A Voice from the Factories
By Caroline Elizabeth Norton
Ever a toiling child doth make us sad:
‘Tis an unnatural and mournful sight,
Because we feel their smiles should be so glad,
Because we know their eyes should be so bright.
What is it, then, when, tasked beyond their might,
They labour all day long for others’ gain, —
Nay, trespass on the still and pleasant night,
While uncompleted hours of toil remain?
Poor little FACTORY SLAVES — for YOU these lines complain!
Beyond all sorrow which the wanderer knows,
Is that these little pent-up wretches feel;
Where the air thick and close and stagnant grows,
And the low whirring of the incessant wheel
Dizzies the head, and makes the senses reel:
There, shut for ever from the gladdening sky,
Vice premature and Care’s corroding seal
Stamp on each sallow cheek their hateful die,
Line the smooth open brow, and sink the saddened eye.
For them the fervid summer only brings
A double curse of stifling withering heat;
For them no flowers spring up, no wild bird sings,
No moss-grown walks refresh their weary feet; —
No river’s murmuring sound; — no wood-walk, sweet
With many a flower the learned slight and pass; —
Nor meadow, with pale cowslips thickly set
Amid the soft leaves of its tufted grass, —
Lure them a childish stock of treasures to amass.
Have we forgotten our own infancy,
That joys so simple are to them denied? —
Our boyhood’s hopes — our wanderings far and free,
Where yellow gorse-bush left the common wide
And open to the breeze? — The active pride
Which made each obstacle a pleasure seem;
When, rashly glad, all danger we defied,
Dashed through the brook by twilight’s fading gleam,
Or scorned the tottering plank, and leapt the narrow stream?
In lieu of this, — from short and bitter night,
Sullen and sad the infant labourer creeps;
He joys not in the glow of morning’s light,
But with an idle yearning stands and weeps,
Envying the babe that in its cradle sleeps:
And ever as he slowly journeys on,
His listless tongue unbidden silence keeps;
His fellow-labourers (playmates hath he none)
Walk by, as sad as he, nor hail the morning sun.
Mark the result. Unnaturally debarred
All nature’s fresh and innocent delights,
While yet each germing energy strives hard,
And pristine good with pristine evil fights;
When every passing dream the heart excites,
And makes even guarded virtue insecure;
Untaught, unchecked, they yield as vice invites:
With all around them cramped, confined, impure,
Fast spreads the moral plague which nothing new shall cure.
Yes, this reproach is added; (infamous
In realms which own a Christian monarch’s sway!)
Not suffering only is their portion, thus
Compelled to toil their youthful lives away:
Excessive labour works the SOUL’S decay —
Quenches the intellectual light within —
Crushes with iron weight the mind’s free play —
Steals from us LEISURE purer thoughts to win —
And leaves us sunk and lost in dull and native sin.
Yet in the British Senate men rise up,
(The freeborn and the fathers of our land!)
And while these drink the dregs of Sorrow’s cup,
Deny the sufferings of the pining band.
With nice-drawn calculations at command,
They prove — rebut — explain — and reason long;
Proud of each shallow argument they stand,
And prostitute their utmost powers of tongue
Feebly to justify this great and glaring wrong.
So rose, with such a plausible defence
Of the unalienable RIGHT OF GAIN ,
Those who against Truth’s brightest eloquence
Upheld the cause of torture and of pain:
And fear of Property’s Decrease made vain,
For years, the hope of Christian Charity
To lift the curse from SLAVERY’S dark domain,
And send across the wide Atlantic sea
The watchword of brave men — the thrilling shout, ” BE FREE !”
What is to be a slave? Is’t not to spend
A life bowed down beneath a grinding ill? —
To labour on to serve another’s end, —
To give up leisure, health, and strength, and skill —
And give up each of these against your will ?
Hark to the angry answer: — ” Theirs is not
A life of slavery; if they labour, — still
We pay their toil. Free service is their lot;
And what their labour yields, by us is fairly got.”
Oh, Men! blaspheme not Freedom! Are they free
Who toil until the body’s strength gives way?
Who may not set a term for Liberty,
Who have no time for food, or rest, or play,
But struggle through the long unwelcome day
Without the leisure to be good or glad?
Such is their service — call it what you may.
Poor little creatures, overtasked and sad,
Your Slavery hath no name, — yet is its Curse as bad!
Again an answer. ” ‘Tis their parents’ choice.
By some employ the poor man’s child must earn
Its daily bread; and infants have no voice
In what the allotted task shall be: they learn
What answers best, or suits the parents’ turn.”
Mournful reply! Do not your hearts inquire
Who tempts the parents’ penury? They yearn
Toward their offspring with a strong desire,
But those who starve will sell, even what they most require.
We grant their class must labour — young and old;
We grant the child the needy parents’ tool:
But still our hearts a better plan behold;
No bright Utopia of some dreaming fool,
But rationally just, and good by rule.
Not against TOIL , but TOIL’S EXCESS we pray,
(Else were we nursed in Folly’s simplest school);
That so our country’s hardy children may
Learn not to loathe, but bless, the well apportioned day.
One more reply! The last reply — the great
Answer to all that sense or feeling shows,
To which all others are subordinate: —
” The Masters of the Factories must lose
By the abridgment of these infant woes.
Show us the remedy which shall combine
Our equal gain with their increased repose —
Which shall not make our trading class repine,
But to the proffered boon its strong effects confine.”
Oh! shall it then be said that TYRANT acts
Are those which cause our country’s looms to thrive?
That Merchant England’s prosperous trade exacts
This bitter sacrifice, e’er she derive
That profit due, for which the feeble strive?
Is her commercial avarice so keen,
That in her busy multitudinous hive
Hundreds must die like insects, scarcely seen,
While the thick-thronged survivors work where they have been?
Forbid it, Spirit of the glorious Past
Which gained our Isle the surname of ” The Free,”
And made our shores a refuge at the last
To all who would not bend the servile knee,
The vainly-vanquished sons of Liberty!
Here ever came the injured, the opprest,
Compelled from the Oppressor’s face to flee —
And found a home of shelter and of rest
In the warm generous heart that beat in England’s breast.