Letters on Leave

(notes by David Page)

Publication history

Letter No.1 in the Pioneer, 27 September, 1890; Pioneer Mail, 2 October, 1890; The Week’s News, 4 October, 1890 where it had the title “Rudyard Kipling on the New Unionism”.

Letter No.2 in the Pioneer, 11 October, 1890; Pioneer Mail, 16 October, 1890; The Week’s News, 18 October, 1890.

These two ‘letters’ are collected as a single story in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions) 1909.


Kipling had been living in Villiers Street, London, for almost a year when these articles were published. Amongst others, he was sending stories, articles, and verse to the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, the Pioneer in Allahabad, and the St. James’s Gazette in London, as well as Longman’s Magazine, the Fortnightly Review, and the Scots Observer. His workload and output, were prodigious, and it can easily be understood why he considered Trade Unions and their striking members to be anathema.

There was a series of strikes throughout 1889 and 1890, which included the gasworkers, labourers and hammermen at Thornycroft’s torpedo-boat works, the miners of the North and South Wales coalfields, of Scotch school children, workers at the London Docks, postal workers, railway workers, bakers, cotton-weavers, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

The Letters

The two ‘Letters’ are written by Kipling to the fictitious John McHail, an officer of a Native Indian Infantry Battalion, the 151st (Kumharsen) Punjab Native Infantry, who is serving in Assam. They are essays rather than stories, in the manner that can best be described as Kipling’s ‘faction’ rather than ‘fiction’, describing conditions in England as he sees them. His opinion of the English in their own country is not high, finding that they lack the sense of duty that prevails in India, that they mistreat their English servants, particularly those who are female, and that the country is colourless and geographically small.

LETTER I – Kipling first compares the English as inhabitants of England with the Anglo-Indians and Indians in India, to the detriment of the former. Then, from his experiences of Trade Unions and the strikes which took place during this period, he draws parallels with the rigidity and protectionism of the Indian caste system, pointing out that the Indians set their’s up 4,000 years ago. He goes on to excoriate the English working man for his envy of the successful ones who employ him, and for his desire to be paid without actually having to work for the money.
LETTER II – This is a much more light-hearted piece, largely concerned with the description of excursions. He begins with a trip to the London Necropolis near Woking, then to Plymouth, before going on a fishing trip and accepting an invitation to a piscatorial club in London’s East End. Lastly he describes a visit to the seaside, possibly Brighton, and his enchantment with a three-year old “Ollendorfian” little girl who gets a damp posterior from sitting in two inches of water on the beach and exclaims “Mon Dieu! Je suis mort!”.

[D. P.]

©David Page 2006 All rights reserved