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A CITY'S DESOLATION.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “TAE UNTOLY WISH.”
I. Up to about the completion of the first quarter of the present century, few strangers could enter the city we are pleased to call Riverton, without being struck with its clean, flourishing, and handsome appearance. A prosperous town it indeed was : its manufactures, the staple trade of the county, increasing in magnitude and importance; affording ample employment to the lower classes, who were contented, industrious, and happy.
That good and respected man, Mr. George Arkell, passed away, in the course of time, to that place which is waiting to receive us all. His wife followed him within the year. A handsome fortune, independently of the flourishing manufactory, was left to their only son, our friend William. Mr. William Arkell walked in the steps of his father : none, throughout Riverton, were more honoured than he : his benevolence, his probity, his high character were universally known and appreciated. Three children were born to him. His son, the eldest, was named Travice, after his mother's family : the two others were girls.
Peter Arkell also married; but worldly affairs did not prosper with him as they did with his more fortunate cousin. Ill health compelled him to resign his situation in the city bank, and he obtained a somewhat precarious living by teaching writing and the classics in various schools and families in the town. Fortunately, he had not a large family-only one daughter.
And poor Mildred Arkell, what had become of her? She had found a kind friend and protectress in Lady Dewsbury, and with that lady she still remained. Once in ten years, or so, she paid a month's visit to Riverton, making her home at her brother Peter's; and it is probable that without that tie, she never would have re-entered her native place.
“Lucy is like you, Mildred," observed Peter to her, one day, during her first visit, alluding to his little daughter.
“Like me, do you think?" returned Miss Arkell.
“It strikes us all. William never sees her, but he thinks of you. He says we ought to have named her Mildred.'
“ His daughters are neither of them named Mildred,” answered the sister, hastily; an old, sore sensation, that she thought she had successfully buried, rising to her remembrance.
* His wife chose their names, not he': the eldest is named after herself, the youngest is Sophia."
“ How do you get on with William's wife?” inquired Mildred.
“ Not very well," answered Peter. “You see, Mildred, she is quite a fine lady now; and, indeed, always was, to my thinking; and William's wealth enables them to live in a style very different from what we can do. So Mrs. William looks down upon us. We see but little of her : a formal dinner once a year, at which we are the only guests, comprises nearly all
our intercourse. They invite little Lucy there sometimes, to play with Charlotte and Sophy.'
“And does William despise you ?" inquired Mildred, with a touch of resentment in her usually quiet tone.
“How can you ask it ?” exclaimed her brother, warmly : “as if William were the man to despise any one, least of all, his own relations ! There's not a more thoroughly open-hearted and honourable man, Mildred, in all Riverton-known to be so. He grows just like his father.”
“ And is your intercourse with him confined to a formal Christmas meeting ?" again inquired Miss Arkell.
“ Not it. He often comes in and sits an hour in an evening, conning over old times, when we were both boys together. Between ourselves, Mildred,” continued her brother, “ I fear William found that, in marrying Charlotte Travice, he had caught a Tartar. No wonder he likes to get in here sometimes, for an hour's peace and quiet.”
Mildred sighed heavily; and calling her little niece to her, took her upon her knee; and, pushing the curls back from her brow, looked attentirely at her. Her face was not handsome, but fair and gentle, the features pale, and the eyes dark brown, with a sweet, sad, earnest expression; just such a face as Mildred's. “ Like me, you call her?” questioned Miss Arkell.
“ Certainly she is,” answered Peter. 66 William and I often remark
like your cousins, Charlotte and Sophy ?” asked Aunt Mildred; as the child was in the habit of calling her.
" I like Travice best,” was the little lady's unblushing answer. “Charlotte and Sophy are often cross with me and make me cry, but Travice loves me and plays with me, although he is such a big boy. And I love him."
" I believe he likes her better than he does his own sisters,” interposed Mr. Arkell to Mildred. “Travice will be just like his father, as this child is like you: the same open, generous, noble boy that William himself was. When I see Travice sporting with Lucy, I could fancy it you and William playing together as you used to.
“God grant that her fate may be different from what mine has been !" was Mildred's earnest inward prayer, as she kissed little Lucy, and removed her from her knee.
Riverton seemed to look cold upon Mildred Arkell. Of those she had left, when she quitted it, some bad died, some had married and left the place, some had grown out of her knowledge into men and women. It did not seem the same : it never would again. Riverton, on its side, thought she was cold : and so she was. Cold and ill-tempered, some said. But ill-tempered she was not. What else could be expected, they asked, from one who had persisted in going out to service contrary to the wish of her friends? It was all very fine for the family to talk about her being companion to Lady Dewsbury; they knew she was nothing but her maid ! Mildred heard not, and cared not for the remarks made upon her: at the conclusion of her visit, she returned to Lady Dewsbury, and the years rolled rapidly on.
II. The years rolled on, many years : the first quarter of the century had expired, and what an awful change had taken place in the hitherto flourishing city of Riverton! The free-trade system, introduced to the Commons by Mr. Huskisson, had come into operation, bringing to such places as Riverton desolation and ruin.
I must beg the general reader distinctly to understand, that I offer no opinion upon the merits or demerits of the measure-upon the opening or keeping closed our ports, for those hitherto prohibited articles of foreign manufacture. Whether the measure has been productive of good or ill
, during the second quarter of the century that it has now been at work, they are at liberty to judge for themselves : this little history treats only of the effects it had upon certain localities. Some, when defending the measure at the time of the bill's passing, were wont to observe that no great political change could take place without there being some sufferers, and that the few must be content to suffer for the good of the
Whether the many were or were not benefited to the extent anticipated, may be a question with some people still; but that the few suffered, and suffered to an extremity that none will believe now, who did not witness it then, is a matter of appalling history. Riverton is a lasting witness of it. The town has never held up its head since-has never been the cheerful, flourishing place that it was in the years gone by. It must be remembered that the staple manufacture of the town was the chief support of the inhabitants ; it also furnished work to the wives and daughters of labourers at their own homes, not only in the town itself, but in the rural districts of the county: and when a cheaper article was introduced from foreign countries, so as to supersede, or nearly so, that produced at Riverton, there was nothing to stand between the city and ruin.
Are you old enough, you who are reading this, to recollect well the period when the British ports were thrown open for the admission of French manufactured goods ? Ah, my readers ! you may have joined in the popular cry then, for many did, that the passing of the measure was as a boon falling upon England, but you would have been awed into silence, had you but
gone and witnessed the misery and confusion it brought to Riverton. Half the manufacturers in the town went in that
and in the few that followed it, to total ruin, and the other half had to sacrifice the savings of their lives. Those who had no private property to fly to, sunk with the general wreck : their stock of goods were sold for what it would fetch; their manufactories and homes were given up; their furniture was seized ; and, with beggary staring them in the faces, they were cast adrift, in their declining years, upon the cold world. Some essayed other means of getting a livelihood, essayed it as they best might, without money and without hope, and struggled on from year to year, getting only the bread that supported them. Others, more overwhelmed with the blow, made efforts to recover themselves, in vain, in vain ; and their eventual fate was the workhouse. Honourable citizens, good men, as respectable and respected as you are, who had lived all their lives in comfort
, bringing up their families as a well-to-do manufacturer ought, were reduced to beggary, and found no asylum, in their old
age, but the paupers' workhouse! You do not believe me? as that this hand is penning the words, I tell you truth. For no fault of theirs, were they hurled to ruin; by no prudence, could they have averted it.
The more wealthy of the manufacturers contrived, for a time, to weather the storm, but how? By throwing their private property into the business. Amongst those who were thus saved, was the firm of George Arkell and Son. Its appellation had never been altered from that of “George Arkell and Son," although Mr. George Arkell had been dead many years; and young Travice Arkell, now of age, had been taken into partnership with his father. As it had been, in the days of the old man its founder, so it continued—the first house of business in the city. One, or perhaps two, other firms may have done a more extensive trade, as I previously mentioned, but for high character and far-renowned respectability the house of George Arkell and Son was unapproachable. When other manufacturers dropped their men's wages to starvation prices, fearful of the storm that was looming in the distance, they held on to remunerative ones, giving a fair price for a fair day's work, although the loss to themselves was great. Never would William Arkell be numbered amongst the oppressors. At the time when the bill passed to open the ports, their stock of goods on hand was immense ; and their loss in that one week, from the falling of prices, amounted to several thousand pounds, For a long while previously, in the uncertainty whether the bill would pass or not, there had been no buyers ; no orders whatever had been received ; and they had been compelled to keep on manufacturing, or else turn their many hands adrift, and thus abandon whole families to destitution, The bill did pass : the value of the goods was at once reduced nearly one-third; and they had no resource left but to sell them at the fearful reduction. There were buyers then.
It may be asked, why did not Mr. Arkell and others retire from business? With the others we have nothing to do : but in stating his case, we state theirs. Could Mr. William Arkell have foreseen in time what was to happen, he would no doubt have done so, because he then had sufficient to retire upon. Manufacturers, those in a large way of business, always had a heavy stock on hand, and from the first rumour that the ports would be opened to foreign goods, the buyers held back, purchasing only just what they could not do without. That was not the time for him to retire, when his stock could only have been disposed of by a forced sale, at a considerable loss—and it is certain that neither he nor others ever dreamt of the much more fearful loss that was to overwhelm them. After the panic had come, and Mr. William Arkell's private property had been sacrificed, he had not enough left to justify his giving up business. And so he, and they, continued to manufacture at a loss : not only just then, but for years afterwards ; sacrificing more and more of his property, in the delusive hope that times would mend : that the Legislature, knowing the ruin and desolation which the measure had wrought in certain parts of the kingdom, would repeal their act and reclose the British ports. In which case they might all look to retrieve a portion of their losses. And this hope, most delusive and unhappy in its ultimate consequences, was all that buoyed up for years the sinking spirits of the ill. fated manufacturers of Riverton.
We have hitherto only spoken of the masters: what can we say of the operatives? Hundreds upon hundreds were thrown out of employment, and those who were still retained in the few manufactories remaining open, earned scarcely sufficient to support existence ; for the prices were fearfully reduced, and they were placed on short work besides. What was to become of this large body of men ? What did become of them ? God only knows. Some died of misery, of prolonged starvation, of broken hearts. Their end was pretty accurately ascertained: but those who left their native town to be wanderers on the face of the land, seeking for employment to which they were unaccustomed, and perhaps finding none, who can tell what was their fate? The poor-rates increased frightfully, little able as were the impoverished population to bear an increase; the workhouses were filled; and smothered curses were heard in the streets, arising from human beings in all stages of hunger and misery. Hitherto industrious, peaceable, and well-conducted, they were now goaded to desperation: yet they only asked for work—work : and there was no one to answer. Small bodies of famished wretches, deputations from the rest, perambulated the streets daily, on their way to visit the manufactories yet open, praying for a little work. How useless ! when those manufactories had not half enough employment for their own workmen. Their place of rendezvous, when not in the open street, was at some one of the public-houses; and at these meetings the men, still in work, would be the occasional treaters of the others : forgetting, in the zeal of discussing their grievances, their starving wives and children at home, upon whom the
money would have been better spent. But it is always the case : let workmen be ever so impoverished, they can find money for the publichouse.
There were repeated meetings of the masters, public and private; there were more frequent meetings of the workmen : many vain discussions took place : delusive plans were formed; sanguine hopes, never to be realised, were given utterance to. Petitions were addressed to the two houses of Parliament, setting forth the wrongs and the unhappy state of both masters and men; and it was all to no purpose : no redress or assistance was ever accorded them.
It must not be forgotten that we are speaking not only of the first year of the panic, but also of the several years that succeeded it. And it may be as well to observe, that, however deplorable the spirit of the sentiments uttered by some of the workmen at the meeting about to be described, the author does but relate what actually passed, from notes taken at the time.
THERE was a small public-house, situated in the heart of Riverton, called the George and Dragon. It was much frequented by the operatives, from the fact of its having a large room attached to it, which could accommodate a good body of men. In more prosperous times, the room had been built, and used for a club-room, but latterly it had been the scene of the men's painful and distressing meetings. And one evening, in the middle of September, 1830—for we have gone on to that date the pouring into it of many men, between five and six o'clock, proved that