Friday, March 17, 2006

Back to Work!

A few years ago we had a rare little 24-page pamphlet written and printed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1783, addressed to the workers in his factories. In 1783 the war with America and the Industrial Revolution had both caused unrest in the manufacturing districts of England. The cotton spinners were destroying their own factories and robbers and highwaymen ruled the roads. To the general unrest was added resentment at provision dealers who were felt to be overcharging the poor and taking advantage of the workers. A mob seized one of Wedgwood's barges and sold the contents at auction, whereupon Wedgwood sent for help and received a company of Welsh Fusileers and Staffordshire Militia, who arrested and hanged several of the alleged culprits.

After the tumult had calmed, Wedgwood made an address to the workmen of his factory which was also printed up in pamphlet form and distributed amongst them. Dated March 27th, 1783, Wedgwood addresses "My Young Friends", assuring them that they are more apt to be deluded and lacking in judgment than those of "riper years". He drew their attention to the difficulty of judging which side to take, and which side is right and which is wrong, especially in "the unsettled state of the mind in the midst of riot and tumult", but he also drew their attention to "the danger of judging and acting wrong" -no doubt a pointed reference to those about to be swinging from local gallows.

Wedgwood called for calm, explained at length the reasons for food and provision shortages, pointing out that the farmer and tradesman must also make a living, and outlined at length his own proposals for renewed commerce and betterment of trade. He ended by urging the workmen to consider themselves lucky to be working under the paternalism of the factory system which had bettered their condition considerably from what their parents enjoyed-

"I would request you to ask your parents for a description of the country we inhabit when they first knew it... Their houses were miserable huts; the lands poorly cultivated... roads almost impassable... Compare this picture...with the present state of the country. The workmen earning near double their former wages -their houses mostly new and comfortable, and the lands, roads and every other circumstance bearing evident marks of the most pleasing and rapid improvements. From whence, and from what cause has this happy change taken place? Industry is the parent of this happy change."

In other words, be quiet and get back to work.

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