Chapter II

Home life of the Lancashire Factory Folk during the Cotton Famine

By Edwin Waugh 1862 (Contents)

Among the Blackburn Operatives (continued)

A little after ten o’clock on Saturday forenoon, I went into the Boardroom, in the hope of catching there some glimpses of the real state of the poor in Blackburn just now, and I was not disappointed; for amongst the short, sad complainings of those who may always be heard of in such a place, there was many a case presented itself which gave affecting proof of the pressure of the times. Although it is not here where one must look for the most enduring and unobtrusive of those who suffer; nor for the poor traders, who cannot afford to wear their distress upon their sleeves, so long as things will hold together with them at all; nor for that rare class which is now living upon the savings of past labour – yet, there were many persons, belonging to one or other of these classes, who applied for relief evidently because they had been driven unwillingly to this last bitter haven by a stress of weather which they could not bide any longer.

There was a large attendance of the guardians; and they certainly evinced a strong wish to inquire carefully into each case, and to relieve every case of real need. The rate of relief given is this (as you will have seen stated by Mr Farnall elsewhere):- “To single able bodied men, 3s. for three days’ work. To the man who had a wife and two children, 6s. for six days’ work, and he would have 2s. 6d. added to the 6s., and perhaps a pair of clogs for one of his children. To a man who had a wife and four children, 10s. was paid for six days’ labour, and in addition 4s., and sometimes 4s. 6d., was given to him, and also bits of clothing and other things which he absolutely wanted.” Sitting at that Board I saw some curious – some painful things. It was, as one of the Board said to me, “Hard work being there.” In one case, a poor, pale, clean-looking, and almost speechless woman presented herself. Her thin and sunken eyes, as well as her known circumstances, explained her want sufficiently, and I heard one of the guardians whisper to another, “That’s a bad case. If it wasn’t for private charity they’d die of starvation.” “Yes,” replied another; “that woman’s punished, I can see.”

Now and then a case came on in which the guardians were surprised to see a man ask for relief whom everybody had supposed to be in good circumstances. The first applicant, after I entered the room, was a man apparently under forty years of age, a beerhouse keeper, who had been comparatively well off until lately. The tide of trouble had whelmed him over. His children were all factory operatives, and all out of work; and his wife was ill. “What; are you here, John?” said the chairman to a decent-looking man who stepped up in answer to his name. The poor fellow blushed with evident pain, and faltered out his story in few and simple words, as if ashamed that anything on earth should have driven him at last to such an extremity as this. In another case, a clean old decrepid man presented himself. “What’s brought you here, Joseph?” said the chairman. “Why; aw’ve nought to do, – nor nought to tak to.” “What’s your daughter, Ellen, doing, Joseph?” “Hoo’s eawt o’ wark.” “And what’s your wife doing?” “Hoo’s bin bed-fast aboon five year.” The old man was relieved at once; but, as he walked away, he looked hard at his ticket, as if it wasn’t exactly the kind of thing; and, turning round, he said, “Couldn’t yo let me be a sweeper i’th streets, istid, Mr Eccles?” A clean old woman came up, with a snow-white nightcap on her head. “Well, Mary; what do you want?” “Aw could like yo to gi mo a bit o’ summat, Mr Eccles, – for aw need it” “Well, but you’ve some lodgers, haven’t you, Mary?” “Yigh; aw’ve three.” “Well; what do they pay you?” “They pay’n mo nought. They’n no wark, – an’ one connot turn ‘em eawt.”

This was all quite true. “Well, but you live with your son; don’t you?” continued the chairman. “Nay,” replied the old woman, “he lives wi’ me; an’ he’s eawt o’ wark, too. Aw could like yo to do a bit o’ summat for us. We’re hard put to ‘t.” “Don’t you think she would be better in the workhouse?” said one of the guardians. “Oh, no,” replied another; “don’t send th’ owd woman there. Let her keep her own little place together, if she can.” Another old woman presented herself, with a threadbare shawl drawn closely round her gray head. “Well, Ann,” said the chairman, “there’s nobody but yourself and your John, is there?” “Nawe.” “What age are you?” “Aw’m seventy.” “Seventy!” “Aye, I am.” “Well, and what age is your John?” “He’s gooin’ i’ seventy-four.” “Where is he, Ann ?” “Well, aw laft him deawn i’ th’ street yon; gettin’ a load o’ coals in.” There was a murmur of approbation around the Board; and the old woman was sent away relieved and thankful. There were many other affecting cases of genuine distress arising from the present temporary severity of the times. Several applicants were refused relief on its being proved that they were already in receipt of considerably more income than the usual amount allowed by the Board to those who have nothing to depend upon.

Of course there are always some who, having lost that fine edge of feeling to which this kind of relief is revolting, are not unwilling to live idly upon the rates as much and as long as possible at any time, and who will even descend to pitiful schemes to wring from this source whatever miserable income they can get. There are some, even, with whom this state of mind seems almost hereditary; and these will not be slow to take advantage of the present state of affairs. Such cases, however, are not numerous among the people of Lancashire. It was a curious thing to see the different demeanours and appearances of the applicants – curious to hear the little stories of their different troubles. There were three or four women whose husbands were away in the militia; others whose husbands had wandered away in search of work weeks ago, and had never been heard of, since. There were a few very fine, intelligent countenances among them. There were many of all ages, clean in person, and bashful in manner, with their poor clothing put into the tidiest possible trim; others were dirty, and sluttish, and noisy of speech, as in the case of one woman, who, after receiving her ticket for relief, partly in money and partly in kind, whipped a pair of worn clogs from under her shawl, and cried out, “Aw mun ha’ some clogs afore aw go, too; look at thoose! They’re a shame to be sin!” Clogs were freely given; and, in several cases, they were all that were asked for. In three or four instances, the applicants said, after receiving other relief, “Aw wish yo’d gi’ me a pair o’ clogs, Mr Eccles. Aw’ve had to borrow these to come in.” One woman pleaded hard for two pair, saying, “Yon chylt’s bar-fuut; an’ he’s witchod (wet-shod), an’ as ill as he con be.” “Who’s witchod?” asked the chairman. “My husban’ is,” replied the woman; “an’ he connot ston it just neaw, yo mun let him have a pair iv yo con.” “Give her two pairs of clogs,” said the chairman. Another woman took her clog off, and held it up, saying, “Look at that. We’re o’ walkin’ o’th floor; an’ smoor’t wi’ cowds.”

One decent-looking old body, with a starved face, applied. The chairman said, “Why, what’s your son doing now? Has he catched no rabbits lately?” “Nay, aw dunnot know ‘at he does. Aw get nought; an’ it’s me at wants summat, Mr Eccles,” replied the old woman, in a tremulous tone, with the water rising in her eyes. “Well, come; we mustn’t punish th’ owd woman for her son,” said one of the guardians. Various forms of the feebleness of age appeared before the Board that day. “What’s your son John getting, Mary?” said the chairman to one old woman. “Whor?” replied she. “What’s your son John getting?” The old woman put her hand up to her ear, and answered, “Aw’m rayther deaf. What say’n yo?” It turned out that her son was taken ill, and they were relieved. In the course of inquiries I found that the working people of Blackburn, as elsewhere in Lancashire, nickname their workshops as well as themselves. The chairman asked a girl where she worked at last, and the girl replied, “At th’ ‘Puff-an’-dart.’” “And what made you leave there?” “Whau, they were woven up.” One poor, pale fellow, a widower, said he had “worched” a bit at “Bang-the-nation,” till he was taken ill, and then they had “shopped his place,” that is, they had given his work to somebody else. Another, when asked where he had been working, replied, “At Se’nacre Bruck (Seven-acre Brook), wheer th’ wild monkey were catched.” It seems that an ourang-outang which once escaped from some travelling menagerie, was re-taken at this place. I sat until the last application had been disposed of, which was about half-past two in the afternoon. The business had taken up nearly four hours and a half.

I had a good deal of conversation with people who were intimately acquainted with the town and its people; and I was informed that, in spite of the struggle for existence which is now going on, and not unlikely to continue for some time, there are things happening amongst the working people there, which do not seem wise, under existing circumstances. The people are much better informed now than they were twenty years ago; but, still, something of the old blindness lingers amongst them, here and there. For instance, at one mill, in Blackburn, where the operatives were receiving 11s. a week for two looms, the proprietor offered to give his workpeople three looms each, with a guarantee for constant employment until the end of next August, if they would accept one and a quarter pence less for the weaving of each piece. This offer, if taken, would have raised their wages to an average of 14s. 6d. a week. It was declined, however, and they are now working, as before, only on two looms each, with uncertainty of employment, at lls. a week. Perhaps it is too much to expect that such things should die out all at once. But I heard also that the bricklayers’ labourers at Blackburn struck work last week for an advance of wages from 3s. 6d. a day to 4s. a day. This seems very untimely, to say the least of it. Apart from these things, there is, amongst all classes, a kind of cheery faith in the return of good times, although nobody can see what they may have to go through yet, before the clouds break. It is a fact that there are more than forty new places ready, or nearly ready, for starting, in and about Blackburn, when trade revives.

After dinner, I walked down Darwen Street. Stopping to look at a music-seller’s window, a rough-looking fellow, bareheaded and without coat, came sauntering across the road from a shop opposite. As he came near he shouted out, “Nea then Heaw go!” I turned round; and, seeing that I was a stranger, he said, “Oh; aw thought it had bin another chap.” “Well,” said I, “heaw are yo gettin’ on, these times?” “Divulish ill,” replied he. “Th’ little maisters are runnin’ a bit, some three, some four days. T’other are stopt o’ together, welly. . . . It’s thin pikein’ for poor folk just neaw. But th’ shopkeepers an’ th’ ale-heawses are in for it as ill as ony mak. There’ll be crashin’ amung some on ‘em afore lung.” After this, I spent a few minutes in the market-place, which was “slacker” than usual, as might be expected, for, as the Scotch proverb says, “Sillerless folk gang fast through the market.”

Later on, I went up to Bank Top, on the eastern edge of the town, where many factory operatives reside. Of course, there is not any special quarter where they are clustered in such a manner as to show their condition as a whole. They are scattered all round the town, living as near as possible to the mills in which they are employed. Here I talked with some of the small shopkeepers, and found them all more or less troubled with the same complaint. One owner of a provision shop said to me, “Wi’n a deeal o’ brass owin’; but it’s mostly owin’ by folk at’ll pay sometime. An’ then, th’ part on ‘em are doin’ a bit yo known; an’ they bring’n their trifle o’ ready brass to us; an’ so we’re trailin’ on. But folk han to trust us a bit for their stuff, dunnot yo see, – or else it would be ‘Wo-up!’ soon.” I heard of one beerhouse, the owner of which had only drawn ls. 6d. during a whole week. His children were all factory operatives, and all out of work. They were very badly off, and would have been very glad of a few soup tickets; but, as the man said, “Who’d believe me if aw were to go an’ ax for relief?” I was told of two young fellows, unemployed factory hands, meeting one day, when one said to the other, “Thae favvurs hungry, Jone.” “Nay, aw’s do yet, for that,” replied Jone. “Well,” continued the other; “keep thi heart eawt of thi clogs, iv thi breeches dun eawt-thrive thi carcass a bit, owd lad.” “Aye,” said Jone, “but what mun I do when my clogs gi’n way?” “Whaw, thae mun go to th’ Guardians; they’n gi tho a pair in a minute.” “Nay, by —-,” replied Jone, “aw’ll dee furst!”

In the evening, I ran down to the beautiful suburb called Pleasington, in the hope of meeting a friend of mine there; not finding him, I came away by the eight o’clock train. The evening was splendid, and it was cheering to see the old bounty of nature gushing forth again in such unusual profusion and beauty, as if in pitiful charity for the troubles of mankind. I never saw the country look so rich in its spring robes as it does now.