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Luddite Spring: 37 - Starkey And Gladstone

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

Ronnie Bray continues his novel concerning an uprising of ill-treated mill workers in the early days of the industrial revolution.

Starkey and Gladstone were taking a quiet drink in the corner of the Pack Horse tap room, mulling over the state of affairs in the country.

“We’re in stage of siege,” said Gladstone, the commission spinner that had attended the Cloth Hall that day. “We know what’s to blame, but we can’t do anything about it!”

“What do you reckon’s to blame, eh?” asked Starkey, the packhorse man and general carter.

“It’s obvious. It’s the engines, the machines, that’s what! They put men out of work, and then they starve or else find other work at starvation wages somewhere else. Their wages fall and the price of food goes up. No one can carry on for long under 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 the manufacturers won’t. So, if they won’t lie down, then they’ll rise, and we’ll be the ones that take the knocks when they do.”

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

“Whose job is it to put it straight, then, Harold? If it is not His Majesty’s, if it is not his Government’s, and if owners cannot get it right, when will it ever get right? I wish I knew the answer to that question,” he confessed, 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 their blood. There used to be too many jobs,” Gladstone continued, morosely, “and not enough hands for them, but now there are too many hands and not enough jobs for them. It’s a puzzle and no mistake.”

Starkey considered his friend’s comment, and then offered, “This machine revolution coming in the midst of our other problems has put Old England in a state of siege, as you said. On one side, there are the masters, and on the other side, there are the workers. They’re on opposite sides and you and me are stuck in between them because we are neither one thing nor the other and we are likely to be mangled by both lots if we say anything. But we’ll suffer even worse if we do nothing! Well, Job, I blame the Orders in Council. They have shut off trade between us and the Continent so we have lost a big portion of our established markets. Then there is the American trouble that stops us buying raw materials in and selling our goods out. That’s what has brought trade so low, affected jobs, and put the country in a state of rebellion. Folks will stand for almost anything, but being starved isn’t one of them!”

Gladstone was surprised by his more taciturn’ companion’s eloquence on the subject. “You sound just like Cobbett. He says that working folks are surrounded by a body of controllers who look after their own interests at the expense of the toilers.”

Starkey laughed. “I didn’t mean to. Frankly, Job, I don’t put too much store by what Cobbet and the like say. They seem to want to bring us even more trouble than we’ve got already. Time for wise heads to sort this out.”

Both men nodded silently as if the final word had been spoken on the subject, each with the feeling 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 individual household circumstances, Gladstone turned the conversation back to their first subject. “I read in the Leeds paper that the Government’s position about the poor was, ‘Let them hate us, so long as they fear us!’”

Starkey 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.

Mistaking his silence for lack of argument, Gladstone continued. “It looks to me as if the working class hate their betters and that their betters 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 what they call ‘a becoming distance’ between themselves and their workers’ distress and deny they have an obligation to do anything about it.”

Starkey was shocked into a response. “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 his meal 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 see the difference. I could take you to weaver’s cottages where that dinner of yours would provide two day’s meals for 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, 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 several 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!” He chortled at his remark.

“Nay, Job, lad. Steady on! I know I’m well-proportioned, but I’m not over much.” Starkey did what he could to diminish the thickness of his waistline by sucking in his breath and trying to flatten his ampleness. The dinner he had just finished worked against any great degree of success, and he could only suck his abdomen in for so long before the need to breathe freely let it plump back its normal dimensions.

Gladstone smiled. “I won’t say you are plump, Harold, if it upsets you that much. But, just you take a close look at the mill hands next time you call at a mill 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 scarecrows at the end of winter when its stuffing has been blown about by the wind. 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 are like, we see them as walking skeletons, but none of us is willing 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 that turn the wheels for them and make them rich. To masters, workers are just 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 demand that workers are 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 part of the whole process. Their duty involves nothing more than that they pay attention and are fit enough to work long hours. But, let them fail in these and they are sent down the road. 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 ignored by the very officials set to enact them.”

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

“No, I’m no Radical, Harold. But I can see why workers are getting agitated. Imagine yourself in their broken-down shoes for five minutes and you’d start getting agitated yourself.”

“Not me, Job. But then, I’m no Radical either. But I do 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.”

“I don’t say they are not. You sound to be in a bad way about them. 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. There are laws that have names but are without teeth. Officials hired to implement laws to protect workers don’t do anything to help them for fear of upsetting the masters. The result is that workers are without protection. They have no recourse for remedy and so they are suffered to suffer the mercy of the merciless. You know about Matthew North’s lass?”

Starkey nodded affirmatively.

“Well, North and his lass have suffered loss and injustice at the hands of a master that will never be called to account for the maiming and murder of their daughter.”

“Yes. I heard about the accident. But, North’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 dear little Nancy?”

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

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

“Not likely,” said Starkey making his point with his fists on the table with such energy that the table shook and the dishes rattled. “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 eliminate them. They don’t want educated workers. Once a wage earner can read, he is likely to pick up ideas that will overturn his owner’s world. He might begin to read Paine and Cobbet, maybe even the New Testament, and decide he’s worth more than being an underpaid slave for the rest of his life. And he’d 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 half a feed bag 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 her machine.”

“Good Lord, Job. I had no idea that’s what happened to her. That’s awful.”

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

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

“Don’t let me influence you one way or another. I’m not out to make you change your mind. 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.”

As Starkey reached the door, he turned to Gladstone with a grin on his normally lugubrious face and asked, “Do you suppose machines’ll ever take over my job?”

“What? Machinery horses? Don’t be daft. Lad,” Gladstone said with a good natured chuckle. “There’ll never be a machine that can do what horses do.”

Starkey laughed back, comforted, and left to stable Polly for the night. It had been a busy day.


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