PETER FROST finds the cruelty of austerity benefit cuts have a very long history indeed.

“Scroungers, benefit cheats, the work shy”; we have all heard the abuse over and over again.

Either when Jeremy Kyle pontificates on his horrendous TV programme or when Osborne, Cameron, Clegg or Alexander steps up to the despatch box. The strident message is just the same.

The jobless, we are told are parasites living off hard working people.

OK, we all know, only to well, that the amounts of money involved here are just a tiny fraction of the huge fortunes squirreled away by the tax avoiders with their off-shore accounts, family trusts and cunningly contrived fiddles.

Will there be sanctions for them? more likely a comfortable negotiation with the tax inspectors and perhaps a mention in the New Year’s Honours list.

But that doesn’t stop the Daily Mail and the rest of the Tory media giving us their daily dose of vilification of those on state benefits.

Twas ever thus.

Let me introduce you to my wife Ann’s grandfather. Charlie Harris.

Charlie Harris led an interesting life. Born into a fairground family, there are still Harris’s running travelling rides today.

His mother became a hero and a saviour to Fairground Folk in the First World War.

The many Town charter fairs of the Home Counties date back to the Middle Ages. Most has the usual ancient clause in their charters. If the fair didn’t take place in any year the right of showmen to hold it was lost forever.


During the First World War Charlie’s mother set up her solitary hoop-la stall in towns all through the Southern England and kept alive score of street fairs, many of which still take place today.

Charlie certainly wasn’t workshy. As a boy soldier he had done his bit for king and country fighting the Boers in South Africa.

He had returned to England with a good tan, a taste for exotic curry and not much else.

He and his brother ran the swing-boats on Hampstead Heath and at travelling fairs.

Fairground swing boats, 1898

When he fell out with his brother he took a job on the canal boats moving London’s rubbish. He worked for the firm of Sabeys based in Paddington.


In the 1920’s and early 30’s work was hard to find. Like so many other working men Charlie joined the huge army of the unemployed.

For Ann and her family this is remembered as Charlie’s finest hour.

Charlie was being interviewed at the Dole office. Just as frustrating and humiliating then as it is today.


Close questioning from the official on the other side of the counter uncovered the scandalous fact that Charlie kept a pet canary.

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“Regulations were clear”, spat the man, “You’ll need to get rid of the bird before you get any money.”

For Charlie it was the last straw. He loved that bird. Charlie leapt across the counter and attacked the heartless official.

Charlie Harris went to jail. Family history is silent on what happened to the little yellow songster. But when Charlie regained his freedom he was never seen without a canary again.

Today echoes of similar cases are reported every day.

A single mum loses her benefit when she takes her young daughter to a swimming lesson rather than attend a job centre briefing.

A young dad admits to shoplifting a small portion of cheese, his daughter’s favourite food.

How can an Eton educated posh boy, Like George Osborne, who has always lived on his generous family trust have any idea what live is really like living on ever-reducing benefits?


How can a Tory minister, living in a huge two million pound mansion, with four spare bedrooms, provided rent free by his father in law, as Ian Duncan Smith does, dare to penalise the poor for having an empty extra bedroom.

A soldier, serving in Afghanistan’s, mother has been told she needs to pay back the money for her son’s bedroom or move to a smaller house because he has a bed in his regimental barracks in Germany.

Down the ages it seems, the Tories, like Charlie’s canary, are still singing the same song. But just like Charlie Harris people are always ready to fight back.

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This article was published in the Morning Star 16 May 2014


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