Weaver and Miners At Airdrie

from Chambers Edinburgh Journal 1850

We had lately occasion to spend some time in the populous weaving and mining district of Airdrie in the west of Scotland. Nothing struck us more than the great longevity of many of the original inhabitants of the place, who in their old years have been subjected to all the privation consequent on low wages for the last twenty years. One of these we found to be above ninety years of age, and several others had reached the age of seventy or eighty. Some of these old men are paupers, and depend on the small pittance allowed them by the parish, amounting to about 4s. a month, and the casual charity of the people of the place. On the other hand, it is exceedingly rare to meet with a hale old man belonging to any other class - old men among the mining population are exceedingly rare.

The privations to which the handloom weavers have been subjected have been the means of making the most of their young men turn their attention to the more lucrative occupation of mining, so that the marriage of a weaver is rather a rare occurrence. The miners, however, are under no restraint in this respect, and the number of children belonging to them is sufficiently numerous to excite surprise, as well as forebodings of want and misery.

Among the handloom weavers, those who have families appeared to have suffered least from the pressure of the times. Their sons and daughters being generally put to the loom at the age of eight or nine years, become in a short time able to make as much as 1s. per day; and this, added to their fathers' income, creates a kind of competence we do not meet with in families differently situated. It doubtless requires the greatest frugality to make 'the two ends meet.' Meal and milk and Scotch broth are the chief fare. It is no uncommon thing for the wife of a weaver to follow the same occupation as himself, particularly when there are few or no children in the case. His condition is also often much ameliorated by the employment of apprentices, who are frequently obtained from the charity workhouses of Edinburgh or Glasgow. These it is his duty to feed, clothe, and educate by sending to a night school; though, we must add, this latter part of his duty is often sadly neglected. With all these means, the married weaver is often a respectable, well-dressed, church-going individual: the blanched and sunk cheek, however, generally tells a tale of privation and suffering which has been endured with a patience altogether unexampled.

The weavers are by no means satisfied that they receive justice from their employers. Prices, they maintain, are kept unnecessarily low. They seem to forget that this is the result of excessive competition. But there is another ground of complaint which we have often heard made by them—namely, that when work is scarce, and it becomes a favour to obtain a web from a warehouse, there is a continually expressed dissatisfaction at the quality of the workmanship, and stoppages made, which would not be submitted to in better times. It is to be hoped that this censure, if just, can only apply to a few.

The old mining body has been wonderfully changed in its composition, in consequence of the introduction of labourers and weavers into the pits and mines during the period of their many strikes. Their wages, from the same cause, are reduced from 5s. to 2s. 6d. or 3s. per day. The continual agitation the body kept up when they enjoyed high wages, and their often not working more than half time, in order that the stock of minerals at the pit's mouth might not be too much augmented, led to a resolution on the part of the masters to withstand the claims constantly being made for enlarged wages; and the effect has been so far ruinous to the miner, that his wages are not much more than one-half of what they used to be, and his monopoly of employment destroyed. Under these circumstances, he perseveringly vents his discontent; but unavailingly. When the question is considered in a moral point of view, it is doubtful whether the miners are not better with a moderate than a high wage, the latter in all instances having led them into extravagant ideas of their own importance and into unreasonable demands. Considering, however, the nature of his work, its unhealthy character, and the danger to which the miner is exposed as to loss of life and limb, it is unjust to deny him the means of a comfortable subsistence, and of saving something against old age. It seems to be a general opinion that he should be able to make 3s. 6d. a day, even at the present low market prices of food and clothing. What in many parts prevents them doing so is, that the able-bodied man is not allowed to dig a greater quantity of coal or stone than the old and the infirm, and when a day is lost, the loss cannot be repaired by extra toil on the ensuing day or days. Combination has been the bane of the mining body, and in parts of the country where it does not exist, the workman is invariably in better circumstances.

It is not to be wondered at that men toiling in the bowels of the earth should be comparatively ignorant of what occurs in the upper world, and accordingly colliers are proverbial for their ignorance. This by no means applies to the whole of the body, many of which are as intelligent and enlightened men as are to be met with among other trades. The cause of the ignorance alluded to is partly, if not wholly, the early age at which their boys are sent into the pit. A boy above ten years of age is rarely to be seen in a school situated at a colliery. The boys are taken into the pit at this early age, and made to assist the elder ones in drawing. The father is entitled to 'put out' a quarter more than his allotted task; thus, if he made 3s. a day, he now earns 3s. 9d. At later periods the 'quarter man' becomes a 'half man,' and a 'three-quarter man,' and finally a whole man when he attains his seventeenth year. It is designed that the boy should attend the evening school, but the attendance is very irregular in general; and there he merely learns to write and cipher, or read the merest elementary book. It would be great injustice to say of the miners as a body that they are given to drunkenness. A drinking-bout after the pay, however, is only too frequent, and the use of tobacco is general.

How much this class of men may be improved, the history of Chapelhall, a village connected with Monkland Steel Works, will show. It was eighteen years ago a mere hamlet, consisting of a few newly-built houses and one old farm-house. It is now a considerable village, with perhaps from 2000 to 3000 inhabitants, and consists of well-built and comfortable houses of one and two storeys, the interiors of which are usually well furnished. Nearly one-half of the village is the property of the workmen, a number of whom are 'lairds' of several tenements. These lairds are industrious men, to whom the proprietor of the estate, John Roberton, Esq., Laehup, lent money as soon as they were able to add a few pounds to it, to build a house suited to the family of the borrowers. This money, obtained at 5 per cent . interest, and payable with the feu duty, the feuar becomes naturally anxious to pay up ; and often in a year or two he has been able to do so by savings from his own earnings and that of his family. When this has been done, another sum, adequate to build another house, is at his command ; and thus on the same feu there have been reared, in process of time, a number of houses, from which the feuar derives a considerable yearly income. The erection of a house consisting of one apartment, containing a window and two beds, costs little more than L.30, and a rental of L.3, or even L.3, 10s., is obtained for it. Many of the houses, however, consist of a room and kitchen.

The plan of assessment for educational purposes at these works, which are very extensive, deserves notice and imitation. Every man and boy employed at the work is assessed twopence per week for school fees, for which he can send one scholar, or attend himself. For every additional scholar he is charged an additional penny. The sum thus collected at the office is divided among the various schoolmasters - of whom there are six, besides assistants - according to the number of scholars attending each. The sum collected from those who do not attend school or send a child to it is equally divided among the six teachers. The entire amount thus collected in one month is above L.70, leaving about L.2 a week for each of the principal teachers, and L.1 for his assistant. The effect of the system is to draw out the children, who, were their parents not forced to pay, would, in perhaps a majority of instances, be allowed to remain at home.

The crowded state of the schools, some of which are attended by from 150 to 200 scholars, will furnish some idea of the progress of population. I have often asked myself what is to become of the mass of beings brought into existence at these and the similar works in the neighbourhood when the blackband ironstone becomes exhausted, which it must do at no distant date? In reply, the ironstone of Scotland is almost inexhaustible, and while the Monkland coal lasts, the furnaces will blaze away and the sound of industry be heard; but there seems little reason to expect, as the population increases at these works, as increase it must, that a demand for labour will also arise ; and what, then, will become of the redundant population? Much misery ere long must ensue: the girls must go to service to town, and the boys find employment elsewhere, either in their native land, or with their expatriated brethren in America, Australia, or Natal; where, though years of toil may await them, with perseverance and virtuous industry, competence, independence, and happiness are sure to be ultimately obtained. [Chambers Edinburgh Journal 1850]