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The Blackburn Sewing-Schools.
All this dreary December of 1862—one of the dreariest months in my life-I have had ringing through my brain the words, "Hard Times, come again no more!” Just now times are very hard to me, though not ir the ordinary sense; and I determine to go to school to Lancashire to learn the practical lesson of this winter. Being within twelve miles of Blackburn, I resolve for one day to go down to this heart of the Lancashire distress, where there are the most painful, yet most patient, throbbings, and count for myself the pulsations of this feverish sorrow of irremediable poverty, which is felt, not in Lancashire alone, but, by a contagious sympathy, throughout all the members of our vast empire, to the extremest verge of colonies removed from us by a whole hemisphere.
My sister and I enter one of the slowest and most funereal trains it was ever my lot to travel by, trailing along at the rate of twelve miles an hour, as if with conscious reluctance to convey us to Blackburn; while the wintry landscape, deliberately passing by us, does not tend to raise our spirits. These low, bleak hills, with their sullen outlines; these dwarfed and knotted trees, like distorted skeletons; and these shallow dells scattered over with deserted factories,-are strangely different to the rich pastoral scenery of the midland county from which we came. As we near Blackburn, and look out upon some sixty slender chimneys, with no pennons of smoke floating over the battle of life in the streets beneath, the too clear atmosphere, and the absence of the din and hum of machinery, give an aspect of Sabbath leisure, without the Sabbath cheerfulness; while groups of compelled idlers, who have had no blessed refuge of labour to fly to from their gloomy thoughts for these months past, loiter about the station and the streets. It is market-day in Blackburn, but we do not discover it for ourselves until we are told that it is so: there are a few stalls and booths erected in the market square, but there is no profuse display of produce, no busy crowd of chaffering housewives. The streets are free from the throng of business and the rattling of many wheels; and there is hush enough for us to hear every where the sharp click and clatter of the Lancashire wooden clogs upon the pavement-a sound which will ever be associated in my memory with our day's melancholy wanderings through the famine-stricken streets of Blackburn. Nine hours are before us for lulling our own little nursling of a sorrow into forgetfulness, while we confront this great misery of unfamiliar penury and destitution, suffered by a people who hitherto have scorned and turned aside the outstretched hand of Charity, as if there were degradation in her touch. Even now there are not as many beggars lurking about as one would meet in ordinary times in one of our own midland towns; and these are not importunate—are readily repulsed, and turn away silently, with no scowling faces and muttered curses.
We are strangers here; but the appeal of one inhabitant of the town has reached us at home, and we determine to seek him at once. The postmaster has issued circulars to all the post-offices in Fngland, soliciting such aid as the employés of the postal service are willing to render to this town; and the appeal --- an individual one merely — has been answered by a contribution of 3201., chiefly from little country offices. Aware of this fact, we direct our steps first to the post-office, and place ourselves under the willing and kindly guidance of the postmaster. Our first visit is made to one of the six sewing-schools supported by the Church-of-England Association for employing young women out of work. We pass through the quiet lobbies of the Town Hall, no official challenging our steps, and ascend a staircase unquestioned, until a low and subdued sound gives us notice that here is the assembly we are seeking. A novel scene presents itself as we enter a large and handsome concert
Down each side of the hall there are forms arranged in squares, each square occupied by a class of about twenty-five women, with a ladyteacher sitting in the midst of them; a broad aisle runs down the centre, and at each end a long table is placed, forming a counter, at which some two or three ladies preside, to give ont the materials required by each class. There is perfect order and regularity, though there are upwards of six hundred women and girls, who a few months since were rough factory bands,—“bands” only,—now gathered together under the unaccustomed authority of a little band of ladies,-no doubt nervous and delicate ladies before this emergency came.
Never before did the decorated walls and painted ceilings enclose an assembly like this. Pale faces and anxious eyes smile at us with smiles of deeper pathos than the mirth of festal meetings; wan lips take up a song more touching than ever music rang from yonder orchestra, and it sinks and swells in plaintive cadences, while it dies away from the feeble voices of one class, to be caught up and continued in another part of the hall. We listen to the sound of six hundred women's voices singing alone, with no deeper and stronger notes sustaining them; and there is to our ears a certain sorrowful weakness in it, a delicate undertone of complaint, as of a conscious incompleteness and deficiency. When the hymn is finished—for in the Church-of-England schools they are not permitted to sing songs--we speak to some few of the women while we inspect their work, and find in all a feeling of weariness blended with deep thankfulness. They get tired of sitting still so long, they say; they are “fain” to get back to the mills; but every body is very good to them; every thing is done for them that can be done.
We admire-using that word in both its meanings of wonder and approbation—the long-continued self-denial and unflinching perseverance of the ladies who superintend the school. The work is as strange to them as to the girls they have taken in charge. They receive us, strangers as we are, with cordiality, hoping that we are come to learn how to establish a school of our own. We are informed, by papers supplied to us by the
vicar, that this Association admits none who are married or are under fourteen years of age. They are occupied in sewing, knitting, darning, &c., during three days in the week, for five hours in the day; and if in
' constant attendance, receive 8d. a day, at the expenditure for this Association of 1201. a week. At the beginning of August, the number assembled in the various rooms was 247; at the end of November, 1143. Bales of clothing are received from all parts of the kingdom, yet are still needed; the most valuable being those which consist of unworked materials, flannels, calicoes, checks, yarn, &c., which afford employment to the women as well as clothing. One lady tells us cheerfully that her fingers are quite sore with cutting-out garments; and we are not surprised at the laudable pride with which she looks upon the red wales caused by the pressure of the scissors. Neither would we shrink from that fatigue with which they tell us they return to their homes after superintending their classes. We have been accustomed, in our country circle, to wish that the Protestant Saint Dorcas had died young, before she set her baleful example for Christian women; but here we recall her memory with new-born veneration.
From the concert-room we ascend to the story above, where a class of straw.plaiters are collected in a small apartment. About twenty young women are sitting round a comfortable fire, engaged in their light and pretty work; they all rise as we enter, with frank, pleasant looks and ready response to our greeting,-a refinement of manner unknown before this time of severe discipline of dependence. The girl who is splitting the bright straws, with a little brass prong armed with six teeth, is quite pleased to show us how it is done; and the more advanced plaiters, promoted to working a pattern of black upon their white straws, exhibit their accomplishments proudly. The class, we are told by the superintendent, was instituted and is maintained by a gentleman in Doncaster, who wrote to a clergyman at Dunstable three months ago, requesting him to find some suitable young woman for teaching strawplaiting to the mill-hands. The girls receive two shillings a week, as in the sewing-schools, and any surplus which they can earn by working at home; they would rather plait straw than work in the mills, they say, if they could get the same wages. Before we leave, the class, without
, waiting to be asked, sing a hymn, of which the refrain, echoed again and again, are the words, full of pathos and poetry, "nearer home."
In the adjoining room is a small class of married women, supported by the Mayor, and not admitted into the large school below. There is more dejection here, deeper marks of care and anxiety, than upon the pale faces of the single women; it is the depression of long-protracted and now almost hopeless strife, to which they bave no elasticity of youth to bring. The mothers of poor children are before us, with no mental faculties save the glimmering of maternal instinct. They cannot comprehend our unfamiliar tones and dialect; and we can do little else but answer the dull curiosity of their gaze with the silent sympathy of our looks. We have smiled every where else; here we gaze sadly for a few minutes, and are relieved to turn away from picturing to our minds the homes whose privations are pressing down, with an iron hand, the hearts of these English wives and mothers.
From the Town Hall we hurry away, for our moments are precious, to one of the twelve Nonconformist schools,—that belonging to the Park Congregational Chapel. In the yard, and upon the stairs leading to the
, schoolroom, are a number of lads lounging about, with a pleased, afterdinperish look, their hands thrust deep into their empty pockets, and a satisfied idleness in their mien; they greet us with the observation that we are come to taste the soup,-a remark which we verify shortly after, and find it very good, almost as good as the very excellent soup we tasted a few days ago in Liverpool Borough Gaol. Entering a large and lofty room occupied by the sewing-classes, our eyes first fall upon long tables, where a number of children, 400 to-day, are being supplied with a basin of soup and large rounds of bread each. Here is a brown-eyed boy of twelve, with his arm caressingly round a little sister, whom he is feeding with large spoonfuls of the thickened soup. Yonder is a wrinkled, haggard, , old granny, with a child on each side and a baby on her lap; and the spoon revolves regularly round the three mouths, but never approaches her own; the children's faces wear the contented expression of childhood, incapable of taking thought for the morrow, and they laugh out merrily now and then. At the upper end of the room are the sewing-classes, busy at work upon an order for ready-made clothing from some house in London; and they expect to have to work a day extra to get the order completed. One girl of eighteen, with a baby two months old in her arms, tells me she has been out of work for a year, and that she and her husband got married because they had nothing to do. In an adjoining room we find two or three gentlemen, with their sleeves rolled up to the elbow, busy dispensing the soup, and pouring out coffee from a large cask, which has been sent in by a confectioner at the almost nominal charge of one halfpenny per pint, with milk and sugar, ready for immediate consumption. This is the dinner provided to-day; there is a regular change of diet, comprising a dish new to us, called lobscouse, potato pies, and Irish stew. A pint of this warm coffee and a large substantial bun is given to each member of the sewing-classes, and to a number of men engaged in educational classes, who come in very quietly and take the places recently vacated by the children. When all are arranged, in an order that would not disgrace a gentleman's table, they rise simultaneously and sing the grace ordinarily used at such meetings, in which there occur the words, which we cannot help thinking must have a singular significance to them at this time, like the dream of running waters to parched and sinking travellers in the desert :
"Grant that we
May feast in Paradise with Thev."
under the auspices of Mr. Pilkington, M.P. for Blackburn. He has promised to give two shirts apiece, with the usual wages of two shillings a week for the work, to a number of young men, on condition that they make them themselves--of course under the superintendence of a matron. My sister is eager to visit this class of sempsters, and our guide conducts us to a lecture-room, where they do their sewing apart, and, as the matron significantly assures us, do not allow the girls to come and look at them. Their novel occupation is a source of great amusement to them, though one remarks rather uneasily, as if not quite sure of his own sentiments, that he doesn't think it is any disgrace; an opinion which receives a hearty assent from them all, especially from a fluent-tongued young man, who says, with a roguish glance at my sister, “We'll have no need of wives at all now we can mak' our own shirts, and that'll be a saving when we get back to th’ mills.” They are very diligent; for a prize is to be given to the one who has accomplished his work earliest and best. Some have their sewing pinned to their knee, and, holding the left arm at full length, are laboriously passing their needle through the calico; others are gazing abstractedly at the mystery of sleeve-linings; while all are looking forward with dread to the terrible experiment of button-hole making. They are cheerful and merry enough till I tell them that we have heard that some of the mills were standing for want of hands, and that they would rather depend upon the Relief Committee than return to labour. At this our fluent friend flashes up, and informs us, in racy Lancashire dialect, which I cannot transcribe, that the cotton supplied is so bad as to make it impossible for a weaver with three looms to earn as much as five shillings a week. Some one of them had promised to return to the mill if the owner would guarantee him five shillings for his labour, which would preclude him from receiving relief from the funds; but the offer was rejected. “We'd be glad to get back to th' mills," he concludes with a sigh, and another twinkle in bis eyes as he proudly watches my sister fixing his sewing; “but I will always keep my shirt, to mind me of these times.”
There is something strangely painful, after all our talk has been of shillings, scanty in number, to read a placard on the walls of Blackburn, offering 1001. reward for the discovery of the murderers of that aged woman who was beaten to death in the neighbourhood. As we hasten through the streets, it stares us in the face; and here a great concourse of people, the only one we have seen, and through whom we have to pass, arrests our steps. The four murderers are in the building round which they eagerly throng; and with a sickening and sinking of spirit at this pulsation of crime in the heart of the destitution, we pass on, without inquiring more.
It is Yates's Mill we are seeking, where the large educational and industrial schools for men, known as Mrs. Potter's and Mrs. Gladstone's schools, are in operation, under the management of Dr. Robinson and his curate. As we inquire the way from one and another, two bonnetless