Since well before the first Factory Act of 1802 the conditions and working hours in cotton factories had been abominable. Subsequent acts were inadequately enforced and easily evaded by employers in factories often met in isolated rural areas. The 1819 Cotton Mills Act forbade the employment of children under nine and those under sixteen were not to work more than twelve hours a day. This law was almost always ignored.
In 1823 a Justice of the Peace, Charles Whittaker and the Rev. James Quartley were appointed by Lancashire Quarter Sessions J.P.s to inspect factories in the Blackburn area. The inspectors did not meet with a 'single instance' in which the 1819 act was complied with. Many factories were dirty and ill ventilated and many children under nine were employed.
At Bannister Eccles' Jubilee Street Factory in Blackburn at least two seven-year-old girls were spoken to. A boy aged seven was seen at Messrs. Joseph Walmsleys at Grimshaw near Darwen, a girl aged six at Messrs. James Livesey’s at Hoghton Bottoms. These are but examples. At most factories the inspectors saw many young people, many evidently not nine years old. When questioned, however, most said they did not know their age. However, children were often told by their parents and the foreman not to tell the inspectors their true age.
The Factory Act of 1833 continued to prohibit the employment of children under nine and the working week of children from nine to thirteen was limited to forty-eight hours. For the age group thirteen to eighteen the limit was sixty-nine hours. Longer hours, however, were not uncommon. Many more acts of Parliament and much more effort by reformers were to come before hours were reduced from sixty in 1875. The half-time system was introduced in 1844 for some children to attend school as well as work lasted until 1921 when twelve year olds were no longer allowed to work in factories for half a day every day.
Children in East Lancashire always had to work. Any child no matter how young he or she was, of a handloom weaver had to help to prepare the yarn for the loom. All had to contribute in some way. Their job would be to card and spin, or even to care for babies to enable older children to work. When the boys were big enough and strong enough they had to weave. The compensation, such as it was, was to work amongst one’s own family in one’s own home. However hard that work was it was infinitely better than the abject slavery of being confined in a factory. Whichever course it was sure that in those days no child enjoyed a childhood as such.
By William (Bill) Turner
During the 19th century, Blackburn was often the scene of violent clashes between the authorities and discontented millworkers. The reasons for the factory workers' discontent varied, but were usually associated with difficult working conditions, poor pay, or the periodic 'crest and slump' economy of the cotton industry. In most cases, these outbursts achieved very little - progress was made by the formation of workers' unions later in the 19th century, when negotiation replaced violence as a bargaining tool.
The Plug-Drawing Riots
The infamous 'Plug-Drawing' riots of 1842 had their seeds in the political unrest of the previous year. The general election of 1841 was contested in Blackburn by two Tories (Feilden and Hornby) and a Whig (Turner), for two seats in parliament. The Tories represented the interests of the rich landowners and mill owners who wanted to maintain the status quo and protect their interests. The Whig candidate, William Turner, was very much the people's choice. He supported various social reforms designed to improve the lot of the working man. In particular, he favoured the abolition of the hated 'Corn Laws', which kept the price of British corn high by limiting cheap foreign imports. This unjust law was forcing many poor people below the bread line.
Although Turner was a 'man of the people', most working people in Blackburn did not yet have the right to vote for him. At this time the Chartists were agitating for various political and social reforms, including the right of all men to vote, regardless of class or wealth. But parliament had consistently rejected their proposals. The poor factory workers of Blackburn could only rely on the votes of their more enlightened masters, but these were few and far between. Their frustration at having 'no voice' was a powder keg waiting for a spark. The spark finally came when the result of the election was announced - Turner had been beaten into third place by a single vote. Rioting broke out in the town almost immediately, but was quickly put down by the authorities - but the scene had been set for the following summer...
The summer of 1842 was particularly hot. It reflected the angry mood of Blackburn's disenfranchised millworkers. Since early in the year, various Chartist speakers had whipped up their discontent in the town's market square. Rumours began to circulate of a general uprising, a strike, a revolution even. By early August, news filtered through of large bands of Chartists surging through other towns in the industrial belt of the Midlands and the North. Their intention was to 'turn out the hands' in all the factories, stop the mill engines and halt Britain's industrial production. The government and the local authorities were terrified of what could happen if a general strike turned into an armed rebellion. They decided to stamp on any sign of unrest and stationed garrisons of troops in every town.
On August 17th news came through of a large mob approaching Blackburn from Accrington, turning out the workers and closing down mills as they went. Many of Blackburn's millworkers planned to join them when they arrived in the town. The local magistrate, John Fowden-Hindle, made hasty preparations to repel the 'invaders'. He mustered the town's police force under Superintendent Sheppard, and a detachment of the 72nd Highlander, under Colonel Arbuthnot. The first 'stand off' came on Furthergate; Fowden-Hindle warned the mob that their actions would lead to dire consequences if they did not disperse, and he read out the Riot Act. The rebels simply melted into the surrounding fields and side-streets, leaving Fowden-Hindle wondering what their next move would be.
The mob were successful in their attempts to stop the local cotton mills from working. Their technique involved pulling the fusible plug from the boilers of the mill engines, letting out all the steam and bringing the looms to a standstill. From Furthergate to Whalley Banks and Nova Scotia, the mills were closed down, mostly without argument. The authorities were keen to prevent mass gathering of striking workers taking place in the town centre. They decided to seize the ringleaders as the mob gathered in Darwen Street. This is where the disturbances took a turn for the worse.
The Police, supported by the 72nd Highlanders, succeeded in arresting some of the ringleaders, imprisoning them temporarily in a pub cellar. Fowden-Hindle called for a coach to be brought up to remove the prisoners to Preston. As the coach was being loaded, all hell broke loose on Darwen Street. The rioters began ripping up cobble stones and throwing them at the Police and soldiers. As the coach pulled away, a hail of stones and other missiles were thrown and the crowd surged forward to sieze back their friends. At this point, Fowden-Hindle gave Colonel Arbuthnot the order to fire. The Highlanders fired a devastating volley into the crowd, which quickly dispersed. Rumours spread of terrible injuries, several deaths, blood on the cobbles. Conflicting newspaper reports only served to cloud the story of what really happened. Perhaps the most accurate account was written by the diarist Charles Tiplady, a couple of weeks after the event:
"...the soldiers were obliged to fire on the mob and several persons were severely wounded, but happily not mortally. The most serious case was that of a young woman living in Penny Street who happened to be returning home from the mill at the time the discharge of arms took place, and unfortunately two balls struck her, and it was thought that there was little chance of her recovery. It is highly to the credit of the Regimental Surgeon and officers of the Regiment, as well as surgeons resident in the town that this poor innocent victim was promptly attended...up to this time (Aug 28th) the woman survives and is doing extremely well."
Within days of the riot, the mills were back to work, the ringleaders imprisoned and the strike had failed. The corn laws were eventually repealed, but many years later. Similarly, most of the Chartist demands only became law after decades of political wrangling. Blackburn was never a hotbed of extreme political agitation, the main desire of the factory operatives was 'a fair day's wage for a fair day's work'. It was to be a dispute over wages that caused the next serious disturbance in the town over 35 years later.
By Nick Harling
The trade union movement was, historically, never as strong in Blackburn as it was in neighbouring north-west towns. Politics in Blackburn were led by the paternal relationship between mill workers and owners, the cotton elite of the town shaped their workforce in a skilful way.
However many strikes and disputes did take place. In 1853 the standard list was agreed by masters and men which stated the rates to be paid to cotton operatives. Once this list had been established the main function of the unions in the town was to defend this status and try to make mill owners adhere to this agreement, rather than pursuing other, more radical changes to working hours, conditions etc. By the end of the 19th century unions wanted a more powerful voice and more power to affect the political decisions taken which would affect their members.
The unions managed to restart the Trades Council which tried but failed in giving the unions a single, unified voice. Blackburn unions were very conservative. Blackburn Weavers' Association actively shunned socialism as it attempted to keep its members. The Weavers' Protection Society which was established in 1885 were openly conservative and held a membership of 3000. The Conservative Working Men's Vigilance Committee fought radicalism in the local trade union movement. It followed then that union leaders had to be very careful in striving for a more active voice.
The middle-classes had been very successful in creating a conservative workforce. This was to seriously hamper the attempts at a development of a political left in working-class organisations. Unionism was to grow stronger as the hold of the cotton elite weakened, mills were taken over, merged and amalgamated. This resulted in a whole new level which came between the master and men in the form of shareholders, company directors, managers etc. This disrupted the paternalistic relationship that the Blackburn workforce had with its mill owners and loyalties began to wane.
By 1830 trade unionism was playing a part in the industrial issues of the town. Wages were the primary issue that unions dealt with, their voice was used for industrial rather than political reasons.
High unemployment in the 1920s and 30s affected the unions. Standard price lists were not adhered to as employers cut costs. The breaking of this agreement was resisted by the unions and there was mass industrial action in the 1930s, particularly remembered in the 'Great Strike' of 1932 in which many suffered great privations and distress. However 'knobsticking' (the local term for blacklegs or strike breakers) resulted in defeat after defeat. The people who most often crossed pickets and broke strikes were women. Many women needed the stamps to receive unemployment benefit and many were perhaps more concerned with feeding their families than supporting the unions. People who broke strikes were expelled from the unions, but many union members who were unemployed were to have their benefits stopped as they could no longer afford to pay the weekly subscriptions needed to remain a union member. Many of Blackburn's unions struggled and became weak as their finances were depleted by mass unemployment, many had more money being paid out than they had coming in.
By Rachael Spencer
In the Middle Ages the poor, those who were too old, too sick, too disabled to support themselves, or those who were abled-bodied but had no work, had to rely on families or the church. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 did much to disrupt this system, and the growth of towns drew people away from their families and home villages.
In 1597 an Act was passed calling upon parishes to appoint 'overseers of the poor' to find work for those without it, and to make provision for those who could not help themselves. This was the basis for all welfare services for the next 250 years. The first workhouse was opened in Bristol in 1698 and was a genuine attempt to provide decent accommodation and worthwhile employment. A 1723 Act authorised parishes to set up workhouses, but by now it was realised that the workhouse could be a deterrent to those claiming relief. As soon as one was opened all pensions paid to the poor ceased and those who could not shift for themselves had to remove themselves there and by making sure conditions within were as harsh and uncomfortable as possible, numbers could be minimised.
The workhouse was a great success from the authorities point of view. It terrified the poor and made them determined to avoid being sent there, and survived as an institution into the 20th century. In 1909 old age pensions were introduced and labour exchanges were set up. It was on March 31st 1930 that the workhouses closed at last.
The great expansion of welfare services came in 1945 when a Labour Government committed to relieving poverty was elected. Over the next few years free health treatment, free milk for children and grants for students were introduced.
The workhouse was seen as the solution to a broad spectrum of social problems. It acted as an old people's home, a mental hospital, a general hospital, a children's home and a hostel for the homeless. Poverty had been a problem for society from the very start.
During the Middle Ages it was left to family or the church to look after the poor and infirm. In 1597 an Act was passed requiring parishes to appoint 'overseers of the poor' whose job it was to find work for those who could work and to build alms-houses for those unable to support themselves. A number of Acts from 1696 until 1834 paved the way for the establishment of workhouses.
Blackburn's old workhouse was erected in 1764 on the Town's Moor. It was in use for 100 years before moving to the heights overlooking Queen's Park. It was the Local Goverment Act of 1930 which saw the demise of the Board of Guardians and the workhouses, and it was the election of the Labour Government in 1945 which led to the welfare state and proper provision for the old and destitute.
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