J.B.Priestley, ‘The Three Englands’ From English Journey (1934)
Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, Literary and Philosophical Societies, back-to-back houses, detached villas with monkey-trees, Grill Rooms, railway stations, slag-heaps and ‘tips’, dock roads, Refreshment Rooms, doss-houses, Unionist or Liberal Clubs, cindery waste ground, mill chimneys, slums, fried-fish shops, public-houses with red blinds, bethels in corrugated iron, good-class drapers and confectioners shops, a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortresslike cities. This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it. To the more fortunate people it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable. A great deal of very good literature has come out of it, though most of that literature never accepted it but looked either backward or forward. It provided a good parade ground for tough, enterprising men, who could build their factories in the knowledge that the world was waiting for their products, and who also knew that once they had accumulated a tidy fortune they could slip out of this mucky England of their making into the older, charming one, where their children,
well schooled, groomed and finished, were almost indistinguishable, in their various uniforms, pink hunting coats to white ties and shiny pumps, from the old inhabitants, the land-owning aristocrats. But at first you had to be tough. I reminded myself how more than once I had thought that the Victorians liked to weep over their novels and plays, not because they were more sensitive and softer than we are but because they were much tougher and further removed from emotion, so that they needed good strong doses of pathos to move them at all. The less fortunate classes were very unlucky indeed in that England. They had some sort of security, which is more than many of them have now, but it was a security of monstrously long hours of work, miserable wages, and surroundings in which they lived like blackbeetles at the back of a disused kitchen stove. Many of their descendants are still living in those surroundings, but few people now have the impudence to tell them to be resigned and even thankful there, to toil in humble diligence before their Maker and for His chosen children, the debentureholders. Whether they were better off in this England than in the one before, the pre-industrial one, is a question that I admitted I could not answer. They all rushed into the towns and the mills as soon they could, as we know, which suggests that the dear old quaint England they were escaping from could not have been very satisfying. You do not hurry out of Arcadia to work in a factory twelve hours a day for about eighteen-pence. Moreover, why did the population increase so rapidly after the Industrial Revolution? What was it about Merrie England that kept the numbers down?