Saturday, 11 February 2012

11th February 1812: Reverend J .T. Becher to Home Office

Southwell 11th February 1812

Sir,

As the attention of parliament will soon be directed to the outrages, prevailing in the county of Nottingham, I shall not, I hope, be censured for intrusion, if I venture to transmit such observations as have been suggested to me by the subject.

In bringing the state of our manufacturing concerns under your consideration, I must beg leave to request your particular attention to the principle, upon which the machinery, employed in the fabrication of lace & stockings is supplied. The conditions are, I believe, almost peculiar to this branch of business; and to this origin, as I humbly conceive, the present grievances may, in a great measure, be imputed.

The Frames, upon which Lace & Stockings are woven, are hired by the workmen at stipulated weekly rents, seldom amounting to less than 12 per cent,& occasionally to 20 per cent, upon the original cost. The prices of these frames vary from £16 to £50, without including additional machinery; and the interest arising from capital so vested has induced Farmers, Servants, Laborers, & others, totally unacquainted with the interests& management of the trade, to become frame owners & to embark their money in this speculation, which was artfully recommended by those hosiers who were desirous of engaging in the lace or hosiery business or of extending their concerns without possessing sufficient pecuniary resources. The frames thus introduced are denominated ‘Independents’.

Until the commencement of the present war the demand for the Nottinghamshire manufacture exceeded the produce of the machinery & labour in the market. The frames were regarded by every workman as the tutelary guardians of his house: To these the family was indebted for food and raiment, so that they became the objects of their attentive care & most vigilant protection. Females and children attained the art of using them; and those who declined this exertion, were occupied in seaming stockings, ornamenting clocks, or embroidering lace. Abundance thus rapidly acquired by those who were ignorants of its proper application hastened the progress of luxury and licentiousness, and the lower orders were almost universally corrupted by profusion & depravity, scarcely to be credited by those who are strangers to our district . . . Among the men, the discussion of politics, the destruction of game or the dissipation of the alehouses was substituted for the duties of their occupation during the former part of the week; and in the remaining three or four days a sufficiency was earned for defraying the current expenses. These emoluments contrasted with the wages of common laborers inducements too powerful to be resisted, and the children of the poor were consequently withdrawn from agriculture to trade. The difficulty of procuring servants created general complaints; and the inconvenience was aggravated by want of diligence in the males & of virtue in the females. Such was the conditions of the inferior classes and, if we examine the conduct & character of the Hosiers or Masters, much will appear deserving reprehension. Some were distinguished by liberality towards their workmen & by their firm attachment to the established government, but these were not the features of the majority. The bulk of the Hosiers had commenced their pursuits without fortune or education, and were far more inclined to censure the conduct of administration, than to correct their own ignorance & inhumanity. Hence an incessant struggle arose between the high & the low party. This in the elections of members of parliament was signalized by flagrant outrages, which at length subverted entirely the freedom of election, and produced the act 43 Geo. 3 c.45 by which the justices for the county were empowered to exercise a co-ordinate jurisdiction with the Mayor & Corporation of Nottingham within their precincts. Keeping pace with these changes in the habits & characters of the lower ranks, an increasing population exhibited to every considerate mind a prospect, at no great distance, of complicated distress whenever the manufactured articles should glut the markets. The policy of our enemies, by prohibiting the introduction of British commodities upon the continent, may have accelerated the crisis; but altho it might possibly have been postponed, it could not have been prevented. For nothing but the fall of the structure could have demonstrated to the artificers the impossibility of sustaining it at the height to which it had been raised; and, when the crash convinced them of their error, the subsistence of numbers was inevitably overwhelmed by the event.

The check imposed upon the trade of Nottinghamshire was, at first, but partially felt,because the stock on hand was comparatively of little value; but, as the practice of multiplying Frames & Artificers was continued with unabated zeal, long after the demand for them had ceased, the period arrived, when the warehouses were crowded with goods for which no vent could be found: and the Hosiers, sensible of their difficulties, began to devise arrangements for preventing their increase.

In this emergency, if the Hosiers had acquainted the Workmen with the true situation of the trade; if they had retained those who by long services or large families possessed the best title to protection, the young men would have engaged in other employments or would have entered into the army or navy; and none of our present disturbances would have occurred. But the workmen had, in the season of prosperity, dictated with insolence to their Masters; and an opportunity for retaliation now appeared, of which the latter indiscreetly & unfeelingly availed themselves.

The first attempt to abate the prices of labor originated, as I have been informed, with Mr. Nun the lace manufacturer above seven years ago. As the proposal was novel to the workmen they could not reconcile their minds to a reduction upon the compensation allowed for work; but, after many conferences, they tendered an increased rent for their frames to which the agent of Mr. Nun acceded & all parties were perfectly satisfied. This agreement however was erroneous in its principle & injurious in its operation, since it assisted in concealing the redundancy of labor in the market, while it encouraged the introduction of independent frames with which the trade was then overstocked, and facilitated the projects of needy adventurers who carried on their business by means of the ‘Independents’. About two years since, the consequences were severely felt; and an endeavour was made by many eminent lace manufacturers to reduce the rents of the lace frames to such sums as might entirely preclude all profit upon the machinery & thus annihilate the system of trafficking by the aid of ‘Independents’. This measure gave rise to much contentious discussion, but has now, I am told been carried completely into effect, with advantage, as I conceive, to the trade; but with considerable loss to those, who had ventured to furnish the independent machinery. This ferment in which both Masters & workmen were involved was followed by a diminution of the prices for work; & by the fabrication of very imperfect article called single pressed lace, which was highly disapproved & publickly reprobrated by respectable tradesmen, as disgraceful to the general character of the business.

Meanwhile the Hosiers were pursuing the same object by a different path. Knowing that the Framework-knitters would be little disposed to endure an abatement of prices which had been sanctioned by uninterrupted usage, about two years ago the Masters determined to change the fashion & figure of the work & to effect their purpose by deducting from the workmans prices more than a proportionate consideration. As soon as one change in the fashion & prices was established another was proposed. The quality of the manufactured goods was progressively deteriorated; and the Workmen found their utmost industry incapable of securing a livelihood. Some Masters in addition to these arrangements delivered out only half the usual weekly work to the Artificers, while they claimed the full rent of their frames while the means of employing them was denied.

Under these circumstances representations were urged by the workmen, and the example of many respectable tradesmen, who discharged their supernumary men & continued the remainder in full work, at equitable prices, was urged as a model for imitation. A meeting of the Hosiers was convened and standard prices were fixed & published in the Newspapers. But the result was only a fresh source of irritation & disappointment to the Petitioners. When they looked for the operation of the advertisement they were mortified by the galling refusal of their application; while their claims were countenanced by those Masters, who had from the commencement behaved with honor & humanity; and who now saw others enabled to undersell them in the market by petty profits, oppressively extorted from the starving necessities of the poor. It is not be supposed, that liberal men could behold this surreptious traffic without indignation & comment. — Neither could their sentiments remain long concealed from the objects of their commiseration. Pressed with hunger & exasperated by faithless promises of redress, the Framework-knitters denounced vengeance, & their threat has been amply fulfilled. They began their destruction work last spring by demolishing a few of the frames belonging to those who were most obnoxious — but as this warning did not produce any advances in their favor - they recommenced their outrages in November last, directing their fury against the machinery of every person by whom they conceived themselves to be aggrieved or oppressed. In one or two instances they have destroyed the property of their best employers, but this has been unintentional. The general tendency of their system is a proscription against persons & work of a specific description; and their designs have been generally accomplished by an understanding, if not a conspiracy, between the frame breakers & the frame renters, who mutually rejoiced in the event. The number of frames broken is supposed to exceed 1000; and the value of them may be estimated at £10,000. — By individuals the loss will be severely felt but as far as the general interests of the trade are concerned, it is universally allowed, that the machinery remaining is still abundantly more than sufficient for the market.

In the commencement of the disturbances three haystacks, belonging to those who had assisted the civil power, were burned; and some threatening letters were sent, but no such crimes have been recently committed. So that, altho I listened with attention to those, who at first taught me to believe, that the outrages were connected with political views; & that money might have been supplied thro’ secret channels, I now am firmly persuaded from diligent enquiry & vigilant observation that these opinions are not supported by facts. l ascribe the origin & progress of our present offences solely to internal animosities between the manufacturers themselves, and between the manufacturers & their workmen, acting upon the passions of a necessitous & dissolute class, who had been trained for insubordination by those who are now the objects of their vengeance; and who had been repeatedly told by many of their employers, & by the licentious paper brooded under their patronge, (the Nottingham Review), that the sovereignty resided in the people, and that it was their province as well as their duty to avenge their wrongs & to retaliate upon their oppressors.

Even at this juncture the Manufacturers who have endangered the safety of the country by their misconduct, continue spectators of the mischief without having, to my knowledge, done any act as a collective body to subdue the evils or to bring the offenders to punishments. Indeed they seem to be more occupied in murmuring against the executive government & in abusing the magistracy than in vindicating their own proceedings or in recommending any plan for effecting reciprocal conciliation.

Possibly it may be asked how are the Frame-breakers or ‘Luddites’ supported. To this I reply, that they are not numerous, that they receive contributions from the people in work; and that there is scarcely a Stockinger who will not give half his victuals or his money to these ‘friends of the poor man’, as they are styled, who beg in the evening from house to house, exposing to sale the Framework-knitters act, as a protection against the vagrant laws.

Upon a review of the circumstances which have been stated, the means of restoring the public peace and of preventing similar occurences in future, appear to demand attention.

The Bill now preparing for parliament, if the duties are executed by principals and not by substitutes, with the cooperation of the military force, will, in all probability, enforce good order especially as the distresses & opportunities peculiar to the winter season will soon have ceased.

But if tranquillity is to be permanently established it will be necessary to adopt some plan for preventing the frequent renewal of such alarming conflicts. l am aware of the delicacy attaching to any interference with regulations of trade, yet I beg leave most respectfully to submit for your consideration the expediency of passing an act to prescribe by a regulated table, what could be easily drawn, the rent to be paid for every species of frame used in the lace or stocking trade, which might be so estimated,as not to exceed 7½ per cent upon the prime cost, and to prohibit any person not supplying a frame with full work from demanding more than half the rent. The advantages which, I humbly conceive, likely to result from such a measure are these. It would remove a temptation to over stock the market with machinery by means of the independent frames. It would prevent the speculations of needy adventurers. It would create a closer connection between the manufacturers & the machinery, and render them more circumspect in their conduct from a consciousness that they must by oppression endanger their own property, which, under the present system, in many instances is not the case. It would materially conduce to settle the minds of the workmen if they learned that Parliament was not unmindful of their distress; as far as I can judge from the opinion of those to whom I have mentioned the plan it would prove acceptable to the substantial manufacturers. Since the late depreciation of wages is the first that has occurred within the memory of man in the lace & stocking manufactures of this county the poor have been less prepared than those in other districts for the indigent situation to which they are so unexpectedly reduced, and may therefore have been incited to the perpetration of more flagrant excesses than would otherwise have prevailed.

I have now, Sir, to apologise for having so extensively trespassed upon your attention for which the importance of the subject will I trust supply some excuse.

I have [etc.]

John T. Becher

This letter appears at HO 42/120.

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