Telford, Birthplace Of Industry?

© Frank Verity 2005

Chapter 4: The Human Element, Skills, Migration, And Housing Conditions, How Did This Contribute To Progress?

In this chapter we will explore the development of the Shropshire coalfield in respect to the changes brought about by the expanding industry present from around 1750. We must also look at the way the changing face of east Shropshire adapted to the influx of workers needed to sustain the ever-growing industrial developments. We can look at these changes in a number of ways but to get a true picture of social changes we need to concentrate on the human element. The areas of this particular concept we need to define are individual skills of workers, as primarily this often reflected the quality of housing and lifestyle that was available to this group, and subsequently led to a class division amongst the lower orders. This was referred to by Eric Hobsbawm et al as the labour aristocracy and was particularly relevant in the textile trade. There are many instances however, of workers arriving in the coalfield as labourers and then climbing to management positions. This is perhaps a more common occurrence in the coal mining aspect of the coalfield where many miners went on to be master colliers as Trinder reveals: "Master colliers could emerge from the ranks of miners to form partnerships, sometimes with small-scale landowners to operate pits."64 We must then look at the lives of the families of these workers who had to adapt to these changes in lifestyle. The most demanding of these changes was probably the fact that iron founding was no longer an individual or small scale process as John Rule reveals: "In iron founding by the middle years of the eighteenth century, independent artisan ownership had already passed away".65 By this time even a small iron works needed a workforce of around fifteen to operate a single forge and furnace. When coke replaced charcoal as in the case of Coalbrookdale in the 1750's, and large stocks of coal and iron ore were local, the iron works became much larger and employed many more hands. By the 1770's contemporary commentators such as Arthur Young estimated that at Coalbrookdale around 1,000 workers were employed.66 So by the second half of the 18th century changes in the landscape of the Shropshire coalfield were beginning to develop and Trinder comments that the vicar of Dawley in 1772 described his parishioners as being mainly farmers. In contrast his successor wrote in 1799 that the parish was "Full of cottages from one end to the other occasioned by the extension of the coal and ironworks".67 An estimated total population of the coalfield in 1711 of 11,500 had risen to over 20,000 by the end of 1760, which again had increased to over 34,000 by the 1801 census. Even with the marked migration of people away from the area in 1800 the population continued its upward trend and numbered 50,000 plus by 1851.68 The census of 1851 shows a sizeable Irish settlement in the district, the largest concentration being in Nailers Row and New Street in Wellington, whose occupations ranged from railway labourers to tailors and shoemakers. There were no significant foreign communities in the coalfield but the 1851 census reveals some; Dominic Rimorosi and Dominic Dotti were Italians in Wellington and also two Polish families of clothiers resided in Ironbridge.69 This movement of workers was nothing new to Shropshire, in the early 17th Century, James Clifford, Lord of the Manor of Broseley brought immigrant workers to his land, antagonising his freeholders, of which one described the foreigners as "...Lewd persons, the scums and dreggs of the many countries from whence they have been driven...thieves...horrible swearers...dallie drunkards, some having towe or three wyves a peece now living, others notorious whoremongers".70

Similarly the growth of production in the coalfields was not a new or indeed a revolutionary process the development of the coalfield between the 16th and the 18th century was according to Trinder: " slow but remorseless," and relied on innovation such as longwall mining, wooden railways and the adoption of steam pumping engines from 1719. These factors, in the words of Trinder were responsible for: "Ratchetting up the scale of production without causing revolutionary change".71 In east Shropshire from the former parish and church boundaries a new type of settlement evolved, often taking their names from charter masters and field names, growing in size, attracting trade and markets at meeting places of parish boundaries.72 The local labour shortage was a problem for rural Salop, which unlike the heavier populated textile areas, had fewer home workers made redundant by technical progress. Thus making the need to firstly attract and subsequently keep labour a dominant force in the shaping of local society from 1750 to 1810".73 Alfrey and Clark agree with this sentiment pointing out the fact that:" The success of all of these industries depended not only on coal but also on labour".74 A marked difference in the distribution of settlements along the Severn Gorge compared to other industrial centres was also believed by many to be a major factor in the shaping of the development of Shropshire as a leading player in the coming Industrial Revolution. Trinder quotes Professor David Hey commenting thus "the origins of the Industrial Revolution are to be sought not in those areas where the peasant culture was destroyed, but precisely in those regions which long retained the characteristics of the peasant way of life". This was certainly the case in Coalbrookdale where a policy of allowing open settlement to develop in the Severn Gorge laid the foundations for the development of skills amongst the growing workforce. Which in turn acted as, in Trinder's terminology: "A nursery for the skills which helped to stimulate rapid industry growth in the mid-18th century."75 The norm for the period throughout the country in the build up to rapid industrial take off was a change from an agrarian society through to proto-industrialisation, and then full-scale industrial growth. In the late 17th century the Shropshire coalfield consisted of small-scale industrial communities that thrived, alongside many pre- existing agricultural communities, which unlike those in other parts of the country did not become swallowed up in an expanding urban sprawl. Census evidence, as we have seen gives testament to the rise in population of the Gorge but we need to explore this further. The two main factors necessary for the successful growth of an industrial population were present in the area at the time. Firstly the available land for settlement, and secondly the opportunity for year round, and not just seasonal employment for the settlers. As we have discussed earlier probate entries reveal many clues to the patterns of early industrial life. In the case of the Hartshorne family we saw that Walter Hartshorne was both farmer, albeit small scale and also collier, although again small scale. This was not uncommon in the early settlement model. Alfrey and Clark reveal that: "Industry was unlikely to have provided year round employment".76 Trinder and Cox elaborate: "Most other colliers were, like Walter Hartshorne, involved in dairy farming". They then provide statistics: "Of the 14 whose inventories survive, 12 had dairy cows, 10 kept pigs, eight had sheep, and six were growing grain."77 This was to change however, as we discussed earlier the breakaway from the norm lay in the fact that the population of the Gorge moved away from the agricultural. The coalfields provided the opportunities for work, which fitted in with seasonal patterns. Diversity became necessity in the lives of the early settlers to the Gorge. Coal mining was mostly concentrated in the summer months and dependent on the water table, until pumping methods improved. Transportation of coal by river was only possible when water levels on the Severn permitted traffic. Iron production likewise needed water levels sufficient to power equipment. Alfrey and Clark acknowledge this fact concluding that: "The ready availability of coal had encouraged a diverse range of industries which could support a full-time industrial labour force."78 The seasonal vagaries were to be overcome in the second half of the 18th century with the introduction of steam power that enabled mines to be pumped out, and water re-circulated over wheels to provide energy in the driest of summers.

The pattern of settlements began to grow and was centred upon the existing industrial workings, and took two forms, open settlement, which was the norm, and closed settlement, or company villages. If we look first at open settlements, these grew alongside coalmines and ironworks and were built either on common land or in some cases on small freehold plots purchased or leased from local landowners. Settlement in the surrounding areas of Broseley, Madeley and Benthall was relatively simple in the 17th and 18th centuries, as Trinder explains: "Open communities were places where settlement was easy, where accommodation could readily be expanded."79 Indeed expansion took place in successive generations in cases where plots of land were sub-divided after a death and subsequent building took place. Paul Stamper agrees with this view stating that: "Squatting on the commons was a particular feature of industrial areas such as the east Shropshire coalfield", he further comments that these were places: "to which workers migrated to find employment". Once a squatter family moved on to common land a house would be constructed, Stamper describes the typical pattern of construction of such dwellings as: "small and primitive, at best two up and two down."80In the case of company villages or closed settlements houses would be erected by the company and were available only to employees of such companies. The accommodation in such villages was vastly superior to the open settlements but the downside was the amount of social control over tenants that the company held. In effect the tenant in most cases would be under the watchful eye of the owner or his agent twenty-four hours a day. The superiority of company housing was also a great inducement to secure skilled workers in times of labour shortages. We shall take a brief look at the way that the dominant company of the time in the area-utilised company housing in order to primarily attract, and then retain its workforce.

The Coalbrookdale Company was instrumental in developing the concept of industrial housing in the Severn Gorge. Indeed as W. Grant Muter reveals: "These company rows are among the earliest industrial terraces in Great Britain".81 The company faced problems attracting staff for its remote rural enterprises and thus had to resort to inducement. For the erstwhile journeymen founders and ironworkers the chance of fine modern, albeit somewhat modest housing was a great draw. The concept could be seen as analogous to the practice of the 18th century landowner providing tied cottages to his key estate workers, it was as Muter defines it: "an enlightening expedient".82 However if we investigate this perceived altruism on the company's part a different outcome emerges. This is axiomatic in the scale of rent charged for such property. Coalbrookdale Company housing carried rents set at seven and a half per cent.83 This was not as Muter points out an excessive or extortionate amount but compared to the philanthropic five per cent, the norm in the 19th century it was certainly not charity. Rather this level of rent was translated as a sound economic investment on behalf of the company and thus: "not solely an act of industrial paternalism; there was an element of self-interest".84 Regardless of the motives of the builders of such housing, the fact remains that Coalbrookdale became synonymous with the concept of a company village. We must note however that it wasn't only the Darbys that constructed houses within its environs; the ownership of land in Coalbrookdale in the 18th century was piecemeal. Some skilled workers such as John Thomas85 who was employed as moulder for Abraham Darby I, and his brother George Thomas lived in houses of their own construction.86 The Coalbrookdale Company also built for its workers at Horsehay, and Newdale. This practice of the building of accommodation for the workers according to some helped to forge the links in a chain of worker master relationships that stood the test of time. Trinder alludes to the continuity of professions of the workforce being reflected in the workers self-description Richard Lomas of Ketley 'was bred a collier' likewise Henry Cartwright of Little Wenlock was 'esteemed a good collier' having been 'brought up as a collier from a boy'.87 Raistrick puts a more personal angle on this continuity claiming that: "Five generations of Darbys can be matched by five generations of several families of workmen", and reveals that: "the feeling of unity and sense of historic continuity within...Coalbrookdale is still evident and an asset".88

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