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Luddite Spring: Episode 15 - Oderint Dum Metuant

...“There used to be too many jobs,” remarked Gladstone, morosely, “and not enough hands for them, but now there’s too many hands and no jobs for them...

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning the troubles and turmoil at the onset of the industrial revolution in England.

Oderint Dum Metuant - Let them hate us so long as they fear us!

The two men were taking a drink in the corner of the Pack Horse tap room, mulling over the state of affairs that gripped the country.

“We’re in stage of siege,” said Harold Starkey, the carter. “We know what’s to blame, but we can’t do anything about it!”

“What do you reckon’s to blame, eh?’” asked Job Gladstone, a commission spinner who had been attending the Cloth hall market that day.

“It’s obvious. It’s the engines and machines, that’s what! They put men out of work, then they starve or else find other work, but at starvation wages. And as their wages fall the price of food goes up. No one can continue in those conditions. They have to go to the wall, and if they’re not willing to go quietly, and most won’t, then they’ll revolt.”

“Don’t tell me you’re on their side.”

“It’s not about sides, it’s about common sense. The Government isn’t interested in easing their lot, and us manufacturers can’t. So, if they won’t lie down they’ll rise, and we’ll be the ones that take the knocks when they do.”

Gladstone could see Starkey’s point, but he was not comfortable with it.

“Whose job is it to put it straight, then, Job? If it is not His Majesty’s, and if it is not his Government’s, and if we cannot get it right what will happen and when will it ever get right? I wish I knew,” he admitted, raising his mug and quaffing deep before continuing, “But I’m blowed if I do, and I don’t know anyone that does. This machine thing’s not called a revolution for nothing, but I don’t know that we’re ready for it or what it will bring behind it, but I’ll wager that some will pay for it with blood.”

“There used to be too many jobs,” remarked Gladstone, morosely, “and not enough hands for them, but now there’s too many hands and no jobs for them. It’s a puzzle and no mistake. The Revolution coming in the midst of our other problems has put Old England in a state of siege. On one side, there’s the masters, and on the other side there’s the workers. They’re on opposite sides and me and you are stuck in between them and likely to be mangled by both lots if we try anything. And we’ll suffer even worse if we do nothing!”

Starkey responded, “Well, Job, I blame the Orders in Council. They have shut off trade coming in and going out of the Continent so our manufactured goods have lost a big market. Then there’s the American trouble that shuts off us getting raw materials from there and selling finished goods to them. That’s what has brought trade down so low, lost jobs, and put the country in a state of rebellion. Folks will stand for almost anything but being starved isn’t one of them!”

“You sound like Cobbett. He says that working folks are controlled by a small body of controllers who look after their own interests at the expense of toilers.”

At this both men nodded silently as if the final word had been spoken on the subject, and with the sense that further discussion would be fruitless. Unable to do anything but rudely identify the problems as they saw them, they studied their drinks and moved to less demanding and pleasant conversations about their families. After ten minutes of inconsequential attention to their own circumstances, Starkey turned the conversation back to their first subject.

“I read in the Leeds newspaper that the Government’s position about the poor was, ‘Let them hate us, so long as they fear us!’”

Gladstone rubbed the side of his head, and looked as if he was thinking. He wanted to say something but didn’t want to say too much. He decided to risk it. They were friends after all.

“It looks to me as if the working class hate their betters and that their betters, that’d be me and you, Starkey, use that hatred as a tool to blame the poor for their own condition. It’s true that London does nothing for workers that are starving and that their masters live comfortable, luxurious lives, and keep a ‘becoming distance’ between themselves and their workers’ distress and deny they have any obligation to do anything about it.”

“You don’t think I live in luxury, do you? Look at my jacket and pipe and see what I eat for my supper.” He tipped his supper bowl towards his friend to show him that all he had was a mess of mutton stew.”

“I don’t know that I’d call that luxury” retorted Gladstone, “but you put it side by side with a weaver’s dinner, and you’ll soon see the difference. I could take you to weaver’s cottages where that dinner of yours would provide two day’s meals fop r a family of six. That’s how badly off they are!”

Starkey protested. “But, I’m not a master! I don’t work men to death. I work for the masters moving their goods here and there and back again, so I can’t make any difference to workers’ conditions. I’m as poor as they are!”

“Not quite, Harold,” shot back Gladstone. “Your belly is never empty. Remember, I sup with you here four or five nights every week. I know how much you pack away. You’ve enough meat on your bones to feed a working man’s family for six months!”

“Nay, Job, lad. Steady on. I know I’m well proportioned but I’m not over much.”

“I won’t say you are, Harold, if it upsets you that much. But you take a close look at the mill hands next time you call for a load of pieces. You’ll see what I mean. The only well proportioned folks you’ll see are the master and his baillies. Everyone else looks like a scarecrow at the end of winter when all its stuffing has gone. You’ll see what I mean if you keep your eyes peeled.”

“I know what you mean, but what do you expect me to do about it? I can’t feed them.”

“Well, Harold, there’s the nub of the problem. We all see what they’re like but none of us is willing to make a move to do anything about it. Mill owners are the absolute monarchs of their workers comings and goings, fates and fortunes, and lives and deaths of those they keep to turn the wheels for them and make them rich. To masters, workers are nothing more than pairs of hands. They aren’t treated as real people. They are given no scope for creativity, no credit for intelligence, no aptitude for independent thinking, and no credit for initiative. Masters prefer, nay demand, workers to be ‘illiterate and unquestioning.’ No skill other than watchfulness is expected of a mill hand because machines make all the decisions skilled artisans used to make. Workers now do only a single element of the cloth making processes. Their duty involves nothing more than that they stay, provide watchfulness, and be healthy enough to work long hours. Let them fail in any of these and they are dismissed. Owners have the upper hand and will keep it at any cost, even crushing their workers’ ambitions by practices that while not always countenanced by the letter of the law, are nonetheless approved by officials in whose care the enactment of those laws has been placed.”

Starkey’s mouth had dropped open as he listened to his friend. “Dammit, Job, but you sound more Painite that Old Baines in the St Crispin! Are you become a confounded Radical?”

“I’m no Radical, Harold, but I can see why workers are getting agitated. You’ve only to imagine yourself in their shoes for five minutes and you start getting agitated yourself.”

“Not me, Job. I’m no Radical. I know who butters my bread and it isn’t mill hands.”

“I hope things never get so bad for you that you have to turn to the mill for your hot-pot. That would be the start of many a hungry month for you. I used to think like you did, but then I began to see that although they are only mill workers, they are still human beings.”

“You sound to be in a bad way. What turned you?”

“I read a letter in the paper that said ‘Seeking redress for workers’ grievances was like going to court against the devil when the Court was convened in hell.’”

“Why would anyone say that? Surely there are good and sufficient laws to protect workers’ interests.”

“Of course there are laws, but such laws have names but no teeth. Officials that are hired to oversee the execution of laws to protect workers don’t do anything to help them for fear of upsetting the masters. The result is that workers are without any protection. They have no recourse for redress, and are suffered to suffer the mercy of the merciless. You know about Matthew North’s lass?”

Starkey nodded affirmatively.

“Well, he is one that has suffered loss and injustice at the hands of a master that will never be called to account for maiming and murdering his daughter.”

“Yes. I heard about that. But, he’s not the only one whose bairn has been killed in the mills.”

“That doesn’t make it any less bearable. How old is your little Nancy?”

“She’s going to turn seven in the Spring.”

“Will you set her to work in the mill?”

“Not likely,” said Starkey with so much energy that the table shook. “I’m going to keep her at home with her mother so she can learn how to run a home and look after a family.”

“Will you teach her to read and write and add up?”

“She’s already learned those. She’s ahead of her years. I’m thinking of having her go to a dame school”

“Mill children don’t get to read and write. If they do, the masters banish them. They don’t want educated people. Once a man can read, he is likely to pick up ideas that will overturn his owner’s world. He might begin to read Paine and Cobbet and decide he’s worth more than being used as an underpaid slave for the rest of his life. And he’s be right.”

“I see what you mean.”

“Now, Harold. Take your horse.”

“What, my Polly?”

“Yes. Would you make her tug your big loads up and down these hillsides for twelve hours a day six days a week without a break other than a bagful of oats and a drink of water once a day?”

“I’ll say not! That would be madness!”

“Why would it be?”

“Because it would kill her, working at that rate.”

“But that’s what mill children, and men and women are set to do.”

“What has that to do with anything?”

“Well, Harold. Your Polly is essential to your business. If anything happened to her what would you do?”

“I’d have to buy another horse.”

“Would you mind losing Polly?”

“Of course I would. Polly was given to me by my father when she was a foal, and when I came of age I set up as a carter using her to draw my cart. Of course I’d mind losing her. What sort of a question is that?”

“Do you think you’d mind losing her as much as North minds losing his daughter?”

“I’d say so. I’ve had her more than ten years.”

North’s daughter worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, didn’t get enough food or rest and she fell asleep after standing at her place for many hours before she went to sleep out of weakness and tiredness and fell into the deadly machinery.”

“Good Lord, Job. I had no idea. That’s awful.”

“It is awful, but it happens almost every day in one mill or another somewhere in this country. If you were North would you want to change that?”

“Well, I suppose I … here, wait on, Job. You’ll have me turning confounded Radical if you’re not careful!”

“Don’t let me influence you one way or another. I’m not out to make you cross the floor. I just think that more of us should try to put ourselves in the shoes of workingmen before we run them down and dismiss them as madmen.”

Starkey was glad that he had finished his supper. With altogether too much of a flourish, he scraped his spoon around the inside of his empty bowl before slurping an imaginary sop and announcing himself full and finished and offered a hearty ‘Farewell,” to his companion.

“Good talking to you, Job, he said, rising to leave. I shall think about what you said.”

“You do that Harold. You think about it every time you look at Polly or your little Nancy. You just do that.”


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