John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy

Marcet, Jane Haldimand
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First Pub. Date
London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman
Pub. Date
1st edition. Some essays published earlier as pamphlets

Essay 2



JOHN HOPKINS did not soon forget this lesson, though he was far from deriving all the benefit from it that he ought. He acknowledged that he had not hit upon the right remedy; but, after having long turned the subject in his mind, and talked it over with his neighbours, he came at length to this conclusion:—Let the rich have as many luxuries as they can pay for; but let them give us higher wages for our labour. It is by the sweat of our brow, and by the work of our hands, that every thing is produced. Why, the rich would not have even bread to put into their mouths, unless we ploughed the ground and sowed the seed for them; so it is but fair that we should be better paid for our services. If wages were doubled, we should be as well off again as we are now; and the rich would be but a trifle the poorer, that is all; for double wages would be nothing for a man who is rolling in wealth to pay; and yet it would be a mighty matter for us poor fellows to receive."


Chuckling over this discovery, John sets off for the abode of the Fairy, and begs her, with the stroke of her wand, to cause wages to be doubled. "Are you sure," enquired the Fairy, "that you will have no reason to repent of this request if I should grant it?"—"No, no," said John, "this time I cannot be mistaken; for I have considered the matter thoroughly." "Well, then," replied she, "we will make the trial. But it shall be for three months only. After that time we shall see whether you wish your present scheme to be continued."


As John was returning home, he could not help thinking that, this time at least, he should not meet with a discontented reception from his wife; yet, as he opened the door of his cottage, he looked rather anxiously in her face:—it beamed with joy. "Good news for you, husband!" cried she; "the bailiff has been here to pay your week's wages; and see, he has given me all this money; for he says there's a new law in the land, and every one must pay double wages!" John thanked the Fairy in his heart, for the expedition she had used in complying with his wishes. The news soon spread through the village: all received double wages; and the rejoicing was universal.


John was resolved to make a holyday; so, next market day, instead of sending his wife, he proposed to go to market himself, and to lay out his store of money in clothes for his ragged children. This was readily agreed to, provided he would take a basket of plums, and a bundle of straw-plait which one of his little girls had made, and sell them. To market he went; and what was his delight to learn that plums and straw-plait had risen considerably in price. He little dreamed that this was owing to his good offices; but, on enquiring the cause, he was told that, the condition of the labouring classes being so much bettered by their increased wages, they could afford to buy new straw bonnets; so that straw-plait was very much in demand, and would fetch a good price. "I should not give you so much for it," said the bonnet-maker, "if I was not sure that I could sell my bonnets at a higher price now there is such a demand for them."


"And why are plums risen in price?" enquired John of the fruiterer. "Because I have none left," replied he. "I had as fine a store of plums this morning as ever I had any market day; but there has been such a swarm of young brats with their halfpence to buy them, that they were all sold by nine o'clock; for, do you see, now the fathers get double wages, they have not the heart to deny their children a halfpenny to buy fruit. I began selling my plums at four a penny; but when I found they were likely to fall short, I would not let the urchins have more than three for a penny; and as for your basket, Hopkins, I mean to sell it at two a penny: so you see I can afford to give you a good price for it." John did not quite understand this; "but it shows," thought he, "that I have hit the right nail on the head at last. It seems that as much unforeseen good comes of the Fairy's wand, this time, as there came unforeseen bad luck before." And now that he had sold his plums and his plait, he determined to go to the woollen-draper's to buy cloth for his children's jackets. He looked rather blank when, on entering, he found that cloth had risen in price, and was two shillings a yard dearer than before. He expressed his surprise. "Why, there's no end to my customers this market day," said the draper. "I verily believe half the town means to have new coats, and I have not near cloth enough to furnish them all: so those that will have it must pay the price I ask, or go without." "That's not fair, to my mind," cried John: "the cloth cost you no more than it did last market day; so you can afford to sell it as cheap as you did then."—"Perhaps I could," replied the woollen-draper: but, since I can get more for it, I will. Don't you know, Hopkins, that, when corn falls short at market, the price rises? When there is more of an article to be had than is wanted, why you must sell it for what you can get, though you may chance to make a loss instead of a gain; but when there is less to be sold than is wanted, why you may sell it at an advanced price. That is my case now: many more want the cloth than I can supply; so, why should I let you have it rather than another, unless you pay me a better price? We must make hay while the sun shines."—" To be sure," said John to himself: "I sold my plums and my plait dearer than last market day, though they stood me in no more; and it's natural enough the draper should do the same. Well," said he, addressing the draper, "it's a bright sunshine, and we are all right to make the most of it; but, as my boys can wait a bit longer for their coats, I shall stop till you lay in a new stock of cloth, and then it will be cheaper."—" I won't promise you that," replied the draper. "There's no saying what will come of these double wages, it's such an out of the way thing. It looks fair enough; to be sure; but all is not gold that glitters, as you know, Hopkins."


"But when you have a fresh supply, and plenty of cloth for all the customers that may come, I see no reason why it should be dearer."


"I have not had time to turn it well in my mind; but it seems to me, that when I have sold my stock on hand, and go to the manufacturer for more, he will not let me have it on the same terms, seeing there is such a demand for cloth, and that I sell it at an advanced price. Besides," continued he, rubbing his forehead, "a thought just comes across me,—he can't afford to let me have the goods so cheap; for, since he is obliged to pay his workmen double wages, the cloth must stand him in much more; and if he can't get it back from the shopkeeper, why the factory must go to ruin. Is it not so, Hopkins?"—"It looks very like it," replied Hopkins, thoughtfully. "Well, then," continued the draper, "it's impossible for me to say whether the manufacturer will be able to sell his cloth higher, or whether he will be ruined: all I know is, that if I must pay him a higher price for his cloth, I must get it back from my customers, or I may as well shut up shop; ay, and better too; for I should be losing instead of making money."—"Well, then," said Hopkins, "may-hap I had as well buy the cloth now, dear as it is." Having made his purchases, he found that he had scarcely money enough to pay for them. He was sadly disappointed; for he had flattered himself, that, what with the high price he had got for his plums and his plait, and what with the double wages he had received, he might contrive to eke out the money, so as to buy himself a new smock frock, of which he stood much in need; but that was now out of the question.


His wife and children impatiently waited his return. The little ones had strolled to the end of the lane, in hopes of seeing him, and soon ran home with the glad tidings that "father was in sight, with a great big bundle on his shoulders." Jenny had been promised a new thimble, and Jem a penny whistle, if any money was left after the more necessary purchases had been made. John at length arrived; and, after wiping his brows, he began by boasting of the high price he had got for the basket of plums and the bundle of plait; whereupon his wife gave him a hearty kiss, calling him "a good man as he was;" and the children crowded round his knees, and began to untie the bundle he had brought home. The contents fell far short of their expectations; and they rummaged in vain for the presents they had expected. Then followed the indispensable explanation of the rise in price of cloth as well as of other goods. "Humph!" cried the good wife, "if we must pay so much more for every thing we have to buy, I don't see how we shall be any the better for the double wages we get."—"Well, but," retorted her husband, "it's not only me, but Dick and Sally at the factory get double wages too; so there's no room to complain, wife; for, if our means run short, they would be willing and able to lend us a helping hand."


Some time after, Dick came home; but, alas! far from lending a hand, it was to tell the sad news of his being discharged from the factory. "Why, how's this, Dick?" said his father; "were not you satisfied with double wages?"—"I had little need to be so," replied he; "double wages one week, and none at all the next: I would rather by half have had the common wages, without being turned off."—" But why should you be turned off, if you did your duty?"—" Oh, for that matter, there was no fault found with me; only the master had not enough to pay us all, so he discharged half his men, and it fell to my lot to be one of the number."


"Well, but," said John, "by turning off half his men, he can get only half the work done; and then, how can he supply the shopkeepers?"—"He says the shopkeepers won't want so much goods as they did before this new law was made."


"There he's wrong," cried John, "to my certain knowledge: for it's scarce a month back that the draper told me he sold a deal more cloth than he did before the rise of wages, though the price was higher by two shillings a yard."


"That was only just a spirt at first," cried Dick. "When folks first got their double wages, they were so flush of money, they thought there would be no end to their riches; but when they came to find that so many buyers made prices rise, (and more especially when half their families were turned out of work, and they had their children to support idle,) they saw that there was more outgoings than incomings; and that they had enough to do to provide food, without furbishing themselves out with new clothes."


Hopkins felt conscience-struck: he looked blank, and had not a word to say for himself. "No, no," continued Dick: "brisk as the cloth was at first, it's slack enough now, and prices are falling apace."


"That I know to my cost," quoth Dame Hopkins. "Why, last market day I could not sell my fruit nor Jenny's plait for much more than half you got for it, John, when wages first rose. Folks begin to find they have no such store of spare money as they thought for, to lay out in new bonnets, or to give their children to buy fruit."


The fall in price, John thought, was all in his favour; for he had more to buy than to sell. This made him pluck up courage; and he said,—"Why, Dick, we must be better for things coming round to their natural price, so as wages don't lower too; but I should have done wiser to have waited, and have bought the boys' jackets later."—"Wiser still not to have bought them at all," replied his son; "and that's what you would have done had you waited; for times will fall heavy on us now, father, so far as I can see."


"Never be disheartened, lad," cried Hopkins, giving his son an encouraging thump on the back; "you see things all askance, because of being turned off at the factory: but surely," said he, with a hesitation in his voice which he would not let out in words, "such high wages must be a good thing."—"Much good may it do those that get them," muttered Dick, sulkily. "If things don't change, the manufacturers will all be bankrupts; and then there will be work neither at fifteen shillings, nor at thirty. There's well-nigh half the machines at our factory going to wreck and ruin by standing idle; and one of the great steam-engines, that cost master a power of money, lying just like dead. But how is he to help it, while the wages eat up all his profits; ay, and more too? so, the less he works the better; for it's my belief he sells at a clear loss."


"One would think this new law was made to mock us," said the wife; "for it promises fair, and just makes fools of us for believing it."


"It's a rare lesson, however," exclaimed Hopkins, with a sigh; "for it shows that a rise of wages is full of danger and mischief."


"I don't agree with you, there, father," cried Dick: "a rise of wages, in a fair and natural way, is a very good thing. Last year, when our master had more orders than he could well get done, he raised the wages, so as to get more hands; and people came flocking in from all quarters, and quitting other employ, where they did not get so much. Then he could afford to pay us all well, because trade was brisk, and he got good profits. When wages rise because there is a greater demand for workmen, we are all the better for it, master and man too; but when they rise from a foolish and arbitrary law, it does us all harm instead of good; and it is to be hoped that those who made it will soon see the folly of it, and bring us back to the natural wages."


This observation came home to poor John, who kept his own secret, but swore in his heart that, when once out of this scrape, he would never more apply to the Fairy. A few weeks after, Sally, who worked at the silk mills, came home with the same story as her brother. "So, here we are, saddled with two more children," cried his wife; "and this comes of high wages."—"Well, at least I have got high wages to maintain 'em," replied John, who was still unwilling to confess that he had been in the wrong.


As he was speaking, the bailiff entered the door. "Good morrow to you, John," said he:—"why, methinks you do not look in such glee as you did last month, about the rise of wages."—"Nor have I cause," muttered John: "see, here are two of my grown children sent home to me, out of work. But, mayhap," added he, brightening up at the thought,—"mayhap you, Master Barnes, might get 'em some work at the farm. Though they are not used to that kind of labour, I'm sure they will turn their hand to it, and thank ye heartily for it."—"Ah, I might have given 'em work before this change," answered the bailiff; "but my master can't afford to pay 'em double wages; and the new law won't allow us to give less. To say the truth, I am now come upon a very different errand; for, d'ye see, we are trying, instead of increasing the number of our workmen, to do what we can to reduce them. My master says he has too great a respect for you, John, to turn you off: you have worked nigh a score of years for him, and have got such a large family to maintain."—"Thank his honour, kindly," said John. "I have worked for him long and hard, too, Master Barnes. I'm sure I have followed the precepts of the Bible, and earned my bread by the sweat of my brow. Thank his honour—"—"Ay, but, John," interrupted the bailiff, "you stopped my mouth with your thanks before you had heard me out. You know, however willing the squire may be, he can't coin money; so, what is he to do? Now, this is what he has thought of:—he says he will employ you three days of the week, instead of six."—"And what am I to do the other three?" asked John.—"Why, you must seek for work elsewhere."—"Seek, indeed, I may; but I shall not find," quoth John. "Why, there's Dick and Sally both turned adrift; and if they can't find work, an old man like me stands no chance."—"Well," said the bailiff, "if you sit with your hands across three days of the week, you are as well paid for the three others as you used to be for the whole week: besides, his honour is stretching a point for your sake, John; for, d'ye see, he pays you the same wages a week as before, and yet he will have only half the work done." John thought that but poor comfort, when he saw he had two children more on his hands. The bailiff took his departure; and, as he shut the door, the poor wife lifted up her hands, fetched a deep sigh, and said,—"Ah, well-a-day! how little we understand these matters: who would not have thought that, when the law obliged the rich to pay us double wages, it would have made us much richer, and made them only a trifle poorer? but now it seems it will bring us all to ruin together."


"Never fear," said John, "it is the Fairy's doing; it will be all over at the end of three months, and two of them are gone already."


So it was. At the expiration of three months the influence of the Fairy's wand ceased, wages returned to their usual rate, Dick and Sally were restored to their work at the mills and the factory, and John laboured with more good will six days of the week than he had done when he was employed only three, though at double wages.


Moreover, he had learnt how dangerous it was to meddle with things he did not understand: and he came to a firm resolution of never more applying to the Fairy; but to endeavour to get clearer ideas on such matters. This he was in some measure enabled to do through his son Dick, during the time he remained at home; for Dick, working at a factory, and living in a town, had many more opportunities of picking up knowledge than a country labourer, whose life is comparatively solitary. Factory men have so deep an interest in the rise and fall of wages, that they are in the habit of talking the matter over, till at last they get pretty good notions on the subject. They are aware that their own employment depends on the manufacturer being able to sell his goods with profit: they see, therefore, that the prosperity of the master and his workmen go hand in hand. John was surprised that Dick should turn out so knowing a lad, as he had had very little schooling. Dick observed, that working in a factory was like going to school, only that they learnt by talking instead of by reading. "Well, but I should have thought your talk would have run on merrier matters, and that you would not have worried your brains with such difficult subjects," said John.—"Men are sharp witted, father, when their interest is at stake; and if it's fit that they should learn their calling, it's just as fit that they should be able to judge whether their calling goes on well or ill, and the reason why and wherefore."


"It's not all good that's learnt by your talk in a factory, Dick. I've heard say that one bad man will corrupt a whole factory, just as one rotten apple will infect the whole heap."—"It's no such thing," replied Dick; "when men can earn their livelihood fairly and honestly, they are ready enough to go on in the straight road: it's want and wretchedness that leads them into the crooked paths, you may take my word for it."

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