Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Robyn banned me from reading books.


There was a thin autumn sun, so we went out for the afternoon to Egham to have a coffee, sitting at one of the pavement tables watching the world go by.

Caffé Nero was given a facelift earlier this year and they put in some bookcases which they filled with a random assortment of old books.

That was the first thing that worked me up; for the last 20 years, libraries have been selling off their 'old' books.

Who cares?

These are works of reference, mainly. The kind of books that you looked up to write an essay in the old days before there was an internet.

They are really quite priceless - books of our history, textbooks, all the important stuff. The kind of sources that allowed people to make up their own minds about history without being told what to think by the net.

All of which means that silly librarians have been literally giving away these books - to book dealers at knock down prices.

As a result Caffé Nero now has a big bookshelf of random non fiction textbooks and reference works which they probably bought by the metre because they 'looked nice'.

So I borrowed one; a collection of original documents of Economic History....from The Magna Carta to the end of the 19th century and covering everything from The Enclosure Acts to The Factory Acts.

It was published in 1945....important enough to everyone at that time that it was one of the first things they published when the first unrationed paper came through after the end of the war.

It took just a moment for me to discover that I'd used this a lot in my University library, usually in the last minute, to write my essays.

It was like thumbing through an old friend, full of old memories, and it made me very sad and emotional.......which is why Robyn has now banned me from reading books.

The problem with the Internet is that you can find anything you want but you need to know what it is that you are looking for and you need someone to have taken the trouble to have posted it up there in the first place.

So who would know to look for the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, a 23 year old textile worker who was interviewed by a Parliamentary Commission in 1832?

I couldn't find the passage in the book where she described how her back was permanently bent by inhuman working conditions (a bit like mine is now) when she was in her teens but I found this;  

Parliamentary Testimony: Evidence Given Before the Sadler Committee
In 1832, Member of Parliament Michael Sadler initiated and chaired a parliamentary investigation of the conditions of work in textile factories. The evidence collected, which extends to many volumes, consists of interviews like the following. As a result of the investigation, laws were passed limiting the number of hours women and children could be employed in textile factories.
Elizabeth Bentley, called in; and examined.

What age are you?
— Twenty-three.

Where do you live?
— At Leeds.

What time did you begin to work at a factory?
— When I was six years old.

At whose factory did you work?
— Mr. Busk's.

What kind of mill is it?
— Flax-mill.

What was your business in that mill?
— I was a little doffer.

What were your hours of labour in that mill?
— From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged. 

For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time?
— For about half a year.

What were your usual hours of labour when you were not so thronged?
— From 6 in the morning till 7 at night.

What time was allowed for your meals?
— Forty minutes at noon.

Had you anytime to get your breakfast or drinking?
— No, we got it as we could.

And when your work was bad, you had hardly any time to eat it at all?
— No; we were obliged to leave it or take it home, and when we did not take it, the overlooker took it, and gave it to his pigs.

Do you consider doffing a laborious employment?
— Yes.

Explain what it is you had to do?
— When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller; and then put empty ones on and set the frame going again.

Does that keep you constantly on your feet?
— Yes, there are so many frames, and they run so quick.

Your labour is very excessive?
— Yes; you have not time for any thing.

Suppose you flagged a little, or were too late, what would they do?
— Strap us.

Are they in the habit of strapping those who are last in doffing?
— Yes.

— Yes.

Girls as well as boys?
— Yes.

Have you ever been strapped?
— Yes.

— Yes.

Is the strap used so as to hurt you excessively?
— Yes, it is.

Were you strapped if you were too much fatigued to keep up with the machinery?
— Yes; the overlooker I was under was a very severe man, and when we had been fatigued and worn out, and had not baskets to put the bobbins in, we used to put them in the window bottoms, and that broke the panes, sometimes, and I broke one one time, and the overlooker strapped me on the arm, and it rose a blister, and I ran home to my mother.

How long did you work at Mr. Busk's?
— Three or four years.

Where did you go then?
— Benyon's factory.

That was where you were about 10 years?
— Yes.

What were you then?
— A weigher in the card room.

How long did you work there?
— From half-past 5 till 8 at night.

What time was allowed for meals at that mill?
— Forty minutes at noon.

Any time at breakfast or drinking?
— Yes, for the card rooms, but not for the spinning rooms, a quarter of an hour to get their breakfast.

And the same for their drinking?
— Yes.

So that the spinners in that room worked from half-past 5 till 9 at night?
— Yes.

Having only forty minutes' rest?
— Yes.

The carding room is more oppressive than the spinning department?
— Yes, it is so dusty they cannot see each other for dust.

It is on that account they are allowed a relaxation of those few minutes?
— Yes; the cards get so soon filled up with waste and dirt, they are obliged to stop them or they would take fire.

There is a convenience in that stoppage?
— Yes, it as much for their benefit as for the working people.

When it was not necessary no such indulgence was allowed?
— No.

— No.

Were the children beat up to their labour there?
— Yes.

With what?
— A strap; I have seen the overlooker go to the top end of the room, where the little girls hug  the can to the backminders; he has taken a strap, and a whistle in his mouth, and sometimes he has got a chain and chained them, and strapped them all down the room.

All the children?
— No, only those hugging the cans.

What was his reason for that?
— He was angry.

Had the children committed any fault?
— They were too slow.

Were the children excessively fatigued at that time?
— Yes, it was in the afternoon.

Were the girls struck so as to leave marks upon their skin?
— Yes, they have had black marks many times, and their parents dare not come to him about it, they were afraid of losing their work.

If the parents were to complain of this excessive ill-usage, the probable consequence would be the loss of the situation of the child?
— Yes.

In what part of the mill did you work?
— In-the card-room.

It was exceedingly dusty?
— Yes.

Did it affect your health?
— Yes; it was so dusty, the dust got upon my lungs, and the work was so hard; I was middling strong when I went there, but the work was so bad; I got so bad in health, that when I pulled the baskets down, I pulled my bones out of their places.

You dragged the baskets?
— Yes; down the rooms to where they are worked.

And as you had been weakened by excessive labour, you could not stand that labour?
— No.

It has had the effect of pulling your shoulders out?
— Yes; it was a great basket that stood higher than this table a good deal.

How heavy was it?
— I cannot say; it was a very large one, that was full of weights up-heaped, and pulling the basket pulled my shoulders out of its place, and my ribs have grown over it

You continued at that work?
— Yes.
You think that work is too much for children?
— Yes.

I feel the same anger today that I felt all those years ago when I first read the words of poor Elizabeth Bentley.

Only perhaps it's worse in the knowledge that since then our own textile industry has collapsed and with it the factories that made clothes for the High Street.

The jobs? They all went to Bangladesh and Pakistan and any other country where little 12 year old girls like Elizabeth Bentley still get beaten when they don't work hard enough.

So then I looked up the testimony of Patience Kershaw which was once so famous that in the 1960's someone set the words to music (re recorded by 'The Unthanks' recently);

Parliamentary Papers, 1842, vols. XV-XVII, Appendix I, pp. 252, 258, 439, 461; Appendix II, pp. 107, 122, 205. The second of the three great reports embodies the results of the investigation into the conditions of labor in the mines made by Lord Ashley's Mines Commission of 1842. The Mines Act of 1842 that resulted prohibited the employment in the mines of all women and of boys under thirteen.

No. 26. — Patience Kershaw, aged 17, May 15.

My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home.
All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o'clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat.

 I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters' did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.

I'm grateful to The National Coal Mining Museum for this description;

 Jobs in 19th Century Mines

In early mines, when families would often all work together, each member of the family would play a part. They all helped to mine as much coal as possible, so that the family could make a living.

The Hewer
The hewer’s job was to mine the coal from the coal seam. He would use hand tools such as a sharp pick. The hewer would have to work in an area no taller than the height of the coal seam, which could be less than 60 cm. The hewer would work with a single candle to enable him to see what he was doing.
The Getter
This work might be done by a woman. She would shovel the coal produced by the hewer into the coal corves (large baskets) or tubs (small carts), often working on her knees. Sometimes this work would be done by the hewer.
The Hurrier
Often crawling on hands and knees, the hurrier would pull the tubs or corves of coal along the roadways to the pit-bottom. They had to wear belts attached to a heavy chain. This chain passed between their legs and was attached to the coal tub. As the hewer and getter filled the tubs, these were taken away to the pit bottom to be lifted to the surface.
The Thruster
This job was often done by girls working with a hurrier. The hurrier would pull the tubs and the thruster’s job was to push the tub with her hands and her forehead. Some thrusters might lose their hair by pushing the heavy tubs with their head.
The younger children worked in pairs, one as a hurrier, one as a thruster. The older children, and especially women hurriers, worked alone.
The Trapper
The youngest children in the mine worked as trappers. Children started work as young as five years old. They sat at the wooden ventilation doors, opening them when hurriers brought loaded tubs to the pit-bottom or returned with empties, and closing them again afterwards. It was a very responsible job for such young children as the whole ventilation system of the mine depended on them; one door left open could starve the pit of air.
Although it was not a physically hard job it was very boring and lonely. Trappers could not usually afford a candle, and would sit in the dark for long periods.

And while I read this I was thinking about an incident in 2010 just before I got ill.

Several times, I saw potholes in the road being repaired by contractors which used to be done by the local Council using Union labour.

Now this used to be done by a team but in 2010 it became normal for one man to do it, with the help of a young son......I saw kids  about 12 doing exactly that........sweeping, clearing up, a bit of shovelling with a spade so big they could hardly carry it.

Now it was still a Labour government then and the police were swiftly told to stop this....using The Factory Acts which are still in force today.

It doesn't take a lot to go back; not having a Trades Union and a government that turns a blind eye to suffering.

And all the campaigning and fighting we did....doesn't mean a thing if you let them get away with it.

And now when you buy your Levi Jeans, Nike or Addidas or whatever.....have a look at the label and check out where your designer gear comes from.

Anyway, after working myself up about all that, Robyn has banned me from reading books.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)


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