OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

Social Condition of Great Britain page 3

Pages: 1 2 <3> 4

Women and children worked in coal-pits. They dragged about little waggons by a chain fastened round the waist, they crawling like brutes on hands and feet in the darkness of the mine. Children of six were habitually employed. Their hours of labour were fourteen to sixteen daily. The horrors among which they lived induced disease and early death. Law did not seem to reach to the depths of a coal-pit, and the hapless children were often mutilated, and occasionally killed, with perfect impunity by the brutalized miners among whom they laboured. There was no machinery to drag the coals to the surface, and women climbed long wooden stairs with baskets of coal upon their backs.

People used to employ little boys, and sometimes little girls, of five or six to sweep their chimneys. Chimneys were built narrower in those days than now, and the child was compelled to crawl into them, often driven by blows to the horrid work. Sometimes the chimney was not sufficiently cooled, and the child was burned. Often he stuck fast in a narrow flue, and was extricated with difficulty. Occasionally he was taken out dead. Parliament refused for some time to suppress these atrocities, even after a machine could be got for fifteen shillings which swept chimneys better than a climbing-boy did (The barbarous practice of cleaning chimneys by making boys climb was unknown, excepting in England, where it originated about the beginning of the eighteenth century. By the time the boy was sixteen he was ordinarily too big for this occupation, and he found himself helpless, without a trade, and very frequently with enfeebled health. This method of cleaning chimneys was not suppressed till 1840).

In the early years of the century the manufacturing skill which has since made Great Britain so famous was still in its infancy. The machines on which our manufacturing supremacy depended were already in existence, but they were not yet in extended use. Arkwright's spinning-frame was invented in 1769; Crompton's spinning-mule in 1775; Cartwright's power-loom in 1787; Eli Whitney's cotton-gin in 1793. Thus closely were the great inventions grouped, the consequences of which fashioned the destinies of half the world. The manufacture of cotton already felt the impulse of these new powers, and was beginning to assert its ascendency over the industries hitherto practised in the country. The woollen trade lay prostrate under disabling legislation. An act passed in the days of Edward VI, and still in force, grievously limited the woollen manufacturers in their use of machinery. Down to 1807 the manufacture of wool was conducted by appliances scarcely superior to those which had been introduced by the Romans. So lately did the passion for mechanical improvement find any place in this important industry.

A glance at the history of the linen manufacture - one of the very oldest of our industries - reminds us how very recently we have issued from a mechanical stagnation which has lasted from the dawn of human history; how amazingly swift have been the steps which have carried us to our present mechanical eminence. Three methods of spinning have been practised by men; three processes by which flax has been converted into the form from which it can be woven into cloth. The earliest of these was the spindle and distaff, a surprisingly rude agency, in which the human hand did much and mechanical appliance very little. The yarn which made the cloth in which the old Pharaohs were rolled when they lapsed into mummyhood was spun in this manner. Homer's ladies industriously plied the same artless mechanism. The virtuous woman of Solomon's time laid her hands to the spindle, and her hands held the distaff. During all the heroic ages of our own history, and its prosaic ages as well, this was our only method of changing flax into yarn. When Richard of the Lion Heart was chasing, or vainly trying to chase, pagans from the sacred soil of Palestine, the virtuous women of England laid their hands to the spindle. When George III. went to war to suppress the revolution in America, there was still in use in all the homes of England the same rude contrivance by which the fibres of the primeval world had been spun. Only towards the close of the eighteenth century did mechanical progress make its lowly beginning. We adopted the spinning-wheel. For a period of fifty years this wheel, which was regarded as a marvellous triumph of inventive genius, was in use by all industrious females. And then, a few years after Waterloo, came the spinning-frame, driven by water or by steam, from before the presence of which the quaint old wheel followed the distaff, and disappeared for ever.

During a war of twenty-five years a marked improvement of the appliances for mutual slaughter was a probable result of the constant thought which must have been directed to the efficacy of such agencies. But no such improvement took place. The weapons with which all the tremendous battles of that war were fought, and all its tremendous devastations accomplished, were very rude. The musket was fired by a spark produced by the striking of a piece of flint upon a surface of steel (The percussion-cap was invented in 1815, just as the value of the invention was happily diminished by the return of peace). The interior of the barrel was smooth, and the whole fabric was so inartistically constructed that aim was scarcely possible. The bullets flew wildly over the field, hitting in the most unexpected places. Of all the shots which we fired in the Peninsula, only one in six hundred harmed a Frenchman. It was calculated that before the slaughter of an enemy could be achieved, a weight of lead equal to the weight of his body was expended. The bayonet could be trusted to in British hands; but its influence was chiefly moral. Only once or twice were the French induced to abide the actual touch of that terrible weapon.

In the Tower of London there are breech-loading muskets of the time of Henry VIII Some nameless genius had fully mastered the idea, but the defective mechanical skill of his day was unable to take advantage of it. If his message could have been interpreted, England had power to overthrow Napoleon and terminate the war in a single campaign. But the lesson of these antique muskets was unread, and England had to win by the stubbornness of her purpose and the courage of her fighting men. The ships with which Nelson achieved results so splendid had undergone little improvement in many generations. The largest ship of the line was a vessel of 2500 tons, built of oak, and enormously strong, five or six stories in height, moved by the wind, and armed with 120 guns, the largest of which threw a solid shot of 68 pounds weight. The hollow, explosive shell which has now superseded solid shot was then unused. The favourite fighting-ship, however, was armed with only 74 guns, and manned by 500 or 600 sailors and marines. Such a vessel could discharge, in one broadside, some 2500 pounds of iron, scarcely more than a single gun of the heaviest size can now throw. The French were more advanced than we in naval architecture; but when we captured ships from them, as we constantly did, we adopted their models, and thus improved the sailing capabilities of our fleet.

It was in the early years of the century that the employment of children began to assume dimensions of national importance (Here and there careful observers noticed the growing evil at an earlier period. The Haldanes, who visited Montrose on a preaching tour in 1797, wrote: - "We were sorry to learn that many of the children in Montrose were unable to read, in consequence of being sent to the cotton manufactory at a very early age"). William Pitt, who died in 1805, lived to see the growing use of the spinning-mule and the introduction of the power-loom. His discerning eye was able to look some way into the future of these mighty agencies. He pointed out that a new power, with results which it was difficult to estimate, was now called into existence by the employment of children in factories.

Under the stimulus of a war demand, manufacturing works were multiplied rapidly. Ere the change had attracted much notice, large numbers of children were massed together in attendance on machinery. At first no limit was laid upon their hours of labour. A nation long engrossed in war is apt to be wanting in tender thought for the weak and helpless. Little children had to work just as long as the exigencies of their masters' trade demanded. In course of years a process of physical deterioration was seen to be at work among the factory population, and an inquiry into its causes was ordered by the House of Commons. Evils the most gigantic and full of danger to the community were disclosed.

Children of six, it was found, were often put to work in factories. The hours of labour ranged from thirteen to fifteen daily, and might rise even higher in an. unusually good state of trade. The children often fell asleep at their work, and sustained injuries by falling against the machinery. The overseer beat them severely to make them keep awake. The appetite was injured by excessive fatigue, and a tendency to the use of stimulants resulted. The children could not be instructed on Sundays because of their utter exhaustion. All the ills that flesh is heir to came down upon the devoted heads of the wretched little labourers. They were stunted in size, pallid, and emaciated. They were scrofulous and consumptive. They had an aptness to catch every type of disease, and disease among them was exceptionally fatal. The foundations were being rapidly laid of a population feeble, short-lived, ignorant, and in all respects debased. Already the recruiting sergeant complained that men suitable for his purposes could not be found in the manufacturing districts.

Intelligence travelled by a process so slow that it amuses us now to hear of it, although it is but as yesterday since no one dreamed of anything better. When the battle of Waterloo was fought, and the despatches three days after reached London, they were printed in newspapers, and the newspapers were loaded into mail-coaches. By day and night these coaches rolled along at their pace of seven or eight miles an hour. At all cross-roads messengers were waiting to get a newspaper, or a word of tidings from the guard. In every little town, as the hour approached for the arrival of the mail, the citizens hovered about their streets waiting restlessly for the expected news. In due time the coach rattled into the market-place, hung with branches - the now familiar token that a battle had been fought and a victory gained. Eager groups gathered. The guard, as he handed out his mail-bags, told of the decisive victory which had crowned and completed our efforts. And then the coachman cracked his whip, the guard's horn gave forth once more its notes of triumph, and the coach rolled away, bearing the thrilling news into other districts. Thus was intelligence conveyed during the first thirty or forty years of the century.

Men travelled by the same mail-coaches which carried their news. It was not very long since there had been no way of performing a journey but by mounting on a horse's back - well armed as need was - and trotting along thirty or forty miles daily (In 1796, when Mr. Simeon of Cambridge came to Scotland on a preaching tour, he bought a horse at Stirling, and rode him not only throughout his Highland journey, but actually home to Cambridge. This horse enhanced the discomforts inseparable from the enterprise by occasionally taking a fit, and suddenly tumbling to the earth). England for many centuries was contented with little travelling, and therefore without roads. It was only as the eighteenth century advanced that she applied herself in earnest to the construction of tolerable highways. Her system of coach travelling struggled into existence as the roads improved. In 1774 Edmund Burke, having occasion to address the electors of Bristol, travelled from London on that errand in little over twenty-four hours; but this was deemed almost an incredible speed. Towards the close of the century Lord Campbell accomplished the journey from Edinburgh to London in three days and three nights. But judicious friends warned him of the dangers of this enterprise, and told him that several persons who had been so rash as to attempt it had actually died from the mere rapidity of the motion!

On sea men travelled in little trading-ships, whose movements were grotesquely uncertain. The adventurous citizen who set forth upon a voyage of a few hundred miles, might be hurried by a favourable gale to his destination at a pace which rivalled that of steam; or he might lie motionless for many days longing for wind. The voyage from Leith to London has been known to occupy six weeks. The Atlantic might be crossed in one month, or it might require three. The use of steam in navigation was at hand, but it had not yet come. In 1801 it was offered by Fulton to Napoleon, and if the emperor had received the suggestion he might have landed in England. Happily he referred it to a commission of wise persons, and as such persons always regard novelties with suspicion, the application of steam to navigation was put down as an obvious absurdity.

The journeys which poor people had occasion to undertake were ordinarily accomplished on foot. Of necessity they were few in number, and the distance traversed was small. Each little community sat apart from its fellows, following its own customs, cherishing its own prejudices, feeding on its own traditions, speaking in a dialect which men from a distance failed to understand. A stranger was ipso facto an enemy. There were villages in England, at the beginning of the century, in which the inhabitants incited their dogs to attack any stranger whose curiosity led him to visit them.

Five hundred years ago the Great Plague swept over England with such deadly power that one-half of the population perished. After the panic had passed away, and the currents of business began to resume their interrupted course, there was found to be a scarcity of labourers. Farms "were like to be abandoned. Sheep and cattle strayed through the fields and corn, and there were none left who could drive them." Fields were untilled: crops rotted on the ground. It was found too - at least the employers constantly said so - that those labourers who survived presumed upon the monopoly which death had conferred upon them, and became audacious in their demand for higher wages. But the time was yet centuries away when the demands of labour could be listened to. The government was moved to correct the insolence of the masses. An act was passed commanding that working-people should, under pain of imprisonment, serve the first who asked them, and be contented with the wages which were customary before the plague. Another act was passed, by which it was made criminal for working-people to enter into any combination the object of which was to raise wages or reduce the hours of labour (This act was long regarded as essential to the national welfare. In the reign of Edward VI. the penalty for a third transgression was the cropping of one of the offender's ears).

<<< Previous page <<< >>> Next page >>>
Pages: 1 2 <3> 4

Pictures for Social Condition of Great Britain page 3

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About