Monday, 22 August 2016
THE VETERAN MAGAZINE,
A British Eskimo
(This little article probably appears in several magazines as a repeat./drf)
IT came to me only yesterday—the hardest blow of the war. A “returned postal packet,” and inside a letter of my own sent him several weeks ago. On its face was the soulless stamp “Deceased.”
Six years ago we met, John Shiwak and I, in the most detached part of the Empire— the hyperborean places where icebergs are born, where seal grunt along the shore, where cod run blindly into the nets of adventurous fishermen gone north in a midsummer eight weeks of perilous, comfortless, uncertain industry.
Far “down” the desolate coast of Labrador, a thousand miles north of my Newfoundland starting point, I came on him in a trifling settlement that hugged, shivering and unsteady, about a long white building, a trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company—the merest collection of windowless boards that housed human beings only in the less harrowing summertime.
For John Shiwak was an Eskimo.
Just one week I knew him, and then we separated never to meet again. But in that week I came to know him, better than from a year’s acquaintance with less simple souls, and his record to his glorious end proves how well I did know him.
There, where the bitterness of ten months of the year drives the two straggling thousand human beings of half as many miles of coastline to the less grim, less bleak interior, John Shiwak had awakened to the bigness of life. He had taught himself to read and write. Every winter he trailed the hunter’s lonely round back within sound of the Grand Falls, which only a score have seen—often alone for months in weather that never emerged from zero.
And every summer, when the ice broke in June, there came out to me in Canada his winter’s diary, written wearily by the light of candle, hemmed in by a hundred miles of fathomless, manless snow. And no fiction or fact of skilled writer spoke so from the heart. He was a natural poet, a natural artist, a natural narrator. In a thumb-nail dash of words he carried one straight into the clutch of the soundless Arctic.
And then came war. And even to that newless, comfortless coast it carried its message of Empire. John wrote me that he would be a “soljer.” I dismissed it as one of his many vain ambitions against which his race would raise an impossible barrier. And months later came his note from Scotland, where he was in training.
I followed him to England, but before we could meet he was in France. When, last summer, he obtained sudden leave, I was in Devon. His simple note of regret rests now like a tear on my heart.
But I have heard from him every week. He was never at home in his new career; something about it he did not quite understand. Latterly the loneliness of the life breathed from his lines. For he made no friends, in his silent, waiting way. His hunting companion was killed, and the great bereavement of it was like a strong tornado. He was cold out there, even he, the Labrador hunter. But the heavy cardigan and gloves I sent did not reach him in time. . . .
In his last letter was a great longing for home—his Eskimo father whom he had left at ten years to carve his own fortune, his two dusky sisters who were to him like creatures from an angel world, the doctor for whom he worked in Labrador in the summer time, his old hunter friends. “There will be no more letters from them until the ice breaks again,” he moaned. But the ice of a new world has broken for John.
He had earned his long rest. Out there in lonesome Snipers’ Land he lay, day after day; and the cunning that made him a hunter of fox, and marten, and otter, and bear, and wolf brought to him better game.
And all he ever asked was, “When will the war be over?” Only then would he return to his huskies and traps where few men dare a life of ice for a living almost as cold.
London Daily Mail, Jan. 11, 1918.
[John Shiwak, as is well known, was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and was killed at Cambrai, November 21st, 1917.—Eds.]
Sunday, 14 August 2016
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, July 1918
The grief of it is keener to me to-day than it was a week ago when the news first reached me; and I know the shadows of time will never hide it, though tingeing the grief to a brighter hue in a great pride at having known him, at having been called by him one of his two friends in England during his trying days in khaki.
To know John Shiwak, even in the old days of peace, was to be filled with a mysterious admiration that grew without realizing its own roots, a quiet fondness that complimented one’s self-respect. But to have been in touch with him even by mail at the end, to have heard from his lips, in words only a few hours old, the unfaltering admiration of him, was to be branded with a mark time dare not try to obliterate. And to have seen him in the moment of his passage! But John’s story must be told first—and I hope that ten thousand slackers may read it and see the picture as I see it—which is infinitely better than I am able to present it.
It was in the summer of 1911 that I met John. It was only in that summer that I met him. But to have met him once was to remember him always. Seeking new out-of-the-world places in or around Canada, I had picked on the bleak coast of Labrador. Across the straits from North Sydney the boat had plunged through a parallel swell all night, and in the morning landed us at Point aux Basques. Twenty-six hours of travel on a narrow-gauge railway, through hours on end of manless land, had brought us to St. John’s, that inimitably quaint capital of Newfoundland.
And one afternoon we pushed our way through the heaped boxes of cod and salt and general merchandise that line St. John’s piers and boarded a little mail steamer that ran twice a month—seldom more than five times a year—“down” the semi-settled coast of Newfoundland for five hundred miles, and then another five hundred far off to the north, into the birthplace of the iceberg, along the uncharted, barren, rugged shores of a country God never intended man to inhabit—Labrador.
Yet it was a pleasant trip, one to look back upon with no shuddering memories, but with a dreamy halo of unreality dimming its thousand unwonted events and sights, a composite picture that frays off about the edges and centres about one lone figure—John Shiwak, the Eskimo.
We were a motley crowd on board. For the next two weeks we would be bound to each other in the depressions and exaltations, the trials and strains of a confined existence that centred and circled and spread no farther than the tight dining-room and the after-deck. My personal variation was visits to the bridge, where I spent days at a time. The transient passenger list consisted of the woman-who-worries and myself, three professional world-vagrants who travelled as most people work, a mysterious newly-married couple whom none knew better at the end than at the beginning. And below decks crowded a score of Newfoundland fishermen and fish merchants on their way to the great cod grounds along the Labrador.
And there was John.
I was aware of him at first as he sat at the Newfoundlanders’ table in the dining saloon, never uttering a word, watching with both eyes every movement at the table of the “foreigners”. Presently I noted that he ceased to spread his bread on his hand, that he gave up his knife except for its legitimate purposes, that he stopped reaching as the others at his table did. Frequently I caught his eye, and always it dropped in confusion—only to return in a minute to the ways of our table. In a couple of days he was eating in the manner of so-called culture.
I watched for him on deck, but for several days caught only fleeting glimpses of him. And always he was the daintiest man on board. Evidently he had invested in a new wardrobe in St. John’s, and the muscular, short, straight-standing figure of him did each garment fullest justice. Twice a day he appeared in different array—in the mornings usually in knickers and sealskin moccasins.
Not a word did I ever see him speak to another. He would appear on deck for a half-hour twice a day, lean over the railing within sound of our voices, and disappear as silently as he came. I set myself the task of intruding on his reticence, of breaking his silence. In truth it was a task. Observing him one day watching the unloading of salt into the small boats that play the part of wharves on the Labrador coast, I leaned on the railing beside him and made some trivial inquiry about the scene of bustle. His reply was three words. To my second question, after several minutes, the reply was two words. And then he turned away. It was discouraging. But soon thereafter I noticed that when I stopped to look over the rail, if it were not in too quiet a part of the ship, John was leaning just far enough away to be out of range of questions. I took to wandering about, stopping by myself to look out on the sights of shore and iceberg. The interval between us decreased.
Then one night we stopped, in the sudden darkness that falls in that quarter shortly after ten of an August evening, to pick up a missionary and his wife and household goods. It was a task of hours, for everything had to be brought out to the steamer in one small rowboat. I was looking down from the forward deck on the twinkling lights below, hearing the oaths of busy seamen, in my ears the creaking of the steam winch. Suddenly there broke on the night from the outer darkness the shuddering howl of a wolf, then a chorus of howls. I raised myself to listen, peering out into the darkness of the sea where there were only scores of tiny islands, and beyond, scores of towering icebergs.
“The Labrador band,” explained a quiet voice beside me, modest to the verge of self-deprecation, but with a twinkle in it somewhere.
It was John Shiwak. And the ice was broken. I soothed his obvious nervousness by keeping to the text for the moment. “The Labrador band” is the term applied to the howling huskies, most of whom are set down on islands during their summer months of uselessness that they might be out of the way.
Far into the morning John and I sat up there in the dirty, deserted bow, as the ship felt its way through the islands on its northward crawl. By the pitch of the boat we knew when the islands ceased to screen us from the swell outside. Now and then an icy breath registered the passing of an iceberg; and once a disturbing crackling far outside, and a great plunge, told of a Greenland monster that had yielded at last to the wear of sun and wave. Not a sound of life broke the northern silence save the quiet voice of the captain on the bridge above, and the weird howls of hungry or disturbed huskies only one stage removed from their wolfish origin. And in those hours I learned much of John Shiwak’s immediate history.
He was a hunter in the far interior by winter, a handiman in his district by summer. The past winter had been a good one for him—a silver fox skin, for instance, which he had disposed of to the Hudson’s Bay Company for four hundred and sixty-nine dollars. And on the strength of such unusual profits he had gone down to St. John’s, Newfoundland, whence all good things come to Labrador—and whither all good and had things go from Labrador—and had plunged into the one great time of his life. His memory of that two weeks of civilization congealed into a determination to repeat the visit each summer. And I know that the dissipations of a great and strange city had had nothing to do with its attractions.
In his conversation there was the solemnity of a man who does much thinking in vast silences. Everything was presented to me in the vivid succinctness that delights the heart of an editor. John’s life had been filled with the essentials. So was his comment on life. When we parted for our berths I was conscious of a series of pictures that lacked no necessary touch of a master hand; but repetition in the stilted language and phrasing of civilization was impossible. The wonderful gift of nature was John’s, and the marvel of it grew on me through the night hours.
Next morning I smiled at him from our table, and some new life in his eyes convinced me the recognition was not unwelcome. And when we few wanderers collected as usual on the after-deck, there was John a few yards away leaning on the rail. I went to him, taking the woman-who-worries, and after a few monosyllabic words he took advantage of our interest in some scene on shore to glide away. But an hour later he was there again and thereafter he adopted us as his friends. For the next two days we separated only for meals and sleep. And on the night of the second day, as we swung a little into the open to make the Hamilton Inlet, a storm arose. And through the storm a tiny rowboat bobbed up to us in the moonlight, poised for minutes in the flush of a great danger as it struggled to reach us without crushing against our sides, and then quietly dropped aboard us two Moravian missionaries. And it was John who seemed to know just what to do to make the boarding possible. The missionaries recognized him and rewarded him with a smile and thanks, but John appeared unmoved. A moment later he was standing beside me, staring into the torn reflection of the moonlight, held by the same strange affinity that had been working on me.
Early the following morning we cast anchor far within the Inlet, before Rigolet. And as we glided into position, John and I were talking. In his manner was a greater solemnity than ever. I believe now it was the knowledge that in an hour or so his new friend would pass from his life.
“Can you read?” he inquired. And the unusual embarrassment of his manner made me wonder. Then, “Can you write?” And when I modestly admitted both accomplishments he hesitated. I made no effort to draw him out. In a moment he explained. “I can, too.” There was a great pride in his tone. I recognized it quickly enough to introduce my commendations with the proper spirit. “And I write much,” he went on. “I write books.”
Having received my cue, I succeeded in finding out that his “books” were diaries written through the winter months of his long season in the interior. For John, the Eskimo, had taught himself to read and write.
“Will you read my books?” he pleaded of me.
We climbed over the side then and sat together in the little boat that was to take us to the Hudson’s Bay quay. As I climbed first to the pier a great husky leaped at me. I had heard of huskies and their idiosyncrasies, and I was prepared to put up some fight; but John came tumbling up over the edge and rushed. A sliver of a lad jumped likewise from the other side and drove a kick into the husky’s ribs—and then I learned that this particular husky was unwontedly playful. Yet even the Eskimo and the liveyere never trust the husky.
John led me off, past the white buildings of the company, past several ramshackle huts that looked as if a mild wind would make loose lumber of them, and stopped before one a shade more solid than the others, he paused before entering. It was but one of his expressive movements that meant more than words. I was not to follow farther; he did not wish me to see within. I read into it that it was not shame, but a fear that I might not understand his home life. Inside, a few half-hearty words were uttered, and John replied quietly; and presently he appeared with two common exercise books in his hand. These he handed to me and led away from the life of the company buildings and the pier towards an ancient Eskimo burying-ground where we need fear no interruption. It would be a couple of hours before the boat would leave.
But someone shouted. The missionary who had boarded our boat two days before wanted someone to help to unload his household goods, and John, the always ready, supplied the want. And that was the last word I had with him.
I seated myself on the steps of the factor’s house and opened one of the books. The first thing I saw was a crude but marvellously lively drawing of a deer. With only a few uncommon lines he had set down a deer in full flight. Therein were none of the rules of drawing, but in his own untrained way John had accomplished what better artists miss. “This is a deer” underneath was but the expression of first principles. And on the second page was a stanza of poetry. Unfortunately it is not at hand, but this dusky son of nature had caught from his mother what he had never read in books. There was meter and rhyme and a strange rhythm, and there was unconscious submission to something working within. I began to read.
It was all about his past winter back there in a frozen world alone. After a time I became suddenly conscious that something was happening beneath me. I started to a cognizance of my surroundings. A husky had crept beneath the step and jerked from beneath me one of a pair of sealskin shoes I had purchased at the store. For huskies are immune from the appeal of an Eskimo’s soul. Anything is fodder to the insatiable fire of hunger that burns within.
They were shouting to me from the quay—and there are more attractive dangers than to be marooned on the coast of Labrador. With the diaries I started for the steamer, thinking to meet John there. But on the way we passed his boat returning with its last load. I shouted that I had his books; and his reply was to nod his head slowly, then to rest on his oars a couple of strokes, watching me as we drifted farther apart.
I never saw him again. During the six years that followed I received from him a half-dozen letters a year, all there was time for in the short two months of navigation along the Labrador. I wrote him regularly, sending him such luxuries as I thought would please him and add to his comfort—a camera and supplies, heavy sweater-coats and other comforts, books, writing-paper and pencils, a dictionary. From him there came mementos of his life—a beautiful fox skin for a rug, with head and claws complete; a pair of wooden dolls made entirely by the Eskimo and dressed in exact replica of the sealskin suits of the farthest north; a pair of elk-skin moccasins; a pair of seal gloves. It was significant of John’s gallantry that most of these gifts were specifically for the woman-who-worries. For me he was ever on the look for a polar bear skin, and had planned a trip farther north to get one, when other events intervened.
But, best of all, each summer there came out to me his diaries. Diaries have small prospect of breaking through my prejudices, but John’s invariably inaugurated a period of seclusion and idleness until I had read their last word. They were wonderful examples of unstilted, inspired writing. They started with his hunting expedition in the late fall (September, in Labrador) into the interior before the waterways froze over, and through the succeeding eight months, until the threat of breaking ice drove him back to the coast with his furladen sleigh, they recorded his daily life, not as a barren round of uneventfulness, but as a teeming time of throbbing experience. He felt everything, from the leap of a running deer to a sunset, from a week’s crippling storm to the capture of the much sought silver fox, from the destruction of his tent by fire to the misfortune of pilfering mice. And he had the faculty of making his reader feel with him. In a thumb-nail dash he could take one straight into the clutches of the silent Arctic. Now and then he broke into verse, although in his later diaries this disappeared, perhaps under the goad of more careful register. Breathlessly I would read of the terrible Arctic storms that hemmed him in, all alone in there, hundreds of miles from the nearest human being. And the joys and disappointments of his traps bore almost equally for the moment on the one to whom he was telling his story.
From his diaries I gathered bits of his life. He had left home when only ten years of age, to carve his own fortune, but his father and beloved little sisters were still to him his home, although he never saw them now. He was everyone’s friend, grateful for their kindnesses, always ready to help, contemptuous of the lazy Indian, whom he hated. In the summer he fished, or worked for a Grenfell doctor—all mere fill-ups until the hunting season returned. But always there was a note of incomplete existence in his writings, of falling short of his ambitions, of something bigger within the range of his horizon. Even before I waved farewell to him that day, I had him in my mind for a sketch, “John, the Unsatisfied”.
Throughout his diaries were many gratifying references to the place I had strangely attained in his affections—communings with himself in the silent nights of the far north. And each summer his letters almost plaintively inquired when I was coming to the Labrador that he might take me away up the Hamilton River to the Grand Falls. Even in his last letter, written from a far distant field, he reintroduced our ancient plans! Once he informed me in his simple way that he had his eye on the liveyere girl for his future home, and asked me to send her a white silk handkerchief with “F” in the corner. John was growing up. During his last summer in Labrador he was much absorbed in an ambition to set up as a Labrador merchant, but he had not the money.
During the first three years of our friendship he embarrassed me much by proposing each summer to come out and visit me; and in one letter he had almost made up his mind to come to me in Canada and take his place permanently in the competition of the white man. I funked the issue each time. I had no fear of his ability to hold his own with brain and hand but the Eskimo in civilization seemed too large a responsibility to assume. At every landing-place in Labrador was, at the time of my visit, a notice threatening a fine of $500 for anyone inducing an Eskimo to leave the country. It was a result of the dire consequences of the Eskimo encampment at the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893. And I could never rid myself of the solemn warning of an Indian chief friend of mine against the risk.
Once a letter arrived in midwinter. The familiar handwriting on the envelope was like a voice from the dead, for I knew Labrador was then frozen in impenetrable ice. Inside I learned that a courier was coming on snow-shoes overland through those hundreds of miles of untracked wastes of Quebec. I replied immediately. And his diary the next summer told of his joy at the receipt in mid-winter of a letter from his friend. A pair of hunters, on their way to their hunting-ground somewhere beyond John, had carried the letter from the little village on the river and left it in one of his tilts.
During the fall of 1914 my letters to him were going astray. His arrived regularly, always lamenting my seeming negligence. A dozen times I wrote on alternate days. The summer of 1915 opened with his diaries and more letters of lonesome plaint. Through June and July they continued. Not a letter of mine was reaching him. Then one day came his despairing effort. On the outside he had written in his most careful hand: “If anyone gets this please send it to Mr. Amy”. Whereupon I wrote to St. John’s friends to get in touch with John at any cost.
In a couple of his letters he had mentioned his desire to be a soldier, but I had dismissed it as one of his ambitions unattainable owing to his race. In the one that was to be forwarded to me he announced that he had enlisted and was going to England immediately to train.
I ask you to consider that. An Eskimo, a thousand miles from the nearest newspaper—no outside life but that of the Newfoundland fisherman for eight weeks of the year, no industry but hunting and fishing, eight months in the snowbound silences of the most desolate country in the world! And John Shiwak, of another race, untutored, a student only of nature, was going out to fight for his country! Hundreds of thousands of young Canadians could scarcely read it without blushing. Within the little Eskimo was burning that which put conscription beyond the pale.
In the early spring of 1916 I came to England. Within a week I had found where the Newfoundland regiment was in training. John’s reply to my letter is too sacred to publish. There was joy in every line of it. “I have nothing to write about,” he said as usual, in his simple way. And then he proceeded to impress me with a mission in life I had scarcely appreciated. But he was in Scotland, and I in London. And travel in England is vetoed during the war. Within a very few weeks he was on his way to France, full of ardour.
Almost every week, and sometimes oftener, I heard from him. He was not liking the life. There was something about it he did not understand—this killing of men week after week—and his modesty and reticence, I fear, made him a prey to more assertive fellow soldiers. And thereafter, for months, for some reason, no letter of mine reached him. His petitions for news of me drove me to drastic measures, and then I regained touch with him. Once he was sick in hospital “with his neck”, but apart from that he was in the lines every time his battalion was on duty. And after eleven months without leave, suddenly he came to England.
It was unfortunately characteristic of our merely spiritual propinquity that I had left only two days before for a holiday in Devon; and when his wire reached me on a Friday night there was no train to bring him to me and return before Monday night, when he was due in Scotland. I hastened back from Devon to catch him on his way through to France, but the letter he sent me from somewhere in London neglected to include his address, and I could not find him before his train drew out that evening.
His letter of regret, written from Folkestone as he waited for the boat to France, is by me. “I hope we will meet again somewhere,” he said, and I imagined a tone of hopelessness rang in it.
Upon his return to France sorrow seemed to dog his steps. He had induced two other Eskimos to enlist with him, but they could not stand the life and were sent back. But his real grief was the loss of his hunting mate, who often shared his winter rounds in Labrador, a white man. “I am the only one left from the Labrador,” he moaned. And the longing to get back to his old life peeped from every letter. But to my sympathy and efforts to brighten him he replied: “I am hanging on all right. The only thing to do is to stick it till it’s over.”
It is through misty eyes I read his letters of those last three months. The duration of the war was wearing on him. He had no close friends, none to keep warm the link with his distant home. In September he lamented: “I have had no letters from home since July. There will be no more now till the ice breaks”. And in his last he longed again for the old hunting days. Labrador, that had never satisfied his ambitions, looked warm and friendly to him now. He wondered what the fur would be for the coming winter, what his old friends and people were doing, how the Grenfell doctor managed without him.
I had been sending him books and writing-paper, and small luxuries in food and soldiers’ comforts. “It is good to know I have two friends,” he thanked me. (The other was a woman living near his training camp in Scotland). “I don’t think a man could be better off.” Simple, grateful John! He complained of the cold, and I despatched a warm sweater and a pair of woollen gloves. But they never reached him.
That was in mid-November. A month later an official envelope came to me. Inside was my last letter. On its face was the soulless stamp. “Deceased”. More sympathetic hands had added: “Killed”, “Verified”.
It was a damp-eyed sergeant told me of his end, this native of Labrador, the only Eskimo to lay down his life for the Empire.
“He was a white man,” he whispered. Would that John could have heard it! It happened in the Cambrai tank drive. The tanks were held up by the canal before Masnieres, and John’s company was ordered to rush a narrow bridge that had unaccountably been left standing. John, chief sniper of his battalion, lately promoted lance-corporal, the muscular son of the wilds, outpaced his comrades. The battalion still discusses which was the first to reach the bridge, John or another. But John ran to the height of the little arch and turned to wave his companions on.
It was a deadly corner of the battlefield. The Germans, granted a respite by the obstacle of the canal, were rallying. Big shells were dropping everywhere, scores of machine guns were beginning to bark across the narrow line of protecting water. And just beyond the bridge-head, in among the trees, the enemy had erected a platform in tiers, bearing machine guns. As John stood, his helmet awry, his mouth open in unheard shouts of encouragement, the deadly group of machine guns broke loose. That was why the bridge had been left.
The Eskimo swayed, then sank slowly. But even as he lay they saw his hand point ahead. And then he lay still. And they passed him on the bridge, lying straight and peaceful, gone to a better hunting-ground than he had ever known.
And my thoughts of John Shiwak, the Eskimo, to-day, are that he must have been satisfied at the last.
Friday, 5 August 2016
Part X and Conclusion to ‘England in Arms’.
From The Canadian Magazine, February 1918.
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, August 2016.
The strident of industrial conditions in England during the war might well wonder if Lloyd George has accomplished anything more promising for victory, more beneficial to his country in such a period of stress, than the institution of a new theory in industrial life based on the humanizing of toil. It was away back in the early days of his acceptance by the Empire as the essential cog in the machine of war. At a time when the German was threatening Paris and no obstacle to his victorious march loomed above the horizon, the little Welshman was called by his Premier—but more insistently by his country—to undertake the revolutionizing of warfare in a country whose short-sighted lack of preparation bade fair to be its death sentence.
Guns were needed—more guns—and thousands more. The victorious enemy was not only shattering his way to the capital city of one of the Allies, but he was exacting a toll of the best fighters in the world that threatened quickly to prove his invincibility. The British Tommy, fainting from the fatigue of continued battle, but fighting on without a thought of submission, ground his teeth at his impotence. Man to man he knew his superiority. But man to gun was but fodder. Behind a barrage of murderous shells the German soldier laughed at the puny opposition of a gunless army. The strongest forts known to military science had fallen without a struggle. The direction of the invading army was ever forward. Only when its ammunition failed temporarily was it driven to retreat behind the hills of the Aisne. And then England clamoured for the guns to give the men a chance. Lloyd George the most aggressive politician in sight was given the mission to get them!
Immediately he recognized that the task was not so much a matter of material as of workpeople and factories. And, with his own peculiar foresightedness, he knew that success depended in the final issue on a workpeople contented and able to undertake without more than the minimum of rest the great task of production. To make the munition-makers contented and physically fit for their work more than suitable wages was required. Hours of work must be, for the time subject only to the limits of human endurance. The driving back of the enemy, therefore, hung on the minds and bodies of the workers. And to ensure co-operation of these two allies something in the way of innovation was necessary.
The solution of the problem, as it affected the million women who have thrown themselves into the production of munitions of war, was the creation of a new department in connection with the Ministry of Munitions. As Lloyd George puts it himself: “I had the privilege of setting up something that was known as a welfare department, which was an attempt to take advantage of the present mallability of industry in order to impress upon it more humanitarian conditions, to make labour less squalid and less repellant, more attractive and more healthy.” And the results have so far excelled even his hopes that the department is not recognizable to-day by its ambitious creator.
The Welfare Department in Great Britain is assuredly an innovation in industrial life. There has been, and is, a prevailing idea that it is but an English application of a phase of working life already developed in the United States. A Government official modestly deprecated to me any idea of novelty. “You,” he said, “know all about it already, of course. For it is not new in America.” And he spoke of a certain great factory in the Central States that has for years secured much valuable advertising through its care of its employees. But the difference between any so-called welfare work in America and that developed in Great Britain is sufficient to mark the latter as a distinct creation. Not only is the work differently controlled, but its duties and the direction of its efforts are essentially new.
“Welfare” has been applied in England loosely to everything that introduces a new office dealing directly with the employee of a factory. Jealous and selfish employers have attempted to forestal Government interference by appointing officials whom they dignify with the title of “welfare workers”, but whose only duty is to secure larger dividends for the directors. But, strictly speaking, “welfare” in England applies only to the appointees of the Ministry of Munitions; and it is only with these this article will deal. The most dangerous obstacle to the ultimate benefits of real welfare work is the disgust and distrust aroused in the workers by officials who are responsible only to their employers; and there has been more than a suggestion that the Government protect the idea by copyrighting the term it has selected for its appointees.
The welfare worker is a Government employee. The Welfare Department, through a permanent committee, passes on every worker, by interview, by examination of character, record and references. The aim is high, as it necessarily must be to secure a woman whose influence on the munitioneers will be good. Apart from the ordinary qualifications of official position of such authority, she must be educated, dignified, sympathetic, independent, resourceful, diplomatic, physically strong, competent to command, and capable of winning affection as well as respect. It is a large order—so large that the calibre cannot be maintained with any hope of filling the demand. The fact that almost all munition factories are either Government-owned or controlled renders them amenable to the regulation that, with more than a certain number of female employees, one or more welfare workers must he engaged. And the supply is greviously inadequate. It is a feature of English life that caste is another requirement in the welfare workers. Unless the munition workers are sensible of the superior station in life of at least the head of the welfare staff they are reluctant to lend themselves to the relationship imposed by the new idea. Many women, seemingly otherwise fitted to do effective work, have failed to gain the respect so necessary for results. And as the work, if honestly performed, is hard and often discouraging, with long hours and innumerable worries, and with a strain that increases to proportions beyond the reputed strength and competence of woman, even those few who might fill the position with success hesitate before assuming the tremendous responsibilities.
The true welfare official is selected by the Welfare Department of the Ministry of Munitions, accordingly, and approved of by the management of the factory where her work is to be. As a Government employee she is independent, save in employment and discharge, of the management. Her position might appear anomalous and impossible, but in reality, owing to the wonderful results that have appeared, the munition firms have accepted the relationship with a grace that grows to appreciation. As a Government official it is her duty in general to see that the working conditions are reasonable and fair, that the factory equipment is sanitary and safe, that dismissals are only for good cause, that the moral atmosphere is satisfactory, that the girls are paid according to established rates; in short, that every surrounding of the female worker is suitable to her sex, her physical and moral requirements, and to her protection. The value of the welfare worker to the management appears in her ability to settle disputes, maintain discipline, raise the morale of the girls, secure from them a full co-operation in production and in factory interest, and protect the firm from the expense and loss of time arising from a wrong mental attitude and from accident.
The technical titles applied to the workers are somewhat descriptive. The head may be a “supervisor” or a “superintendent”. The former works without assistants in the smaller factories. The superintendent has directly under her a staff of welfare assistants and auxiliary forces. Properly speaking, only her assistants who have been approved of by the Department are “welfare workers”, but a superintendent is usually considered competent to select assistants who would satisfy the Department.
The duties of the superintendent are too multifarious to be described save under the general term “welfare”. Obviously there is little she can do which has not some connection with the interests of her women munition-workers. Outside the general authority secured to her by her official appointment, her powers rest with the factory management. If the latter is sympathetic and satisfied with her, she is sometimes given almost unlimited authority over the women in the shops. The one Canadian welfare superintendent in Great Britain, with the fullest recognition by both Government and factory officials, has practically supreme control over every woman in the factory area, munition-workers and office staff. In her rests authority to select and dismiss employees, to pass on the dismissals by the foreman, to promulgate regulations of any kind affecting female labour. As head of the Labour Bureau every new employee must conform to the ideals she has established. The requirements in this department alone, of 3,500 women workers, with the ordinary changes of industrial life and the extraordinary and unexpected demands of war conditions, is difficult to imagine. Lavatory, hospital and rest-room accommodation is directly subject to her. She is one of a committee of three to manage a canteen for 5,000 employees. She has charge of the cleaning staffs. Her orders in the business office are obeyed as the manager’s. Female employees obtain from her leave to pass from the building during working hours and to remain from work for special reasons.
But these are the mere outlines of her general work, the listed duties. They are, in reality, the least of her real welfare work. Her main care is to secure the confidence of her girls, to convince them that in her they have a friend. She protects them from the momentary exasperation of worried foremen. Every possible convenience and comfort she obtains for them. Rest-rooms and canteen and lavatories, floors and windows of shops are kept under her eye for cleanliness and fittings. A girl on work too strenuous for her strength is transferred by her to easier duties. Petty thieving is controlled by the firm’s police under her direction. Complaints of every kind are brought to her for settlement, from a badly cooked meal at the canteen to the partiality of a charge hand. She orders improvements to ventilation, heating and lighting, and sees that the girls who have leisure to sit are provided with seats. She inquires into mistakes in pay envelopes and advises the management on inadequate rates.
And still the list is incomplete. She arbitrates disagreements, not only between the foremen and the girls, but between the girls themselves. She moves, when conditions warrant it, girls into more congenial shops. She directs them to the firm’s hospitals in case of sickness. She takes the children of mothers who must work for a living and finds them good homes. She firmly dismisses girls physically unfitted for their duties, but offers them re-employment when their health warrants it. She keeps in touch with every sick employee, sending her assistants to their homes to inquire their wants. She supervises the boarding-houses of the workers and to some extent their homes. She encourages them to come to her in all the petty troubles of life, whether in connection with their work or not.
While her office doors are frequently closed, by stress of work, to the factory officials, they are always open to the girls. To be a mother to them is the highest aim and the most productive of the right kind of welfare superintendent.
This intimate and authoritative contact with her girls is not maintained at the cost of discipline. Indeed, the welfare superintendent is the source of discipline as well as of protection and comfort. In every move she considers the rights and wishes of the foremen. Leave is given—except for compulsory reasons—only as the demands of the shop permit. The foreman’s authority is sustained in every reasonable instance. His work is lightened by the application of discipline by one who understands conditions and sympathizes with his difficulties in applying his authority to a new class of worker whom he does not quite understand and is too busy to study.
The course of an ordinary forenoon’s work is revealing.
1. Arriving at 8.30, she examines the reports left by her night assistants, nurses, women police and forewomen of the cleaners.
2. Letters opened and answered.
3. Twenty new girls engaged.
4. Special committee meeting on air raid protection.
5. Trouble at the canteen made the dismissal of the night cook necessary, after which application for a new one had to be made to the Government Labour Exchange.
6. Discharge granted to woman physically unfit—a case to be followed up. Explanation made to foreman and superintendent of the branch of the factory in which she worked.
7. Girl released from one shop through lack of work is found a place in another.
8. Girl ordered off night work by her doctor is exchanged to day work with another girl.
9. Foreman came to explain absence of one of his girls. Arrangements made to get her pay to her.
10. Girl came to complain of her discharge by foreman. Latter spoken to over telephone and found to be at fault, and girl found work in another shop.
11. Made out orders for several pairs of overalls for girls.
12. Two girls came to complain of treatment of another girl in same shop. Note made to inquire into it.
13. Underforeman inquired how to enforce discipline among his workers. As many complaints of his severity had come in, a friendly and satisfactory talk resulted.
14. Injured girl reported no insurance received. Gave orders to have it looked into.
15. Girl absent the day before without leave or excuse was warned.
16. Sergeant at gate came for instructions about passes out.
17. Put through order for ambulance-room supplies.
18. Assistant reports.
19. Two women discharged on tlie previous day came to express their thanks for her kindness in paving the way to other work. One brought her baby for inspection.
20. Five minutes’ talk with the manager.
21. In a hasty run through one of the shops discovered girl with sore throat. Sent her immediately to the nurse.
22. Girl injured a few days before came to say her doctor said she might return to work in a week.
23. Glanced over time sheets and sent assistant to inquire reasons of absentees; also to get report on mistake in a girl’s pay.
In addition there were hasty telephone conversations with a dozen foremen. Every afternoon much of the time is spent in the shops with the girls, watching them work, studying conditions, inspecting the efficiency of the charge hands, etc. Government officials must be seen and visitors entertained, purchases made and plans developed.
For the welfare work which is outside the strict limits of business the firm provides her with a fund. It is perhaps the best proof of the growth of the welfare idea. Old employees who cannot afford the expense of illness are assisted. Others with unexpected temporary strains on their resources may borrow and repay at their leisure. Even those necessarily dismissed by the fluctuations of production are assisted until they obtain new situations. And the welfare superintendent with her heart in her work is too apt to forget her own pocket and expend a great part of her salary in this kind of help. Now the idea has spread to the male employees, whose wives and families profit from the fund.
To assist her in these never-ending duties this welfare superintendent has a staff of sufficient proportions to relieve her of what portion may be left to other shoulders; but the intimate relationship with the girls cannot be dismissed by any amount of assistance. Her private secretary is her immediate representative. Three assistant welfare workers see that her instructions are carried out, represent her at night, and visit the sick and absent. A Labour Bureau assistant first culls out the applicants for work. Three trained nurses are on constant duty for accident or sudden sickness, making their reports to her and subject to her instructions. Three policewomen see to the direct enforcement of her regulations, reporting to her and recognizing her authority, although appointed (subject to her approval) by the Government organization of policewomen. There are, in addition, clerks and office boys who do not properly enter into the welfare work. Her supreme authority is recognized by the title of “lady superintendent”, every detail of the management of female labour being handed over to her by the manager.
The factory equipment coming specially within her sphere is the last word in welfare work. Through a sympathetic management every provision has been made for the comfort of the women. Two large rest-rooms are always open to those temporarily idle through accident to the machines or illness. The rooms are bright and airy, fitted with easy-chairs, sofas, tables and reading material. There are two hospitals or “ambulance rooms” equipped with every modern requirement, with beds and other necessities and presided over by trained nurses whose services are at the disposal of the patients until recovery. A private ambulance is kept for rushing serious eases to the hospital or home The canteen is one of the provisions of war which will continue into peace if it is found to pay. During the war most firms are content to lose—sometimes as much as a thousand dollars a week—for the immediate profit in other respects from this feature of welfare work. Long hours, fewer holidays and the unusual strains consequent upon the war make it doubly necessary that special provision be made to fit the munition-maker for the unending needs of the armies; and the woman worker, unaccustomed to the demands upon her strength, is more susceptible to the limitations of her methods of life. Under the welfare worker these girls have been induced to govern their meals by the requirements of their bodies, not by the custom of their class or the momentary taste of their palates. Pudding and cake have given place to meat, and the canteen meal is the main one of the day. Never in their lives have the working classes of England been offered such meals as are served them so cheaply in the canteens. Never again will they be willing to return to the former comfortless, insufficient fare of pre-war days. It is a welfare work that in itself justifies the new industrial department.
In explosive factories the duties of the welfare worker are directed more towards the health and protection of the girls, one great difficulty in the employment of female labour on explosives being their slowness to realize the danger of disobeying regulations. The welfare worker impresses the necessity upon them and protects them from their own carelessness.
There are features of welfare work which have received much greater fame than those outlined above, but only because they are more unusual and spectacular. Organized dances, dramatic clubs, swimming and other classes, entertainment of various kinds—these are the novelties of welfare work which have been pictured in the papers. But they are really only the frills. The welfare worker with time and strength to throw herself into such extraneous luxuries must be neglecting the more intimate and effective side of her work. Provide a girl with healthy surroundings, a clean moral atmosphere, sustaining food, sufficient rest, protection from tyranny and injustice, and a human heart to seek for advice, and her relaxation is not apt to go far astray. The original idea of welfare work, as practised, was amusement. It has altered to personal care and sympathy. The earlier form of welfare worker is finding a more congenial sphere in organizing bazaars and entertaining the soldiers. The new worker does not neglect entertainment, but she has discovered how little it serves to secure the hold she desires.
In the search for judicious welfare workers England is handicapped by the prevalence of caste. While it is for the present necessary, owing to the peculiarities of English life, that the welfare superintendent be obviously of a higher social standing, the granite walls between the classes in England are too high to permit of the fraternity and unsullied sympathy that must exist between munition worker and welfare worker, except in cases all too few. And the fault is as much of the working people as of the women who have offered themselves for this grand work of industrial improvement.
The welfare idea would be abortive, especially in time of war, did it not express itself in terms of efficiency and production. It is in increased output, as well as in its moral effect, that it faces the opposition of labour agitators who see in it the lessening of their influence for evil. It requires little insight into psychology to appreciate that the contended, healthy worker, whose moral sense is cultivated, is the most productive. The aim of the welfare worker is best tested by the results of the improvements she has introduced; and concerning that there is no question. So emphatic is the average employer in his praise of the new idea that hundreds of them have expressed their determination to continue it after the war. Strikes among the girls are almost unknown. Discipline is simple. Idling is infinitely less than among the men—especially than among the young men who have found in munition factories their exemption from the trenches. The discipline of the welfare worker is an appeal to the girl’s moral sense rather than to force.
And the girls are proving the richness of the soil in which the new idea is spreading seed. The old frivolous conception of munition-making as the means to a gay, extravagant life of pleasure is passing. The girl who once put her money in a new hat every fortnight and a pair of boots a month now probably lends it to her country for the winning of the war. Her nights, that used to be occupied in cinema or dance halls or street loafing, are spent in sewing and profitable entertainment. “We never knew there were women in the world like you” is the cry of their souls to the new sort of woman who has come into their lives.
Less sentimental and appealing, perhaps, may be the revolution the successful welfare worker is introducing into industrial relationship. Her consideration for the foremen is engendering a new spirit in the workshops. Co-operation is taking the place of petty jealousies. What was once a medley of shops is now one combined factory. The focus of the female labour of the factory in the one head is encouraging a similar desire among the men. And when shop works with shop the result to Great Britain in the rivalry of peace times cannot he overestimated. With this new spirit of co-operation must arise a new relationship between capital and labour. It is in this rests the future of the industrial and commercial life of Great Britain.
From an older post and research: “…Graduating in 1899, he married as his first wife Lillian Eva Payne. Mrs. Amy was a personality in her own right. During World War I, she was the first Canadian woman ever to be made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, an honour awarded to her in connection with her work with the Massey-Harris Hospital at Dulwich and later as Lady Superintendent of one of the largest munitions factories in England, where she was in charge of more than 3,000 women.” /drf
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.