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Luddite Spring: 41 - Baillie Wullie MacTavish

...children, some little mites of no more than four or five years, replaced their fathers. Even three-year olds because of their size were used for dangerous tasks, such as cleaning under and within machinery that was operating at full speed...

Ronnie Bray continues his story of rebellion against horrifying conditions in the mills during the early days of the industrial revolution.

Many experienced Staithes’ cruelty at his own hands, or at the toe end of his boot. Others shared in cruelty at the hands of his overseers, especially of his Baillie. Staithes hired Scotsman Wullie MacTavish to impose discipline in the mill. His kind was noted for fierceness and lack of sympathy. Their disposition to lay the whip or bludgeon across the back of young and old, male and female, even down to the smallest child was the stuff of legend. MacTavish dispensed brutality with uniform harshness for any action he deemed an infraction of the countless rules that encompassed workers so strictly that they dared hardly breathe.

Guilt or innocence was never put to the test. The judgement was MacTavish’s and from it there was no appeal. Those that pleaded with the thug were treated to still greater brutality. MacTavish was malevolence personified, and typical of what was detestable in the factory system. For these reasons he was a favourite of Staithes.

Staithes had an eye for cheap labour. He would not employ an adult if he could acquire a child to do a man’s job. Machinery simplified what had once been skilled jobs with few exceptions. Therefore children, some little mites of no more than four or five years, replaced their fathers. Even three-year olds because of their size were used for dangerous tasks, such as cleaning under and within machinery that was operating at full speed.

Some owners had machines made to suit children’s sizes, because, in the eyes of masters, children were the most desirable employees seeing as they worked for lower wages than adults did and because they were easier to intimidate than men. Consequently, fathers became surplus to requirements and were discharged.

Some unemployed men sought relief for the pain of low esteem in alehouses, leaving them only when broke or ejected, and with nowhere to go but home, where some abused their families. Unemployment and drink became the curse of the non-working working class. Not only did ale and porter lead to domestic abuse, but also it further crippled an already crippled society, and increasingly impoverished an impoverished one. Drunkenness disturbed families and degraded the quality of worker’s lives outside the factory to the level of life within its walls.

A bully is a bully except in the presence of those he fears or is dependent upon for his keep. MacTavish bullied inside and out the workplace because that was his nature, and his nature served Staithes well, because a fearful workforce was an obedient one and Staithes demanded obedience.

Above the clamour and clack of the looms came the roaring voice of MacTavish, shouting angrily. “Yon laddie is sleeping! He is fast asleep!”

He brought his blackthorn stick down hard on the ledge against which the boy was leant. “I’ll teach the lazy wee bastard to sleep at work!”

Again, he raised the stick above his head moving closer to the lad, intending to crack his skull. The lad was seven years old and had been at his post for nine hours without interruption. His task was to watch for breaks in the warp and to pick them up quickly between violent slams of picking sticks and the flying shuttle.

Underfed, undernourished, in fragile health, and sleep deprived the little boy had yielded to the enticings of his physical condition coupled with the noisy but hypnotic rhythm of the loom he was set to watch. So deeply asleep was he, that when the stick had cracked down by his side the lad had not roused.

Before the Baillie could injure the boy severely, the lad’s father rushed from the shadows in which he tended several looms at the same time and wrenched his son out of range of the murderous club. The cudgel missed the lad by less than a half inch, striking the wooden edge of the loom’s front edge, cracking the timber. Had it been the boy’s skull it would have stoved in and the Baillie would have murdered the child and been absolved for his crime.

No magistrate would hear a workman’s complaint regardless of the offence, not even when death was the result, as it often was. He would likely lock the workman in jail and impose a fine he knew he could never pay. Such injustice kept the populace compliant.

Although the boy had escaped certain death at the hands of the vicious overseer, his father snapped his arm with a defined crack, hoping that thereby the Baillie would consider him sufficiently punished and not seek to inflict a worse injury on the poor boy.

“It’s well you did that to the lad, or else I’d have tae give him full strength for his dereliction.”

MacTavish walked away, and the anguished father laid his crying son on a pile of wool waste in the corner to comfort himself until the factory closed for the night.

“I’m sorry, Babby,” he told the boy. The boy understood. He had witnessed similar events in the four years he had worked at the mill. He wept softly, nursing his broken arm in the crook of his other. His face was twisted and fearful. It remained in that condition for the rest of his short life.

MacTavish ranged through the mill’s departments watching for infractions and punishing them with a severity that is remembered down to this day. He was more feared than Staithes because he would appear at any time in any place on what he called his ‘rounds’ through the mill.


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