Part of my light relief in the last few months has been reading original letters to and from my family in the 1840s. It was a time of great upheaval politically and my great great grandfather was at the centre of it. He was a great reforming MP and his letters cover all the major ills of the day; from limiting the hours of factory workers to ten hours (his main interest) to tackling the inequities and inhumanity of the Poor Law and attempts to promote universal suffrage. At one stage he was responsible for introducing a vast petition by the Chartists into Parliament.
His family business was centred on spinning and weaving cotton and the family mills were possibly the largest in England, making family members very wealthy. Despite this he wanted to reduce the workers’ hours and claimed that this would not reduce output or profitability; if he could do it, he argued, so could other millowners.
The breadth and range of letters cover all branches of society; from fellow campaigners such as Lord Ashley (later Earl of Shaftesbury), Richard Oastler, Richard Cobden and Charles Hindley to committees of working people from Yorkshire, Lancashire and even Scotland. Most cover the ups and downs of trying to get the ten hour legislation through Parliament against regular opposition backed by other millowners and the editor of The Economist. Flowery or militant language is regularly used – the talk is of the struggle, our enemies and battles. The letters tell of riots, demonstrations and processions, (as well as political underhand dealing and an assassination attempt on Sir Robert Peel), chicanery and backstabbing. Plus c̡a change. Fielden’s wealth was a great advantage; he was able to finance Richard Oastler and help him out of prison and he helped other individuals in financial hardship; thus, many of the letters are begging for his support for all kinds of causes.
Today’s postal service is pathetic compared with that shown by these letters. The one penny postage guaranteed next day delivery throughout the kingdom and writers apologised profusely if they failed to reply within one day. Since many of the letters are long and obviously handwritten by gas or candlelight (and often accompanied by a painstaking copy of a reply), this is a great indicator of the time devoted to correspondence – as well as the speed and efficiency of the mail coach and train. Mail collections were very frequent and reliable and this continued for some time; in the 1960’s there were six collections a day from the humble street in Islington where I lived; thus allowing a response to a letter posted in the morning to be received later the same day.
The language and style in nineteenth century letters is a delight. There is enormous courtesy even between close family members – “Honourable sir” or “My dear father” is a wonderful change from “Hi”, while to conclude “I am Dear Sir, yours truly” to one’s father beats a grinning emoji.
There are some surprises in the bundle of papers. A curious letter to my gt gt grandfather from George Hudson (known as the “Railway King”) enclosed a third party’s defence of him against a passenger in the same railway carriage who had accused him of dishonesty in the way he raised funds for a new railway. In fact the critic was absolutely right, since Hudson was carrying out a massive Ponzi scheme and three years later his fraud was unveiled and he ended up in prison. Another little curiosity is a Harrogate hotel bill from 1827 of £18 for 8½ days that includes a charge for just four hot baths at three shillings each (for his family of three), as well as lots of sherry, brandy and ale. Perhaps they all shared the same hot soapy water.
After my immersion in all this I return to earth with a thump; at least we have more and cheaper hot water, but the political climate is very similar. It’s back to demonstrations, political chicanery and huge societal challenges.