The seasons of labour: Spring & the Victorian ‘gig-economy’
In the days of 24/7 news coverage and social media storms it can be quite easy to forget the underlying material realities of life.
March 1st marked the start of the Spring for weather forecasters who prefer even quarters. The first day of Spring is on March 20th and the clocks change on Sunday.
It should mean (slightly) warmer days, more daylight and, before climate change speeded up the process, the arrival of blossom and spring flowers, although austerity weather can persist.
Labour wise it also marked, and still does mark a transition. Despite ever present claims that the world of work has somehow irreversibly changed there are still many seasonal and casual jobs around, just as there were in Victorian times.
Indeed the ‘gig-economy’ of unpredictable employment patterns was a key feature of the Victorian labour market though not under that name obviously.
Raph Samuel (see below) noted that ‘through the spring men were beginning to move from indoor to outdoor jobs, sometimes taking the step of exchanging a permanent occupation for a roving one’
London was the centre of winter labour, not only because there were more jobs to be had in the Capital but also because there was more shelter from the winter weather.
It remains the case that winter sees a peak in deaths, invariably weather related. Some of the rich don’t winter elsewhere in the world just because they like all year sun but also because it is healthier than the damp and cold of the UK.
The late socialist historian Raphael Samuel described these seasonal patterns in his essay Comers and Goers, about how the workforce and the nature of work changed through the year.
Samuel suggested that, ‘the ebb and flow of wayfaring life in nineteenth century England was strongly influenced by the weather’
From March to October those in search of work were often to be found on the road
Samuel observed that ‘Country labourers who wintered in the Metropolitan Night Refuges were said to fly off about March.. travelling circuses began their tented tours in March.. all through the spring men were beginning to move from indoor jobs to outdoor ones’.
The peak of the labour exodus from city to countryside came rather later in the year- August and September- when places like London themselves were quieter, only to go into sharp reverse as the weather worsened and people sought warm night shelters again.
Some industrial jobs were also resolutely seasonal. Work in maltings (associated with brewing) didn’t tend to end up until May but again Samuel suggests that ‘Gas stokers (regular winter men) were given their notices (sack) as early as February and March’ as the demand for gas fell in the better weather. The point seems to have been that many voluntarily gave notice and they preferred to go brick making once the weather improved. Only a third of stokers were employed year round
Gas stoking was well paid but the hours were very long and the work heavy.
The drift of workers out of London was not a sudden migration, as birds might do, but a genuine ebb and flow. People might move from central London to the suburbs and then out to the countryside as the weather improved.
One of the key aims of the 1834 Poor Law which introduced the Workhouse was to make sure that labour was mobile and would travel to where workers were required.
The principle remains central to the ideology of market capitalism. In the Thatcher era Norman Tebbit famously talked about people getting on their bike to look for work.
In the current period hard-line neo-liberal Government policies are determined to make sure that people are looking for work, whether fit for it or not.
Yet the seasonal nature of some work is also a reminder about why the labour movement fought for a welfare state, a social safety net that provided a bottom line for those whose labour power capital picks up and discards as the days lengthen and then shorten