Labour and the Poor in England and Wales 1849-1851, ed. J. Ginswick (London: Frank Cass, 1983), vol. 1

From 1849-51 the London newspaper, the Morning Chronicle, published a survey of the condition of the labouring classes in England and Wales. In addition to articles on London written by Henry Mayhew, the Chronicle also published a series of reports sent by correspondents from London and the provinces. Although the scope of the survey went far beyond the position of the Irish, the articles on the manufacturing districts often make special mention of the condition of the Irish. The following passages are taken from the the reports of Angus Bethune Reach, the main correspondent in the northern manufacturing districts.

The Irish in Manchester

The Irish in Halifax

The Irish in Bradford

The Rural Pauper in Bradford

 

[page 77]

The Irish in Manchester

There were few or no Irish in the houses we had just visited. They live in more wretched places still - the cellars. We descended to one. The place was dark, except for the glare of the small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room, which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women, and children, on stools or squatted on the stone floor round the fire, and the heat and smells were [page 78] oppressive. This not being a lodging cellar, the police had no control over the number of its inmates, who slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw, which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place. Further back opened a second cellar, strewn with coals and splinters of wood used for making matches. Here, upon shavings, bits of furze, and intermingled rags and straw, lay two girls asleep in corners. The party in the outer room had a few handfuls of nuts and apples, with which they intended - it was the 31st of October - to "keep" All Hallows' Eve.

Half the people who lived in the den, had not yet returned, being still out hawking lucifers, matches and besoms. They were all Irish from Westport, in the county of Mayo. They lived on potatoes, meal, and sometimes broken victuals begged. There was no fever there and there had been no cholera - "Glory be to God". "Sure they was poor people, but they was daysint and did their best." After leaving, a woman followed me into the street to know if I had come from Westport to find out anything about them, and was greatly disappointed at being answered in the negative.

The last place we visited is, I am told, the "worst cellar in all Manchester". The outer room was like that of the others which I had seen, but, following a woman who held a light, we proceeded into the inner cellars. They were literally vaults, three of them opening from one to the other. The air was thick with damp and stench. The vaults were mere subterranean holes, utterly without light. The flicker of the candle showed their grimy walls, reeking with foetid damp, which trickled in greasy drops down to the floor. Beds were huddled in every corner; some of them on frames - I cannot call them bedsteads - others on the floor. In one of these a man was lying dressed, and beside him slept a well-grown calf. Sitting upon another bed was an old man, maudlin drunk, with the saliva running over his chin, making vain efforts to rid himself of his trowsers, and roaring for help. In the next cellar boys were snoring together in one bed, and beside them was a man sleeping in an old battered cap for a nightcap. "Is he undressed?" I said. The police officer for answer, twitched down the clothes, and revealed a stark naked man black with filth. The smell in this room was dreadful, and the air at once hot and wet.

"What's this you have been doing?" said my conductor to the landlady, stooping down and examining the lower part of one of the walls. I joined him, and saw that a sort of hole or shallow cave, about six feet long, two deep, and a little more than one high, had been scooped out through the wall into the earth on the outside of the foundation, there being probably some yard on the other side; and in this hole or earthen cupboard there was stretched, upon a scanty litter of foul-smelling straw, a human being - an old man. As he lay on his back, his face was not two inches beneath the roof - so to speak - of the hole. "He's a poor old body," said the landlady, in a tone of deprecation, "and if we didn't let him crawl in there he would have to sleep in the streets." [page 79] I turned away, and was glad when I found myself breathing such comparatively fresh air as can be found in Angel-meadow, Manchester.

...

[page 173]

The Irish in Halifax

I have said that the streets of Halifax are disgracefully neglected. The remark applies especially to the courts and cul-de-sacs inhabited by the very poor - including of course the Irish - and locally termed "foulds". I inspected several very closely and found them reeking with stench and the worst sort of abomination. The ash-pits and appurtenances were disgustingly choked, ordure and filthy stagnant slops lay freely and deeply scattered around, often at the very thresholds of swarming dwellings; and among all this muck, uncared-for children sprawled by the score, and idle slatternly women lounged by the half dozen. The "low Irish" in Halifax are hawkers and rag-collectors, like nearly all the brotherhood in the North of England. I talked to several in their cellars. One old woman who had been more than thirty years in England, talked dolefully of the decline of the hawking trade. She had frequently in her youth, she said, made 20s out of one house. She carried about "chaney and such like". But the poor people now seldom earned more than a shilling or eightpence at the very most for a hard day's work. This woman kept lodgings in a cellar. Two strapping fellows sat smoking by the smouldering fire. The beds were greasy mattresses, partially covered with foul rags, and rolled up in corners. In another cellar which was almost totally dark, for which its occupant paid 9d per week, a grey-headed negro - an old man-of-war's man - had lived for seventeen years. He seldom or never stirred out - vegetating there in a world of dirt and darkness. All the "foulds" which I penetrated were of the same class. The vilest filth lying unswept and seemingly unheeded - the most noxious stenches filling the air - the grimy houses and ordure-covered stones swarming with a foul, a lazy, and worse than both, a seemingly contented population. The corporation of Halifax have a perfect Augean stable to clean, and the sooner they set about it the better for the health and character of their town.

[page 174]

Bradford

... In an architectural point of view, the best features of Bradford consist of numerous ranges of handsome warehouses. The streets have none of the old-fashioned picturesqueness of those of Halifax. The best of them are muddy and not too often swept. Mills abound in great plenty, and their number is daily increasing, while the town itself extends in like proportion. Bradford is, as I have said, essentially a new town. Half a century ago it was a mere cluster of huts: now the district of which it is the heart contains upwards of 132,000 inhabitants. The value of life is about 1 in 40. Fortunes have been made in Bradford with a rapidity almost unequalled even in the manufacturing districts. In half a dozen years men have risen from the loom to possess mills and villas. At present, stuff manufacturers are daily pouring into the town from Leeds; while a vast proportion of the wool-combing of the empire seems, as it were, to have concentrated itself in Bradford. I was struck by the accent in which many of the wool-combers addressed me; and in answer to my inquiries I had frequently a room full of workmen exclaiming, "I'm from Leicestershire!" - "I'm from Devonshire!" - "I'm from Cornwall!" - "I'm from Mount Mellick, in Queen's County!"

As I have hinted the Bradford employers are, in the slang of the manufacturing districts, accounted "high-pressure men". I have been told that a mere spirit of rapid demand is sufficient to cause loom-shed after loom-shed to arise. The fabrics manufactured being also of the same general class, their sale increases and diminishes simultaneously; and the consequence is that every shade of variation in the market means hundreds of dinners the more or the less in Bradford. A town of this class is just one of those on which, in prosperous seasons, the flood of agricultural pauperism bears down. Trade is at present exceedingly brisk at Bradford - so brisk that even stables are put into requisition to contain the wool for lack of warehouse room. The number of persons, therefore, receiving parish relief is comparatively small, and, excepting an isolated case or two, I am told that not a single native of the town is on the books. The paupers are mainly Irish and English agricultural labourers, who have not yet learned to be useful in their new sphere. In the last period of commercial stagnation, about two out of every five labourers were out of employment. A test, consisting of shovelling and wheeling earth, was established and about ls 6d per head was weekly paid to all unable to find work. The revival of trade was marked by the most gratifying social tokens. The masters, following the example of the mayor, gave either dinners, or holidays and railway trips to all their hands. Upwards of £2,000 [page 175] was thus expended during the last summer, and the addresses of thanks presented in all instances by the working hands - were so worded as to afford gratifying proof of the good feeling existing between employer and employed.

With the exception of a few of the main thoroughfares, which are bustling and characterized by good shops, and in many cases by the handsome ranges of warehouses which I have alluded to, Bradford may be described as an accumulation of mean streets, steep lanes and huge mills - intersected here and there by those odious patches of black muddy waste ground, rooted up by pigs, and strewn with oyster shells, cabbage stalks, and such garbage which I have so often noticed as commonly existing in manufacturing towns. Since Mr. Smith of Deanston passed sentence upon Bradford, the corporation, although they might have done more, have not been idle. Upward of thirty streets have been paved and drained, and some of the worst Irish colonies have been materially improved. I was taken to see one locality which had been the worst in Bradford, and which was once a constant well-spring of fever. It has been opened up, drained, paved and regularly cleansed, and is now not fouler than an average dirty lane.

The houses of the workpeople are very inferior. They are one and all constructed back to back, or rather built double, with a partition running down the ridge of the roof. This is the case even in rows and streets at present building. "The plan," said my informant, "is adopted because of its cheapness, and because it saves ground rent." Cellars are very numerous in Bradford, and not one operative family in a hundred possesses more than two rooms - "a house and chamber". In respect of dwelling accommodation, the worst feature of the stuff and woollen towns is that they seem to be making no progress. In the cases of ranges of houses, even of a comparatively superior class, the privies are built in clusters, in a small space left open behind, instead of each being placed in a quiet, decent situation, close to the house to which it belongs. Bradford, like Halifax, is well situated for drainage. There is ample fall, and the "Bradford Beck", a rapid stream which flows through the town, would, if arched over, make a capital main sewer. This brook at present runs the colour of ink. The relieving officer with whom I inspected the town, showed me a spot where the foul water washed the grimy walls of half a dozen steaming mills. "There," he said, "when I was a boy, I used to catch trout in as bright a stream as any in Yorkshire." The two towns in England indeed which within the last half century have sprung up most rapidly form an odd pair. They are Brighton and Bradford.

The Irish in Bradford

We proceeded first to see some of the low Irish haunts. As usual the great majority of adults are hawkers, but a few of them are wool-combers. Of [page 176] these I shall have something to say presently. Rags, and in some cases brushes, form the staple of their trades. Instead of exchanging pots and mugs, the collectors frequently barter salt for rags, the terms always being pound for pound. Sevenpence a stone was the market value of mixed rags; sixpence a stone that of bones. The average earnings of the hawkers they stated as from 1s to 1s 6d a day. The general appearance of their houses I have frequently sketched. They almost always consist of a single room - generally a cellar - a low dark foul-smelling place, with rough stools and a broken table or so lying about; coarse crockery either unwashed or full of dirty water; knives without handles or forks with broken prongs; bits of loaves smeared over with dirty hands; bundles of rags, buckets of slops and unmade beds huddled on the stone or earthen floor in corners. There always seems to exist a sort of community of dwellings among these people, which I never find among their English neighbours. The doors invariably stand open; and when I inquire about the sleeping accommodation, I am invariably told that half the people whom I find crouching round the fireplace, smoking, are only "naybours". Sometimes I find a room almost empty, but before I am there a minute, it is sure to be filled by the aforesaid naybours, who, having nothing to do, come stalking in to learn what my visit portends.

In a lodging house which I saw, there was a bedroom for sixteen at 3d each; that is to say, there were four frames, covered with rags and rugs. in the lower room, and the same accommodation in the higher. The single men slept by themselves. Married couples and single women occupied the other apartment jointly. There could not, when I called, have been less than a dozen men and women smoking round the fire. In an adjacent cellar the scene was perfectly savage. The floor was earth, covered with splints of wood produced in matchmaking. The articles of furniture were two - a rough wooden trestle, on which were placed a broken down Plate, and some herring bones - and a square box like a small coffin, in which lay an infant. A woman with skin so foul that she might have passed for a negress, was squatted on the ground; and a litter, I cannot call them a group, of children burrowed about her. The woman could barely talk English; yet she must have been more than a dozen years in the country: for the eldest boy, an urchin fully as old, told me that he had been born in Lincolnshire. In a corner lay a litter of brown rags - the family bed. The rent paid for this place was 8d per week.

The Wool-comber

As I have stated the greatest part of the labour of male adults through the worsted districts consists in combing wool. In Bradford I was told on good authority, that there are about 15,000 wool-combers. These men sometimes work singly, but more often three, four, or five, club together and labour in what is called a shop, generally consisting of the upper room or [page 177] "chamber" over the lower room or "house". Their wives and children assist them to a certain extent in the first and almost unskilled portions of the operation, but the whole process is rude and easily acquired. It consists of forcibly pulling the wool through metal combs or spikes of different lengths and set five or six deep. These combs must be kept at a high temperature, and consequently the central apparatus in a combining room is always a "fire-pot", burning either coke, coals, or charcoal, and constructed so as to allow three, four, or five combs to be heated at it ...

...Wool-combers' hours are proverbially long. The men in Bradford said they were sometimes forced to work most of the night. Low as their wages are, they were recently still lower; but since the revival of trade in the district, the wool-combers have raised the amount of their renumeration upwards of 3s by three successive strikes. The combers have now to compete with machinery. Each machine will do about ten times the work of a hand labourer, but it employs several hands, two of whom get good wages. These machines are in general, however, only used for the coarsest work, and did not seem to excite any apprehension among the workmen. Wool-combing is the only branch of manufacturing industry which I have yet met with supporting a fair proportion of adult Irish males. A number of them have been bred to the employment at Mount Mellick, in Queen's County. The mass of wool-combers of Yorkshire includes natives of almost all the southern counties of England. One and all, they were loud in their denunciation of the accommodation provided for their labour. In the south the masters used to provide shops for their work. Here the men had to labour in their houses, and often to sleep in the rooms in which they toiled. They put it to me, whether the hot air I was breathing was fit for human beings to sleep in. "But the furnace, the 'pot', is extinguished at night?" I said. "Never," they replied, "from Monday morning till Saturday night. It is always left with a smouldering glow of fire. But they're much worse off than us, those who use charcoal."

[page 179] I asked whether the new machine affected them much? "It don't do us much good, any way," replied one.

"There's worse than the new machine for Englishmen," said another; "and that's the shiploads of them Irish that's coming among us, and pulling down the wage."

"There's no doubt of that," a third went on; "they don't live like Englishmen, them people."

"But if you dislike them so much," I said, "why do you teach them your trade?"

[page 180] "We don't," said the first man. "No Englishman would, I hope."

"I'll tell you how it's done," continued another. "There's old Irish hands here, and the new ones goes to them. Then the old ones get a lot of work out from five or six masters, and gives it to the new ones to do, teaching them the way, and perhaps doing the job over, if so be their scholars spoils the work; and so them persons, who are a sort of middle-men like, pocket most of the wages that their countrymen earns."

"Aye!" said the first comber, "and they doesn't sleep in beds, but on the wool."

"I heard tell," remarked the former speaker, "of a house where five and-thirty on 'em pigged together on the floor."

Notwithstanding this display of animosity, my guide informed me that, on occasions of differences between the masters and the workmen, English and Irish pull together in the most brotherly fashion.

The Rural Pauper in Bradford

During my investigation at Bradford I had more than one opportunity of seeing how the parochial authorities in agricultural districts pack their paupers off to the manufacturing regions. I select two cases. The first was that of a widow from a purely rural part of Yorkshire. She had a large young family. Her husband had been an agricultural labourer at 15s a week in summer, and in winter he broke stones on the road for 15d a day. On his death the family became chargeable. The parish immediately offered to pay the expense of removal, and gave the family £1 1s if they would go to Bradford. They consented, and several of the children being sickly and subject to fits, so as to be unable to work in the mills, they have been mainly supported by Bradford ever since. The woman who told me these particulars said that she knew many families who had been sent to Bradford from the same locality in the same way.

The other case is that of a poor Irish woman, one of the cleanest, tidiest, and best specimens of her country people in that walk of life, I have ever seen. Having heard of her case, she came out of the mill to speak to me, and conducted me to her chamber. A poorer one, and yet a cleaner one, I never saw; the deal table had been scoured until it shone again; there was a faded bit of carpeting on the floor, and not a speck of dust from wall to wall. I had never witnessed a more striking instance of cleanliness taking away all the squalor of poverty. In the room were three children. The eldest, a girl of seven, was rocking the cradle of the youngest, and attending to the proceedings of her other little sister.

"This is my housekeeper," said the mother, "and I can trust her and feel easy about the younger ones when I am at work." The story of the family I shall relate nearly in the mother's words:

"My husband and me lived at Minstun (an agricultural district of Yorkshire). He was a hand-loom weaver. Wages were very low and times were [page 181] very hard with us. We were at Minstun ten months, and in that time we tasted flesh twice. My poor husband had a consumption on him, and little by little he was forced to give up work. The farmers and the neighbours were very hard-hearted to us. They never sent as much as a ha'porth of milk, even to the dying man. When he was gone the parish offered me and my four children 1s to pay the rent every week, and 1s to live on. If we didn't like that they said we might go to Bradford, and they would give us 30s to move. They didn't give us 30s, but they gave us 29s, and we came here. If they had only given us 3s a week I would have stayed. I have a little boy, and I brought him to the mill, and told them all about us. The people at the mill were very kind, much kinder than the farmers. They took the little boy and set him to easy work, and gave him 2s a week. Then the manager said that I might come into the mill and see him, and try if I couldn't learn to do something myself. So I got to know how to pick lumps out of the slubbings, and first I got 5s 6d, and last week I was raised to 6s; so we now have 8s a week. Well, first I lived in a room belonging to the mill, without an outside stair and I paid 1s rent. But I was afraid of the children breaking their necks there. The only other place I could get near the mill was this. There are two rooms here and the rent is 2s. I know it's too much for the like of me to pay; but think of the children. Well, sir, the parish are very good to me and give me 3s a week - 2s for rent and 1s for coals - and we live and clothe ourselves on the other 8s. We live chiefly on bread. I get a stone and a half of flour every week and I bake it on Sundays. Then we have a little tea or coffee, and sometimes we have a little offal meat, because it's cheap. A good gentleman gave me the furniture I have, and the bed in the other room. It cost altogether 15s. Everybody has been very kind to me, and the neighbours come in often to look after the children when I'm at work. I was born in Shandon parish in Cork; and oh! I wish there were mills there for the poor to work in. It would be a blessing to them indeed."

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