John Gent Brooks is one of those many unsung Hinckley heroes of the past. He was born in Hinckley on 23rd September 1815 shortly after the Battle of Waterloo. His birth was at a time when framework knitters were experiencing great poverty after the end of service contracts that had accompanied the Napoleonic Wars.
John was baptised at St Mary's Church and his parents, Joseph and Rachel Brooks, ensured that he attended Sunday School and then the new National School until he reached the advanced age of seven when he began work as a seamer at 6d a week. His mother was the leading influence on her young son and when she became a Baptist he followed her to worship in the relatively new Baptist Church on Stockwell Head.
The young John was a rather frail boy and was frequently ill and unable to work. Later, in evidence to a Committee on the Hosiery Trade, he stated, 'Whenever we obtained full employment we were confined 13 to 16 hours a day' and in these conditions it was hardly surprising that John was often unwell. John soon began to feel that his future should be outside the hosiery trade and that education would be the key to some other form of employment.
Whilst training as a framework knitter he joined two or three friends in 1834 in setting up a Mutual Instruction Society. The young men found help in their endeavours from the Unitarian Minister at the Great Meeting, the Rev Charles Nutter, who provided them with a room and some instruction. So successful was the group that it formed the basis for the Hinckley Mechanics Institute.
John became a spokesman for the framework knitters. Later, John became a member of the new Chartist movement, which sought political reforms such as universal male suffrage and the provision of working class members of parliament. However, the movement became more inclined to support violent political activity and John left. Whilst he was an inmate of Nuneaton Workhouse John wrote of his concern over political violence to the Morning Chronicle in 1842. When a riot threatened in Hinckley Market Place the magistrates asked John to come and address the rioters which he did successfully and they peacefully dispersed.
In 1844 the privations of the framework knitters in the Midlands resulted in a petition to Parliament and a Commission was set up to inquire into the conditions of the hosiery workers. Mr Muggeridge, the Commissioner, came to Hinckley and sought out a Secretary to record the evidence which he collected from the people of the district. He was advised that John Gent Brooks, then an inmate of Hinckley Workhouse and a teacher for the children who were resident therein, would be an ideal Secretary. Henry James Francis, in his History of Hinckley published in 1930, records the details of John's appointment as Secretary. Mr Muggeridge asked that John be provided with a new suit of clothes but John said that 'He felt no disgrace in a misfortune induced only by ill-health and bad trade' and accordingly would only work in his existing Workhouse clothing or not at all.
As a result John served as Mr Muggeridge's Secretary dressed in his workhouse clothes and the 80 or so pages of evidence from Hinckley, some of the most considerable from any town, probably provided one of the best pictures of the framework knitters' poverty. Those who gave evidence as framework knitters surely felt more confidence in giving their evidence seeing John Gent Brooks recording it as a faithful friend of the framework knitter. The Rev. Salt, one of those providing evidence in Hinckley, was recorded as saying he did not think, 'There was a town worse off in England'.
In the later 1840s John made a decision to devote his future life to the poor of the Midlands. The Unitarians had set up a scheme of Domestic Missioners in England following on the example of Dr Tuckerman in the U.S.A. Joseph Dare, Unitarian Schoolmaster in Hinckley, who had helped John and his friends with their Mutual Instruction Society, became a Domestic Missioner in Leicester. John decided to apply for the post of the Domestic Missioner in Birmingham which had been created in October 1844. The role of the Missioner was that of a social worker who would visit the very poor who were not directly linked with any denomination or visited by any others giving help. A Missioner was to relieve distress in any way possible with help, food, clothing or money and to attempt to provide basic education for the children. It was a role in which John Gent Brooks excelled and although not at this point a Unitarian he was appointed to the post in Birmingham.
John was employed by a Unitarian Association, paid a small salary and given funds called his ' Poor's Purse', supplied from individual donations. The Missioner had to keep a detailed Diary* and accounts which would be scrutinised regularly by the committee which oversaw his work. Within the Diary is a daily account of John's work over a period of ten years. Poverty and privation in the centre of Birmingham was appalling at this time. In 1845, shortly after arriving in the city, John opened a school for boys and girls. He set up a library and by 1848 his Peoples' Instruction Society, based on the Mutual Improvement Society of Hinckley, was publishing its own periodical called, * The Voice of the People'. Thrift Clubs were also set up which gave interest of a penny halfpenny for every shilling invested, a prime example of the Victorian doctrine of self-help. Meals of beef and potatoes were provided for the hungry. John recorded in his Diary, "Distress and disease are now busy at work shortening the lives and brutalising the character of thousands". It was to relieve this situation that John would devote the remainder of his short life. He attempted to analyse the reasons for the poverty which prevailed and concluded that lack of regular employment and inadequate housing were at the heart of the problem. The extent of the kindness which the very poor showed to each other is particularly noted in John's Diary.
During his decade in Birmingham John continued to suffer from ill-health and was advised by his doctor to reduce his work but his dedication to the cause of the poor inexorably drove him on. He died in 1854 at the age of 38, a short life even by the standards of the nineteenth century. I am not aware of any photograph of John or any particular memorial to him or to his work, an unsung champion of the urban poor.
*The Diary of John Gent Brooks as a Missioner was rediscovered around 1990. Miss Emily Bushrod M.A. published an article on John Gent Brooks in the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society in 1992. I am most grateful for access to this article which has provided much of the information for the later part of this account.
Author: Hugh Beavin
Written for: Hinckley Historian Magazine