Sunday, 14 April 2013

Bloody British History: Stafford

As part of the series Bloody British History, here is a glimpse at my forthcoming volume on Stafford. Not every story involves the spilling of blood and gore or even disease and pestilence as can be seen from the following excerpt.

During the nineteenth century shoemaking was among the major employers in the town. Many worked from home, for the work was mostly done by hand. Workers owned their own set of tools, keeping them in excellent condition and guarding them well. Clearly this was a significant investment and without such would be unable to work.

Thus when one Mr Singer made important improvements to the sewing machine people of Stafford had good cause to be worried. A job they had done by hand all their lives could now be mechanised and production increased greatly. This was fine for those who could afford the new technology but for the rest it spelled financial disaster. The workers could see no alternative but to take strike action.

Yet this could not be a withdrawal of labour in the modern sense but was indeed such in a very real sense for they left Stafford in their droves. Many went to Nantwich in Cheshire. Fairly close to their home town and, more importantly, somewhere the sewing machine had yet to reach. Hence they took lodgings in Nantwich, bringing with them their skills and earning much-needed cash.

Of course their former employers were suffering from a lack of quality but did manage to keep supply lines open with a smaller workforce who were able to produce shoes much faster even if of poorer quality, the new machines could stitch the uppers at some 1,500 to 1,700 stitches per minute.

Yet the manufacturers could not let this continue, poorer quality would eventually lose them business altogether. Customers would find other suppliers in Birmingham, Shrewsbury, Chester and Wolverhampton more than willing to step in. Stafford employers were at a loss to understand just why their workers refused to undergo minor retraining just to use a machine which would make their working lives much easier.

However they were not the only ones to feel the impact. Far harder hit were the families of those whose apparent move away from Stafford was simply to find work. The men found themselves work alright, lodgings were much easier to come by in those days, but the wage packets never found their way back to Stafford. Left without a breadwinner, Stafford suddenly found itself home to women with children rapidly descending into destitution. This was absolutely unacceptable and led to a Stafford shoemaker complaining of how their former workers were “taking the strike as an avenue to divorce”.

Not all shoemakers had deserted their hometown. Poaching was a common way to add to the meagre menus of the majority and, for those with the knowhow, their quarry could be sought directly. This left out the middle man and the only expense was in time and trouble. Oswald Beeman had been adding to his table for years, meaning more of his hard-earned cash as a shoemaker could be spent at the local pub instead of the butcher. With the strike he saw the opportunity to fill his pockets and simply spent more time poaching.

One Thursday in May, Beeman was in the grounds of Creswell Hall, his favourite hunting place. When he saw a keeper approaching he panicked and, as he attempted to unscrew his gun in order to hide the pieces in his voluminous pockets, managed to discharge his gun. Hit from point blank range, the bones in his left leg was utterly shattered above the ankle. Rushed to the infirmary he paid a high price for his illegal activities for that leg was amputated at the knee. Perhaps this was considered to be adequate punishment for there is no record of him ever being charged for his crimes.

Six months after the strike began to hit one manufacturer called a meeting with his competitors. Something had to be done to encourage their workforce back to Stafford otherwise not only would their families starve but they would soon be out of business. An agreement was reached whereby all would pay an extra penny on shoes and twice that amount on boots and welts if they return to work and accept the new technology.

As the workers came home to Stafford the businesses were saved and wives and children were no longer forced to beg for food. While no companies went out of business as a direct result of the strike, it is impossible to gauge whether their action did lasting damage either to the town or the industry.

As usual I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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