My great-grandfather, Joseph Fielding, was elected Mayor of Blackburn in 1921. This character sketch was written for the Blackburn Times by Jno. Geo. Shaw, but did not appear. Proofs were submitted to Joseph on the day of his election. It was at his request that publication was withheld. Fortunately for us, the article was archived, and I reproduce it below (supplied by Denise Light)
It is considerably over fifty years since I first made the acquaintance of the new Mayor of Blackburn, for I was only eight years old and Joe was about the same. A precocious little boy was young Joe Fielding, for before he was nine years of age he aspired to be a town councillor. He was working at the stone one day on some cottages his employer was building, when some members of the Highways and Building Committee paid a visit to see if the bye-laws were being carried out. Joe eyed them critically as they made their inspection, and turning to the mason at the next stone, remarked, "I shall be one of these men, some day, Pat." "Bedad, and you will, too," responded Paddy heartily, and the prediction has come true.
Joe must have spotted me on my first day at St. Thomas's School. We both lived in Higher Audley, and on the second day, as I was walking along the edging stones of Walpole St, Joe joined me with the trite remark, "Gooin' to t' schoo'." "Ay," said I. "Soo am I," said Joe. And without another word we trudged along in single file, for neither the footpath nor the road were paved, and we were obliged to walk on the edging stones to keep our clogs clean. In like manner we went and returned together for several years, and I am quite certain now that as we kept in file as silent as Indians on the trail, Joe was turning over in his mind what improvements he would make in the highways of Blackburn when he became "one of these men".
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I did not become a half-timer in the cotton mill until I was ten years old, but Joe experienced the half-time system when he was eight, and broke his left arm in the process, which brought him out of the mill, to which he never returned. He was, however, working on the stone as a half-time mason before he was nine, and I well remember in our early teens how envious I was of him and his brother, for being able to earn a man's wage very soon after they became full-timers. I am quite certain I had the support of all the men in the town of Mr Fielding's experience and standing when, as a journalist, many years later, I advocated in "The Blackburn Times" the raising of the half-time age from ten to eleven. What chance had we, at ten years of age, of "bettering ourselves," when we worked in the mill from six o'clock in the morning until half-past twelve noon, and then had to turn to our schooling in the afternoon, with the tiresome home lessons at night, which were necessary to keep up to the Government standard? There are no half-timers now.
When Joe was 17 years old he had more than served his apprenticeship to his trade, so he and his elder brother, William, set up in business for themselves as contractors, and obtained the sub-contract for the stonework of various cottages, out of which they made a little money, besides paying themselves good wages as journeymen. When he was 18 they were both offered jobs at Stonyhurst College, then being extended, and Joe was offered a foreman's place, not because he was a better mason than his elder brother, but because the head foreman at Stonyhurst knew him better. So to Stonyhurst they went. Youth was not in Joe's favour here. He had fifty or a hundred men under his direct supervision at times, and some of them looked askance at their youthful overseer. A number of men who had struck work on the Law Courts in London were very hard to deal with. The Government had brought in German labour, I believe, to finish the Law Courts, and the strikers were not in the best of humours at having to come so far north for employment. One of them flatly refused to take his orders from Joe, but Joe refused to give way an inch, and sent the man to the office to be paid off. The authorities backed up Joe, the man was paid off, and there was no further trouble about taking orders from the lad that had been set over them.
At 19 years of age, the health of Joe's father (Mr Robert Fielding, pawnbroker - himself formerly a mason) began to fail, and he asked both his sons to come into the shop and succeed him. William, however, had already decided to go into the church, and when they both left Stonyhurst, Will went to Cambridge University to take his degree, and Joe went into his father's shop at the bottom of Addison St, as manager. The father died nest year, and Joe succeeded to the business, but had to find all his own capital. It was a very trying year to Joe, for it was the year 1878, which all men and women of my age will remember as the year of the Great Strike, when Dragoons had to be galloped over from Preston to put down the rioting, when the rioters set fire to Col. Jackson's house at Wilpshire, and when many a kind-hearted Blackburn tradesman lost all he had through giving credit to starving people. I remember that Joe himself lent his last penny. He was sitting in his shop early one morning, unable to open the doors because he hadn't a penny to lend, when he heard the crowd outside talking, one man grumbling outrageously that he had walked all the way from Accrington to redeem a pledge, and now found the shop closed against him. At this, Joe pricked up his ears. It hadn't struck him that anyone would be bringing him money, he thought they all wanted to borrow money. So he opened the door and the crowd surged in. Rolling up his sleeves, and standing behind the counter ready for business, Joe said, "We'll take the redeemed pledges first. Is there anybody here wants to redeem a pledge?" "Ay, me!" spoke up the man from Accrington, and Joe held out his hand for the ticket. His face fell when he saw that the pledge was only one for 1s., and with interest to date he would only have one and three-halfpence to draw. Not much "capital" that for him to do business as a money-lender with, but he swallowed his disappointment, and asked, "Any more to redeem pledges." But there was never a one. All the others were borrowers. With a sad heart Joe fetched out the pledge of the Accrington man, and demanded his one and three-halfpence. The man had only one and a penny, so Joe said, "All right, give us that", and the man walked off a halfpenny to the good. "Now," said Joe, "this is all the money I've got. A lot of you will have to go away empty. But is there anybody here wants to borrow a shilling?" A dozen hands were held out, and a dozen voices clamoured for preference. He selected one, examined the article offered in pledge, made out the ticket, and handed over the shilling. Then said he, "I've a penny left. Does anybody want to borrow a penny?" And he lent his last penny to another customer, turned the others sadly away, and locked up his shop.
This is a dramatic instance of how he lent his last penny to his customers, but I know of many instances during the first twenty years of his business life when he was pulled at so much that he was unable to take a proper holiday, or to rest at night, owing to the anxiety which his business caused him. If he had worked ten hours a day as a mason he worked a great deal longer as a businessman, and his worries as a small capitalist, trying to make his way in the world, were infinitely greater than any worries he had even had as a wage earner. But his sympathies were always with the working man, and he made a reputation for fairness, and even generosity in business, which had a great deal to do with his ultimate success. He is now the principal proprietor of nine shops of various kinds, including one large wholesale emporium, and for many years he has been able to leave part of his business to his sons and give his attention to the affairs of the town, municipal government being his hobby; and while he has attained a pre-eminence in matters of local government which place him on an equality with some of the best administrators in the country, he has still retained the affection of the working classes among whom he was brought up, and he is now as he always has been, essentially a man of the people.
Talking of "hard times" reminds me that about thirty years ago there was a great deal of distress in Blackburn - full particulars of it, with the exact date, can be found by turning up the file of "The Blackburn Times" at the Free Library. On a certain Wednesday afternoon the Mayor and the Bishop and a number of our most prominent citizens held a meeting in the Town Hall to discuss what should be down to relieve the distress, and to the consternation of those who knew better, they decided that nothing need be done at present. The same day Mr and Mrs Fielding, with Councillor and Mrs. Law, came to spend the evening at my house, as usual, and we discussed the town's affairs. Both Mr Law and Mr Fielding spoke eloquently of scores of instances of distress among respectable working people in the neighbourhood of Wensley Fold, out of work, and literally starving. Joe mentioned case after case of men and women pawning their clothes for bread who had never been in a pawnshop in their lives before. We all agreed that the Mayoral Committee did not know the condition of the working classes as well as we did, and that the decision of the powers that be was a mistaken decision. Joe said: "There is nothing now but to rely on private enterprise. I'll give £5 to anybody who will start a soup kitchen tomorrow." "I'll give another £5," said Mr Law, "and there's a boiler in one of my rooms at Pump Street that can be used for making soup." My part was to set the printing press to work and get in subscriptions. The first man we spoke to gave us a cow. Another bought fifty pounds woth of soup tickets for distribution, and Mr Harry Hornsby, M.P., wired me that he was sending £200 to the Mayor for the relief fund. On the next day (Friday) the Soup Kitchen was handed over to the Mayor as a going concern, but we continued to work it and find money for it. Soup Kitchens sprang up rapidly in other parts of the town under the Mayor's control, and the way in which they were appreciated soon proved that we were right in challenging the decision of the preliminary meeting of the local gentry held in the Mayor's parlour.
I remarked a while ago that Mr Fielding was for many years unable to leave his business for a holiday, and after he did begin to take holidays, I know, from having been in his company, that he was always worrying to get home again. But at length he did begin to take holidays in earnest, and as a traveller he developed the habit of keen observation and logical deduction which had helped him in his business, and which have since made him a successful exponent of municipal government. In the East he went to see for himself how the Egyptians, four thousand years ago, were able with wooden wedges to cut out of solid rock such huge monoliths as Cleopatra's Needle, and he declares that no better method is known to the masons of today. In the narrow streets of Tangiers, as he saw men actually carrying a thick block of stone, probably six feet square, slung from their shoulders, and moved along to the crack of the whip, inch by inch, slowly but surely, he realised in a flash how the ancients had carried huge stones up long earthen inclines to the top of the pyramids. Over the hills of Yorkshire I have discussed geology with him; in the cities of Italy we have talked architecture. My knowledge is derived from books, his from an unerring instinct for observation, and I could not wish for a better companion on a holiday. The last time we were in Germany together he called my attention to the fact that the people were going to their work on the Saturday afternoon, that on the Sunday, men, women, and children, sat in beer gardens eating big dinners, but that they had no cricket, no football, no sports, and that in the shops they had to give threepence for a photographic plate which we could buy in England for a penny - a further restriction on their hobbies. No wonder they could undersell us, but the British workman got the benefit in the long run by buying his things cheap and devoting his time to something which paid better and left him leisure for recreation.
In a singularly marked manner, Mr Fielding is one of those men who are not known without the addition of the Christian name. I could quote many other instances where the Christian name is never omitted when speaking of a man, for example, Harry Hornby, and Henry Harrison, Jack Smith, Jim Thompson, and George Green, and others who have occupied the Mayoral Chair before Joe Fielding. Rich and poor, friends and strangers, use the Christian name habitually, and there is no disrespect in doing so. The name is part of the man's distinctive character. Long ago, when he was giving personal attention to business behind the counter, he got in a company of Blackburn people at Blackpool, and was so much puzzled by the features of one well-dressed young lady that he introduced himself to her with the remark: "I am sure I know you, but for the life of me I cannot recall your name." "Whey!" was the response, in broad Lancashire, "Aren'd yo' Joe at t'shop?" She was one of his customers, but he did not know her in all her Blackpool finery. A few months ago he was distributing certificates to mothers who had made use of the Maternity Centre, one of the educational institutions of the Health Committee of which he is Chairman. More than one of the mothers, as she came on the platform to receive her child's certificate at the Chairman's hands, greeted him more or less "sotto voce" with, "hello, Joe," or some other such friendly claim to his acquaintance. A friend of mine quite recently received a call from Mrs Randal Fielding while she had an inquisitive charlady in the house. When the visitor had gone, the charlady asked, "Who was that lady?" Knowing that she would never rest content until she was answered, my friend replied good naturedly, "Oh, that is Mrs Randal Fielding." "And who is she?" "Why, you know, Alderman Fielding's daughter-in-law." "Alderman Fielding," replied the charlady, puzzling her brain with though, "Do yo' mean Joe?" My friend admitted that she did mean "Joe" and the charlady's inquisitiveness was satisfied.
Just one more story to illustrate the same point. On Thursday last week my friend above referred to - let us call her Mrs Smith, since that is her name - was stopped in the street by another friend who asked her if she had heard the news of Mr Fielding's selection to be the Mayor. She wouldn't believe it. She knew Joe had been asked more than once before and that he wouldn't take it. But just at that moment a newsboy called out the extra special of the evening paper, adding as a bait to attract customers, "Choice of the new Mayor!" "Here," said Mrs Smith, "Let's have a paper and see if it's true." The boy sold the paper, and after pocketing his penny, remarked, "It's nod i' th' paper, but aw can tell yo' who id is. It's Joe Fielding."
I have left myself no room to speak of Mr Fielding's work on the Corporation during the last twenty years. His most important work was as Chairman of the Highway Committee, the greatest spending department of the Corporation. Of late years it has been as Chairman of the Health Committee which has introduced new developments in municipal sanitary work that have brought Blackburn into the forefront of the important country boroughs. It is Mr Fielding's boast that never in all his experience has a recommendation of his committee been sent back by the Town Council for reconsideration, but he tells his Committee and his officers that this reputation must be lived up to, that far from thinking that they can get anything through because he is Chairman, they must be very careful never to make a recommendation until it has been thoroughly thrashed out in the office and in Committee, and when put before the Council is beyond criticism and above rejection.
by Jonathan George Shaw
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