Then came 1836.
It is significant to remember that the following strike took place only months before our first missionaries appeared in Preston. I propose that this conflict actually softened many hearts to be receptive to the restored gospel message.
The status of the cotton industry was such that one cotton worker was now producing “equal to what could have been done by two or three hundred men sixty years previously” (Hardwick, p 375). The factory system had altered forever the whole makeup of the cotton industry, but in doing so it put workers at the mercy of the Cotton Lords and the fluctuations of local and national economies.
In October 1836 the Preston spinners demanded a wage increase to match the prices being paid to Bolton spinners who lived about 20 miles south . The employers agreed only if the workers abandoned the trade union. This condition was rejected. On the 7th November the mills closed, and 8,500 people were suddenly unemployed.
In early December
– “…the streets began to be crowded with beggars, and the offices of the overseers were besieged with applicants for relief. The inmates of the workhouse began to increase rapidly, and scenes of the greatest misery and wretchedness were of constant occurrence. ….
“By the end of December , the distress had become universal and intense, and the masters came to the resolution of opening their mills, in order to give those who wished for it an opportunity of resuming their work. In doing so, they announced their determination to abide by their former offer of an increase of ten per cent on the rate of wages; but to require from all those who should enter the mills a written declaration to the effect, that they would not, at any future time, whilst in their service, become members of any union or combination of workmen…”
By the 5th February 1837 all the mills were opened again, but about two hundred of the most outspoken spinners were blacklisted and replaced by new hands.
“…three person are believed to have died of starvation ; and not less than five thousand must have suffered long and severely from hunger and cold. In almost every family the greater part of the wearing apparel and household furniture was pawned. In nine houses out of ten, considerable arrears of rent were due…..The trade of the town suffered severely (estimated cost to the town was £110,000); many of the small shopkeepers were nearly ruined, and a few completely so.” (Hardwick, p 415 – 417)
The poverty was such that Preston cotton workers earned themselves a nickname as “Nake-necks”. A naked (nake) neck would be someone too poor to afford a collar in the days of separate collars to a man’s shirt (Hayes, p. 3). The impact of this strike would have still been fresh on the worker’s memories when our seven missionaries arrived five months later.
Knowing this background adds more meat to Heber C. Kimball’s observations the following winter.
“This was very extraordinary weather for that country, as I was informed that some winters they had scarcely any frost or snow, and the oldest inhabitants told me that they never experienced such a winter before. In consequence of the inclemency of the weather, several manufacturing establishments were shut up, and several thousands of men, women and children were thrown out of employment, whose sufferings during that time were severe; and I was credibly informed, and verily believe, that many perished from starvation. Such sufferings I never witnessed before. The scenes which I daily beheld were enough to chill the blood in my veins. The streets were crowded with men, women and children who begged from the passengers as they walked along. Numbers of those poor, wretched beings were without shoes or stockings, and scarcely any covering to screen them from the inclemency of the weather; and daily I could discover delicate females walking the streets gathering up the animal refuse, and carrying it to places where they could sell it for a penny or half-penny. And thus they lived through the winter.”
As an aftermath of this strike we witness in 1837 the formation of Preston Operative Radical Association. It soon had 200 members and their own reading room. Their main platform was that political reform was the key to social reform. Many from this organisation would be swallowed up the following year into the Chartist movement – a working class labour movement for political and social reform.
And so it continued…
The industrial challenges carried on with ‘Plug’ strikes (1842), mill owners making a 10% wage cut (1847), and the Great Lock Out (1853). This latter disturbance had workers complaining that Preston mill owners were paying wages at 20% below the average. Some owners were prepared to restore the 10% cut from 1847, but others refused. The workers continued causing problems, so the “Cotton Lords“ closed all the mills!!
In 1854 the mills reopened in an effort to force a return to work on the mill owners’ terms. The workers response was to place pickets on the mills and the lock-out became a strike. Union funds began to run out and on May Day 1854 a meeting of 10,000 operatives gathered by Walton Bridge to ratify a return to work.
Six years after completing the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx witnessed the challenges of Preston and claimed,
“The eyes of the working class are now fully opened: they begin to cry ‘Our St. Petersburg is at Preston.”
Marx was sure the unjust treatment of Preston’s workers would result in Britain’s very own revolution starting on its streets. Revolution did not happen, but violence was never far away, as will be demonstrated in our next post about 1842.