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Sunday, 25 November 2007

A Nation of Shopkeepers?

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon called England 'a nation of shopkeepers'. If he saw us today, I think he might call us 'a nation of museum curators/theme-park operators'. Where once there were thriving manufacturing industries, there are now theme parks and museums - exciting, interactive, educational, museums, but museums all the same: the railway museum, mining museum, mills museums, whole villages turned into museums. What is it about the past that attracts so much interest? Is all this simply a way of making money from a defunct manufacturing industry, or is it that, in the throw-away age where so many of our goods are imported and when they stop working we don't have them mended but buy another, we look back to a time when people took pride in their creations and things were made to last? Strange how, in the days before bulldozers, steam rollers, cranes and petrol/diesel driven vehicles etc. such care was taken in building beautiful edifices with mosaic tiles, giant arches, columns and carvings. Stranger still how, what might have been an opportunity to create something as memorable and lasting as Marble Arch, the Tower of London, the countless castles and abbeys of England, the best we could do to mark the millennium was the ugly and ridiculous dome! Wasn't that just the epitome of the throw-away age?
Of course, it is easy to look back through rose-coloured spectacles and to forget that so much of what we see around us today was built on the back of the countless child and adult workers, whose bodies now lie now in the unmarked pauper graves of Victorian cemeteries (which, incidentally, are also tourist attractions). I like to think when I look at some of the beautiful architecture in the city of Leeds, that somehow these things are a monument to all those forgotten people, and especially to the children whose names are lost in oblivion. Sometimes, when I pass the old mill buildings (now luxury apartments) along the banks of the River Aire, or see the fronts of the most exclusive shops in the Victoria Quarter and Briggate, I think back to all those forgotten children and workers who first brought wealth to Leeds. Beneath these flag stones there are probably relics of the old slum dwelling, a dropped penny, a clay pipe, an empty bottle dropped by a real person from another era, and it might be my imagination but I almost hear their clogs on cobbles, the boom of the looms and cries from the squalid tenements and I want to say, "Thank you. I remember you so you're not forgotten."

"The Fields Laid Waste" - both a love story and, I hope, a tribute to all those children - follows the effects of enclosure on a rural village and the migration of one particular family into the town at the height of the Leeds cholera epidemic. In this scene, Will Harding, an engineer, has been invited by mill owner, Mr. Brandwith, to visit his factory with a view to designing more powerful looms:

"Will...followed him into another yard that echoed with the regular beat and clatter of the looms.
“If there’s owt you want to know, you’ll have to ask me after. I’ll not be able to hear you in here,” Proctor warned.
He opened a door and it seemed to Will that a thousand horses had been let loose to gallop across a wooden plateau. Hammering, rattling, clicking and pounding! Shuttles flew from one side of the vast hall to the other as the inexorable looms churned out their cloth. Along the rows between the machines, other foremen paced, their hands like Proctor’s fixed to their straps, their eyes like eagles in search of slackers. As the heavy frames relentlessly chugged to and fro, small children, crouching on the floor, hurried in and out between the shuttles, brushing the fluff from the looms. Despite their adroitness, Will could hardly bear to watch as the great weights swung so close to their tiny bodies that should one of them fall or take a fraction of a second too long, the results would be too horrific to imagine. The rumours he had heard in the village ran through his head: children dead of exhaustion, starvation or gangrene from mutilated limbs; eight-year-olds skinnier than the runt of an old sow’s litter; and the factory fever that wiped them out by the dozen.
The noise was so deafening that he thought his head might explode and he hurried back to the door and the relative peace of the yard, where he stood with his hands pressed to his ears until his guide reappeared.
“Engine house is this way, sir.”
Proctor began to walk away expecting Will to follow but he didn’t move.
“Wait,” he called, “there’s more I want to see here.”
“Mr. Brandwith said you were familiar with the looms and it were just a matter of showing you the size of the place.”
“I want to speak with some of the workers.”
“I don’t know about that. Mr. Brandwith didn’t say owt about that.”
“If we wants me to design new looms, I need to discover the disadvantages of the old ones. The only people who can tell me that, are the ones who work on them.”
Proctor ran a long finger over his lips, pensively sucking in his cheeks before replying, “I’ll fetch one of the foremen.”
“No, not a foreman. One of the women, or better yet, one of the children. A child, yes, I want to speak with a child.”
Proctor vacillated, “It i’n’t good for them to be brought from their work. They lose their momentum, see? They’ve to be kept going or they grow sleepy and start slacking.”
“Are you going to do as I ask, or do I have to find Mr. Brandwith? I don’t think he’ll be too pleased at being brought from his business for something so trivial.”
Proctor’s thin lips twitched and, with no hint of having surrendered, he said, “Wait here, sir, if you please. I’ll fetch a child.”
The child whom he brought was a thin, wasted girl whose age Will couldn’t determine. Her pale skin and pink eyes gave her the appearance of a mouse, and when Proctor pushed her forward with the end of his strap, she cowered and stared at the ground.
Will crouched to her height, “What’s your name?”
“Lily, sir.”
“Lily, do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
Clearly at a loss as to how to respond, she looked up at the foreman who hovered behind her, twirling the strap between his fingers and staring over her head.
“She’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“How old are you, Lily?”
“I’m not rightly sure. I think I’m eight, sir.”
“Ten,” Proctor said, “we have no one here under ten.”
“Ten,” Will nodded, certain she was younger. Her frame was so slight that her ragged dress hung loosely from her shoulders as though made for someone twice her age.
“How long have you worked for Mr. Brandwith?”
“I came last spring to the apprentice house.”
Will looked up at Proctor, “Apprentice house?”
“In his kindness, Mr. Brandwith takes the little bastards from the workhouse and sees they’re taught a good and useful trade. Isn’t that so, child?”
“Yes, Mr. Proctor.”
“And how should you repay him for his kindness?”
“I should work very hard, Mr. Proctor, and be grateful to my betters for all they’ve done for me.”
“That’s right, because they’ve done a great deal for you, haven’t they? If it weren’t for Mr. Brandwith providing you with food and clothes and a bed to sleep in, where would you be?”
“I should probably have starved to death in the gutter by now.”
Every line she spoke, she spoke without hesitation as though reciting a chant she’d recited a thousand times before. Will, still crouching before her, tried to look into her eyes, but she kept her head down as though too frightened to look at him.
“What time did you start work this morning?”
“Six o’clock this morning, sir.”
“And what time will you finish?”
“Seven o’clock tonight.”
The sound of the loomshed rattled across the yard and Will thought how his head might have exploded after only two minutes indoors.
“Thirteen hours,” he whispered, “thirteen hours every day!”
“With a break of twenty minutes for breakfast and forty minutes for lunch,” Proctor said.
Will reached for the little girl’s hand but she flinched from his touch, “Do you like your work, Lily?”
She looked up at the foreman again, “Yes, sir. It’s very good of Mr. Brandwith to give me work.”
Will stood up, folded his arms, and walked around her in a circle, “How many children work here, Proctor?”
“Eighty-eight pauper apprentices and about a hundred more come with their families.”
Will looked at the child, silently shivering in the cold yard, “I want to talk to her alone.”
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“Leave us, please.”
Proctor started in shock but Will met his eyes and stared at him determinedly until, after a moment’s hesitation, he yielded. He turned to the child, placed the handle of his strap beneath her chin, and jerked her head to look at him, “You answer the gentleman’s questions good and proper, do you hear?”
“Yes, Mr. Proctor.”
“Right then. I’ll wait in the loomshed.”
When he’d gone, Lily stood as he’d left her; her hands clasped in front of her waist, her eyes staring straight ahead and her shoulders trembling with cold. Will smiled at her but she didn’t respond.
“Is there somewhere warm we could talk?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
He stooped to her height, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Lily. Look,” he opened his arms, “I don’t have a strap. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She seemed no less afraid.
“I don’t work for Mr. Brandwith or Mr. Proctor so you can speak to me honestly, Lily. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.”
He looked around, “Where’s the apprentice house?”
She pointed to a high black building in the shadow of the giant mill tower.
“Is it warm in there?”
“No, sir.”
“It must be warmer than out here. Come on,” he took her by the hand, “show me.”
Through a series of passages, alleys and yards she led him to the dismal building. In the windowless entrance, the only light came through the door revealing bare brickwork and a rickety staircase leading up to a landing.
“Do you have a dining room?”
“No, sir. We generally eat at the loom or in the yard except on Sundays after church, then they give us our dinner in the main hall.”
“So what’s down here then?” Will said, moving along the passage and trying handles, but each door was locked.
“Overseers’ rooms and offices. We don’t go in there.”
Without being asked she set off up the rickety staircase, leading Will to a landing where she pushed open one of the doors.
“I sleep in here, sir,” she whispered.
Will looked through the crack. On two beds with a thin piece of sacking for a blanket, he counted twelve children huddled together for warmth, their thin, wan limbs piled on top of one another like bones in charnel house. He stepped back in shock, “Who are they?”
“Night shift, sir. We take it in turns. We get up and they have the beds, then they get up and we have the beds. We change over each week.”
“So the factory never stops working?”
“No, sir.”
He peeped into the room again. Most slept, though one or two coughed and stirred but all seemed too weary to open their eyes. He stepped back onto the landing, closing the door on their dreams. He sat down on the stairs and looked at the child who stood patiently at his side.
“Do you ever have lessons? Can you read or write?”
She shook her head.
“But you’re apprentices, so what have they taught you?”
“To clean the looms, sir. I think the older ones learn weaving and dyeing.”
“How do you clean the looms?”
“With a brush. When the shuttle flies back we run in for the fluff.”
“And if you’re not quick enough?”
She didn’t answer.
“Are there many accidents?”
“There was a boy last week, he got his arm fast in the threads and the ladies that were weaving told the foreman to stop the loom but he wouldn’t and when the frame came back along…well his arm came off, right off. They had to stop it then. Foreman was angry because he’d ruined all the cloth with his blood.”
Will leaned back against the walls and half-closed his eyes against the bare bricks, “What did Mr. Brandwith say?”
“I don’t know, sir. I think he sent for the surgeon but it didn’t do any good. He bled to death before he got here.”

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