As poor as a stockinger' was a common and regrettably apt saying during the nineteenth century. The organisation of the industry was the main cause of the poverty of the framework knitters but their wage levels were also affected by changes in demand due to disruption of markets by war or by changing fashion. Knitters took part in several of the major upheavals during the nineteenth century, including Luddism and Chartism, but in the end they were forced to rely on self-help and wait for the industry to adapt itself to the changing conditions.
The American colonies were an important market for knitted goods, and therefore the export trade suffered badly during the conflict between Britain and America in the 1760s and 1770s and again between 1811 and 1815. During the first of these periods wages fell rapidly but food prices remained high. The knitters petitioned the House of Commons in 1778 for an Act to fix wage levels, but although a committee was set up to investigate the problem no Act was passed. Trade revived with the end of the War of American Independence, and the wars against France initially stimulated the industry by creating a demand for clothing for the army and navy. However, by 1811, a combination of high taxation, bad harvests, decreasing demand at home because of general poverty and finally the closure of the American market reduced the framework knitters once more to abject poverty. William Cobbett's picture of the knitter quitting his frame at eleven o'clock at night after seventeen or eighteen hours of work, eating his solitary potato and crawling in to sleep among his children who had been sent supperless to bed is probably not too gross an exaggeration of the truth.
The poverty of framework knitters was a byword during the nineteenth century.
Conditions were especially bad in the 1840s; in Hinckley over three thousand people were dependent on parish relief. The following year the knitters petitioned Parliament for a Commission to enquire into the problems of their industry.
Unable to understand the more general causes of their poverty, the framework knitters blamed the manufacture of cutups, which the hosiers were producing in response to the demand for cheaper goods. Many frames were broken in a wave of destruction which affected the East Midlands during 1811 and 1812, particularly the wide frames which were now often grouped in shops and therefore particularly vulnerable to the frame breakers. Manufacturers who had reduced wages often had their frames treated in the same way. The combination of resentment over cut-ups, hunger and poverty motivated the frame breakers to act as this report from the Nottingham Journal illustrates:
‘A party of armed men, to the number of about twenty, entered the house of Mr Shepherd,
in the parish of Stapleford, and demolished four frames, for the making of cut-up work, for stockings; and, not contented with this atrocity, they carried off a flitch of bacon, and stole and took away the children's clothes, two pairs of shoes and other articles.'
The Nottinghamshire frame breakers were particularly well organised, operating in groups and claiming to be under the control of the mythical `Ned Ludd', whose headquarters was supposedly in Sherwood Forest. Offending employers would receive a threatening letter signed by Ludd, promising to break their frames if certain demands were not met. It is difficult to calculate how many frames were broken in 1811-12 since many reports were exaggerated, but it was probably not more than one thousand of the twenty-five thousand frames being worked in the three East Midland counties. Luddite tactics did have some success in the short term in stabilising wage levels and checking the production of cut-ups, but these improvements were not to be permanent. A bill prohibiting the manufacture of cut-ups passed the Commons in 1812 but was rejected by the Lords; it would have been difficult to enforce, since the wide frames themselves did more good than harm to the industry by enabling it to diversify into the production of knitted goods other than stockings.
Frame breaking became more sporadic after 1812 and the famous attack on Heathcoat's lace factory in Loughborough in 1816 was in many ways a postscript to Luddite activity. Like many other hosiery and lace manufacturers, Heathcoat was compelled by the contraction of the market to reduce wages, and his factory was attacked by a group of Nottinghamshire Luddites, who burned the lace and destroyed almost all the fifty-five machines there. One of the gang later turned King's evidence and after a widely publicised trial in Leicester six men were hanged and three transported for life. A similar fate befell several knitters who joined in the Pentrich Revolution in 1817. Fierce penalties, together with the use of special constables and military force to disperse rioters, put an end to Luddism and forced the framework knitters to revert to their previous tactics of association and of petitioning the government. The genuine distress of the knitters did elicit some sympathy: Lord Byron, whose home was in Nottinghamshire, made an impassioned speech in the House of Lords in 1817, pleading on behalf of the Luddites that `nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous.' But most people in Britain were terrified by the prospect of violence and revolution after what had happened so recently in France, and the Nottingham Journal, probably expresses the more typical reaction to the events of 1812 to 1817: `We congratulate the public upon the vigorous proceedings adopted for putting an end to the shameful system of destroying frames . . In addition to the liberal rewards offered, some of the most active and intelligent officers from Bow Street are now employed, and have been in the adjacent villages during the past week.'
The framework knitting industry did not recover until the introduction of steam-powered frames in the 1870s. As well as the general depression affecting British trade after 1815, changing fashion had severe repercussions on the industry. Dress had become more restrained and there was little demand for fancy hosiery, most knitters being forced into the less well paid plain wrought hose branch of the trade. As one manufacturer said in 1844, `I used to wear breeches, now I wear pantaloons and I do not need anything above a 24 gauge; the coarser gauge stocking affords me comfort and that is all that is wanted. I do not want show at all. It is the same with the ladies, they wear boots and long clothes; the stockings are not seen. Whether they have the finest silk stocking or the commonest cut, it would be all the same, except perhaps in the ballroom.'
Wages continued to fall steadily, being between 10 shillings and 15 shillings a week for the average knitter although many in the wrought hose trade earned far less. Attempts in the early 1820s to form relief societies to help the knitters had no long term success, since a slight upturn in trade meant that public sympathy declined and subscriptions ceased to be forthcoming. Many framework knitters joined in Chartist meetings and petitions in the 1830s and 1840s but, as in 1811-12, suffered imprisonment without achieving the satisfaction of their demands. Conditions worsened, as they did in many other industries, in the early 1840s and had become so bad by 1843 that a further petition, signed by twentyfive thousand framework knitters, was sent to the House of Commons asking again for a commission of enquiry. The petition was granted and evidence was taken, as we have seen, during 1844, but once again nothing positive was done. The commissioner, Mr Muggeridge, recognised that the heart of the problem was overmanning in the industry but only made recommendations which the government did not choose, or was unable, to enforce. The evidence given in 1844 does, however, enable us to see at first hand the social conditions of framework knitters in the 1840s. However, the commissioners were enquiring into reasons for distress and therefore perhaps concentrated on the worst cases. Even so, it is clear that appalling conditions were generally being experienced throughout the East Midlands, perhaps more severely in the villages than in the towns, where a greater variety of goods was beginning to be made.
John Thurman of Shepshed, a village near Loughborough, had a wife and seven children and knitted plain wrought hose He told the commission: `The boy and me make four dozen of them in a week; then I have to pay 2s 3d frame rent for the two frames; then I have to pay 2 shillings for seaming and I have to pay 71/2d for needles for the two frames; then I have to pay for candles 4d per week. Then there is oil I have to pay 2d for; then I have the materials to buy towards the frame, wrenches, hammers, keys and everything of that sort. My little boy does the winding, that would be 6d if I was obliged to put anybody else to do it. Then I have coal 1s 3d per week, that is in the summer we do not use as much as that, but in the winter we use fire, that is, for the house and shop and all.'
His income amounted to £1 2s 3d a week and his expenditure on the expenses of his work, his rent and coal came to 9s 7 1/2d This left the family 12s 8 1/2d a week for food and clothing. Many knitters' families had even less: 3s 6d for a family of six is listed on several occasions in the 1844 report. John Thurman continued his evidence by saying that: `The whole nine of us lie in two beds, and for those two beds we have one blanket for both; and it is out of my power, in any shape whatever, to buy any more without my earnings were more. I can positively say, and it is not my wish or principle to state one word of the least untruth, never a week goes by but I have to put my wife to bed for want of food; anybody that could come forward and knew me, would testify to that … when I have got my little on a Saturday, I pay every farthing I can, as far as it will go – and then when Monday morning comes I have not got 6d to buy a loaf with and there is nothing in the house. Then whatever few garments we have about us we take them and pledge them into the shop to get a bit of bread to go on with during the week, as long as it will last; sometimes it lasts till Thursday dinner time, and then we have to go without until Saturday when we get our things again.'
Many other knitters pledged their clothes to obtain food in this way. A Hinckley pawnbroker reckoned he paid out about £70 a week to between six hundred and seven hundred people: `Friday is the worst; they will bring in small trifling articles, such as are scarcely worth a penny, to enable them to buy a bit of meat or a few trifles for dinner.'
A grocer said that women would pull off their aprons and offer them to him to buy bread for their children. They made great efforts to redeem their clothes on Saturdays so that they could look respectable on Sundays, but many knitters said they could not send their children to Sunday school to learn to read or write because they were ashamed to do so as they were so badly clothed. Schooling at any other time was an impossibility, as the knitters relied on the income their children could bring in as winders or footers. Some knitters said that they would have liked to apprentice their children to other trades but could not afford the premium demanded, and so their children were forced to work in their own already overcrowded industry.
It is hardly surprising that the amount of parish relief dispensed in the East Midlands increased during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. The New Poor Law of 1834 attempted to make entry into a workhouse the normal means of poor relief and, as was intended, greatly reduced the number of those seeking help. One framework knitter said that he had before now lived on barley bread, without butter or cheese, for two months and never sought a farthing from the parish. As many knitters rented frames from grocers and other shopkeepers, the practice of truck was common, by which wages were paid in goods, often at inflated prices, rather than in cash. Truck was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1831 but the prohibition was impossible to enforce and the practice continued in the framework knitting industry for many years. Attempts were made to set up sick clubs and clothing clubs in many hosiery villages, through which members received assistance in times of need in return for a regular subscription; the funds were often added to by local benefactors. The poorest could not afford the subscription and so help did not reach those most in need, who were often in the end forced into the workhouse. Another means of alleviating distress was the renting out of allotments, on which knitters could at least grow potatoes and vegetables to sustain their families. While frame rent continued, however, knitters were forced to work long hours to earn the money to pay it and so the allotment system was not as effective as it could have been in helping to reduce the glut of knitted goods on the market as well as relieving poverty.
Several attempts were made in the first half of the nineteenth century to organise framework knitters into a trades union, but the scattered nature of the industry made this more difficult to achieve than in other factory-based textile industries. , Overmanning in the industry also made knitters unwilling to join a union, knowing that it might prevent their being given work for their frames. Strikes took place on many occasions, but they were not co-ordinated and had little permanent effect. In the end, it was the efforts of the more enlightened hosiers which, together with changes in the organisation of the industry itself, brought about improvement in the life of the stockinger.