Thursday, 5 January 2012

The weaver and the Old Etonian- two left wingers in Leek

"At Leek we rested during an hour, took some refreshment and then resumed the journey towards Ashbourne. In passing through the streets we noticed a number of weavers at their looms and obtained permission to go into the weaving places and see them. The rooms where they worked were on the upper floors of the houses; they were in general very clean; the work was all in the small silk ware line, and many of the weavers were young girls- some of them good looking, most of them neatly attired, and many with costly combs, earrings, and other ornaments of value showed that they had earned sufficiency of wages, and had imbibed a taste for the refinements of taste… the girls being dressed in a style that two hundred years ago would have deemed to be rich for a squire’s daughter, was to me very gratifying; whilst to my travelling companion it was equally surprising".

The words are those of Samuel Bamford who visited the town in the spring of 1820. The sort of houses can still be seen in parts of Leek today in King and Fountain Streets. It says something of Bamford strength of character that he could make that observation about Leek when other things must have weighed oppressively on his mind. He was on his way on foot to London to appear before the Court of Appeal after being convicted of involvement in the incident known as the "Peterloo Massacre which occurred in Manchester the previous August. On one point in the proceedings there was a possibility that he could have faced a trial for treason. Such was the tenor of the times when to hold radical opinions could lead to a lengthy prison sentence or worse. On his way towards the capital Bamford visited the grave of Jeremiah Brandreth in Derby a colleague who had been executed for his part in an uprising two years earlier.

Bamford’s account of a pleasant April day in Leek is in his book "Passages in the life of a Radical" published in 1842. It was a widely admired book of its time and he had numbered among his adherents writers as diverse as Mrs Gaskell and Tennyson.

Bamford was born in 1788 in Middleton during the most part of his life he followed the occupation of his forebears as a weaver. The political events that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars of poverty and repression of a Government frightened by the after effects of the French Revolution lead Bamford to become a radical champion of causes such as granting working people the vote. It was a working class vastly expanded by rapid industrialisation in towns and cities of the north and midlands. He was present at some of the major political events of the years that led to the demand for deep seated political and necessary change. Samuel Bamford had been earlier on of the "Blanketeers" so called because they wore blankets to protest about unemployment and the poor living conditions suffered by the textile workers of Lancashire who had attempted to present a petition to Parliament in March 1817. Many of the protesters were stopped by the authorities in Stockport although about 20 got to Leek before the march petered out at Ashbourne. Bamford’s literary style is immediate and powerfully descriptive and this from a man who lacked a formal education. His description of the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre in 1819 is terribly moving and evocative.
"the Yeomanry had dismounted- some were easing their horse’s girth, others adjusting their accoutrements, and some were wiping their sabres. Several mounds of human beings still remained were they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some were still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath and others would never breathe no more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of the steeds".

To read his account is to enter a world of long distance hikes through the countryside and of chance meetings. Bamford was a poor man and in order to get to London he got there before the days of the train and cheap public transport he walked. One thing that is apparent form the narratives of people of the past were the vast distances they covered on foot.

This brings me now to the second literary character of the left- George Orwell who passed through the Moorlands in the harsh winter of 1936.

The hundred years that separate the lives of Bamford and Orwell have seen a transformation of the political rights of the majority of the population and some of these changes had been played out on the streets of towns and villages of the Moorlands. The political movement of Chartism which demand nothing more than a root and branch transformation of the constitution reached its zenith in the 1840s. A man from Leek was shot dead in the streets of Burslem during the Chartist riots of August 1842. Leek was witness for the demand that women got the vote in the 1890s and into the first decades of the 20th century when principle speakers such as Charlotte Despard came to the town. And regular visitors to Leek in those years included some of the founding members of the Labour party.

Bamford and Orwell came from completely different social classes and experiences. Bamford the working class skilled worker from Lancashire and Orwell the southern Eton educated scion of colonial administrators. And yet there were similarities and both had a keen sense of the need to address injustice and the ability to use their powers of communication to tackle inequality and repression. Both witnessed hard times.
Orwell came through the area on his way north. He had been commissioned by the left wing publisher Victor Gollancz to write a piece of extended reportage on the social conditions in the unemployment wracked north of England. The research would eventually produce "The Road to Wigan Pier". Orwell being an observant writer picked up material that he hoped to use latter in the book as he progressed northwards. He passed through the area on foot in February 1936. It was bitterly cold as he came through Hanley and Burslem. He noted in his journal that the streets were full of poorly dressed and desolate looking people. The shops looked meagre and were scantily provisioned. Staffordshire like Lancashire and Yorkshire suffered badly during the recession of the 1920s and 30s. George Orwell stayed a night at the Youth Hostel beside Rudyard Lake. The lake was frozen over and ice had formed into blocks which gave off a clanking sound as they collided into one another. Cigarette packets bobbed up and down amongst the ice floes and Orwell felt it was one of the most depressing images he had ever witnessed. The Youth Hostel was freezing and lit only by candles. It was so cold that he thawed his hands over a fire in the morning to get warm. He walked on towards Macclesfield arriving in Manchester penniless by the evening. He pawned his scarf and spent the night in a doss house before meeting people who put him in contact with people from Wigan.