Chapter One


1. Introduction

2. 17th Century Democrats

3. The crowd in action

4. Lead Mining in Derbyshire

5. From Guild to Union

6. The Woolcombers

7. Framework Knitting

8. Cotton Mills

9. The Stockingmakers’ Association

10. The French Revolution and its Aftermath

11. References

1. Introduction

There is no precise picture of the origins of the mass organisations of working people. No common thread is clear. No simple genealogical chart exists to follow, only a distorted, tattered spider’s web. Entangled and misty. Yet to know the Movement today to be sure of its future direction, one has to know from where it has come. Historically, workers have combined to protect themselves for centuries in spontaneous actions. But when did trade unions emerge and what was their nature? The first historians of the labour movement, the Webbs, defined a trade union as a “continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of improving the conditions of their employment”. [2] Yet such an association was rare until the 19th century and workers’ movements clearly predate such constancy.

The history of trade unions, labour movements and peoples’ associations in Derbyshire is long and rich. No single pattern of development may be observed. For, over and above the influences of specific trades and industries, there is the historic pull of associations beyond the county. Each industrial centre on the borders of the county influenced events in its environs, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham, Burton, and Leicester. Why then a study of the county? Much has been made of the county’s pre-eminence in the early days of industrial revolution. So much of the machines and masters have been written. What of the men and, yes, the women?

Should trades unionists be concerned with history? Is it not past and gone, and should we not look forward with hope to better things? History, according to this view, is the preserve of dry academics poring over yellowing pages of bygone days. But a study of real history teaches us real lessons for today. Surely, the names and actions, the faces and thoughts of ordinary folk ought not to be forgotten? Not the genealogical meanderings of kings and queens, but the raw, sharp clash of the lives of working people.

Nothing, it seems, changes in history and yet everything changes. How come? The same struggles and the same lessons occur over and over again in the pages of history. But are we really at the same level as out great-grandparents? Is the Luddite of yesteryear the equivalent of the print worker of the 1980s? Were the foreign influenced Jacobins of days gone the ‘Moscow-dominated’ Marxists of the middle part of this century? Some in the 19th century argued that the rigid control of the workers over the apprenticeship system was an infringement of democracy. So said Thatcher’s governments of the closed shop. The same or similar arguments?

And yet… there is a change, a great change in our Movement and in our society. The young and vibrant early capitalist system, flexing its muscles, had all before it in 1800. The creaky, aged, permanently crisis-ridden, class system of today has the staying power and wiliness of the senile. Our Movement has changed too. The early working-class movement went through a powerful revolutionary epoch and was then either disillusioned or diverted from it to adopt easy-going reformist outlooks. Such a philosophy was reflected in the very name taken for the workers’ party -Labour, not Socialist. Such a philosophy led directly to the failures of reformist Labour Governments. Yet that very experience has generated a new debate about the relevance or otherwise of Socialism. Whilst those who proposed revolutionary solutions have seen all too many “models” of alternatives to capitalism fall apart. If 300 years of blood and battle, starvation and disease, poverty and plunder, boom and slump are to mean anything then surely we owe it to the pioneers to carry out their historic task?

2. 17th Century Democrats

By the standards of the day in the 16th and 17th centuries, Derby, Wirksworth and Chesterfield were substantial towns and the rest of the county was not unreasonably settled. While Derby as the county town was not of great economic importance, it was a corn trade and lead export centre and a market for wool. Its location on the fast-flowing River Derwent was, however, to give it a big spurt in economic development in time to come. Daniel Defoe, on his tour through Britain, crossed “that fury of a river called the Derwent, and came to Derby … a fine, beautiful town; it has more families of gentlemen in it than is usual in towns so remote”. He presumed the ruggedness of the Peak District forced the gentry to gather together at Derby rather than on their estates. Mines and quarries dominated much of the county. Millstones, whetstones, crystal, marble, alabaster, coal, iron, antimony and lead all came from the county of Derbyshire. In the south and centre of the county the soil was reasonably rich and much corn and cattle production went on. Arable land in many Derbyshire parishes, including those in Derby, was concentrated in big open fields, in which those farming held thin strips. Fences were temporary and had to be removed after harvest to permit grazing. In Derby, rich farmers disregarded this custom, by keeping their fences up to avoid common grazing. One, called Smith, a town official in the late 16th century, had the fences around his property removed and his corn trampled down for infringing the right of common ownership. The ordinary folk reacted swiftly where they could to any obvious breach of the custom of common lands. Four chamberlains responsible for the fair distribution of common lands were removed from office in 1599 for improper behaviour. [3]

All through the early part of the following century the rights of commoners were under attack at the very time when the rising mercantile class were in conflict with the established ruling class, the land owning aristocracy. Derbyshire saw widespread revolt against the trend to enclosure of common land. This confiscation of land to private ownership generated much opposition, especially during the civil wars of the mid-17th century by the Levellers, a form of early Socialist or Communist, whose revolutionary ideals were strong in the county. The logic of their name and appeal was simple – to level all men and women to heights of equality – especially to level (physically) the common land. Well before this, stirrings of revolt emerged in June 1607, quite specifically against enclosure. The position in the various parts of the county as far as the level of enclosure varied:

Percentage of area without common land [4]

West Derbyshire 15-30%
East Derbyshire 30-50%
Northwest Derbyshire 50-70%

Thus in the north-western part of the county there was much more yet to lose as the tendency for the rich and the ‘noble’ to enclose common land adjoining their property escalated. An opportunity to reverse this process emerged with the Civil War. The Levellers determined to take the anti-nobility aspect of the revolution much further than the staid leadership of Cromwell would allow. Total support for this approach existed amongst the Derbyshire lead miners – especially in the Wirksworth area. [5] There were special reasons governing the hostility of the lead miners of Derbyshire to land enclosure, which ensured their adherence in large numbers to the Leveller cause. Extensive privileges, over-riding the rights of landowners, were granted to lead mining, which had begun the pioneering use of the Derwent for mass transportation of industrial products. Most of the miners were subsistence farmers engaged in ‘self-employed’ mining as an additional occupation. In certain areas, anyone operating within the ancient lead regulations could mine for the ore almost anywhere and retained extractive possession rights. The landowner had to provide access to water and to the nearest highway.

The Derbyshire ore-miners had formed a bold element in the Parliamentary army. One Henry Hastings had recruited, for example, ‘100 colliers from his father’s mine for the anti-royalist forces’. [6] But as the war began to turn to the advantage of the Parliamentary side, powerful figures like Cromwell increasingly realised that they had to jettison the support of the increasingly radical forces of the Levellers. But Derbyshire provided cause for concern and, typically, the bourgeois revolution had to depend upon the organised masses. Sir John Gell had mastered Derbyshire and occupied Derby for the Royalist cause and the town provided men for a number of attacks on Nottingham and Newark. The opposing, parliamentary, forces on one occasion marched from Nottingham and momentarily held the town. But the Midlands was also a main centre of Leveller support and, as the tension grew between the newly allied Parliament and landowners on the one side, and the Levellers on the other, insurrection broke out in the region in defence of the economic rights of ordinary people. Thousands of Derbyshire lead miners revolted against the Earl of Rutland in 1649 when he refused permission for the digging of ore in the neighbourhood of his house. [7] The matter had been put to adjudication by the Rump Parliament, which found against the miners, causing the decision to rebel.

On the pretext of attending a race meeting, thousands of miners, half on horseback with pistols and swords, marched on Derby, only to be thwarted by a regiment of cavalry. Leading the military forces was Major Thomas Saunders of Little Ireton, Derbyshire, who had guarded Parliament with his regiment while Cromwell had marched against the Levellers in the South. [8] The miners dissolved in the face of the disciplined and well-armed force and indeed generally by sheer force of arms the movement was checked.

With the defeat of the Levellers in all parts of Britain, there was nothing to stop the enclosure of the lands and the development was to have serious, long-term repercussions for the lead industry in Derbyshire. By 1700 and entirely new picture had emerged in the county as far as common land was concerned. In the west of Derbyshire well over 70% of the land was now enclosed without serious challenge. [9]

3 The Crowd in Action

The clash of ideas and actions in this turbulent period did not simply abate with a political settlement which ensured that the pomp and glamour of the nobility was untouched, whilst the profits and wealth of the merchants thrived. Indeed, contrary to contemporary myth, the use of riot and rebellion as the norm was used by ordinary people as a socially valid and calculated political tool. In no way was it simply the uncontrolled response of an unthinking and inelegant rabble. After all, no popular institutions of dissent were allowed existence and access to the levers of power was strictly out of the hands of ordinary folk.

Grievances were resolved with swift force by the masses. For example, in 1740, when poor harvests had brought a tremendous scarcity of flour, several Derby millers tried to smuggle out of the town 24 sacks, bound for a lucrative market in Leek. Unfortunately for them they were observed on the Ashbourne Road and a huge crowd surrounded them about two miles out of the town. [10] The crowd seized the flour and distributed some of it freely, the women pouring it into their aprons. The Mayor arrived on the scene and, by a clever trick, enticed the crowd with the bulk of the flour back to the market place where he duly began to read the Riot Act to them! (A necessary legal move to legitimise military repression.) Under the threat of troops, who were at that moment coincidentally quartered in the town, being released upon them the crowd dispersed.

No action was taken against the millers, who had after all acted quite illegally, but two of the women were sentenced to the appallingly severe punishment of seven years transportation to the West Indies, a sentence not infrequently only marginally better than death. Despite this savagery, the lesson only served to sharpen further and future conflict. The riot was thus a part of life in times of great stress, there being no other medium of expression for ordinary people. For political life was reserved for the rich and the gentry, the occasion of elections being used by them to pacify the commoners with free food and drink, even when, as was the norm, no formal election was held. These elections were themselves rooted in the expression of opinion by riot.

The return of Lord Cavendish for Derby at the 1734 General Election was greeted by ferocious riots, as the crowd (composed of non-electors, of course) vent their frustrations at the new MP. Windows were smashed, several were injured and one man killed with a pointed stick. [11] Viscount Duncannon had learnt by 1746 to provide barrels of ale in the street to prove his worth to the ordinary folk, for only by pacifying the crowd on the street in such a way, could their tendency to use collective riot as a form of protest and expression be avoided. [12]

Indeed, life was fairly ‘riotous’ even away from politics. There was a constant upsurge of anti-authoritarian gestures – poaching, rick burning, sheep stealing, cattle maiming and turnpike wrecking. Even the game of football, despite the suggestions of some contemporary commentators, demonstrated that it has always been subject to extreme behaviour. A tradition of Shrove Tuesday football, probably emanating from the old trade guild apprentice system, was strong in Derbyshire. The modern annual event, still celebrated at Ashbourne, has its roots in these customs, as does the Eton Wall Game. The game was rough and riotous then with no fixed playing area and no limit to the number of players. From 1731, the authorities in Derby aimed to suppress the game, without any success. Only in 1846, when two troops of Dragoons were brought in and the Riot Act read, was the game finally ended as a sprawling moving force which ignored roads, rivers, fences and fields. Thus the game was only brought into the confines of one field by force of arms. [13]

Bread was at this time a very different substance to that of today. It was the staple ingredient of the diet of the ordinary person. The 18th century saw frequent riots over the issue of food and Derby’s role as a corn market led to major disturbances in the middle of the century. The poor harvests of 1755-56 pushed the price of corn well beyond the purses of the common folk. The new, capitalist ethics of market forces conflicted violently with traditionally held views of the common folk about the `correct’ price of grain. Millers adopted the practice of filling out the corn by grinding beans and peas into it. One miller in Darley boasted that he could grind 10lbs of corn into 20lbs of flour, and it may be taken as certain that lime and plaster was commonly used to adulterate the food to maximise profit. [14]

The tightened belts of the countryside affected the demand for manufactured goods created in the towns and the consequent combination of hunger and unemployment was an explosive mix. The crowd protest, as a means of social consensus, was at once a reflection of outrage and an expression of the mechanism whereby wrongs could be righted and prices regulated. The expression of these incidents lends credence to the view that the crowd possessed “basic organisation and self-discipline…and some grasp of strategy”. In September 1755, lead miners around Wirksworth took to the streets, occupied the flourmills and destroyed with hammers the newly imported French millstones, which ground finer flour and helped to hide adulteration all the more easily. Troops were despatched from Nottingham, but not in sufficient numbers. On Saturday, September 4th, great numbers of miners marched on Derby to carry out the same job as already done in Wirksworth. A strong detachment of troops surrounded Evans’ Mill at Darley Abbey, on the approach to Derby, and the imbalance of bayonets and rifle fire, against sticks and stones, ensured that the crowd marched away. Away, yes, but on to Derby! At Snape’s Hill on Nunn’s Green, they found the French millstones already gone, so did no damage and moved on to St. Michael’s Lane where they found some of the offending stones. A mill in the Holmes was besieged all night until the miners were able to destroy the stones. Six men were arrested by the troops, with some difficulty, as the miners kept up a tremendous barrage of stone throwing. The miners in effect, took the town, but as they had no other ambition than to smash the millstones, which being unusual would be difficult to replace, they then simply dispersed.

The Mayor, who was a corn merchant himself, read the Riot Act on Sunday and for a whole week considerable disturbances in the town revealed that it was not only the Wirksworth lead miners who were discontented. Interestingly, so widespread was the feeling of rebellion and so many were those involved that despite many arrests there was not one prosecution. No doubt the authorities were warned that an over-reaction could cause the situation to get totally out of hand. For the remainder of that year the gentry of the town ensured that plenty of subsidised corn was available. Although in the following year, protest riots again broke out with the aim of acting as a controlling mechanism over merchants, when the price of wheat almost doubled in a fortnight. [15] The crowd acted in Wirksworth on August 30th and in Denby and Derby on September 4th. While there was some limited use of troops against the rioters, the price of food had to come down. The military action was, however, not lost on either the authorities or the crowd, for the following year the riot tactic was used again. This time it was an entirely new issue – conscription for military service. A thousand men marched into Bakewell to seize the Militia Acts lists from the constable’s house to ensure the evasion of military service. [16]

Again riots took place in 1766 when the crowd took the initiative during a period of scarce food. Cheese from Derby was stolen in vast quantities and resold, at what was seen as the proper price, in Leicester. The idea spread to Cavendish Bridge where warehouses were taken over. The Mayor of Derby ordered several troops of Dragoons out as the mood spread. About 30 of the mob were brought to Derby County Gaol, which moved vast crowds in the town to bombard the soldiers guarding the prisoners with stones. Afraid that the situation could escalate, the authorities arranged for the free distribution and sale, at controlled cheaper prices, of corn. As in 1756, the 27 men who had been arrested were treated leniently, getting only a week’s imprisonment as a punishment for the loss of thousands of pounds (then a colossal sum) worth of cheese. [17]

Perhaps reflecting the discontent of the previous year, the election for the parliamentary seat in October 1767 was actually contested. Not that we would understand the occasion as a democratic election. The very few commoners rich enough to qualify for a vote found their support worth much more than the usual electoral bribe. Both Whigs and Tories opened over 70 ale-houses. Money bribes were openly and freely distributed. Five guineas were even sent to the governor of the local gaol for the prisoners there, so they wouldn’t feel left out no doubt!

So, our modern conception of rioting needs adjusting if we are to understand these times. Moreover, Derbyshire appears no less prone to the tendency than anywhere else. If rioting was thus a form of social pressure, when and how did associations of wage earners develop? Specifically, how did Derbyshire’s historic lead industry relate to the new concept of formal organisations?

4. Lead Mining in Derbyshire

Lead mining was a very significant early development for the county. One of the first references to conditions in mining generally was in 1322 in connection with the death of Emma Culhare who was killed by ‘Le Damp’ at Morley, Derbyshire. `Choke damp’, or excessive carbon dioxide, and `firedamp’, or methane, were fairly typical hazards and women were commonly employed in the mines in the very earliest days. Miners were employed at a penny a day during the reign of Edward II and by the 17th century inflation had ensured that earnings had reached 6d a day. [18] But the concept of a wage earner, or waged employee, was not advanced at this stage. Miners were mainly peasants and small farmers who were involved in lead-mining as a supplement to an otherwise sparse living. So, as no established workforce existed, this clearly had considerable bearing on the way in which miners viewed their earnings and working conditions as a collective body. So far as lead miners were concerned there were three methods of payment:

(1) By volume (or ‘dish’): to men called ‘bargainers’, who negotiated for themselves. They were usually involved in the actual cutting of ore.
(2) By fathom cut: to gangs (or partnerships), the head of which negotiated a rate of pay with the mine manager, where the mine was of some size. Usually this would also be work involving the digging of explanatory shafts over a quoted period.
(3) By day wages paid especially for repair work or simple winding of material out of the mine, about which little negotiation seems to have happened.

However, as by and large essentially self-employed individuals, doing a contract job for another, almost as a part time job in some cases, the lead miners often viewed their conditions of employment with relatively scant regard. Quite apart from the ‘crowd mentality’ evident in the Leveller rebellions, there must have been some sort of ad hoc sense of union amongst the lead miners in that during the 17th century they contributed a certain proportion of their earnings to maintain their struggle against tithes, or compulsory church rent, implying some degree of organisation. In the past there had been notable collective legal battles, as with the one waged against Sir Francis Leek in the 1620s. A local fund had been set up to pay legal costs. By the time of the civil war, employment of day wage labourers became the norm. One former miner, Anthony Coates, was employing 300 labourers in different parts of the Wirksworth area. Some 20,000 men, women and children were involved in the industry in High Peak and Wirksworth by 1642. Less than one tenth were independent miners, the rest being hired in one way or another. Waged labour had arrived. [19]

The Hillcarr Sough lead mine, which was commenced in 1766, was bedevilled with problems. Construction was halted after six men were killed in a firedamp, or methane, explosion. A shaft was eventually sunk in the middle of Stanton Moor. But, to speed up progress, the owners ordered seven day continuous working. This precipitated a strike and then the dismissal for a period of members of the Stanton-in-Birchover Sick Club. The appearance of such an organisation implies that lead miners had begun to move from benevolent association to collective unionism. Either way, the tensions at Stanton Moor would prove costly, for completion of the sinking of the mine was not achieved until 1787. [20] Certainly, evidence such as this and the conditions of life and work that lead miners experienced, in the context of a wider trend to frequently discontinuous trades unionism over the next period, which will have been observed with interest by the miners, suggests an element of unionisation even if it was not necessarily taken up in a systematic way. A contemporary account revealed the appalling state of the lead miners in Derbyshire in 1818. [21] They were paid about ten shillings a week, a very low wage then, which had not altered since 1795, despite the extraordinary rise in prices in this period. The staple diet was raw, unsalted oatmeal and they had to walk great distances, across rugged terrain, to the remote mines.

Whatever the precise situation was amongst the lead miners as far as the existence of a ‘continuous association of wage-earners’ is concerned, the fact is that recognisable and modernistic trades unionism did not develop amongst them. Perhaps the main factor in this was the rapid decline of the industry for, by the beginning of the 19th century, lead making was already a dying industry. The ancient protective regulations for the industry were designed to “promote pioneer expansion’ on unenclosed lands”. [22] Legislation was passed in 1851, which encouraged some capital-intensive mining operations, most significantly the re-opening of the Mill Close mine near Darley Dale in 1859. Although, of the hundred plus mines in the area, most still employed only an average of three or four men, usually the owner and his family. Most capitalised mines did not pay their aristocratic and wealthy backers. In consequence, the numbers employed within the industry diminished rapidly after the 1860s:

Year: 1829 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
Numbers Employed: 2,280 2,265 2,333 1,551 871 396 285

So at the very point when trades unionism might have developed in the county, the industry itself took a turn away that inhibited that prospect. By 1851 lead had been eclipsed by coal as the county’s most important mineral, for there were twice the numbers of coal to lead miners by then in Derbyshire. Within a decade the ratio had widened to 4 to 1. [23] Trades unionism did not thus develop in Derbyshire’s most ancient industry, although popular protest and revolt were no strangers to the lead miners. Where then did recognisable trades unionism emerge in the county, and why?

Below: Lead mining in Derbyshire
5. From Guild to Union

The actual maker of an article tended to be subordinated, inside his own craft guild, to the wealthy merchant who undertook to sell it for him. The incorporated livery company became the preserve of the rich and the craftsmen were relegated to a ‘yeomanry’ position, selling their products exclusively to the trading capitalists. As well as their division within the craft, another, between the artisan employer and the journeyman, developed. The latter began to form their own guilds, which pursued disputes about wages, hours and working conditions. Industrial developments to come tended to highlight all these differences.

All the major entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution faced conflict with the skilled worker, particularly the millwrights who had carried forward old rules and customs from the trades of a previous age. The systems of organisation, the keeping of trade secrets and the control of entry to the trade through apprenticeships made the various skilled workers powerful adversaries. Most of all, the explosive quality of the new industrial development and its mechanical nature gave these skilled artisans tremendous negotiating power. To the new ‘self-made’ masters the trade controls were a hindrance. Mass production and cheap labour was the order of the day. They aimed therefore to either break the apprenticeship control systems, either directly or by simply ignoring it if they could. Such worker controls over working practices were not a new feature, but were rooted in the experience of the past. The new organisations of the working people had organic links with previous generations, if only through a generalised if nascent class consciousness. The old burial clubs, mutual aid societies and friendly societies of all kinds inspired the new trade unions. But above all, the single most influential factor was the old trade guilds – the old company of crafts.

There was almost certainly a Weaver’s Guild among the early Derby Companies, an inn called the ‘Weavers’ Arms’ dates to this period and probably acted as headquarters. Unfortunately, little evidence exists about the craft guilds as Derby’s town hall, complete with company minutes, books and rolls of members, as well as corporation archives, was burnt early in the 18th century. [24] Such ‘companies’ had begun in the City of London, where members of the old companies were freemen of the city, thus possessing a vote. An interesting sidelight to modern slang is that these freemen gave birth to the derisive term implying getting something for nothing – having a `freeman’s’. For the freemen of the City usually refused to journey around the country when business was bad, which was the generally accepted device to prevent excessive entry into the trade of skilled men and consequent unemployment in times of slump. For this reluctance to take part in the general practice the freemen were seen as living off their fellow tradesmen. Hence, ‘freemans’. More prosaically, the companies gave their name to the modern capitalistic organisational system, the basic unit of an enterprise. The original companies, however, were trade associations and involved both masters and journeymen. They were partly a conciliation board within the trade and partly a negotiating team with the state. Above all the company controlled entry into the trade.

While the guild system was largely declining, a revival took place in Derby in 1674 when the Mercers Company was formed. Its main concern was to ensure that, on completion of the seven-year apprenticeship, craftsmen did not set up on their own in the area without the company’s permission, nor should strangers come into the area to set up on their own account without a ‘consideration’. For example, a felt maker from without the town paid eight pounds in 1676 to be allowed to trade, a grocer five pounds in 1700. However, gradually, strangers began to ignore the company, obliging it to open proceedings against them. This form of action in turn began to fall into disrepute and the last prosecution was in 1732; within eight years the company had become defunct. [25]

By the middle of the 18th century, new organisations of working people began to be formed. While there was no clear formal organisational link between the early guilds and the later trades unions, it seems sensible to expect that the latter drew upon the organisational and practical experience of the former quite freely. Whatever the case, the first unions, in the modern sense of the word, began to emerge as quite distinct from the guilds of the mid-18th century, as experience proved that crowd politics offered little protection in the long run.

6. The Woolcombers

Woolcombers were amongst the first in Derbyshire to organise in trades unions. The Society of Woolcombers originated in the Midlands at the beginning of the century and was certainly a strong organisation in Derby in 1749. [26] A major conflict occurred in the latter part of 1760 between the Derby men and their masters. The journeymen’s wages were four shillings for combing 10 pounds weight of wool, out of which 3d a week was deducted for the masters’ ‘consideration’. Contemporary records indicate that “the journeymen refused to pay the 3d per week”, thus sparking off what was in effect a classic wage dispute, since the 3d would count as an advance on earnings of 6.25%.

At least six masters’ businesses were involved – Eaton, Bloodworth, Smith, Stainford, Vickers and Bingham. At each of these, the woolcombers “would not suffer any of the members of their club to work for any master but at the advanced price and threatened all those journeymen who did that they would not only turn them out of the club, but post them in every woolcombers shop throughout England, that is send to the shop that they should not be received as journeymen therein”. The phrase “post them” clearly meant that Derby would notify other lodges to list their names as strike-breakers and thus apply an embargo on working with them.

In pursuance of their dispute, the men collected “large sums of money from journeymen woolcombers all around the kingdom”. The trade in the town was at a standstill and there was only one way to beat the men. Five woolcombers – Joseph Vipont, Henry Greatorex, Edward Chapman, John Hall and Thomas Allen were brought before James Burrow, Esq., coroner and attorney, to be charged with “Unlawfully conspiring and combining unjustly and oppressively to increase and augment the wages of themselves and other workmen and journeymen … to extract great sums of money for their labour and hire in the said art” (of woolcombing). With “divers other workmen” whose names were not yet known, the woolcombers were considered to be outrageous for wanting to change “the usual rates and prices for which they and other workmen and journeymen had been used and accustomed to work and labour”. Not only did they unlawfully “assembly and meet”, but on the 29th November “actually refused … to work with their said masters at the usual prices”!! The woolcombers’ attempt to “corruptly conspire, combine, confederate and agree … that none of them … would work…but at certain advanced prices” was most worrying for its “evil and pernicious example” to other workers.

Indeed, precisely for that reason, the dispute must have had a strong local impact. Joseph Bingham, the major and himself a woolcombing master, complained that “the journeymen shoemakers in Derby have also lately entered into a combination to raise their wages”. Bingham and a local ‘gentleman’, Joshua Smith, were the local JPs who listened to the case. Thomas Eaton, master hosier and woolcomber, made a deposition to the effect that the five men had “agreed one amongst another and with others to raise their wages and that they would not work with him(self) or any other master in the woolcombing business unless they would advance their wages”. The magistrates asked the men to answer the charges and to “show cause why they should not be convicted for unlawfully entering into such combination…contrary to the statutes”. The five had nothing to say, having no defence. Believing Eaton to be a “credible witness”, the JPs promptly convicted the men of the charges. [27]

Thus the woolcombers of Derby, along with their compatriots throughout the country, were amongst the first wage-earning artisans to combine. Their legacy was a fruitful one, but the ancient craft was badly crippled by the Cartwright combing machine, which was widely introduced in 1792. So much so that a special Act of Parliament was passed in 1795 to enable them to follow other trades without having served an apprenticeship.

Other trades had early organisation in Derby; the hatters had a national federation as early as 1771, with representation in the city, and the brushmakers began to organise from 1747. These developments were a specific rebellion against the master-orientated company or guild system. It was, however, to be in the textile trades that the most dramatic development in popular organisation to place.

7. Framework knitting

The framework knitters provided the first major testing ground of a new style of bargaining and a new social relationship. It would be the end of the guilds and the beginning of trade clubs – not quite trade unions in the full sense of the word. The frame-knitting machine was the principle source of textile production and remained basically unaltered until the 1840s. It was a very complex machine, made up of 3,500 parts, taking fifty days to make and twelve days to assemble. The movements of the machine were made through levers and rods, partly worked by the operator’s hands and partly by the feet – so that it was necessary to sit at the machine.

This was essentially a domestic industry at first, with the frames being located in the cottages of the workers. Most significantly, the frames were generally not owned by the worker, but rented from the hosier. Each family worked as a unit, the husband operating the frame while the wife seamed the hose and the children wound the yarn onto bobbins. After the rich hosiers transferred the industry to the East Midlands, in search of cheap labour and freedom from trade control, the framework knitters’ company followed the hosiers in turn. Very soon the knitters of Derbyshire and elsewhere had houses of call, or trade clubs, in a circle of towns “for more certain employ of their members”. By the mid 1700s they were being told that their strict control over entry into the trade was “injurious and vexatious” and “contrary to the liberties of the subject”. The House of Commons, in judging the principles of a law favourable to the knitters, which had been passed during the reign of Elizabeth I, pronounced that it was “repugnant to the liberties of a free people”. [28] The individual rights of the master were of more concern to liberty than the collective rights of the worker.

As the move to the North had been partly to avoid the controls established by the guild, an absence of firm organisation in the region naturally led to problems. Complaints were made by the knitters of Derby that the masters were making bye-laws contrary to company principles, “they compel every apprentice when out of his time to go to London, though above a hundred miles from thence, to take out his freedom, and many other exactions are imposed on the petitioners to the great decay of the trade”. [29] In recognition of the severe difficulties faced by the workers in the trade in the North, the framework knitters’ company increased the number of deputies or officials to seven, covering the counties of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby. [30] Even so, it could not solve the problem, for the industry was developing beyond the control even of the traditional company or guild system.

The admission of freemen and the binding of apprentices began to be increasingly difficult, as entries in the company’s Admittance Book for the period show, including Derby in 1724. The serving of writs against those who failed to honour company rules often stopped offenders, but the masters began to combine to avoid this most effectively. In January 1728 the deputies at Derby and elsewhere were informed that the company intended to apply to Parliament for a bill for the better regulation of their Charter. However, in the end the company encountered difficulties due to lack of funds. [31]

The industry grew rapidly, for Derby did not contain more than 30 or 40 framework knitters in 1727 and the frames were predominately located in the south of the county. Gradually the trade moved north and became more important to the county. By 1753, out of a national total of 14,000 frames, it could be observed that Derby had materially increased its importance, “in the manufacture of silk hosiery, there being nearly 200 frames in that place” The manufacture of “thread, and India as well as homespun cotton, had extended” to Derby and even Chesterfield. [32]

The tendency for textiles to become centred on the East Midlands accelerated sharply with the establishment of John Lombe’s silk-throwing mill in Derby in 1718, on an island in the Derwent. At least 4,650 frame knitting machines were in the three hosiery counties, compared with 3,350 in the counties to the south. The location of a silk producing mill would obviously have to take into account where the silk would be knitted. Derby seems certainly to have been selected because of the better possibilities for waterpower. Lombe “preferred swift Derwent to sluggish Trent”. [33] Lombe’s move played a part in encouraging a specialisation that created the triad of Derby for silk, Leicester for worsted and Nottingham for cotton.

There was initially, however, widespread concern amongst the establishment at the move by Lombe to extend his exclusive right to use his ‘invention’ by means of a patent. The reality of Lombe’s discovery was that his employer, Crotchet, who had tried a similar project in 1702, had fed him the idea. More seriously, Lombe had outrageously sent spies to Italy to steal the secret of advanced silk production. He had originally decided to keep the knowledge to himself, but after Parliament voted to offer him £14,000 to make his acquisition public knowledge, and considering the sum would have been worth millions in today’s terms, he naturally agreed. Such generosity was not misplaced from the establishment’s point of view. After all, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’s’ army had only recently been checked, coincidentally near Derby. Charles was the Catholic pretender to the throne, Italy was Catholic, and a Protestant had stolen the secret from Catholics. Everyone needed the secret, so why not reward ‘our man’?

However, the views of Derby’s own establishment were somewhat different. “So little were the services of Sir T. Lombe appreciated at Derby, in introducing the factory system, that a petition was presented to the House (i.e. Parliament) … from the Mayor, aldermen, brethren and capital burgesses of that borough, in common council assembled … alleging that … (the) … invention was not only detrimental to the woollen manufacturers, but also to the borough in general, by keeping the poor at home, and thereby increasing their numbers, and that although the said engine employed a great number of hands, the erection thereof had materially increased the poor rates, and that the enlarging the term of the patent would only be a continuation of the grievance.” [34]

Many of the masters had other interests than hosiery, which gave them a degree of financial security and independence, unlike their knitters. Whilst a large number of frames in work would provide a tidy income. For example, Messrs Barber and Raynor, hosiers of Loscoe in Derbyshire, announced in the press in 1768 that they were to dispose of their property, as they were to retire. The property advertised included 50 frames in work, a house and warehouse, an orchard, barns, stables and 70 acres of land. [35]

The old craft alliance of the master and the journeyman had already begun to break down. A 1752 meeting, held in Nottingham at the Crown Inn to get Parliament’s backing for a framework knitters’ company charter, saw the big, rich master hosiers walking out of the meeting leaving the journeymen on their own. The end of the old craft ‘company’ had finally been reached and workers were beginning to bargain for wages. By the following year, fancy tuck rib workers were getting 5 shillings a day. [36] A semblance of workers’ organisation existed, just ticking over, without any formal apparatus, waiting until the need arose for action. In 1761 the framework knitters of the three counties got together to publish a notice of a joint meeting. This issued a public address to the workers, drawing attention to the fact that their “price of labour is greatly lower than in any of the independent branches”. The address concluded with excessive humility by hoping the masters would “not refuse your humble and respective servants, framework knitters”. [37]

Whatever the result of that remote set of negotiations, a dramatic change had taken place over that decade. No clear, permanent organisation of framework knitters had emerged, but what had taken place was kind of declaration of independence from each other – masters and workers.

8. Cotton Mills

Derby’s silk mill could certainly be called the first factory, in the sense that waged workers and new technology were brought together on the master’s premises, under an element of labour discipline. But things did not stand still, the mill was expanded and over the next fifty years many individuals, clock makers and engineers of all kinds worked hard to develop mechanical techniques. Many of these designs were similar and it was but a matter of time before a breakthrough occurred which enabled textile manufacture from cheaper and more readily available materials than silk. Sewing cut up pieces of cloth together, rather then knitting the entire piece, clearly lent itself to methods of mass manufacturing. Spinning cotton threads was therefore the key to the entire expansion of the industry. The biggest impact in the long run on labour organisation came with this increasing industrialisation and mechanisation.

Richard Arkwright (1732-92) is normally given credit for transforming cotton production from a cottage industry to a modern style factory basis. Yet, Arkwight’s first 1769 patent for spinning cotton was merely an improvement on existing spinning frames. He himself had been trained as a barber and did not possess the technical skill to manufacture such machines himself. His machine, being considerably based on previously conducted experiments by others, proved to be sufficiently workable as to be quite decisive in bringing Derbyshire even further into the centre of textiles for a period. Contrary to the myth, therefore, Arkwright was not himself a great innovator. An early 19th century commentator claimed him to be “the arch thief (of) other people’s inventions”. [38]

Sir Richard’s real contribution was in developing the modern factory system, if that was an achievement! Karl Marx cynically saw Arkwright’s greatest difficulty as “above all in training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work, and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton. To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright!” [39] The essential talent that Arkwright brought to these developments was financial acumen and the understanding that a monopoly of spinning operations was what was needed to succeed. In short, he understood the market economy as it applies to private ownership – particularly the relationship between capital and labour. However, even his major contribution, of realising the role that invested capitals could play, was a product of necessity. He had had no choice, since he had not the necessary finance himself to refine his machine and yet he needed more investment to do so. Samuel Need and Jedediah Strutt, both wealthy textile manufacturers provided the capital to back Arkwright.

Indeed, the major problem for the new textile manufacturers was obtaining a stable and skilled labour force. At Belper, Strutt – the second major new textile employer – was lucky in being able to attract the families of the skilled nailers, predominant in that village. However, Arkwright found his first development at Cromford entirely agricultural and had to advertise for workers to join him there: “Cotton Mill, Cromford, 10th December 1771. Wanted immediately, two journeymen clockmakers or other that understand tooth and pinion well: Also a smith that can forge and file – Likewise two wood turners that have been accustomed to wheel making, spoke turning etc. Weavers residing at the mill may have good work. There is employment at the above place for women children etc and good wages.” [40]

Once having attracted labour it was often difficult to keep it. One technique was to use the `gift’ money system, a three-month, renewable contract, with a sizeable lump sum that was not returned if the worker left without permission. Moreover, discipline in work was generally tightened up; the employer gained much power for himself from the system of deductions of fines for petty misdemeanours. By the time of this advertisement, Arkwright’s operations had reached big proportions. Over 300 were employed at that stage in Cromford, while there were over 200 at Wirksworth.

Why Cromford? Why Derbyshire? What factors determined Arkwright in his choice of location? The contours of the dales were the decisive factor, providing an abundance of waterpower. Just as Lombe had elected for Derby because of the fast flowing Derwent, so did Arkwright. Shortly after the first mill at Cromford another followed, and then a third, Masson Mill, until he employed some 1,150. Eventually, three mills were erected at Belper, where one observer noted that some of the machines were worked by children who walked treadmill fashion “in a large wheel similar to that of a common crane, one I observed had an ass and two boys walking in it”. [41] The Derwent, it seems, was not always as fast flowing as necessary!

By 1782, Arkwright employed some 5,000 people. He was knighted in 1786 and when he died five years later was one of the richest men of his day. Apart from perhaps the wandering skilled mechanics he employed, none of his workers ever organised in trade unions. Indeed it was only with the turn of the 20th century that the mills began to seriously look like being unionised. But, if the early factories, with their ‘apprentice’ systems which made bonded slaves out of orphaned children, and rigid work’s rules, combined with a sickly philanthropism, inhibited the growth of unionism, where then did textile trades unionism first emerge in the county?

9. The Stockingmakers’ Association

Most textile manufacture was still in the home when, in 1773, the framework knitters of Derby met at the Green Dragon to organise for better wages and conditions. Wages were cut from 18 shillings to 13 shillings only a few years after the start of the combination and, to add insult to injury, rents for the ‘privilege’ of using the masters’ frames continued to soar. Frame renting began in a fairly small way in the south in 1663, but by 1775 was common and was practically universal by the end of that century. If one single thing led to the formation of the trade protection associations, it was frame renting. One contemporary commentator, Mr Muggeridge, noted that frame rents tended to create a surplus of goods which, together with excessive deductions from wages of fines and the use of “superabundant machinery, brought into the trade by others than the legitimate employers as profitable investments of capital through exorbitant rent of frames”, enabled to hosiers to spread work amongst more workmen than were necessary. [42]

The home basis of frame knitting placed the employers in a prime bargaining position  it being easier for the masters than the workers to combine. Nonetheless meetings were held all over the county in 1773 and, during the course of 17767, the Stocking Makers Association for Mutual Protection (SMAMP) was created; while not a trade union in the modern sense, it was a trade club, designed as a defence mechanism of workers. It had all the essentials of trades unionism’s basic principles. But the club or association faded into inactivity as the immediate cause of its resurgence receded away each time. The SMAMP was not a “continuous association of wage earners” campaigning on all or any matters of concern, but rather a single-issue campaign group, acting as the need arose. The pressure associated with the foundation of SMAMP resulted in immediate improvement, but the long-term difficulties were still there. By 1778 the need to protest again arose and Derbyshire knitters presented a petition to Parliament, asking that law regulate wages and frame rent. Daniel Coke, one of Derby’s MPs, presented the petition on 23rd February, which claimed that the knitters were “unable with their utmost industry to obtain by their labour the common necessities of life, by reason of low wages”. [43]

Proving that this was so, a hosier from Alfreton testified to the Parliamentary Committee, which inquired into another petition in 1779, following the rejected petition of the previous year. This hosier’s books revealed that his workmen did not average seven shillings a week. However, on the part of the big hosiers, Need, (Arkwright’s partner) stated that “the workmen were adequately paid, that such were the advantages of manufacture that the more children a workman had, the better his conditions in life”. [44]

Generally, the master hosiers petitioned against the claims for improvements, arguing that the intricacies of the trade made it impossible to fix wages which varied from six shillings a week, after deduction, in the silk branch of the industry, to 4s 6d in worsted. Presenting a claim for 1s 6d to 2s 0d increase; the knitters proved to the Parliamentary Committee that their wages had been declining since 1757. Two decades before highly skilled workers had been able to make 2s 1d a day and were now reduced to 1s 7d. The problem became clearer when seen in light of the fact that skilled men had to work up to 15 hours a day. All this was happening when the price of food had risen by a third while wages had declined. The rent for frames was one shilling a week, plus a charge of 3d for standing it in the master’s shop, if that was so. The actual cost of a frame was between £16 to £20. As rents of only 6d per week were paid at Christmas, Easter and Whitsun holidays, the yearly amount required was £2 10s 6d. Henson, the framework knitters’ leader, reckoned that, given an average price of a frame as £18, the knitters gave the master a 14% interest on his capital investment, while “the wear (of the machine) did not exceed 4%”. [45]

Following all this, a Bill was presented to Parliament and, even though it would have been ineffectual if passed, it was predictably voted down. Exactly the same Bill was reintroduced the following year, and was again defeated, this time causing great disappointment. Riots and frame breaking erupted in the three key counties as a form of protest. The same pattern began again in 1779 when the silk branch of the trade faced difficulties – the workers’ petition that year complained of a 25% reduction in wages. By 1790 the framework knitters of Ilkeston petitioned the master with the plea that wages were so low that it was no longer possible for a man to maintain himself and his family with “honesty and decency”. [46] A year later they had obviously decided to do something more effective than petitioning, for a “Fraternity of Framework Knitters” was established in February. Though short lived, it was well established enough to have printed membership certificates produced. [47]

So far, the various societies of framework knitters had really been failures as trade unions. It is not difficult, however, to understand why this should have been so. Although the effort involved in organising petitions and the promotion of Bills of Parliament testifies to a considerable degree of organisation, the knitter had no concept of taking their grievances further than Parliament itself. While the fear of the consequences of illegal combination and activities might have been a factor in inhibiting the development of the framework knitters organisations, there were other problems. The lack of funds and an organised structure were clearly unhelpful. Moreover, the difficulties of generating a movement amongst the scattered and isolated knitters must have been daunting.

In all this, the chartered company remained aloof and, while pocketing the money of the knitters, did nothing to effectively press their cause. The reason for this apathy is clear when examining the ‘List of Liveryman’ of the company. In 1789 the only trade representatives out of 97 were 14 hosiers, 3 stocking-makers and 1 stocking trimmer. The rest were merchants, salesmen and ‘gentlemen’. Only three of the liverymen lived in the Nottingham/Derbyshire hosiery area. [48] In this very irrelevance to the actual needs of the knitters in new conditions of wage labour, the company’s demise lay. Increasingly the organisation of the company became erratic and its functions ceremonial. While its formal end, as a significant socio-economic instrument, was some time to come, as the 18th century came to and end, the old craft guild faded and died with it. While trade unions or trade clubs were not strong organisations, they had clearly arrived as the representative voice of working people. In the meantime, all illusions about the old guild style organisation had been swept aside.

In framework knitting, the end of the company was formalised in 1804-5, when it became clear that it could not face the challenge of the new era. A hearing against a Leicester master, accused of carrying on frame knitting without having served a legal apprenticeship, spelt the legal end of the company. At the court hearing, the company’s charter was found, as with other small bodies, legal only if the activities of the company were strictly kept to internal government of the organisation itself. The decision clearly marked “the final withdrawal of the Framework Knitters’ Company from the scene of conflict in which it had played so inglorious a part”. [49]

If the trade clubs had learnt anything it was that they could not rely on the gentry and nobles in Parliament. The momentous events on the international stage in the last decade of the 18th century and the first decade if the 19th were to play a major part in shaping how that lesson and the experience of trade clubs would come together.

10. The French Revolution and its aftermath

The very concept of reform was generally considered to be in fact revolutionary in the aftermath of the French Revolution. There was no posing of one against the other by those of wealth and power, or for that matter by those without either. The ruling circles of the day were, with good reason, quite paranoid about the spread of dissent, even if they somewhat over-estimated the actual possibilities of insurrection in Britain. The impact of the French Revolution was stupendous. Ordinary people, encouraged by some of those of intellect, actually began once again to conceive of a possibility of a challenge to things as they were. The fear of dissemination of revolutionary ideas by means of a free press was strong in the camp of authority. Laws regulated the possession of press and type in particular places, and Derbyshire was no exception. The County Records Office at Matlock has certificates from Derbyshire men that they were possessors of the offending items, running from 1799 onwards. [50]

If the spread of revolutionary ideas themselves was swift, then the speed of the setting up of democratic and peoples’ organisations matched it. Derbyshire county papers record that in 1793 only four friendly societies were registered in the county. A single year later 98 registered; by 1799 there were 143. Among the first enrolled were societies at Alfreton, Crich, and Ashford. There were ten societies in Chesterfield, eight in Derby and eight in Wirksworth by the end of the century. By the amending of the Combination Act in 1836, 399 had filed registration. Now, while most of these bodies were relatively innocuous and many were not specifically associated with political or trades union ideas, the authorities didn’t see it like that and were relieved to be able to register them under the Combination Laws. However, openly radical political clubs were founded.

The ‘Derby Society for Political Information’ (DSPI), which was set up in December 1791, appears to be the first of the provincial radical ‘corresponding societies’. [52] By January of the following year a similar body had been established in Belper. It proved difficult to develop activities in Chesterfield and in the north of the county in general. While trying to appeal to the working class by maintaining a low subscription of two shillings a year (some societies called for half a guinea, i.e. ten shillings and sixpence), many of the DSPI activists were middle-class radicals. Indeed, the chairman, Samuel Fox, was a 25-year-old son of a tradesman and a relative by marriage to the Strutts. Amongst other members were William Ward, a journalist with the ‘Derby Mercury’, and another journalist, Charles Ardoyne, who started the ‘Derby Herald’ as a radical paper in competition with the ‘Mercury’. The ‘Herald’, however, failed after only eight issues, some said because the proprietor “loved ale more than republicanism!” No doubt there were more complex reasons for the failure of the paper than that, but the accusation testifies to the passion aroused by radicalism.

An early masthead of the Derby Mercury

The DSPI’s first meeting in public was held at the Talbot Inn on the 16th July 1792, two days after the third anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. There was more than simple symbolic relevance. The Derby Society held a strong and early commitment to universal manhood suffrage, which sharply distinguished it from the many other political reform movements. Moreover, the DSPI went much further than this, for the group certainly had contact with the London Corresponding Society, which was dominated by working class political thinking  especially the new idea of “socialism.” The Derby Society certainly reflected this thinking when it specifically not only called for political reform (i.e. electoral reform), but also held that it was deplorable that “the labourer must give his money to afford the means of preventing him having a voice in its disposal”. Policies around social reform matters were detailed taxation, the game laws, criminal law, education and religious discrimination.

That July of the first meeting marked the very high tide of the revolutionary movement in Derbyshire, when the Government moved against the radical societies throughout the country. No doubt fulfilling his priestly duties, the rector of Morley, the Reverend Robert Wilmot, writing then, reveals the general state of the country  “The present state of Europe engages the attention of every man. A very short time will in all probability witness a material change in the newfangled French Constitution of Government. Notwithstanding the anarchy prevailing in that country, there are many persons in this Kingdom desirous of creating the same confusion here… In no part of the Kingdom have they disaffected persons more than in the town and neighbourhood of Derby, from whence they actually sent two persons to the National Convention of France”. [53]

Perhaps Wilmot slightly over-estimated, in his outrage, the support for revolutionism. On the other hand, writing a year, similarly eager to prevent radicalism, he must have under-exaggerated when he wrote: “In my own parish I know but one man (whose name is Alsop) that has ever shown the least wish to overturn the present system of government. That man endeavoured to instil into the minds of those with whom he is connected principles of the most diabolical tendency, such as total insubordination of all rank and orders of men, and ideas of the justice of a perfect equality of property”. [54]

A war against the principles of the French Revolution was almost inevitable and indeed such was declared in 1st February 1793, from when France and Britain were in a state of war. The war, and the natural hysteria consequently created amongst some sections, rapidly curtailed the activities of radical societies like the DSPI. Increasingly, the leadership of the local group turned to less radical elements and, by May 1793 when a petition to Parliament was rejected, the society formally disbanded in a state of extreme caution. Despite this, in Derby and the county the longing for parliamentary reform and social change was still strong, “Nowhere outside London were the successive acquittals of Thomas Hardy, Home Tooke and John Thelwall in the respective months of October, November and December 1794, on charges of high treason, received with greater delight than at Derby.” This was on the occasion of the arrest of the entire leadership of the London Corresponding Society. [55]

In the summer of 1795, colliers from Ilkeston, Newhall and Swadlincote ceased work and banded together in unison. Whilst there `riots’ took place across much of the county – in Belper, Breaston, Derby, Chesterfield and Wirksworth – in the following year. Stepping up the repression against radicals the Government had suspended Habeas Corpus in 1794, making imprisonment without trial much easier. Further, it restricted the freedom to hold meetings and positively encourage the arrest of dissidents. Mobs of sailors and dragoons attacked John Thelwall during a speaking tour of Derbyshire. [56] Thelwall again spoke in Derby in March 1797, creating further disturbances.

A bill to restrict combination of workers was rushed through Parliament in indecent haste – it took only six weeks to become the Combination Act – a most odious piece of class legislation. Any workers who got together to ask for a wage increase (or had the temerity to oppose a wage cut!), or who actually did the unthinkable and go on strike, faced imprisonment of up to three month’s hard labour, or a fine of £20 (the equivalent of three month’s wages). Because of Prime Minister Pitt’s haste to rush the Bill through, working people had little opportunity to protest to Parliament; so, in the year after passing of the Combination Act, petitions of protest from all parts of the country flooded Parliament, including Derby.

The employers’ law was to become public law; workmen had to obey their masters as they would the State. The two Acts of 1799 and 1800 prohibited all common action in defence of their common interests by ordinary people. These laws were the most blatant use in the history of England of the State’s powers to serve the interests of one class. Traditionally there had been many laws governing the price of goods and wages and working people were used to calling on the State to regulate affairs of commerce and trade. The anarchy of the new technological revolution and the building of a State machine, designed to suit themselves, by the rising capitalist class, trampled on this tradition. The new State itself, the creation of the new capitalists, put the master, the capitalists themselves, in ‘loco parentis’. In matters of trade and industry the masters were to act for the State. The manufacturers expressed their class hatred to Parliament: “for us they are cheap and docile labour, men and women forced to take such wages as we think well to give them…Insubordination is the enemy…scratch a trade unionist and you will find a Jacobin, catch him talking in his sleep and you will overhear an atheist.” They appealed: “make laws giving us absolute control” in the workplace and they got their wish.

Much of the fear of the employer class centred around the belief that the old craft organisation and the associated ‘ restrictive practices’, would spread to new areas of manufacture, or the new technology of the age. The State clearly lined itself up on the side of the employers in what was then an unprecedented manner. Part of this process was the founding and reorganisation of the Derbyshire Militia. The Deputy Lieutenancy qualification rolls and lists from 1762 onwards and the Militia Officers’ qualification rolls from 1773, in the Derbyshire County Records Office, show how intense care was taken that only men of “suitable standing” were given responsibility in the local defence system. [58] Volunteer cavalry corps had been formed in Derbyshire in May 1794, with two troops in Derby, one in Chesterfield and one between Ashbourne and Wirksworth. Formal troops were formed between each Derbyshire hundred (sub-division of a county having its own court) in 1798, but the volunteer forces were quite sufficient for the needs of suppressing various riots in the latter part of the 18th century.

However, as the situation grew more serious, the need to conscript troops into the county militia grew. As with early attempts to conscript, the Supplementary Militia Act of 1796 was firmly resisted. Riots broke out at Bakewell, Ashbourne and Wirksworth. Lead miners marched into Bakewell, armed with digging tools, where they seized the conscription papers in the courthouse to burn them publicly. This carbon copy repetition of the riot of three decades before was prevented from growing out of hand, for the Roxburgh Fencibles, who were quartered in Bakewell for several months, suppressed subsequent disturbances. Troops were deployed in Derbyshire in November 1800 to damped popular disturbances.

Behind all this tumult was a growing and serious economic situation. Rising prices and a deteriorating standard of living affected workers very sharply. A cut of wages of a third, compared to an increase in prices of one quarter, in the years 1790-1830, caused the worst living conditions amongst labouring people for half a century. The price of bread, a basic necessity of life in the diet of the poor, doubled in only a few months. Potatoes were classed as a luxury. The overall prices of wheat quadrupled in twenty years.

Wheat prices in shillings and pence per quarter;
1790 26s 2d
1811 95s 3d
1812 126s 0d

While skilled men’s wages went up very little, in no way comparing with the increase in food stuffs:
1793 22s 0d per week
1812 36s 0d per week [59]

It would all prove to be the underlying factor that would bring Britain nearer to the brink of revolution than any agitator of the early radical political societies ever could have done.


1 Ed John Willett and Ralph Manheim “Bertold Brecht Poems – 1913-56” Eyre Methuen (1976) pp 252-3
2 Sidney & Beatrice Webb “History of Trade Unionism” Longmans Green (1902) p1
3 Daniel Defoe “A Tour Thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain” Vol II (1968- first published 1724-6) p562; A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) pp 252-3
4 W E Tate “The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movement” Gollancz (1967) p72
5 H M Brailsford “The Levellers and the English Revolution” Cresset (1961) pp 565-7
6 Dr. T Brighton “Royalists and Roundheads in Derbyshire” Bakewell Historical Society (1981) pp43-4
7 R E Sherwood “Civil Strife in the Midlands (1642-51)” Phillimore (1974) p231; Fenner Brockway “Britain’s First Socialists – the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers of the English Revolution” Quartet” (1980) p104
8 Dr T Brighton “Royalists and Roundheads in Derbyshire” Bakewell Historical Society (1981) p43-4
9 W E Tate “The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movement” Gollancz (1967) p78
10 A W Davison “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p73
11 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p72
12 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p114
13 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) pp210-14
14 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) pp102-3
15 Derbyshire Archaeological Journal Vol 95, pp37-45 (1975) “The Rioting Crowd in Derbyshire in the 18th Century; Andrew Charlesworth “An Atlas of Rural Protests in Britain 1548-1900” Croom Helm (1983) p126
16 Derby Mercury 20th September 1757
17 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p103-6
18 I Pinchbeck “Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution” F Cassells (1969) p240
19 J Rhodes “Derbyshire Lead Mining in the Eighteenth Century” Peak District Mines Historical Society/Moorlands, Leek (1980) p22; J R Dias “Lead, Society and Politics in Derbyshire before the Civil War” in `Midlands History’ Vol VI (1981) pp46-50
20 Nellie Kirkham “Derbyshire Lead Mining Through the Centuries” D Bradford Barton, Truro (1968) PP 103 – 112; H M Parker and L M Willies “Peakland Lead Mines and Miners” Moorland Publishing, Ashbourne (1979) No page numbers, see note to plate 21
21 F Hall “An appeal to the Poor Miner” (1818) p7 quoted in E Halevy “A History of the English People” Vol 2 Penguin (1938) p88
22 G Joan Fuller “Lead Mining in Derbyshire in the Mid-19th Century” Reprinted from the East Midlands Geographer Vol 3 pt7 No23 (June 1965) p378
23 G Joan Fuller “Lead Mining in Derbyshire in the Mid -19th Century” Reprinted from the East Midlands Geographer Vol 3 pt7 No23 June 1965) p385
24 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p237
25 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) pp273-5
26 W A Richardson “Citizens’ Derby” University of London Press (1949) p148
27 Manuscript “The woolcombers strike for better wages 1760″ package of original handwritten notes on the dispute in Derby Local Studies Library
28 F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p46
29 W Felkin “History of the Machine Wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures” David and Charles (first published 1867, centenary edition – 1967) p80
30 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (first published 1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint p136
31 F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p37
32 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (first published 1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint pp106 and 237
33 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint p106; F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p50
34 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint p158/9
35 “Nottingham Journal” 21st May 1768 quoted in F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p71
36 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint p190
37 “Derby Mercury” 27th February 1761
38 A Ure “Philosophy of Manufactures” (1835) quoted by Karl Marx in “Capital” Dent Everyman (1957) p453
39 K Marx “Capital” Dent Everyman (1957) p 452
40 Derby Mercury” 13th December 1771
41 A W Davidson “Derby, Its rise and Progress” 1906 reprinted facsimile edition (1970) S R Publishers, East Ardley (1970) p130-1
42 W Felkin “History of the Machine Wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufacturers” 1867 (centenary facsimile edition) p476
43 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint) p385
44 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint) p394-5
45 Gravenor Henson “Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters” David and Charles (1831 – 1970 facsimile reprint) p385
46 “Nottingham Journal” 7th August 1790
47 R Gurnham “200 Years – the Hosiery Unions; 1776-1796” A reproduction of this certificate is printed in Gurnham opposite page 2
48 F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p90
49 F A Wells “The British Hosiery & Knitwear Industry – its History and Organisation” David and Charles (1972) p93
50 Joan Sinar “The Derbyshire Record Office in 1962” p76; reprinted from the DAJ Vol LXXXII (1962)
51 Sir F Eden “The State of the Poor” J Davies (1797)
52 E Fearn “Derbyshire Reform Societies 1791-1793” DAJ Vol LXXXVIII (1968) pp47-59
53 W Page (Ed) “The Victoria History of the counties of England – Derbyshire” Vol II (1907) p150
54 W Page (Ed) “The Victoria History of the counties of England – Derbyshire” Vol II (1907) p151
55 W Page (Ed) “The Victoria History of the counties of England – Derbyshire” Vol II (1907) p150
56 Stanley Harrison “The Poor Men’s Guardians” Lawrence and Wishart (1974) p35
57 J L & B Hammond “The Town Labourer 1760-1832” Gollancz (1937) p130
58 J Sinar “The Derbyshire Record Office in 1962” reprinted from the DAJ Vol LXXXII (1962) p75
59 C Cook and J Stevenson “British Historical Facts 1760-1830” MacMillan (1980) p182-3

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