Primitive Methodism and the Hosiery and Lace Workers

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. J.T. Ecob

ONE of the memorable coincidences of church history is the time, line of progress, and relation generally of the Primitive Methodist revival to the industrial revolution.

The Trent, with its tributaries, the Derwent and Soar, marked the geographical line of advance. Belper, Derby, Nottingham, Loughborough, Leicester, towns associated with the first inventions, first factories, Luddites and Chartists – were the strategic centres of our early revivals.

Belper, which had grown from a hamlet, consequent upon the first mills erected there by the great inventor, Jedediah Strutt, to be the second town in the county, became the Antioch of Primitive Methodism. Nottingham, famous for the first cotton spinning mill in the country, the reputed skill of its craftsmen and artificers in iron, steel and wood; the first hosiery and lace machines, the first steam-driven machines, became the centre of the great revival, which, after capturing the county, spread to Lincolnshire.

Bridlesmith Gate, Girdlesmith Gate, Smithy Row – names of historical significance – were deserted when the men, tough as the close-grained wood of the Sherwood Forest used in the erection of Lee’s first stocking frame, and the workers from the purlieus of Basford, Radford and the narrows of Hockley and Sneinton, were attracted to the Forest on Whit-Sunday, 1816, to the Pentecostal Camp Meeting conducted by “Boanerges” Benton. It was the year of daring and widespread destruction of property by the Luddites, also of public executions, when multitudes assembled to hear the songs and exhortations of the victims of “King Swing” from the scaffold.

In the dark days which followed for the next forty years, which have been so well described by Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, when, it is said, the workers stilled the cravings of hunger by opium, and substituted Godfrey’s Cordial for bread to their famishing children, the work of our early missionaries was with power to save and comfort. In an area from Chesterfield in the north to Market Harborough in the south, and from Newark in the east to Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the west, in market square, on village green, back street and by the wayside, accompanied by converted framework-knitters, factory workers, men of the mines and fields, the missionaries proclaimed with power the Gospel. The Chartists in their day, as the Labour leaders in our day, adopted their methods.

Loughborough was the home of John Heathcote, the father of the lace trade. Of Heathcote’s many inventions we cannot write; suffice it to say that he was midway between the crowd of able men who preceded him as lace machine inventors, and the great body of clever mechanicians who followed him. He invented the celebrated twist-lace machine in 1809. From his time lace manufacture became an important branch of national industry. The attack on the factory of Messrs. Heathcote, Lacy, Boden, of Loughborough, and the destruction of fifty-five machines with the lace on them, occasioned their removal to Nottingham. Loughborough thus missed becoming the lace metropolis.

Our missionaries entered into a wretched heap of wrongdoing, hunger and misery consequent on the changing conditions of the new machinery and factories, when, in 1818, they missioned Loughborough. Their courage and successes never cease to astonish us. From the time of the inglorious victory of Peterloo, and through all the period of the Chartist agitation Loughborough remained a great mission centre. Its plan of 1822 had twenty-two places, situated in five counties, on it. H. B. Kendall, in his Larger History, devotes some of his more interesting chapters to this period.

It was in Loughborough that we first came into close contact with the hosiery workers, and can recall some of the stories of the Chartist days related by the children of men whose names appeared on the 1822 plan. Primitive Methodism reaped some of her choicest fruit from the men of the frame and factory. The old framework knitter was of pronounced individuality. Often nervously brusque, frequently cadaverous in appearance, ascetic as a monk is supposed to be, rigid in morals and doctrine as the Puritans, but in simplicity, spirituality and devotion, of Quaker purity and vision. In spiritual exercises he was quaint but incandescent.

They were clever handicraftsmen, and could sympathetically interpret the moods of their machines’ facile operations. They were the surviving link between the old order of the domestic system and the new of the factories and steam. Theirs was the spirit of joyful creative labour. Of their services in our  churches it is obviously unnecessary to write.

The order changeth. We would not turn back to the old days, except for instruction and incentive. it will be well for the “moderns,” with their improved social conditions, greater privileges, enlarged freedom, if they are as worthy in their day. Nor have they proved unworthy. Of devotion and enterprise we have many evidences. In the hosiery and lace area we have some of the more progressive churches of the Connexion.

Despite the criticism that labour is not now articulate in our churches, we wield a great influence by our officials and members, who in local councils, labour unions and other public offices, serve the Divine Kingdom.

We know of nothing in our churches, nor have we learned anything from our history to corroborate the lament of the great Lord Shaftesbury, who said that “evangelical Christians are not those on whom I can rely.”

In efforts for just and economic conditions, social betterment, whether in factory, mine or field, we have not lacked in enthusiasm. Although we have properly recognised that our primary duty is to minister to the spiritual sources of life and to bring men into the transforming fellowship of Jesus Christ.

We have circuits which may thus be characterised: “Coal and Hosiery,” “Hosiery and Coal,” Hosiery and Leather,” “Hosiery” only, and “Lace” only. We speak of the order of the staple trade of the particular localities. It will be understood that our churches represent every variety of industry and workers, also that the term “Hosiery” has greatly outgrown its original significance as applied to footwear only, and now embraces underwear and an increasing range of garments suited for outer wear.

The circuit particularised as “Lace,” Long Eaton, is one of the bravest and most prosperous; of “Hosiery and Leather,” the wealthy and aggressive circuits of Leicester are examples; of “Hosiery,” Loughborough and Sileby are splendid examples; for “Coal and Hosiery” we refer to Mans?eld, Hinckley, Sutton and Kirkby. The returns of these circuits have shown no decadence for the past thirty years. On them are found our more prosperous schools, C.E.’s and congregations. Their social and educational work is among the best. It is not easy to appraise the work in the towns, as it is mediated so largely to-day by other ministries, educational, civic, and of labour. This is particularly true of the city of the world’s greatest lace market, and one of the world’s great hosiery centres. Our church‘s records here contain proud accounts of remarkable conversions, aggressive evangelism, temperance propaganda and holy enterprise. Despite difficulties our work is courageously maintained, and of decided influence among the many city workers.

In the large industrial villages of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire we are well represented. With few regrettable exceptions we have progressed. In the smaller, as Calverton and Woodburgh, where the old framework knitting is still the staple industry, we have healthy churches.

Sometimes we grow a little apprehensive when we are informed of evangelism in abeyance, Sunday evening prayer meetings decadent, conversion discredited, or at best, interpreted in terms of evolution, outdoor work left to social and political propagandists and – but we forbear. In our more courageous moods we welcome any adaptation of our methods to present-day needs so LONG AS THE SPIRITUAL FACTOR IS RETAINED, AND THE CHURCH’S MORALE, AS SUCH, IS NOT DESTROYED.

But to revert to the historical method, Hosiery and lace are closely related. It was by the various modifications – slow and costly – of the stocking frame, that lace was first made by machinery. The stocking frame invented by the Rev. W. Lee, 1589 was the basal type of all hosiery and lace machines. It was the greatest triumph of mechanical genius known for ages. It inaugurated a new age of practical invention. Practically perfect from the first, succeeding efforts – and they were innumerable – produced little change in it. Strutt’s “Derby ribbing machine” was added to Lee’s frame. From the combined inventions of Lee and Strutt every hosiery invention is said to have emanated. Heathcote’s lace machine is described as “an ingenious modi?cation of the stocking frame.” The evolution of these machines does not come within the scope of this paper. It is nevertheless interesting to note that, excepting Lee and Strutt, the inventors were working handicraftsmen.

The simple contrivances, subtle adaptations, clever modifications, ingenious additions, due to the workers’ facile fingers, ready wit and enthusiastic devotion, have borne fruit abundantly in the wizardry of the modern factory. The present time is one of unparalleled development in the industry of knitted fabrics. It is also of interest to know that officials and members of our church have proved inventors of no mean order. The late Mr. H. Clarke, of Nottingham, is a notable instance.

Scamped work, addled brains, soulless work, are the nation’s bane. Any conditions that are conducive to the same are thereby condemned. No class has a monopoly of brain. In the co-operation of all is the solution of many of our present-day problems. Whatever makes for the proficiency and character of the worker and the Christianization of management is of the Divine Kingdom. Our work has been of this order. The Gospel saved the self-respect of the worker, when treated as, at best, a “hand,” preserved the brotherhood among toilers amidst the disintegration of society by the factory system, prompted men despised because poor to assert their dignity as sons of God, and to claim the rights of citizenship. Man, in the fellowship of the Gospel, has come to himself, and refuses to be treated as a chattel or machine. Our fathers were never unmindful of problems of bread, work, home and children.

In our church fellowship the workers have been trained for government, whether civic, labour or parliamentary. But perhaps the danger is to over-emphasise the industrial and social. Always we have insisted that the ultimate service, without which any other ministries are little worth, is spiritual. Our fathers lived primarily to make their lives open channels for eternal love to ?ow into the lives about them, and to evoke response to the truth as it is in Jesus. And they did not fail.

To- day we are confronted with problems as complex as ever in the history of the nation, and it is our duty to preach Christ’s gospel as positively and energetically as did our fathers.

We are not competitors with sundry social institutions and political parties, but in our own sphere must do the work they cannot do. The greatest glory of any church is that it be a soul-saving church. We may play as important a part in this new age as did our fathers in their day. But we shall need the same abandon to the Gospel.

In the cities we have not been unmindful of salvage work among the homeworkers, who after at week’s work have scarcely earned enough for their tenement-shelter and the plainest of food. Of “misery drinking” and the abominable immoralities among certain orders of factory workers we have knowledge. The glory of some churches said to be “down town,” has been their ministry among these classes. We plead for an order of deaconesses with these in mind.

Our work is not finished. We are not yet played out. Never were we more needed, and never had we greater opportunities. That we have some of the most enthusiastic kingdom workers in our fellowship and are still of spiritual vision, is our encouragement. We believe that the to-morrows shall have greater triumphs than the yesterdays. Faithful to our vocation, we shall triumph to His glory “whose we are and Whom we serve.”


Christian Messenger 1921/246

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