Primitive Methodism and the Wool Workers

Transcription of Article in the Christian Messenger by Rev. F. Hobson 

THE story of wool is almost as fruitful in suggestion as the story of man himself. It began when man first tamed the wild sheep. It forms a mighty chapter in the history of the West Riding of Yorkshire, with its great centres of population and industry as are to be seen in such places as Bradford, Leeds, Halifax and Huddersfield. It is an integral part of the story of the British Colonies, whence we derive the wool which makes the wheels of the industry merry, and finally clothes the people. Indeed it can truly be said that the story of wool runs through all the civilisation of the world. It has its definite place in art, science, literature and even religion. One of the early Greek poets sang of the  voyage of the ship Argo, under the leadership of Jason, in search of the Golden Fleece. The story is pictured in a great canvas which occupies a wall in the Cartwright Hall, Bradford. The story of the Golden Fleece is the epic of wool, and whatever we know of Greek fable, we should know something of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Cartwright Hall is the Memorial to the Reverend Edmund Cartwright, the inventor of automatic weaving in 1785. Perhaps it is not inappropriate that a member of the Cloth should have been so intimately associated with inventions which have enabled the British woollen trade to make such marvellous progress.

The manufacture of wool was most probably introduced into England by the Romans. After the departure of the Romans the art, if preserved at all, was practised only in the crudest fashion. From the time of Edward III, dates the revival, and steady progress of the wool industry. Edward invited skilled cloth workers from Flanders to come over and teach such people as were inclined to learn the art. Many Flemish weavers came to England, not only at the end of the Middle Ages, but later, during the religious wars which followed the Reformation. In particular they settled in Yorkshire, and made the West Riding the first centre of manufacture in England. Mr. Paul Herring has an interesting poem, “The Weavers,” which contains the following verses:

“The weavers came from Flanders,
And wooden clogs they brought,
On the wild moors set up their looms,
And woollen cloth they wrought.

The Golden Fleece that Jason sought
Across the salt sea glooms.
It was poor fustian stuff beside
The worsted of their looms.

The weavers came from Flanders
To build their fulling mills,
Beside the stream of Yorkshire folk,
Beneath the Yorkshire hills;

And Yorkshire folk are homely folk,
They opened wide their doors,
And gave those Flemish weaving folk,
The welcome of “the moors.”

Those Flemish weavers have had not a little to do with the industrial and religious ancestry of the West Riding.

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century the wool industry was more or less a cottage industry. There was a social equality amongst the West Riding folk of the period, which in the development of modern commercial life has not altogether been preserved. There was a close friendship between master and man, almost unknown to-day. The manufacturers came to and fro amongst the workers in their cottages. Equipped in the wig and cocked hat of the period, they rode their dobby horses, carrying tops to the spinners or returning with their yarns. A remarkable contrast to the huge motor lorries which ply today. In the cottages could be seen the simple machinery and tools mixed with the few bits of household furniture. On fine days the women and children would bring their spinning wheels outside their cottage doors, and do their work to simple rhymes and tunes, many of which were learned in the Sabbath schools in the early days of our own church, for it must ever be remembered to the credit of our founders that they were the pioneers of education amongst the workers. Such education as they possessed they were indebted to those first Sabbath schools. Looking at the West Riding, with its huge factories and tall chimneys, it seems incredible to think that the staple industry was once carried on in cottages.

Whilst wool has a world-wide geography, most of the wool used in West Riding factories comes from within our own empire. This provides a story of romance and wonderful fascination which is well worth knowing. Out of £50,000,000 of wool imported into Britain, 93 per cent. Of it comes from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Australia alone has 85,000,000 sheep, New Zealand 25,000,000, South Africa 30,000,000 and Britain 28,000,000.

The industrial revolution changed the wool industry from a cottage industry to the huge factory system, with its tremendous population and problems. The suffering incidental to the industrial revolution was very shocking in many respects, particularly in the exploitation of child labour. In 1802 Sir Robert Peel declared that 20,000 children between the ages of five and twelve were being driven by whip, beating and starvation to tend the spinning mules. What this child labour meant has been told with pathetic eloquence in the poem of Mrs. Browning, “ The Cry of the Children.” Our church has played an honourable part in the life and development of the West Riding. Some of our churches are composed almost entirely of those employed in the wool industry. What a remarkable variety of occupations there are: Wool sorters, wool combers, spinners, twisters, weavers, dyers, burlers and menders, finishers, all of which are subdivided into many sections. All these have their representatives in our church, both male and female. The female population of the area is almost entirely absorbed by the demands of the industry. Our church is well represented amongst the employers and employees alike. If you go to the Exchange, Bradford, the hub of the trade you are sure to run up against well-known Primitive Methodists before you have gone far. Names as familiar in the industry as they are in the church are those of Ickeringill, Fletcher, Peel, Pearson, Rhodes, Wilson, Frankland, Gorner, Glendinning, Davy, Pennington, a list by no means exhaustive. It is a remarkable sight at the Bradford Exchange on a market day, from 1.15 to 2 p.m., at what is termed “High Change,” when it is crowded with all classes of business men. Entering from Bank Street, on the left are to be seen the foreign yarn buyers, worsted, alpaca and mohair spinners and their salesmen, engaged in earnest conversation. In the centre of the Exchange are to be found wool-staplers, top makers, wool and top buyers; and at the rear of Richard Cobden’s statue are to be seen makers of spinning drawing and combing machinery. On the side of the building nearest to Market Street are to be found wool-combers, seekers-in, oil merchants, noil and waste dealers. We can be proud of the type of men our church has supplied as captains in the industry. We do not suggest they have been pretentious, or ostentatious in wealth, but their names have stood for commercial integrity and uprightness, and they have exerted a real influence for good.

Bradford is Woolopolis, and receives the raw wool and prepares it for such places as Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield and adjacent townships, to be woven into cloth, in which part of the industry Bradford also takes its share. What is known as the Heavy Woollen District, where the heavier woollen cloths,  blankets and the shoddy makes of cloth are manufactured, includes Dewsbury, Batley, Heckmondwike, Morley and Ossett. The chief place of Leeds in the industry is in transforming the cloth into ready-made clothing.

Our churches have ministered in splendid fashion to the artisan population of this area. We are distinctively an artisan church. There have been, and are, those who have attained eminence in the social, civic and industrial life of the community, and have brought honour to us as a people. But we believe that their proudest thought has been that they belonged to the people, and grateful and un-stinted has been their acknowledgment of their indebtedness to the church. Here, as elsewhere, when we think of the lowly origin of our church, the humble agents who brought it into being, and the tremendous difficulties which have had to be faced – social, industrial and religious, we marvel at what has been accomplished. In all the circuits we have splendid church property, and we can make no invidious distinction so far as the circuits are concerned. In the beginning of things the material resources of the founders were meagre. They worshipped in small wool-comber’s sheds or weaver’s lofts. Later, many a Sunday school anniversary was held in the large warehouse of some mill. There are those with us to-day who recount “great services” held in “the Mill.” The beginnings were apparently feeble and commonplace. To-day our church is a witness to the triumph of Christian personality.

Throughout the area of the wool industry members of our church occupy influential positions as employer or employee, or in the social or civic life. We think of such a personality as the late Alderman Peel, and how thoroughly he was the product of our church. He never hid his light under a bushel or made apology for being a Primitive Methodist. He was proud of his church. In nominating him to be Lord Mayor of Bradford, Sir James Hill, Bart., said that he regarded one of his qualifications to be Lord Mayor the fact that he held the diplomas for twenty-five years service in the Primitive Methodist Sunday school. What our church meant to him may be read behind the headline in The Times of November 10th, 1916: “From Half-Timer to Lord Mayor,” At seven-and-a-half years of age he was working in the mill as half-timer, at fifty-three years of age he was chief citizen of his native city. During all those years our church was the inspiration of his career, and he had the proud distinction of being the first Primitive Methodist Lord Mayor of Bradford. Almost succeeding him was another Lord Mayor whose early life was influenced by Primitive Methodism – Joseph Hayhurst, the first Labour Lord Mayor of Bradford, and one of the very finest type of Labour leaders. Though not actually on our church membership roll, he did us the honour of choosing one of our churches as the official civic church, and one of our ministers as the Lord Mayor’s Chaplain. Our church at Morley for several years supplied occupants of the civic chair in Samuel Stockdale and John Stockdale, and at Ossett in Harvey Robinson, who also worthily filled the position of Vice-President of the Conference. If a list of Primitive Methodist magistrates, alderman and councillors in this area were compiled it would be a very lengthy one, and would include names well-known in the Connexion, such as the Fletchers, Brearley, Beckwith, Harrison, Keighley, Hollings, Warburton, Whittaker, Childe, Wilson, Rhodes, Crossland, and younger men who are just mounting the ladder of civic service, amongst whom is one name which gives great pleasure throughout the Connexion, that of Robert Peel, the second son of the late Alderman Peel, who also has succeeded his father as Sunday school superintendent. Though we have not supplied members of Parliament in the area, our officials have ever been to the fore in all the various movements of social, political and democratic reform. The trades organisations, educational and temperance movements have been supplied with earnest and capable leaders.

In two departments of our church service it can be said that the West Riding excels, viz., in its Sunday schools and choirs. There are great days in the Sunday school life, especially the “Whitsuntide Walk” and the Sunday School Anniversary, truly great festivals and occasions which really impress the whole neighbourhood. The spirit of the Sunday school symbolised at the Anniversary is remarkable. Teachers and scholars alike are encouraged and thrilled by the enthusiastic and generous crowds which assemble year by year. Collections for the day amounting to well over £100 are quite a common thing. The music on these occasions, well as at the various musical festivals, is par excellence. There is a spirit in the singing of the choirs unsurpassed in any part of the country. Something in the very atmosphere of the surrounding hills enables a wonderful rich tone to be developed, particularly in the voices of the females. The aim of the choirs is not to monopolise the singing, but that all may have “a good sing.” Outstanding names amongst us in the world of music are Mr. Herbert Brown, the eminent baritone, and Mr. J.S. Witty, the composer of so many popular cantatas.

Our church exercises a vigorous and healthy ministry in this great industrial community, and the best days are ahead.


Christian Messenger 1921/309


No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.