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Luddite Spring: 29 - Suffer The Little Children

...It was impossible to look into Mistress Smith’s eyes and not realise that here was a mother with no tears left to cry. No matter what might happen to her family in the future, her crying was over...

Continuing his story of a workers' revolution Ronnie Bray outlines the harsh conditions mill workers had to endure.

Starkey was right. Gledhill’s Mary was not the only child to have been maltreated in a mill, and not the only one to fall into unguarded machinery. The truth is that mill children are routinely ill used. Being strapped, beaten, and kicked is a normal part of a working child’s experience. They don’t like it and neither do their parents, but they are helpless to prevent it. For economic reasons, some parents have said they would rather their children were beaten than have their wages docked.

A mother whose children worked in the mill testified that this was so. In a tired and thin voice full of grief and fear, Mistress Hannah Smith gave evidence to a committee of inquiry.

“I have three children working in Staithes’ mill. One of ‘em’s 11, one on ‘em is 13, and t’other un’s 14. They work regular hours there. We don't complain. If they go to drop the hours, I don't know what poor people will do. We have hard work to live as it is. My husband is of the same mind about it.

“Last summer me husband was 6 weeks ill; we pledged almost all our things to live; the things are not all out of pawn yet. We complain of nothing but short wages. My children have been in the mill three years. I have no complaint to make of their being beaten. I would rather they were beaten than fined. We need their money, poor mites.”

It was impossible to look into Mistress Smith’s eyes and not realise that here was a mother with no tears left to cry. No matter what might happen to her family in the future, her crying was over. The tenderness in her womanly heart had burst and ached its way out of her as deprivation first insulted, and then tore down the fabric of their family so that she had abandoned hope for anything more than that the next meal would at least half fill their hungry bellies. It was seeing hard featureless faces as hers that led the unfeeling to opine that working people were devoid of normal sentiment, that they married solely for sexual pleasure, and were unfitted by Nature to love their children. Their tragedy is that they would never learn how wrong they were. Only those that had shared Mistress Smith’s experience could look into her eyes and see the pain and emotion in her smarting soul that lay too deep for tears.

Abuse was the stuff of the lives of mill children, as was tattered clothing, unkempt hair, snotty noses, rude speech, and knowing that crying brought beatings, kicks, and blows, and the stark awareness that whilst life was miserable, it could and did get much worse.

Workers were trapped in a world in which, to even survive, they had to make believe that all was well. They might live after a fashion on condition that they ignored reality. An essential expectation of this self-deception was that their nightmares would end and life would be good. By yielding to this delusion they avoided one form of insanity by accepting another. If the delusion of eventual reparation dissolved, then the loss of their only hope initiated flights from reality, and fragile minds went into full-blown psychosis. They anticipated that their fortitude and perseverance would be rewarded with respect, dignity, and decent wages, which is the preposterous optimism of slaves. Folly and madness, but it was all they had.
Masters and rulers were in control. The poor were abased by those who had more power than Almighty God had.

The unfortunate dared not speak of their abuse. Passion and outrage burned in the minds of rational men because of the injustices visited upon them. Their feelings were fanned to furnace heat because they knew that as surely the working poor breathed, moved, and toiled, they were little more than rotting corpses moving inexorably towards the charnel house. Injustice crushed their souls, bruised their hearts, broke their bodies, stultified their minds, stifled resistance, extinguished optimism, and mocked their condition. They were sorely tried.


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