Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Poverty, TB, and a declining trade ........... Derby 1848

“The poor you will always have with you”


Jane Lowe, circa 1870s
So might have begun any one of countless sermons in churches across Derbyshire in the summer of 1848. Its message would not have been lost on the family of George Lowe who had died aged just 37 in the June of that year.

 He left a wife and four children and had worked in a declining industry where wages were falling, and job security was increasingly uncertain. His death must have pitched the family even closer to the poverty line. Of all my families theirs seems to have been lived at the hardest end.

George was a framework knitter. This had been a well paid and secure occupation in his youth. In 1800 there had been 45,000 knitting frames in the country with most of them concentrated in the East Midlands with Derby as the centre of silk knitting.

The family lived in Leper Street and he may have worked from home or in one of factory units set up by enterprising businessmen who rented out machines to framework knitters. The knitting machine was a little taller than an upright piano. It was operated by foot pedals and by the nineteenth century machines could knit five or six rows of knitting with 288 stitches a row in a minute.

There is a lot of tosh written about the working lives of men like George. To the opponents of the new factory system he was his own master, free to work when he wanted with his family around him in surroundings which were very different from the noisy and dangerous factories. But he had to buy in candles, heat the workroom and was at the mercy of those he supplied his finished work to.

Nevertheless George might well feel confident that his was a secure future. Unlike cotton and wool the silk industry was slow to move over to factory production. Both framework knitters and their employers resisted industrialization.

This was partly because both believed that the factory product was inferior but also because the employers had invested a lot of capital in the machines they rented out to men like George.
But fashions change and just as the demand fell away the number of framework knitters had been on the increase. Some now only worked for two or three days a week but George was still expected to pay the full rent on the machine.

At the beginning 1848 he developed tuberculosis. Not that he would have needed a doctor to tell him. The symptoms were well known and feared in the 19th century. The cough and the tell tale blood stains were a give away, and then there were the fevers, night sweats and weight loss. The family would have been alerted to the first signs in January and by June he was dead.

This was a real tragedy in many ways. Maria was now faced with stark choices of how to make ends meet. She could ask for help from the Guardians of the Poor Law, but the new regulations introduced just fourteen years earlier were harsh and impersonal. Help would only come if she consented to go into the Workhouse, and here she would be separated from her children. If she were lucky she might be able to take the two youngest children with her but Mary who was thirteen and George who was eleven would be placed in other parts of the workhouse.

How she coped in the first few years after her husband’s death in unknown, but by 1851 she was working as were two of her children and she had taken in a lodger. Even so these were hard years and during the next twenty years she worked at a variety of jobs. At one time she was working in the silk industry, later still she was a charwoman.

It was an unremitting life of toil for little money, and for many like Maria and her children it was lived against that backdrop of having finally to seek relief in the workhouse. Their diet was poor and living conditions grim.

So we should not be surprised that all three Lowe women died young. Maria succumbed to TB aged 62 as did her daughter Maria who was just 43 and Mary her other daughter at 46. Both daughters left young children. Mary had left three and Maria seven.

I tried find where they lived recently but as you can expect there is little trace. Leaper Street where the family lived in the 1840s has been redeveloped and Clover Street which was between Watson and Leyland Streets had vanished completely. The poor are indeed always with us but the record of their lives, their contributions and even their thoughts do not often survive. Which I guess is a salutatory lesson to any family historian.

Picture; Jane Lowe, one of the daughters of George and Matria Lowe, born in 1844, by kind permission of Josephine Read, in the collection of Andrew Simpson

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