4 Things: 3 Great, 1 Incredible

Well, it’s certainly been quite a week. Not just one thing, but four, and all wonderful.

First of all, yesterday these arrived. Yes, The Molten City is in the wild, although it’s not officially published in the UK until the end of the month. But people who’ve ordered from online retailers – not just that one – have received their copies. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve published (this is my 28th in total, the 22nd novel set in Leeds) it remains a thrill to open that package.

Molten books

But so many things can be a thrill, even a simple piece of paper. Last week I went to Abbey House Museum at Kirkstall Abbey and to go hold this. It’s a bill, on letterhead, to the estate of a client for work done the year before, then signed on receipt of payment. It’s for £2, 5 shilling and sixpence. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s about £275 in today’s money.

What makes it special? It was sent by my great-great-great uncle, George Nickson. In 1858. He’s reached across 162 years. What truly floored me was his signature. The way he signed Nickson was almost exactly the same as my father.

George Nickson 1858

Another piece of family history shook loose, too. In a newspaper archive, I discovered that my grandfather, then in his fifties, was arrested during World War II for stealing 99lbs of cloth from the mill where he was the assistant manager – and on a good salary, too. I have yet to track down the verdict of the trial. It was a time when clothing and material was rationed. However, my half-sister recalled that he had asked her aunt, who wasn’t a direct relation) to hide a bolt of cloth for him. When he came back for it, he gave her enough to make two suits and several skirts. So he got away with it at least once.

Harold Arrested

And finally, that big, BIG thing I promised in the title. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate 10 years of doing this novel writing lark.

I’m now the very first writer-in-residence at Abbey House Museum. It’s a huge honour to be a part of Leeds Museums, and we’re already making some plans for things I could do involving the collections and community involvement. It’s the perfect cap to what’s been a wonderful 2020 so far.

In Leeds In 1820…A Story Begins

1820, and with the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, Britain was at peace for the first time in a generation. In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold of the town. Manufactories (as they were known) had sprung up, with businessmen eager to take advantage of the new machinery and steam power to increase their profits. For the first time, a haze of smoke hung over the city, one that would only grow worse and worse and these factories and mills grew and grew until the Leeds skyline became a forest of chimneys.

leeds 1826

For men with capital and vision, there was plenty of money to be made. The world’s first steam locomotive was already operating, hauling coal from the fields in Middleton down to the staithe near the bottom of Salem Place. Another two years and Joshua Tetley, from an Armley family of maltsters, and with a family shop on Mill Hill selling malt, as well as wine and brandy, would gamble and buy Sykes’s Brewery. Yes, there were fortunes for men who took chances. Benjamin Gott and John Marshall had already proved that at Bean Ing and Holbeck, with wool and flax on an industrial scale that no one had seen before.

leeds 1830

Factories created jobs. The population of Leeds at the start of the 1800s was around 30,000. Two decades later it was 48,000, with plenty more in the out-townships (where the home weavers still made a living of sorts, although that would rapidly die away).

Conditions in the countryside were poor. With enclosure, many agricultural workers and the families were turned off the land they’d known for centuries. People pressed and piled into Leeds, hoping that the streets would be paved with gold. Of course, they weren’t. With so many seeking work, labour was cheap; the bosses could pay what they wanted, and the workers had no union to represent them. You took what was offered, or you got nothing at all.

All these people needed somewhere to live. The first back-to-backs had been built in the early 1790s (ironically where the upscale Victoria Gate shopping centre and John Lewis now stand); now speculative builders began to develop streets of them in the Leylands and the area beyond Millgarth. There was money to be made in housing.

For most people in Leeds, though. Life was grinding poverty. The chance of getting ahead was non-existent. Simply treading water was daily effort. Many went under or left, dispirited. For some who stayed, political radicalism offered a ray of hope.

It was a time when only the wealthy and the landowners had the vote. Leeds didn’t even have an MP. Most people had no say in the way their country was run. The government was still scared that revolution might be possible and cracked down hard on sedition. On all crime. Small offences could mean transportation to Australia or Tasmania, a brutal life in the young colonies. Shipping the criminals to the other side of the world became government policy, although many would serve at least part of their terms on the old ships known as prison hulks. The magistrates imposed harsh sentences. After all, it was for the good of the community.

prison hulk

For all that, though, they couldn’t stop people thinking, and radicalism was already firmly established in West Yorkshire. Around the turn of the century, right the way through to 1812-13 the Luddites had tried to wreck the new factories, as machines took away job from skilled craftsmen.

With the war, food prices had risen, to the point where keeping a family alive was almost impossible. Leeds had seen food riots over the price of grain, notably one led by ‘Lady Ludd’ – probably a man in a dress; the population was swift to stir and slow to cool.

lady ludd

That’s Leeds in 1820.

And into that landscape walks Simon Westow. Orphaned at four and put in the workhouse, set on to work in a mill at six. An angry man. And now, grown, a thief-taker. With no police beyond the Constable and the night watch, thief-takers are the only resort for those who’ve had property stolen. At this time the definition of property included wives and daughters and anything they possessed or brought to a marriage. Most prosecutions for theft had to be undertaken privately. The result was that people generally only cared about the return of their property.

Simon is resourceful, successful. Married with a pair of young twin sons. Until their birth, his wife Rosie had worked with him. Now his assistant is Jane, somewhere around 14 years old. When she was eight, her mother arrived home to find the girl being raped by her husband. Preferring the security of a wage to the temptation of a girl in the house, she threw Jane out to survive on the streets. She did, and discovered she had the gift of being able to follow without being noticed, a useful trait for a thief-taker.

A girl who chooses to reveal nothing, who hides her emotions behind a wall, a feral life has made her into a deadly young woman.

Simon’s business takes him from the wealthy to the underclasses. He knows how the town works in every way. He knows its secrets. The one thing he doesn’t expect is the past.

The Hanging Psalm will be published on September 29 in the UK.

Hanging Psalm revised

The Real Leeds Voices From History

Several weeks ago, I was talking to a gentleman who works in the Local and Family History Library at Leeds Libraries. We discussed the lack of authentic Leeds voices in our local history (among other things). There is a book called Leeds Describ’d, but so many of the pieces in there are from outsiders describing the town.

In the last few days I looked through the Leeds books on my shelves and put this together. It’s far from exhaustive, and other people have done the heavy lifting, really. But this is Leeds in the words of the people who lived here, the condition of the place, how they lived, how they worked. A little window into history, I hope.

The Cost of keeping Roundhay Park, 1373

roundhay hunting

In medieval times, Roundhay Park was used for hunting, and was much bigger than it is today. There was boundary fence. In the accounts of Robert de Halton, reeve, there’s an indication of some of the yearly work.

And in the wages of five men cutting brushwood and other trees for feeding the deer in the winter season of this year, in the park of Roundhay, viz, each of them at different times for forty days, at 2d per day.

And in six cartloads of hay to support the deer in the ensuing winter, in a place called le Stannk – 20s.

And in the hire of one cart to carry the hay from le Stannk to the Grange within the park by six turns at 8d a turn.

And in the wages of one man driving the said cart and helping to stow the said hay in the Grange, for four days, taking by the day 3d-12d for this year.

 

A Handfasting in Headingley, 1563

Handfasting was a form of marriage, and still practiced in Elizabethan times. This comes from evidence given to the Consistory Court of the Archbishop of York by Thomas Whitehead, regarding the union of Edward Walker and Anne Hobson. The meeting described took place in the garden area of what is now the Original Oak.

Walker: Ye know that you and I have had communication together for marriage howe saye you nowe is there any man that you beare any better favour unto than you beare unto me and the said Anne answering said no and further said unto the said Edward that he shulde be more welcome to her company than any other man shulde be using himself lyke and honest man. And then & there the said Edward Walker said unto the said Anne Hobson yf You be contented to sticke to me as I am contented to sticke to you we will make no more to do but take wittnes & go throw with the matter. Whereunto the said Anne consented. And then and there the said Eward Walker toke the Examinant [Whitehead, the witness] to be wittnes for him & the said Anne toke William Smythe to be witness for her.

 

An End to Three Plotters, 1664

farnley wood

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a Republican plot to overthrow Charles II was discovered – the Farnley Wood Plot – and a number of men sentenced to death. Three of them, Robert Atkins, John Errington and Henry Wilson escaped to Leeds, where they were arrested in an inn and hung in chains on Chapeltown Moor. But that wasn’t the end of their punishment, according to a contemporary account:

…their 3 heads were cut off and put into a cloth bagg by the executioner, Peter Mason, a Notorious Villain, by occupation a Joyner at yt day brot in a cart to Leeds and all yt night lay in a flask full of water in the prison to suck out all the blood. 20. Jan, 1664, being Wednesday all there heads were sett upon the Moot hall end, severally fixed upon 3 spikes of iron.

 

Servants, 1704

Any large house required a small army of servants to keep it running. But those employed hard to work hard for their wages, as this agreement between Sir Walter Claverley of Esholt Hall and Joseph Mawde shows.

Agreed with Joseph Mawde to serve me one year from this day, for which he is to have £5, and 20s to buy him a frock with for brewing, & a livery, vizt, coat, waistcoat, breeches, hat & stockings: & his imployment is to be, to look at all the stables, horses & mares, both in the house & pastures, & keep the fold clean & also the pheasant garden & little garden within the pales of the fold, & to see the trees to be therein nailed any time on occasion, & also to keep the court before the hall door clean, & grass places in good order, & also to brew the master all his drink, to keep the jack in order, to take care of the calash & drive it, to keep the boat carefully locked, cleaned & dressed, to wait at table when occasion, &, if he does not his best, but neglects these things, to have no wages.

 

The Tenter Cutter, 1713

tenter

Cloth was a vital part of the Leeds economy for centuries, and it was stretched using hooks on tenter poles set in open land. Anyone interfering with the process, from spinning to sale, could expect rough treatment and swift justice. From the Memoranda Book of John Lucas.

Friday 24 July, about 9 o’clock in the evening one Matthew Bailey who lived in Meadow Lane but was one of those persons called kerseymen was taken in the act of cutting tenter in the Millgarth. He had been suspected to follow that trade long he was apprehended that night, and the next day, was sent to York and it being Assize time Mr Mayor went to York early on Monday morning and got him tried that forenoon where he was cast, and in the afternoon he had sentence past on him to be transported.

 

Trying to Avoid a Hanging, 1748

From the of Births, Marriages and Deaths for Leeds Parish Church 1748/9. Josiah Fearne was the first (only) Lord of the Manor of Leeds to be executed – and his is a great story. But it’s the length of this entry that makes it unusual. The murder took place at Nether Mills on Fearn’s Island.

Tho. Grave, Nether Mills, buried 4th March 1748/9

N.B. Tho. Grave was most barbarously murdered in his own House, by a domineering, villainous Lord of the Manor, Josiah Fearn, 24 Feb., 1748, with four wounds in his Body, of which he died 2 Mar. Fearne was taken and committed to York Castle and tried before Sr Tho. Burnett, was convicted, condemned, and hanged 25 Mar., 1749.

Soon after Fearne was condemned, he sent an Attorney to Mrs Grave to offer her Twenty Pounds a Year for Life or for Twenty Years to come at her own Option, in case she wou’d sign a Petition to the Judge in his Favour (which Fearn said was a Sufficient Recompense for the Injury he had done to her and her Eight Children), but she prudently declined the Offer, well knowing there is no Satisfaction to be made for ye Blood of a Murderer.

This probably is the First Lord of the Manor of Leedes that has made his Exit at the Gallows and God Grant he may be the last. Fearne’s Temper was extremely rigid to the poor and his Dependents, that he was dreaded by All, but beloved by None. He was buried at Clifton, near York, 31 Mar.

 

Highway Robbery, 1774

c18 leeds

Crime has always been with us, but reports of highwaymen around Leeds are quite uncommon. This is from a newspaper, possibly the Leeds Intelligencer.

On December 27th, 1774, as the daughter of an eminent butcher of this town was returning, in company with a servant maid, from Chapeltown, they were stopped by a footpad, who presented a pistol, with the words, “Your money or your life”. Not assenting immediately, he searched their pockets and took from them one shilling, three halfpence, and a silver thimble and then gracefully retired.

 

Poverty, 1797

Anonymous

Cellarts, Garrets and such like Places, exhibit…abodes of human Misery, the wretched Inhabitants are frequently found either exerting the last Efforts of Nature to support themselves…or languishing under the most powerful Influence of complicated Disease.

 

Poor Trade, 1826

The Leeds wool trade was in dire straits in the 1820s. In a letter to his brother, merchant Joshua Oates was frank about the situation.

I have actually suspended what? payment? No! not exactly, but I have suspended purchases of every description except bread, meat and potatoes, and I have driven clothiers away with a “can’t you call again next month?”….there is literally next to nothing doing by our foreign merchants and such numers of them are in back water that I should hardly know where to begin with introductions – it is                                         said by the Dyers and clothiers that with the exception of six or eight houses in Leeds no payments have been made since last November.

 

The Irish in Leeds, 1842

BakerR

Dr. Baker, the Medical Officer, had done wonderful work after the cholera epidemic in 1832. Throughout the 1830s and 40s, many Irish people came to Leeds, many settling on the Bank (Richmond Hill). In 1842 he wrote about them.

In the houses of the Irish poor, of which there are a great many in Leeds, who work in factories and are engaged in weaving by hand plaids and other stuff goods, there is a general state of desolation and misery…They are mainly employed in plaid-weaving and bobbin-winding, and in some of the mills of the town, of whose population they compose no inconsiderable amount, especially those departments of mill-labour which are obnoxious to English constitutions and to some unendurable. To such an extent, indeed, has the employment of the Irish been carried in Leeds, that, in 1835 and 1836, many of the flax-mills would have been obliged to stand for want of hands, but for the influx of Irish labourers which then took place.

 

The Children of the Poor, 1849

Angus Bethune Reach was a Manchester journalist on the Morning Chronicle. In 1849, with the Relieving Officer, he went to some houses in Leeds. In one, he found three children picking ropes apart. The family had been receiving parish relief for seven years. The oldest of the children was eight.

Where’s your mother?

Gone out to try and get some washing to do.

Where’s your father?

In the Fleece – that’s a public house. Ah! Mother told he had better not go today for you (to the relieving officer) would be very likely to come round; but he wouldn’t stay.

What does your father do?

Sweeps the streets sometimes.

But does he not help you pick these ropes?

No; he wouldn’t do that. He makes us do that.

What do you get for picking?

Fourpence a stone but I give it all to my mother.

Do you go to school?

Only on Sundays. I must work, you know. I can’t read yet. But my little brother goes to school on week-days. Parson pays for him. Only sometimes they keeps him at home to help in picking. He can’t read either.

And is not the other little boy your brother?

Oh no! He only comes in to help us pick.

Do you like picking?

No, because it makes me poorly. The dust gets into my eyes and down my throat, and makes me cough. Sometimes, too, it makes me sick. I can’t keep at the work very long at a time, because of that.

You say you give all you earn to your mother Does she never let you have a penny for yourself?

Sometimes.

And what do you do with it?

I buys bread.

 

A Pint and a Death, 1856

Drink and violence were as common in Victorian times as they are now, especially on a Saturday night when men had been paid. This is a deposition to an inquest into the death of John Mensey, from Robert Madden, the landlord of the Yorkshire Hussar on Union Street.  Both men lodged on Lower Brunswick Street, and the fight took up again there, lasting until one am. A verdict of manslaughter was returned.

On Saturday night the deceased and Patrick King came together to my house, about ten o’clock at night. They appeared to have had some beer, but were sober. Whilst in my house, they played at dominoes, and about half-past eleven they quarrelled over the game. The deceased got up and put himself into a fighting attitude. King did not seem disposed to fight, and the deceased called him a coward. King replied, “Well, I’ll be a coward.” Mensey then sat down. They continued to have high words up to twelve o’clock, when I requested them to go. I followed them to the door, and when they got outside they began to fight. I requested some persons present to assis me in separating them. At that time they had fallen to the ground. We assisted them up, and immediately afterwards they fought again; but I cannot say who began it. They had then taken off their coats. Both fell again, and were again separated. King then went towards Vicar-lane and Mensey went in the opposite directions towards his lodgings. The deceased and King were fresh, but able to walk. I heard King say that he didn’t want to fight, but he would not be “put upon.” After they separated, I saw no more of them.

 

The Omnibus, 1857

In some ways, perhaps, bus travel doesn’t change much. This is an letter to the Leeds Mercury about the early, horse-drawn omnibuses.

I have had the misfortune to ride with people half drunk, three quarters drunk, quite drunk, noisy drunk, sleepy drunk, dead drunk. The omnibus, unfortunately for some of us, passes two or three places of resort in Briggate and elsewhere, where men is respectable positions congregate of an evening to talk and tipple, then ride home in a public conveyance to the disgust of all decent people. Could not a tippler’s omnibus be started for these should-be-gentlemen? I am not a teetotaller, but I hate to sit in a small compartment of about 4 feet wide by 6 feet long, with two, perhaps three redolent gentlemen trying to talk without stuttering, but none of whom could pronounce intelligibly the word ‘statistics’, if it were to save his life.

 

The Places of Crime, 1859

A police report noted:

120 houses of ill-fame; 30 public houses; 50 beerhouses; and seven coffee shops, all being resorts for thieves and prostitutes. There are also 120 low lodging houses which accommodate 622 persons nightly, several of them of questionable character requiring the attention of the police.

 

Death and the Ballad, 1885

When William Snowden’s keel boat, the Edward & William, capsized at Whitton Sands in 1885, only one man seemed to survive. But his wife and three children remained trapped in a pocket of air on the boat, and were freed after seventeen hours. Two of the children died on board. Mrs. Snowden and one child survived. A ballad was written and sold in Leeds to raise money for them.

The Keel to Leeds returning from Grimsby we are told,
In charge of Chaptain Snowden a sailor young & bold.
And in the vessel down below his sleeping children lay,
And two with him to sleep in death upon the coming day.

Soon come the shock, the keel overturned the husband’s spirits fled,
His gallant heart’s ceased beating he is numbered with the dead.
The mother clutched her little ones that slept so peacefully,
And tried, so hard to save them but alas twas not to be…

The water rose about her and higher still it came
The little arms are around her neck and she calls each one by name.
But when the water sunk again she knew one spirit fled,
And called her little Lizzies name but ah! her child was dead…

At last they hear her knocking and willing hands contrive
To save the mother and the only one she’s left alive.
What tongue can tell her feelings or who shall know her grief,
Pray God in all her mercy send her stricken heart relief.

 

Tom Maguire, 1886

Tom-Maguire-Leeds-gas-workers

Maguire was one of the most important – and largely unheralded – figures in late 19th century Leeds politics. He was a union organiser, a proud proponent of Socialism, and played a vital role in the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. He made his living as a photographer’s assistant and died penniless on Quarry Hill in 1895 at the age of 29. This reminiscence comes from Alf Mattison:

My first meeting with Tom Maguire was also the occasion of my first acquaintance with socialism. It must have been sometime early in 1886 that, strolling through the Market-place of Leeds, my attention was attracted to a pale but pleasant featured young man, who in a clear voice began speaking to a motley crowd. After listening for a while I began to feel a strange sympathy with his remarks, and – what is more – a sudden interest in and liking for the speaker; and I remember how impatiently I waited for his reappearance on the following Sunday. A few months later I joined ‘the feeble band, the few’ and became a member of the Leeds branch of the Socialist League…

 

Jewish Labour, 1885

Published in Arbeiter Freund, this is a strong reminder of the collective action taken by Jewish tailors in the Leylands in 1885. Many came from Poland and Russia and settled in the triangle of the Leylands, a network of streets running just north of the city centre towards Sheepscar. This is possibly an outside voice, but sheds some valuable political light.

In the history of the Jewish labour movement in England, Leeds will, without doubt, occupy one of the nicest places, if not, indeed, the first place. And, in truth, whilst in some other towns such as Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Birmingham and others, the Jewish workers are not even organised in societies, or are entirely beneath the heel of the masters, having entirely surrendered their free will to them, the Leeds workers have, in this regard, made enormous progress. They have not stopped at this…they have decided to open a co-operative grocery shop, and, by this means, to free themselves from the shopkeepers, butchers, ritual slaughterers, milk-and-butter dealers, etc., who live and get fat on the sweat of the workers like rats on a living corpse.

 

Criminals, 1892

victorianleeds

The Chief Constable requested more officers to cover the increased area of Leeds and deal with all the urban problems.

In the Borough residing at present are 21 known convicts, 17 persons under police supervision, 335 suspected persons, i.e., persons who seldom or never work, but loaf about the streets, watching persons getting into or out of tramcars with a view to picking pockets, or frequently following women who are of loose repute, and who entice men into secluded spots where they are robbed and ill treated by the man or men and woman.

Places to be most avoided are the Dark Arches, Swinegate, Whitehall Road, or anywhere behind the Queen’s and Great Norther Hotels.

 

A Hunslet Home, 1894

The booklet Hypnotic Leeds appeared in 1894, a polemic about the problems the working-classes in Leeds lived with every day. This was written by Joseph Clayton, a blanket-raiser who lived in Hunslet.

The typical workman’s house in Leeds has one living room, adorned with sink and taps for washing purposes, two bedrooms, and an attic in which is possibly a bath. The bath is the one redeeming point, and the corporation should insist on it being built in every house.

The sink and taps on the other hand are depressing in a sitting room, and the smell of the atmosphere of the weekly wash not conducive to health of mind or body. If we prefer to dry our clothes across the street and not indoors we may gratify our neighbours’ curiosity as to the condition and quality of our under-clothing, but the smoke of Leeds resents our brandishing clean clothes in the open air and showers down smuts. Of the necessary sanitary arrangements of every dwelling-house – it is difficult to speak calmly in Leeds. Our ashpits which adorn the street are the resting place for decayed vegetable matter, and domestic refuse generally; the stench from them is probably a sweet smelling savour to the arch fiend, but it is poison to the children who play around them.

 

The Machine Girl’s Life, 1896

This comes from Richard Sheracy’s superb expose, The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-makers and Tailors of Leeds, published in Pearson’s Magazine.

I come in at 8am. If I’m late I’ll be fine 1d or 2d. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing till half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I may go home. He’ll say: “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without. At half-past one, I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say “Work hasn’t come up yet.” I have to sit at my machine.

Once I fainted from hunger, and asked to be allowed to go home, but they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining-room. I stay at my machine till 3 or 4. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be going in, you can go home till the morning.” And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till 6.30, earning wage for the last two or three hours.

 

The Traffic Problem, 1898

A report by the Chief Constable.

The rowdyism in Briggate is a matter most difficult to deal with owning to the number of people using this busy thoroughfare, it being next to impossible to keep people to the right of the pavement, arising from the great number of side passages leading in and out of Briggate. On the 7th January 1898, a number of men were placed in Briggate to note particularly the number of vehicles and pedestrians passing. They watched from 8.20pm to 8.30pm at one point not exceeding 30 yards, on the west side of Briggate and noted 2,306 pedestrians, 3 omnibuses, 10 tramcars, 3 four wheeled cabs, 6 hansoms ans 2 post mail carts.

The Club for Mill Girls, 1890s

To try and keep mill girls out of the gin palaces and music halls, and on the straight, narrow path, middle class women would set up clubs for them with wholesome activities. Several existed in Leeds in the 1890s.

We have taken a large room and made it look as tempting as we can, with bright curtains and some pictures, and above all a very fair piano, which to our musical Yorkshire girls is an endless source of pleasure.

 

The Old Market Cross and the Fish, 1897

The market cross had stood at the top of Briggate since the 1600s, but was demolished tin the 19th century. More Annals of Leeds contains a reminiscence vaguely about it by Mr. William Campbell.

Between the south end of the cross and the noth end of the Middle Row was the fish market. I have a vivid recollection of a jolly good natured looking fishwife who had the principal stall near the cross. Returning one day from taking my father’s dinner, I stood watching the woman empty a hamper of fish, when taking out a fair sized cod, she remarked, “There’s been a devil at that fish.” A large piece had apparently been bit off its shoulder. Looking at me, she said, “Here, my bonnie lad, take that home to your mother, and tell her to boil it for your dinner; it’s no worse for having that piece bitten out.” I scarcely need say I ran all the way to Woodhouse with the fish, and how welcome it was. My father was employed by a corn merchant; his wages were 15s a week, out of which a family of seven had to be supported. His hours of work were much nearer sixteen per day than eight. A dinner of boiled fish was a treat to us. The fish market was held on Thursdays, and I may say that fish was sold much cheaper in those days than it is now.

Hunslet, 1930s

In Memories of Distant Days (1989) Carrie Stocks wrote about growing up in Hunslet in the 1930s.

We were surrounded by factories and work shops. At the bottom of our street was Belinda Street; Bromley’s Coffee Works was in the middle of Belinda Street and the smell of coffee hung round most of the day. Alongside was Lax and Shaw’s Glass Storage Depot so the chink of glass bottles could be heard. The smell from the Lead Works of Wilson and Jubb also permeated the surroundings, as they were a few yards higher up the street.

In Church Street was the Chemical Works; they threw out a yellow dust which settled on the pavements, roads and gardens, and gave off a smell of sulphur. On Low Road opposite my school was the Hygenol Soap Works where they manufactured disinfectants, polish and soap. A little further along the road was the Coglan Iron and Steel Works, giving out loud sounds of metal being beaten by trip hammers.

The Wireworks and the Nail Mill with machines working loudly were on Penny Hill, and on the wind came the smell of fish and leather from the Fish Canneries and Tanneries just over Balm Road Bridge.

The Factory Lad’s Testimony

This story appears in my collection, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, published by Armley Press. But in many ways, it’s not mine at all. It’s taken from John Dawson’s evidence in 1833 to the Factory Commissioners when they came to Leeds, investigating the employment of children in the ‘manufactories.’ John was one of several people interviewed. The facts are exactly as he described them. All I’ve done is paraphrase his words.

 

He came in, walking slowly, almost in a shuffle, using a stick to keep himself balanced. His knees bent inward, making each step awkward. Still holding the doorknob he peered around the room, straining his eyes the way a mole might. He wore thick spectacles, almost a frail old man, although he couldn’t have been more than twenty.

The three members of the factory commission – Mr, Turnbull, Mr. Wakefield, and Sir Edward Jepson – sat behind their table as a clerk put papers in front of them. There was an air of sleekness about them; they all looked comfortable with authority.

The young man was wearing his best clothes, a dark jacket, cut high at the waist, a stock and shirt, with breeches and thick woollen hose. On the other side of the room a fire burned in the grate.

‘Come in, please, sir, and sit yourself down,’ Sir Edward said. ‘Thank you for coming to speak to us.’

The young man bowed his head slowly and crossed the floor, his heels tapping on the boards. He sat as upright as any defendant, his back straight, eyes straining to take in the face: the commissioners, the pair of clerks and the scribe waiting with his paper and steel nib to take down every word.

‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ Mr. Wakefield asked.

‘Yes sir, my name is John Dawson,’ the young man began, repeating the words when he was asked to speak more loudly, ‘and I make my living as a tailor when I’m well enough to work.’ He glanced at his audience. ‘As you can see, sir, that my eyesight is bad. That’s why I wear these glasses.’

‘Do you believe there’s a reason for your bad eyesight?’ Mr Turnbull wondered.

‘I do, sir,’ Dawson answered with a nod. ‘If you ask me, it’s from the flax mills I worked in as a lad. There’s always a powerful lot of dust in the air and it does affect the eyes of some folk. I daresay as I’d be blind now if I still worked there.’

‘When did you begin in the mills?’

‘I started in the mills when I was six, sir, a doffer at Shaw and Tennant’s. The work wasn’t too hard, we had to take the full bobbins off the machines and put on empty ones. But the hours were long, six in the morning to seven at night, six days a week. I was lucky, my da was the overlooker in the room. He beat me, same way he beat the other doffers, but not too bad, not as hard as some,’ he added, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘It was the standing all the time that was worst. Every day my knees ached.’

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‘Did you receive any education?’ Sir Edward asked.

‘Not as you’d call it, sir.’ Dawson held his head up to face his audience. ‘I always wanted to learn to read and write. And I went to Sunday school whenever I could, unless my ma wanted me at him with the younger bairns or I had no decent clothes or shoes. My da taught me to read, and I was middling good with the Testament.’

‘But that was all?’

‘It was, sir.’

‘Please continue,’ Mr. Wakefield told him, with a glance at the others.

‘My da left Tennant’s when I was ten, and I went with him to Garside’s Mill.’

‘Do you know why he left?’

‘I do not, sir, no. I was just a boy, so they never told me. At Garside’s they put me to work bobbin-hugging, and that was terrible hard work, sir. I had to carry around a basket full of bobbins, some of them still wet. The basket was on my bag, and big it was, held in place by a strap around my forehead.’ He moved his hands to illustrate, each of the commissioners nodding. ‘I often had to carry full baskets up the stairs to the reelers. My knees were so bad that I had to stop after two or three years. You could see them, all bent, but we had no money for a doctor.’

‘No one looked after you there at all?’

‘No sir. They worked us hard there. After a while my da and I left there. We went to Clayton’s, and I was made a doffer again.’

‘Did that help you at all? Mr Turnbull said.

‘The work was easier but the hours were bad. Sometimes five in the morning to half-past nine at night. They gave us forty minutes for us dinner but nothing for breakfast or drinking.’ The lad’s voice was quite even, not angry. Just remembering his life of a few years before. ‘Wasn’t always six days we worked. Sometimes there was only enough for five or four. Weeks like that didn’t bring home enough money.’ He removed his spectacles and polished them on a piece of linen he took from the pocket of his waistcoat. When he spoke he was quieter. ‘It was dangerous work there, too. I knew one lad whose clothes caught in an upright shaft and he closed, and there were other bad accidents I can recall, too. My da died after I’d been there a few years, and when my ma was taken ill we had to go into the workhouse. By then my knees were bent so bad I couldn’t walk more than thirty yards without a rest.’

‘Might we see your knees, Mr-’ Sir Edward glanced down at the page ‘-Mr. Dawson. If you’d be so good.’

Holding on to the chair with one hand, Dawson stood and unbuckled the knees of his breeches, rolling them up. His face was red, not from effort but the embarrassment of being watched so closely.

It was just as he’d said. His knees were misshapen things, bent forward and inwards into something grotesque, beyond human.

‘Thank you,’ Sir Edward told him quickly, looking away and conferring with the other commissioners while Dawson closed his breeches buttons and sat once more.

‘You said you went to the workhouse,’ Mr. Turnbull continued.

‘That’s right, sir.’ Dawson gave a quick nod of his head.

‘What was your experience there?’

‘It was good, sir. At the workhouse they taught me my trade, sir, made a tailor out of me. It’s better than I might have had otherwise. And I did see someone about my knees. They sent me to Mr. Chorley at the infirmary.’

‘Was he able to help you at all?’

‘Very much, sir.’ There was heartfelt gratitude in Dawson’s voice. ‘He gave me strengthening plasters and bandages and they did me some good. You can see it’s still difficult for me to walk, sir, and I need a stick to help me. But it’s better than it was, and I’m very grateful for that. It used to be I couldn’t manage thirty yards without a rest. Now I can walk a hundred yards and more before I need to stop.’ He gave a proud smile.

Sir Edward glanced at the other commissioners. Many more waiting outside to be interviewed before the day was done. Surgeons, overseers, workers, people from all walks of life. When Turnbull and Wakefield shook their heads, he turned back to Dawson.

‘Sir, thank you for coming here today. You’ve been most gracious with your time and we wish you well as a tailor.’

They waited silently as John Dawson left the room, leaning heavily on his stick.

 

When You’re Muck – From Mill To Maid

For working-class girls in Victorian Leeds, there were two options, mills or maids. It wasn’t an easy life, there were no luxuries.

For Annabelle Harper, the mill was purgatory. Maybe becoming a maid might be better. Her experience was that of so many girls. This is a fragment of her story. To know more, come and see The Empress on the Corner.

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When you’re muck, you’re muck. Soon as they see you, everyone knows it and they don’t forget it. Not them upstairs, the ones who pay for it all. I mean down in the servants’ hall. Got a pecking order so strict you’d think Moses had handed it down himself. And right at the bottom was muggins here. Scullery maid. Up before anyone to lay a fire, put the kettle on the range and make tea, and God help you if you’re late. Scrub the pans after every meal. But not the good china, because I can’t be trusted with it. Can’t even eat with the other servants. Dish the food out to them, clear it away when they’re done, then skulk away in a cubbyhole with whatever’s left. Mills or maids? When you’re muck it doesn’t seem to make much difference. I found that out soon enough. Kitchen maid, downstairs maid, it’s like climbing a ladder. You go up rung by rung. But very slowly. The lass who replaced me in the scullery lasted a fortnight. Can’t say I blame her. If I’d an ounce of sense I’d have done exactly the same thing. But I was bloody-minded. I wasn’t going home with me tail between me legs. I wasn’t going to give me da the satisfaction. They could have set me to shovelling the sewers and I wouldn’t have left. Sixteen and I’m finally an upstairs maid. Polish the glass on the windows, look out and there’s the whole world in front of you. Out towards Otley, that big valley just spread there, all green. I used to gaze out at that every minute I could get. Didn’t matter the season. Because that looked like freedom. The little farmhouses with the smoke curling up to the sky. I used to think if I could just live in one of those places I could be happy for the rest of me life. My brain must have been addled. As if a life in the back of beyond with mud and pigs and cows would ever be anything for me. Then the housekeeper would come along, all silent because the rugs were so thick. She’d give me a clout and tell me to get back to work.

I turned seventeen and I was used to the job. I should have been by then, five years there. That house had become my world. Half day off every other week. Walk into Leeds to see me da and me family. An hour sitting in silence, then the walk back.  Maybe visit a lass or two I knew who worked at Black Dog. Didn’t tell them I was still sharing a bed with one of the other maids up in the attic. Or that the second son of the house had started noticing me. Some things you’re better off keeping to yourself. He had hands everywhere. Didn’t think he had to take no for an answer. Wasn’t too bad at first. I threatened to tell his ma and he left me alone for a few weeks. But all I had was empty words. I knew that and he realised it soon enough. After that he didn’t care. Why would he? I couldn’t do anything. Pinched my bum until it was black and blue. His family owned mills. They had the money, they had the power. I was just muck. I knew what was going to happen. Might as well have been written right there on the wall. I knew, but that didn’t mean he was going to get it easy. I’d make damn sure he’d never want to come for me again. I fought him. I made him pay. I bit, scratched, shouted. Went for his eyes. Hurt him. For all the good it did. He was always going to win. His kind always does. Once he started it wasn’t even a minute and he was done. I’ll never forget the sneer on his face as he buttoned himself up. I told him that if he ever came back and tried that again I’d slide a knife across his throat and let him bleed like a pig at slaughter. I spat in his face. I wasn’t going to let the tears start while he was there. I wasn’t going to let him see me weak. He might have got what he wanted but I wasn’t going to give him any bloody satisfaction. Then he was gone and I was lying there, crying my eyes out, pushing my face into the pillow. Did anyone come? Course they didn’t. I hurt right enough. Not just in my body. Here. And here. And when I was cried out I wiped my eyes and I had to make the bed where he’d had me, as if nothing had happened. Had to make it the next day, too, and all the ones after, and pretend nothing had happened there. But I’ll tell you what, he never tried it on with me again. I kept a knife in my pocket, just in case. I’d have hung for him, I’d have done it without thinking. I thought I’d hated people before that, but it didn’t even compare. I wasn’t about to leave, though. That would be running. Instead he was going to have to see me every day, to have his guilt staring him in the face. I was going to be there to remind him of what he’d done. He didn’t come sniffing round me and he didn’t bother any of the other girls. That was something. It wasn’t ever going to be over, of course. As long as I saw him, as long as I had to clean that room, it was like ripping the wound open again every day. But I’d do that, I’d grit me teeth and change the sheets and put on a smile for as long as it took to throw it all back at him. When you’re muck, though, nothing goes right. Six week later and I hadn’t come on yet. I knew what that meant. Up the spout, bun in the oven, whatever you want to call it. Not that I was going to say a word. Soon as the mistress heard she’d be throwing her hands up in horror, telling me how wicked I was. They’d have me out on me ear before you could say Jack Robinson, and not a word of a reference. Problem is, you can only go so long before people can tell. A question or two from the housekeeper and that was that. Didn’t even get the pleasure of telling the mistress it was her precious boy who’d caused it. Not that she’d have believed me or done owt about it. If you had money you were untouchable. I was on my way, wages paid, everything I had wrapped up in a shawl. God, it were like something from one of them penny novelettes. Should have seen my da’s face when I turned up on the doorstep. “Got the sack, have you? Don’t be thinking you can loll around here all day.” Aye, that’s the sort of welcome a daughter needs. He was always on at me. Put money in for me keep. Cook for him. Wash the pots and the clothes. I did me bit. He was down the pub when it happened. Where else would he be of a night? I’d just finished all the jobs and I was going to put me feet up. All of a sudden I had a pain like someone was trying to tear my insides out. Couldn’t hardly stand. I looked down and I saw blood. I didn’t know one body could have that much of it inside and it was all coming out. I knew what was happening but it didn’t matter. All I could think was ‘I’m going to die.’ I must have started screaming blue murder. I don’t know, I don’t remember. The next thing I knew old Mrs. Riley from next door was there. Sixteen stone if she was an ounce and a voice that could strip paint. But she looked after me. Got a pair of women in to help, then bullied a doctor into coming to Leather Street. That might have been a first. Stayed with me until me da rolled back and told him to take care of me or else. I’d lost the babby, of course. For the best, that’s what I reckoned. Didn’t stop me crying like a little lass, though. It kept coming back, that empty feeling like something had been stolen from me. And all the time me da was saying I had to get myself well and find some work. That let me know how welcome I was. And soon as I could, I started looking. Anything that got me away from him. Then I ran into Mary McLaughlin when I went for a quarter of tea to the shop. She told me they were looking for someone to work at the Victoria in Sheepscar.

The White Slaves Of Leeds

It’s a title to make you think twice, especially in this day and age. But it was coined in Victorian times by a journalist.Robert Sheracy travelled around Britain, interviewing people for a series called The White Slaves on England, published over a number of issues in 1896 in Pearson’s Magazine. He did come to Leeds, where he talked to a number of people for the article entitled The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-Makers and Tailors of Leeds. Several of the quotes here are taken directly from the testimony given to him. Their words are more powerful than any fiction.

As the train left Leeds, I looked back to see the pall of smoke covering the city. It was a rich place; rich for some, anyway. We gathered steam, moving south at a good pace and I pulled the sheaf of notes from my briefcase.
I’d talked to a number of people, male and female, for my article. The poor and the poorest, each tale sadder than the last. But it was the faces of the girls who stayed with me. So young and so hopeless. Leeds is a city of many industries, but for the girls there are few options but service or the mills.
I’d been fortunate to have a good contact in Miss Isabella Ford, a Quaker and a socialist who’d long battled for these girls, and given me introductions to some of them at the Wholesale Clothiers’ Operatives Union.. First, though, she’d instructed me on the system the master implemented for their own advantage.
‘There are fines for everything,’ Miss Ford told me. ‘Unfortunately, thanks to the judges’ interpretation of the Truck Act, these are legal. A girl came to me who’d been forced to pay a fine of tuppence, when all she earned that day was a penny-ha’penny. Why? Because she was a minute late to work. The masters employ a boy as timekeeper and his earnings are commission from all the fines levied. Another woman had been deducted two shillings from her week’s pay for bad work, when she’d made a total of four shillings and tuppence. But the owners went on to sell the goods as good work, and she never saw that money back.’
She brought in a girl, Mary Ann, who’d been forced to leave her job in the mill because she couldn’t make any money there. She was shy and nervous, wondering if she should even be talking to me, if someone vengeance awaited her. I had to assure Mary Ann that I wouldn’t name her in the article; only then would she speak.
‘How much did you earn in a week?’ I asked her.
‘In a good week I made two shilling and seven pence, sir,’ she said. ‘But often it was less, depending on the work going in the mill. One week it was just a shilling.’
‘And what did you have to pay out?’ Miss Ford said.
‘We had to pay for our sewings, the thread and everything else. That week when I only made a shilling, I’d had to spend eight pence. Often it was ten pence.’
‘Tell him where you worked,’ Miss Ford suggested.
‘They called it a punishing house.’ The girl reddened as she said the words. ‘We hardly had time for our dinner, and the room for it was so small that you could only get a few in there at a time. I never used it. We had to bring our own dinner, but the master charged us a penny or tuppence “for cook” – to heat it for us, I mean. And you had to pay it, no ifs or buts. Everyone did. When I didn’t have enough money, I didn’t eat. It was the same with the other girls. Some of them would beg food from the men, but I couldn’t. Doing that just led to things.”
Miss Ford told me of more tools inflicted on the girls. A penny in the shilling for steam power, no matter if the girl worked from home. In some places the girls have to pay a penny or two towards the rent of the factory. Then the masters will round down the wages to an even number, so the odd pennies vanish from the wage packet.
‘They promise the girls that the money will go towards a trip for them. But in my years working for the union, I’ve never heard of a single trip yet.’
The wages vary from season to season, and in slack times many can earn no more than two shillings a week. Even when they’re busy it’s rare to make more than twelve shillings a week. One or two had made fifteen shillings at times, but they were the quickest, best workers, with full time and overtime.
Often the masters will beat down the prices to line their pockets a little more.
‘One time, when we were all very hungry,’ a girl called Jane explained, ‘the foreman told us there were 400 sailor suits coming up. Would we do them for threepence each? We refused, because the lowest price should have been threepence-halfpenny. The foreman kept us waiting a day and a half, and at last we were so hungry that we gave in.’
Catherine, a woman who looked to be twenty-five, pinch-faced and sallow, her hair greasy, told me,
‘The masters often say they have so many hundred articles to be sewn, if we want to do them at a reduced rate. We prefer not to be idle, so we accept, expecting to have so many to sew. But the masters have lied, and there is much less to sew than had been promised.’
The masters never told them when work would be slack, she said, and the foremen were bullies, using foul language to the girls.
‘We come to the factory, and if there’s no work, we have to stay in case some comes in. They never tell us so people won’t know there’s no business.’
Another girl confirmed this to me.
‘I come in at eight am,’ she told me. ‘If I’m late I’ll be fine a penny or tuppence. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing until half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I can go home. He’ll say, “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t had any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without it. At half-past one I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say: “Work hasn’t come up yet”. I have to sit at my machine. Once I fainted from hunger and asked to be allowed to go home. But they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining room. I sit at my machine till three or four. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be coming in, you can go home till the morning”. And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till half-past six, earning a wage for the last two or three hours.’