LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Passages of a Working Life during Half a Century
Chapter X

Contents Vol. I
Prelude 1
Prelude 2
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Contents Vol. II
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Chapter XV
Note to Chapter XV
Contents Vol. III
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Note to Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Note to Chapter IX
‣ Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Chapter XIII
Note to Chapter XIII
Chapter XIV
Index of Persons
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THAT division of each decennial Census which relates to the Occupations of the People, has always appeared to me the most complete as well as minute exhibition of their social condition which is to be found in any statistical document bearing upon national progress, whether domestic or foreign. My curiosity has often been excited to know more than I could find in these significant figures; to see something of the inner life of masses of the population, whether large or small, of whose characters and habits we know little or nothing. There are many handicrafts, for example, which are found only in particular localities and nowhere else. Thus at Christchurch in Hampshire, the minute steel chains for the interior of watches are made by women. The links and rivets are furnished from Sheffield and Birmingham. Look at the little chain in your watch which you wind up every night; you can hardly see the rivets, and yet, as I am assured, these female artisans of Christchurch rarely wear glasses. It would be worth a visit to this town, not only to look upon its noble church, but to see how the patient diligence of the watch-chain makers can attain to perfection in a branch of industry which demands the most exquisite nicety of manipulation. How many of the curious operations of handicraft I should desire to examine
if “stealing age” had not “caught me in his clutch.” The interesting description by
M. Audiganne, in a recent number of the “Révue des Deux Mondes,” might once have induced me to make a trip to the Jura Mountains to look at the domestic manufacture of turnery, known as articles of Saint Claude, which has existed for centuries. Here the snuff-boxes which once employed the labour of the district have given place to the briar-root pipes. England is the greatest importer of these pipes, next to the United States. Do many of our youths who display their genuine briar-root on the top of an omnibus, know where these pipes are made; or consider that when they paid five shillings for a warranted article, the cottager who is producing it sits for twelve hours a day at his lathe, turning out dozens for the reward of two or three francs?

The official Report on the Census of 1851 had told me that “straw-plait, lace, and shoes, employ the people in the South Midland Counties.” These non-factory employments had commanded little attention from statists and tourists; but it appeared to me that there must be some points of interest connected with them, especially in calling forth a large amount of female industry. I wanted in 1860 relaxation from my habitual pursuits, and I sought it in a little tour of twelve days. By a regulated activity, uniting the speed of the railway with the moderate pace of the wheeled-carriage and the occasional walk, I was enabled to obtain some acquaintance with the Straw-plait manufacture, as carried on at St. Alban’s, at Luton, at Dunstable; with the Boot and Shoe-trade, as pursued in Northamptonshire, and at Cookham; with the Pillow-lace handicraft, in its organized
industry round Bedford and Northampton, spreading through the Valley of the Ouse, and long seated on the banks of the Thames. I also saw, what were in some respects to me more novel, the Wooden-Ware and Chair-making trades, employing some thousands of the people amidst towns and villages of Buckinghamshire, which lie between the hills crowned with the beech-woods from which the county derives its name. I had that real holiday, in which body and mind are employed without exhaustion in a constant change of scene, and of varied observation.

On a bright frosty morning, in the middle of October, the North-Western Railway bore me in an hour and a quarter to St. Alban’s. Time, and the changes of society, cannot obliterate the noble associations of this famous spot. To this place, suggesting thoughts of memorable persons and events, I came to inquire into the occupations and habits of a new population of straw-plaiters and bonnet-makers, who, after the lapse of three hundred and fifty years, have succeeded to those who received their dole at the great Abbey gates. These new comers have settled here within a very recent period, and by their industry have restored some life to the thoroughfare which railways had rendered a deserted street of shut-up inns. And yet, unpoetical and humble as such an inquiry may seem, it is perhaps more important to the interests of the country that a large female population, profitably employed, should present the example of a virtuous and happy community, than that the Abbey should become a cathedral, and a new bishop here hold his seat, as some desire. I should rejoice to see the grand old pile restored in a worthy manner; but I should more rejoice to know
that some judicious efforts were made to rescue a disproportionate female population, generally earning sufficient even for luxuries, from the perils that beset young women congregated in workshops, and living for the most part without the restraints and comforts of domestic ties. Here, as at other straw-plaiting towns, cottages have been run up, in which female inmates are accommodated, who have come from village homes, attracted by the reports of high wages that would allow cottage girls to dress like ladies. It was evident that something was wanting to control such a class, beyond the ordinary religious instruction of a Sunday.

Luton is a town whose recent importance has been wholly created by the straw-plait trade. Boswell, who went with Johnson in 1781 to Luton Hoo, the mansion of Lord Bute, on the 4th of June, the birthday of George III., says, “we dined, and drank his Majesty’s health at an inn in the village of Luton.” “The village” has become the metropolis of a great trade.

The straw-plait market of Luton is held on every Monday throughout the year, at eight o’clock from Lady-day to Michaelmas, at nine from Michaelmas to Lady-day. It had been described to me as a scene combining many features of the picturesque, such as a painter would delight in if he beheld it on a bright summer morning, when the crowds from the country would hilariously display the golden plait on stalls set out from one end to the other of a long street, and cheerful matrons and smart lasses would stand quietly on the pavement, each with their scores of plait hooped on their arms. It was my misfortune to see this assemblage on a morning when the rain
came down with a settled determination that destroyed all the gaiety of the scene. Nevertheless the street was crowded with sellers and buyers, and every gateway that could give shelter was filled with the poor women who brought their week’s work to a certain market. All the curious organization of the trade could be here followed out. At nine o’clock the market-bell rings, and the traffic begins. My attention is first attracted by the dealers in straw prepared for plaiting. These come from the neighbouring hamlets, in which they are employed in the selection of straw from the farmers’ barns; in sorting it into different degrees of fineness; in cutting it into a regulated length; in bleaching it by exposure to sulphur-fumes; and in making it up for sale in little bundles. The straw-plaiters come to the market to buy this straw; as they also come to sell their plait. Those women whose goods have not been collected by a middle-man stand in rank, their small dealings being principally confined to the private makers of bonnets at their own homes, who chaffer with the plaiters for a score or two of the plait. Carts have come in from distant places with loads of plait. The dealers are opening their bags upon the stalls. The commodity will sustain no material damage from the rain; and so the trade goes forward as if all were sunshine. The buyers here are the agents of the great houses. They rapidly decide upon quality and price; enter the bargain in their note-books; the bags are carried to the warehouses; the loaded tressels are soon relieved of their burdens; and in an hour or two the street is empty. The scene reminds one of
Defoe’s description of the clothmarket of Leeds at the beginning of the last century,
when the High Street was covered with a temporary counter, to which the clothiers from the country came each with his piece of cloth, rarely with more; and the business was settled between the producers and the cloth-factors after very few words. A straw-plait manufactory employs no straw-plaiters within its walls. There are large warehouses in which every variety of plait is kept in spacious receptacles—English plait and foreign plait; dyed plait, and plait called “rice,” the white inner part of the straw being worked outwards. The variety of degrees of skilled labour is manifest in these productions. I was shown a bundle of plait of the most exquisite fineness, worked by a dame of eighty; as well as the commonest plait worked by very young girls, who sit at their cottage doors in the sunny days, or wander about the green lanes, playing as it were with their pretty work. The bonnet-sewing and hat-sewing process is exhibited in spacious rooms, in each of which sixty or eighty young women are busily plying the needle.

Straw-plait industry has an authenticated date for its origin—the reign of George I. Lace-making, we all know, is as old as the time of Shakspere, and probably a good deal older. In 1782, Cowper described the lace-maker,—
“Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store,
Content, though mean, and cheerful, if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the live-long day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light.”
Then, as now, the lace-maker just earned a “scanty pittance.” The poet drew a picture with which he
was perfectly familiar, for he lived in the heart of the Buckinghamshire Lace-making district for many years. In his summer rambles from Olney to Weston, he might see many a cottager weaving at her own door, and in his winter morning walk might bestow a kind word upon the aged dame still fumbling at her bobbins over a scanty fire. Wherever the Ouse flowed through the well-watered land from Huntingdon to Buckingham, by Bedford and by Newport, there was the lace-maker. She dwelt also in every hamlet that dotted the fertile country between the Nen and the Welland. There she still dwells, earning even a scantier pittance than of old; but she has not died out. The surplus female labour of the peasant’s household still adds a trifle to his scanty means, even in the commoner work of the pillow and bobbin. If there be an occasional lace-maker who, in “shuffling her threads about the livelong day,” is unusually skilful, she may probably earn her own food and raiment. The lace-machine absolutely forbids any rivalry of hand-labour as to cheapness; but it has not shut out a competition in excellence. In these districts, the great lace marts are Bedford and Northampton.

Leaving the merchants of lace in the towns, let me look a little at the hamlets, in which dwell the workers of lace. Through a fertile country, now much inundated by the autumn rains, I arrived at Turvey, a village of farm-labourers and lace-makers. Come hither ye capitalists who suffer the labourers’ cottages on your highly rented farms to afford imperfect shelter from the elements, and no provision for comfort and decency—ye who want your outlay upon better dwellings to be returned by an absolute five per
cent.—come ye hither, and look what has been done by two landowners, who were desirous to leave the world better than they found it. There is probably no such pattern village in England as this of Turvey Its cottages are newly built of stone, each containing four rooms, with out-houses and a good garden, of which the rent is fifteen pence a week. The church, one of the most beautiful examples of Early English, with many splendid monuments, has been restored in the highest taste by the munificent expenditure of the chief proprietor. The noble organ, provided by this gentleman, is played upon by himself; and here he has formed a choir of no common excellence. For the education and intellectual advancement of a population not much exceeding a thousand, there are Schools and there are Reading-rooms. This is, indeed, the Paradise of lace-makers. Although their earnings may be scant, their comforts are not few, and their opportunities of intellectual recreation after their tedious labours are abundantly provided for. Their health is well cared for by sanitary arrangements. In an inquiry, in 1850, into the desirableness of applying the Public Health Act to a town in Buckinghamshire, where many lace-makers dwelt, the dirt was as striking as the poverty; and their pallid looks were as attributable to the want of an adequate supply of water and good drainage as to their sedentary occupation. At Turvey there is the sedentary occupation, but there is also every means afforded of health, comfort, and cheerfulness. The people are cared for.

Olney, the large village which derives its only interest from having been the abode of Cowper, presents a somewhat mournful contrast to Turvey. Its long
street of old houses, still looking fresh, because built of calcareous yellow stone,—though some bear the date of two centuries,—has one unvarying aspect of dulness, if not of gloom. The tall red-brick house in which Cowper wrote ‘
The Task,’ stands in a roomy angle of the street, towering most unpicturesquely above its neighbours. It is now divided into three separate tenements. The place and its associations are very little changed since the days when the postman’s horn was heard as he came at night over the long bridge that bestrode the wintry flood,—
“News from all nations lumbering at his back.”
The Times,” indeed, is in the head inn by noon, to which hostelry the commercial traveller occasionally comes. The lace-makers may be now and then seen, bartering their painful labours at the chandler’s-shop, which supplies them with thread, and gives ounces of tea for yards of lace. The lace-collector comes to purchase what the chandler has in store, and he sells it at a profit to the lace-merchant. There is little chance for the producer under such a system of truck and middle-men. The people are all poor; the parish-rates very high. I doubted if the 10,487 lace-makers of Buckinghamshire, and the 5,734 of Bedfordshire, enumerated in the census of 1851, now sing the ‘Lace Songs’ that “the free maids who weave their thread with bones” of old did chant. I fear that Miss Baker, whose “Glossary” contains so many interesting traces of past times, is speaking of customs that were passing away at the beginning of the century, when she says of ‘Lace Songs’—the jingling rhymes sung by young girls while engaged at their lace-pillows—“the movement of the bobbins is timed
by the modulation of the tune, which excites them to regularity and cheerfulness; and it is a pleasing picture, in passing through a rural village, to see them, in warm sunny weather, seated outside their cottage-doors, or seeking the shade of a neighbouring-tree, where in cheerful groups they unite in singing their rude and simple rhymes.” Miss Baker gives one ditty, descriptive of the occupation:—
“Nineteen long lines being over my down,*
The faster I work it’ll shorten my score;
But if I do play it’ll stick to a stay;
So heigh-ho! little fingers, and twank it away.”
The little fingers must move faster and longer than in the old times to earn a meal. And yet there are many who regret that these domestic occupations are perishing, and believe that the girls of a well-regulated cotton-factory are wretched beings in comparison with those who work in the sun at cottage-doors. Would that the condition of the lace-makers could be improved! Individual benevolence may occasionally pay a better price for their labour than the village factor pays; but their ordinary rate of payment must depend upon the proportion of the workers to the demand for their work. There is some chance for them in the diminished competition produced by the small rate of reward. I was told in a lace-making village that the old women only continue at the work, and that the young ones would not take it up. The skilled labourers will be better remunerated when the unskilled are withdrawn from the market.

Leaving the lace district of Olney, the rail from

* “Once down the parchment is called a down.”

Wolverton takes me into the beautiful district of the Chilterns, with their immemorial beech-woods, in old times impassable except to the banditti hidden in their recesses; and who, we may presume, are now eradicated, and kept from again appearing by the watchfulness of
Queen Victoria, who is constantly appointing her Stewards of the Chiltern Hundreds, whose duty it is to protect the lieges from lawless rapine. These are the woods amidst which John Hampden dwelt; and through the chalky hollows of the high grounds, and through the grassy valleys, he led his sturdy yeomen to the fatal Chalgrove Field. Amidst these beechen hills dwelt Waller and Burke; Milton commenced his “Paradise Regained” at Chalfont St. Giles; Algernon Sidney sat in Parliament for Amersham. The country is as beautiful as its associations are inspiriting. A steep ascent from Berkhampstead through the woods of Ashridge; a level road for a mile or two; and then appears a little town in the valley of the Chess. Chesham is the seat of a curious manufacture; and here I stop to talk of Wooden Ware. Shoemakers are here in considerable numbers; straw-plaiters are here, and lace-makers; chair-makers are here; but the distinctive characteristic of the busy town, with an increasing population, is the production of every variety of utensil that can be formed out of the indigenous growth of the neighbourhood, the beech, the elm, and the ash.

The wise Launce, in “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” tells us of an olden time when princes and princesses, as well as shopkeepers and ale-wives, would have been wholesale customers for such ware, as Chesham, we may presume, produced in the
Tudor days: “I was sent to deliver him (his dog) as a present to Mistress Silvia, from my master; and I came no sooner into the dining-room, but he steps me to her trencher, and steals her capon’s leg.” The pewter plate banished the trencher, and the ware of Staffordshire banished the pewter plate. But there is ever a renaissance going on in the appliances of civilization. In “The Northumberland Household Book” of the year 1512, the order of breakfast for my lord and my lady directs, “Furst a Loif of Brede in Trenchors.”

We have returned to the service of bread upon a trencher, and Chesham manufactures the article in great abundance. But the Chesham trencher is somewhat of the roughest. The elaborate carvings that we see upon the bread-trenchers in the London shops are not the work of the Buckinghamshire artists. Some few women, indeed, carve wheat-ears on the rims, but the resemblance is not very perfect. The poor toy-maker, in “The Cricket on the Hearth,” who desired to pinch Boxer’s tail, having an order for a barking dog, and wishing to go as close to natur as he could for sixpence, might be an example to the fair carvers of Chesham. They are great, however, in butter-prints, but the general product of the place can scarcely be deemed ornamental or very finished, if we except that of one considerable manufactory for cricket-bats and stumps. In a dozen or more yards, with sheds appurtenant, on the banks of the Chess, are the beech and the elm sawn and fashioned into articles fit for hard work and rough usage. Here is the beechen bowl, turned in the simplest of lathes; the unornamented utensil varying in size from the tiny bowl to hold the change
in the tradesman’s till, to the large bowl for washing crockery in the housemaid’s pantry. The beechen bowl filled with furmety for the sheep-shearing festival is no longer wanted. Here are manufactured loads of malt-shovels, which I saw ready packed for immediate use now the barley-crop is gathered; and here are produced the hundred-thousands of sand-shovels with which young happy navvies of either sex construct their mountains and their rivers on our sea-girt margins, and which tools annually perish, unless the careful nursemaid packs them up with the umbrellas, to return again to these pleasant diggings at another season of happiness in no-lessons and unstinted shrimps. Here are butchers’-trays produced in constantly increasing numbers, whatever be the dearness of butcher’s meat; and here are myriads of trundling-hoops, pleasant to behold, being far less dangerous to the shins of the unwary walker on the pavement, than the noisy iron circles of this iron age. The horticultural juvenile may here find ample choice of wooden rollers, garden-rakes, and dwarfish wheelbarrows, whilst the straw-bonnet-maker may here purchase her blocks, and the wig-maker the wooden head upon which to fashion his curls that rival nature. All this varied product is handicraft. There is a sawing-mill on the stream, but in every yard there is a saw-pit, as if man wanted no aid from mechanical invention, even in the heaviest of his work. The lathe could not be spared; but it is such a lathe as Robinson Crusoe could have made to produce the furniture of his hut, without any great exercise of his ingenuity. In all this manufacture it is to be regretted that there is a very slight display of taste. In the industry of Chesham might
be reared skilful carvers, if any pains were taken to furnish them with good models. If high art were not commercially required, the women and children who cut butter-prints, might employ their leisure in carving toys, that might approach to the neatness, if not to the beauty, of the white-wood toys which the peasants of the Tyrol carve during their winter evenings. In this manufacture, as well as in many others, England is behind other nations, by aiming more exclusively at cheap than at tasteful productions.

Chipping Wycombe, known as High Wycombe, is in the very heart of the Buckinghamshire woods. Beech, the sacred tree of the Romans, out of which the sacrificial cup was made, had come to be called the “Buckinghamshire weed.” In old Fuller’s time, beech was held to be of value for timber, when no oak was to be had. As long as the oak lasted, the beech was safe from the woodman’s axe for all purposes of housebuilding. It was still safe when the pine, “hewn on Norwegian hills,” came to us in shiploads; and still more safe when our North American colonies sent us their deals by millions of feet. In a happy hour, the people dwelling amidst the beechwoods of the Chilterns took to chair-making, and so vigorously pursued the occupation that the Buckinghamshire weed is becoming scarce, as the oak was becoming scarce in the seventeenth century. It is remarkable how suddenly manufactures are localised under favourable circumstances. Chairs were no doubt always made in these districts. The Windsor chair has a fame of some antiquity; but the Wycombe chair-making trade was scarcely known as something remarkable twenty or thirty years ago. The demand for these chairs has grown with the enormous in-
crease of general population; the facilities of communication with the metropolis; the rapidly extending demand of our colonies. “When I began the trade,” said a large manufacturer to me, “I loaded a cart and travelled to Luton. All there was prosperous. There was a scramble for my chairs, and when I came home I laid my receipts on my table, and said to my wife, ‘You never saw so much money before.’” This manufacturer now sends his chairs to London, Liverpool, and Manchester; to Australia, New Zealand, and Constantinople. He made eight thousand chairs for the Crystal Palace, and being a person of true English humour, rejoices to tell how he took his family to a Crystal Palace music festival, and asked the attendants where they got so many chairs of one pattern, which seemed to him one of the greatest wonders of the place. Another manufacturer provided two thousand five hundred chairs, of unusual strength, for the evening service at St. Paul’s.

But it is not the large contract which makes the great chair-trade of Wycombe and the neighbourhood. Let us bear in mind the immense improvement in the social habits of the British people, marking the universal progress of refinement, and consider the consequent number of houses with rentals varying from 10l. to 50l., whose tenants require useful furniture, at once cheap, lasting, and ornamental. We need not then be surprised that Wycombe boasts of making a chair a minute all the year round—chairs which would not be unsightly in the handsomest sitting-room, and which can be sold at five shillings each. More costly chairs are here produced, as well as the commonest rush-bottom
chair of the old cottage-pattern. But the light caned chair, stained to imitate rosewood, or of the bright natural colour of the birch, and highly polished, finds a demand throughout the kingdom—a demand which might appear fabulous to those who have not reflected upon the extent to which a thriving industrious people create a national wealth which gives an impulse to every occupation, and fills every dwelling with comforts and elegancies of which our forefathers never dreamt. The wondrous cheapness of the Wycombe chair is produced by the division of labour in every manufactory, and by the competition amongst the manufacturers, in a trade where a small capital and careful organization will soon reward the humblest enterprise. “I can turn out thirty dozen chairs a day,” said the worthy man who occasionally carried a few dozen in a cart to Luton market when he started in business.

It is easy to understand how straw-plait and lace-making established their chief seats amidst an agricultural population, where the superfluous labour of women might eke out the support of the husbandman’s family. So also, the natural produce of an extensive district of beech-woods created the manufactures of wooden-ware and chairs in Buckinghamshire, as the woods of the weald of Sussex supplied two centuries ago the fuel for its iron-smelting. But how shoemaking, as a large manufacture, should have fixed its seat in particular districts or towns is not so easy to refer to natural causes. Accidental circumstances may have originally led to the establishment of such a trade, to be largely developed by capital, and skilful organization. I will give an example.


The term manufacture, as applied to the Boot and Shoe trade, belongs to recent times. The only notion of a shoemaker, whether in London or in the country, was that his entire handicraft was confined to individual customers of either sex; that he undertook to fit every foot, which task he endeavoured to accomplish by careful admeasurement; that he employed a few men and women, who worked either in his shop or in their houses; that he would occasionally have a misfit or two on his hands, but that he kept no stock ready for chance customers. The biographies of literary shoemakers give us no other idea of the trade, which they have rendered more illustrious than its patron, St. Crispin. Robert Bloomfield leaves his labours of Farmer’s Boy to go to London to learn shoemaking of his brother George; and in a garret where five men worked, he was permitted to acquire some knowledge of the gentle craft as a reward for fetching the dinners from the cook’s-shop, and for reading the newspaper to the workmen as they sewed and hammered. William Gifford, apprenticed to a shoemaker at Ashburton, had a harsh master, who did not approve of the unhappy lad’s mode of employing his time—that of hammering scraps of leather smooth, and working mathematical problems on them with a blunt awl. Yet in those days, when the particular Last for the individual foot made the shoemaker’s prosperity depend on small returns with large profits, there were two places where shoemaking was the staple trade—Stafford and Northampton. The cordwainers of Northampton were famous centuries ago. The greatest impulse in these days to the shoe trade of Northampton and Northamptonshire is the rapid increase of the popu-
lation of the country, the profitable intercourse with its colonies, and the existence of shoe-shops in every street of London, in every provincial town, and in almost every village. The greater portion of the shoes and boots worn throughout the Queen’s dominions are ready-made.

Before I went to Northampton to inquire into the condition of this trade, I had a notion of the general organization of the manufacture upon a large scale in a neighbourhood with which I was familiar. At Cookham, there has been established for some twenty years a boot and shoe wholesale trade, which has a reputation in the gold-diggings of Australia as well as in the villages of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. As the traveller passes through these villages, he will frequently see a board displayed over the door of the general dealer’s shop, inscribed “Cookham Shoes.” At the regular shoe warehouse he will ask in vain for this commodity. The dealer is the agent of the manufacturer. I went to Cookham for a few weeks in 1857, and I found that the agricultural population of Cookham, and of the neighbourhood for some miles round, had become, to a considerable extent, a shoemaking population. When I walked in the lanes leading to Cookham Dene I always met a young fellow bearing a canvas bag filled with materials for shoes, or the shoes completed. On the Buckinghamshire side of the Thames, where none but papermakers used to dwell, again I met the shoemaker with his bag. On the Cookham Moor, as I looked upon some not unskilful cricketers, I was told that the wonderful bowler was a shoemaker. In the harvest time, when hands were wanting, the shoemaker was reaping, and the shoemakers wife was binding
the sheaves. This mixture of labour is common enough in the United States. The growth of this trade is remarkable. Mr. Burrows, who had acquired a competence as a leather-seller, retired here, having bought a handsome house and grounds. As he went about, he saw the poor cobblers in the villages pursuing their craft after a rough old fashion, and rearing their boys in the same unskilfulness. He proposed to bring from London a skilled artisan or two, who might labour with them; and, taking their boys apprentices, work up the materials with which he would furnish them. What was originally an amusement and a benevolent gratification became a source of considerable profit. The retired leatherseller had sons of an active turn; and thus gradually a trade grew up, which now employs not much less than a thousand men, women, and children.

Boot and shoe making is the staple trade of Northampton—the trade which maintains the fine old town in a more flourishing condition than would belong to it as the centre of a great agricultural district. “Squires and spires,” the old characteristics of the county, still hold their proper rank; but the Last is the symbol of its commercial prosperity. No one who goes round one of the great shoe factories of Northampton can fail to be struck with the extent of this trade. Here are to be seen vast stores of boots and shoes of every variety. Heaps of soldiers’ shoes are here ready to be delivered upon government contracts; made with the best materials, and, as I was informed, subject to the test of the severest examination. Women’s shoes and boots of every description of workmanship are here to be found; from the plainest strong boot for an English
winter, to the light boot of embroidered morocco for the fair ones who take some exercise under East Indian skies. The thick-soled high-lows for the walk over the stubble or the ascent of the mountain, are here on manifold shelves, whose number is matched by the varnished boots for the soft tread of the drawing-room. The examination of these stores leads me to desire some knowledge how they are produced so abundantly and so cheaply. I see the first process of cutting out the leather; and I watch the next process of putting together all the materials necessary for producing a complete boot or shoe, to be taken away to be completed by domestic manufacture. The union of the sole to the upper leather is the work of the legion of shoemakers who dwell in the town and neighbourhood. It is the same organization that I saw at Cookham, and which prevails universally. But I also saw here a different mode of proceeding, which has not yet universally obtained. The upper leather is sewn in the factory, and the sewing dispenses with the usual binding, which employed so many women and children. But to sew so many thousands of upper leathers as are here given out weekly would employ many hundreds of the class described as “shoemakers wife.” Do they here work apart from their husbands? The mystery is solved, when I am taken into a long room, and there see fifty or sixty young women working at the Sewing-machine, and earning each three or four times as much as by the old hand-labour. The skill with which the material was directed in its course to be united by self-acting needles was as admirable as the perfection of the machine itself.

The Sewing-machine in operation, which to me
was a novel sight in 1860, has now become familiar to many persons through its almost universal use. A recent paper in the ‘
Times’ on Sewing-machines, has probably startled a considerable number of those who look with alarm upon every abridgment of manual labour. The writer says, “While Hood was composing ‘The Song of the Shirt,’ and painting with the tints of despair the poor sempstress, slaving in her garret, a mechanic, almost equally poverty-stricken, was working out, in an American garret, the means of her emancipation.” Elias Howe, a native of Massachusetts, was unquestionably the inventor of the Sewing-machine, whatever improvements may have been made upon it. It is asserted in the article to which I refer, that the Sewing-machine has everywhere improved, instead of lowering, the wages of needle-women. Nearly all the shirt-making and collar-making of London is now done by the machine, at wages four times as great as could be earned by Hood’s sempstress. The largest operations in this branch of industry are carried on in workshops. The demand for workers is so great, that it furnishes a proof that machinery has the inevitable tendency to create increased employment, however its first introduction may derange the ordinary operations of labour. Of course the common organization of Trades’ Unions has been called out to resist the introduction of the Sewing-machine. This is only one of those temporary obstacles to the general use of any labour-saving machine, which at first appear difficult to overcome, but very soon pass away into the obsolete mass of vulgar errors. Even violence ultimately recedes before the quiet force of argument, especially when it is felt to be disinterested.
When I went to Northampton, the introduction of the Sewing-machine into the Shoe-trade had been very recent. There was a formidable organization against it amongst the shoe-makers of 1859. A working-man of a neighbouring town, in that year, in a pamphlet on Strikes and Trades’ Unions, gave some preliminary remarks on the Machine question. He tells us that in Northamptonshire and Staffordshire there was an implacable spirit of animosity displayed towards “the stabbing-machine,” as the new invention was termed by its opponents; that the operative boot and shoe-makers, to the number of several hundreds, left the town, rather than submit to what they deemed to be tyranny and injustice on the part of the masters. They were urged, he says, to this rash and inconsiderate resolve by the language of the few leaders, whose ignorance was only surpassed by the violence of their assertions. I deviated from my way to visit Kettering, for the sole purpose of making the acquaintance of this sensible and truly courageous man, who had been led attentively to consider such questions by a combination against his brother of the Kettering branch of the Northamptonshire Boot and Shoe-makers’ Mutual Protection Society. He wrote a tract on the Freedom of Labour, in which he said, “A working man myself, I have experienced the hard and bitter trials which but too often induce us to eat the bread of charity. One of the rights which I claim for myself and my brethren is the absolute freedom of labour, in every state whatever.” I consider that my tour of 1860 would have been amply repaid if it had afforded me no other pleasure than that of making the acquaintance of
John Plummer.


I have mentioned what I saw of the Sewing-machine at Northampton, in its application to what may be called Factory-work, but I was then informed by a dealer in the machines, that a few provident shoemakers were purchasing them for the domestic employment of their families, by which one female of their household would be able to earn more than was formerly earned by the wife and two or three daughters. But there was something far beyond this pecuniary advantage. The wife would be at liberty, by working a few hours at the machine, to have leisure for her domestic duties, and would thus obviate the reproach attached to too many shoemaker’s wives, that the dirty home, the slatternly habits, and the neglected children, drove the husband to the public-house. The article in the ‘Times,’ which is the evident result of careful observation, shows what salutary effects the Sewing-machine is producing, of which I only saw the commencement four years ago. In proof of the benefit which the trade of Northampton has received from the machine, it is stated that the work of the boot and shoe maker is there better remunerated than at any other place. “In the town of Northampton and the surrounding villages the machines are in the hands of the workmen, and in every cottage their cheerful click is to be heard.” The writer very justly says, “The employment of home-labour versus factory-labour is a large question, involving considerations, moral, sanitary, and industrial; but it is thought by many that the balance of advantage to all parties where the use of the Sewing-machine is concerned, is in favour of the home-labour.”

My excursion in 1860 to obtain some new facts
regarding localised handicrafts necessarily takes a very limited view of the industry of this country. It is not within the purpose of this book to record facts that lie beyond the range of my own experience. In 1828, I saw some of the grander workings of Capital and Labour in the great manufacturing towns which I then visited, and I have indicated several of their most striking aspects in my second volume. Nor is it within my present purpose to enter upon a consideration of the necessity of a more enlarged education of the operative classes, when we still hear language repeated which was heard on every side in 1859, when the leaders that drove forward the ruinous strike of the Builders, exclaimed, “If Political Economy is against us, then we are against Political Economy.” Birkbeck Schools, admirable as they are, have naturally no very marked influence upon the general opinions of the great masses of the industrial population; and yet some of the unreflecting opposition of working men to receiving into their minds the elementary truths which in themselves are so simple, but yet involve such great results, seems to be yielding to kind and patient endeavours to interest as well as instruct.
Mr. Solly, whose labours in the establishment of Working Men’s Clubs appear to be as successful as they have been arduous, in recommending the formation of Discussion Classes upon topics not political or sectarian in their nature, says, “If there was a discussion on strikes, or capital and labour, some of the members would, gradually perhaps, be induced to attend a regular class for instruction in political economy; whereas, if they were asked at the outset to join such a class, they would never consent; but if they
once attended such classes, they would discover that political economists were not striving to enforce laws of their own or of anybody’s making, but simply seeking to interpret the laws of God.” In the Birkbeck Schools, the instruction is of such a nature that the individual scholar is gradually gathering a course of practical lessons for his conduct as a member of a large community. He goes forth into the world, and although his opportunities of making converts amongst the improvident and the dissipated may not be very large, his conversation and his example gradually produce a good beyond what he has derived from his own education. Writing of these Schools in 1859, I said, “Propose to an uneducated youth to inform him on the theories which are held to regulate ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ and you appear to be leading him to a knowledge which, like a knowledge of Law, is for him to respect and obey rather than to learn and practise. But propose to him that he should obtain, by your teaching, a mastery of facts and principles which are the true foundation of his personal good in the industrial relations of life, and he will quickly come to perceive that in the proportion in which all have a knowledge of Political Economy, as units of society, will also result that welfare of millions, which we term ‘the Wealth of Nations.’”