account, control of the industry was at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the hands of merchant manufacturers of the type above described. Labour was organised under the master weaver who owned looms at which he employed journeymen and apprentices, although apprenticeship was already going out of fashion. When, however, the boom in trade, which was caused by the temporary disappearance of foreign competition during the war, came to an end in 1815, it brought about great changes in the trade. Control had passed to the large wholesale houses of London and Manchester. The large profits had caused many master weavers to become independent traders, backed by the credit of the London houses. When the crash came they were unable to hold out and became either agents for the London houses to which they supplied goods on contract, or they fell back into the ranks of journeymen. In any case the London houses came to be the direct employers of labour and the master weavers were mere middlemen. Regular apprenticeship ceased altogether in many branches during the trade boom, and a new system of apprenticeship was introduced which was in fact a means of obtaining cheap child labour. Prices and wages fell, owing to the competition of machine-made goods from Manchester and Macclesfield, owing to the substitution of cotton for silk goods, and owing to the easier access to the trade. Competitive rates of wages were substituted for the customary rates which had obtained under the old system. Collective bargaining and attempts to get Parliamentary sanction for fixed wage-rates were from time to time resorted to. The latter course was uniformly unsuccessful, but the success of the attempts at collective bargaining depended upon the facilities which the weavers had for combined action. In the town of Coventry, where the labour was concentrated and the old traditions still survived, the recognition of the weavers' standard of life was still effective, but in the country villages the weavers were dispersed, ignorant, and wholly at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. In these districts where the worst-paid work was done, and wages were incredibly low—four or five shillings a week—there seems to have been a total absence of any civilising medium. Education was almost unknown, and the parishes were served by clergy who were non-resident and scarcely
- Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv.
- Ibid. pp. 33-34.
- There was a complicated industrial hierarchy at Coventry which hindered the growth of a true class feeling.
- P. 35.