Edwin Waugh’s portrait of Preston — 1

Map of places Edwin Waugh visited in Preston Lancashire UK in 1862
The places Edwin Waugh visiited in 1862

One of the most moving accounts of the sufferings of Preston’s working class during the Cotton Famine that lasted from 1861 to 1865 was supplied by the Lancashire writer Edwin Waugh in his Home-Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine. [1] Waugh was principally a writer of dialect poetry and prose and, unfortunately, in his lengthy reports from Preston he renders all the speech of his working-class informants into a peculiar brand of ‘dialect’.

I don’t think most people could read a great deal of the following without a struggle, and this is just part of a great slab of similar text :

… “Eh, dear,” replied the old woman, “dun yo want mo kilt? He’s had thoose hens mony a year; an’ they rooten abeawt th’ heawse just th’ same as greadley Christians. He did gi’ consent for one on ’em to be kilt yesterday; but aw’ll be hanged iv th’ owd cracky didn’t cry like a chylt when he see’d it beawt yed. He’d as soon part wi’ one o’th childer as one o’th hens. He says they’re so mich like owd friends, neaw. He’s as quare as Dick’s hat-bant ‘at went nine times reawnd an’ wouldn’t tee. . . . We thought we’d getten a shop for yon lad o’ mine t’other day. We yerd ov a chap at Lytham at wanted a lad to tak care o’ six jackasses an’ a pony. Th’ pony were to tak th’ quality to Blackpool, and such like. So we fettled th’ lad’s bits o’ clooas up and made him ever so daycent, and set him off to try to get on wi’ th’ chap at Lytham. Well, th’ lad were i’ good heart abeawt it; an’ when he geet theer th’ chap towd him at he thought he wur very likely for th’ job, so that made it better,—an’ th’ lad begun o’ wearin’ his bit o’ brass o’ summat to eat, an’ sich like, thinkin’ he’re sure o’ th’ shop. Well, they kept him there, dallyin’, aw tell yo, an’ never tellin’ him a greadley tale, fro Sunday till Monday o’ th’ neet, an’ then,—lo an’ behold,—th’ mon towd him that he’d hire’t another; and th’ lad had to come trailin’ whoam again, quite deawn i’th’ meawth.”

This rendering of the speech of the working class in impenetrable prose makes Waugh not just a bad communicator but demeans Preston’s poor, treating their speech patterns in the same insulting way as was used in reporting the speech of Irish peasants and Black slaves on the cotton estates in the USA; the boycotting of those estates in the American Civil War had helped bring on the Lancashire cotton famine. Waugh is conducted around the town by middle-class charity workers and mill owners, and they all, in Waugh’s reporting, speak Standard English, without a single occurrence of a ‘dialect’ word. I do not believe the speech of mill owner and mill worker was so different as to be almost the separate languages that Waugh represents.

In fact, the wealthier members of Preston’s middle class were sending their sons off to public schools at this time to teach them to talk ‘proper’, as a major inquiry into the schools reported:

Why were the newly rich businessmen of the Lancashire mills sending their children south to expensive schools, wondered the Taunton Commission, set up in 1864 to examine the public schools. It was so that ‘they may lose their northern tongue … and be quite away from home influences’.
See: Public School Prestonians.

What is disappointing is that it is well worth making the effort to read the book, for Waugh shows a deep sympathy for the plight of the thousands in Preston descending into ruin as bad year followed bad year. And where others reach for the statistical report to tell the extent of the poverty faced by the unemployed, Waugh supplies dozens of individual stories to show the suffering they underwent.

The previous year a reporter from The Builder magazine had visited Preston and painted a depressing picture of the squalor in which the town’s working class had to live. Combine the two accounts and it is clear that life in Victorian Preston could be very grim indeed.

Waugh devotes 13 of the 23 chapters of his book to Preston, a total of 25,000 words. I have transcribed the Preston chapters, edited them down to 12,000 words and translated Waugh’s ‘dialect’ into Standard English. Anybody who wants the full, untranslated original can find it here: https://archive.org/details/homelifelancash00wauggoog.


See also:
A disturbing view of Victorian Preston
Child murder in Victorian Preston
Irish ‘ghettoes’ in 19th-century Preston
19th-century Preston’s ‘worst slum’


Waugh travelled to Preston from Manchester on four occasions in 1862 to report on the Cotton Famine in the town. His researches were published in a series of articles in the Manchester Examiner and Times. His reports from Preston, which used to be ‘a favourite residence of the local nobles and gentry, and of many penniless folk with long pedigrees’, begins with a short description of the current situation in the town, which:

… has seen many a black day [but] it has never seen so much wealth and so much bitter poverty together as now. The streets do not show this poverty; but it is there. Looking from Avenham Walks, that glorious landscape smiles in all the splendour of a rich spring-tide. In those walks the nursemaids and children, and dainty folk, are wandering as usual airing their curls in the fresh breeze; and only now and then a workless operative trails by with chastened look. The wail of sorrow is not heard in Preston market-place; but destitution may be found almost anywhere there just now, cowering in squalid corners, within a few yards of plenty—as I have seen it many a time this week. The courts and alleys behind even some of the main streets swarm with people who have hardly a whole nail left to scratch themselves with.

… I hear on all hands that there is hardly any town in Lancashire suffering so much as Preston.

The reason why the stroke has fallen so heavily here, lies in the nature of the trade. In the first place, Preston is almost purely a cotton town. There are two or three flax mills, and two or three ironworks, of no great extent; but, upon the whole, there is hardly any variety of employment there to lighten the disaster which has befallen its one absorbing occupation. There is comparatively little weaving in Preston; it is a town mostly engaged in spinning. …


Day One

Houses mentioned in: Maudland Bank, Hope Street, Walker’s Court, Heatley Street, Seed’s Yard, Back Newton Street, Park Road.
Note: in the 1860s a shilling was roughly equivalent to £3 in today’s money.

Waugh visits St George’s Ward in the town and starts at the Stone Yard at Maudland where the unemployed are put to work breaking boulders to ‘earn’ their poor relief:

The ‘Stone Yard’ is close by the Preston and Lancaster Canal. Here there are from one hundred and seventy to one hundred and eighty, principally young men, employed in breaking, weighing, and wheeling stone, for road mending. The stones are of a hard kind of blue boulder, gathered from the land between Kendal and Lancaster … At the ‘Stone Yard’ it is all piece-work, and the men can come and go when they like. … The men can choose whether they will fill three tons of the broken stone, and wheel it to the central heap, for a shilling, or break one ton for a shilling.

The ‘Labour Master’ in charge explains to Waugh that only a few of the men could break as much as four tons a day and that many were unable to break a single ton.

Preston had set up a network of middle-class volunteers 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.

One of the visitors who accompanied Waugh was George Toulmin, Joseph Livesey’s partner.

The tragedy of life in 1860s Preston is captured in Waugh’s account of the declining circumstances of a widow as she descended into poverty:

Leaving Heatley Street, we went to a place called Seed’s Yard. Here we called upon a clean old stately widow, with a calm, sad face. She had been long known, and highly respected, in a good street, not far off, where she had lived for twenty-four years, in fair circumstances, until lately. She had always owned a good houseful of furniture; but, after making bitter meals upon the gradual wreck of it, she had been compelled to break up that house, and retire with her five children to lodge with a lone widow in this little cot, not over three yards square, in Seed’s Yard, one of those dark corners into which decent poverty is so often found now, creeping unwillingly away from the public eye, in the hope of weathering the storm of adversity, in penurious independence.

Poverty wrecked the small livings of many a small shopkeeper, as here:

In the window, it is true, there were four or five empty glasses, where children’s spice had once been. There was a little deal shelf here and there; but there were neither sand, salt, whitening, nor pipes. There was not the ghost of a farthing candle, nor a herring, nor a marble, nor a match, nor of any other thing, sour or sweet, eatable or saleable for other uses, except one small mug full of buttermilk up in a corner—the last relic of a departed trade …

One of the saddest products of poverty was the way the poor turned on the poor, neighbour reporting neighbour to the authorities, as in this anonymous letter:

 ‘Preston, May 29th.—Sir, I beg to inform you that __, of Park Road, in receipt from the Relief Fund, is a very unworthy person, having worked two days since the 16 and drunk the remainder and his wife also; for the most part, he has plenty of work for himself his wife and a journeyman but that is their regular course of life. And the S___s have all their family working full time. Yours respectfully.’

Full account of Waugh’s Day One visit


Day Two

Houses mentioned in: Nile Street, Hammond’s Row, Everton Gardens, Wilkie’s Court.

Waugh visits the soup kitchen that had been set up near Saul Street:

As we drew near the baths and washhouses, where the soup kitchen is, the stream of people increased. About the gate there was a cluster of melancholy loungers, looking cold and hungry. They were neither going in nor going away. I was told afterwards that many of these were people who had neither money nor tickets for food—some of them wanderers from town to town; anybody may meet them limping, footsore and forlorn, upon the roads in Lancashire, just now—houseless wanderers, who had made their way to the soup kitchen to beg a mouthful from those who were themselves at death’s door. In the best of times there are such wanderers; and, in spite of the generous provision made for the relief of the poor, there must be, in a time like the present, a great number who let go their hold of home (if they have any), and drift away in search of better fortune, and, sometimes, into irregular courses of life, never to settle more.

Five hundred people breakfast in the sheds alone, every day. The soup kitchen opens at five in the morning, and there is always a crowd waiting to get in. This looks like the eagerness of hunger. I was told that they often deliver 3000 quarts of soup at this kitchen in two hours. The superintendent of the bread department informed me that, on that morning, he had served out two thousand loaves, of 3lb. 11oz. each. There was a window at one end, where soup was delivered to such as brought money for it instead of tickets. Those who came with tickets—by far the greatest number—had to pass in single file through a strong wooden maze, which restrained their eagerness, and compelled them to order. I noticed that only a small proportion of men went through the maze; they were mostly women and children.

One of the cheap foodstuffs that helped keep the poor alive was Indian meal, ‘… My friend pointed to one of the cottages we passed, and said that the last time he called there, he found the family all seated round a large bowl of porridge, made of Indian meal. This meal is sold at a penny a pound.’ [‘Indian Meal is the Irish name for maize or cornmeal. Maize was introduced to Ireland during the Potato Famine of 1847 but lost its popularity in the 1960s. According to oral history North American Indians sent maize to Ireland to help the poor during the Famine, hence the name.’ [2] ]

Waugh’s area of exploration this day is Trinity Ward:

A man cannot go wrong in Trinity Ward just now, if he wants to see poor folk. He may find them there at any time, but now he cannot help but meet them; and nobody can imagine how badly off they are, unless he goes amongst them. They are biding the hard time out wonderfully well, and they will do so to the end. They certainly have not more than a common share of human frailty. There are those who seem to think that when people are suddenly reduced to poverty, they should become suddenly endowed with the rarest virtues; but it never was so, and, perhaps, never will be so long as the world rolls. In my rambles about this ward, I was astonished at the dismal succession of destitute homes, and the number of struggling owners of little shops, who were watching their stocks sink gradually down to nothing, and looking despondingly at the cold approach of pauperism. I was astonished at the strings of dwellings, side by side, stripped, more or less, of the commonest household utensils—the poor little bare houses, often crowded with lodgers, whose homes had been broken up elsewhere; sometimes crowded, three or four families of decent working people in a cottage of half-a-crown a-week rental; sleeping anywhere, on benches or on straw, and afraid to doff their clothes at night time because they had no other covering. Now and then the weekly visitor comes to the door of a house where he has regularly called. He lifts the latch, and finds the door locked. He looks in at the window. The house is empty, and the people are gone—the Lord knows where. Who can tell what tales of sorrow will have their rise in the pressure of a time like this—tales that will never be written, and that no statistics will reveal.

Waugh then shows that he possibly shared the prejudice against Irish migrants that was common among middle-class writers at the time (see the toe-curling account of the Irish worshippers at St Mary’s Church in Friargate by the Preston journalist and historian Anthony Hewitson):

Wilkie’s Court is a little cul de sac, with about half-a-dozen wretched cottages in it, fronted by a dead wall. The inhabitants of the place are all Irish. They were nearly all kept alive by relief from one source or other; but their poverty was not relieved by that cleanliness which I had witnessed in so many equally poor houses, making the best use of those simple means of comfort which are invaluable, although they cost little or nothing.

Full account of Waugh’s Day Two visit


Day Three

Houses mentioned in: Bell Street, Pole Street, Cunliffe Street, Park Road, Pump Street, Fletcher Road, St Mary’s Street North, Ribbleton Lane.

Waugh was again in Trinity Ward:

Here we turned into a cold and nearly empty cottage, where a middle-aged woman sat nursing a sick child. She looked worn and ill herself, and she had sore eyes. She told me that the child was her daughter’s. Her daughter’s husband had died of asthma in the workhouse, about six weeks before. He had not had a penny for twelve months before he died. She said, ‘We had a very good house in Stanley Street once; but we had to sell up and creep here. This house is 2s. 3d. a week; and we must pay it or go into the street.

In Cunliffe Street, Waugh came across a small ‘school’ kept by an old woman in the front room of her tiny house:

She was seventy-three years of age, and a native of Limerick. She was educated at St Ann’s School, in Dublin, and she had lived fourteen years in the service of a lady in that city. The old dame … told us that she charged only a penny a-week for her teaching; but, said [she was] ‘… very much troubled with my eyes; my sight is failing fast. If I drop a stitch when I’m knitting, I can’t see to take it up again. If I could buy a pair of spectacles, they would help me a good deal; but I cannot afford till times are better.

That evening he met with three or four mill owners. The views he reports are interesting:

… when the conversation turned upon the state of trade, one of them said, ‘I admit that there is a great deal of distress, but we are not so badly off yet as to drive the operatives to work for reasonable wages. For instance, I had a labourer working for me at 10s. a-week; he threw up my employ, and went to work upon the moor for 1s. a-day. How do you account for that? And then, again, I had another man employed as a watchman and roller coverer, at 18s. a-week. I found that I couldn’t afford to keep him on at 18s., so I offered him 15s. a-week; but he left it, and went to work on the moor at 1s. a-day; and, just now, I want a man to take his place, and cannot get one.’ Another said, ‘I am only giving low wages to my workpeople, but they get more with me than they can make on the moor, and yet I cannot keep them.’

What would make workers prefer a shilling a day for back-breaking work on Preston Moor rather than continue earning three times as much in the mills working for the cotton lords? Waugh leaves this unexamined and unchallenged.

Another of the employment practices in the mills is revealed when Waugh accompanies a friend to a house in St Mary’s Street North:

‘Couldn’t you get on at Horrocks’s?’ said my friend.
‘No,’ replied he; “they won’t have men weavers there.’

This state of affairs provoked a strong reaction from Friedrich Engels:

The sight of women and girls working in mills … was found particularly shocking and offensive, the more so when it led to a reversal of gender roles, with the man doing the housework and child-minding while the wife toiled in the factory. Friedrich Engels saw in this not just class oppression and exploitation, but the approaching end of the natural order of the sexes, the dethronement and humiliation of men. ‘One can imagine’, he wrote, ‘what righteous indignation this virtual castration calls forth and what reversal of family relations result from it …’ [3]

For the implications of Engels’ ‘emasculation’ for one group of male workers in Preston see Victorian Preston’s Men from the Pru.

Full account of Waugh’s Day Three visit


Day Four

Places visited: a sewing workroom for unemployed women in Knowsley Street, the Workhouse on the moor.

Waugh returned to Preston in July and spent the 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.:

I went to see the factory operatives at work upon Preston Moor. Preston Moor is a tract of waste land on the western edge of the town. It belongs to the corporation. A little vale runs through a great part of this moor, from south-east to north-west; and the ground was, until lately, altogether uneven. On the town side of the little dividing vale the land is a light, sandy soil [This stretch of Moor Lane was named Sandy Lane in the town’s court leet records: see Platford Dales — a medieval town field] on the other side, there is abundance of clay for brickmaking. Upon this moor there are now fifteen hundred men, chiefly factory operatives, at work, levelling the land for building purposes, and making a great main sewer for the drainage of future streets. The men, being almost all unused to this kind of labour, are paid only one shilling per day; and the whole scheme has been devised for the employment of those who are suffering from the present depression of trade. The work had been going on several months before I saw it, and a great part of the land was levelled. When I came in sight of the men, working in scattered gangs that fine morning, there was, as might be expected, a visible difference between their motions and those of trained ‘navvies’ engaged upon the same kind of labour. There were also very great differences of age and physical condition amongst them—old men and consumptive-looking lads, hardly out of their teens.

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.’

We crossed the hollow which divides the moor, and went to the top of a sandy cutting at the rear of the Workhouse. This eminence commanded a full view of the men at work on different parts of the ground, with the time-keepers going to and fro amongst them, book in hand. Here were men at work with picks and spades; there, a slow-moving train of full barrows came along; and, yonder, a train of empty barrows stood, with the men sitting upon them, waiting. Jackson pointed out some of his most remarkable men to me; after which we went up to a little plot of ground behind the workhouse, where we found a few apparently older or weaker men, riddling pebbly stuff, brought from the bed of the Ribble.

Full account of Waugh’s Day Four visit

[1] Edwin Waugh, Home-Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co, 1867), https://archive.org/details/homelifelancash00wauggoog.
[2] ‘Indian Meal Porridge – a Recipe from Eating History’, http://eating-history.co.uk/recipes/indian-meal-porridge.
[3] F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society: A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 (Harvard University Press, 1988), 75.

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