Danny Boyle in the 2012 London Olympic Games presented agricultural workers as having an idyllic life in 18th Century England before the noise and misery of the Industrial Revolution. Whether this sort of nostalgia is justified is open to some question but Danny may just as easily have presented a similar case for the Yorkshire Woollen Weavers. In the 18th Century many observers including Daniel Defoe noted their high standard of living as artisans. For instance William Radcliffe said of this group in the latter part of the century:
‘Their dwellings ..are clean and neat, all the family well clad, the men..each a watch in his pocket,..the women dressed in their own fancy…each house furnished with a clock…handsome tea services in Staffordshire ware….many had their cow..’
So who were these weavers and was these descriptions of content and ease justified? The Yorkshire weavers, unlike their Lancashire counterparts, used wool for their craft which was essentially operating a hand loom producing cloth from coarse fustian to intricately patterned material. At the top of the pecking order were the master clothiers who employed journeymen weavers working full time in the ‘shop’ of the clothier or in his own home. The journeymen weavers were real craftsmen working on their hand looms on the top floor of cottages where rows of windows allowed light to flood in ( the families lived below). Very often they had time to spare, starting and finishing work when they desired, and they educated themselves not only to read and write but also as weaver poets, biologists, geologists, artists etc. Many probably dreamed of becoming a Master in their own right able to buy the spun wool and sell the finished product pocketing all the profit. Thomas Bolton of Halifax (1722-1768) was one of this group. From the letters he wrote to fellow enthusiasts around the country it is clear that he had a great interest in birds, insects, rocks and especially plants all of which he collected and attempted to classify on his frequent field trips to various parts of Northern England. His friends and correspondents not only included fellow weavers but also gentlemen, scientists, gardeners and apothecaries. Today he is remembered in the name of a dragonfly: Cordulegaster boltonii.
So far so good in justifying the weavers comfortable existence in the mid to late 18th Century. However even at this time many other weavers, perhaps those less skilled, were only employed when work was plentiful and this group needed work such as farming to put food on the table. And this situation gradually spread to the journeymen as the 18th turned into the 19th Century especially after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. This was not due to mechanisation as powered wool looms were slow to develop but primarily because the labour market increased dramatically when soldiers, sailors and other workers were laid off as the war machine came to a stop.Employers assembled the weavers into hand loom ‘factories’ and cut the wages paid for their labour. Riots and demonstrations, including The March of the Blanketeers (1817), took place as the weavers, both of cotton and wool, demanded a living wage. They were largely unsuccessful in their demands.
The following verse, written in dialect by a weaver summarises how he was now left in penury and starvation:
‘Aw’m a poor cotton-wayver,as mony a one knaws
Aw’ve nowt t’ate i’th’heawse, un’ aw’ve worn eawt my cloas
Yu’d hardly gie sixpence fur o’ aw’ve got on
Meh clogs ur’ baws’n, un’ stockins aw’ve none