Oldham Historical Research Group

'Written during the cotton famine'

"DRAGGED UP" by Ben Brierley

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The schoolmaster shambled to his desk, and opening it, took out a roll of manuscript which had the appearance of being recently penned. " This," saidhe, " I wrote merely to remind myself of what I have been—what I am—never intending it for publication. If it is worth anything to you-—take it and welcome."

I unrolled the MS., and read as follows :—"I was born at the very antipodes of ' Silverspoonia,' the denizen of a tumbledown ' barrack' situated in an obscure corner of that poor devil county which is now driven to showing its hat-lining to the world. I am what a Yorkshireman would call a ' Lanky,' and perhaps as poor a specimen of the cotton county's human produce as ever trouncedbarefoot through its lanes, or shuddered at the sound of its factory bells. I was born a mistake, Ihave lived a mistake, and the probability is that I shall end my days in the position of one whose existence has been without a purpose.

" Friend, if thou knowest not the meaning of the term 'dragged up,' I will explain it to thee. It is to be educated by a kick, fed upon the tender mercies of a stepfather, and clothed by the rightful inheritance of the 'parish mop.' Thou hast it now—the outline of my history—the life of a ' White-toppin,' for by such a name was the little colony I belonged to known.


"I have often heard it boasted by my foster-parent that I was born in the largest house in Birchwood, an assertion that once had its truth disputed by a squire farmer, heir to fifty acres and a big whitewashed hall, but who was, not- withstanding his wealth, a lout of the greenest furrow. The fellow, however, became convinced, when, after receiving a benediction from my father's fist, I was forced to proclaim from the elevation of a taproom form, that I drew my first breath in the parish workhouse. I was indeed a pauper born, and I believe the distinction which my station conferred upon me at birth will stick to me until this 'mortal coil' be ' shuffled off.'

"It would be an injustice to my mother, who showed as much kindness for me as her means would allow, were I not to say that it was through the most pardonable of a thousand faults that I thus became 'monarch of nothing I surveyed,' and heir to the spoon and can of a 'White—toppin.' The poor woman who committed the sin of bringing me into the world—a squealing burden on a one-and-fourpenny rate—was a widow when she bore me. My father died of a diabetes after about four months' illness; and my mother, who had to support both, besides four children, by weaving, had no means of keeping her own bed when her turn came to need it. She was of well-to-do parents, but disobeying them by marrying my father (the 'old, old story '), they would not look at her in her travail, nor give a sixpence to help her. I consequently became one of the family of 'White-toppins,' called the governor 'daddy,' and shared with six other unfortunate 'babbies' the oaken cradle of the 'big heause' at Birchwood. I was thus cast at the foot of life, with no higher aspiration possessing my youthful breast than what is expressed in the hungry sentiment, 'Thick porridge and plenty of 'em! '

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"As I have no remembrance of the 'dadin' (leading string) period, I must commence my history at the event of my departure into the wide world, when I left the many-familied home of the 'White—toppins' to assist my mother in keeping herself poor, and run about in almost the nakedness of a little savage on the village common. With the blessing of the governor (he was a kind man, only he had a mania for stroking my short-haired sconce the wrong way about, which sometimes made me wince), we turned our heels on the workhouse, and planted our imaginary vine and fig tree at a poor tenement that held the lease of its existence at the mercy of the brook that flowed past it. Here my mother set up her loom and her cap at the same time, for she had not the least notion of remaining a widow so long as there was a marriageable fellow in Highfield, and ' Tummy Turndeawn,' it was known, had cast an eye upon her. 'Tummy Turndeawn!' how I remember his first stalking into our cottage, and asking my mother if she would allow him to hang up his hat on the empty peg; and how my mother blushed, and said 'he met if he would.'

" In her second edition of housekeeping my parent had to economise most rigidly. Butter to our bread was out of the question, and treacle was only allowed on Sundays. But the porridge-dish was as constantly before our vision as the trough to hungry pigs.

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The cry was ' porridge at morn, porridge at noon, porridge at night, porridge again, mam?' for we lived a life of spoonwork, and right glad we were of a constant supply of even such humble fare. It was a picture to see us assemblod round the table—as eager to commence our meal as if it had been ' Kesmas bo,' (Christmas pudding) or the glorious Lancashire potato-pie; and woe to the one who lost the start. My brother Bill once let his spoon fall on the floor, and the yell ho set up through this mishap made my mother think he had scalded himself, which was a frequont occurrnce with us. Generally speaking we had milk to our porridge, but there were times when such a dainty could not be afforded. Then we had to fall back upon the less costly edible of a farthing 'humbug' stuck in the middle of the dish, at which we all dipped in turns, and being hard to melt, it was amusing to hear our spoons rattle against it. "

One blessed trait of my mother's character was the desire to see her progeny endowed with some kind of education. In acoordance with this wish I was put to school as soon as I could ' toddle' and received both nursing and instruction for the fee of two pence weekly, and monthly fire ponny. It may be a matter of wonder that our schooling cost so little; but it is accounted for by the fact that our pedagogue was a gingham weaver, and taught us our lessons whilst occupied at his loom. Our A. B. C. was pasted on tho loomhouse wall, and was printed in such large characters that we could easily have discerned thom across the lane.

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We stood in rows betwoon the loom and the wall, and whenevor we stuck fast in our lesson old Wardley would call out any letter that occurred to him, and we went through the alphabet rightly or wrongly, just as might happen. We were a picturesque group as I well remember; I in my blue pinafore, fustian frock, and linsey petticoat, and the rest with costumes as varied in fashion and quality as any Lancashire lane will present during the period of the cotton famine. It may easily be guessed what character of instruction I received whilst being trained at this establishment, and how qualified I was after a twelve-months' probation, to be called 'learned up' and put to the nursery stool to tease into fits the first instalment of my mother's second family batch. "My stepfather, or as we always called him ' Tummy Turndeawn,' had his own peculiar notions of household economy. He went upon the principle that the same outlay should serve for any number of family; consequently the porridge dish grew no bigger, though additions were made to the consumers, and if the number of treacle cakes increased the thickness diminished in proportion. Beside, the same clothing had to do for six of us as had previously been required for only four ; —each description of garment being handed down from the eldest to the next younger, and so on, as the wearer outgrew it, until it descended to the youngest born, who was, as a matter of course, the raggedest fellow of the lot. " After the seventh offspring, viz., five ' Toottys' and two 'Turndeawns,' my mother ceased to have children, and we had no longer the dismal tidings of a ' new babby ' to put us in dread of shorter fare. By this time my brother Joe had begun to earn four shillings per week at the

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factory; being employed as a 'middle piecer,' because his legs were too long for a 'scavenger} In addition to his ordinary wages he had a penny per week for himself, which at first he said he would save up until he could buy England with the accumulated stock. The prodigal fellow looked grand in our eyes, and the prospect of becoming at some time the possessors of so much wealth, spread visions of finery and loads of porridge before us that made our future look like 'promise land.' Then my brother Bill had got put to the 'rope-walk' He had to turn a handle from six in the morning till seven at night, with two hours off for meals, and a good larruping if he fell asleep over his work. For this employment he received the magnificent weekly salary of eighteenpence, and nothing for himself. The stinginess implied in the latter condition nearly broke the poor fellow's heart. A penny for his own pocket would have made him so proud that he would hardly have known whose handle he turned; but it was refused him ; so he ran away from his place, and after absenting himself from home for several days, he returned — got his licking over, and went to seek more congenial employment at the bottom of a coalpit. "In the order of family events it came to my turn to be put to work. I was made a 'little piecer' and worked at 'Pie Johnny's' mill. They called my employer by that deliciously sounding nickname because his father used to hawk mutton pies from alehouse to alehouse round the villages, by which vocation he made a small fortune that enabled him to put his son into the cotton trade. Johnny was a stingy fellow, and a tyrant in his way; always walked about the mill with a strap

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under his coat, and if he caught any of us playing, although our 'ends were up,' he made us feel the weight of it. He had, beside, the reputation of reducing wages to more than a justifiable extent, by making 'abatements' on what he called 'spoiled work.' These practices caused him to have the worst class of workpeople, who were little tyrants themselves, which I found out to the cost of many a good bruising. The spinner I worked for was fond of his drink, and when he had been on the 'batter' a day or two, and was getting round, he made such fearful noises at us, and swore such dreadful oaths, that we were in constant fear of his some day going further than a mere 'treawncing,' and killing us outright. Once I happened to stumble over a 'slip' and knock the 'faller' down just as the 'jenny' was getting at the ' stretch.' Every thread of the many hundreds snapped in an instant, and the next moment I found myself descending the steps at a greater speed than I had ever done before, being, as I believe, materially assisted in my descent by the momentum of a kick, given by I know not who, but whom I have cause to suspect. My stepfather said I must not go to the factory again, which I thought was very kind of him for once; but discovered afterwards that it was not from any good feeling towards me that I was thus to be rid of mill life, but that he had found out I ` should be of greater use at home. A bobbin—winder was wanted, consequent upon my sister, the next older, going to live with Farmer 'Stubble' as his little milkmaid. To the service of the 'twelve apostles'—for such an appellation had been given by a facetious neighbour to the twelve-

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spoked wheel — I was accordingly put, and I believe it would be impossible to invent an occupation that I should detest so much as I did thc turning of that humdrum wheel. I could not pick the knots out of the silk to give satisfaction, which led to thc continued utterance of threats on thc part of 'Tummy Turndeawn ' that I should have the 'knots'
taken out of me. Then if the bobbin I wound was in other respects so bad that the thread would not keep whole, it was sure to be stripped from the shuttle and flung at my head, so that I became a target for a sort of 'cloddin' gallery, and had the privilege of having my hair dressed by this novel process scveral times a day. Then I was always driven to a stretch for bobbins, which was another source of torment to me. I would do anything rather than turn thc obnoxious wheel - carve letters on the stool, stand upon my head in the corner, or upset thc machine and wheel it about like one side of a handcart. I was once caught at thc latter practice, and just as I was trundling my vehiclc into thc 'fowt,' and had sung out ' Stond furr, childer, this is eaur cart,' I felt something clutch at my hair, and thc next moment a strong 'batting rod' fell foul of my back, being wielded by the merciless hand of 'Tummy Turndeawn,' who knew how to administer such doses to perfection.

"After continuing at this occupation until my knees got too high for thc spindle, I was taken away to assist my mother at the loom; and thus becamc placed more under the surveillance of my stepfather. I should not have made a weavcr if I had kept at the occupation until this day. I do not know exactly why. It was not that I altogether disliked the business,

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but somehow I was unlucky with it. I could not make good cloth. I could not strike an even 'blow,' and if I whistled whilst throwing the shuttle, I was sure to forget the pattern. At last our folks were threatened to be turned without work if they ever again allowed me to get upon the loom. This looked like a finisher for me, and a life of vagabondage appeared to be my inevitable lot.

"To give me another trial, and see if a coarser and more laborious kind of employment would suit me better, I was sent to work upon a farm; but caught a fever through having no more sense than stand in a ditch all day, emptying water that flowed in as fast as I could scoop it out. What a mercy it would have been to the rising generation if it had pleased fate to have given me my quietus at that time! It would beside have spared me many a long day's misery; for, in spite of my blundering and ill-luck, I still thought it possible that I might have been of use in some sphere if I had only been taken kindly to at the outset. But it was to be otherwise, and when every other source of employment failed, I was engaged to thrash small boys at the village school, the master of which was afflicted with palsy. This gave me an opportunity of picking up a smattering of education, so that when the old pedagogue gave up his ruler and nightcap I took his place, and assumed duties that had been successively discharged by cripples and unfortunates for many generations before me. I had at length found an occupation that in some respects suited my temperament. There was no one to drive or scold me, nobody to find fault with my work, for the parents of my pupils were too ignorant themselves to know whether their children made any

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progress or not under my tuition. The former were satisfied if the youngsters were kept out of mischief, and the latter lived in wholesome fear of the rod, so that I had a moderately comfortable time of it when compared to the dog's life I had led before.

"Well, I occupy the old oaken chair still, and wield the inevitable 'switch.' I open my school shutters at nine in the morning and close them at five in the afternoon. I have a reputation for being regular and somewhat austere in my habits, which gives me an importance in the eyes of my neighbours that greatly smooths my way. But it sometimes gives me a pang when I reflect how much more learning they give me credit for than I really possess, and how prevalent the notion is among country people that when a man is fit for nothing else they ought to make a schoolmaster of him. Alas! they take little into account how some of us have been 'dragged up.' "

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