The Huddersfield Industrial Society Limited: Fifty Years of Progress (1910) - Chapter I

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Table of Contents for The Huddersfield Industrial Society Limited: Fifty Years of Progress, 1860-1910 (1910) by Owen Balmforth:


The Dark Days Before It All Began.

When wilt Thou save the people?
    O God of Mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
    Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they—
    Let them not pass, like weeds, away—
Their heritage a sunless day!
    God, save the people!
Ebenezer Elliott.

Our Society was founded in the year 1860 — just fifty years ago. The men and women of that day had lived through some very dark and evil times. The social and economic condition of the people was deplorable in the extreme. The working classes were deprived of the Parliamentary franchise; they had no share in the closer and more important matters of local self-government. The conditions of labour were degrading in their severity, working hours were long, and wages low; child labour was rampant to a degree which nowadays seems almost unbelievable. The prices of food and other necessaries were extraordinarily high; poverty prevailed to an alarming extent; disease and death rates reached a very high figure. As for education, this, alas! was a luxury quite beyond the reach of working people.

As a natural result of this sad condition of things, the people were sullen, bitter, and resentful. Any agitation on constitutional lines was difficult and almost futile — so much so that some, in their helplessness and ignorance, like the extreme Chartists, had recourse to physical force; or, like the Plug Rioters in 1842, wreaked their vengeance upon employers of labour. With bread at famine prices, work scarce, and little hope of political or social reform, the feelings of the people found expression in the poem from which the above verse is taken.

Let us glance a little in detail at the conditions of life among the Working classes at this period, and we will confine our illustrations to the state of things existing locally, in Huddersfield and district.


From a printed document dated September 10th, 1829, the following extract is copied:—

In consequence of repeated entreaties the principal masters met a deputation at the Rose and Crown Inn,[1] Huddersfield, on Tuesday, the 21st of July last, and, after a patient hearing of the unexampled sufferings then detailed, it was unanimously agreed that an inquiry into their state should take place, under the management of the Committee of the operatives and the several parish officers and other respectable neighbours who might feel disposed to assist the undertaking. The meeting of the masters and the deputation of operatives was adjourned from time to time until the returns were completed; and after careful examination it appears that in several townships, mostly occupied in the fancy business, there are upwards of 13,000 individuals who have not more than 2½d. each per day to live upon, and find wear and tear for looms, &c. Whatever be the cause of such distress, it is feared that the agonising condition of families so circumstanced cannot long be endured.

In 1834 Mr. E.S. Cayley, who represented the North Riding of Yorkshire in Parliament, wrote some “Essays on Commercial Economy,” in which he quotes from the foregoing report on the state of the population in Huddersfield in 1829 these figures:— “660 inhabitants each earn 6s. 11d. per week, 421 earn 3s. 6d., 2,439 earn 2s. 9d., and 13,226 earn only 1s. 3d.”

Let us refer to handloom weaving, which was our staple industry. Before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which sat in 1825, it was stated in evidence by a John Swift, of Newsome, that Mr. Joshua Boothroyd, of Almondbury, who employed 300 men upon looms in their own homes, paid those who were weaving “checks” an average wage of 10s. 6d. per week, and out of that each man had to pay his winder. Referring to another employer, Mr. Eli Chadwick, who had sixty men as shawl and waistcoat weavers, witness said that a sober and steady man might average, with a winder, 20s. per week, which would leave him about 17s.

Another witness named Amos Cowgill, of Lepton, said the weekly wages in his neighbourhood, for a twelve months' book, would be about I5s. He was weaving a low quality of “toilinettes,” and he could make 12s., independently of winding. He had to work fourteen or fifteen hours a day. He said the woollen cloth weavers about Huddersfield were kept well employed at that time, and their earnings, when all was cleared off, would be 12s. 6d. for a full week. Therefore about the year 1825 we may set down the net average earnings of the hand- loom weavers in Huddersfield as ranging from 9s. to 17s., the wide margin being due to the irregularity and varying qualities of work.

Coming down later to the years 1852-3 we have most trustworthy evidence of the earnings of a young married couple — both handloom weavers — who lived within a mile of the Huddersfield Town Hall. Both are now dead, but they were friends of mine when living, and I can vouch for their character as being industrious, upright, and honourable. The man was a remarkably intelligent and public-spirited citizen.[2] I have seen the original manuscript record of this couple’s earnings for two years. It is headed, “The following is a correct account of our incomes in the years 1852-3.” And then follow each sum they both received week by week. The totals are added up, and they show that for the 104 weeks the wife earned £24. 10s., or 4s. 8½d. weekly, and the husband £66. 7s. 7d., or 12s. 9d. weekly, making a combined total of 17s. 5½d. per week for the labour of two adult human beings. In any civilised state of society it ought to be impossible to find a married woman engaged in earning her own bread, and yet, if this woman had not been so engaged, they would have been obliged to subsist upon 12s. 9d. per week. What opportunity is there upon such a miserable income for living that full, free, and higher life which ought to be within the reach of every child born? I have also a letter written by the same man to a friend in America two years later, dated May, 1855. I give one or two extracts to show what the conditions of life were like among the artisans of Huddersfield fifty-five years ago. The writer says:—

I deeply regret not having written you sooner, though it would have cost me my bread for the time to have paid the 2s. postage. Things have been so bad that I was obliged to work on Christmas Day. During the last eighteen weeks my work has been as follows:— I have had from Mr. Beaumont about fifty-six yards of weaving at 6d. per yard. I had three weeks at Shaw’s, of Lockwood, at the power looms, working partly in the night, they having two sets of hands to complete some orders for the Crimea. Here I earned about 15s. a week. I have also had thirty hours at Benj. Hanson's, at Paddock, at an order from the same quarter, but of an inferior quality of goods. I earned fourteen pence in that time — short of a halfpenny per hour! I was no learner, either. I then gave it up as a bad job. I have also had a hand- loom job for Hanson’s, which took me more than five weeks to work, yet the earnings only amounted to 51s., out of which I had to pay for healds and slay (as per note) 16s. 10d., and for winding 7s., leaving about 27s. 2d. And you must understand that I have been one of the fortunate, for there are very many that have done worse than this ... This has been the hardest winter for weavers in my day — work scarce, provisions high, and the weather severe. Power-loom weavers have been reduced 20 to 25 per cent. Hand weavers, also, are reduced. I must leave you to judge how those with families manage to live. Many of those who have no families have got so tired that they have gone and entered the army. Not less than thirty have enlisted from Almondbury, and five have gone from Lowerhouses and Longley. [Here follow some of their names]


The excessive hours and unhealthy surroundings in which little children of tender age were employed must have left their mark upon succeeding generations, and would prevent any moral influences from exercising their due power in the development of character. If, as the poet tells us, “the child is father to the man,” what kind of men and women can we expect as the outgrowth of children who pass their lives shut off from all opportunities of education or recreation? We do not expect to gather figs from thistles, and when Robert Owen first directed attention to the early education of infants he advocated a method of training human character which our statesmen at length wisely and completely adopted.

I have examined the Huddersfield Overseers’ book, in which was entered the list of parish apprentices from 1800 to 1810, and find that a number of little children were apprenticed from the Huddersfield Workhouse, to go to work at the early ages of seven, eight, and nine years. Listen to the story of what should be “the happy days of childhood,” as told before a House of Commons Select Committee in the year 1832. The witness is named Abram Whitehead. He says:—

I am a clothier, and reside at Scholes, near Holmfirth, which is the centre of very considerable woollen mills for three or four miles. The youngest age at which children are employed is never under five; some are employed between five and six as pieceners. I live near to parents who have been sending children to mills for a great number of years, and I know positively that these children are every morning in the winter season called out of bed between five and six, and, in some instances, between four and five. I have seen children of tender years employed as late as 10pm. in the winter season. I have been in mills at all hours, and I never in my life saw the machinery stopped at breakfast time at any of the mills. The children get their breakfast as they can; they eat and work; there is generally a pot of water-porridge, with a little treacle in it, placed at the end of the machines, and when they have exerted themselves to get a little forward with their work they take a few spoonfuls for a minute or two, and then to work again, and continue to do so until they have finished their breakfast. This is the general practice, not only of the children, but of the men in the woollen mills in the district. There is not any allowance for the afternoon refreshment, called “drinking,” more than for breakfast. In summer some of the mills allow an hour for dinner, and others forty minutes. There is no time allowed in winter, only just sufficient to eat their dinner, perhaps ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; and in some cases they manage the same at noon as they do at breakfast and “ drinking.” The children are employed as “pieceners;” when at work they are always on their feet — they cannot sit and piece. The only interval the children have for rest is the very short time allowed for dinner ... When I have been at the mills in the winter season, when the children are at work in the evening, the very first thing they inquire is, “What o’clock is it?” If I should answer, “Seven,” they say, “Only seven! It is a great while to ten, but we must not give up till ten or past.” They look so anxious to know what o’clock it is that I am convinced the children are fatigued, and think even at seven that they have worked too long. My heart has been ready to bleed for them, for they appear in such a state of apathy and insensibility as really not to know whether they were doing their work or not. They usually throw a bunch of ten or twelve cordings across the hand, and take one off at a time; but I have seen the bunch entirely finished, and they have attempted to take off another when they have not had a cording at all. They have been so fatigued as not to know whether they were at work or not. ... It is a very difficult thing to go into a mill in the latter part of the day and not to hear some of the children crying for being beaten. Some have been beaten so violently that' they have lost their lives in consequence. There is a mill at Smithy Place, three miles and a half from Huddersfield, and that mill worked so long, about two years ago, that a boy at the mill actually hanged himself, because he said he would sooner do it than work so many hours a day as he had done.

Here is the evidence of another Huddersfield witness (before the same Committee), himself an actual worker in the mill. His name is Joseph Habergam. He says:—

I was seven years of age when I began work at Geo. Addison’s, Bradley Mill, at worsted spinning. The hours of labour at that mill were from 5 a.m. to 8 pm, with one interval for rest and refreshment of thirty minutes only at noon ; we had to eat our other meals as we could, standing or otherwise. I had 14½ hours daily actual labour when seven years of age, and my wages were 2s. 6d. per week. I attended to what we called the throstle machines; this I did for 2½ years, and then I went to the steam looms for half a year. In that mill there were about fifty children of about the same age as I was. We were often sick and poorly. There were always, perhaps, half-a-dozen regularly that were ill because of excessive labour ... There was one overlooker kept on purpose to strap. He is continually walking up and down with the strap in his hand, and his office is to strap the children on to their labour. The children could not be kept so long to their work if they were not so treated; they would have fallen asleep. Accidents were frequent. Towards the end of the day the flies of the machines would burst their knuckles; the flies go so swift they cannot stop them with their hands, they have to stop them with their knees ... When I gave over attending the throstles I worked at bobbin-winding at the steam looms. When trade was brisk I have worked from 5 am. to 9 pm. For this additional hour’s labour each working day I received for the whole six months 10½d. Soon after I went to Mr. Brook’s Upper Mill, and remained nearly four years. I worked at Lewis’s machine in the dressing department. There I was often compelled to work from 5 am. to 10-30 p.m., sometimes till 11, for four months together, and on one occasion I worked all Friday, Friday night, and Saturday. My regular wages was 5s. a week, and they gave 1s. extra for the overtime. I left that mill, and went to Mr. Wm. Firth’s, Greenhead, and they began the rule of stopping the boys 1½d. and a man 3d. for being six minutes late. I was beaten as well as fined for being too late. The longest hours I worked at Mr. Firth's were from five in the morning till nine at night.

Here is the testimony of a local clergyman. A public meeting was held in Huddersfield on November 22nd, 1843, addressed by the late Mr. Walter, of the Times newspaper, and others. Among the speakers was the Rev. Wyndam Madden (Incumbent of Woodhouse, near Huddersfield). He said he could remember, in 1825, seeing from his residence (being on a hill that overlooked Huddersfield) the factories of Huddersfield illuminated all night. He would relate an instance which had come under his own observation. He had visited one of his poor people, and saw a girl in bed. He asked what was the matter, and if she was sick. The answer was, “No, she was tired, and had been working too hard.” He asked for particulars. That child had been in the factory from six in the morning on Monday until six o’clock on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning she again went to work till Thursday night. Thursday night she came home, and slept that night if she could. She went on Friday, and remained until five o’clock on Saturday night. He observed that this was cruel. She replied, “If I don't go they will get another, and some must do it.” He said, “It was impossible, and that they could not subsist thus,” but they said, “The men and the children worked, and got rest at different times beneath the machines.”

Sir Robert Peel, addressing the House of Commons in February, 1818, said, “It was his intention, if possible, to prevent the recurrence of such a misfortune as that which had lately taken place. He alluded to the seventeen poor children who were lately burnt in the night in a cotton factory.” This sad fatality occurred in that month at a mill at Colne Bridge, Bradley, within this borough, and the monument erected over the victims may be seen in Kirkheaton churchyard.

Such were the conditions of child labour in Huddersfield in the early years of last century. Well might Mrs. Browning write that touching poem, “The Cry Of the Children,” wherein she says—

“For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
    And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
    To drop down in them and sleep.
Our knees tremble sorely in the stooping,
    We fall upon our faces, trying to go;
And, underneath our heavy eyelids drooping,
    The reddest flower would look as pale as snow;
For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
    Through the coal-dark, underground—
Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
    In the factories, round and round.”

Now let us compare, to some extent, the


in Huddersfield to-day with ninety years ago. The grocery book kept by the Overseers of the Poor in Huddersfield in the years 1816 to 1819, in which are entered day by day the purchases of provisions made by them for the Workhouse, contains the following figures. In the second column are the prices charged to-day by our local Co-operative Store. Of course, there are various qualities and various prices, but we will take the price for a good article:—



As an indication of the amount of poverty existing in those early days, I may point out that the poor-rate in Huddersfield in the year 1815 was 16s. in the £; to-day it is only 10d. The amount of outdoor relief actually paid locally in 1863 was £14,008, and in 1908 only £13,766, or a decrease of £242. The total number of persons in receipt of relief, indoor and outdoor, in 1863 was 4,557, and in 1908 only 2,892, or a decrease of 1,665, notwithstanding an increase of the population of the Union during that time of 35,000.


The condition of things fifty years ago, from a sanitary and health point of view, were very lamentable indeed. For the three years immediately preceding the incorporation of the borough — 1865 to 1868 — the death rate was 23.9 per thousand; last year the death rate was only 16.30 per thousand, a saving of about 700 lives per year.

According to eminent statisticians, every individual life represents an average value of £150. If this be applied to the 700 lives saved last year, there is a saving of no less than £105,000 in one year, without reckoning the loss caused by sickness and consequent loss of wages. Infantile mortality and deaths from consumption were nearly double what they are to-day, and the mortality from scarlet fever has decreased in a greater ratio still. Men and women live longer, sickness is diminished, scientifically equipped hospitals and infirmaries now exist, while efficient and kindly nurses make regular visits to the homes of the poor.


Lastly, how few were the opportunities of obtaining even the rudiments of education I Fifty years ago the facilities for education were very meagre indeed. Before the House of Commons Select Committee (already referred to), which sat in 1832, the following statements were made by the two Huddersfield witnesses. Abram Whitehead said:—

There is not any possibility of children employed in the mills obtaining any instruction from day schools; but since this factory bill was agitated, when I have been at mills, the children have gathered round me for a minute or two as I passed along, and have said, “When shall we have to work ten hours a day? Will you get the Ten Hours Bill? We shall have a rare time then; surely somebody will set up a night school. I will learn to write, that I will!”

The other witness, J. Habergam, said:—

When at the factory I had not any opportunity of learning to read and write—only a little on the Sabbath Day. I have tried to learn to write within these last ten or eleven weeks. I do not think there is above one in a hundred in the factories that can write.

The Government Blue Book for 1864 gives the total attendance at elementary schools in the borough as 2,500, while for last year (1909) the average attendance in the borough was as follows:— Council Schools, 8,192; Denominational schools, 6,049; total, 14,241; and the average number of names on the books reached 16,090. There was no school accommodation in Huddersfield for several thousands of children of school age, and actually one-half the children were either running about the streets or at work, receiving no education at all. And of those comparatively few children whose names were on the books only about one-half were in regular attendance. How different to-day, when practically every child is at school!

The Mechanics’ Institute was begun in the year 1841, in the Old British School in Outcote Bank. From the Annual Report, dated May, 1844, I find there were at that time 410 students, now there are 1,600; library, 458 volumes, now 9,000 ; yearly income £83, now £12,000.

It is almost a wonder that amid all these difficulties, this physical suffering, and this overwhelming poverty both of body and mind, there should be found even a few choice spirits, possessing, may be, a little more public spirit and determination of character than their fellows, who should dream dreams and see visions, and in their endeavours to catch the gleam, should find a way out of this slough of despond.

How a few men in Huddersfield strove in their day and generation to improve the lot of their fellow-men will be told in the following pages.

Continue to Chapter II...

Notes and References

  1. This Inn stood on the site now occupied by the Palace Theatre.
  2. At a later date he was a member of our Society's Committee. He published, in 1880, a 22-paged pamphlet, entitled “The Village Co-operative Tea Party; Dialogues on Co-operation.”

The Huddersfield Industrial Society Limited: Fifty Years of Progress (1910) - Chapter I


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