I wonder men in a factory town should ever have the courage to strike;
it brings such woe and desolation upon them all. The first few days, the
cessation from labor may be a relief and a pleasure to a large number--a
holiday, although a dull and tedious holiday, like a Sunday without any
of the alleviations of Sunday--Sunday without Sunday clothes, Sunday
bells, Sunday church, Sunday walks and visits. A painful silence reigns
in the town. People discover that the factory bell calling them to work,
though often unwelcome, was not a hundredth part as disagreeable as the
silence that now prevails. The huge mills stand gaunt and dead; there is
no noise of machinery, no puff of steam, no faces at the windows.
By the end of the first week the novelty has passed, and the money of
some of the improvident families is running low. All are upon short
allowance, the problem being to prolong life at the minimum of expense.
The man goes without his meat, the mother without her tea, the children
without the trifling, inexpensive luxuries with which parental fondness
usually treated them. Before the end of the second week a good many are
hungry, and the workers begin to pine for employment. Their muscles are
as hungry for exercise as their stomachs are for food. The provision
dealers are more and more cautious about giving credit. The bank
accounts, representing months or years of self-denying economy, begin to
lessen rapidly, and careful fathers see that the bulwarks which they
have painfully thrown up to defend their children against the wolf are
crumbling away a hundred times faster than they were constructed. If the
strike lasts a month, one half the population suffers every hour, and
suffers more in mind than in body. Anxiety gnaws the soul. Men go about
pale, gloomy, and despairing; women sit at home suffering even more
acutely; until at last the situation becomes absolutely intolerable; and
the strikers are fortunate indeed if they secure a small portion of the
advance which they claimed.
Terrible as all this is, I am afraid we must admit that to just such
miseries, sometimes rashly encountered, often heroically endured, the
workingman owes a great part of the improvement in his condition which
has taken place during the last seventy-five years. A strike is like
war. It should be the last resort. It should never be undertaken except
after long deliberation, and when every possible effort has been made to
secure justice by other means. In many instances it is better to submit
to a certain degree of injustice than resort to a means of redress which
brings most suffering upon the least guilty.
Does the reader know how the industrial classes were treated in former
times? Mr. George Adcroft, president of an important cooeperative
organization in England, began life as a coal miner. He has recently
given to Mr. Holyoake, author of the "History of Cooeperation," some
information about the habits and treatment of English miners only forty
"They worked absolutely naked, and their daughters worked by their side.
He and others were commonly compelled to work sixteen hours a day; and,
from week's end to week's end, they never washed either hands or face.
One Saturday night (he was then a lad of fifteen) he and others had
worked till midnight, when there were still wagons at the pit's mouth.
They had at last refused to work any later. The foreman told the
employer, who waited till they were drawn up to the mouth, and beat them
with a stout whip as they came to the surface."
So reports Mr. Holyoake, who could produce, if necessary, from the
records of parliamentary investigations, many a ream of similar
testimony. In truth, workingmen were scarcely regarded--nay, they were
_not_ regarded--as members of the human family. We find proof of this in
the ancient laws of every country in Europe. In the reign of Edward VI.
there was a law against idle workmen which shows how they were regarded.
Any laboring man or servant loitering or living idly for the space of
three days could be branded on the breast with the latter V (vagabond)
and sentenced to be the slave of the person who arrested him for two
years; and that person could "give him bread, water, or small drink, and
refuse him meat, and cause him to work by beating, chaining, or
otherwise." If he should run away from this treatment, he could be
branded on the face with a hot iron with the letter S, and was to be the
slave of his master for life.
Nor does there appear to have been any radical improvement in the
condition of the workingman until within the memory of men now alive.
When Robert Owen made his celebrated journey in 1815 among the factory
towns of Great Britain, for the purpose of collecting evidence about the
employment of children in factories, he gathered facts which his son,
who traveled with him, speaks of as being too terrible for belief.
"As a rule," says that son (Robert Dale Owen), "we found children of ten
years old worked regularly fourteen hours a day, with but half an hour's
interval for dinner, which was eaten in the factory.... Some mills were
run fifteen, and in exceptional cases sixteen hours a day, with a single
set of hands; and they did not scruple to employ children of both sexes
from the age of eight.... Most of the overseers carried stout leather
thongs, and we frequently saw even the youngest children severely
This as recently as 1815! Mr. Holyoake himself remarks that, in his
youth, he never heard one word which indicated a kindly or respectful
feeling between employers and employed; and he speaks of the workshops
and factories of those days as "charnel-houses of industry." If there
has been great improvement, it is due to these causes: The resistance of
the operative class; their growth in self-respect, intelligence, and
sobriety; and the humanity and wisdom of some employers of labor.
The reader has perhaps seen an article lately printed in several
newspapers entitled: "Strikes and How to Prevent Them," by John Smedley,
a stocking manufacturer of Manchester, who employs about eleven hundred
persons. He is at the head of an establishment founded about the time of
the American Revolution by his grandfather; and during all this long
period there has never been any strike, nor even any disagreement
between the proprietors and the work-people.
"My ancestors' idea was," says Mr. Smedley, "that those who ride inside
the coach should make those as comfortable as possible who are
compelled, from the mere accident of birth, to ride outside."
That is the secret of it. Mr. Smedley mentions some of their modes of
proceeding, one of which is so excellent that I feel confident it will
one day be generally adopted in large factories. A cotton or woolen
mill usually begins work in this country at half-past six, and
frequently the operatives live half an hour's walk or ride from it. This
obliges many of the operatives, especially family men and women, to be
up soon after four in the morning, in order to get breakfast, and be at
the mill in time. It is the breakfast which makes the difficulty here.
The meal will usually be prepared in haste and eaten in haste; late
risers will devour it with one eye on the clock; and of course it cannot
be the happy, pleasant thing a breakfast ought to be. But in Mr.
Smedley's mill the people go to work at six without having had their
breakfast. At eight the machinery stops, and all hands, after washing in
a comfortable wash-room, assemble in what they call the dinner-house,
built, furnished, and run by the proprietors. Here they find good coffee
and tea for sale at two cents a pint, oatmeal porridge with syrup or
milk at about ten cents a week; good bread and butter at cost.
In addition to these articles, the people bring whatever food they wish
from home. The meal is enjoyed at clean, well-ordered tables. The
employers keep in their service a male cook and female assistants, who
will cook anything the people choose to bring. After breakfast, for
fifteen minutes, the people knit, sew, converse, stroll out of doors, or
amuse themselves in any way they choose. At half-past eight, the manager
takes his stand at a desk in the great dinner-room, gives out a hymn,
which the factory choir sings. Then he reads a passage from a suitable
book,--sometimes from the Bible, sometimes from some other book. Then
there is another hymn by the choir; after which all hands go to work,
the machinery starting up again at nine.
There is similar accommodation for dinner, and at six work is over for
the day. On Saturdays the mill is closed at half-past twelve, and the
people have the whole afternoon for recreation. All the other rules and
arrangements are in harmony with this exquisite breakfast scheme.
"We pay full wages," adds Mr. Smedley, "the hands are smart and
effective. No man ever loses a day from drunkenness, and rarely can a
hand be tempted to leave us. We keep a supply of dry stockings for those
women to put on who come from a distance and get their feet wet; and
every overlooker has a stock of waterproof petticoats to lend the women
going a distance on a wet night."
I would like to cross the sea once more for the purpose of seeing John
Smedley, and placing wreaths upon the tombs of his grandfather and
father. He need not have told us that whenever he goes through the shops
all the people recognize him, and that it is a pleasure to him to be so
"I wish," he says, "I could make their lot easier, for, with all we can
do, factory life is a hard one."