Wagging the World from Turriff. An attempt at an Industrial-commercial organisation.
The east Aberdeenshire town of Turriff has less than 3000 of a population, and there are none of the industries in the town that bring men together in large bodies, such as weaving sheds or boot factories. An implement works sends out threshing-mills to the ends of the earth; but for the rest we are mostly engaged in catering to the immediate requirements of an agricultural population. The town is very countrified. The shop-keepers – and we are a town of shops – deal with farmers; two days a-week we are overrun with farmers; two nights a week we have the cycling farm servants present in force. We live in an atmosphere of cattle and crops, and not a few men in business in the town have direct farming interests, having their own little flutter in the crop-raising or stock-breeding field.
Wherever I have been since leaving my own native city twenty-three years ago there has always been some local industrial obsession. In Manchester it was spindles and cotton; in Peterhead it was herrings; in Huddersfield it was looms and tweeds; in East Yorkshire it was market gardening, and the local elections turned upon dung. Now in Turriff, it is said, it is cattle and turnips.
But there are citizens of the world even here. George Durward, a master tailor in a small way, is a keen Socialist who has worked and lived in various parts of the outer world, Glasgow and Dublin among them. He is a member of the local school board, has helped greatly to organise the farm servants, and his shop is a hotbed of discussion and friendliness, he himself being the incarnation of uncommercial good nature and helpfulness. Babbling over with projects that have no relation to his own prosperity, he has just introduced a motion at the school board which will admit of much more discussion and publicity than it has received; though it has by no means suffered neglect in the locality either. Here is the motion, which unfortunately has not become a resolution, the board having decided that its duty was not to legislate but to administer, not to initiate suggestions but to receive instructions from the higher authorities, and do its best to carry them out. Mr Durward moved: -
‘That the board express its approval of the following resolution, and submit it to the meeting of citizens; - That whereas the existence of so many small traders catering for the same class of wares is most un-economic, both in man-power and working expenses, the Board recommend that the production and distribution of local requirements be centralised for the period of the war, and that the profits accruing from the centralised establishment be divided among the traders in proportion to the amount of business they were doing before the war. For instance, on tailor’s shop instead of eight could, if properly organised, supply local needs and liberate upwards of a dozen men for national service, with considerable saving in working expenses. The same economy of man-power and working expenses could be effected in almost every other trade. And whereas the presence of so many able-bodied men in Turriff on market day suggests that our present agricultural power is not being taken full advantage of, we recommend to the Board of Agriculture the advisability of substituting for the present market system an establishment of agricultural bureaux composed of a valuator appointed by the farmers, one by the butchers, and another by those supplying keepers. Such bureaux would effect the transfer of fat and keepers, and thereby prevent the waste of man, horse and motor power. The School board undertakes to maintain the children attending school of those volunteering for national service who find the minimum wage of 25s per week too small to meet their family requirements.’
Now, there was nothing in the world, except one thing, to prevent that resolution being carried into practice. That one thing was the willingness of the tradesmen concerned. Durward himself is a tailor with plenty of work to do, if his public pre-occupations and his interest in discussion would allow him to attend to it. Yet he was willing to go and take a seat on the ‘board’ at the largest tailoring establishment in the town, where, he says, there is ample room for all the tailors in the town, and where the work could be carried on with obvious savings in working expenses of various kinds. How far that would apply to other businesses is not a question of principle, but only of detail or of degree. The little town is mainly a centre of distributors rather than manufacturers, the boot retailers, the grocers, chemists, standing cheek by jowl on opposite sides of the street, for all the world as Charles Dickens the Socialist described them in ‘Great Expectations’ some scores of years ago:-
‘Mr Pumblechook appeared to conduct his business by looking across the street at the saddler, who appeared to transact his business by keeping his eye on the coach-maker, who appeared to get on in life by putting his hands in his pockets and contemplating the baker, who in his turn folded his arms and stared at the grocer, who stood at his door and yawned at the chemist. The watchmaker, always poring over a little desk with a magnifying glass at his eye, and always inspected by a group in smock-frocks poring over him through the glass of his shop window, seemed to be about the only person in the High Street whose trade engaged his attention.’
It isn’t quite so leisurely as all that. There is work to be done even by the distributor who has only to take goods in and pass them out again without adding anything to their value. But the way in which all the traders in a small town unfailingly muster to the frequent funerals shows that they have plenty of leisure.
In varying numbers of shops the same stocks have to be duplicated and stored in duplicated shelves, jars, boxes, nests of drawers. Dozens of doors have to be opened every morning, dozens of fires lit, dozens of floors have to be swept, windows cleaned, goods dusted, safes opened, books taken down, blinds pulled up, travellers interviewed, and time wasted in waiting for custom. All these places are within a few minutes’ walk of each other. The whole effective distribution could be managed from a fraction of the establishments, and thousands of pounds might be saved in the mere volume of duplicated stocks which have to be kept in waiting for occasional, and, it may be, rare customers.
If the business of the community is ever to be really organised the waste of distributive commerce are the first of the great national wastes that must be tackled. Every attempt to draw attention to this matter is immensely valuable, since it prepares the mind of the public for the municipalisation that must come sooner or later, war or no war.
This resolution, however, left the matter to the voluntary principle; and that, as always, is of no use, even in time of war. Why should Mr Pumblechook give up his life of leisure and relative independence in order to become a servant? Naturally he asks, with Shylock, ‘On what compulsion must I?’
And so, I suppose, he must be left either to a heavy-handed Government ukase or to the multiple trader who comes along and just quietly takes away his trade till at last the blind comes down or the shutters go up.
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