Agriculture Could Not Have Made Such a Place as Manchester

Among the thousands of British troops who fought at Waterloo was an eighteen-year-old named John Lees. He came from Oldham in Lancashire. Had he died at Waterloo we should never have heard of him, for the blood of such ordinary young men stained the Belgian cornfields red. But he survived the three days of bitter fighting that culminated on June 18th, 1815, in the final defeat of Napoleon and the end of twenty-odd years of war. He was discharged and returned home to follow his trade as a cotton spinner. Four years later he was dead as the result of injuries received on another field.

The ground on which John Lees sustained his mortal wounds was an area of open land near the centre of Manchester known as Saint Peter’s Field. The date was August 16th, 1819, and the occasion was a mass meeting in support of Parliamentary reform. The injuries were inflicted by fellow Lancastrians, who were members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and by the 15th Hussars, ex-comrades in-arms from Waterloo. Before he died John Lees said he was never in such danger at Waterloo as he was at the meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man but at Manchester it was downright murder. He was not alone in this assessment. Other people seized upon the presence of Waterloo veterans such as himself in the unarmed crowds, and upon the actions of the 15th Hussars on the June and August days.

On the August day the savage sobriquet ‘Peterloo’ was bestowed.

John Lees lingered in agony for three weeks after Peterloo. His inquest was used as a test case to try and prove that what happened on Saint Peter’s Field had been ‘downright murder’. Thus in death his name rang round England But if in life he was unsung he was also, by being such an ordinary I young man, typical Of thousands of Lancastrians The reasons that made him attend the meeting also drove half the 60,000 present, the army of John Leeses who do not move until a situation has reached desperation point or the way has been so clearly sign-posted they cannot fail to follow. Of these reasons a few were understood by him at the time, others he was not sufficiently clever or educated to grasp; while others need a retrospective eye.

The stuff of which Peterloo was made has as many threads as a length of woven cotton, but the main ones were contained in John Lees’s brief life span. For he was a child not only of the Industrial Revolution1 but of the world cradle of that revolution (or evolution). A small-time cotton manufacture had existed in south-east Lancashire since the beginning of the seventeenth century, with. Manchester as its weak heart and the villages such as Oldham, Middleton, Rochdale and Royton as the anaemic arteries. In the old days a cosy structure had existed which memory made cosier as it disappeared. The merchants bought the raw cotton from the Liverpool dealers, sold it to small-time masters who in turn sold it to spinners working in their cottages. When the yarn was spun it was sold back to the masters or directly to the aristocrats of the trade, the hand-loom weavers, who duly wove the cloth and sold it to other masters. Within this structure everybody, so they imagined, was independent. That they were subject to recessions, and could be thrown out of work, either escaped them or they later forgot. What everybody did have, and ‘certainly remembered, was the freedom to impose their own tempo on life.

In the 1770s everything changed. A burst of mechanical inventions meant that high quality cotton could be produced in hitherto unimaginable quantities It was because the initial inventions were connected with the cotton trade that Lancashire became the world cradle of the Industrial Revolution, suffering from the incalculable pressures of being first in the field. At the start there was an insatiable market, both at home and abroad, for this splendid, cheap material. Capital poured into Manchester. Shillings turned overnight into massive fortunes. Small-time masters became manufacturers and in the process grew further and further away from the men with whom they had hitherto worked amicably. Chasing their pot of gold, or at least better wages than they could earn as joiners, hatters and locksmiths, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, the people poured in too. The stampede turned Manchester from a fair sized town to the second largest city in England. Manchester and Salford’s joint population of 40,000 in 1750 had risen to 95,000 by 1800. It turned the sleepy villages into cotton towns. Oldham with less than 4,000 inhabitants in 1750 had grown to 12,000 by 1800. The whole area resembled a new-found colony, called Eldorado.

However, by the time John Lees was born the cotton bandwagon was running off the rails. England was at war with France, and the longer the wars dragged on, the more erratic its course became. The boom days when spinning families were earning between 30s and 40s a week, and those involved in weaving averaging between 40s and 60s, became memories told by father. And grandfather started to recall the good old days before mechanization. For if wages were plunging downwards and unemployment, with the new concentration of people dependent on a single manufacture, was becoming mass, other forces could not be checked either. Industrialization had changed the structure and tempo of life irrevocably.

The two main changes were the growth of the industrial slums and the Factory System. When the hordes first poured into the area they needed housing. So a builder and a carpenter joined forces (not everybody climbed on to the cotton bandwagon but practically everybody lived off it). They bought a stretch of land as near as possible to the centre of the places where the manufacturing activity was concentrated—Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Stockport and the rest. If the land already contained ditches, that was fine as it saved digging foundations. In the ditches cellars were constructed, forming a damp working area for the weavers. For yarn needed to be kept supple while being Woven, and the only way to keep it thus was in a damp atmosphere. The houses from which the people had come had not been palatial but neither had they been built on top of sewage ditches, hundreds of rows, without gardens, without sight of a tree, without the smell of the fresh air (or freshish, remembering the sewage ditches found in every town and village). The only amenity the new houses possessed was running water, not from a tap, but rising from the rotten foundations and pouring down the walls.

While wages remained high most people accepted the conditions. Money, if not producing happiness, took the edge off unhappiness. It provided the wherewithal to buy luxuries such as best beef and butter, or to drown your sorrows in drink. While the money was coming in many people, albeit sullenly and considerably fewer in number, also accepted the Factory System. This arose initially for simple, practical reasons. The first inventions occurred in the spinning branch of the industry and soon the whole processing of cotton had become infinitely more complicated. The waste of time spent plodding between individual cottages became ridiculous, and in any case the weight of the new machines was too great for a single cottage. So they, and all the spinning processes, became concentrated in a mill. The Factory System itself, therefore, made sense. Unfortunately, the manner in which it was conducted in most mills from the very beginning was dreadful. The major impulse was profit for the master, so conditions were harsh, brutal and degrading, not only to increase profits but also to keep the workers submissive.

John Lees’s father, Robert, was among the spinners who accepted the new fact of economic life—that hand-spun yarn could not compete with machine-produced. When John was in his early teens his father opened a small mill in Oldham where John, his mother, brother and sisters and a dozen or so others worked. Most of the mills were small, though a few employed workers in their thousands. Robert Lees’s was not among the worst, but even so conditions there were of economic necessity harsh. On the whole it was in the small factories, where the masters were scrambling their way upwards or fighting to make a living, that the most brutal conditions prevailed. Spinners worked a fourteen-hour day in steaming temperatures up to 90° Fahrenheit. They were heavily fined for sending out for a drink of water, or opening a window, or whistling, or slipping with a gas lighter, or falling asleep at their machines. Spinners included men, women and children from the age of five. For most of the factory jobs were menial and tedious and could easily, and more cheaply, be performed by the women and children. The female of the spinning species was from the age of puberty regarded as anybody’s meat. Male visitors to many factories were invited to take their pick for a lusty roll.

By 1815 there were sixty factories in the Manchester area, employing some 24,000 workers. Over 90 per cent were spinning mills; However, there were still as many spinners operating from their cottages. But in and out of the factories wages had dropped to an average of 24s a week, prices had risen and the Corn Bill had been passed. The shadow of the Corn Laws hung over the whole period like a carrion crow. The Bill was passed in the phoney peace between Napoleon’s incarceration on Elba and Waterloo. As soon as its terms were made known, that foreign corn could not be imported until the price of home-grown wheat had reached 80s a quarter, there were riots and protest meetings throughout the country. It was finally passed in a House of Commons ringed by troops with bayonets fixed, for it protected the interests of an elite alone True, the farmers it protected needed help, but passing a law which adversely affected everybody else in the country was not the best way to go about it. For the Corn Bill meant that come the next bad harvest the price of corn would rocket. It did not require a weather prophet to foretell that in England it would be sooner rather than later. Nor an economist to tell the thousands of spinners and weavers what a rise in the price of bread, their ‘staff of life’, would mean. As an added thorn for the manufacturing districts, of which Lancashire from its industrial cradling position was always in the van for good or ill, the Corn Bill also meant that their goods could not be exchanged for foreign corn as they had been in the past.

John Lees, therefore, returned home from the wars to find that both the conditions and wages of spinners had fast detenorated.2 The plight of the weavers, the former aristocrats of the trade, was infinitely worse. Although the first inventions had occurred in the spinning branch, the power loom had been invented in 1785, thirty years before. In that period, following the normal headlong pattern of industrialization, the power loom should have mechanized and transformed weaving. The weavers should have been in the factories in their thousands. But they weren’t. There was a bare handful of weaving mills, and over 40,000 hand-loom weavers were living and working outside the Factory System.

Why weaving remained outside the system for so many years is a point that has been argued for as many subsequent ones. Nobody has found a crystal-clear answer. Was it because the hand-loom weavers had been the aristocrats that they clung to their ‘independence’? But the people who flocked into hand-loom weaving in the early boom days had never been craftsmen. Did the immigrants assume the mantle of superiority due to the excellent early wages, and become loath to abandon it? Was it the ease with which you could acquire a hand-loom and set it up in your cellar and seem to be your own master? But you could acquire a spinning wheel, or even a small mechanized Spinning Jenny, just as easily. Remembering the conditions in the factories one does not blame the weavers for clinging to their independence, however illusory. But why did the spinners not cling as a mass to theirs so tenaciously? Was, there something in the different branches that made the spinners accept the industrial facts while weavers did not or could the weavers not see why industrialization was inevitable? Could they not initially believe that the boom days had gone for ever, and later absolutely disbelieve that they could be left in such appalling conditions, to endure such extreme suffering?

For with dreadful irony, by rejecting industrialization, the weavers created for themselves conditions worse than those in the factories. Already by 1815 there were far too many of them chasing far too little work. In their struggle to earn a living they were undercutting themselves to the extent that hand-woven cloth was cheaper than machine produced. Their wages had plummeted from 40s-60s a week to an average of 12s. Over the years they had tried to redress their economic grievances by economic means, petitioning Parliament for a minimum wage, but without success. They were not well organized. The temperament which made the more educated cling so desperately to their independence was not conducive to the co-operation demanded, by an effective pressure group. The illiterate swarm of migrants had either something of the same temperament or were too sunk in misery to care. Against them anyway was the power of the masters who were getting what they wanted, cheap cloth, and did not feel it was their business to inquire in what conditions the cheap cloth was being produced. If the weavers wanted to be self-employed and independent that was their privilege, as long as they did not make a fuss in the process. In 1815, vast and potentially disturbing force as the 40,000 hand-loom weavers were, they had not protested greatly. So the majority of masters were content to let the sleeping dogs lie in their damp, rotten, rat-infested, cholera-prone cellars.

Physically the area was, by today’s standards, rural. The boundaries of Manchester were narrow. Hulme, Ardwick, Cheetham, Chariton Row—the essential dreary ring of the late nineteenth-century industrial city with which the twentieth century is belatedly trying to cope—were outlying districts. ‘There were toll gates barring the entry to Manchester proper. In the heart of the town around Mosley Street the rich manufacturers and merchants lived in their large houses. The outward drift, away from the smells, the dirt and hoi polloi had not started. There were many remnants of the medieval village Manchester had been, timber houses and early eighteenth-century brick and plaster ones. Main thoroughfares such as Market Street were twisting and narrow, with pavements only eighteen inches wide. The tearing down of old Manchester to make way for the mills and warehouses and counting houses, the ugly palaces of King Cotton, had not yet begun. The concentration in rotten housing had started, but it was confined to comparatively small areas around New Cross and Newtown in Manchester, and in the centres of the old cotton villages. The River Irwell,’ which flows through Manchester and even in the heart of the town had not so long ago been clear and unpolluted, was already dirty and muddy, The most overworked river in the world’. Of the sixty mills in the area, a considerable proportion were darkening the skyline along the Irwell’s banks. But in 1815 the first industrial city in the world was rising on hitherto derelict or open spaces, and its messy sprawl was limited.

Once out of Manchester you were in open country. The eight miles between the town and Oldham, for example, were unspoiled. After his discharge from the army John Lees walked home on rutted turnpikes, across bridle paths, down through deep wooded valleys, scrambling up mossy banks where honeysuckle and wild roses grew, stopping to slake his thirst at a clear rindle (the local word for a stream), until he hit the foothills of, the Pennines, nifty; gorse-strewn moorland.

If the physical scars were minimal, the economic stresses were already heavy. The spinners on the one hand herded into the factories the weavers on the other in their wretched cellars, all suffering from a sharp drop in wages, an equally sharp rise in prices with the black shadow of the Corn Bill looming over them. The spiritual and moral pressures emerging from the rapid change both in tempo and mode of life, and from the harsh new industrial beat, had also bitten deeply. The predominant emotion in 1815 was sullen acquiesence. The major cause for concern was economic. They wanted sufficient money to live decently, or indecently as the case might be. They were not over-interested in why they were unable to earn a living. But if wages and conditions did not improve they knew something would have to be done, either for or by them. What that something should be neither John Lees nor the anonymous thousands had any clear idea.

  1. The term ‘Industrial Revolution’ was used in John Lees’s lifetime though he certainly never heard it. A French economist named Blanqui saw that the implications of the industrial upheaval in England were as vast as the more immediately obvious ones of the recent French Revolution, and he thus coined the phrase It has since been decried The process was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but Monsieur Blanqui deserves full marks for his percipient and apposite use of the term.
  2. John Lees may have enlisted in the army because of economic distress but his enlistment was more or less voluntary. Not every soldier in Wellington’s army was the scum of the earth. Some were decent, semi-literate young men such as he.