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CHAPTER XII. FREE TRADE IN ABILITY - THE STRIKE - DEATH OF MY FATHER.
I had no difficulty in obtaining abundance of skilled workmen in South Lancashire and Cheshire. I was in the neighbourhood of Manchester, which forms the centre of a population gifted with mechanical instinct. From an early period the finest sort of mechanical work has been turned out in that part of England. Much of the talent is inherited. It descends from father to son, and develops itself from generation to generation. I may mention one curious circumstance connected with the pedigree of Manchester: that much of the mechanical excellence of its workmen descends from the Norman smiths and armourers introduced into the neighbourhood at the Norman Conquest by Hugo de Lupus, the chief armourer of William the Conqueror, after the battle of Hastings, in 1066.
I was first informed of this circumstance by William Stubbs of Warrington, then maker of the celebrated "Lancashire files." The "P. S.," or Peter Stubbs's files, were so vastly superior to other files, both in the superiority of the steel and in the perfection of the cutting, which long retained its efficiency, that every workman gloried in the possession and use of such durable tools. Being naturally interested in everything connected with tools and mechanics, I was exceedingly anxious to visit the factory where these admirable files were made. I obtained an introduction to William Stubbs, then head of the firm, and was received by him with much cordiality. When I asked him if I might be favoured with a sight of his factory, he replied that he had no factory, as such; and that all he had to do in supplying his large warehouse was to serve out the requisite quantities of the pure cast steel as rods and bars to the workmen and that they, on their part, forged the metal into files of every description at their own cottage workshops, principally situated in the neighbouring counties of Cheshire and Lancashire.
This information surprised as well as pleased me. Mr. Stubbs proceeded to give me an account of the origin of this peculiar system of cottage manufacture in his neighbourhood. It appears that Hugo de Lupus, William the Conqueror's Master of Arms, the first Earl of Chester, settled in North Cheshire shortly after the Conquest. He occupied Halton Castle, and his workmen resided in Warrington and the adjacent villages of Appleton, Widnes, Prescot, and Cuerdley. There they produced coats of steel, mail armour, and steel and iron weapons, under the direct superintendence of their chief.
The manufacture thus founded continued for many centuries. Although the use of armour was discontinued, these workers in steel and iron still continued famous. The skill that had formerly been employed in forging chain armour and war instruments was devoted to more peaceful purposes. The cottage workmen made the best of files, and steel tools of other kinds. Their talents became hereditary, and the manufacture of wire in all its forms is almost peculiar to Warrington and the neighbourhood. Mr. Stubbs also informed me that most of the workmen's peculiar names for tools and implements were traceable to old Norman-French words. He also stated that at Prescot a peculiar class of workmen has long been established, celebrated for their great skill in clock and watch making; and that, in his opinion, they were the direct descendants of a swarm of workmen from Hugo de Lupus's original Norman hive of refined metal-workers, dating from the time of the Conquest.
To return to my narrative. In the midst of such a habitually industrious population, it will be obvious that there was no difficulty in finding a sufficient supply of able workmen. It was for the most part the most steady, respectable, and well-conducted classes of mechanics who sought my employment not only for the good wages they received, but for the sake of their own health and that of their families for it will be remembered that the foundry and the workmen's dwellings were surrounded by the fresh, free, open country. In the course of a few years the locality became a thriving colony of skilled mechanics. In order to add to the accommodation of the increasing numbers, an additional portion of land, amounting to eight acres, was leased from Squire Trafford on the same terms as before. On this land suitable houses and cottages for the foremen and workmen were erected. At the same time substantial brick workshops were built in accordance with my original general plan, to meet the requirements of our rapidly expanding business, until at length a large and commodious factory was erected, as shown in the annexed engraving.
The village of Worsley, the headquarters of the Bridgewater Canal, supplied us with a valuable set of workmen. They were, in the first place, labourers; but, like all Lancashire men, they were naturally possessed of a quick aptitude for mechanical occupations connected with machinery. Our chief employment of these so-called labourers was in transporting heavy castings and parts of machinery from one place to another. To do this properly required great care and judgment, in order that the parts might not be disturbed, and that the workmen might proceed towards their completion without any unnecessary delay. None but those who have had practical acquaintance with the importance of having skilful labourers to perform these apparently humble, but in reality very important functions, can form an adequate idea of the value of such services.
All the requisite qualities we required were found in the Worsley labourers. They had been accustomed to the heaviest class of work in connection with the Bridgewater Canal. They had been thoroughly trained in the handling of all manner of ponderous objects. They performed their work with energy and willingness. It was quite a treat to me to look on and observe their rapid and skilful operations in lifting and transporting ponderous portions of machinery, in which a vast amount of costly work had been embodied. After the machines or engines had been finished, it was the business of the same workmen to remove them from the workshops to the railway siding alongside the foundry, or to the boats at the canal wharf. In all these matters the Worsley men could be thoroughly depended upon.
Where they showed the possession, in any special degree, of a true mechanical faculty, I was enabled to select from the working labourers the most effective men to take charge of the largest and most powerful machine tools such as planing machines, lathes, and boring machines. The ease and rapidity with which they caught up all the technical arts and manipulations connected with the effective working of these machines was extraordinary. The results were entirely satisfactory to myself, and they proved equally satisfactory to the men themselves by the substantial rise in their wages which followed their advancement to higher grades of labour. Thus I had no difficulty in manning my machine tools by drawing my recruits from this zealous and energetic class of Worsley labourers. It is by this "selection of the fittest" that the true source of the prosperity of every large manufacturing establishment depends. I believe that ‘Free Trade in Ability’ has a much closer relation to national prosperity than even Free Trade in Commodities.
But here I came into collision with another class of workmen — those who are of opinion that employers should select for promotion, not those who are the fittest and most skilful, but those who have served a seven years' apprenticeship and are members of a Trades' Union. It seemed to me that this interference with the free selection and promotion of the fittest was at variance with free choice of the best men, and that it was calculated, if carried out, to strike at the root of the chief source of our prosperity. If every workman of the same class went in the same rut, and were paid the same uniform rate of wages, irrespective of his natural or acquired ability, such a system would destroy the emulative spirit which forms the chief basis of manipulative efficiency and practical skill, and on which, in my opinion, the prosperity of our manufacturing establishments mainly depends. But before I proceed to refer to the strike of Unionists, which for a time threatened to destroy, or at all events to impede the spirit of enterprise and the free choice of skilful workmen, in which I desired to conduct the Bridgewater Foundry, I desire to say a few words about the excellent helpers, in the shape of foremen engineers, who zealously helped me in my undertaking from beginning to end.
I must place my most worthy, zealous, and faithful Archy Torry at the top of the list. He rose from being my only workman when I first started in Manchester, to be my chief general foreman. The energy and devotion which he brought to bear upon my interests set a high example to all in my employment. Although he was in some respects deficient in his knowledge of the higher principles of engineering and mechanical construction, I was always ready to supply that defect. His hearty zeal and cheerful temper, and his energetic movement when among the men, had a sympathetic influence upon all about him. His voice had the same sort of influence upon them as the drum and fife on a soldier's march: it quickened their movements. We were often called in by our neighbour manufacturers to repair a breakdown of their engines. That was always a sad disaster, as all hands were idle until the repair was effected. Archy was in his glory on such occasions. By his ready zeal and energy he soon got over the difficulty, repaired the engines, and set the people to work again. He became quite famous in these cases of extreme urgency. He never spared himself, and his example had an excellent effect upon every workman under him.
Another of my favourite workshop lieutenants was James Hutton. He had been leading foreman to my worthy friend George Douglass, of Old Broughton, Edinburgh. He was fully ten years my senior, and when working at Douglass's I looked up to him as a man of authority. I had obtained from him many a valuable wrinkle in mechanical and technical construction. After I left Edinburgh he had emigrated to the United States for the purpose of bettering his condition. But he promised me that if disappointed in his hopes of settling there, he should be glad to come into my service if I was in a position to give him employment. Shortly after my removal to Patricroft, and when everything had been got into full working order, I received a letter from him in which he said that he was anxious to return to England, and asking if there was any vacancy in our establishment that he might be employed to fill up. It so happened that the foremanship of turners was then vacant. I informed Hutton of the post; and on his return to England he was duly enrolled in our staff.
The situation was a very important one, and Hutton filled it admirably. He was a sound practical man, and thoroughly knew every department of engineering mechanism. As I had provided small separate rooms or offices for every department of the establishment for the use of the foremen, where they kept their memoranda and special tools, I had often the pleasure of conferring with Hutton as to some point of interest, or when I wished to pass my ideas and designs through the ordeal of his judgment, in order that I might find out any lurking defect in some proposed mechanical arrangement. Before he gave an opinion, Hutton always took a pinch of snuff to stimulate his intellect, or rather to give him a little time for consideration. He would turn the subject over in his mind. But I knew that I could trust his keenness of insight. He would give his verdict carefully, shrewdly, and truthfully. Hutton remained a faithful and valued servant in the concern for nearly thirty years, and died at a ripe old age. Notwithstanding his mechanical intelligence, Hutton was of too cautious a temperament to have acted as a general foreman or manager, otherwise he would have been elevated to that position. A man may be admirable in details, but be wanting in width, breadth, and largeness of temperament and intellect. The man who possesses the latter gifts becomes great in organisation; he soon ceases to be a "hand," and becomes a "head," and such men generally rise from the employed to the employer.
Another of my excellent assistants was John Clerk. He had been for a long time in the service of Fairbairn and Lillie; but having had a serious difference with one of the foremen, he left their service with excellent recommendations. I soon after engaged him as foreman of the pattern-making department. He was a most able man in some of the more important branches of mechanical engineering. He had, besides, an excellent knowledge of building operations. I found him of great use in superintending the erection of the additional workshops which were required in proportion as our business extended. He made out full-sized chalk-line drawings from my original pencil sketches, on the large floor of the pattern store, and from these were formed the working drawings for the new buildings. He had a wonderful power of rapidity and clearness in apprehending new subjects, and the way in which he depicted them in large drawings was quite masterly. John Clerk and I spent many an hour on our knees together on the pattern store floor, and the result of our deliberations usually was some substantial addition to the workshops of the foundry, or some extra large and powerful machine tool.
This worthy man left our service to become a partner in an engineering concern in Ireland; and though he richly deserved his promotion, he left us to our very great regret. The last of our foremen to whom I shall refer was worthy Thomas Crewdson. He entered our service as a smith, in which pursuit he displayed great skill. We soon noted the high order of his natural ability; promoted him from the ranks, and made him foreman of the smith's and forge-work department. In this he displayed every quality of excellence, not only in seeing to the turning out of the forge work in the highest state of perfection, but in managing the men under his charge with such kind discretion as to maintain the most perfect harmony in the work-shops. This is always a matter of great importance — that the foreman should inspire the workmen with his own spirit, and keep up their harmony and activity to the most productive point. Crewdson was so systematic in his use of time that we found that he was able also to undertake the foremanship of the boiler-making department, in addition to that of the smith work; and to this he was afterwards appointed, with highly satisfactory results to all concerned.
So strongly and clearly impressed is my mind with the recollection of the valuable assistance which I received during my engineering life from those vice-regents of practical management at Patricroft, that I feel that I cannot proceed further in my narrative without thus placing the merits of these worthy men upon record. It was a source of great good fortune to me to be associated with them, and I consider them to have been among the most important elements in the prosperity of the Bridgewater Foundry. There were many others, in comparatively humble positions, whom I have also reason to remember with gratitude. In all well-conducted concerns the law of "selection of the fittest" sooner or later comes into happy action, when a loyal and attached set of men work together harmoniously for their own advantage as well as for that of their employers.
It was not, however, without some difficulty that we were allowed to carry out our views as to Free Trade in Ability. As the buildings were increased more men were taken on — from Manchester, Bolton, Liverpool, as well as from more distant places. We were soon made to feel that our idea of promoting workmen according to their merits, and advancing them to improved positions and higher wages in proportion to their skill, ability, industry, and natural intelligence, was quite contrary to the views of many of our new employees. They took advantage of a large access of orders for machinery, which they knew had come into the foundry, to wait upon us suddenly, and to lay down their Trade Union law for our observance.
The men who waited upon us were deputed by the Engineer Mechanics Trades' Union to inform us that there were men in our employment who were not, as they termed it, "legally entitled to the trade;" that is, they had never served a regular seven years' apprenticeship. "These men," said the delegates, "are filling up the places, and keeping out of work, the legal hands." We were accordingly requested to discharge the workmen whom we had promoted, in order to make room for members of the Trades' Union.
To have complied with this request would have altered the whole principles and practice on which we desired to conduct our business. I wished, and my partner agreed with me, to stimulate men to steadfast and skilful work by the hope of promotion. It was thus that I had taken several of the Worsley men from the rank of labourers, and raised them to the class of mechanics with correspondingly higher wages. We were perfectly satisfied with the conduct of these workmen, and with the productive results of their labour. We thought it fair to them as well as to ourselves to resist the order to discharge them, and we consequently firmly refused to submit to the dictation of the Unionists.
The delegates left us with a distinct intimation that if we continued to retain the illegal men in our employment they would call out the Union men, and strike until "the grievance" was redressed. The Unionists, no doubt, fixed upon the right time to place their case before us. We wanted more workmen to execute the advantageous orders which had come in; and they thought that the strike would put an entire stop to our operations. On engaging the workmen we had never up to this time concerned ourselves with the question of whether they belonged to the Trades' Union or not. The only proof we required of a man was his ability. If, after a week's experience, he proved himself an efficient workman, we engaged him.
The strike took place. All the Union men were "called out," and left the works. Many of them expressed their great regret at leaving us, as they were perfectly satisfied with their employment as well as with their remuneration. But they were nevertheless compelled to obey the mandate of the Council. The result was that more than half our men left us. Those who remained were very zealous. Nothing could exceed their activity and workfulness. We appealed to our employers. They were most considerate in not pressing us for the speedy execution of the work we had in hand. We made applications in the neighbourhood for other mechanics in lieu of those who had left us. But the men on strike, under orders from the Union, established pickets round the works, who were only too efficient in preventing those desirous of obtaining employment from getting access to the foundry.
Our position for a time seemed to be hopeless. We could not find workmen enough to fill our shops or to execute our orders. What were we to do under the circumstances? We could not find mechanics in the neighbourhood but might they not be found elsewhere? Why not bring them from a distance? We determined to try. Advertisements were inserted in the Scotch newspapers, announcing our want of mechanics, smiths, and foundrymen. We appointed an agent in Edinburgh, to whom applications were to be made. We were soon in receipt of the welcome intelligence that numbers of the best class of mechanics had applied, and that the agent's principal difficulty lay in making the proper selection from amongst them.
A selection was, however, made of over sixty men, who appeared in every respect likely to suit us. With true Scotch caution they deputed two of their number to visit our works and satisfy themselves as to the state of the case. We had great pleasure in receiving these two clear-headed cautious pioneers. We showed them over the workshops, and pointed out the habitations in the neighbourhood with their attractive surroundings. The men returned to their constituents, and gave such a glowing account of their mission that we had no difficulty in obtaining the men we required. Indeed, we might easily have obtained three times the number of efficient mechanics. Sixty-four of the most likely men were eventually selected, men in the zenith of their physical powers. We made arrangements for their conveyance to Glasgow, from whence they started for Liverpool by steamer. They landed in a body at the latter port, many of them accompanied by their wives and children, and eight-day clocks! A special train was engaged for the conveyance of the whole men, women, and children, bag and baggage — from Liverpool to Patricroft, where suitable accommodation had been provided for them.
The arrival of so powerful a body of men made a great sensation in the neighbourhood. The men were strong, respectable looking, and well dressed. The pickets were "dumbfoundered." They were brushed to one side by the fresh arrivals. They felt that their game was up, and they suddenly departed. The men were taken over the workshops, with which they appeared quite delighted. They were told to be ready to start next morning at six, after which they departed to their lodgings. The morning arrived and the gallant sixty-four were all present. After allotting to each his special work, they gave three hearty cheers, and dispersed throughout the workshops. We had no reason to regret the alterations which had been accomplished through the Strike ordered by the Trades' Union. The new men worked with a will. They were energetic, zealous, and skilful. They soon gave evidence of their general handiness and efficiency in all the departments of work in which they were engaged. We were thus enabled to carry out our practice of free trade in ability in our own way, and we were no longer interfered with in our promotion of the workmen who served us the best. In short, we had Scotched the strike; we conquered the union in their wily attempt to get us under their withering control; and the Bridgewater Foundry resumed its wonted activity in every department.
It was afterwards a great source of happiness to me to walk through the various workshops and observe the cheerful and intelligent countenances of the new men, and to note the energetic skill with which they used their tools in the advancement of their work. General handiness is one of the many valuable results that issues from the practice of handling the variety of materials which are more or less employed in mechanical structures. At the time that I refer to, the skilful workmen employed in the engineering establishments of Scotland (which were then comparatively small in size) were accustomed to use all manner of mechanical tools. They could handle with equally good effect the saw, the plane, the file, and the chisel and, as occasion required, they could exhibit their skill at the smith's forge with the hammer and the anvil. This was the kind of workmen with which I had reinforced the foundry. The men had been bred to various branches of mechanics. Some had been blacksmiths, others carpenters, stone masons, brass or iron founders; but all of them were handy men. They merely adopted the occupation of machine and steam-engine makers because it offered a wider field for the exercise of their skill and energy.
I may here be allowed to remark that we owe the greatest advances in mechanical invention to Free Trade in Ability. If we look carefully into the narratives of the lives of the most remarkable engineers, we shall find that they owed very little to the seven years' rut in which they were trained. They owed everything to innate industry, energy, skill, and opportunity. Thus, Brindley advanced from the position of a millwright to that of a canal engineer; Smeaton and Watt, from being mechanical instrument makers, advanced to higher positions, — the one to be the inventor of the modern lighthouse, the other to be the inventor of the condensing steam-engine. Some of the most celebrated mechanical and civil engineers such as Rennie, Cubitt, and Fairbairn — were originally millwrights. All these men were many-handed. They had many sides to their intellect. They were resourceful men. They afford the best illustrations of the result of Free Trade in Ability.
The persistent aim at an indolent equality which Union men aim at, is one of the greatest hindrances to industrial progress. When the Union Delegates called upon me to insist that none but men who had served seven years' apprenticeship should be employed in the works, I told them that I preferred employing a man who had acquired the requisite mechanical skill in two years rather than another who was so stupid as to require seven years' teaching. The delegates regarded this statement as preposterous and heretical. In fact, it was utter high treason. But in the long run we carried our point.
It is true, we had some indenture-bound apprentices. These were pupils who paid premiums. In some cases we could not very well refuse to take them. And yet they caused a great deal of annoyance and disturbance. They were irregular in their attendance, consequently they could not be depended upon for the regular operations of the foundry. They were careless in their work, and set a bad example to the unbound. We endeavoured to check this disturbing element by agreeing that the premium should be payable in six months' portions, and that each party should be free to terminate the connection at the end of each succeeding six months, or at a month's notice from any time. By this means we secured more care and regularity on the part of the pupil apprentices.
But the arrangement which we greatly preferred was to employ intelligent well-conducted young lads, the sons of labourers or mechanics, and advance them by degrees according to their merits. They took charge of the smaller machine tools, by which the minor details of the machines in progress were brought into exact form without having recourse to the untrustworthy and costly process of chipping and filing. A spirit of emulation was excited amongst them. They vied with each other in executing their work with precision. Those who excelled were paid an extra weekly wage. In course of time they took pride, not only in the quantity but in the quality of their work and in the long run they became skilful mechanics. We were always most prompt to recognise their skill in a substantial manner. There was the most perfect freedom between employer and employed. Every one of these lads was at liberty to leave at the end of each day's work. This arrangement acted as an ever-present check upon master as well as apprentice. The only bond of union between us was mutual interest. The best of them remained in our service because they knew our work and were pleased with the surroundings while we on our part were always desirous of retaining the men we had trained, because we knew we could depend upon them. Nothing could have been more satisfactory than the manner in which this system worked.
In May 1835 I had the great happiness of receiving a visit from my dear father. I was then in Dale Street, Manchester, where my floor was overloaded with the work in progress. My father continued to take a great interest in mechanical undertakings, and he was pleased with the prosperity which had followed my settlement in this great manufacturing centre. He could still see his own lathe, driven by steam power, in full operation for the benefit of his son. His fame as an artist was well known in Manchester, for many of his works were possessed by the best men of the town. I had the pleasure of introducing him to the Brothers Grant, John Kennedy, Edward Lloyd, George Murray, James Frazer, William Fairbairn, and Hugh and Joseph Birley, all of whom gave him a most cordial welcome, and invited him to enjoy their hospitality.
In 1838 he visited me again. I had removed to Patricroft, and the Bridgewater Foundry was in full operation. My father was then in his eightieth year. He was still full of life and intellect. He was vastly delighted to witness the rapid progress which I had made since his first visit. He took his daily walk through the busy workshops, where many processes were going on which greatly interested him. He was sufficiently acquainted with the technical details of mechanical work to enjoy the sight, especially when self-acting tools were employed. It was a great source of pleasure to him to have "a crack" with the most intelligent foremen and mechanics. These, on their part, treated him with the most kind and respectful attention. The Scotch workmen regarded him with special veneration. They knew that he had been an intimate friend of Robert Burns, their own best-beloved poet, whose verses shed a charm upon their homes, and were recited by the fireside, in the fields, or at the workman's bench.
They also knew that he had painted the only authentic portrait of their national bard. This fact invested my father with additional interest in their eyes. Their respect for him culminated in a rather extraordinary demonstration. On the last day of his visit the leading Scotch workmen procured "on the sly" an arm-chair, which they fastened to two strong bearing poles. When my father left the works at the bell-ringing at mid-day, he was approached by the workmen, and respectfully requested to "take the chair." He refused; but it was of no use. He was led to the chair, and took it. He was then raised and carried in triumph to my house. He was carefully set down at the little garden-gate, where the men affectionately took leave of him, and ended their cordial good wishes for his safe return home with three hearty cheers. I need scarcely say that my father was greatly affected by this kind demonstration on the part of the workmen.
His life was fast drawing to a close. He had borne the heat and burden of the day and was about to be taken home like a shock of corn in full season. After a long and happy life, blessed and cheered by a most affectionate wife, he laid down his brushes and went to rest. In his later years he rejoiced in the prosperity of his children, which was all the more agreeable as it was the result of the example of industry and perseverance which he had ever set before them. My father untiringly continued his professional occupations until 1840, when he had attained the age of eighty-two. His later works may be found wanting in that degree of minute finish which characterised his earlier productions but in regard to their quality there was no falling off, even to the last picture which he painted. The delicate finish was amply compensated by the increase in general breadth and effectiveness, so that his later works were even more esteemed by his brother-artists.
The last picture he painted was finished eight days before his death. It was a small work. The subject was a landscape with an autumnal evening effect. There was a picturesque cottage in the middle distance, a rustic bridge over a brook in the foreground, and an old labouring man, followed by his dog, wearily passing over it on his way towards his home. From the chimney of his cottage a thin streak of blue smoke passed upwards through the tranquil evening air. All these incidents suggested the idea, which no doubt he desired to convey, of the tranquil conclusion of his own long and active life, which was then, too evidently, drawing to a close. The shades of evening had come on when he could no longer see to work, and he was obliged to lay down his pencil. My mother was at work with her needle close by him; and when he had finished, he asked her what he should call the picture. Not being ready with an answer, he leant back in his chair, feeling rather faint, and said, "Well, I think I had better call it "Going Home." And so it was called.
Next morning his strength had so failed him that he could not get up. He remained there for eight days, and then he painlessly and tranquilly passed away. While on his deathbed he expressed the desire that his remains should be placed beside those of a favourite son who had died in early youth. "Let me lie," he said, "beside my dear Alick." His desire was gratified. He was buried beside his son in St. Cuthbert's churchyard, under the grandest portion of the great basaltic rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands. His grave is marked by a fine Runic Cross, admirably sculptured by Rhind of Edinburgh.
One of the kindest letters my mother received after her great loss was one from Sir David Wilkie. It was dated 18th April 1840. "I hasten," he said, "to assure you of my most sincere condolence on your severe affliction, feeling that I can sympathise in the privation you suffer from losing one who was my earliest professional friend, whose art I at all times admired, and whose society and conversation was perhaps the most agreeable that I ever met with.
"He was the founder of the Landscape Painting School of Scotland, and by his taste and talent has for many years taken a lead in the patriotic aim of enriching his native land with the representations of her romantic scenery; and, as the friend and contemporary of Ramsay, of Gavin Hamilton, and the Runcimans, may be said to have been the last remaining link that unites the present with the early dawn of the Scottish School of Art."
I may add that my mother died six years later, in 1846, at the same age as my father, namely eighty-two.