Chapter I

Home life of the Lancashire Factory Folk during the Cotton Famine

By Edwin Waugh 1862 (Contents)

Among the Blackburn Operatives

Poor Tom’s a-cold. Who gives anything to poor Tom? – King Lear.

Blackburn is one of the towns which has suffered more than the rest in the present crisis, and yet a stranger to the place would not see anything in its outward appearance indicative of this adverse nip of the times. But to any one familiar with the town in its prosperity, the first glance shows that there is now something different on foot there, as it did to me on Friday last. The morning was wet and raw, a state of weather in which Blackburn does not wear an Arcadian aspect, when trade is good. Looking round from the front of the railway station, the first thing which struck me was the great number of tall chimneys which were smokeless, and the unusual clearness of the air. Compared with the appearance of the town when in full activity, there is now a look of doleful holiday, an unnatural fast-day quietness about everything. There were few carts astir, and not so many people in the streets as usual, although so many are out of work there. Several, in the garb of factory operatives, were leaning upon the bridge, and others were trailing along in twos and threes, looking listless and cold; but nobody seemed in a hurry.

Very little of the old briskness was visible. When the mills are in full work, the streets are busy with heavy loads of twist and cloth; and the workpeople hurry in blithe crowds to and from the factories, full of life and glee, for factory labour is not so hurtful to healthy life as it was thirty years ago, nor as some people think it now, who don’t know much about it. There were few people at the shop windows, and fewer inside. I went into some of the shops to buy trifling things of different kinds, making inquiries about the state of trade meanwhile, and, wherever I went, I met with the same gloomy answers. They were doing nothing, taking nothing; and they didn’t know how things would end. They had the usual expenses going on, with increasing rates, and a fearfully lessened income, still growing less. And yet they durst not complain; but had to contribute towards the relief of their starving neighbours, sometimes even when they themselves ought to be receiving relief, if their true condition was known.

I heard of several shopkeepers who had not taken more across their counters for weeks past than would pay their rents, and some were not doing even so much as that. This is one painful bit of the kernel of life in Blackburn just now, which is concealed by the quiet shell of outward appearance. Beyond this unusual quietness, a stranger will not see much of the pinch of the times, unless he goes deeper; for the people of Lancashire never were remarkable for hawking their troubles much about the world. In the present untoward pass, their deportment, as a whole, has been worthy of themselves, and their wants have been worthily met by their own neighbours. What it may become necessary to do hereafter, does not yet appear. It is a calamity arising, partly from a wise national forbearance, which will repay itself richly in the long run. But, apart from that wide-spread poverty which is already known and relieved, there is, in times like the present, always a certain small proportion, even of the poorest, who will “eat their cake to th’ edge,” and then starve bitterly before they will complain.

These are the flower of our working population; they are of finer stuff than the common staple of human nature. Amongst such there must be many touching cases of distress which do not come to light, even by accident. If they did, nobody can doubt the existence of a generous will to relieve them generously. To meet such cases, it is pleasant to learn, however, as I did, that there is a large amount of private benevolence at work in Blackburn, industriously searching out the most deserving cases of distress. Of course, this kind of benevolence never gets into the statistics of relief, but it will not the less meet with its reward. I heard also of one or two wealthy men whose names do not appear as contributors to the public relief fund, who have preferred to spend considerable sums of money in this private way. In my wanderings about the town I heard also of several instances of poor people holding relief tickets, who, upon meeting with some temporary employment, have returned their tickets to the committee for the benefit of those less fortunate than themselves. Waiving for the present all mention of the opposite picture; these things are alike honourable to both rich and poor.

A little past noon, on Friday, I set out to visit the great stone quarries on the southern edge of the town, where upwards of six hundred of the more robust factory operatives are employed in the lighter work of the quarries. This labour consists principally of breaking up the small stone found in the facings of the solid rock, for the purpose of road-mending and the like. Some, also, are employed in agricultural work, on the ground belonging to the fine new workhouse there. These factory operatives, at the workhouse grounds, and in the quarries, are paid one shilling a day-not much, but much better than the bread of idleness; and for the most part, the men like it better, I am told. The first quarry I walked into was the one known by the name of “Hacking’s Shorrock Delph.” There I sauntered about, looking at the scene. It was not difficult to distinguish the trained quarrymen from the rest. The latter did not seem to be working very hard at their new employment, and it can hardly be expected that they should, considering the great difference between it and their usual labour. Leaning on their spades and hammers, they watched me with a natural curiosity, as if wondering whether I was a new ganger, or a contractor come to buy stone. There were men of all ages amongst them, from about eighteen years old to white-headed men past sixty. Most of them looked healthy and a little embrowned by recent exposure to the weather; and here and there was a pinched face which told its own tale.

I got into talk with a quiet, hardy-looking man, dressed in soil-stained corduroy. He was a kind of overlooker. He told me that there were from eighty to ninety factory hands employed in that quarry. “But,” said he, “it varies a bit, yo known. Some on ‘em gets knocked up neaw an’ then, an’ they han to stop a-whoam a day or two; an’ some on ‘em connot ston gettin’ weet through-it mays ‘em ill; an’ here an’ theer one turns up at doesn’t like the job at o’-they’d rayther clem. There is at’s both willin’ an’ able; thoose are likely to get a better job, somewheer. There’s othersome at’s willin’ enough, but connot ston th’ racket. They dun middlin’, tak ‘em one wi’ another, an’ considerin’ that they’re noan use’t to th’ wark. Th’ hommer fo’s leet wi’ ‘em; but we dunnot like to push ‘em so mich, yo known-for what’s a shillin’ a day? Aw know some odd uns i’ this delph at never tastes fro mornin’ till they’n done at neet,-an’ says nought abeawt it, noather. But they’n families. Beside, fro wake lads, sick as yon, at’s bin train’t to nought but leet wark, an’ a warm place to wortch in, what con yo expect? We’n had a deeal o’ bother wi ‘em abeawt bein’ paid for weet days, when they couldn’t wortch. They wur not paid for weet days at th’ furst; an’ they geet it into their yeds at Shorrock were to blame. Shorrock’s th’ paymaister, under th’ Guardians, But, then, he nobbut went accordin’ to orders, yo known. At last, th’ Board sattle’t that they mut be paid for weet and dry,-an’ there’s bin quietness sin’. They wortchen fro eight till five; an’, sometimes, when they’n done, they drilln o’ together i’th road yon-just like sodiurs-an’ then they walken away i’ procession. But stop a bit;-just go in yon, an’ aw’ll come to yo in a two-thre minutes.”

He returned, accompanied by the paymaster, who offered to conduct me through the other delphs. Running over his pay-book, he showed me, by figures opposite each man’s name, that, with not more than a dozen exceptions, they had all families of children, ranging in number from two to nine. He then pointed out the way over a knoll, to the next quarry, which is called “Hacking’s Gillies’ Delph,” saying that he would follow me thither. I walked on, stopping for him on the nearest edge of the quarry, which commanded a full view of the men below. They seemed to be waiting very hard for something just then, and they stared at me, as the rest had done; but in a few minutes, just as I began to hear the paymaster’s footsteps behind me, the man at the nearest end of the quarry called “Shorrock!” and a sudden activity woke up along the line. Shorrock then pointed to a corner of the delph where two of these poor fellows had been killed the week before, by stones thrown out from a fall of earth. We went down through the delph, and up the slope, by the place where the older men were at work in the poorhouse grounds. Crossing the Darwen road, we passed the other delphs, where the scene was much the same as in the rest, except that more men were employed there.

As we went on, one poor fellow was trolling a snatch of song, as he hammered away at the stones. “Thir’t merry, owd mon,” said I, in passing. “Well,” replied he, “cryin’ ‘ll do nought, wilt?” And then, as I walked away, he shouted after me, with a sort of sad smile, “It’s a poor heart at never rejoices, maister.” Leaving the quarries, we waited below, until the men had struck work for the day, and the whole six hundred came trooping down the road, looking hard at me as they went by, and stopping here and there, in whispering groups. The paymaster told me that one-half of the men’s wages was paid to them in tickets for bread-in each case given to the shopkeeper to whom the receiver of the ticket owed most money-the other half was paid to them in money every Saturday. Before returning to town I learnt that twenty of the more robust men, who had worked well for their shilling a day in the quarries, had been picked out by order of the Board of Guardians, to be sent to the scene of the late disaster, in Lincolnshire, where employment had been obtained for them, at the rate of 3s. 4d. per day. They were to muster at six o’clock next morning to breakfast at the soup kitchen, after which they were to leave town by the seven o’clock train. I resolved to be up and see them off.

On retiring to bed at the “Old Bull,” a good-tempered fellow, known by the name of “Stockings,” from the fact of his being “under-boots,” promised to waken me by six o’clock; and so I ended the day, after watching “Stockings” write “18” on the soles of my boots, with a lump of chalk. “Stockings” might as well have kept his bed on Saturday morning. My room was close to the ancient tower, left standing in the parish churchyard; and, at five o’clock, the beautiful bells of St Marie’s struck up, filling my little chamber with that heart-stirring music, which, as somebody has well said, “sounds like a voice from the middle ages.” I could not make out what all this early melody meant; for I had forgotten that it was the Queen’s birthday. The old tower was in full view from my bed, and I lay there a while looking at it, and listening to the bells, and dreaming of Whalley Abbey, and of old features of life in picturesque Blackburnshire, now passed away. I felt no more inclination for sleep; and when the knock came to my door, I was dressed and ready.

There were more people in the streets than I expected, and the bells were still ringing merrily. I found the soup kitchen a lively scene. The twenty men were busy at breakfast, and there was a crowd waiting outside to see them off. There were several members of the committee in the kitchen, and amongst them the Rev. Joseph V. Meaney, Catholic priest, went to and fro in cheerful chat. After breakfast, each man received four pounds of bread and one pound of cheese for the day’s consumption. In addition to this, each man received one shilling; to which a certain active member of the committee added threepence in each case. Another member of the committee then handed a letter to each of the only three or four out of the twenty who were able to write, desiring each man to write back to the committee,-not all at once, but on different days, after their arrival.

After this, he addressed them in the following words:-“Now, I hope that every man will conduct himself so as to be a credit to himself and an honour to Blackburn. This work may not prove to be such as you will like, and you must not expect it to be so. But, do your best; and, if you find that there is any chance of employment for more men of the same class as yourselves, you must write and let us know, so as to relieve the distress of others who are left behind you. There will be people waiting to meet you before you get to your journey’s end; and, I have no doubt, you will meet with every fair encouragement. One-half of your wages will be paid over to each man there; the other half will be forwarded here, for the benefit of your families, as you all know. Now go, and do your duty to the best of your power, and you will never regret it. I wish you all success.”

At half-past six the men left the kitchen for the station. I lingered behind to get a basin of the soup, which I relished mightily. At the station I found a crowd of wives, children, and friends of those who were going away. Amongst the rest, Dr Rushton, the vicar of Blackburn, and his lady, had come to see them off. Here a sweet little young wife stood on the edge of the platform, with a pretty bareheaded child in her arms, crying as if her heart would break. Her husband now and then spoke a consoling word to her from the carriage window. They had been noticed sharing their breakfast together at the kitchen. A little farther on, a poor old Irishwoman was weeping bitterly. The Rev. Mr Meaney went up to her, and said, “Now, Mrs Davis, I thought you had more sense than to cry.” “Oh,” said a young Irishwoman, standing beside her, “sure, she’s losin’ her son from her.” “Well,” said the clergyman, cheeringly, “it’s not your husband, woman.” “Ah, thin,” replied the young woman, “sure, it’s all she has left of him.” On the door of one compartment of the carriage there was the following written label:-“Fragile, with care.” “ How’s this, Dennis?” said the Catholic priest to a young fellow nearest the door; “I suppose it’s because you’re all Irishmen inside there.”

In another compartment the lads kept popping their heads out, one after another, shouting farewells to their relatives and friends, after which they struck up, “There’s a good time coming!” One wag of a fellow suddenly called out to his wife on the platform, “Aw say, Molly, just run for thoose tother breeches o’ mine. They’n come in rarely for weet weather.” One of his companions replied, “Thae knows hoo cannot get ‘em, Jack. Th’ pop-shops are noan oppen yet.” One hearty cheer arose as the train started, after which the crowd dribbled away from the platform. I returned to the soup kitchen, where the wives, children, and mothers of the men who had gone were at breakfast in the inner compartment of the kitchen. On the outer side of the partition five or six pinched-looking men had straggled in to get their morning meal.

When they had all done but one, who was left reared against the wooden partition finishing his soup, the last of those going away turned round and said, “Sam, theaw’rt noan as tickle abeawt thi mate as thae use’t to be.” “Naw,” replied the other, “it’ll not do to be nice these times, owd mon. But, thae use’t to think thisel’ aboon porritch, too, Jone. Aw’ll shake honds wi’ tho i’ thae’s a mind, owd dog.” “Get forrud wi’ that stuff, an’ say nought,” answered Jone. I left Sam at his soup, and went up into the town. In the course of the day I sat some hours in the Boardroom, listening to the relief cases; but of this, and other things, I will say more in my next.