Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thomas Hood, Mrs. Biddell, and the Song of the Shirt

Thomas Hood was an English poet and humorist of the 19th century whose work is largely forgotten today. Hood edited several journals and periodicals and his work appeared in many of the early issues of Punch magazine which began in 1841. Hood’s work is interesting and amusing, though some of the humour is now lost because times have changed so significantly from when Hood was writing. Perhaps Hood’s most memorable achievement is a poem that appeared anonomously in the Christmas edition of Punch in 1843 called The Song of the Shirt. It was written in honour of a Lambeth widow named Biddell, a seamstress living in wretched conditions. In what was common practice Biddell sewed pants and shirts in her home using materials given to her by her employer for which she was forced to give a £2 deposit. It seems that in a desperate attempt to feed her starving infants, poor Mrs. Biddell pawned the clothing she had made thus accruing a debt she could not pay. Mrs. Biddell, whose first name remains a mystery, was sent to a workhouse and her ultimate fate is unknown, but her story became a symbol for those who actively opposed the wretched conditions of England’s working poor who spent seven days a week labouring under inhuman conditions, barely managing to survive and with no prospect for relief. The Song of the shirt quickly became a phenomenon, centering people’s attention not only on the Briddell case but on the conditions of workers in general. And though Hood was not a genuine political radical, his work, like that of Dickens, contributed to the general awareness of the condition of the working class which fed the popularity of trade unionism and the push for stricter labour laws.

Here are a few lines from The Song of the Shirt.

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt!’

Work – work – work!
My labour never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread – and rags.
That shattered roof – and this naked floor –
A table – a broken chair –
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank

Let’s remember poor Mrs. Biddell, whose struggle is ours. And remember Thomas Hood, poet and friend of humankind.

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