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International Socialism, Summer 1966


John Lee

A Little Gem


From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, p.31.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Family Economy of the Working Classes in the Cotton Industry, 1784-1833
Francis Collier
Manchester University Press, 30s

What a tragedy that this little gem was finished as a thesis forty-five years ago, and has since been restricted to those privileged enough to have access to the dusty research shelves of Manchester University library. But, certainly better late than never, for it is a warm and sensitive account of the changing social and economic environment of the cotton workers as the development of water power and mechanical technology undermined the old domestic system, only to be superseded in its turn by the steam engine.

With the analysis of a fascinating set of wage books Francis Collier sets out to show how the early inventions rapidly created a demand for unskilled workers, particularly women and apprentices, and soon encouraged the migration into the towns of the poor and unsuccessful domestic families. At first the demand was for unskilled apprentices and female spinners. However, once set in motion the mechanical thrust forward swept all before it, creating a need for skilled adult spinners and by the 1830s, for male as well as female power-loom operatives. In fact Collier suggests that it was not until this date that the industry provided an even spread of employment for the full family and converted spinning into a male occupation and weaving into female employ.

Her facts and figures relating to wages suggest that between the two dates the vastly increasing army of urban cotton workers fared better than their domestic counterparts, especially towards the end of the period. Yet this should not lead us into an agreement with Clapham that the industrial revolution brought quick benefits rather than suffering to the labouring classes. I would suggest that a careful reading of Miss Collier’s book lends support to E.P. Thompson’s contention that comparisons of average wages between town and country involve ridiculous generalisations. Anyway her book reveals that it was in part the competition with mechanised labour that reduced the wages of domestic workers to approximately three shillings and ninepence a week, ‘which gave an income of one shilling and ninepence per head and thus when the cost of rent, fuel and light was deducted, left one shilling and threepence per head for food and clothing.’

Comparisons are made even more difficult by the fantastic variations in the weekly wages of the new proletariat. Some workers are shown to have received thirty-seven shillings one week and half a crown the next. When this is added to the drastic booms and slumps of the period and to the fluctuating pool of urban unemployed then it can be seen that generalisations can only be made with extreme care.

However, Miss Collier is unequivocal in drawing attention to the low quality of life in the industrial north. From her survey of Poor Law Commissioners’ reports and from many descriptions of urban conditions we find that Manchester was a stinking hole in 1784 and that by 1833 it was even worse.

‘The squalor increased unchecked’ so that ‘many working-class families lived in back-to-back two-roomed houses situated in courts, or in badly sewered streets, not infrequently littered with garbage and made hideous by cesspools.’

The bloody-minded historian might complain that certain generalisations are made on the basis of statistics pertaining only to a tiny section of industrial workers. Others might complain that the whole analysis is not very weighty. But such complaints would not only be uncharitable, given the age of the thesis, they would also miss the point that here is assembled a little collection of documents which provide the imaginative historian and socialist with a fund of material that he can project into a picture of the life style of our industrial ancestors in this crucial period of our history. Just as important is the lesson we learn from the warmth and sensitivity with which Francis Collier handles her data. Whilst she did not attempt works of the grandeur of Trotsky or E.P. Thompson the job she did do, she did well.

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