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Blog Post

Tory Socialism and the First Working Class Man

7th January 2013

Author Nicholas Blincoe writes about his ancestor Robert Blincoe - 'the real Oliver Twist'

A short tweet caught my eye. The author was our own Red Tory, Phillip Blond, and the subject was the Factory Act of 1847, better known as the Ten Hour Act because it ensured that no woman and no child under eighteen could be compelled to work more than ten hours a day. It was a long time coming. The campaign began in 1832. The first Ten Hour Act was put before parliament in 1833 by Lord Shaftesbury, then known as Lord Ashley. I could see why Shaftesbury appealed to Blond; here was a Tory radical, present at a key defining moment of the English Labour movement. You could say Shaftesbury helped give birth to English Socialism. If Phillip was looking for signs of Red Toryism in the 19th century, here was a candidate. But I had my own interest in the Ten Hour Bill.

Back in 2005, a historian named John Waller wrote a book entitled The Real Oliver Twist. Waller’s subject was my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, Robert Blincoe, and the idea that my ancestor was the model for Twist was not new. Charles Dickens was a parliamentary sketch writer when Blincoe’s original autobiography – ‘A Memoir of Robert Blincoe’ – was mentioned in a debate in the House of Commons. Blincoe even gave evidence to the parliamentary committee on manufacturing, no doubt attended by Shaftesbury. Charles Dickens peppered the early chapters of Oliver Twist with incidents found in Blincoe’s memoirs, like the scene when the chimneysweep comes looking for an apprentice. Blincoe’s memoirs were a best-seller in their day, first published in 1828 and reprinted in 1832 specifically to support the Ten Hour Movement.

What was new in Waller’s book, at least to me, was this connection to the Ten Hour Movement. Waller tells how the picture of the young Robert Blincoe seen on the front of the 1832 reprint became the key image of the Ten Hour campaign. In effect, Robert Blincoe was the posterboy for the movement. The rough woodcut, showing a bandy-legged stunted figure, was reproduced on banners and lapel badges above a slogan borrowed from the anti-slavery campaigners: “Am I not a man and your brother?”

Blincoe was born in 1792 in the St Pancras Parish workhouse, which stood on the site of the present-day Camden Town tube station. At seven year’s of age, St Pancras Parish council sold Robert to a cotton mill in Nottinghamshire. At ten, he was resold to another factory in Derbyshire. This form of fixed-term slavery, known as indentured apprenticeship, lasted until Blincoe was eighteen. Though he ran away on a number of occasions, when the apprenticeship ended on his eighteenth birthday he found he lacked courage and stayed another two years. He was finally sacked at 21 because he had become too expensive for the mill-owners to keep on. Blincoe was illiterate and his memoirs were actually written by a radical journalist named John Brown. This was 1822, and the book initially failed to find a publisher. It was only after Brown’s death – he committed suicide – that the manuscript was rediscovered and published by the radical campaigner John Doherty. Robert Blincoe was now nearing forty. He had been in debtors’ prison, got married and was now running a rag-picking business in Manchester. Nevertheless, Blincoe campaigned enthusiastically for Doherty who was a key figure at the start of the Ten Hour Movement.

The picture of Robert Blincoe on a lapel button must be one of the first images of a self-identified working class man. However, his story was lost until the memoirs were rediscovered in the upsurge of interest in Labour history in the 1950s and 60s. My own father only heard of the memoirs while at Manchester University. The problem, in a nutshell, was upward mobility. Blincoe’s rag-picking business made enough money for him to educate his son, also called Robert, who won a place at Cambridge and became a vicar. The son, however, kept secret the fact that his father was born in a workhouse. We have an old photograph of the original Robert Blincoe, but nothing else was passed through the family. When I think how easily his story might have been lost, I get a feeling of vertigo: it seems terrible that ties of family and memory can be so flimsy.

Yet maybe the risk of forgetting is an important part of Blincoe’s story. If he provided the image of the first working class man, that identity was rooted in a desire for radical change. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie are defined by traditions and property, but the working class – at least at this moment, at its birth – is defined by a world to come. The campaigners wanted to see a world where the message on that lapel badge came true: we are all brothers and sisters, defined by our common humanity. Robert Blincoe’s legacy was that his family became so comfortable, they erased their past. Yet a class that is wedded to change, always opens up the possibility of radical reinvention. The trick is not to lose that vision of a bigger, more universal idea of humanity.

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