The Framework Knitters 1821

Almost ten years on from the 1812 ‘Declaration of the Framework knitters’, conditions for the framework knitters of the counties of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester has not seen any sign of improving. The pay for these workers, of whom there were estimated to be about 15,000 in these three counties, was insufficient to keep them in daily bread. Each family was suffering from abject poverty and some from starvation. The knitters would spend between 15 and 16 hours a day at the frames making stockings.

The work of the stocking maker continued in this way seven days a week and were paid between 5s and 7s a week for that labour. Bread was the staple diet for the poor in this period but bread for one person would cost about 1s. A family of five may eat up to 4s of bread a week (at a subsistence level) how then could they manage? Their weekly income also had to cover rent and whatever else they needed.

The frame-workers operated in their own properties.

What was the cause of the low wages?

The hosiers were the owners of the manufacturing businesses. They employed the frameworkers to knit the stockings, renting out the frames to the household and providing the yarns to make the finished product. The hosiery trade, once seen as producing good quality products into a buoyant market had seen an influx of unscrupulous manufacturers who had entered the trade with little or no capital behind them. They forced down the quality of the product and decreased wages until they were below subsistence level. A minority of manufacturers saw the need to do something about the intolerable conditions, they recognized that it was an unsustainable set of circumstances but without the support of their fellow manufacturers, could not or did not take the necessary action to make changes. Their advice to their workers was to throw themselves upon the public and charitable organisations for temporary support until the reluctant manufacturers changed their position. This the workers did, in a considered and sensible manner they addressed the public and won a great deal of respect for the manner in which they carried themselves. These men and women, the starving and exhausted frameworkers were described thus;

“Never were privations so distressing, endured with more manly fortitude : and for my own part, I cannot look back on the patience and constancy displayed through such a protracted scene of suffering, without ascribing it to a calm confidence in that providence which sooner or later never, fails to interpose in behalf of such as trust in it, and which at length has inspired wisdom to discover, and resolution to apply the only remedy. They have deplored their misery, they have exhibited their grievances to the view of the public in the language of nature and of truth, but rarely if ever have they forgotten their duties.”

From a pamphlet ‘An appeal to the public on the subject of the framework knitters fund’ 1821

So what were they asking the public for?

They were addressing the noblemen and gentlemen of the counties to take up their cause for them and through investigation find some way of rectifying the dreadful situation they found themselves in. They hoped that sympathetic gentlemen might intercede on their behalf to negotiate some sort of deal for them. What they wanted was to strike a permanent deal between themselves and their employers.

A knitting frame.

The problem lay in the inadequate system of poor relief.

The problem in part, rested with unemployed workers, of which there were hundreds of thousands in this period, offering their work for below a sustainable wage, forcing wages lower and lower. The unemployed, still in the minority, should have received poor relief but the system failed them and so this surplus supply of labour had the effect of bringing about a universal depression. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog, in that the misery of the minority, instead of heralding an adequate support system became a signal to spread the calamity of unemployment so that it affected all workers. The workers were not asking for anything more than a sustainable wage. They offered to work longer hours, it was never an issue of asking for shorter hours or more holidays but enough money to put food on the table. Although prices for the goods lower than in the past demand remained high. Driving down the wages of the workers was the result of greedy manufacturers.

Competition among the hosiers.

As commented on earlier, hosier manufacturers who entered the trade with insufficient capital, were creating a whirlpool of poverty. They made an inferior product at a cheaper price. They drove the market downwards and more respectable hosiers followed, the trade of hosiery was being degraded. These hosiers placed other demands on the frameworkers, for example they could demand that as they changed the pattern, such as requiring them to make making fuller hosiery, the frameworker had to pick up the cost of the extra yarn involved. Poorer quality hosiery could not hold its own in foreign markets. British hosiery goods had always competed with foreign goods based on the superior quality of the British product. Poor quality products could not compete in foreign home markets. Many manufacturers knew this and were very troubled by it. Tradesmen of all descriptions were anxious for a positive outcome for the frameworkers. The majority of manufacturers saw that higher wages meant an increased spending power that would benefit all sectors of trade.

Fear of pauperism.

Pauperism served nobody in society well and there was a very real fear in those anarchic times that such an existence amongst those ready and willing to work could be the catalyst for the revolution they all feared. It was thought that if others in society stood by and did nothing about the conditions of the frame-workers then the plight of the frame-workers would soon become their problem. The value of land and housing was falling where the greatest concentration of frame-workers lived. It was hoped that good government would prevail and that the strong hand of the law which might be brought into force, would be stayed. It wasn’t merely a question between the framework knitters and their employers but also between the land-renters and the hosiers, between the land-owners and the hosiers, in fact, between parishes and hosiers. It was a question of whether the hosiers of character and feeling would allow those more disreputable manufactures to take over the trade.

It had been tried before.

It was not the first time such an appeal had been made by the workers. In one part of Leicestershire prior to 1821, a union of parishes was formed. Parochial subscriptions were raised and the workmen themselves contributed a share to the general fund. Noblemen and Gentlemen of the county took an interest in the business and a provision was made in support of the framework knitters who had been refused a formerly agreed upon wage. This meant an equitable rate of wages was secured for the workers. The parishes benefited from being relieved of a constant and heavy burden, which they faced providing poor relief to these workers. The workers were lifted to a subsistence wage and could thus feed and provide housing for themselves and the hosiers had no trouble selling their higher priced, better quality goods into the markets. The small increase in the price of the hosiery was not even felt by most of the purchasers. The local economy benefited because these workers made up the bulk of the population.

“Suppose in a particular parish a hundred frames at work, and each of the Framework-knitters earns, clear of all deductions, ten shillings a week instead of six, that parish is benefited to the amount of a thousand pounds yearly and, considering the inadequacy, of the former,wages to procure the necessaries of life, the, alteration will be nearly equivalent to an annual donation of a thousand Pounds to the parochial, Treasure.”

Still unscrupulous manufacturers could not be stopped .

The more unscrupulous manufacturers were not interested in the new unionand promptly took their business to workers in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire where they did not have to deal with the union. The ‘Stocking Workers Fund’ as it became known, could only be a temporary measure, the fall back position was poor relief provided by the parish. It would take a union to ensure that change was permanent and acts of parliament that were enforceable to bring about real rights to a living wage for workers.

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