AMONG THE WIGAN OPERATIVES
“There’ll be some on us missin’,
Iv there isn’t some help for us soon.”
The next scene of my observations
is the town of Wigan. The temporary troubles
now affecting the working people of Lancashire wear
a different aspect there on account of such a large
proportion of the population being employed in the
coal mines. The “way of life” and
the characteristics of the people are marked by strong
peculiarities. But, apart from these things, Wigan
is an interesting place. The towns of Lancashire
have undergone so much change during the last fifty
years that their old features are mostly either swept
away entirely, or are drowned in a great overgrowth
of modern buildings. Yet coaly Wigan retains
visible relics of its ancient character still; and
there is something striking in its situation.
It is associated with some of the most stirring events
of our history, and it is the scene of many an interesting
old story, such as the legend of Mabel of Haigh Hall,
the crusader’s dame. The remnant of “Mab’s
Cross” still stands in Wigan Lane. Some
of the finest old halls of Lancashire are now, and
have been, in its neighbourhood, such as Ince Hall
and Crooke Hall. It must have been a picturesque
town in the time of the Commonwealth, when Cavaliers
and Roundheads met there in deadly contention.
Wigan saw a great deal of the troubles of that time.
The ancient monument, erected to the memory of Colonel
Tyldesley, upon the ground where he fell at the battle
of Wigan Lane, only tells a little of the story of
Longfellow’s puritan hero, Miles Standish, who
belonged to the Chorley branch of the family of Standish
of Standish, near this town. The ingenious John
Roby, author of the “Traditions of Lancashire,”
was born here. Round about the old market-place,
and the fine parish church of St Wilfred, there are
many quaint nooks still left to tell the tale of centuries
gone by. These remarks, however, by the way.
It is almost impossible to sunder any place entirely
from the interest which such things lend to it.
Our present business is with the share
which Wigan feels of the troubles of our own time,
and in this respect it is affected by some conditions
peculiar to the place. I am told that Wigan was
one of the first if not the very first of
the towns of Lancashire to feel the nip of our present
distress. I am told, also, that it was the first
town in which a Relief Committee was organised.
The cotton consumed here is almost entirely of the
kind from ordinary to middling American, which is
now the scarcest and dearest of any. Preston
is almost wholly a spinning town. In Wigan there
is a considerable amount of weaving as well as spinning.
The counts spun in Wigan are lower than those in Preston;
they range from 10’s up to 20’s.
There is also, as I have said before, another peculiar
element of labour, which tends to give a strong flavour
to the conditions of life in Wigan, that is, the great
number of people employed in the coal mines.
This, however, does not much lighten the distress which
has fallen upon the spinners and weavers, for the colliers
are also working short time an average
of four days a week. I am told, also, that the
coal miners have been subject to so many disasters
of various kinds during past years, that there is
now hardly a collier’s family which has not
lost one or more of its most active members by accidents
in the pits. About six years ago, the river Douglas
broke into one of the Ince mines, and nearly two hundred
people were drowned thereby. These were almost
all buried on one day, and it was a very distressing
scene. Everywhere in Wigan one may meet with
the widows and orphans of men who have been killed
in the mines; and there are no few men more or less
disabled by colliery accidents, and, therefore, dependent
either upon the kindness of their employers, or upon
the labour of their families in the cotton factories.
This last failing them, the result may be easily guessed.
The widows and orphans of coal miners almost always
fall back upon factory labour for a living; and, in
the present state of things, this class of people
forms a very helpless element of the general distress.
These things I learnt during my brief visit to the
town a few days ago. Hereafter, I shall try to
acquaint myself more deeply and widely with the relations
of life amongst the working people there.
I had not seen Wigan during many years
before that fine August afternoon. In the Main
Street and Market Place there is no striking outward
sign of distress, and yet here, as in other Lancashire
towns, any careful eye may see that there is a visible
increase of mendicant stragglers, whose awkward plaintiveness,
whose helpless restraint and hesitancy of manner,
and whose general appearance, tell at once that they
belong to the operative classes now suffering in Lancashire.
Beyond this, the sights I first noticed upon the streets,
as peculiar to the place, were, here, two “Sisters
of Mercy,” wending along, in their black cloaks
and hoods, with their foreheads and cheeks swathed
in ghastly white bands, and with strong rough shoes
upon their feet; and, there, passed by a knot of the
women employed in the coal mines. The singular
appearance of these women has puzzled many a southern
stranger. All grimed with coaldust, they swing
along the street with their dinner baskets and cans
in their hands, chattering merrily. To the waist
they are dressed like men, in strong trousers and
wooden clogs. Their gowns, tucked clean up, before,
to the middle, hang down behind them in a peaked tail.
A limp bonnet, tied under the chin, makes up the head-dress.
Their curious garb, though soiled, is almost always
sound; and one can see that the wash-tub will reveal
many a comely face amongst them. The dusky damsels
are “to the manner born,” and as they
walk about the streets, thoughtless of singularity,
the Wigan people let them go unheeded by. Before
I had been two hours in the town, I was put into communication
with one of the active members of the Relief Committee,
who offered to devote a few hours of the following
day to visitation with me, amongst the poor of a district
called “Scholes,” on the eastern edge of
the town. Scholes is the “Little Ireland”
of Wigan, the poorest quarter of the town. The
colliers and factory operatives chiefly live there.
There is a saying in Wigan that, no man’s
education is finished until he has been through Scholes.
Having made my arrangements for the next day, I went
to stay for the night with a friend who lives in the
green country near Orrell, three miles west of Wigan.
Early next morning, we rode over to
see the quaint town of Upholland, and its fine old
church, with the little ivied monastic ruin close
by. We returned thence, by way of “Orrell
Pow,” to Wigan, to meet my engagement at ten
in the forenoon. On our way, we could not help
noticing the unusual number of foot-sore, travel-soiled
people, many of them evidently factory operatives,
limping away from the town upon their melancholy wanderings.
We could see, also, by the number of decrepid old
women, creeping towards Wigan, and now and then stopping
to rest by the wayside, that it was relief day at
the Board of Guardians. At ten, I met the gentleman
who had kindly offered to guide me for the day; and
we set off together. There are three excellent
rooms engaged by the good people of Wigan for the
employment and teaching of the young women thrown out
of work at the cotton mills. The most central
of the three is the lecture theatre of the Mechanics’
Institution. This room was the first place we
visited. Ten o’clock is the time appointed
for the young women to assemble. It was a few
minutes past ten when we got to the place; and there
were some twenty of the girls waiting about the door.
They were barred out, on account of being behind time.
The lasses seemed very anxious to get in; but they
were kept there a few minutes till the kind old superintendent,
Mr Fisher, made his appearance. After giving
the foolish virgins a gentle lecture upon the value
of punctuality, he admitted them to the room.
Inside, there were about three hundred and fifty girls
mustered that morning. They are required to attend
four hours a day on four days of the week, and they
are paid 9d. a day for their attendance. They
are divided into classes, each class being watched
over by some lady of the committee. Part of the
time each day is set apart for reading and writing;
the rest of the day is devoted to knitting and plain
sewing. The business of each day begins with the
reading of the rules, after which, the names are called
over. A girl in a white pinafore, upon the platform,
was calling over the names when we entered. I
never saw a more comely, clean, and orderly assembly
anywhere. I never saw more modest demeanour, nor
a greater proportion of healthy, intelligent faces
in any company of equal numbers.