Today when the hosiery and knitwear industry and the nation as a whole is suffering from a depression, the events of the 1840s make salutary reading* At various times the hosiery industry had suffered from a fall in orders but by 1842 the situation was becoming desperate. Typical of that year was a poster circulated in the town reading:
'No Work, No Bread, No Hope!
A meeting of the inhabitants of Hinckley will be held near the Holy Well on Tuesday evening, June 28, 1842, at seven o'clock: To consider arid to adopt such Resolutions as are required by the present times, in which the Hosier has little Trade and no Profit; the Landlord no Rent; the Shop - Keeper no Custom; the Stockinger neither Bread nor Hope; arid in which the heavy Poor-Rates are involving the Householder and the neighbouring Farmer in one Common Ruin.’
A.J. Pickering in his book on 'Hinckley, the Cradle and Home of the Hosiery Trade’, written a century after the Hungry Forties, presents this as one piece of evidence of the desperation of these years. The Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel was itself undertaking measures which would gradually improve the economy but these had little immediate effect on Hinckley. In 1819 a petition to the House of Commons by framework knitters had resulted in a Select Committee being set up and in 1843 many Hinckley names appeared amongst the 25,000 framework knitters who again petitioned Parliament for assistance. There were eight main points in, the petition including pleas for an increase in wages, an end to cut -ups instead of fashioned hose, a reduction in frame-rents, an end to truck and a prohibition of cheap foreign imports.
Finally there was a call for a Commission to be appointed to investigate the state of the framework knitters and in 1844 Richard M. Muggeridge as the Commissioner carried out an inquiry into conditions in the industry. Many hundreds of pages of evidence were collected and Hinckley persons provided some eighty pages in the minutes of evidence. The picture given by these witnesses is indeed a grim one which bore out the pleas for help from the framework knitters.
Mr. Muggerdge claimed that he saw his task as best defined in the following manner; ‘l deemed it a paramount duty to endeavour 90 to conduct the inquiry as to afford to the petitioners the fullest opportunity of making their condition known, at the least possible sacrifice to them of time or labour.’
As a result he visited Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Hinckley and some eighteen other places to collect evidence and examined over six hundred witnesses. The final report, published nearly a year after the Commission in 1845, began by giving an account of the origin and development of framework knitting. Hinckley's first mention in the list of inventors in the hosiery trade occurred only in 1843 with William Bedfords’ invention of the lever stocking frame. Since many inventors associated with hosiery were described as 'dying melancholy or committing suicide1 perhaps this was no loss to the town.
Evidence in Hinckley given by Mr. Edward Ken Jarvis, a solicitor, particularly attacked truck or the payment of men in goods instead of money. In Hinckley this often took the form of supplying provisions in advance to a framework knitter. The employer kept a book in which each advance was deducted from the man's wages so that he was always tied to his master, the framework knitter's wages always being consumed by the week's goods he had in advance. Thomas Clewes, a framework knitter, claimed that 'The biggest hosier in town abominates the truck system but he employs 16 – 20 independent men... and perhaps 12 out of 16 truck to a most awful extent and he knows it!. William Chawner, a shopkeeper, claimed that inferior goods were given out by the truck system, a 15-20% profit being made on candles and bacon worth6d being rated as worth 9d. These problems were only part of the trouble.
Thomas Cotterell, the Medical Officer of Hinckley Poor Law Union and a native of the town, describes the state of housings 'Very badly ventilated and the cesspools in the neighbourhood have the windows overlooking them frequently. Their food is decidedly insufficient, and I should say their clothing too, all of which tends to predispose them to disease.’
Clearly the state of the framework knitters was a sorry one indeed. Consumption, ruptures from working with frames, scrofulous infection, bowel complaints and poor eyesight from working long hours in poor light, were the lot of much of the population.
Thomas Vann, the Hinckley Relieving Officer, gave the following evidence: 'In half the houses that 1 visit with families, one of the beds - the children’s - is on the floor without a bedstead!
Some of the most harrowing accounts of the state of many of the townspeople came from Mr. Eales, the only pawnbroker in the town. He claimed. 'We have people in this town at this present moment, that bring their blankets to us in the morning and fetch them out at night, for a day's subsistence’. Mr. Eales said he gave id per day for a blanket or 3d per week. When asked whether the poor lost their property he aptly replied, 'They have not a great deal to lose1. As conditions got worse the pawnbroker said that 600-700 came each week, this out of a total population in the 1.841 census of 6,468. It is interesting to note that by 1851 the population had fallen to 6,177, the only such, fall since the census began in 1801 and more than one witness gave evidence that those who could do so were leaving the town. Women, said the pawnbroker, came to him and frequently 'take shoes off their feet for a few pence’.
The Vicar of Hinckley said that his congregation was small and the lack of proper clothes was the reason given for non-attendance at church and chapel. Asked about the condition of the homes and of his parishioners, he stated, ‘They are exceedingly low in condition .sometimes it is a difficult matter to find any furniture at all’. Reverend Dealtry also commented on the forty ale houses and beer shops, 'many of them very disorderly’. Others, such as Mr. Eales, the pawnbroker, expressed his surprise at the orderly nature of the town despite the distress.
Certainly Hinckley was a hungry town in the 1840s, hungry for food, work and reform. The problems highlighted by the Commission, the frame-rents, truck, the bad living and working conditions and the seasonal nature of employment from November to May were slowly remedied as the economy of the country as a whole improved. Some local relief came from schemes for allotments and the charitable distribution of blankets. Despite these remedial measures the picture painted by the witnesses to the Commission remains as an indictment of the social conditions and provision for the poor in the 1840s. The Reverend William Salt, the independent minister, stated: ‘I have never seen a tithe of the distress I have seen here... I have a decided conviction that there is not a town in England worse off than this’
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine