Sybil/Book 6/Chapter 6

The reader may not have altogether forgotten Mr Nixon and his comates, the miners and colliers of that district not very remote from Mowbray, which Morley had visited at the commencement of this history, in order to make fruitless researches after a gentleman whom he subsequently so unexpectedly stumbled upon. Affairs were as little flourishing in that region as at Mowbray itself, and the distress fell upon a population less accustomed to suffering and whose spirit was not daunted by the recent discomfiture and punishment of their leaders.

"It can't last," said Master Nixon as he took his pipe from his mouth at the Rising Sun.

He was responded to by a general groan. "It comes to this," he continued, "Natur has her laws, and this is one; a fair day's wage for a fair day's work."

"I wish you may get it," said Juggins, "with a harder stint every week and a shilling a day knocked off."

"And what's to come to-morrow?" said Waghorn. "The butty has given notice to quit in Parker's field this day se'nnight. Simmons won't drop wages, but works half time."

"The boys will be at play afore long," said a collier.

"Hush!" said Master Nixon with a reproving glance, "play is a very serious word. The boys are not to go to play as they used to do without by your leave or with your leave. We must appoint a committee to consider the question and we must communicate with the other trades."

"You're the man, Master Nixon, to choose for churchwarden," replied the reproved miner with a glance of admiration.

"What is Diggs doing?" said Master Nixon in a solemn tone.

"A-dropping wages and a-raising tommy like fun," said Master Waghorn.

"There is a great stir in Hell-house yard," said a miner who entered the tap room at this moment, much excited. "They say that all the workshops will be shut to-morrow; not an order for a month past. They have got a top-sawyer from London there who addresses them every evening, and says that we have a right to four shillings a day wages, eight hours' work and two pots of ale."

"A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," said Master Nixon. "I would not stickle about hours, but the money and the drink are very just."

"If Hell-house yard is astir," said Waghorn, "there will be a good deal to be seen yet."

"It's grave," said Master Nixon. "What think you of a deputation there? It might come to good."

"I should like to hear the top-sawyer from London," said Juggins. "We had a Chartist here the other day, but he did not understand our case at all."

"I heard him," said Master Nixon, "but what's his Five Points to us? Why he ayn't got tommy among them."

"Nor long stints," said Waghorn.

"Nor butties," said Juggins.

"He's a pretty fellow to come and talk to us," said a collier. "He had never been down a pit in all his life."

The evening passed away in the tap room of the Rising Sun in reflections on the present critical state of affairs and in consultations as to the most expedient course for the future. The rate of wages which for several years in this district had undergone a continuous depression, had just received another downward impulse and was threatened with still further reduction, for the price of iron became every day lower in the market, and the article itself so little in demand that few but the great capitalists who could afford to accumulate their produce were able to maintain their furnaces in action. The little men who still continued their speculations could only do so partially, by diminishing the days of service and increasing their stints or toil and by decreasing the rate of wages as well as paying them entirely in goods, of which they had a great stock and of which they thus relieved themselves at a high profit. Add to all these causes of suffering and discontent among the workmen the apprehension of still greater evils and the tyranny of the butties or middlemen, and it will with little difficulty be felt that the public mind of this district was well-prepared for the excitement of the political agitator, especially if he were discreet enough rather to descant on their physical sufferings and personal injuries than to attempt the propagation of abstract political principles, with which it was impossible for them to sympathise with the impulse and facility of the inhabitants of manufacturing towns, members of literary and scientific institutes, habitual readers of political journals and accustomed to habits of discussion of all public questions. It generally happens however that where a mere physical impulse urges the people to insurrection, though it is often an influence of slow growth and movement, the effects are more violent and sometimes more obstinate than when they move under the blended authority of moral and physical necessity, and mix up together the rights and the wants of Man.

However this may be, on the morning after the conversation at the Rising Sun which we have just noticed, the population having as usual gone to their work, having penetrated the pit and descended the shaft, the furnaces all blazing, the chimneys all smoking,—suddenly there rose a rumour even in the bowels of the earth, that the hour and the man had at length arrived; the hour that was to bring them relief and the man that was to bear them redress.

"My missus told it me at the pit-head when she brought me my breakfast," said a pikeman to his comrade, and he struck a vigorous blow at the broadseam on which he was working.

"It is not ten mile," said his companion. "They'll be here by noon."

"There is a good deal to do in their way," said the first pikeman. "All men at work after notice to be ducked, they say, and every engine to be stopped forthwith."

"Will the police meet them before they reach this?"

"There is none: my missus says that not a man John of them is to be seen. The Hell-cats as they call themselves halt at every town and offer fifty pounds for a live policeman."

"I'll tell you what," said the second pikeman. "I'll stop my stint and go up the shaft. My heart's all of a flutter, I can't work no more. We'll have a fair day's wage for a fair day's work yet."

"Come along, I'm your man; if the doggy stop us, we'll knock him down. The People must have their rights; we're driven to this, but if one shilling a day is dropped, why not two?"

"Very true; the People must have their rights, and eight hours" work is quite enough."

In the light of day, the two miners soon learnt in more detail the news which the wife of one of them earlier in the morning had given as a rumour. There seemed now no doubt that the people of Wodgate, commonly called the Hell-cats, headed by their Bishop, had invaded in great force the surrounding district, stopped all the engines, turned all the potters out of the manufactories, met with no resistance from the authorities, and issued a decree that labour was to cease until the Charter was the law of the land.

This last edict was not the least surprising part of the whole affair; for no one could have imagined that the Bishop or any of his subjects had ever even heard of the Charter, much less that they could by any circumstances comprehend its nature, or by any means be induced to believe that its operation would further their interests or redress their grievances. But all this had been brought about, as most of the great events of history, by the unexpected and unobserved influence of individual character.

A Chartist leader had been residing for some time at Wodgate, ever since the distress had become severe, and had obtained great influence and popularity by assuring a suffering and half-starving population, that they were entitled to four shillings a day and two pots of ale, and only eight hours' work. He was a man of abilities and of popular eloquence, and his representations produced an effect; their reception invested him with influence, and as he addressed a population who required excitement, being very slightly employed and with few resources for their vacant hours, the Chartist who was careful never to speak of the Charter became an important personage at Wodgate, and was much patronized by Bishop Hatton and his Lady, whose good offices he was sedulous to conciliate. At the right moment, everything being ripe and well prepared, the Bishop being very drunk and harassed by the complaints of his subjects, the Chartist revealed to him the mysteries of the Charter, and persuaded him not only that the Five Points would cure everything, but that he was the only man who could carry the Five Points. The Bishop had nothing to do; he was making a lock merely for amusement; he required action; he embraced the Charter, without having a definite idea what it meant, but he embraced it fervently, and he determined to march into the country at the head of the population of Wodgate, and establish the faith. Since the conversion of Constantine, a more important adoption had never occurred. The whole of the north of England, and a great part of the midland counties were in a state of disaffection; the entire country was suffering; hope had deserted the labouring classes; they had no confidence in any future of the existing system. Their organisation, independent of the political system of the Chartists, was complete. Every trade had its union, and every union its lodge in every town, and its central committee in every district. All that was required was the first move, and the Chartist emissary had long fixed upon Wodgate as the spring of the explosion, when the news of the strike in Lancashire determined him to precipitate the event.

The march of Bishop Hatton at the head of the Hell-cats into the mining districts was perhaps the most striking popular movement since the Pilgrimage of Grace. Mounted on a white mule, wall-eyed and of hideous form, the Bishop brandished a huge hammer with which he had announced he would destroy the enemies of the people: all butties, doggies, dealers in truck and tommy, middle masters and main masters. Some thousand Hell-cats followed him brandishing bludgeons, or armed with bars of iron, pickhandles, and hammers. On each side of the Bishop, on a donkey, was one of his little sons, as demure and earnest as if he were handling his file. A flowing standard of silk inscribed with the Charter, and which had been presented to him by the delegate, was borne before him like the oriflamme. Never was such a gaunt, grim crew. As they advanced their numbers continually increased, for they arrested all labour in their progress. Every engine was stopped, the plug was driven out of every boiler, every fire was extinguished, every man was turned out. The decree went forth that labour was to cease until the Charter was the law of the land: the mine and the mill, the foundry and the loom-shop were until that consummation to be idle: nor was the mighty pause to be confined to these great enterprises. Every trade of every kind and description was to be stopped: tailor and cobbler, brushmaker and sweep, tinker and carter, mason and builder, all, all; for all an enormous Sabbath that was to compensate for any incidental suffering that it induced by the increased means and the elevated condition it ultimately would insure—that paradise of artizans, that Utopia of Toil, embalmed in those ringing words, sounds cheerful to the Saxon race—"A fair day's wage for a fair day's work."