I was quite excited by this item on the BBC News this morning. An academic has unearthed a diary or journal written by a working Yorkshire farmer in the very early 19thcentury which reveals, as well as much else, some unexpectedly enlightened views on the subject of homosexuality. Here’s the report: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51385884. It’s worth reading, especially by those who assume that people of an ‘inferior’ class are likely, or even bound, to have reactionary opinions. In truth, there is no reliable evidence for this.
That’s because there is no reliable evidence for the working or lower-middle classes’ views on anything before the age of mass literacy. I first came against this problem when I began researching into popular attitudes to the British Empire for my book The Absent-Minded Imperialists. Until then it had been widely assumed that the ‘lower orders’ were invariably ‘jingoistic’, as it was called, because (basically) they were ignorant, stupid and emotional. The evidence for this – almost the only evidence – was the jingo mobs that crowded into London and elsewhere to celebrate the relief of Mafeking during the Boer War. In fact those few months of ‘imperialistic’ rioting were almost unique in modern British history; involved far smaller crowds than they gave the impression of (they looked a lot in the narrow streets of central London); may have been more lower-middle than strict working class (they worked in the City, after all); and didn’t invariably indicate any true ‘imperial’ feeling on the demonstrators’ parts.
Seeking for a more accurate measure of ‘working-class imperialism’, I too turned to contemporary working-class diaries and memoirs. The problem here is that not many of them have survived. I think I found about sixty – some of them mere sketches. This may indicate that not all that many were written. Even literate workers didn’t have the inclination – or the time – to write; and if they did, they assumed that their own lives would be of little interest to the ‘reading’ – that is, middle-class – ‘public’. Hardly any of them expressed any opinion at all about the contemporary Empire, let alone an enthusiastic one. Which is why I then tried to dig deeper, in order to find out what they were likely to have felt about the Empire, in view of their functions in society, their education, and so on. (My methods and conclusions are spelled out in the book.) In fact they were likely either to have no opinion, or else a wide range of opinions, mainly lost to posterity; sadly for their posthumous reputations today.
So I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that at least one early 19th-century working man wasn’t as prejudiced against gay people as we might have thought, and that he had clearly discussed the question, in rational terms, among his mates. This seems to indicate that prejudices of the kinds often attributed to the lowly and ignorant are not necessarily innate in them, only to be countered and corrected by education. In most cases it’s ‘education’ of another kind that inculcates them in working people’s minds. Today’s working-class Brexiters have the Sun, the Daily Mail and Nigel Farage to teach them their prejudices. Our Yorkshire farmer didn’t.