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Luddite Spring: Episode 8

"Slums and textile mills went hand in glove. Owners threw up row on row of cheap substandard back-to-back terrace houses around their mills that were characterised by overcrowding and squalor,'' writes Ronnie Bray, continuing his dramatic tale of social unrest at the outset of Britain's indugrial revolution.


Slums and textile mills went hand in glove. Owners threw up row on row of cheap substandard back-to-back terrace houses around their mills that were characterised by overcrowding and squalor. In hilly areas houses were not only side by side, but also one on top of another. As many poor families as possible were crammed through their mean portals in uneven streets, jumbled yards, and disorderly courts.

Huddersfield's infamous Hell Square occupied the junction of Upperhead Row and Westgate before being demolished a few decades later in the century in preparation for the coming of the railway. Larger slums, such as Windsor Court and Castlegate, were squeezed between antiquated properties on Northgate, and the reeking dampness on both sides of the Canal, and the west bank of the River Colne’s that formed the town boundary at low end of the town. Like all slums, these became hotbeds of disease, crime, and death. To be poor was a death sentence in times that fostered slavery and engendered poverty.

Slums were not always old and derelict, but they were always slums. Houses for workers coming into textile towns were usually built on bad land with little or no drainage. Due to the lack of proper sanitation, raw sewage was thrown from windows and doors to puddle and decay in the streets, as was kitchen and other domestic waste. There were no basic amenities, no running water, no baths, and no privies apart from fœtid communal earth closets that were usually some way from the dwellings. A visitor surveyed workers’ homes and concluded:

The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead. Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these working-men’s quarters may readily be imagined. Further, the streets serve as drying grounds in fine weather; lines are stretched across from house to house, and hung with wet clothing.

Like all textile communities, Holmeside residents paid a high price for their participation in the fruits of the Industrial Revolution. The village had been a gentle plodding place where peace and sufficiency prevailed for hundreds of years. When, under the development of the nation, it began to grow those that could afford it built their homes higher up on the side of the steep valley well away from the river to escape the flooding that accompanied furious rainstorms particular to that area. Water powered mills had to be at the side of fast flowing rivers so their wheels could turn fast enough to transmit power throughout the mill. Mill housing was always built close to the mill for convenience. The houses built by Staithes for his employees were inconvenient . Water had to be to the houses in buckets from artesian wells or lift-pumps located at intervals in the streets. If the wells and pipes froze in winter, which they mostly did, water was not available for cooking, washing, or cleaning until the weather warmed with the coming of Spring.

What middens were provided proved too few for too many families and, being subject to communal cleaning that sometimes was and sometimes wasn’t done, they were reeking and offensive. Parish scavengers were supposed to attend them every two weeks to shovel out their stinking contents and refill them with clean earth. Houses were overcrowded, unsanitary, airless, damp, disease-ridden, cold, and unpleasant. They were perfect places for germs to reproduce and spread since there were no drains to carry away the effluvia. Cholera, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, respiratory and gastric diseases were common. One family buried eight of their ten children to the same disease in the space of ten days. When the sun shone, it was invariably blocked from reaching the squat houses by the monumental mill and its giant chimney that loomed over them.

When they were available, oil lamps and candles gave feeble, flickering yellow lights. Otherwise, people lived by such daylight as came in through their mean windows by day and dwelt in disadvantageous darkness after sundown.

Thousands of workers flocked to the new factories from hillside hamlets and tiny farmsteads, just as the Gledhills had done. Some were skilled in domestic cloth making. Some had kept hens and, perhaps, a pig, and fed them on islands of rough pasture that had been designated as ‘Common Land,’ for centuries until the Enclosure Act stole it from them.

Families coming from the countryside had expected better wages, better lives, and better futures for their children. The pastoral life had allowed them time to sit and smoke a pipe when they felt like it. When the day’s work was done, and the light grown too dim for home work they relaxed and enjoyed a good night’s sleep until the red-crowned harbinger summoned them back to their labours.

They had been at liberty to take a break whenever they wanted. No one stood over them then, and no one berated or beat them for attending to calls of nature. Their work done, children sported in the open air with other boys and girls, their laughter ringing through wooded hollows, across fields, and through the crops that fed them. It was a simpler time, a happier time, but even this rustic paradise provided them with no more than the means for them to live hand to mouth. Nevertheless, that was enough for them. They had little ambition to be rich. Work was a blessing from God, and their labour did not seem excessive, however demanding it might be.

When the horn of the Industrial Revolution sounded, it came as the declaration of better times, more fulfilling lives, greater ease, and water at the door. That was the promise they received. Its reality did not measure up to its assurances, but proved to be the opposite. By the time they were settled into the town and had the mill, they realised that they had abandoned Paradise and chosen Hell. By then, it was too late to return to their bucolic past. Their hens had been gifted, their pigs butchered, and the crops they left in the ground were lost. A return to the land would have condemned them to starve. Their bridges lay in ashes. They idealised the past even as they realised they had more chance of journeying to the moon. With their dreams crumbled into dust before their eyes, bitterness, disappointment, and an overwhelming sense of futility descended on them and they were infected with the murrain that visited textile labourers as surely as if they had been cursed with the Plague. They knew then that the only way out of the plunging spiral of life was in a coffin.

As time went on, Holmeside grew into a reasonable sized town. This growth added to the problems of those that lived in its slums. Of these, a visitor commented:

That part of the river from Outcote Mill to first big bend towards Huddersfield serves as the tipping place for the contents of more than three hundred earth closets, cesspools, and free-draining privies, all the common drains, the soak-off from dung-hills, run off from three butchers’ yards, waste from Outcote Mill’s chemical processing, it’s spent dye, manure from private pig styes, stale urine from cloth bleaching, dead animals, rotting vegetables, and the occasional decomposing human body. The river’s waters once prized above pump water for making tea and cooking for the inhabitants had become an engine of disease and death!

The longer the slums stood, the worse they became. The common habit of keeping pigs in rough hewn stone pigsties with the draught from swine, added to the smell and the hordes of blow flies and their maggots that were permanent features of the warrens of streets and small courts in which humanity was penned in conditions little better than the animals they kept among them for their own convenience at the inconvenience of their neighbours.


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