Open main menu

LETTER II.


INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF THE AUTHOR.


In the early part of the present century, the author's mother, who we shall call the widow Graham, had been left to struggle with the ills of life, and to feel, together with her offspring, the painful realities of want and suffering; but too frequently the lot of the widow and the fatherless.

For a time she could not well understand the position in which she was placed; but the pressing calls of her family, gradually brought her to a sense of her real condition. Being descended from an ancient Scottish family, and being still strong and active, she was not the person to shrink from difficulties. It is true the task of bringing up four children, the oldest of whom was but 9, and the youngest 4 years of age, by her own endeavors, was no easy one. It is also true there was a way by which she could be lightened of her burden, viz: by placing her children in the workhouse; but this was repugnant to her feelings. Although she had seen better days, it must not be supposed that this repugnance arose from any family pride, or from any improper feelings with respect to her situation. She was duly resigned to her condition, and fully determined to discharge her duty to the utmost of her power.

To those persons who are acquainted with the manner in which the parish children in England were treated in the early part of the present century, how they were drafted off by boat loads into the factory, it will not be surprising that she refused to listen to all advice from friends to seek relief in that way. It was in vain they represented the impossibility of bringing up her family without assistance; she had formed her plans not to part from her children under any circumstances.

About this time the large manufacturers of Lancashire, and Yorkshire, having nearly worked up all the parish children from London, Birmingham, and other large towns, sent their agents into the small towns and villages around to pick up any poor families whom they might meet with. An engagement with these agents would at once have relieved widow Graham of three of the children; but this was nearly the same thing as sending them to the work-house, and like the other was abandoned.

What was to be done? Work the children must, at something; for one pair of hands, however industriously employed, could not maintain five persons, besides paying house rent, fire and taxes. Accordingly she agreed to send the two oldest girls to a factory in the neighborhood on trial, then her favorite little boy Jemmy, and lastly her youngest girl.

They all continued to work in factories many years; the result was the oldest girl met an untimely death, the youngest was taken away to save her from the same fate, and the two others became cripples for life.

But it is to the boy Jemmy that the reader's attention is called.

When first he was sent to the factories, being but 5 years and 9 months old, he was too short to reach the top of the frame at which he was set to work, and a block of wood was given him to stand on, in order that he might be enabled to get to his work properly. The hours which he was obliged to work were from 6 o'clock in the morning till half past 7 in the evening; with one hour and a half for meals, with 12 working hours for 5 days, and 9 on Saturday. For this employment he received 24 cents the first week, and 36 cents the second, at which rate he continued for several months, when his wages were advanced to 48 cents per week.

The little fellow could not at this early period of his life be supposed to be worth much as a laborer, and probably the small amount here mentioned was the full value of his services; be this as it may, the punishment to him arising from standing so many hours without being permitted to sit down was very severe, and ought never to be required of children for such a pittance, or in short, under any circumstances. He continued to increase in his qualifications and was several times advanced, till at fourteen years of age, having then been 8 years in the factories, he was capable of earning 72 cents per week, which was a little more than the average for children of his age. During these 8 years he went through a series of uninterrupted, unmitigated suffering, such as very rarely falls to the lot of mortals so early in life, except to those situated as he was, and such as he could not have endured had he not been strong and of a good constitution.

At the age of 8 or 9, his limbs began to show symptoms of giving way, under the excessive fatigue to which he was subjected. He constantly complained of weariness, pains in the knees and ancles, and was ever ready to sit himself down in the factory, on the road, or in almost any place, whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself, even for half a minute.

Every precaution was taken that the humble means of his widowed mother would permit, to prevent her favorite, her only boy, from being made a cripple; but in vain. Oils, flannel bandages, strengthening plasters and mixtures, were incessantly applied; and every thing but the right one, (viz. taking him from the work,) were one by one tried, rejected, and abandoned. In defiance of all these remedies, he became from excessive labor, a confirmed cripple for life. His knees gave way and gradually sunk inwards till they touched each other, thus forming a kind of arch for the support of the body. At 12 years of age the easiest position in which he could stand, was with his feet about 10 or 12 inches apart, his knees resting as above, with the centre of gravity crossing the thigh and leg bones and falling within the feet.

The school in which he was thus placed was any thing but favorable to a life of morality. Under the same roof were more than 100 children and young persons of both sexes, going together in the morning, associating with each other through the day, returning again in the evening, with no moral restraint upon their actions, no example set them worthy of imitation. On the contrary, low, vulgar, brutal language, swearing, singing immoral songs, and acts of gross indecency, were not only tolerated, but in many instances actually countenanced and encouraged. A factory conducted thus was not a very desirable place to train up a child in, and many a time did it grieve the heart of his mother to hear him, in answer to her inquiries as to how he had come by a bruise or cut on the head or back, tell how he had been beat by the overlooker or spinner, and how he swore he would kill him if he did not work faster. Anxiously did she inquire of her friends for some more suitable employment, for her boy; but on account of his deformity, which had become now quite conspicuous, none could be found.

The situation of Jemmy at 14 was truly distressing. He could not associate with the other boys at play in his leisure moments; neither could he go to the Sunday school, as he had done in his younger days; on the contrary, he sought every opportunity to rest himself, and to shrink into any corner to screen himself from the prying eyes of the curious and scornful! During the week days he frequently counted the clock, and calculated how many hours he had still to remain at work. His evenings were spent in rubbing his joints and preparing for the following day; after which he retired to cry himself to sleep, and pray that the Lord would release him from his sufferings before morning.

On finding himself settled in the factories, as it was then pretty evident he could get no other employment, he began to think of getting a little higher in the work, and speaking to the master upon the subject, he got advanced to a place where the labor was not so distressing, but where the care and responsibility were greater.

Soon after his advancement to this place, Jimmy met with an accident which had very near been fatal. By some means his coat got entangled in the straps of the machinery, and finding himself lifted from the floor, with a prospect of being dashed against the floor above, he gave a sudden jerk, and the coat being old and saturated with oil, broke away, and thus saved his life. A few months after he had another, and still more narrow escape from death. This was partly owing to the want of sufficient precaution in boxing off the machinery.

When about 15 years of age, a circumstance occurred to him, which does not often fall to the lot of factory children, and which had a great influence on his future life. He happened one day to find an old board lying useless in a corner of the factory. On this board, with a piece of chalk, he was scrawling out as well as he was able, the initials of his name, instead of attending to his work. Having finished the letters, he was laying down the board and turning to his work, when to his great surprise, he perceived one of his masters looking over his shoulder. Of course, he expected a severe scolding; but the half smile upon his master's countenance suddenly dispelled his fears. This gentleman, who was a member of the society of Friends, kindly asked Jimmy several questions about reading and writing, and being informed that the two letters on the board before him, contained the sum total of all the knowledge the boy possessed in these matters, he kindly gave him 2 pence (4 cents,) to purchase a slate and pencil, pens, ink and paper. This sum of money he continued to allow the boy weekly for several years, always inspecting his humble endeavors, and suggesting any improvements which he thought necessary.

Thus an opportunity was afforded him, which, with a few presents of books, was the means, under Providence, of laying the foundation of a tolerable education, for a working man. This kindness on the part of his master is still fresh in his memory. He speaks of it as one of the bright spots in his checkered life.

With this encouragement, and impelled by the activity of his own mind, and an irresistible thirst after knowledge, he set himself earnestly to the acquisition of such branches of education as he thought might better his condition in after life; and although he had still his work to attend, he soon found himself in possession of a tolerable share of mathematics, geography, history, &c.

Now that he began to derive pleasure from the perusal of books, (and in fact, it was the only source of pleasure he had) he did not omit any opportunity of gratifying this desire, but particularly on the Sabbath day. His usual custom in the summer months was to take a book in one pocket, and a crust of bread in another, and thus provided with food for the mind and body, go forth on a Sunday morning to a retired and secluded wood, about 2 miles from the town in which he lived, and there spend the day alone. On the banks of a rivulet which ran through the wood, he has sat for hours absorbed in study, unperceived by mortal eye, with nothing to disturb the solitude of the place but the numerous little songsters that kept up a continual concert, as if to make it more enchanting to his imagination.

These visits to his summer retreat he speaks of as seasons of real pleasure; they were also attended with some advantages in point of health. For a number of years he had enjoyed but a delicate state of health, owing to constant confinement, the smells of the factories, &c.; but these Sunday excursions got him a better appetite for his victuals, and he became more healthy and strong.

He also derived considerable pleasure and improvement from the study of nature, in watching the habits of birds, bees, ants, butterflies, and any natural curiosity that came in his way; and when the evening began to close in around him, and compelled him to return to the habitations of men, he felt a reluctance to leave his quiet and solitary retreat.

On some occasions, when returning from his retreat in the woods on a Sunday evening, he has stood upon an eminence at a distance, and watched the gaily-attired inhabitants taking their evening walk in the fields and meadows around the town, and could not help contrasting their situation with his. They were happy in themselves, anxious to see and be seen, and deriving pleasure from mutual friendship and intercourse; he, with the seeds of misery implanted in his frame, surrounded by circumstances calculated to make him truly unhappy, shrinking from the face of men to a lovely wood, to brood over his sorrows in secret and in silence. They were enjoying the fruits of their industry; but the reward for his, was misery, wretchedness and disease.

So great was the love of books in this youth, that he seized upon all within the circle of his acquaintance, no matter upon what subject, with avidity. On one occasion he was tempted to have recourse to a little of what the world calls policy, in order to gratify his appetite for reading, but which he knew to be wrong.

On Saturdays, the mill usually stopped working at 5 o'clock; then after cleaning himself, he had a few hours to call his own, which were generally spent in his favorite amusement. One fine Saturday evening in June, having provided himself with a book from a circulating library, he took a walk to the ruins of an old castle, a short distance from the town, which had often been to him an agreeable retreat from the noise and bustle of the factory. For the loan of this book he had paid two pence, the sum his master allowed him weekly over and above his wages, and he had got it snugly in his pocket, calculating on the pleasure it would afford him during the week. It chanced, however, to be one of those thinly printed volumes with large margins, and seating himself on the above mentioned ruins, he did not rise till he had finished it. When he rose from his seat the evening was closing in around, and the bats and owls were on the wing; but he had read his book, had exhausted his whole week's stock of amusement. What was to be done? To obtain another volume in the usual way was impossible, he had not another penny in the world; and to be without a book for a whole week seemed very hard. In this dilemma he hit upon a plan, which after a little hesitation he carried into effect. He took the volume back to the librarian and requested him to change it, telling him it did not suit. His request was complied with, and he was thus furnished with amusement for the week.

When about the age of 17, he became acquainted with a young student who was very kind in lending him books, and explaining any difficulty he might be laboring under in his studies. This student also first directed his attention to higher and nobler objects, got our youth to relinquish in part, his Sunday excursions, and go with him occasionally to church. He speaks of these kindnesses as having been of great service to him, and recollects them with gratitude.

To turn his thoughts from his pitiful situation, he attended lectures on various subjects, repeated the simple experiments at home, made some curious models and drawings of machines, and could thus contrive to pass away his leisure time pleasantly. But in proportion as the truths of science were unfolded to his wondering sight, and the mists of ignorance chased from his mind, new desires sprung up which were before unknown, and from being entirely out of his reach, made him occasionally fretful and unhappy.

Being desirous of turning his newly acquired learning to some account, he engaged to keep the books of a tailor, draw out his bills, &c. in the evenings after his labor in the factories was over, by which he earned part of his clothing, and also got an insight into the trade, which was of service afterwards.

From the time our young friend had been put into the factories, he had gradually, but slowly advanced from one process to another, till by the time he had arrived at the age of 20, when he had been in constant practice more than 14 years, he found himself to be a person of some consequence. He was then well acquainted with the various processes of manufacturing woollen cloth, and would have had no hesitation to undertake to make a piece of cloth throughout himself. Besides, his literary knowledge, if I may be allowed the expression, enabled him to undertake to keep the books of the factory, which was to him not only an easier situation, but a more profitable one.

In all the advancing stages of his factory life, from a boy standing on a wooden block, to a clerk in his master's counting room, Jimmy had to comply with the evil and pernicious practice of paying footing; that is, at every step a person takes in his upward progress, one or two shillings are demanded to be spent in drink, by the work people, to which they contribute a small sum in order to make up a jollification. From these scenes, so contrary to his habits, he was always glad to retire to his books.

On the introduction of some improved machinery for finishing woollen cloth, into the factory, James was appointed to superintend it. This machinery being of a much superior description to any previously in use, it was placed in a room by itself, and all communication with that room shut off, except to the person attending the machine. In this room he worked for several years, being always locked in by himself. One day as he was busily engaged in his occupation, he had his right hand taken into the machine and injured considerably among the bones in the wrist, losing at the same time one finger end. Five years afterwards the right arm had to be amputated, in consequence of some of the bones being injured as is supposed, by this accident, and having still to continue to work.

Although he was not, at this time, constantly employed within the mills, but had to attend to the packing department in the warehouse, and any other place about the works where he might be required, yet still the effects of former years of factory toil were on him, still his life was one of suffering, although not to so great a degree; and he had it now in his power to procure comforts which were before unknown to him, and lived more like a Christian than formerly.

An easy clerk's situation being now vacant, he was advised by some friends to avail himself of the opportunity, and thus free himself totally from the factories, especially as he had several influential friends to forward his views.

He mentioned the subject to his masters, who made such advantageous offers as induced him to remain with them.

In 1834, the law for the regulation of factories in England was about being put in force. James Graham being then an overlooker, had to take the children to the doctor to be examined, and get certificates that they were of the required age. It was with the utmost difficulty he could persuade the doctor to certify that they were 9 years old, although some of them were in their eleventh year, their stunted, diminutive, and sickly appearance being so much against them.

One of the most trying occurrences in all his factory experience, took place in the following winter. About 8 months previously he had had a youth of about 17 years of age placed under him, for the purpose of learning some of the higher branches of the business. Having one day given this youth directions what to do, and gone up to the room above for the purpose of superintending some other part of the works, he noticed one branch of the machinery suddenly stop. On going to ascertain the cause, he met several persons running towards him, who said, "Tom has got into the Gig and is killed." He ran down in haste, but it was too true; he was strangled. A great many bones were broken, and several ghastly wounds were inflicted on his person.

After his mangled body was extracted from the machinery, by unscrewing and taking the machine in pieces, it was laid in a recess in the ground floor, the same in which the accident occurred, to await a coroner's inquest, the works being all stopped and the hands dismissed. The reader may imagine the feelings of Graham, as he paced backwards and forwards with folded arms and downcast eyes. It was a cold winter's evening. He had a flickering light burning beside him. Not a sound broke upon the ear, except the wind and rain without, and the water trickling through the wheels within; while the mangled remains of that youth whom he had instructed in his business, and looked upon almost like a son, lay bleeding beside him.

A little while before this, Graham's sister had met with an accident, whereby she had lost part of her hand, and the remainder was rendered nearly useless.

Graham had now been in the factories about 25 years, and began to feel an earnest desire to quit them. These repeated trials, first his own accident, then his sister's, and afterwards the death of his favorite boy, made him look upon the place with any thing but a favorable eye.

Having previously acquainted his masters with his intentions, he commenced a night school by way of practice for himself, teaching the children of the factory two evenings in the week. In this he was assisted by the young masters. This continued about 12 months.

At the close of the year 1836, he settled his affairs with his masters, and having saved a little money he commenced school-keeping. But on account of there being but few working people able to send their children to school, and people in a higher sphere not being willing to send their children to be instructed by one who had never been to school himself, it did not answer his full expectations.

He then tried to get employed in some of the public schools in London, but failed on account of his deformity. For a similar reason he has partly failed in several other things he tried. In 1839, being then 33 years of age, he bound himself an apprentice for three years to a tailor in London, and in little more than a year the right hand which had been crushed in the machinery, got so bad as to oblige him to give that up also.

The remaining part of his savings was now wanted for the cure of his hand, and after having spent all his money and had several months of painful experience, under some of the most skilful surgeons of London, he was obliged to submit to amputation as the only means of saving his life.

On recovery he set himself to teach the left hand the knowledge previously possessed by the right hand, such as the use of the pen, needle, sheers, razor, &c. He also invented, with a little assistance from an ingenious machinist of London, an artificial arm, and several instruments, whereby he has been enabled to work at his trade as a tailor.

His health, as a matter of course, has suffered severely, and although he looks healthy, yet those who know him best say his constitution is quite undermined, in consequence of his former hardships and sufferings. He does not calculate on more than three days' good health at one time. On viewing his person one cannot but perceive at a glance, that he was intended by nature for a stout, able bodied man, although he now stands but 5 feet 1 inch high. He calculates he has lost by his deformity 7 inches and a half, which he says can be proved by unerring natural laws.

Such is a brief history of an English factory cripple. It differs but little, except in his literary attainments, from many of the same class of persons, of whom there are at this time, (1846) upwards of 10,000. Many of these are dependent upon their friends and relatives for support.

Petition after petition has been sent into the two houses of Parliament, to the prime minister, and to the Queen, concerning this unfortunate class of British subjects, but without effect. Had they only been black instead of white, their case would have been taken into consideration long ago. Or if they had been inhabiting any other portion of the Globe, the far-famed English philanthropists would have found them out; but because they are in England itself, under their very eye, their case is unheeded.

There is, however, one comfort, even to this unfortunate class of human beings, viz. that their sufferings will be but of short duration, and their deformities will not be any barrier to another and a happier state of existence.