in search of temperate temperance. It was a thunderous day; and the clouds were so immoderately watery, and so very much disposed to sour all the beer in Hertfordshire, that they seemed to have taken the pledge.
But, the sun burst forth gaily in the afternoon, and gilded the old gables, and old mullioned windows, and old weathercock and old clock-face, of the quaint old house which is the dwelling of the man we sought. How shall I describe him? As one of the most famous practical chemists of the age? That designation will do as well as another—better, perhaps, than most others. And his name? Friar Bacon.
“Though, take notice, Philosewers,” said I, behind my hand, “that the first Friar Bacon had not that handsome lady-wife beside him. Wherein, O Philosewers, he was a chemist, wretched and forlorn, compared with his successor. Young Romeo bade the holy father Lawrence hang up philosophy, unless philosophy could make a Juliet.1A paraphrase of William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” act 3, scene 3, lines 57-58. Chemistry would infallibly be hanged if its life were staked on making anything half so pleasant as this Juliet.” The gentle Philosewers smiled assent.
The foregoing whisper from myself, the Dreary one, tickled the ear of Philosewers, as we walked on the trim garden terrace before dinner, among the early leaves and blossoms; two peacocks, apparently in very tight new boots, occasionally crossing the gravel at a distance. The sun, shining through the old house-windows, now and then flashed out some brilliant piece of colour from bright hangings within, or upon the old oak panelling; similarly, Friar Bacon, as we paced to and fro, revealed little glimpses of his good work.
“It is not much,” said he. “It is no wonderful thing. There used to be a great deal of drunkenness here, and I wanted to make it better if I could. The people are very ignorant, and have been much neglected, and I wanted to make that better, if I could. My utmost object was, to help them to a little self-government and a little homely pleasure. I only show the way to better things, and advise them. I never act for them; I never interfere; above all, I never patronise.”
I had said to Philosewers as we came along Nor’-West that patronage was one of the curses of England; I appeared to rise in the estimation of Philosewers when thus confirmed.
“And so,” said Friar Bacon, “I established my Allotment-club, and my pig-clubs, and those little Concerts by the ladies of my own family, of which we have the last of the season this evening. They are a great success, for the people here are amazingly fond of music. But there is the early dinner-bell, and I have no need to talk of my endeavours when you will soon see them in their working dress.”
Dinner done, behold the Friar, Philosewers, and myself the Dreary one, walking, at six o’clock, across the fields, to the “Club-house.”
As we swung open the last field-gate and entered the Allotment-grounds, many members were already on their way to the Club, which stands in the midst of the allotments. Who could help thinking of the wonderful contrast between these club-men and the club-men of St. James’s-Street, or Pall-mall, in London! Look at yonder prematurely old man, doubled up with work, and leaning on a rude stick more crooked than himself, slowly trudging to the club-house, in a shapeless hat like an Italian harlequin’s, or an old brown-paper bag, leathern leggings, and dull green smock-frock, looking as though duck-weed had accumulated on it—the result of its stagnant life—or as if it were a vegetable production, originally meant to blow into something better, but stopped somehow. Compare him with Old Cousin Feenix, ambling along St. James’s-Street, got up in the style of a couple of generations ago, and with a head of hair, a complexion, and a set of teeth, profoundly impossible to be believed in by the widest stretch of human credulity. Can they both be men and brothers? Verily they are. And although Cousin Feenix has lived so fast that he will die at Baden-Baden, and although this club-man in the frock has lived, ever since he came to man’s estate, on nine shillings a week, and is sure to die in the Union if he die in bed, yet he brought as much into the world as Cousin Feenix, and will take as much out—more, for more of him is real.
A pretty, simple building, the club-house, with a rustic colonnade outside, under which the members can sit on wet evenings, looking at the patches of ground they cultivate for themselves; within, a well-ventilated room, large and lofty, cheerful pavement of coloured tiles, a bar for serving out the beer, good supply of forms and chairs, and a brave big chimney-corner, where the fire burns cheerfully. Adjoining this room, another:
“Built for a reading-room,” said Friar Bacon; “but not much used—yet.”
The dreary sage, looking in through the window, perceiving a fixed reading-desk within, and inquiring its use:
“I have Service there,” said Friar Bacon. “They never went anywhere to hear prayers, and of course it would be hopeless to help them to be happier and better, if they had no religious feeling at all.”
“The whole place is very pretty.” Thus the sage.
“I am glad you think so. I built it for the holders of the Allotment-grounds, and gave it them: only requiring them to manage it by a committee of their own appointing, and never to get drunk there. They never have got drunk there.”
“Yet they have their beer freely.”
“O yes. As much as they choose to buy. The club gets its beer direct from the brewer, by the barrel. So they get it good; at once much cheaper, and much better, than at the public-house. The members take it in turns to be steward, and serve out the beer: if a man should decline to serve when his turn came, he would pay a fine of twopence. The steward lasts, as long as the barrel lasts. When there is a new barrel, there is a new steward.”
“What a noble fire is roaring up that chimney!”
“Yes, a capital fire. Every member pays a halfpenny a week.”
“Every member must be the holder of an Allotment-garden?”2Allotment-garden: community garden.
“Yes; for which he pays five shillings a year. The Allotments you see about us, occupy some sixteen or eighteen acres, and each garden is as large as experience shows one man to be able to manage. You see how admirably they are tilled, and how much they get off them. They are always working in them in their spare hours; and when a man wants a mug of beer, instead of going off to the village and the public-house, he puts down his spade or his hoe, comes to the club-house and gets it, and goes back to his work. When he has done work, he likes to have his beer at the club, still, and to sit and look at his little crops as they thrive.”
“They seem to manage the club very well.”
“Perfectly well. Here are their own rules. They made them. I never interfere with them, except to advise them when they ask me.”
RULES AND REGULATIONS
MADE BY THE COMMITTEE,
From the 21st September, 1857.
One half-penny per week to be paid to the club by each member.
1.—Each member to draw the beer in order, according to the number of his allotment; on failing, a forfeit of twopence to be paid to the club.
2.—The member that draws the beer to pay for the same, and bring his ticket up receipted when the subscriptions are paid; on failing to do so, a penalty of sixpence to be forfeited and paid to the club.
3.—The subscriptions and forfeits to be paid at the club-room on the last Saturday night of each month.
4.—The subscriptions and forfeits to be cleared up every quarter; if not, a penalty of sixpence to be paid to the club.
5.—The member that draws the beer to be at the club-room by six o’clock every evening, and stay till ten; but in the event of no member being there, he may leave at nine; on failing so to attend, a penalty of sixpence to be paid to the club.
6.—Any member giving beer to a stranger in this club-room, excepting to his wife or family, shall be liable to the penalty of one shilling.
7.—Any member lifting his hand to strike another in this club-room shall be liable to the penalty of sixpence.
8.—Any member swearing in this club-room shall be liable to a penalty of twopence each time.
9.—Any member selling beer shall be expelled from the club.
10.—Any member wishing to give up his allotment, may apply to the committee, and they shall value the crop and the condition of the ground. The amount of the valuation shall be paid by the succeeding tenant, who shall be allowed to enter on any part of the allotment which is uncropped at the time of notice of the leaving tenant.
11.—Any member not keeping his allotment-garden clear from seed-weeds, or otherwise injuring his neighbours, may be turned out of his garden by the votes of two-thirds of the committee, one month’s notice being given to him.
12.—Any member carelessly breaking a mug, is to pay the cost of replacing the same.
I was soliciting the attention of Philosewers to some old old bonnets hanging in the Allotment-gardens to frighten the birds, and the fashion of which I should think would terrify a French bird to death at any distance, when Philosewers solicited my attention to the scrapers at the club-house door. The amount of the soil of England which every member brought there on his feet, was indeed surprising; and even I, who am professedly a salad-eater, could have grown a salad for my dinner, in the earth on any member’s frock or hat.
“Now,” said Friar Bacon, looking at his watch, “for the Pig-clubs!”
The dreary Sage entreated explanation.
“Why, a pig is so very valuable to a poor labouring man, and it is so very difficult for him at this time of the year to get money enough to buy one, that I lend him a pound for the purpose. But, I do it in this way. I leave such of the club members as choose it and desire it, to form themselves into parties of five. To every man in each company of five, I lend a pound, to buy a pig. But, each, man of the five becomes bound for every other man, as to the repayment of his money. Consequently, they look after one another, and pick out their partners with care; selecting men in whom they have confidence.”
“They repay the money, I suppose, when the pig is fattened, killed, and sold?”
“Yes. Then they repay the money. And they do repay it. I had one man, last year, who was a little tardy (he was in the habit of going to the public-house); but even he did pay. It is an immense advantage to one of these poor fellows to have a pig. The pig consumes the refuse from the man’s cottage and allotment-garden, and the pig’s refuse enriches the man’s garden besides. The pig is the poor man’s friend. Come into the club-house again.”
The poor man’s friend. Yes. I have often wondered who really was the poor man’s friend among a great number of competitors, and I now clearly perceive him to be the pig. He never makes any flourishes about the poor man. He never gammons the poor man—except to his manifest advantage in the article of bacon. He never comes down to this house, or goes down to his constituents. He openly declares to the poor man, “I want my sty because I am a Pig; I desire to have as much to eat as you can by any means stuff me with, because I am a Pig.” He never gives the poor man a sovereign for bringing up a family. He never grunts the poor man’s name in vain. And when he dies in the odour of Porkity, he cuts up, a highly useful creature and a blessing to the poor man, from the ring in his snout to the curl in his tail. Which of the poor man’s other friends can say as much? Where is the M.P. who means Mere Pork?
The dreary Sage had glided into these reflections, when he found himself sitting by the club-house fire, surrounded by green smock-frocks and shapeless hats: with Friar Bacon lively, busy, and expert, at a little table near him.
“Now, then, come. The first five!” said Friar Bacon. “Where are you?”
“Order!” cried a merry-faced little man, who had brought his young daughter with him to see life, and who always modestly hid his face in his beer-mug after he had thus assisted the business.
“John Nightingale, William Thrush, Joseph Blackbird, Cecil Robin, and Thomas Linnet!” cried Friar Bacon.
“Here, sir!” and “Here, sir!” And Linnet, Robin, Blackbird, Thrush, and Nightingale, stood confessed.
We, the undersigned, declare, in effect, by this written paper, that each of us is responsible for the repayment of this pig-money by each of the other. “Sure you understand, Nightingale?”
“Can you write your name, Nightingale?”
Nightingale’s eye upon his name, as Friar Bacon wrote it, was a sight to consider in after years. Rather incredulous was Nightingale, with a hand at the corner of his mouth, and his head on one side, as to those drawings really meaning him. Doubtful was Nightingale whether any virtue had gone out of him in that committal to paper. Meditative was Nightingale as to what would come of young Nightingale’s growing up to the acquisition of that art. Suspended was the interest of Nightingale, when his name was done—as if he thought the letters were only sown, to come up presently in some other form. Prodigious, and wrong-handed was the cross made by Nightingale on much encouragement—the strokes directed from him instead of towards him; and most patient and sweet-humoured was the smile of Nightingale as he stepped back into a general laugh.
“OR—der!” cried the little man. Immediately disappearing into his mug.
“Ralph Mangel, Roger Wurzel, Edward Vetches, Matthew Carrot, and Charles Taters!” said Friar Bacon.
“All here, sir.”
“You understand it, Mangel?”
“Iss, sir, I unnerstaans it.”
“Can you write your name, Mangel?”
Breathless interest. A dense background of smock-frocks accumulated behind Mangel, and many eyes in it looked doubtfully at Friar Bacon, as who should say, “Can he really though?” Mangel put down his hat, retired a little to get a good look at the paper, wetted his right hand thoroughly by drawing it slowly across his mouth, approached the paper with great determination, flattened it, sat down at it, and got well to his work. Circuitous and sea-serpent-like, were the movements of the tongue of Mangel while he formed the letters; elevated were the eyebrows of Mangel and sidelong the eyes, as, with his left whisker reposing on his left arm, they followed his performance; many were the misgivings of Mangel, and slow was his retrospective meditation touching the junction of the letter p with h; something too active was the big forefinger of Mangel in its propensity to rub out without proved cause. At last, long and deep was the breath drawn by Mangel when he laid down the pen; long and deep the wondering breath drawn by the background—as if they had watched his walking across the rapids of Niagara, on stilts, and now cried, “He has done it!”
But, Mangel was an honest man, if ever honest man lived. “T’owt to be a hell, sir,” said he, contemplating his work, “and I ha’ made a t on ‘t.”
The over-fraught bosoms of the background found relief in a roar of laughter.
“Or—DER!” cried the little man. “CHEER!” And after that second word, came forth from his mug no more.
Several other clubs signed, and received their money. Very few could write their names; all who could not, pleaded that they could not, more or less sorrowfully, and always with a shake of the head, and in a lower voice than their natural speaking voice. Crosses could be made standing; signatures must be sat down to. There was no exception to this rule. Meantime, the various club-members smoked, drank their beer, and talked together quite unrestrained. They all wore their hats, except when they went up to Friar Bacon’s table. The merry-faced little man offered his beer, with a natural good-fellowship, both to the Dreary one and Philosewers. Both partook of it with thanks.
“Seven o’clock!” said Friar Bacon. “And now we had better get across to the concert, men, for the music will be beginning.”
The concert was in Friar Bacon’s laboratory; a large building near at hand, in an open field. The bettermost people of the village and neighbourhood were in a gallery on one side, and, in a gallery opposite the orchestra. The whole space below was filled with the labouring people and their families, to the number of five or six hundred. We had been obliged to turn away two hundred to-night, Friar Bacon said, for want of room—and that, not counting the boys, of whom we had taken in only a few picked ones, by reason of the boys, as a class, being given to too fervent a custom of applauding with their boot-heels.
The performers were the ladies of Friar Bacon’s family, and two gentlemen; one of them, who presided, a Doctor of Music. A piano was the only instrument. Among the vocal pieces, we had a negro melody (rapturously encored), the Indian Drum, and the Village Blacksmith; neither did we want for fashionable Italian, having Ah! non giunge, and Mi manca la voce.3“The Village Blacksmith” is a Victorian parlor song written in 1854, with lyrics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and music by Willoughby Hunter Weiss. ("The Village Blacksmith" (1854), victorianweb.org, Victorian Web, 2007). “Ah non giunge” comes from Belini’s La Sonnambula; “Mi manca la voce” comes from Rosini’s Mosè. Both are operatic arias. Our success was splendid; our good-humoured, unaffected, and modest bearing, a pattern. As to the audience, they were far more polite and far more pleased than at the Opera; they were faultless. Thus for barely an hour the concert lasted, with thousands of great bottles looking on from the walls, containing the results of Friar Bacon’s Million and one experiments in agricultural chemistry; and containing too, no doubt, a variety of materials with which the Friar could have blown us all through the roof at five minutes’ notice.
God save the Queen being done, the good Friar stepped forward and said a few words, more particularly concerning two points; firstly, that Saturday half-holiday, which it would be kind in farmers to grant; secondly, the additional Allotment-grounds we were going to establish, in consequence of the happy success of the system, but which we could not guarantee should entitle the holders to be members of the club, because the present members must consider and settle that question for themselves: a bargain between man and man being always a bargain, and we having made over the club to them as the original Allotment-men. This was loudly applauded, and so, with contented and affectionate cheering, it was all over.
As Philosewers, and I the Dreary, posted back to London, looking up at the moon and discussing it as a world preparing for the habitation of responsible creatures, we expatiated on the honour due to men in this world of ours who try to prepare it for a higher course, and to leave the race who live and die upon it better than they found them.
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Isaac Robertson, Alayna Een, Leslee Thorne-Murphy
20 September 2018
23 July 2020
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Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||A paraphrase of William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” act 3, scene 3, lines 57-58.|
|2.||↑||Allotment-garden: community garden.|
|3.||↑||“The Village Blacksmith” is a Victorian parlor song written in 1854, with lyrics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and music by Willoughby Hunter Weiss. ("The Village Blacksmith" (1854), victorianweb.org, Victorian Web, 2007). “Ah non giunge” comes from Belini’s La Sonnambula; “Mi manca la voce” comes from Rosini’s Mosè. Both are operatic arias.|