Page:The Chartist Movement.djvu/61

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13
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

ever visited them. In Coventry itself wages stood in 1838 much where they had been in the latter years of the eighteenth century, but the extraordinary complexity of the organisation in 1838[1] makes it impossible to say more than the Government Commissioner—that the Coventry weavers were relatively worse off, compared with other classes,[2] than they had formerly been. Others had prospered; they had stood still. Besides, a weaver, who was middle-aged in 1838, could easily remember the time when he earned twice as much for the same work.[3] Such memories, in the absence of real knowledge as to the causes of such changes, were likely to be anything but soothing, and to cause men to give a ready belief to the easy explanations of the socialistic orators and pamphleteers of the time.[4] In fact the only persons who thought at all upon political questions were frankly socialist.

The Coventry trade suffered, as did all others to a greater or less degree, from enormous fluctuations. In December 1831 two-thirds of all the looms in the town were idle,[5] whilst in November 1838 scarcely any were unemployed. It was calculated that on the whole there were four persons doing work which could be accomplished by three working full time. This state of affairs was encouraged previous to 1834 by the abuses of poor relief, which, as the Commissioner remarks, merely subsidised labour for the distant London houses and helped to keep down wages by creating a swollen reserve of labour.[6] In 1830 the poor rates were used to bribe electors (as all weavers who had served a regular apprenticeship were enfranchised), and were more than trebled in consequence.

In spite of these drawbacks the Coventry weavers were perhaps the most fortunate survivors of the old state of affairs. Their neighbours of the immediate vicinity were far worse off. They pursued, as the Commissioner thought, almost an animal existence. There were perhaps twenty thousand individuals in a state of extreme destitution, filth, and degradation, in the town of Nuneaton and its neighbourhood. It is pleasing to read that things had once been worse.[7]

The silk-weavers were, of all those engaged in the trade of handloom-weaving, much the best situated. The worst off were the cotton-weavers. It is not easy to say exactly how

  1. There were five different systems of production and organisation at work (ibid. p. 36).
  2. P. 327.
  3. Pp. 288-9; cf. also pp. i, 77-78.
  4. P. 187.
  5. P. 12.
  6. Pp. 304-7.
  7. Pp. 302, 322.