24. The Ruskinian Serviteers
4 Jan, 2022

In my first Ruskin Research Blog of 2022, I look back on a set of proposals made a hundred years ago. Inspired by Ruskin, the plan, conceived in Sheffield, appears to have escaped the attention of Ruskin scholars until now. Although the scheme came to nought in the twentieth century, perhaps this is the moment to revive it?


For Prof. James L. Spates,
Sociologist, Ruskinian, Blogger, Serviteer, and Friend.

TOWARDS the end of 1921, a prominent Sheffield teacher, educationist and public health campaigner, William Sinclair (1862-1945), made a dramatic intervention in the public discourse by proposing a Fellowship of Serviteers.

At a meeting held at Sheffield’s Victoria Hall, Sinclair appealed to men and women to join forces and “strive to act on the maxims laid down by Ruskin in [The] Crown of Wild Olive” (1866), being three lectures on Work, Traffic, and War, to a later edition of which Ruskin later added a fourth talk, addressing “The Future of England”. Sinclair pithily summarised the volume’s main message to be, “Work first, pay second”. As we shall see, what he meant by this is that financial reward, though entirely necessary and justified, should be a secondary consideration and not the primary motivation for human action.

Sinclair explained that he had coined the term “serviteer” for his Fellowship in “clear and direct opposition to the word ‘profiteer’”. Such linguistic innovation was necessary, he claimed, because there was “no word in the English language which fulfils such function”.

He was presumably inspired in this by Ruskin’s example. In the lecture, “Traffic”, in The Crown of Wild Olive, Ruskin proposed the word “hateliness” as the opposite of “loveliness” [Works 18.436]. More famously, in Unto this Last (1862) Ruskin proposed “illth” as an antonym for “wealth” [Works 17.89. See also Munera Pulveris (1872),) Works 17.168].

Sinclair’s choice does not strike me as strong. “Serviteer” is surely too resonant of servitude, and is therefore suggestive of slavery and bondage rather than service. Nevertheless, as an antonym for “profiteer” the neologism signifies the context of its conception. It proclaims the proposed Fellowship’s rootedness in the bloodiest war the world had yet known—the first truly global conflict that engulfed the Earth.

The objects of the Fellowship make plain the motivation and purpose of Sinclair’s proposals.

  • To secure in peace-time a continuation of that spirit of service which animated the whole world during the early years of the war, and which caused millions of men to face mutilation and death in defence of home and freedom.

  • To substitute honourable ideas of service for sordid desire of gain as the master motive in business, and public and private life. In other words, to make the ‘officers’ and ‘privates’ of industry and commerce realise that, while fair remuneration for service rendered is necessary and just, whether paid in wages, salary, or dividends, in all noble work, the thought of the work comes first, of the reward second.

  • To get people to realise that profiteering, whether by landlord or tenant, employer or employed, producer, middleman, or retailer, is utterly unpatriotic, and that the profiteer, of whatever station or calling, is a traitor to the country, and an enemy to mankind.

  • To assist in mobilising the forces of social service, and thus promote good will among men, and peace on earth.

Perhaps Sinclair had read a poignant report that first appeared in the Westminster Gazette in 1915. It concerned a soldier serving in the Lancashire Fusiliers who

“had two ghastly wounds in his breast, and I thought he was booked through. He was quietly reading a little edition of Ruskin’s [The] Crown of Wild Olive, and seemed to be enjoying it immensely. As I chatted with him for a few minutes he told me that this little book had been his companion all through and that when he died he wanted it to be buried with him. His end came next day, and we buried the book with him.” [Westminster Gazette (23 March 1915).]

Whether Sinclair was familiar with this anecdote or not, he was certainly a passionate and dedicated Ruskinian who between 1902 and 1907 served as one of two Vice-Presidents of the active Sheffield Ruskin Club. [He should not be confused with another Ruskinian named William Sinclair, however. See Note below.]

When Sinclair proposed his Fellowship of Serviteers, he seems to have had in mind what Ruskin wrote in The Political Economy of Art (1857), later collected as A Joy For Ever (1880) where Ruskin imagined a

“government which shall have its soldiers of the ploughshare as well as its soldiers of the sword, and which shall distribute more proudly its crosses of industry—golden as the glow of the harvest, than now it grants its bronze crosses of honour—bronzed with the crimson of blood.” [Works 16.26.]

In Unto this Last, Ruskin explained that

“the merchant’s function (or manufacturer’s, for in the broad sense in which it is here used the word must be understood to include both) is to provide for the nation. It is no more his function to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend. This stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life[.]” [Works 17.40.]

Ruskin’s words, and Sinclair’s proposals, it seems to me, gain weight and potency at a time of global crisis, brought about by a pandemic in the midst of which the sacrifice, selflessness and discipline of the many has contrasted with the greed, selfishness, and recklessness of the few. As a society, we have been reminded that the dedicated service of health workers, teachers, and other public servants—as well as the best examples in the private sector—deserve our profound appreciation and gratitude.

William Sinclair (1862-1945),

William Sinclair was himself an admirable public servant. He was a leading teacher, educationist and public health campaigner in Sheffield. Born in the Orkney Islands, he was trained as a teacher at Moray House, Edinburgh. He moved to Sheffield and taught first at Grimesthorpe Boys’ School. He went on to become assistant headmaster at the Lancasterian School, and was then headmaster successively of Netherthorpe, Norton Lees, and during the period he proposed the Fellowship (specifically from 1911 to 1925), he was headmaster of Anns Road Council School, in Heeley, not far from the Ruskin Museum at Meersbrook Hall. He served on the committee of the Sheffield and District Teachers’ Association and was its president for a year; he was also president for several years of the Sheffield Class Teachers’ Association. He was one of the founders, and the first chairman, of the National Federation of Class Teachers, and for a year he represented Class Teachers on the executive committee of the National Union of Teachers.

Sinclair was also one of the founders of the Sheffield Federated Health Association which he served first as secretary, and then, for twelve years, as president, a post he held when he proposed the formation of  the Fellowship of Serviteers. The Association did much good work in the areas of sanitation, smoke abatement, and town planning. sinclair was also a member of the executive committee of the Sheffield branch of the League of Nations Union and a member of the Sheffield Ethical Society, where many Ruskinians came together in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Sinclair intended his Ruskinian Fellowship of Serviteers to be a campaigning organisation. It would seek to convert others to the cause by force of example and persuasion.

It was intended that the “scheme” would be “launched” early in the new year of 1922. Sinclair told readers of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph that he was confident that he would meet “with the co-operation of many of the influential men of the city”. He went on

“It is hoped that the people of Sheffield will then respond wholeheartedly to this call for service, and help to bring about a peace among men which we have been expecting ever since the war ended, but which has yet to come.”

There is no evidence that the scheme was ever brought forward in the new year. It certainly did not have any traceable impact if it ever got going at all. But the fact that such a proposal was made three years after the Great War had ended demonstrates how feelings of dislocation and dissatisfaction caused by such a senseless, self-inflicted human tragedy endured. Specifically, the social settlement expected in peace-time, like the promised “homes fit for heroes”, had failed to materialize.

This episode provides a vivid illustration of the faith in Ruskin and his ideals retained by many men and women whose intellects were formed before the War, even during a period when for multiple, complex reasons Ruskin’s star was fading.

We would do well to recall these Ruskinian ideals of service, so cherished by William Sinclair, as we continue to fight our way out of the coronavirus pandemic, and consider in what kind of world we want to live.


Readers familiar with the history of the Ruskin societies are advised that this William Sinclair is not the man of the same name who for many years was honorary secretary of the Ruskin Society of Glasgow and who wrote a notable paper on the Ruskin Museum in Sheffield in the early twentieth century.


The details of Sinclair’s proposed Fellowship of Serviteers were published in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (7 December 1921).

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