The Chartist Movement/Chapter 2

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



The years 1815–1840 represent the critical years of the Industrial Revolution. The inventions and discoveries of the previous century had provided the framework of a new industrial society, but the real social development, with the ideas, political and economic, and the new social relationships which grew out of it, appeared in full force only in the generation which followed the battle of Waterloo. It was then that the victory of machine production became an acknowledged fact, and with it the supremacy of large-scale production and large-scale organisation over domestic production and organisation. The rapid growth of production for the foreign market gave to industry a more speculative and competitive character, whilst the lack of real knowledge and experience gave rise to rash and ill-considered ventures which helped to give so alarming a character to the crises of 1816, 1826, and 1836. Though fluctuation in trade was not the creation of the Industrial Revolution, it seems clear that the increase of large-scale production for distant markets, with a demand which was seldom gauged with any exactitude, caused these fluctuations to be enormously emphasised, so that the crises above mentioned (with the last of which the Chartist Movement is closely connected) were proportionately far more destructive than depressions in trade now are. The rapid accumulation of capital and the development of credit facilities aided in the rise of a class of employers who were not the owners of the capital which they controlled. Thus the social distance which separated employers and employed was widened as capital seemed to become more and more impersonal. Under the old domestic system the employer resided as a rule in the neighbourhood of his work-people, but the new captains of industry, whose fathers had perhaps been content to follow the example of the domestic master by living next to their workshops and factories, built themselves country houses farther away from the town, whilst their employees festered amidst the appallingly insanitary streets and alleys which had grown up around the factories. This separation was emphasised when, with the rise of joint-stock companies, the employer became practically the agent for a number of persons who had no other connection with or interest in industry than those arising out of the due payment of dividends. Such conditions arouse no particular feelings of discontent at the present day, but at a time when organisations for mutual protection against oppression were very infrequent and seldom very effective, it was felt that the personal and social contact of the employer and his workmen was the only guarantee of sympathetic treatment.[1] This divorce of classes in industrial society was making headway everywhere, even in those industries which were still under domestic arrangements, as the industry fell more and more into the hands of large wholesale houses. Crude ideas of class war were making their presence felt amongst the working people, whilst employers, who were influenced by the equally one-sided political economy of the period, tended to regard the interests of their class as paramount and essential to the development of national prosperity. The bane of the industrial system was the encouragement it gave to the rise of a brood of small capitalists but little removed in culture and education from the working people themselves, slender of resources, precarious in position, and therefore unable to abate one jot of the advantage which their position gave them over their workmen, often unscrupulous and fraudulent, and generally hated by those who came under their sway. There was as yet no healthy public opinion such as at present reacts with some effect upon industrial relationships, though such an opinion was growing up by the year 1840. Ignorance allowed many abuses to flourish, such as the hideous exploitation of women and children in mines and collieries as well as in other non-regulated industries. Working men might with reason feel that they were isolated, neglected, and exposed to the oppression of a social system which was not of their own making or choosing, but which, as they thought, was not beyond the control of their united power.

The transformation of industrial organisation from the domestic to the large-scale system of production was by no means completed in the year 1840. It is even doubtful whether the large-scale system was as yet the predominant one. The weaving trade, the hosiery trade, and the hardware industry as a whole were carried on under systems which were either domestic or at least occupied a transitional position between the old and the new systems. Even in the mining industry the influence of large capitalists was by no means universal, as an examination of the Reports of the inquiries into the Truck System and into the employment of children in 1842 and 1843 will show.[2] It was in these as yet unrevolutionised or only partially revolutionised industries that the worst abuses and the most oppressive conditions prevailed—abuses which are erroneously supposed to be the outcome of the developed "capitalistic" system.

By the eighteenth century domestic industry was in general under capitalistic control. Whilst maintaining outwardly the organisation as it flourished in the heyday of the gilds, the system had really undergone a radical change. The small, independent, but associated producers of the Middle Ages had been able to maintain themselves because they had only to satisfy the demands of a fairly well known and only slowly developing market. Custom was strong and regulated largely the relations between producer and consumer, and between master, journeymen, and apprentices. Rates of pay, prices, hours of labour, qualities, and kinds of output were all fixed by custom and tradition which often received the sanction of the law of the land. Gradually the market grew and demand became less easy to gauge. This caused a new factor to enter the organisation—the merchant manufacturer, whose function it was to attend to the marketing of goods produced in each one particular industry. The wider the distance in point of time and place between producers and consumers, the more important did the functions of the merchant manufacturer become, until he, in fact, controlled the industry by virtue of his possession of capital. Without capital the gap between producer and consumer could not be bridged. Goods might now be produced many months before they were consumed, and sold long before the purchase money was handed over. Furthermore, the exhaustion of local supplies of raw material in some industries and the introduction of industries dependent upon foreign supplies—such as silk and cotton—rendered the co-operation of accumulated capital essential. Thus the master manufacturers lost their independence and became mere links between the merchant capitalist and a hierarchy of employees. The journeymen and apprentices sank one step lower in consequence. So far the influence of the capitalist merchant left the organisation of labour untouched. Gradually, however, the desire to extend operations, the growth of capital, and the natural development of the markets for goods induced a desire to cheapen production. Forthwith came a greater specialisation and division of labour. Apprenticeship ceased to be essential to good workmanship, because an all-round knowledge of the processes of production was no longer requisite, but only special skill in one branch. The Act of Apprentices of 1562 fell into oblivion in many trades, and there grew up a generation of mere journeymen who would remain journeymen to the end of the chapter. The master workman became a mere agent, often for a distant, seldom seen, employer. Where apprenticeship still lingered, it was often a means of exploiting the labour of children. The customary relationships which had governed wages and regulated disputes lost all meaning, and competitive notions were substituted for them.

In some industries this development went on faster and farther than in others. In the spinning trade specialisation had early on caused a series of mechanical inventions which by 1790 culminated in the application of steam-power and brought into being the factory system of production. In this the lot of the worker, though bad, was better than that of the domestic industrialist of the succeeding generation. In the weaving trade technical difficulties delayed the introduction of efficient machinery till after the battle of Waterloo, whilst in some cases where machinery was available prejudice and conservatism delayed its introduction. Whilst therefore in the spinning trade the transformation was quick and merciful, in the weaving trades it was slow and terribly destructive. The Government Reports of the time give a very vivid picture of the forces of disintegration and reorganisation at work, and show how efficient an engine of oppression the domestic system could be when the domestic spirit and atmosphere had gone out of it, and an eager, competitive, and commercial spirit had come into it.

In the Coventry silk trade, of which we have an admirable account,[3] 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.[4] 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,[5] 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.[6] 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 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[7] makes it impossible to say more than the Government Commissioner—that the Coventry weavers were relatively worse off, compared with other classes,[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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,[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

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 many handloom cotton-weavers there were in 1835 or 1838. It was estimated that there were in the Glasgow area in 1838 36,000 handlooms devoted mainly to cotton,[14] but in a small percentage of cases to a mixed silk and cotton fabric. In Carlisle there were nearly 2000; in the Manchester district from 8000 to 10,000. In Bolton there were 3000. Looms were very numerous also in the Blackburn-Colne area, and in the Accrington-Todmorden districts.[15] Perhaps there were more than 25,000 handlooms in Lancashire, which number, added to the figures above given, will give over 60,000 handlooms in all devoted to cotton-weaving, inclusive of the number in which mixed fabrics were woven. An estimate made at Carlisle gave an average of two persons to each loom; in Manchester of two and one-third,[16] which suggests that between 120,000 and 150,000 individuals were in 1838 still dependent upon the precarious trade of handloom cotton-weaving. As the Committee of 1834–35 estimated the total number of handloom weavers in all four branches (cotton, linen, wool, silk) as 840,000, this estimate is perhaps not exaggerated. The cotton-weavers did not form any very considerable proportion of the population of Lancashire—perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 out of a million and a quarter in 1838; but as they were concentrated in a comparatively small area, and as there were amongst them old men, who in the halcyon days of handloom-weaving had acquired knowledge and culture and could make their influence felt by other people, they attracted considerable attention.

The comparative slowness with which machinery was applied to weaving was due to several causes. There was the technical difficulty; there was the very heavy cost of the machines, and there was the period of abnormally high prices at the beginning of the nineteenth century which encouraged manufacturers to produce on the old lines so as to reap the immediate profits with as little capital outlay as possible. A great boom in handloom-weaving marked the years 1795–1805. Wages were high owing to the abnormal demand for weavers as compared with spinners. The industry was swamped by an influx of unskilled hands who quickly learned sufficient to enable them to earn vastly more than they had earned elsewhere. Irish labourers poured into Lancashire and Glasgow. A flood of small masters appeared and for a while prospered. The end of the war brought on a terrible collapse, as the figures given will show. A cambric weaver, who earned from twenty to twenty-four shillings a week in the years 1798–1803, was earning from twelve to sixteen shillings during the years 1804–1816, after which he could earn no more than six or seven shillings. Prices for weaving in some cases fell as much as 80 per cent during the same period.[17] This collapse was rendered more destructive by the more rapid introduction of power-looms after the period of abnormal trade was over. Thus in 1803 there were but 2400 such looms; in 1820, 12,150; in 1829 there were 45,000; in 1835 nearly 100,000, of which 90,000 were used in the cotton trade alone.[18] The lot of the weavers was not improved by the subterfuges of the small employers, who cut and abated wages without mercy in their efforts to avoid bankruptcy. Though the number of handloom-weavers constantly decreased, the process was delayed by the influx of still poorer labourers from Ireland, and by the practice of the weavers, in many cases compelled by poverty, of bringing up their children to the loom, a practice which was encouraged by the evil state of the conditions of labour in the factories, which were often the only alternative.

By 1835 the handloom cotton-weavers were mostly employed by large manufacturers, who in many cases had powerloom factories as well. Thus the handloom-weavers fell into two classes—those who competed with power and those who did not. The former were the worse off. They formed a kind of fringe around the factory, a reserve of labour to be utilised when the factory was overworked. Thus they were employed only casually, but helped, with the aid of doles out of the poor rates, to keep down the general level of wages for weaving in and out of the factory. Terrible are the descriptions of the privations of these men. The weavers of Manchester made a return in 1838 of 856 families of 4563 individuals whose average earnings amounted to two shillings and a penny per head per week. Of this amount one-half was devoted to food and clothing. Exactly half of these poor souls lived on only one-half of these amounts—or one penny per day for food and clothing.[19] Such reports are confirmed from other towns such as Carlisle, where the average earnings were somewhat, but little, larger.[20] A much smaller average was reported by the weavers of Ashton-under-Lyne.[20] Without relying wholly on these ex parte statements, it is clear from the general consensus of reports that wages of one penny an hour for a seventy hours' week were frequent, and even general. The Commissioner said that it was unwise to tell the whole truth on this point, as it was either discredited or gave the impression that such evils were beyond remedy.[21]

It is not to be supposed that the case of the handloom-weavers was a case of exploitation of industrious and honest men by unscrupulous employers. The reports make it abundantly clear that the trade had become the refuge for cast-offs from other trades. There were, however, cases of real hardship, especially where old weavers were concerned. Their lot was exceedingly hard, as they could remember days of prosperity, and often possessed knowledge and education which only served to embitter those memories. The case of some of the Irish immigrants was also hard, because they had been enticed into England by manufacturers for the purpose of reducing wages and breaking strikes.[22]

Against bad masters these poor men had little protection. Combined action was impossible; there were no funds to support a strike; and the least threat of such proceedings brought into use more power-looms. In the distressful days of 1836–42 labour was a drug in the market, and to transfer to another industry was therefore possible to very few. The reformed Parliament was not unsympathetic;[23] it inquired twice, in 1834 and 1838–40, but could not devise a remedy, though it could and did understand the nature of the evil. To relieve such a body of men out of poor rates in such a way as to raise them in the scale of citizenship was impossible in a generation which applauded the deterrent poor law of 1834. To men who had for years besought Parliament to remedy their ills, the Poor Law Amendment Act must have come as a piece of cruel and calculated tyranny, and have completed the alienation of the weavers and similarly situated classes from the established order of things.

The system under which wages were paid in the weaving trade was a source of immense irritation and oppression. Wages were always subject to deductions. Some of these abatements were payments for the preparation of the beam ready for weaving, which was an operation which no weaver could perform for himself. These were sanctioned by custom, but others were not. Wholesale deductions were made for faults in weaving. The weaver had legal aid against unjust abatements of this sort, but as he received no pay till the question had been submitted to arbitration, poverty usually compelled him to submit at once to the extortion.[24] By this means nominal wages could be largely reduced by tyrannical masters. In one case arbitration was precluded by withdrawing a percentage of the market price beforehand, and in another no wages were stated at all when work was given to weavers.[25] No wonder the experience of the weavers seemed to give point to the teachings of writers like Hall and Thompson, to whom wealth represented a power given to the rich to oppress the poor, and capital a means whereby the employer might extract from the labour of his men so much surplus value as would leave them no more than enough to support a precarious and miserable existence.

The situation of those weavers who were employed in the wool trade was much better than that of the unfortunate cotton-weavers. Some of the old conservatism of the trade still remained, and machinery had not yet made any great headway in it.[26] It was still, both in the West Riding and in Gloucestershire, a domestic industry largely in the hands of small masters, but these were themselves in the control of large wholesale houses.[27] The trade of master weaver was in the southern district annihilated by a strike in 1825 which induced the large employers to set up handloom factories and employ the journeymen direct.[28] The master weavers were compelled to accept work in the factories on the same terms as their own journeymen—a situation which was hardly likely to produce amiable feelings amongst them.[29] The manufacturers, being in the power of the London houses, for which they really worked on contract, seem to have sweated their employees. They were men of little capital and eager to acquire profits. They were unable to do this otherwise than by cutting wages. Strikes were frequent, but it was quite impossible for the weavers to compel the masters to stick to the agreed lists. They practised truck on occasion also.[30] The introduction of the hated factory system,[31] combined with the other grievances, gave rise to a feeling of intense bitterness between masters and men. Wages were low, but not so low as in the cotton trade. Factory weavers earned in 1838 nearly twelve shillings a week; outdoor master weavers eight, and outdoor journeymen six.[32] These wages were much lower than those of 1825[33] and of 1808, and the Assistant Commissioner estimated that seven weavers out of ten had to seek occasional relief from the poor rates.[34]

The hosiery trade affords another example of the abuses to which the domestic organisation of production may lead when the domestic, semi-paternal motive has gone out of it and given place to a purely commercial and competitive spirit. This change seems to have begun in the hosiery trade about the middle of the eighteenth century when the old Chartered Company lost its privileges. The trade then fell largely into the hands of large hosiers of Derby, Nottingham, and Leicester. The two former localities produced both silk and cotton hosiery, but Leicester specialised in worsted goods. The raw material, that is spun yarn, was of course purchased from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Derbyshire. At the time of the Government inquiry in 1844–45[35] these large houses were both merchants, purchasing goods from outside makers, and manufacturers on their own account, employing knitters in their own factories. But the bulk of the labour was still performed in domestic workshops, scattered all over the three counties. The knitting was done by a frame which was a complicated piece of machinery, costly to purchase when new, and costly also to maintain in repair. Thus it was rarer than in the handloom-weaving trade for the knitter to own a frame, and the custom had obtained throughout a century for frames to be hired by the worker at a fixed rent which was deducted from wages.[36]

In 1844, therefore, employment in the hosiery trade could be obtained from two sources. The first was the hosier himself, either in his factory or as direct employer at home. The hosier supplied frame and yarn, and the price of labour was usually stated on a "ticket." In the second case, which was the more common, the work was obtained from a middleman or "bagman" who received yarn from the wholesale dealer, distributed it to knitters, and deducted from the market price of labour certain expenses which represented the wages of his own labour and responsibility. Obviously the wages of the knitter were less when employed by a bagman than when employed directly by the hosier.[37] It was upon the bagman system that attention was concentrated in the inquiry of 1844–45.

The bagman was, as a rule, a man of small capital who had induced hosiers to entrust their yarn to his keeping. He was the sole intermediary between the hosier and many scattered knitters. He alone knew the price of goods and the margin between prices and wages. He could not make profit on raw material, nor increase the margin by extending his sphere of operations as a large capitalist employer might. He depended entirely upon his deductions from wages and upon the rent he obtained from frames. The Report of 1845 is a chorus of denunciation of his doings in these two respects.

The rent of frames was a fixed one and bore no relation to the amount or value of work done, nor to the capital value of the frame itself. It was an old customary payment sanctioned by a century of usage. It was open to any one to make frames and hire them to the various workers in the industry.[38] A class of people was thus called into existence whose sole connection with the industry was the income from rents,[39] which were paid week by week without abatement for slack time, so that the rent became a first charge upon the produce of the industry. Frames could be hired to hosiers, bagmen, or knitters themselves. In practice the last never happened, because the knitters were too poor to guarantee the rent. The bagmen paid higher rents than the hosiers, as there too there was an element of risk. Consequently the bagman had to recoup himself from the wages of the knitters, as he had no margin for economies on the side of the hosier.

Thus force of circumstances drove the bagman to exploit the knitters. Framework-knitting had largely ceased to be a skilled trade since the introduction of an inferior make of stockings about 1819.[40] Access to the trade was therefore easy, apprenticeship being a thing of naught. Trade was always fluctuating owing to the changes of fashion. New goods were continually being introduced. Thereupon a new influx of hands, attracted by the good pay in the special branch, took place. Very soon the fashion changed, and the new hands went to swell the ranks of those employed upon the staple products.[41] All this was bad for the poor "stockinger," but the Report of 1844–45 makes it clear that his weakness was ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous and grasping "bagmen." Not content with deducting the 30 or 40 per cent from wages, allowed by custom for his normal labour and trouble of fetching and carrying yarn and goods, the bagman resorted to underhand tricks. He understated the warehouse prices and pocketed the margin; he exacted rent for frames when the price of the goods was scarcely sufficient to pay it. In slack times he would give one week's work for one knitter to two or even three and draw full rents for two or three frames instead of one.[42] Finally he resorted to truck.

The Report of 1845 is full of bitter and violent denunciations of the bagmen. None of them is so eloquent as that quoted by Mr. Podmore,[43] but a few are worth quotation: Samuel Jennings was employed by T. P. of Hinckley, who paid all his wages in truck and even charged him rent upon his (Jennings') own frame.[44] One knitter sued his employer in court. "On Saturday the 23rd of December I settled with C. (defendant), and then had one pound of candles on credit, and he also lent me sixpence in money. On the 6th of January I reckoned with him for five dozen stocking feet which I had made during the week. I was in his warehouse and his son was present. My work came to 3s. 6½d. He deducted for frame rent 2s. 0½d., candles 5½d., money borrowed 6d., leaving 6½d. to be paid to me."[45] Thomas Revil declares "our middlemen walk the streets like gentlemen, and we are slaves to them." This latter was literally true, as the knitter was always in debt to truck masters, and was consequently unable to quit his employment for fear of imprisonment. The fortunes made by hosiers and bagmen were another source of indignation. Bagmen were often ignorant people of obscure origin, and the rapid rise to fortune of exceptional bagmen, who were more able or more unscrupulous than their fellows, was a source of extreme bitterness. One case was quoted where a shop-boy had in a few years acquired sixty or seventy frames and never paid a penny in coin as wages.

It is to be expected that wages were low. Indeed with hosiers, bagmen, and frame-owners to satisfy out of the produce of the industry, and considering the bad situation of the knitters as regards collective action, the wonder is that wages were not lower. Wages had been artificially reduced by the action of the old poor-law administration in paying out-relief as subsidies to wages. That had of course ceased when the inquiry was made, but a prolonged depression during 1839–42 had reduced thousands of stockingers to destitution.[46] The whole industry was stagnating, so that there seemed little prospect of improvement in the condition of the poor knitters. At the time of the inquiry thousands of them were earning for sixty or seventy hours' labour five or six shillings a week. At the same time it must be remarked that extreme lowness of wages was apparently chronic in the trade, and it is probable that the distress of the 'forties was not exceptional. It was, however, unaccompanied by the extended out-relief of former days since the introduction of the New Poor Law, and the operatives who had formerly borne privation with some resignation were now, through the agency of Chartist and Syndicalist orators, furnished with explanations of their evil situation. The district had been a hotbed of Owenism in 1833–34 and of Chartism ever since 1839, facts which show that the spirit of resignation had given way to a spirit of revolution.

It is necessary to dwell at some length upon the situation of the handloom-weavers and the "stockingers." These two classes of workers were the most ardent of Chartist recruits. They graduated for the most part through the school of Anti-Poor Law Agitation, and furnished many "physical force" men. Furthermore it is clear from the Chartist speeches that the weavers and stockingers were regarded as the martyrs of the economic system and as an indication of the inevitable tendency of the system—an awful example to the workers as a whole.

A modern reader may ask why these workers persisted in an occupation so ill requited. Apart from the natural inertia which makes man of all baggage the least easy to move, there were special causes operating at the time under survey. One was that occupation in other trades was not easy to get owing to trade depression. This was especially the case with the one occupation for which stockingers and weavers were suitable—factory labour. There were sufficient and good reasons too, as every one knows, for avoiding factories in those days. Further, men brought up to the frame and loom were as a rule totally unfitted for other occupations when they reached middle age. Poverty prevented them from apprenticing their children in better-paid trades, and compelled them to employ their families at the earliest possible age, long before they reached their teens. To be sure, the coal and iron mines and the railways took more and more of the young men and, sad to say, young women and children. Thus these industries were recruited largely from the families of those actually employed in them, but a natural elimination, especially in the weaving trade, caused those who were young, hardy, and enterprising to leave it, whilst the old, worn-out, the shiftless, and the young children remained. These, either from discontent engendered by memories of more prosperous days, or by reason of their ignorance, or through hopelessness of improvement, were a ready prey for the revolutionary literature which was freely circulated amongst them.

The case of these industries is not the only one which gave support to those Klassenkampf theories which form so conspicuous a part of the Chartist philosophy. Amongst all classes of society the evils of the factory system were held in abhorrence. That those evils were great is sufficiently clear from any impartial account of the early factories. That they attracted universal attention is testified by the immense literature upon the subject. The popularity of the agitation which was led by Sadler and Oastler during the 'thirties is a sign of a developing public conscience. Amongst the working people, however, the agitation was also a part of the general campaign against Capitalism. In other industries, indeed, the exploitation of child-labour was the work not of the capitalist employer, but of the workers themselves. It was done even where there was no excuse on the score of poverty.[47] There employment by the master was a welcome reform. One of the leaders of the Lancashire operatives in the ten hours' campaign was John Doherty, a Trade Union leader of renown and a prominent Chartist. In fact, factory agitation was the one form of Trade Union action which was both safe from legal attack and popular amongst other classes than the operatives themselves. The factory masters were denounced not merely because they did on a large scale what many small employers were doing on a small scale, but also because they represented that developed Capitalism which the working classes were being taught by many writers—of whom in this respect James O'Brien was not the least virulent—to hate with their whole souls.

Turning now to other industries, the same transitional state of organisation is to be found in such industries as mining and quarrying, which are at the present day almost exclusively under the control of large capitalists. The Reports of 1842–44[48] dealing with these industries reveal a variety of industrial structure. In the Portland stone quarries, gangs of quarrymen prospected on their own account. In colliery districts custom varied considerably. In Staffordshire the men were employed by sub-contractors called by the euphonious name of "butties." In Northumberland and Durham the work was controlled by large owners, as is generally the case nowadays. The gang system seems to have prevailed in Leicestershire, parts of the West Riding, the Lothians district and North Wales; the "butty" system in Stafford, Shropshire, Warwick, and Derby; the proprietor system in the two great northern fields, Lancashire, South Wales and Monmouth, and in Lanarkshire.[49] Where the gang system prevailed the miners contracted, through the agency of their own elected or selected heads, with the owners of the minerals, to procure the coal or iron at specified prices. The owner furnished machinery and sank the shaft; the miners did the rest. The butty system was the same except that the contract or charter was procured by one or two small capitalists who owned the tools and hired the miners.[50] Under the third system the whole personnel, machinery, and tools were controlled by the proprietors.[51]

Where the workmen were largely independent contractors under the gang system, they could hardly complain of the conditions of their labour, but under the other systems complaint was loud and continuous. The butties occupied much the same position in the mining industry as the bagmen in the framework-knitting. They were bound to supply coal or iron ore at a fixed price. They hoped to recoup themselves out of the profits of labour. Being men of small capital, they were always in a precarious situation, as each coal-getting venture entailed a large element of risk. If the price fixed by the "charter" proved unremunerative, they were compelled to grind profits or avoid losses out of wages. They resorted to all sorts of practices: compelled miners to work at certain jobs without pay;[52] increased their daily tasks surreptitiously; abused the labour of children, especially pauper apprentices, in a perfectly inhuman fashion;[53] and finally and inevitably, paid in "truck."[54] When butties existed, accidents were frightfully frequent. Lack of capital induced slipshod and wasteful systems of propping.[55] Naked lights were used. Dangerous places were worked as a common thing. One thing, however, butties did not do: they did not employ girls and women down the shafts. That appalling iniquity was perpetrated by the miners themselves, but never where butties had control.[56] Wages were not low, as wages went in 1840. In Staffordshire daily wages were 4s. previous to the strike of 1842, when a reduction to 3s. 6d. was attempted. In the iron mines wages were rather lower—2s. 6d. to 3s. a day. These wages were of course far from princely, and they were materially reduced by the system of paying in truck or "tommy."[57] In some, perhaps many cases, the system of paying wages in goods was at first productive of much advantage, especially where the collieries were remotely situated, and the purchase of goods from the nearest market-town was inconvenient. But it was so easy to abuse the practice that few who adopted it avoided the temptation. The practice was all but universal in the mining industry, whatever the organisation. It was widespread in other trades too; and this in spite of the act of 1831 against it.[58] As that act, however, required the workman's evidence, actual or anticipated intimidation was sufficient to make it a dead letter.

These abuses were not the only ones connected with the mining industry. The revelations made in 1842–43 by Government inquiries show that the industry was being carried on everywhere with as complete a disregard for humanity and decency as could be found in the society of heathen savages. Children were being employed at an incredibly early age.[59] Five, six, and seven years was a frequent age for commencing work in the mines; exceptional cases of four, and even three years were found. Monotonous beyond measure was the labour of these mites who sat in the dark for a dozen hours a day to open and shut doors. A boy of seven smoked his pipe to keep him awake.[60] The children employed were of both sexes, and girls of tender age were condemned to labour like beasts of burden, harnessed to trucks of coal.[61] Pauper apprentices were practically sold into slavery, and treated occasionally with the utmost ferocity.[62] The employment of adolescent girls and women was not unknown, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, where, one may suspect, they were driven from the handloom-weaving, the decay of which was no doubt responsible also for the exceptionally early employment of children in those districts.[63] At the same time it must be noted that the employment of girls and women, where it prevailed, was not a recent introduction. Lancashire witnesses declared that it had existed since 1811.[64]

The consequences of this employment of workers of both sexes underground, considering the extreme ignorance and semi-barbarism of the colliery population, is better imagined than described.[65] In fact the reports reveal a state of filth, barbarism, and demoralisation which both beggars description and defies belief. Clearly Lancashire, Yorkshire, South Wales and Monmouthshire, and the Lothians of Scotland were the worst districts, but all were bad enough. The prevalence of so appalling a state of affairs is to be explained only by considering the general isolation of the mining districts. Some, as in Monmouth, Durham, the Pennine districts, were situated amongst remote moorlands. In every case the opening of mines had gathered together a promiscuous population into districts hitherto unpopulated. Houses were built for the accommodation of the employees by the colliery masters themselves. Beyond that little care seems to have been exercised over the population so concentrated. Churches were seldom built. The want of religious ministrations was occasionally supplied by Chartist preachers.[66] The only source of social life was the demoralising atmosphere of the pit or the equally insidious delights of the public-house, usually the property of the butty or the colliery masters. The Newport rising of November 1839 was engineered wholly in such public-houses in the remote hill districts.[67]

Respectable people in the neighbourhood seem to have considered the collier population as utterly hopeless and irredeemable and took little steps to ameliorate or improve their lot. The masters, we are assured, never entered the pits to see what was going on, and abuses went unchecked.[68] Parents were allowed to bring their children into the pit almost at any age. Women were even allowed to become hewers of coal.[69] The dress of both sexes was so alike as to be practically indistinguishable, even in the light of day.[70] Thus the blame for the horrific condition of the mining population seems to be distributed amongst all the classes concerned—masters, butties, parents, and the public generally. There was a fearful awakening of the public conscience when the Report of 1842 was published, and the exclusion of women and children from the mines was voted in Parliament without a murmur.

The task of those who had previously sought to make an impression upon this population was hard but not hopeless. They met with no great sympathy from those who had the means to help. The Rural Dean of Birmingham[71] was quite unable to persuade a landowner to give a quarter of an acre of land to build a church, although his land was annually increasing enormously in value. Another wealthy owner, who drew £7000 a year without ever seeing one of his employees, openly boasted of the fact.[72] The vicar of Wolverhampton applied to a man who was supposed to have £50,000 a year from mines for funds to build a church, but the man of wealth said his mines would be worked out in seventy years and the church would then be of no use.[73] But though the task of reformers was hard, it was occasionally successful, as at Oldham where, owing apparently to the development of education, mainly in Sunday schools, a public opinion had grown up which made the mining population there an honourable exception to the general state of semi-savagery.[74] On the whole it is the isolation, geographical and social, of the mining population which forces itself most upon one's attention in reading the dismal reports. The colliers had occasionally a dialect which was totally unintelligible to educated ears. They were almost a foreign people. In fact, the inhabitants of Monmouthshire spoke of the colliery districts, where the outbreak of 1839 was brewing, in the language of people who lived on the frontiers of a hostile territory.

The total mining population in 1840 was about three-quarters of a million, the actual number of persons employed being about one-third that number. The census return of 1831 enumerates trades and handicrafts, but omits this large industry entirely.

It will not be necessary to enter into detailed descriptions of other branches of industry. It will be sufficient to say that other industries, such as the pottery and metal trades of the Midlands, were being carried on under conditions which, if not so flagrantly bad as those above described, were yet sufficiently demoralising.[75] Wolverhampton, Bilston, and Willenhall seem to have been the home of the most appalling degradation—a perfect inferno where children were brutalised by severe labour and savage treatment, and grew up into stunted, stupid, and brutal men and women.[76] Hard by was the nail-making district of Dudley where the population is said to have been more degraded even than the miners.[77]

It is necessary to keep clearly in mind this social and economic background of the Chartist Movement. A politico-social movement which was engineered amongst such men (and it is clear that the more prosperous and intelligent organised workers kept aloof from it) could scarcely be compared with the working-class movements of the present day, organised as the latter are by men of clear and shrewd, though perhaps limited outlook, of uncommon ability, backed by three generations of experience and a solid organisation.

  1. See the very interesting remarks in the report on the silk industry of Coventry. Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv. pp. 188 et seq.
  2. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, ix., xv.; 1843, xiii.
  3. Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv.
  4. Ibid. pp. 33-34.
  5. There was a complicated industrial hierarchy at Coventry which hindered the growth of a true class feeling.
  6. P. 35.
  7. There were five different systems of production and organisation at work (ibid. p. 36).
  8. P. 327.
  9. Pp. 288-9; cf. also pp. 4, 77-78.
  10. P. 187.
  11. P. 12.
  12. Pp. 304-7.
  13. Pp. 302, 322.
  14. Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv. p. 6.
  15. Parliamentary Papers, 1839, xlii. pp. 584, 578, 602.
  16. Pp. 584, 578.
  17. Steffen, Gesch. der englischen Lohnarbeit (Stuttgart, 1900–5), ii. pp. 19-20.
  18. Parliamentary Papers, 1839, xlii. p. 591.
  19. Pp. 578 et seq.
  20. 20.0 20.1 P. 584.
  21. Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv. p. 7.
  22. Parliamentary Papers, 1836, xxxiv. p. xxxvii.
  23. See, e.g., the instructions issued to Assistant Commissioners who inquired in 1838–40. Parliamentary Papers, 1837–38, xlv.
  24. Parliamentary Papers, 1839, xlii. pp. 592-4.
  25. P. 598.
  26. Power-looms introduced 1836, pp. 377 et seq.
  27. Parliamentary Papers, 1840, xxiv. pp. 358, 529, 401.
  28. Regular apprenticeship had of course died out.
  29. Pp. 436-9.
  30. Pp. 457-8.
  31. Pp. 437-8.
  32. Pp. 404-5.
  33. Pp. 374-5.
  34. P. 415.
  35. Parliamentary Papers, 1845, xv.
  36. Report, p. 45.
  37. Report, pp. 59-67.
  38. P. 46 of Report.
  39. Some frame-owners, however, had been knitters who had saved their money and invested in frames against old age (p. 52 of Report).
  40. Report, p. 12.
  41. Report, p. 97.
  42. Report, p. 97.
  43. Life of R. Owen, ii. p. 448.
  44. Parliamentary Papers, 1845, xv. p. 76 of Evidence.
  45. P. 73 of Evidence.
  46. See Life of Thomas Cooper, 1872, pp. 123-43; also Report, pp. 95 et seq.
  47. E.g. Staffordshire potteries, Birmingham metal trades. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. passim.
  48. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, ix. (Truck); 1843, xiii. (Special Report on Staffordshire), p. 1; 1843, xiii. p. 307 (Employment of Children in Manufactures); 1842, xv. (Employment of Children in Mines and Collieries); 1844, xvi. (Inspector of Mines).
  49. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xv. p. 39.
  50. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. (Staffs), pp. xxxiii-xxxiv, lxii.
  51. P. ciii.
  52. Vol. xiii. (Staffs), pp. xxxv-xxxvii.
  53. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xv. p. 40.
  54. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. (Staffs), pp. lxxxix et seq.
  55. P. xxvii.
  56. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xv. p. 35.
  57. A vivid description of the truck system of the Midlands, derived largely from official sources, is to be found in Disraeli's Sybil, published in 1845. see also Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. (Staffs), pp. lxxxix et seq.
  58. 1 and 2 Will. IV. c. 37.
  59. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xv. pp. 9-18.
  60. P. 18.
  61. Pp. 24-36.
  62. Pp. 40-43.
  63. Oldham is pointed out as a curious and mysterious exception.
  64. P. 27.
  65. See especially Lancashire case on p. 132.
  66. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. (Staffs), p. cxxxvii.
  67. Additional MSS. 34,245.
  68. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xv. pp. 12, 126.
  69. In West Riding (p. 24).
  70. Vol. xv. passim.
  71. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii. (Staffs), p. 2.
  72. P. 4.
  73. P. 73.
  74. Parliamentary Papers, 1842, xvii. App. p. 833.
  75. Parliamentary Papers, 1843, xiii.
  76. Pp. 27, 33.
  77. (Staffs), pp. v, vi.