Tinplate workers

moving panorama

Drawing a long line

Today we visited the People’s History Museum. I met Ian for the first time, he’s currently homeless and came to the museum today carrying a sleeping bag with all his belongings inside it. As we chatted I found out that Ian was a builder by trade and is very knowledgeable about natural history as well as social history. He told us –

I’ve visited more museums since I’ve been homeless than I ever did before.

As we went round the museum Ian’s eye was taken by this oath – sworn by one of the Tin Plate Workers Society. They were a very early form of trade union – back when it was illegal to join one. It was clear they took membership of their society very seriously –

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“If I reveal any of this solemn obligation. may all the Society disgrace me so long as I live and may what is now before me plunge my soul into the everlasting pit of misery”

Later on I caught up with Ian and his friend Kathryn, sat round a table attempting to make some match boxes. The challenge was to demonstrate how ‘sweated labour’ had been a norm in the 19th century. Whole families would work from home assembling matchboxes. If they took longer than a minute per box it was likely they would starve and end up in the workhouse. Such was the low levels of pay for this piece work.

Later on we asked people to reflect on the museum and Ian wrote these lines, clearly taking his inspiration from the Tin plate Workers oath but giving it a twist –

Working in the everlasting pit of misery
So many hours, so little pay
Injuries the norm, death not unexpected

As we discussed as a group what we’d seen in the museum it became clear that some of the issues raised had played a part in people’s lives. Some of the older members of the group recalled the days of ‘closed shops’ when you couldn’t get a job unless you were in the union. One of our group recalled a protest for homeless rights he had taken part in.

We drew events onto a long scroll – marking dates and names. It was a long line that began with Thomas Paine back in 1792. Roy wrote a few lines about him, as he recalled working in Paine’s birthplace of Thetford, many years ago and how American tourists came to honour Tom Paine for his role in their independence.

With or without a brain
Plotted two revolutions – insane or sane?
Both without a penny gain
The great man – Thomas Paine

The scroll went on through the 19th and 20th century drawing a long line. As we read it all back, Danny reflected that “Every generation has its own fights”. We saw the line as one of progress as rights are won and eventually become taken for granted – like the right to vote. But also that in some areas we are going backwards and having to fight again for things we won before but have been eroded or taken away.

All of us there today brought our history with us. We’re all part of that long line.

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Matt Hill/The Quiet Loner writing about arthur+martha’s project, Moving Panorama. Supported by Arts Council England, The Booth Centre and The People’s History Museum.

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