Here and before I have sung and said from my heart — the joys, the sorrows, the hopes of my young life, and many after days. In giving these I have to recall what the sufferings of a family have been with a drunken father. In early days this honourable man was a clever designer and weaver of fancy shawls, etc., and was for years the foreman of Mr. Amos Ogden, Lingards, and afterwards filled similar situations at Spring Head and at Moldgreen. At this time I first remember him well, coming home on the Saturdays with some of the other boys who had just begun to work with him. Young as I was, it was plain to be seen that he was not as steady as in former times, and the bright intellect of the man was becoming injured by the too free indulgence in intoxicating drinks. Always a hail fellow well met, he was in constant danger, ready to discuss any question, and always mixing with those in better positions, who even sought his genial company. The reader will begin to understand that the money spent in these directions would have been much better at home, in the mean time the dear mother had to silently struggle with her numerous boys and one only girl. I remember one day she was very cross at something I had done that she turned sharply round to me and said, “I will not be talked to with thee. I have had too much to do for you all. When tha wer in thy cradle I had to rock and weave at the same time by fastening the cradle band to the sley board of my loom, working all the day, and had to do the home work, baking and washing, at nights.”
Still we were happy. The marlocks of the younger end were something sublime; though often in straits for food, never really short. This fond mother would have died first; but of clothes they were not very numerous, nor very fashionable, or very whole. Many of these had come from the better people, who had a strong sympathy with the family in their straits and difficulties. There was a lame lad, nearest and dearest because of his misfortune, and it was the constant consolation of the dear parent that the Lord would in some way or other provide for the lame and the blind. Poor soul! she believed in her Bible, and had faith in her religion. Anyway, the lad was happy in his youth, and in after life was respected not only at home, but in the town of Bury, where he went to in later life.
Those young days were the happiest of his and his brother’s lives. In summer, at Nields, the days were the longest, the pleasure the greatest: bird nesting, bathing in the River Colne, which ran just below, and fighting the young battles of life with a rich Bohemianism that no other form can present. For instance, when a pair of trousers were given to one of the boys, if they were too long (which was often the case) the legs were cut short to fit, but presenting a width which the lesser brother (for fun) would try to creep up for the amusement of the rest. The richest in the land were not happier, for these poor lads loved one another with that intensity which only poverty seems to create. A crust of bread, a smile from the dear mother, a home to rest in at night, and the wild woods by day formed an everlasting summer to them.
Time came when work squandered the happy family, and my early struggles began by working at the mill when eleven years of age. I had to walk to Meltham and back in all weathers, getting up in the morning at 4-30 and returning in the evening at about 7-30 for 3s. 6d. a week wages. This was rather too much, and as soon as possible I got work elsewhere, nearer home, it will be seen by this that I could not have had much education; indeed, the odd bit was in a very short spell with John Mellor, at the National School. Judge, then, my position on finding myself in this dark condition made miserable by the worse and worse state we found ourselves by the unfortunate habits which poor father had contracted. Oh! the vows I made in those early days that I would never be a drunkard. Are they not recorded in my heart, and very likely have prevented me travelling this downward road? Only a suffering child knows the misery of a home lost, by drink. It is horrible: it saddens everything; it blights all hope and destroys all happiness.
My father knew all this, but he had not the courage to emancipate himself from the dire ruin. In his better moments there was no fonder parent, who was sought after for his intelligence, mixed with better men, and, alas! resorted to the public-houses, where in those days they could play cards until morning.
This was a bad job for the home, and you must be there if you want to know what real suffering is to a high-spirited son who warmly resented these things. In reply what I got was, “It is a pity, but I cannot resist it, but by my misfortune you learn to do better.” A hard lesson at the best, but better than none at all. Judge, then, how one had to struggle. The Mechanics’ Institute became my school; an old tea box was my library and desk, in which I stored my class books and Cassell’s Popular Educator, which did much in those days to help neglected education, and in this manner grew up to manhood, somewhat respected, and in my day and generation tried to make the world better than I found it.
Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden