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Post by Stanley » 21 Apr 2012, 08:30

[Transcribed and published with the permission of the Editor and Author. Chris Aspin.]

EXTRACTED FROM ‘MANCHESTER AND THE TEXTILE DISTRICTS IN 1849 BY ANGUS BETHUNE REACH. Edited by Chris Aspin and published in 1972 by the Helmshore Local History Society.


THE VISITOR to Oldham will find it essentially a mean-looking straggling town, built upon both sides and crowning the ridge of one of the outlying spurs which branch from the neighbouring “back-bone of England.” The whole place has a shabby underdone look. The general appearance of the operatives' houses is filthy and smouldering. Airless little back streets and close nasty courts are common; pieces of dismal waste ground - all covered with wreaths of mud and piles of blackened brick and rubbish - separate the mills, which are often of small dimensions and confined and crowded appearance. The shops cannot be complimented, the few hotels are no better than taverns, and altogether the place, to borrow a musical simile, seems far under concert pitch. I observed, as I walked up from the railway station, melancholy clusters of gaunt, dirty, unshorn men, lounging on the pavement. These, I heard, were principally hatters, a vast number of whom are out of employment. Another feature of the place was the quantity of dogs of all kinds which abounded - dog-races and dogfights being both common among the lowest orders of the inhabitants.

The union of Oldham includes eight townships, and comprises a population of about 85,000 souls, 50,000 of whom actually live in the town itself. The operations of the union only commenced in 1847. During that year as much as £262 was spent in out-door relief in a week. The amount at present paid is about £112 per week for out-door relief, and there are about 450 paupers in the workhouse, which is, however, very inadequate to the wants of the population. The union is often obliged to pay for beds at common lodging-houses, for the vagrants and destitute tramps whom they cannot take into the house. The acreage of the union is 11,000, and, like the neighbouring district of Ashton, it has escaped with about thirty fatal cases of cholera.

I shall give an account of the operatives of Oldham, in so far as they seem to differ from the average cotton population of Manchester and the surrounding towns. In Oldham, there are a great number of small capitalists renting floors or small portions of factories. These employers have themselves generally risen from the mule or the loom and maintain in a great degree their operative appearance, thoughts, and habits. Many of the coarser operations performed upon the coarsest sorts of cotton are carried on - numerous mills are “spinning waste” as it is called - that is, working up for the commonest purposes the material rejected as refuse by the factories engaged in producing the finer and medium degrees of goods. The stuff subjected to the operation of these Oldham mills, immortalized by Mr. Ferrand as “Shoddy-and Devil's dust,” is specially produced in its manufacture. Those helots called the “Low Irish” are to be found in considerable numbers at Oldham, and I shall shortly describe their homes and haunts.

One of my first cares was to ascertain, so far as I could, the difference in the tone of relationship subsisting between the class of operative capitalists in Oldham and the workpeople, as compared with that existing between the mill hands and the larger and more assuming capitalists of greater towns. This is exactly one of those delicate social points with reference to which the passing visitor is compelled to seek for information at second hand. The particulars which I received from the different sources to which I applied differed widely. By two or three intelligent persons, life-long residents in Oldham, I was assured that the class of operative-employers were by far the most popular with the mill hands. “These masters,” I was informed, “are just the same as if they were the fellow workman of those they employ. They dress much in the same way, they live much in the same way, their habits and language are almost identical, and when they 'get on the spree' they go and drink and sing in low taverns with their own working hands.” I inquired in what sort of houses these masters lived? “In houses a little better and larger than the common dwellings, but managed inside very much in the same way.”

“Do they educate their sons as gentlemen?" “They seldom do. They may give them a better education than the sons of common men; but they wish them to supply their own places, and to be just like what they themselves are.” My informants added that although masters and men often caroused together, yet, on occasions of difference arising between them, the masters would get dreadfully abusive, and terribly bad blood would ensue. This latter piece of information, as well as a little experience of human nature, inclined me rather to credit the opposite view, urged among others by Mr. Clegg, the courteous clerk to the union, that the larger capitalists, the men who had not themselves been operatives in the memory of the existing generation, were the class of millowners most generally and most continuously popular:

“Their establishments are the larger and the better regulated. The work there is more regular, the rooms often better ventilated and more pleasant, and all sorts of minor conveniences for washing, shifting clothes, &c., better ordered than in the smaller mills.”

Oldham is tolerably well supplied with water, by means of pipes from the adjoining hills. Most of the springs in the town have been dried up by the coalmines hitting the same strata as those in which the water runs. The pit population are generally reckoned inferior, morally and intellectually, to the mill population. The wages of the former have materially suffered from the Ten Hours Bill, the factory engines not requiring the same amount of fuel. The wages earned by a good pitman at present cannot exceed, if it amounts to, a guinea a week. In this district the women never work, and never have worked, in the collieries.

Under the guidance of two intelligent relieving officers, I set out to see some of the characteristic manufacturers and some of the characteristic population of the place. It was about noon, and the people were pouring out from the mills on their way home to dinner. I observed that the women almost universally wore silk bandanna handkerchiefs fluttering round their heads. “it has always been so in Oldham” I was informed. “They would pinch hard rather than go with a plain cap instead of a silk handkerchief.” Presently I overtook two little girls, the eldest not above eight years of age, each carrying a baby some three or four months old in a pick-a-back fashion, the infant being snugly enough wrapped up, and only its head protruding from beneath the cloak of its bearer. These girls, I was informed, were nurses, paid for taking charge of the children while their mothers laboured in the mills. I accosted them.

“So, you have these children to nurse! What do the mothers pay you?"

“Oh, please sir, they pay us 1s. 6d. a week for each baby.”

“And where are you taking them now?”

“Oh, please sir, to their mothers. They come out of the mills now, and we carry the babies down to meet them, and the mothers give them suck, when they're at dinner.”

“And do you take the babies in the morning, and nurse them all day till dinner-time, and then take them to their mothers, and then fetch them back, and at last take them home at night?”

“Yes, sir, that's what we do; but sometimes, you know, the babies have little sisters, as old as us, and then they are nursed at home.”

The first manufacturing process which we saw was the cleaning of “shoddy.” Unlike any stage of the preparation of cotton which I had seen, this was carried on in an isolated building, situated in the midst of a piece of doleful-looking waste ground. There was a small steam-engine at one extremity, which turned five or six "devils," or coarse and primitive-looking blowing machines, each being placed in a compartment of its own, somewhat like the stall of a stable, and attended by a single guardian, whose business it was to feed the machine with handfuls of the coarse dirty cotton. The door was in each case open, or the dust and flying fibres from the machine would have rendered the air unbreathable. As it was, I could not but pity the gaunt-looking men who tended the devils. I questioned them, but they seemed loath to complain, admitting, however, that the flying “dust and stuff” gave them pains in the chest and terribly hacking coughs and asthma. One of them only remarked, “We don't get old men, sir, at this work.” They were paid from 8s. to 12s. per week. The refuse of each devil was consigned to the next coarser machine. The products of the better sort of machines are wrought up into quilts and coarse sheeting; those of the next coarser kind are worked into a coarse paper; from those of the third coarser kind are spun candlewicks; the product of the lowest sort of devils is the material with which flock beds are stuffed; and the refuse from these, heaps of oily seeds and broken and tangled fibres, inseparably mashed up with dirt, is sold for manure. Each shed or stall in this concern was let out for £25 a year, the landlord finding the motive power. The engine spun ceaselessly on; and the asthmatic labourers, each in his stall, between a heap of impure cotton and the whirling devil, pursued amid the dense and fibre laden air, his monotonous and unwholesome toil.

From thence we went to visit two factories, in one of which are spun very coarse threads, intended for the Indian market, and in the other of which are manufactured candlewicks. The proprietors of both politely accompanied me in my rounds. They had been working men, and were, in language, manner, and dress, very much akin to the people they employed. In the coarse spinning mill - a small airless building - I found an apparently chronic system of dirt and neglect prevailing. The stairs were rickety and filth-encrusted, and the drawing and spinning rooms not only hot, but what is much worse, chokey, and stifling, and reeking with oil. The women employed exhibited, in a palpably exaggerated degree, the unwholesome characteristics of the appearance of the Manchester mill-workers. They were not so much sallow or pale, as absolutely yellow, and their leanness amounted to something unpleasant to look at. The mill was of the old construction, and had no means of ventilation. The wages of the people ranged a shilling or two beneath the average of the medium Manchester rate.

From this place I had but a few paces to walk, partially through narrow courts and by a rickety, wooden bridge over a green pool of stagnant water, to the mill where candlewicks were manufactured. The establishment consisted of but a single room, not more than six feet high. Here the cotton refuse used was cleaned, drawn, and spun. The heat, the stink, the flying dust were almost overpowering. At one end of the room stood a blowing machine of the rudest construction, and the mules and drawing frames were built to correspond. The boy who principally attended the “devil” was covered from head to foot with the clinging fibres of floating wool. I exaggerate not one jot on the contrary, I use the metaphor simply to describe the fact when I say that the outline of his figure was clothed as it were with a halo of downy tissue. From this the state of the atmosphere may be imagined. The labour of the piecers was the most severe I have yet seen. The coarse knotty threads were continually breaking, and the attendants were therefore eternally hurrying about re-uniting them. The different pieces of mechanism were so very closely crammed that it was difficult to walk between them, without the risk of being injured by the unboxed wheels and cranks which worked around. The floor was soppy with the rankest oil; the small windows were almost obscured by coatings of woolly fibre which clung to the interior of the casements, as snow sometimes does to the exterior of panes and sashes; and the bare joists and rafters were furred with the same downy-like substance, as stakes set in the sea are clothed with clustering weeds. Altogether the place was unfitted for human beings to work or breathe in. When you looked through the beams, the flying straps, and revolving wheels, you saw the toiling slatternly workpeople as through a fog of fibry dust and floating cotton particles. I asked the principal spinner which he preferred, the Ten Hours Bill or the twelve, and he gave his vote unhesitatingly for the latter: “Couldn't afford to do with ten hours wages.” The mill however, if I remember right, only works ten hours a day. The wages of the spinners ranged from 9s. to 11s. per week.

I afterwards went over two small mills, compartments of which are rented by different individuals. Both were dirty, and constructed in the old-fashioned unventilated style. The workpeople looked more gaunt, yellow, and slatternly than they are in the average of factories; but I saw nothing calling for any special notice, over and above what I have said of the coarse spinning mill already alluded to. The candlewick making establishment was, out of all sight, the most repulsive working place I have seen in Lancashire.

Understanding that here and there, scattered in cellars or perched in garrets, were a few old men who still wove cotton by the handloom, I requested to be introduced to one of the practitioners of this fast-expiring trade. We accordingly descended a narrow flight of area steps, leading beneath the surface of a mean back street, and discovered two stone-paved rooms, dark and squalid; one of which served for the common apartment; the other, a mere closet, was almost entirely occupied by one of the old-fashioned treddle looms. In the first room was some coarse deal furniture, and one of those low broad beds raised about a foot above the floor and covered with truckle, which by their shape generally appear intended for accommodating at a pinch perhaps four persons. Two dirty children were lying fighting and squalling upon the floor. The woman of the house was a sturdy dame of some sixty years. The man, who was at his work, had a gaunt, skeleton-like face and head, and thin white hair. By way of beginning the conversation, I remarked that the “pegging-stick” which he had just laid down - that is, the stick used to jerk the shuttle was beautifully constructed. I had never seen such another. It was fluted and wreathed, exactly suiting the grasp of the fingers and thumb. “Constructed!” said the weaver – “constructed, indeed! Why, man, I did that myself. I wore them hollow bits in the hard wood with my own flesh, in the long working days of fifteen years. Aye, I loved to weave better nor to play in the road. I've not been an idle man, sir.”

I asked what he paid for his rooms. The rent of the two was 1s. 9d. a week. What were his wages ? He was old, and soom'mut failed now, and with his wife to wind for him, he could only get 1s. work as hard as he might. They had parish assistance, however; and, besides, his daughter worked at factory. Those were her children I had seen in the other room.

“By the way,” said one of my companions to the old woman, who had joined us, “Has your daughter affiliated that last child of hers yet ?" The parents did not think she had.

“So the children are illegitimate!” I observed.

“Yes,” said their grandmother. “You see they're by different fathers, and she (the daughter) don't know which she would be happiest wi’, and so she don't marry neyther.”

The old man took the opportunity of observing quietly that, for himself, he did not trouble his head about them things, and that young people would be young people. Very soon after these naive declarations, both the old people began to boast of the excellence of their bringing up, and their regular attendance at church. I inquired into their domestic arrangements more particularly. The daughter fed herself and her two children, and paid her parents some trifling sum a week for lodging and attending to the children while she was at the mill. I tried to get at the literal particulars, but there were so many charges and counter charges, and deductions and sets off, of pennies and two-pences, that I gave up the financial part of the business in despair. They seldom or never saw meat, but lived on oat-cake, potatoes, porridge, and a little coffee. A pitcher of dark-looking liquid, which stood upon the table by the loom, held treacle beer, a sickly tasting stuff. The man said that even if he could get meat. his stomach was so feeble he could not digest it. He lived upon slops. His trade, he began to tell me, was a thriving one in his young days. “When old George III was king, (2) he could make £2 2s. a week easy. Twenty years ago he could make 20s. Now, without the parish, he would starve. He thought that altogether the people who worked in factories made nearly as much, taking them in families, as they could have done in the old time before the power-loom. But they spent the money in drink, instead of laying it by. They went much too often to the 'hush houses' (low beer-shops, frequently unlicensed). Also the young men had pigeon matches and dog fights, and gambling and drinking on the Lord's-day. indeed, last Sabbath morn he had been awakened by the whole family in the next cellar fighting together.” I had some difficulty in getting a reply to the question - whether the working people altogether lived upon as good food and had as much of it as when he was a boy ? At length he said, after much pondering, that he thought the people now-a-days “lived full as well.”

From the old weaver's cellar, we went to visit some similar dwellings, situated in a group of close undrained and unpaved courts. These were occupied almost entirely by elderly women, who made precarious livings as laundresses. Several of these cellars, though miserably poor, were kept beautifully clean, and the little ornaments and paltry pictures ranged about the walls often showed a touching struggle between pinching poverty and a decent desire to keep up appearances. One cellar was, however, of a different stamp. We approached it along a foul subterraneous passage, and, on opening the door, a stench so abominable burst forth, that even my companions, accustomed to scenes of want and filth, recoiled, and called to the people in the room to open the single swinging pane in a window of about six - each pane being about four inches by three – looking out into a sort of slit rather than pit, dug down to the level of the window sill from a back court. The place was almost dark. It contained three low beds, covered with ragged, unmade wisps of bed clothes. A woman and a little girl sat upon stools cowering over a morsel of fire, and drinking tea, or some decoction which passed as such. In one of the beds lay a third female, moaning in her confinement. She was a married woman; her husband had left her, and she was now brought to bed of a child by another man. This woman was a mill worker. All the occupants of the room professed themselves unconscious of any smell whatever; but one of them having gone out for a moment, admitted on her return that the sewer was “rather bad to-day.” It turned out that a drain, passing from some other part of the town, ran underneath the house, the stone flags were here and there broken, and through the slimy soil beneath, the foetid gases rose bubbling up, in such strength as to render it physically impossible for me to draw breath in the apartment. Yet the inmates had every aperture through which the fresh air could come carefully stopped, and complained when the door and window, or rather pane, was opened of the cold. The rent paid for these cellars is from 1s. to 1s. 9d, a week.

Our next visit was to the “low Irish” quartier. We first entered a kitchen, where a haggard man and woman were seated at tea. Above, the relieving officer told me, was an old man dying upon bundles of rags on the floor. He would not consent to be carried to the workhouse, and so he had 2s. a week where he was. Upon the floor of the kitchen were ranged a number of nicely tied brooms or brushes, made of fresh-smelling furze, or, as the people here called it, “ling” which grows in abundance on the neighbouring hills, and the cutting and forming of which into besoms constitutes almost the only work of the Irish adult population of Oldham. The man before us had, however, been a mill worker, but his chest could not stand the flying cotton dust, so he had to take to besom-making instead. It occupied him, he said, one day to go to the hill, cut the ling, and carry it home; another day to make the besoms, and the rest of the week was taken up, with the assistance of three of his children, in hawking them about for sale. A dozen fetched half-a-crown once, but the price was much lower - not one-half that now - so that in good weeks he could only make about four shillings. Two of his children worked in a factory, which helped them on a little. The worst was, however, that, as he heard, they were to be prevented from cutting ling because of destroying the cover for the grouse. What would become of him, if it was so, God only knew. The bread which he and his wife were eating, and upon which they chiefly lived, was made of oatmeal, baked soft, like the cakes called “barley scones” in Scotland, and of heavy and doughy texture. At another house, occupied by an Irish family, which was filled with the sharp pungent smoke of the refuse ling used for firewood, a man, grimy, unshaven, and half clad, and yet who had in his face and proportions the making of a model stalwart Irish peasant, recapitulated the sad rumour that the ling cutting was to be stopped. He had to walk eight and a half miles for the ling, and carry home as much as he could on his back. One of the cutters “got a month (a month's imprisonment) the other day. Oh, begarra! but it was hard on the poor the gentry was.” This man had been fifteen years residing in Oldham. He came from County Sligo. We now proceeded to visit one of the Irish lodging-houses. A description of one will nearly serve for all. In the low kitchen, amid some wretched rickety furniture, and pots, pans, and broken plates, was littered huge heaps of the ling, among which lay sprawling, as they bound it into shape, three or four strapping young men, talking Irish to each other, and to the wretched drabs of ragged women who were cowering by the fireplace. In this room were two beds. In a back room. a similar manufactory was going on, and in it, among all sorts of wretched household litter - broken tubs, cracked jars, and pots full of all manner of filthy slops - was another bed - merely a bundle of rags shaken down upon a substratum of the all-pervading ling. There was a back yard, with an ashpit reeking of abominations. Up stairs were two little rooms. In one were three or four beds; in the other and larger, six. I examined the sheets; They were drab colour with unmitigated filth. The beds were made up on crazy bedsteads, fastened together with knotted ropes, and sometimes propped with big stones. The bed-posts, broken of different heights, sloped hither and thither. It was late in the day, but the beds had not been made - I question whether they ever are - nor the slops emptied. Sixpence a bed was the nominal price per night; so that three tramps could, as they often do, sleep together for twopence each; but the price varies with the influx of lodgers, sometimes sinking to a penny, to a halfpenny, indeed to anything which the poor creatures have. In the lower room was a daub of an oil painting in four compartments, representing four events in the career of a criminal the robbery, the apprehension, the trial, and the execution. Near it were paltry prints of the Virgin, and of saints exhibiting burning hearts; and beside them was a sort of allegorical chart, called “A Railway to Heaven, with a tunnel through Mount Calvary.” The lodgers were nearly all hawkers of besoms. The men I had seen working in the house would be next day miles off, upon Saddleworth, gathering fresh material. Sometimes more than thirty people, men and women, slept in the three rooms which I have described. We went over more than a dozen of similar places - some a little better, some a little worse, than I have described. The owner of each house was always anxious to explain that half of the people we saw in the low rooms, cowering round the fire, wretched sodden-like men and women, were not lodgers, but merely “Naybours, sure, that comes in to see yez”; and usually upon our descent from the bedrooms the kitchen would be all but cleared of its occupants.

The poor-law authorities of Oldham are making exertions to improve the sanitary state of the worst districts of the town, but the Irish puzzle them excessively. “No sooner,” I was informed “no sooner do we try to make the houses a little decent and wholesome, than the people leave them, and flock to other localities, to be driven thence with a like result.” Fever – the “Irish fever” - that is, the most malignant species of spotted typhus, frequently breaks out. A very promising young medical man was swept away by it in Oldham a short time ago; and if the people resident in the dens I have described have, comparatively speaking, escaped the cholera, most certainly they owe more to their luck than their management.


1.William Busfield Ferrand (1809-1889), the factory reformer. He was Tory M.P. for Knaresborough from 1841-47 and became known as “The Working Man's Friend” as a result of his attacks on factory conditions.


[Transcribed, with the permission of the editor and author, Chris Aspin, SCG/30 June 2005]
Stanley Challenger Graham
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scg1936 at talktalk.net

"Beware of certitude" (Jimmy Reid)
The floggings will continue until morale improves!

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