Poverty and Destitution

In the midst of the great wealth being generated by the rapidly expanding cotton trade in Lancashire, much of the working classes were gripped by poverty. For some unfortunate folk their lives descended even further into utter destitution and hopelessness.

Extreme Wretchedness

On October 16th 1840 at Preston Town Hall two unfortunate young women named as Mary Ashcroft and Mary Vose, who were described as “wretched looking” and who for a long time have infested the lowest haunts of Preston, were charged with sleeping in the open air.

The Chronicle newspaper further described the condition of the women saying, “The appearance of the poor wretches was miserable in the extreme, they seemed to be literally lost in filth and were evidently suffering severely from illness.”

So desperate were the two girls that when taken into custody they admitted that the previous day they had attempted to commit a crime, in the hope of being sentenced to transportation to the colonies. Both were sentenced to three months in the House of Correction. (PC Oct’ 17th 1840)

Attempted Suicide Brought on by Terrible Privations

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 had a devastating effect on the lives of Lancashire cotton workers, as the naval blockade of the southern states imposed by the northern forces restricted the supply of raw cotton available to the mills of England. The resulting unemployment and the loss of the pitifully low wages that most people survived on caused untold misery for many Preston folk.

One such case of the suffering being endured was highlighted in November 1861. The wife of Timothy Pedder, a poor man who lived at Walkers Court off Friargate, attempted suicide by hanging herself due to the overwhelming privations her family had been exposed to. However she was discovered in the act just in time by some neighbours and a police constable named Sumner was hurriedly summoned. The officer went to the house of the wretched family and discovered it to be the most miserable and squalid home he had ever seen. Here was Timothy Pedder, his wife and six small children living in the most extreme depths of poverty, while Pedder informed the policeman that none of them had tasted food that day. The children were lying on the bare flags with nothing to sleep on or a rag to cover them.

Officer Sumner reported their plight to Inspector Ringland who sent him back with some tea and provisions to enable the family to receive some slight nourishment through the night. Pedder was also directed to apply for parish relief first thing in the morning. Sadly Timothy Pedder’s application for humanitarian aid from the Relieving Officer was refused, a fact which one of his children was later to report back at the police station. At this point Inspector Ringland dispatched an officer to ascertain the reason for this refusal, to be told that he had been given the sum of 2s/6d on Saturday and ordered into the workhouse. So terrified of the prospect of the workhouse were the Pedder family, that they chose starvation instead.

In 1862, Edwin Waugh the celebrated Lancashire poet and writer had become so concerned at the desperate levels of poverty so prevalent throughout Lancashire, he asked to be given a tour of the worst affected areas. On visiting Preston he was accompanied by a member of the relief committee to see for himself how people were living.

The Pedder family whose plight has previously been described, had by the time of Edwin Waugh’s visit, vacated the dreadful and squalid home in Walkers Court, only to be found in even worse habitation nearby in Back Hope St. It was here that Timothy Pedder tragically died of starvation on January 11th 1862 aged 56. (PC Jan 15th 1862)

Waugh described quite graphically what he witnessed when he wrote,

“When we got to the lower end of Hope St my guide stopped and said, “Oh, look, this is close to where that woman lives whose husband died of starvation.” Leading a few yards up the passage he turned into a low narrow entry, very dark and damp. Two more turns brought us to a dirty pent up corner where a low door stood open. We entered there.

It was a cold gloomy little hovel no more than three yards square. There was no fire in the little rusty grate. The day was sunny but no sunshine could ever reach that nook, nor any fresh breezes disturb the pestilent vapours that harbor there, festering in the sluggish gloom. In one corner of the place a little worn and broken chair led up to a room of the same size above, where I was told, there was now some straw for the family to sleep on. The only furniture in the house of any kind was two rickety chairs and a little broken deal table reared against the wall because one leg was gone.

A quiet looking thin woman about 50 years of age sat there when we went in. She told us she had buried five of her children and that she had six yet alive, all living with her in that poor place. They had no work, no income whatever save what came from the relief committee. Five of the children were playing in and out, bare footed and like the mother, miserably clad. The eldest girl, about fourteen, came in whilst we were there and she leaned herself bashfully against the wall for a minute or two and then slunk shyly out again as if ashamed of our presence. The poor widow pointed to the cold corner where her husband died. She said that his name was Tim Pedder. He was a driver of boat horses on the canal but he had been out of work a long time before he died.”

As the two men left Mr. Toulmin from the relief committee told Edwin Waugh how when he first called upon the family in the months of the previous winter, he discovered the children all clinging round about their mother in the cold hovel, trying in that way to keep one another warm. (Edwin Waugh-Home Life of the Lancashire Factory Folk During the Cotton Famine)

The shocking plight of the Pedder family was by no means unusual in Preston during the bleak months of the American Civil war of 1861-65, in what became known in Lancashire as the “cotton famine”.

Destitution and Death

Another tragic case during this period occurred in Preston in June 1862 when a 45 year old woman named Rachel Turner fell seriously ill. Her son, a factory operative had previously supported his sick mother but had been out of work for 20 weeks. They found themselves in ever increasing destitution which led to Mrs Turner moving in with a sympathetic friend. However there was still insufficient food to be had and after taking nothing more than a piece of dry bread and water one day, she took to her bed after complaining of pain in the head. During the early hours of the following morning her friend, a barber named Mr Wardley, heard moaning and went to her room where he found Rachel Turner insensible. Fearing the worst a doctor was summoned but the poor woman died before he arrived.

At the following inquest Mr Wardley explained how he was only earning four or five shillings a week and had to pay rent of 3s/6d. Some porridge had been made for dinner the day before the death and afterwards a man he knew gave him some cockles which were divided amongst four of them in the house. Rachel Turner’s son said his mother had not made an application for parish relief as far as he knew. The jury recorded her death had been accelerated by lack of proper nourishment. (PC June 21st 1862)

Appeal from the Secretary of the Preston Card Room Workers Trade Union

During the terrible years of the “cotton famine” when soup kitchens were the only possible means of procuring a meal for the unemployed, even those fortunate enough to still be in work were suffering alarmingly. Austin Ball the Secretary of the Preston Card Room Workers Trade Union was so concerned over the welfare of his members and their families, he issued a desperate plea to the Preston cotton mill owners in December 1861. Ball urged the manufacturers to reconsider another proposed wage reduction and in an open letter forwarded to each cotton employer in the district, he outlined the tremendous suffering already prevalent among his townsfolk. He wrote,

“Gentlemen, we the card room hands in your employ deem it a duty to ourselves and our families to protest against your offered reduction. It has taken us by surprise and made us wonder where were the feelings that directed such a measure. Humanity blushes at such proceedings and we cannot contemplate it without feelings swelling in our bosom and acting on the mind, which prudence dictates us to smother. The fearful state in which the cotton trade in this country is placed we are no strangers to and our alarm to, alike for your welfare and ours, is I am sure commensurate with your own. We have been no party to it in word or in deed and whilst we are willing to suffer our fair share incident to the fearful crises which we are now passing, we think it neither comes within the scope of reason or of right to make the lions share of woe, want and misery fall upon us, whose constant and unremitting industry are everlastingly welling the golden tide of commerce.

We did and still think that the privations we must suffer through shortening the hours of labour, are sufficient without a reduction of our wages, which god knows even in the best of times are quite little enough. With the wages as they are, the lowest paid throughout the district, must convince you that with the present hours of labour our wages will scarcely be sufficient to keep body and soul together. With the present price of provisions and working short time too, under any circumstances we should complain and justly so too, of a reduction in our wages and, when our scanty and starvation meal is set upon the table for our wives and little ones, may we ask you if you can imagine for a single moment, that our reflections for you can be of the highest and holiest kind.

When our children kneel nightly at their mothers knee and ask the divine giver of all good to, “Give us this day our daily bread”, and we cannot procure for them half enough, can either heaven or we, smile upon those who would take more from us than circumstances or the present crises would demand. Do not forget gentlemen the years of good trade there have been and you know that the strippers and grinders of Preston were and actually are, receiving from six to seven shillings per week less than they are receiving in other districts. We have now addressed ourselves to you and now let us appeal, if not to your passion, at least to your Christian philanthropy and every noble sentiment that dignifies the human soul under severe trials and sufferings. When winter with stern authority has set in and every article of life is higher than usual, when the wail of suffering, hunger, cold and want arises from hundreds of thousands of the cottage homes of this and the surrounding counties, when the poor but industrious are staring at each other in wonder at the terrible crises by which they are surrounded, is this the time gentlemen to make our little less and make us curse instead of bless not only you, but the hour that gave us birth.

Rather no, but by a noble impulse of humanity make those generous sacrifices for a peoples good, that have adorned the brow of the noble and the great in all the ages of the worlds history. We now respectfully but urgently request you to consider our arguments and reconsider your offered reduction and let us endeavour, by a sacrifice on both sides, to weather this, the most fearful storm that has ever gathered over the manufacturing districts of Great Britain and Ireland. We remain gentlemen your obedient servants,

The Card Room Hands in Your Employ

Austin Ball, Secretary, Preston Card Room Workers. (PC Dec 4th 1861)

This plea for salvation fell on unsympathetic ears and the crushing wage reductions went ahead placing even more Preston families at the mercy of the soup kitchens, the parish relief officers and the dreaded workhouse..

Others saw emigration as the only possible solution. Austin Ball himself chose to escape the desperate poverty in Preston and left for America never to return in 1863. One year later as the Preston Chronicle reported, he was able to send a prepaid passage for his wife and two children to join him. They sailed from Liverpool on November 9th 1864. (PC Nov 12th 1864)

Even in relatively good times in Preston when trade was healthy, the daily struggle to earn enough money simply to purchase food was a forlorn task for some unfortunate folk.

Family on the Brink of Starvation

During February 1866 information was received by Mr Jump, the relieving officer, concerning a family who were said to be living under circumstances of the most abject destitution at a house in Stanley St. After calling at the home the official discovered a shocking sight. The house was occupied by an Irishman named Francis Gorman who was a shoemaker and whose wife was confined to bed. After visiting the bedroom Mr Jump found the woman almost starved to death. The room was in a filthy and wretched condition and absent of everything apart from a quantity of chaff in one corner, while in another corner was an old dirty looking bed. On this bed which was covered with an old sack and other portions of the same material, lay Mrs Gorman and an infant.

The child was completely naked until a neighbouring woman produced a piece of calico to wrap round it. The only food to be found in the house was a little bread and some tea in a jug which had been provided by the neighbour. Francis Gorman had lately been employed in making cheap slippers which he afterwards hawked from house to house but from which he made very little money. His wife had previously gone out cleaning and the eldest of their two children was learning the job of creeling in a cotton mill. The relieving officer was so concerned at the plight of the entire family that he ordered an immediate application for parish relief so food and clothing could be provided. A decision would later be made as to the welfare of the family and whether a referral to the workhouse would be required. (PC Feb 17th 1866)

An Abused Woman In Distress

At the Borough Police Court in March 1867 a woman who gave the name of Ellen Pigeon of 22 Canal St applied to the presiding Magistrates for advice. She stated her husband was a bricksetter’s labourer and that about three weeks previous she summoned him for violently assaulting her, for which he was ordered to do hard labour crushing rocks at the stoneyard, but since which time she had not seen him. She had seven children, the ages of which ranged from fourteen to two years, the eldest being a cripple. She was also due to give birth to another child very soon.

Two of the children worked at the mill and between them earned 8s/1d per week, which had been the sole weekly income since her husband had ignored the court order and deserted her. Out of this she had to pay 2s a week for the rent and because of her circumstances, had the previous week, applied to Mr Allen the relieving officer for assistance. Because of her inability to prove beyond doubt her husband had abandoned her, Mr Allen refused to help despite the poor woman pleading for relief. With nothing more than part of a loaf of bread for food in the house, Ellen Pigeon again went to see the relieving officer but was once again unable to get herself registered as eligible for parish relief, the officer maintaining he could not interfere in her case.

In desperation the woman informed the magistrates how she then begged the police to help. Constable Johnson was then tasked with arranging a meeting with the appropriate officials to investigate the woman’s circumstances. After listening intently to the pleas of the woman, the Mayor ordered that 5 shillings should be awarded to her from the poor box. In the meantime orders were also issued to the relevant authorities to make enquiries of the whereabouts of the husband. If it was ascertained that he had absconded as his wife maintained, then an order for relief for the applicant and her family would be granted. (PC March 23rd 1867)

A Pitiful Case-Children Destitute

Unemployment even for a comparatively short period, often brought about severe hardship. Such a case came to the attention of the authorities in August 1869, when police constables Giles and Norris visited the home of Richard Hoghton at Castle St, off Moor Lane. Here they found the unemployed widower and his four children in a state of absolute destitution,

The only income the entire family could rely upon was from the eldest child who was 13 years old and earning 3s/6d a week at Charnleys biscuit manufacturers. The police officers discovered there was no food in the house at all, no beds and not a single article of furniture. Richard Hoghton’s case was referred to the relevant authorities for consideration. (PC Aug 14th 1869)

Unable to Pay for Childs Burial

Even in death poverty could still play a cruel fate. In March 1872 a little child belonging to a poor man named Rigby of Dale Street, off New Hall Lane, passed away. With a weekly wage of just 13 shillings to support himself, his wife and two young children, only three shillings remained after paying for rent, food and fuel. Upon finding they were unable to afford the cost of a coffin and burial fees, the corpse of the poor child was kept in the house longer than it should have been. In desperation Mrs Rigby went to the Poor Relief office in Saul St to explain the dire circumstances of the family and to plead for a parish coffin, saying all the money they had in the world was three shillings. Unfortunately the relief officer refused the request and sent her away.

The Rigby’s eventually begged and borrowed enough money for a coffin and took the dead child to Preston cemetery. Once there they gave their last three shillings to the cemetery sexton as a down payment for the burial fees, while arranging to pay the remainder the following week. As the Preston Chronicle reported at the time, a little more sympathy and compassion shown by the Poor Relief officer as that shown by the sexton, could have alleviated much undue distress for the Rigby family whose only crime was to be poor. (PC March 16th 1872)

One of the greatest fears of working people who endured serious and prolonged periods of grinding poverty in Preston during the 19th century, was the threat of being incarcerated in the dreaded workhouse. Even though outdoor parish relief was sometimes awarded to unfortunate folk by the Poor Relief office in times of temporary crises, long term destitution more often than not meant food and warmth could only be obtained by admission to the workhouse.

These institutions were harsh unforgiving places administered like prisons and were families were separated on admission. Hard manual tasks such as crushing stones or unpicking old rope had to be carried out in exchange for food and a bed, while the social attitudes of the day led to the poor being stigmatised for their own misfortunes, even when brought about by unemployment or forces completely out of the individuals control. Working people came to fear greatly the long shadow of the workhouse and would often go to great lengths to avoid being sent there.

Handloom Weavers Fear of the Workhouse

Handloom weaving was once a huge industry across Britain and largely carried out within the weavers own homes at their time of choosing. However the gradual adoption of power operated weaving looms within the emerging cotton mills throughout the 1830’s onwards, led to a slow but terminal decline in hand weaving. Some still clung on to the age old practice of hand weaving but as prices for the completed cloth to these artisans depreciated over the years and the hours of work grew longer, many of these proud workers fell into increasing poverty.

Among them was John Abbott aged 55, whose humble circumstances during 1866 had led to him cohabiting with a woman named Maria Moss in a cellar in Little George St, Preston. Despite being ill for five or six weeks, Abbott had through necessity carried on working until the end of May but had been eventually confined to his bed. On Monday June 4thMaria Moss gave him some breakfast but was so concerned about him she visited the Overseers Office to secure a free charitable ticket for a doctor’s visit. Returning to the cellar dwelling twenty five minutes later she found the door closed and after peering through the window, discovered he was not in bed.

After managing to burst open the door she found Abbott under the water tap which was located about three foot from the ground. He had cloth attached round his neck which was fastened to the tap and had strangled himself. Maria Moss screamed out and several neighbours rushed to the cellar but it was too late, for John Abbott was dead. At the Coroner’s inquest Maria Moss explained how John Abbott was terrified of going into the workhouse and when she left the cellar on the day in question, he must have become convinced she was going for a “paper” to admit him there. (PC June 9th 1866)

Workhouse Inmate Found Drowned

Acute destitution brought about by illness or infirmity would also very often result in a one way ticket to the workhouse. Such a misfortune happened to a local man named William Nuttall 42, who was formerly a respected engine driver on the railway. However a stroke had left him partially paralysed and unable to walk without a stick, resulting in him losing his job. Unable to find any other work to earn a living and facing destitution, William Nuttall was admitted to the Preston workhouse on April 26th 1866. Unable to cope with the humiliation and the harsh regime of his incarceration, he left of his own accord on the morning of August 25th after informing a porter he would not be returning. Nuttall then visited his sister’s house, stayed for about an hour and a half then left in what appeared to be good spirits, but did not say where he intended going. Early the following morning a boatman on the canal near to the centre of town spotted a body floating in the water. The body was later identified as William Nuttall. (PC Sep’ 1st 1866)

Poverty was very often associated with unsanitary and unhealthy living conditions in dwellings usually occupied by the poorest in society. Outbreaks of disease would often flourish in these conditions as it did in 1849 in Preston.

Cholera in Vicker St

During July 1849 James Holden a glazier aged 48 living in Vicker St, off Walker St, went to his bed as usual around midnight. At somewhere near 3.00am in the morning Mr Holden, who had previously been in good health awoke with severe stomach cramps and vomiting. The pain soon spread throughout his whole body and the symptoms continued until daylight. Medical aid was finally summoned at 10 o’clock but when Dr Fearnside eventually arrived there was little he could do for the unfortunate man and he passed away at midday after being diagnosed with what the doctor believed was malignant cholera. Holden was reported to be living in a miserable, damp, low cellar with an unpaved floor and no proper ventilation in one of the poorest drained areas of Preston.

In the following month another fatal case of cholera occurred in Vicker St to a man named Dagger.The Preston Board of Health were so concerned at the filthy state of this particular street that they ordered it to be thoroughly cleansed, using a substantial amount of water supplied from one of the water companies mains. The fire officers, who initially witnessed the filthy state of the street, felt no surprise that two cholera deaths had occurred there and spent three hours completing the task. Vicker St was not the only one however said to be in such a terrible state.

The August monthly report of the Preston Dispensary highlighted the excessive incidents of diarrhea, dysentery and fever which had prevailed in Preston during July and which were chiefly confined to a few localities. The two fatal cases of cholera had both occurred in Vickers St. The terrible sanitary condition of this particular street had repeatedly been mentioned in previous Dispensary reports, in terms such as “Eminently favourable to the rise and propagation of disease”. Both the deceased cholera victims had occupied cellars, described as excessively damp, low, poorly ventilated and with the adjoining yards in a state of indescribable filth. (PC July 28th & Aug 4th 1849)

Death by starvation as well as disease was not uncommon, with people who lived alone particularly vulnerable. Such a case occurred in Preston in 1870 and was brought to the attention of the public at an inquest held at the Borough Police station by Coroner Miles Myers Esq.

Shocking Death of an Old Woman from Starvation

Sergeant Keefe of the Borough Police told the Coroners court how on Tuesday 27th December 1870, in consequence of information received he visited the home of Alice Hodgkinson aged 60 who resided at 71 Pleasant St. After finding the door closed and fastened, he forced an entrance and on entering the kitchen found the deceased upon the floor with her face to the ground and lying in vomit. Her face was also discoloured on the left side, which appeared to have been caused by the coldness of the ground. She was partially dressed having no clothing on from the waist up and had one stocking and one boot on. The mattress on the bed was rested upon the stairs and there were a number of old rags strewn on the chair and on the floor.

There were no signs of a disturbance at the property but it was in a very wretched looking condition, badly furnished and very cold. June Gregson a widow, deposed to seeing the deceased on the morning of her death and observed her to be sober but in an emaciated condition. Ignatius Hodgkinson, the son of the deceased and a cart driver of Preston was the next to give evidence. He informed the court how his mother was never married and made a living by cleaning. Since marrying earlier in the year and leaving home he did not know if his mother had been working on a regular basis but did promise to pay her rent when he visited the previous week. He claimed the last time he had seen his mother alive she had not eaten that day and he asked her several times to come and live with him, but she would not give a definite answer. Her rent was two shillings a week.

A verdict was returned that Alice Hodgkinson died from the effects of starvation.The Coroner also severely reprimanded her son for the neglect of his mother after commenting how he was in a good enough position to have allowed her at least 3 or 4 shillings a week. (PC Dec’ 31st 1870)

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