Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Join hands—leave nobody out

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No nation can, at any time, be secure from that cold qualm of social fear which is one of the most peculiar of human sensations. We English know nothing, personally, of the terror of looking and listening for an invading army, actually marching on our soil. We know only the milder forms of national fear; but their effect, once felt, is never effaced. The sensation, on being overtaken by the crash of 1825-6, by the Cholera of 1832 and 1849, by the Potato-rot of 1846, and the financial panics of 1847 and 1857, is as distinct in each case as the cases themselves; and yet the experience is unlike that of any other kind of dread. The same peculiar qualm has been sickening our hearts now, for some time past. If any hearts are not yet sick at the doom of Lancashire and Cheshire, they have to become so; and it certainly seems to me that those are happiest who were the earliest to perceive the truth. Ours is a country blessed beyond every other, in regard to the blessings which we prize most. It is impossible to overrate the privilege of living in England: but even here we are not safe from national afflictions, taking the form of rebuke for our follies and sins. We have the sensation now of being under rebuke, and of having to suffer for some time to come, after many years of welfare which seemed to have grown into a confirmed habit of prosperity. The sensation is very painful. It is not to be shirked on that account, but rather treated with reverence, that it may impress upon us what it is that we ought to do.

The worst part of the whole misfortune is that the greatest sufferers are those who are in no way to blame for the calamity. We who are outside of the manufacturing interest may fine ourselves, punish ourselves, fatigue ourselves to any extent; but we cannot suffer anything like the anguish of the operatives in their decline into destitution. Those of us who have known them see but too well what that anguish must be. That class of operatives are a proud people, hitherto filled with comfort and complacency, and holding a social rank which appeared high to them, however little might be known in aristocratic regions of the depth of gradation between the cotton-spinner and the town Arab or Union pauper. The mill-people have been opulent in their own rank in life. They could lay by considerable amounts of money; and many of them did. Of those who did not, and perhaps of some who did, it was understood that they were better customers to tradesmen than the gentry. The earliest and chiefest delicacies in the market were bought up by the operatives; the gayest silks and shawls, and head-trimmings, were worn by the factory-women; the most expensive picnics in the country were those organised by the operatives. Better than this, they have been buyers of books, students of music and drawing, supporters of institutes, and not a few of them members of co-operative societies which have won the respect of thousands of persons prejudiced against the very name. These are the people who are now, all at once and all together, deprived of employment and of income. By a stroke which they could not avert they are now reduced to absolute want. Instead of their dainty dinners and suppers, they have actually not enough of dry bread. Their expensive clothes are all gone, and they can hardly dress themselves so as to appear outside their own doors. Their furniture is gone, and they are sleeping on the bare floor. Their books are gone, with the names of each of the family in some or other of them: the treasure of music-books is gone, and the violin and the flute; the collections of plants and insects, and geological specimens, have been sold for what they would fetch. Not only is there nothing left; there is nothing to look to. Week after week, and month after month, must wear on, and there, or in a worse place, they must sit, still waiting for work and pay, and kept from starving only by charity,—outside the workhouse now, but perhaps within it by-and-by. The good steady girls pine and waste: the bright boys—the pride of father and mother—are stopped in their progress. All alike are without work and without prospect. It is this spectacle, with its long-drawn misery to come, which sends the qualm of dread through us; as well it may.

We get no comfort by looking beyond the class. That class are the natural patrons of the tradesmen. The tradesmen can get in no bills: they are selling nothing, unless on credit; and they are paying high rates. They cannot stand long, they say. The small gentry who live by their house property are in much the same situation. They can get in no rents; and yet they have to pay water-rates, poor-rates,—all their tenants’ dues: so that they have less than nothing to live on. I will go no further in this direction. I do not write this to make others and myself miserable, but to discuss what we ought to do. In regard to the extent of the evil, then, I will add only that the population immediately concerned is from four to five millions, without reckoning the shopkeepers and small gentry who are involved with them.

Now, if I am to say what I think, as it is my custom to do, I must declare that, in my opinion, everyone of us who enjoys food, shelter and clothing, is bound to help these sufferers. In my opinion, all ordinary alms-giving, all commonplace subscription of crowns or sovereigns, is a mere sign of ignorance, or worse. There are persons who give away a great deal in the course of the year, varying their donations from five shillings to five pounds, who never once conceived of such a thing as a call to part with any considerable part of their substance. Such persons gave 1l. to the Patriotic Fund, just as they do every year to the nearest Dispensary: such persons would subscribe their sovereign to a national loan if all the navies of the world were in our seas, and half-a-dozen hostile armies were pouring out upon our shores: and such persons will no doubt offer their sovereign or five-pound note now to the Lancashire fund,—never dreaming that they appear to others like men walking in their sleep. Some means must be found to make them understand that the task before us all is nothing less than this;—to support, with health and mind unbroken, for half a year, a year, or perhaps two years, four millions or more of respectable people, who must in no sense be trifled with, or degraded, or unfitted for resuming their industry, whenever the opportunity arises. A vast sum of money will be required for this purpose: and, till we see how much, it seems to me that those of us who cannot at once contribute a tenth or such other proportion of our income as we think right, should deny ourselves mere pleasures, and give up or defer any expenditure which can be put off, till we see what the winter will be like to the people of Lancashire and Cheshire. If the old and constant objection is urged,—that thus trade will suffer by our retrenchment of expenditure, the plain answer is “Very true: and this is the tradesman’s share of the national calamity. It will not be a ruinous occasion to tradesmen outside of the manufacturing districts; and they must bear their share. The failure of cotton has caused an actual loss of several millions already; and all just principle and feeling requires that the loss should be spread as widely as possible over society. Let our mercers and music-sellers, then, our confectioners and cabinet-makers go without our fancy custom this year; and you and I will go without new dress, new music, our dessert, our autumn journey, or any indulgence which interferes with our giving a substantial part of our income to the Lancashire people.”

But there are other people in Lancashire than those who are poor, the world is saying. This is abundantly true; and once more, if I am to speak out what I think, I must say that the thought of that particular class is scarcely less painful than the contemplation of their poor workpeople.

When some of them, or their friends, cry “Let bygones be bygones,” the answer is, that that is not possible. The past (as including the last hundred years) of Lancashire is too remarkable, and, on the whole, too illustrious and honourable, to be ever forgotten or dropped out of history. To go no further back than the distress of 1842, it can never be forgotten how nobly and how wisely many of the mill-owners sustained their workpeople through months and years of adversity; nor can it ever be forgotten that that was the occasion which disclosed the prodigious advance made by the operatives in knowledge, reason, and self-command. For the same causes which render these facts ineffaceable in our history, the subsequent characteristics and conduct of the employers will be also remembered. We need not dwell on them: but we cannot pass them over in an hour of meditation on what we ought each and all to do.

Our cotton manufacturers have been openly regarded, for many years, in America as the main supporters of negro slavery. This is no concern of ours, now and here, except that it tends to explain the apathy first, and the pedantry of political economy afterwards, by which they have rendered themselves, in the world’s eyes, answerable for all the really afflictive part of the present distress. They knew that their countrymen understood slave-labour to be a most precarious element in the work of production; they were warned, through a period of thirty years, that a day must come when slave-labour in the Cotton States would be suddenly annihilated; they were shown incessantly for ten years past that the time for that catastrophe was approaching; they were conjured to appropriate some of their new wealth to ensuring a due cultivation of cotton in other and various countries, and especially to sustain the experiments carefully instituted by Government in India. Some three or four of their own number devoted time, trouble, money, and other precious things to this duty; and these have never ceased appealing to the rest to prepare while it was yet time to avert the very calamity which is now upon us.

It was in vain. The constant answer was that it was not their business, in the first place; and that, in the next, the world would use none but American cotton.

This last allegation seems to be already withdrawn. Indeed it could not stand a moment after the disclosure was made that not only Switzerland and France, but the New England States themselves, prefer Indian to American cotton, because it takes the dye better, and wears better. There is evidence enough in the Exhibition of the suitableness of Indian cotton for our purposes, to silence that insolence which till now has rebuked our petition for it. I need say no more of this, nor point out the wide range of soil and climate in which cotton equal to the American can be grown.

As to its not being their business,—whose business was it, if not theirs? Where would the linen manufacture of Ireland have been now, if the manufacturers had not looked to the flax supply? They invested some of their capital in enabling the flax-growers to learn their business, to improve their methods, to use costly machinery; and their manufacture stands, though the prospect of a due supply of flax was as desperate, a dozen years ago, as that of cotton is now. The Irish peasant and farmer might more reasonably have been referred to the rules of political economy, than the Indian ryot on the one hand and the American slave on the other. If it would have been absurd to stand preaching about demand and supply in the case of the Irish peasant, it has been madness when the parties concerned were the remote Hindoo as against the enslaved negro. The event has rebuked the pedantry of the Lancashire talk of demand and supply; and now, after having applied their wealth to every enterprise under Heaven but the one which was urgent, they find themselves without the raw material of their own manufacture.

So much for the past. What are they doing now? They are acting very variously, according to the intelligence and temper of each. The remark is universal, however, that there is as yet no approach towards any manifestation of power and will at all befitting the occasion. Some few have contributed 1000l. a-piece. Perhaps they may mean to do more as the months pass on; and there is no saying what calls they may be responding to in the form of rates and private charity: but the common, and I think the upright feeling is that, on this special occasion, it would be no great marvel if the mill-owner who has made 50,000l. in a few years were ready to give 20,000l. or more for those whose industry built up his fortunes. There are employers who are worth one hundred,—two hundred,—three, four hundred thousand pounds, and up to a million: it is to be hoped that they are not going to set themselves down for 1000l. If this sort of comment has an invidious look, let us remember, on behalf of the wide world which is discussing it, that the people we have, as a nation, to carry through this calamity are above four millions, and that it is their industry which has enriched a whole class of manufacturers in the shortest space of time ever known. The world has expectations from the capitalists; and they ought to know what those expectations are.

At this very time, however, when parliament and the people generally have willingly indulged the moneyed men of Lancashire and Cheshire in their wishes as to the fitting of the Poor-law to their case, there is no little indignation afloat when these men are met on their travels, or enjoying themselves in sight-seeing and other amusements, while all is so dark at home. I own my inability to conceive how clergymen’s families can go pleasure-seeking, when they leave a whole population of starving weavers behind at home. I cannot imagine how millowners can shut up their mills, and turn their backs on the misery, to travel till affairs come round again. This kind of thing is the puzzle in London and elsewhere: and so is the fact that a large number of wealthy employers have as yet made no sign of intending to give with any liberality: and so is, again, the shocking certainty that there have been sales of cotton in Liverpool for exportation, when there were thousands hungering for want of it within fifty miles. There have been employers who have refused such profits, and have worked up their cotton at a loss, for their people’s sake; but these good men are ill-neighboured; and if they save their own peace of mind and fair repute, they will still have something to bear through the deadness and lowness of neighbours to whom wealth has come before they were fitted to receive or to use it well.

All the while, the months are rolling on, and nothing effectual is done by the Lancashire capitalists towards getting hold of the existing stock of cotton in India, or ensuring a larger produce next year. Mr. Villiers talked in the House of 400,000 bales coming from India after October; and in the House of Lords there was mention of 6,000,000 bales actually existing in India, while the whole consumption of Europe and America is only 5,000,000. These statements are loose and unsupported, and we need not rely on them: but how is it that, at the end of many months of alarm and suffering, we have no special agencies at work in the cotton countries to ascertain how much may be had this year, and how much more next? Why have not the Lancashire capitalists combined to send out agents, and to supply whatever is needed, in the way of advances, seed, and “plant” for dressing and carrying the produce? This is not “growing cotton,” of which they have such a horror: it is buying it;—buying it in the way which the Indian market requires. There are Indian officers and settlers by the score who would serve admirably for agents, being familiar with the country and the people, and the experiments already made,—both successful and unsuccessful. Under Sir C. Wood’s peculiar management, there are now adrift many Indian officers who are the very men to do what is wanted, to set Lancashire to work again. Long before this time they might have shipped off cargo upon cargo of cotton; and there might have been enough sown to justify us in calculating on the distress as a difficulty of six months’ duration. As it is, the sowing season is past, the monsoon has arrived, and nothing in the way of combined effort is done. Men go on investing their wealth in all sorts of foreign schemes, under all manner of risks, while a Cotton Importing Association, which can honestly hold out a profit of from twenty to forty per cent., has to go a-begging for support. And Manchester talks pedantically about demand and supply, and division of labour, unshaken by the very convincing facts before her eyes; and some would throw the work of getting cotton on Government, and some would leave it to chance, while the last thing that occurs to the general company of enriched employers is to invest their own money and pains in the work.

The sooner they see their duty as others see it, the better. What others see is, first, that we are all under a stringent obligation to carry the four millions of sufferers through their adversity, in health, and with spirits unbroken. This obligation presses everywhere; in London and in Launceston, as in Lancaster. Next, there is for the mill-owners the further duty of trying every rational method of obtaining supplies of the raw material, to set their manufacture going again. Proposals are before them for this object. Their country requires of these fortunate citizens that they shall adopt such proposals or frame others. The one thing which will never be forgiven or forgotten will be their persisting in doing nothing,—waiting while their stocks are increasing in value every day on their shelves, from the very scarcity of raw material which is starving their work-people. The time has long been past for any pretence of expecting a supply from America: the question now asked, more and more loudly, is what the manufacturers are about, not to carry their demand up to the sources of supply, in the remote recesses of native life in India.

If the duty of the manufacturers is twofold, the rest of us have a single duty so plain and urgent that we must look to ourselves that we do it. The plain duty of sustaining our cotton-operatives may, however, have many forms. The easiest is giving money. It should be largely, and may be best perhaps in instalments, when the sum is considerable. There are several agencies through which it may be dispensed, either in aid of the parish payment, or to keep families off the parish, or to sustain them by loans, or otherwise in their position of respectability till the mills open again. Again, there is Emigration going forward. There will be plenty of workers left for any work likely to accrue for years to come, however many of the young people make their escape now to a land of plenty. Let the lads and lasses be assisted to Queensland and British Columbia, to send us cotton, or make comfortable homes in the colonies; and their parents and brothers at home will suffice for the manufacture when it revives. Then, there are the sewing-rooms, where the young women earn something, and learn what they most need to be taught. Then, there are swarms of children wanting to be fed and taught:—how can we open our schools to the greatest number of them? Then, not a few of our kindly English matrons have contrived to take a Lancashire girl into their houses, to train for service, or in domestic arts which will be useful to her for life. This can hardly be expected of middle-class housekeepers whose establishments are compact and economical: but we hear of success where it has been tried. There are probably more farms and warehouses where an extra youth can be taken on for training and service. There may be other ways, and not a few. The one certain thing is that every one of us can do something. Assuming this, I will only further ask my readers to try to represent to themselves what four millions of persons of all ages are like. Let them then think of that multitude as active, high-spirited, hitherto beholden to nobody, but now hungry, restless in idleness, fretting about their rent, ashamed to appear in the streets, wistfully inquiring about the chances of better times, hating to borrow, and hating worse to take parish pay,—and, in the midst of all this, steadily refusing to ask the Government to interfere in America, so as to cut off the negro slave’s chance of freedom;—let our countrymen and countrywomen look on this noble company of suffering fellow-citizens, and say whether they shall endure one pang that we can prevent.

From the Mountain.