On this day … 21 April 1863

According to Anthony Hewitson in his history of Preston a serious disturbance arose involving men unemployed because of the 1860s cotton famine who were expected to work for the corporation to obtain poor relief.

So serious was the threat seen that the mayor drove in his carriage to Fulwood Barracks to get help, and returned with 250 soldiers, ready to quell a riot. There was no riot, and the men peacefully dispersed.

The men’s grievance, according to Hewitson, was that they were being asked to return to full-time work on the moor in Deepdale, after being on half-time for a while on full pay. A strike followed and:

On the evening of April 21st. it culminated in street crowding and perambulating, in howling at one or more of the Guardians [including Joseph Livesey], in the breaking of windows, and in throwing stones and brickbats at the police.

Anthony Hewitson: ‘A tremendous strain was put upon the Poor-Law Guardians here.’

It was clear where Hewitson’s sympathies lay in his account of the cotton famine:

A tremendous strain was put upon the Poor-Law Guardians here. They had to relieve thousands of people — men, women, and children; they had to provide work — stone-breaking, earth-excavating, &c. for large numbers of able-bodied men and youths; and, on the whole, their ameliorating mechanism, though now and then hampered with special difficulties, worked in a very effective manner, and was productive of most practical, beneficial results.

Portrait of Edwin Waugh
Edwin Waugh: ‘Preston ‘has seen many a black day [but] it has never seen so much wealth and so much bitter poverty together as now’. Edwin Waugh in 1882. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edwin_Waugh,_by_William_Percy.jpg

A more sympathetic account of the men’s plight was supplied by the Manchester writer Edwin Waugh who visited Preston at the time and recorded his impressions in a book, Home-Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine. His verdict: Preston ‘has seen many a black day [but] it has never seen so much wealth and so much bitter poverty together as now’.

Waugh spent a day on Preston Moor, where 1,500 unemployed men were put to work levelling the ground and converting the Moor Brook into a culverted sewer to serve the acres of new housing in Deepdale and Plungington.

Waugh was conducted round the moor by Mr Jackson the labour master, who had charge of the whole operation:

‘This is heavy work for such chaps as these,’ said Jackson; ‘but I let them work by the lump here. I give them so much clay apiece to shift, and they can begin when they like, and drop it the same. The men seem satisfied with that arrangement, and they have done wonders, considering the nature of the job. There’s many of the men that come on to this moor are badly off for suitable things for their feet. I’ve had to give lots of clogs away among them.

‘You see men cannot work with any comfort among stuff of this sort without something substantial on. It ruins poor shoes in no time. Beside, they’re not men that can stand being wetshod like some. They haven’t been used to it as a rule. Now, this is one of the finest days we’ve had this year; and you haven’t seen what the ground is like in bad weather.

‘But you’d be astonished what a difference wet makes on this moor. When it’s been rain for a day or two the work’s as heavy again. The stuff’s heavier to lift, and worse to wheel; and the ground is slutchy. … men that are weakly get knocked out with it. But those that can stand it get hardened by it. There’s a great difference; what would do one man’s constitution good will kill another. Winter time will really try them.’

In the town itself, conditions had become very grim. A network of middle-class volunteers had been set up who visited poor families to determine what relief was needed. Several of these accompanied Waugh on his tour of the town, and one of them reported the following visit:

In the course of his round, this visitor called upon a certain destitute family which was under his care, and he found the husband sitting alone in the house, pale and silent. His wife had been “brought to bed” two or three days before; and the visitor inquired how she was getting on. “She’s very ill,” said the husband. “And the child,” continued the visitor, “how is it?” “It’s dead,” replied the man; “it died yesterday.”

He then rose, and walked slowly into the next room, returning with a basket in his hands, in which the dead child was decently laid out. “That’s all that’s left of it now,” said the poor fellow. Then, putting the basket upon the floor, he sat down in front of it, with his head between his hands, looking silently at the corpse.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancashire_Cotton_Famine

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