CHAPTER XVI. This chapter is taking us back into politics. The frame-work knitters referred to in the chapter were producing knitted cloth, and lace. It was very much a cottage industry working from home doing piece-work. Basically they had a pretty appalling life. The tiny stitches in the fabric they were producing ruined people’s eyesight quite quickly. The frames used were rented from middlemen, so were expensive to use, and the knitters were working for poverty wages. Sir Henry Halford was the Tory M.P. for Southern Leicestershire, so Josh supporting his Bill to reduce the influence of middlemen was a cross-party effort. Petitioning against the elected M.P.’s was an almost standard procedure at the time, and was sometimes successful, sometimes not. Finally to the briefest mention of family – ” Death had been busy, too, in his own family. ” This one sentence covers the deaths of probably two daughters. Adeline – Josh’s fourth child, born in 1824 had died at Ranton Abbey in 1842 aged 18, and another daughter Mary born in 1832 died the same year. It’s a curiously cold sentence from Hugh about two younger sisters. There is even the intriguing possibility that it could refer to Josh’s mother as well; she gets the briefest of mentions in chapter one ” Mrs. Walmsley is described as a woman of energy and ability.” and ” but trouble…….. the husband and wife separated. ” It is entirely possible that she could have died in her late seventies around this time. But almost nothing is known about her, and she doesn’t seem to have been part of his life since his very early childhood.
Some time previous to Mr. Stephenson’s death, Sir Joshua had left Ranton Abbey. Death had been busy, too, in his own family. Country pursuits began to pall on him, and so when in the spring of 1847 a numerously-signed requisition was forwarded to him from the inhabitants of Leicester, he finally made up his mind to contest that borough. He was no stranger to the town, for the extensive collieries of Snibstone and Whitwick adjoined and supplied it. In June, 1847, Parliament died a natural death. The condition of the frame-work knitters had long excited his warm interest. These people worked from twelve to sixteen hours a day, not un-frequently losing their eyesight after some years of this labour, after earning on an average about six shillings a week, all charges deducted. Sir Henry Halford had brought this state of things before Parliament, but with no result. The words of one of these poor fellows, before a Parliamentary committee, will sum up their case better than any description that we can give of it : “ There is no race of people under the sun,” he said, “ so oppressed as we are, who work the hours we do for the pay we get.” During Sir Joshua’s connection with Leicester he was continually battling against their wrongs. The extortions of the middlemen, who hired out the frames at arbitrary prices, and who had the giving out of the work, ground the unfortunate labourers to the dust. These middlemen had virtually become their masters, and it was asserted loudly that, besides charging a percentage on the work they gave, they actually paid a lower price for it than that which they themselves received from the manufacturers.
Sir Joshua’s address to the electors was in substance, much the same as that issued to the electors of Liverpool years before. The two candidates were introduced to the constituency. A crowd had assembled before Bell’s Hotel, from the balcony of which the candidates spoke. Somewhat apart hung a group of careworn-looking men, gathered around a cart, in which stood one man, evidently the leader of the opposition. These were the frame-workers, and their leader was George Buckby, who had stated his determination to contest the borough, should he not be satisfied with the Liberal candidates. At the close of Sir Joshua’s speech he rose, and drew a vivid picture of the frame-workers’ wrongs, to which the knitters listened eagerly.
Referring to Sir Henry Halford’s Bill, Mr. Buckby asked Sir Joshua if he could pledge himself to vote for a similar bill, should one be brought forward in the next Parliament. Sir Joshua’s answer was direct and to the point. He would not pledge himself to vote for any bill before he knew whether its provisions would be really beneficial. ” I tell you,” he said, ” that we never can either directly or indirectly legislate on the question of the rate of wages. “ As the crowd cheered this sentiment the knitters muttered “Shame ! ” “The rights of labour, “ continued Sir Joshua, ” are sacred to the poor man, and I shall be the last to interfere with those rights. But if it is shown to me that injustice is done to you, I shall receive any information you are willing to give me, and then see what can be done to remove the injustice. But you must first make your minds up clearly upon the subject, discuss it fairly and calmly, and let us know the result. I shall not pledge myself to any particular measure ; but this I assure you, that not this measure alone, but every bill that comes before me which promises really to benefit the working classes, that is my bill, and that shall have my support. In benefiting the working-man I benefit the whole community, for I know the rich and powerful are able to take care of themselves.”
Mr. Buckby declared that the drift of Sir Joshua’s answer was that no legislative interference would be of any use to the frame-work knitters, and accordingly he announced his intention of going to the poll and opening houses in different parts of the town.
Two nights after, Sir Joshua again met the electors at the New Hall. The building was crowded ; several knitters had succeeded in securing places. ” The quietness of their demeanour, “ he says, ” and the attention with which they followed my speech were noticeable throughout, and contrasted with the aggressiveness with which they had met me on the previous evening. ”
The day following this meeting there appeared a handbill, signed by a number of frame-work knitters, amongst which figured conspicuously the signature of Mr. Buckby, calling upon the working classes to vote for Sir Joshua Walmsley and Mr. Gardiner; Mr. Buckby, satisfied with the Liberal candidates’ views, had renounced his intention of endeavouring to enter Parliament.
The election took place on the 31st July. Before five o’clock in the morning, the streets were full of bustle. It was an anxious day for the knitters, who crowded the market-place before the polling hour. Sir Joshua’s name headed the first return, Mr. Gardiner came after him, and to the end of the contest the two Liberals kept their places. At four o’clock the mayor proclaimed their election.
Sir Joshua now set himself to inquire into the cause of the great misery of the frame- work knitters.
” Before the opening of Parliament, “ he says, ” I spent much time in Leicester, personally visiting and receiving visits from the workmen. It was with the determination to advocate their cause, and if possible to obtain some amelioration of their lot, that I took my seat in the House. ”
When Sir Henry Halford again brought forward his bill. Sir Joshua strenuously supported the proposed inquiry. ” In the midland counties,” he said, in the course of his speech, ” there are thirty-six thousand frames, each supporting on an average three or four individuals, so that the population employed in frame- work knitting amounts to one hundred and twenty or one hundred and thirty thousand souls.” He drew a vivid picture of the destitution which he had himself witnessed.
On the occasion of Sir Joshua’s first speech in Parliament, Mr. Hume and he took opposite views of the question at issue. The former, opposing all interference between workmen and masters, voted against Sir Henry Halford’s Bill. It is one of the few instances in which, during the period they worked together in Parliament, Sir Joshua’s and Mr. Hume’s votes were opposed.
” The career which I was now eagerly entering upon, “ says Sir Joshua, ” was suddenly cut short. A petition against the member for Leicester, on the plea of bribery, was sent up to Parliament by the Tories. No sooner was the petition presented, than the leading Liberals in Leicester subscribed a fund more than sufficient at the very outset to cover all expenses, and engaged the services of eminent counsel to defend their representatives. “
” It was some time before a Parliamentary inquiry was granted. Most of the frivolous charges against Mr. Gardiner and myself melted before the cross examination of our counsel. One charge, however, our opponents were able to substantiate. Some bills at two public-houses that were wont to hang out the Liberal colours had been left unsettled at a previous election by the Liberal candidates. These bills our agents had paid. The committee, clearing us of all connivance in the matter, reported the result of the inquiry to the Houses, and towards the end of August a new writ was issued for the borough of Leicester. “
” I was deeply hurt by the slur cast upon my election. I was disheartened also at being interrupted in the work I had so far gone into connected with the cause of the frame-work knitters. On the news reaching Leicester of the issuing of a new writ, a meeting was called in the town. Its purpose was, first, to deplore the loss of their representatives; secondly, to clear the borough from the charge of corruption, by determinedly acting upon the principle of purity of election. Mr. Ellis and Mr. Harris, who had been our zealous supporters, came forward as candidates, and their nomination and election were uncontested. ”
Sir Joshua pledged himself to his late constituents to stand for Leicester the first opportunity that presented itself. He was to redeem his pledge a few years later, and that also of calling the attention of Parliament to the condition of the knitters.