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Wednesday, 25 March 2009

An Easy Ride for Today’s Apprentices?

The candidates for The Apprentice (BBC1) tonight may think they work hard to earn their laurels to win a place at Alan Sugar’s side. But during the late 18th and 19th centuries, the term ‘apprentice’ was synonymous with a life of unremitting toil and hardship. Workhouses, especially those in London, overflowed with pauper children, and the Poor Law authorities were legally obliged to find employment for these children as apprentices. The idea was to stop them being a burden on the parish rates and, the theory went, to equip them to earn a living. Thousands of children were carted hundreds of miles from London to Lancashire cotton mills to be apprenticed until the age of 21.

Writer Robert Southey visited ‘one of the great cotton manufactories’ around this time, and watched the pauper apprentices at work. His guide explained: ‘…here the parish, which would else have had to support them, is rid of all expense; they get their bread almost as soon as they can run about, and by the time they are seven or eight years old bring in money. There is no idleness among us: - they come at five in the morning; we allow them half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner; they leave work at six, and another set relieves them for the night; the wheels never stand still.’

Many children worked as ‘piecers,’ joining together broken threads on mule spinning machines. They walked up to 20 miles a day doing this job. Smaller children or ‘scavengers’ crawled under the machinery to pick up waste cotton from the floor. At Bolton, they earned around 2s per week.
In practice, when the children finished their apprenticeship, they often found themselves out of a job. It was cheaper for the master to employ another child apprentice than to pay a grown-up’s wages.

Image: Mule Spinning Room, 1860s. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Stewart Lee and celebrity memoirs

If you’re a fan of good books and concerned by the seemingly unstoppable rise of celebrity autobiographies, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle last night was a breath of fresh air. Stewart very wittily discussed the phenomenon of ‘toilet books’ and also took some pot-shots at authors like J K Rowling - no-one was safe. Chris Moyles were just one of the authors in his gunsights – very entertaining. Do watch it if you get a chance.
One celebrity memoir I can thoroughly recommend is Peter Kay’s ‘Sound of Laughter’ – very funny, and a great read. I grew up near Bolton, and Peter really has his finger on the pulse of Northern humour.

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Manchester Man

The Manchester Histories Festival is nearly upon us, and if you want a gripping read about the city’s past, see if you can track down a copy of ‘The Manchester Man' by Mrs G Linnaeus Banks. The book covers the time of the Napoleonic Wars, one of the most turbulent times in Manchester’s past, including the Peterloo Massacre. The hero of the story is Jabez Clegg, a foundling rescued from the waters of the River Irk. Jabez is lucky enough to get a place as a Blue-Coat boy at Chetham’s Hospital, then as an apprentice in a cotton mill. His career is contrasted with that of Laurence Aspinall, the cruel son of a wealthy merchant. Aspinall, who joins the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, is Clegg’s rival for the hand of Augusta, daughter of the charity boy’s master. Blood is spilt during a fateful meeting at Peterloo…
There is so much incident in the book, I’m surprised it has never been adapted for TV (at least I don’t think it has), but its high moral tone and relentless body count for little children may be too much for modern audiences to stomach.
But do get hold of a copy if you can; Mrs Banks knew the city and its history inside out.

Image: Chetham’s Hospital, Manchester, Pictorial History of Manchester, 1844.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Victorians

I finally managed to see Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians on BBC1 last night, which discussed Britain’s industrial achievements, of which the crowning pinnacle was the Great Exhibition of 1851 . Mr Paxman also looked at the human cost of Britain’s imperial and military conquests. I was pleased he took time to look at Victorian life from the viewpoint of the lower classes as well as that of self-made men such as William Armstrong of Cragside in Northumberland.
And of course, you can discover more about life for workers in places like Manchester, Liverpool and Barrow during late Georgian and Victorian times in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Image: The Great Exhibition of 1851; the Crystal Palace was revolutionary in its use of glass and cast iron for building materials. Engraving by Joseph Swain, Old and New London, Vol. 5, (Edward Walford, c.1894.)