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Ever been called a “Luddite?” It’s an insult nowadays, but in the 19th Century they were considered heroes by most of the population. The Luddite Rebellion began in 1811, in Nottingham and gradually spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. They opposed the new machinery which had led to the growth of factory production methods. The cause attracted thousands of followers under the banner of “Luddites” though Ned Ludd, was in fact a mythical invention based on the character of Robin Hood.

The growth of factories  using the new textile and power generation technology took away the need for skilled artisans who worked largely at home. They were rapidly replaced by unskilled workers employed in factories. These textile workers, faced with increasing unemployment, falling wages and hunger, attacked the factories and smashed machines in the vain hope that they could change what was happening, or as history has interpreted it, halt “progress.”

In questioning why the Luddites opposed progress it’s important to consider how that “progress” was affecting people’s lives. The new machines did not require skilled operators. They were easy enough for a child to operate. In fact children from the age of five upwards made up between two thirds and three quarters of the workers in the average textile factory. This naturally increased adult unemployment and depressed wages. The children worked the same 13 hour day (from 6am to 7pm) as the adults, but they were considerably cheaper to employ. While adults might be paid 7 shillings per week, a child under 11 was more likely to be paid 1 shilling, if they were paid at all.

With levels of unemployment as they were, many families were dependent on the money their children earned. But factory work was hard, the hours long, the machinery dangerous and the air thick with tiny fibres and pollutants that got into the lungs. Many parents would not allow their children to work in factories even if it meant “going without.”

Faced with the difficulties of recruiting sufficient cheap child labour the factory owners commonly resorted to buying children from orphanages and workhouses. In some cases they were even paid to take the children who were known as pauper apprentices. The children were made to sign contracts that made them virtually the property of the factory owner. Pauper apprentices were also cheaper to house than adult workers. While it might cost, a £100 to build a cottage for a family, an apprentice house for 100 children could be built for £300.

As the Luddite Rebellion grew, the attacks on factories and the destruction of machinery increased and grew in ferocity. Thousands of machines were destroyed. The Government responded with the “Frame Breaking Act” in February 1812, making the breaking of machines a capital offence which carryied the death penalty. They also deployed twelve thousand troops to the areas where the Luddites were active, to protect the factories and to apprehend offenders.

To add to the problems of the textile workers, in 1811 the wheat harvests failed, driving up the price of bread, the staple diet of the poor. Unable to feed their families, there were food riots in Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield in 1812. These people did not have the vote, but they nevertheless petitioned the Government for help. This was the response of the Parliamentary Committee which considered their petition:-

“While the Committee fully acknowledge and most deeply lament the great distress of numbers of persons engaged in the cotton manufacture, they are of opinion that no interference of the legislature with the freedom of trade, or with the perfect liberty of every individual to dispose of his time and of his labour in the way and on the terms which he may judge most conducive to his own interest, can take place without violating general principles of the first importance to the prosperity and happiness of the community, without establishing the most pernicious precedent, or without aggravating, after a very short time, the pressure of the general distress, and imposing obstacles against that distress ever being removed.”

In other words the Government refused to intervene, preferring to do nothing, adopting a “laissez-faire” approach, or in modern parlance opting to – “Let the Market decide.”

The Luddite Rebellion as an organised movement was largely over by 1813, but in 1816 (again following a bad harvest and increase in bread prices) the Luddites attacked Heathcote and Boden’s mill in Loughborough. They smashed 53 weaving frames which had cost £6,000. Troops eventually quelled the riot and arrested some of the rioters. For their crimes, six men were executed and another three were transported.

Some historians believe that the Luddite Rebellion was the closest Britain had come to a full scale revolution since the Civil War in 1642, yet it achieved very little, if anything,  in terms of change. It was not until 1833 that the government passed the “Factory Act” prohibiting children under 9 from working. The use of child labour became commonplace in the factories of the Industrial Revolution.  It took until 1888 for Parliament to pass the “Factory and Workshops Act” preventing children under 10 from working.

The Luddites  are now predominantly remembered as “technophobes” and opponents of progress. The word “Luddite” is commonly used as a term of abuse. But before judging the Luddites it’s worth remembering that thousands of men and women were willing to risk their lives for the Luddite cause and that the “progress” they opposed, adversely affected their lives and the lives of their children, and their children’s children. Surely it is the way that technological advancement is implemented that determines whether or not it represents progress?

Perhaps what being a Luddite was really about is best summed up by the journalist, William Cobbett, who wrote at the time:-  

“Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer . . . cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved.”

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‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’ 

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

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Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

 

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread.  So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Its response was the Poor Law of 1834 which set up local Poor Law Unions with a view to actively discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse – and workhouses were intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. They were often designed, like prisons of that time, in blocks which extended out like the spokes of a wheel from a central core (see illustrations of Bath Workhouse). Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children all sleeping in separate dormitories. During the day they all worked on breaking stones for roads, crushing bones for fertiliser, or picking oakum for packing the joints of timbers in ships. To pick oakum they used a large metal nail known as a “spike,” which may be how the workhouse earned its nickname of “The Spike“.

The City of Bath, though often associated with the wealth and elegance of the Georgian romantic novel, also had a workhouse. Bath Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the workhouse was  built between 1836 and 1838 (later to become St Martin’s Hospital). By the 1830s the city had a resident population of about 50,000, yet at times the population swelled by up to a further 20,000 itinerant people looking for work. In 1842, “The Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” cited Bath as an example to illustrate its thesis that a large part of the burden of Poor Relief was caused by the premature deaths of husbands leaving widows and orphans who struggled to survive.

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Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

In practice the Poor Law Unions sometimes came into conflict with local magistrates. Such was the case with Anne Perry in Bath. She was old and increasingly infirm, and a friend, Mary Price, applied for “out-relief” on her behalf, so that she could stay at home. She was offered only admission to the workhouse. On appealing, the Magistrates made an order for “out relief,” but the Commissioner from London supported the Board’s decision. The case rumbled on for 3 months, until Ann Perry was eventually awarded “out relief.” Sadly she died 3 weeks later.

In 1848 an attempt was made to limit those classified as “beggars and tramps” from entering the Bath Workhouse. Many of these so called “tramps” were labourers who had worked on building the railways. The fact that there was no work for them now, and no other form of assistance was largely ignored. Their exclusion from the workhouse prompted a riot and the smashing of windows. The Bath Chronicle responded with an appeal to the public not to give alms to beggars or tramps:-

“The Magistrates and Guardians are still determined to prevent such an abuse of the public funds, attended as it is by no real kindness, but offering a premium to pauperism and vice, and encouraging a highly dangerous set of persons to travel over the country, passing their nights at workhouses and their days in begging, stealing and drunkenness. There is, however, a duty which the inhabitants of Bath have to perform. It is for them to exercise discretion in the disposing of such sums as they devote to the purpose of benevolence. It is for them to remember that so long as such persons receive encouragement the evil will continue, and may again return, in all its force.”

In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

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Workhouse Gate in Ireland in 1846

The Irish Famine began in 1845 and did not end until 1852.  In less than ten years, Ireland lost approximately one quarter of its population. One million people died of malnutrition and disease, and a further one million emigrated. It is hard to imagine the scale of the suffering involved, yet “emigration” seems such an inadequate word to use in relation to those who left their country, family and friends, and journeyed across the world. True they were leaving by choice, but it was for most, a choice between life and death. Like other emigrants they were also in search of a better life, but “better” meant any improvement in the daily battle to stay alive and feed their families. The migrants all had dreams and hopes for the future, but they also had fears, and few can have really known what lay ahead of them.

Exactly where the migrants travelled to and in what numbers is difficult to determine precisely as many made their own arrangements rather than using government channels. It is known that in the three years 1847-49, at least 182,000 people emigrated to Canada, and 550,000 to the United States. Despite the availability of assisted passages fewer went to Australia as prospects appeared more limited and there was a fear of being treated as indentured servants, in the same way as convict labour. The journey by ship to Australia was also much longer and sea-travel was dangerous particularly for passengers in “steerage” class. For many these were “coffin ships.”

The passengers to North America and Canada paid between £5 and £6 for their passage, a huge amount of money for someone who earned on average, around £20 to £30 per year. The payment included a daily ration of bread and water for the journey, which took anything between 6 and 12 weeks. Bedding, cooking utensils, and any other food they had to provide themselves, and few had little more than the set of clothes they wore. Their accommodation was dark, damp, dirty and over-crowded. Already weakened by malnutrition and fleeing from Dublin where Typhus was endemic, many fell prey to disease.  The Quebec “Morning Chronicle” reported on July 24th 1847 that of the 57,000 emigrants that had set off for Canada since May 8th,  7,000 had died of typhus,

2,200 had died at sea,

1,000 after arrival but before landing,

and 3,800 since leaving the ship.

They had brought typhus with them and fever was already raging in some Canadian cities. It’s hardly possible to imagine the “welcome” they must have received.

Many of the migrants though, could not afford the long sea journey to America and the colonies, and settled in England, mainly in the larger cities where there was at least a prospect of finding work. In Manchester, most of the migrants ended up in “Angel Meadows.” These 33 acres close to the city centre housed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in “purpose-built” housing.  The dark streets, passageways and alleys that linked the housing, were dangerous places frequented by gangs known as ‘scuttlers.’  A London journalist, Angus Reach, visited “Angel Meadows” in 1849 and reported:-

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish.”

The back-to-back terraces had one room in the cellar, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The cellar rooms, accessed via a dark passageway below street level, were the cheapest, the first floor rooms the most expensive. Each room housed an individual, or more likely, a family, or group of people.  Outside privies (toilets) were provided at the rate of 1 per 100 inhabitants. The journalist, Reach, visited one basement room and wrote this:-

“The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive… the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place.”

The Angel Meadows area of Manchester was eventually demolished and paved-over, together with the former burial ground of St Michael’s Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers. In fact, most of the rookeries and slum areas that fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain have been demolished and built-over, including the “Avon Street” area of Bath. It’s a good thing. Slums should be demolished. But we should remember the struggle of generation after generation for decent housing, sanitation, health-care, education and democracy.

The people who lived in Angel Meadows andAvon Street deserve to be remembered. If nothing else they are part of what made us who we are. They  help us to understand and empathise with those who are going through the same thing now, no matter which part of the world they live in, or come from. They also show what people are capable of, given the opportunity, and help us value what we have now, thanks to their sacrifices and struggles in the past. It’s easy to think of the Irish migrants as the “lucky” ones, the ones who escaped. After all, the descendants of those who survived are now respected members of their communities. Yet for many, it was no easy escape, but one that often took generations to achieve.

For those who want to read more about Coffin Ships, the “Great Hunger” and Irish Migration to Canada, there is an excellent piece with several good illustrations on J.G. Burdette’s Blog – “Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine.”

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