Framework Knitters in Houghton on the Hill, Leicestershire
John Johnson 1779 ~ 1831
John Johnson (my Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather) was born around 1779 in Leicestershire, unfortunately for us, there were quite a few “John Johnson’s” baptised at this time in Leicestershire, so we can’t pin him down who his parents were.
John married for the first time on 8th August 1793 to Ann Horsepool, in Houghton on the Hill. John was 26 and Ann about 20, they had no children and Ann died about 18 months after they were married in March 1795. Here is their marriage record below.
On 17th October 1798 John married again to Hannah Roe, John was about 31 and Hannah about 18 or 19, five children quickly followed, Anna in 1799, Jane in 1800, James in 1802, William in 1804 and Joshua John in 1809. Joshua was baptised on the 16th April 1809 in Houghton and tragically Hannah was buried on the 28th, so Hannah probably died of complications of childbirth.
Here is John and Hannah’s record of marriage:
I have no idea what happened to John for the next six years, he had five children under the age of 10 including a newborn, maybe they went in the workhouse, maybe extended family supported him, but all five children made it to adulthood.
Six years later on 8th May 1815, John married Amey Waterfield, he was about 48 and Amey was I think about 20 years younger, but this is uncertain as I found a baptism record for an Amey Waterfield 15 miles away, although there were Waterfields in Houghton but I couldn’t find a record for her baptism there. Here is their record of marriage below.
The interesting thing to note on all three records is how neat John Johnson’s signature/handwriting is at a time when most ordinary people were not literate, and you can see nearly everyone else signed with an “x” which was usual, also, Amey was able to write her name too. One of the witnesses is Jane Housepool, may be a relative of John’s first wife.
Later that year, a daughter, Amey Johnson arrived, but sadly just a year later she was buried in Houghton on the Hill on 25th September 1816.
Sometime in 1819, a son was born, Humphrey Wilson Johnson, (Esther Annie’s father), his baptism on Christmas Day 1819 in Houghton on the Hill is the first reference to John being a framework knitter (see below).
I don’t think Humphrey Wilson liked his name much, although people who research family histories love unusual names because they are so easy to track, unlike “John Johnson”. Going forward Humphrey called himself “Wilson”, and on his marriage certificate it looks like “William Wilson”.
Framework knitting was mechanical knitting which took off in Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, Houghton on the Hill and Billesdon were villages about 6 miles east of Leicester. Conditions were notoriously cramped, uncomfortable, and very poorly paid. Some framework knitters had machines in their homes, and it was a family affair, and many worked in cramped workshops.
I found a burial record for John Johnson in April 1831 in Houghton on the Hill, he would have been about 64, again it’s hard to say for 100% that this is our John as there is another John Johnson around too, but that John Johnson couldn’t write so I was able to separate out his marriage from our John’s marriages.
Six out of seven of John’s children outlived him, quite an achievement. He saw three of them marry in his lifetime. One of his sons, William Johnson, is also a framework knitter in Nottingham all his life. James and Humphrey are farm labourers, daughter Jane dies at the age of 33, just two years after her father, oldest daughter Anna marries a farm labourer and settles in Northamptonshire. Joshua John becomes a brewer in Leicester, he married at the age of 30 to Wilbro Fretsome, they had one son Thomas who died at the age of 3, then Joshua John died five years later at the age of 40.
Below is Joshua John’s marriage record which references his father being a stocking maker.
There is a museum dedicated to Framework Knitters in the village of Ruddington, Nottingham.
I have shared here a couple of articles all about Framework Knitters or Stocking Makers
Many families endured great poverty and ‘as poor as a stockinger’ became a common proverb. This financial distress often led to civil unrest. As early as 1779, angry framework knitters smashed 300 stocking frames and torched a house in Nottingham when Parliament refused to set a fair wage.
Trouble flared again during 1811–12 when cheap and nasty stockings (‘cut-ups’) flooded the market. ‘Cut-ups’ were made on ‘wide frames’, which had been previously used for making pantaloons before they fell out of fashion.
In the 1840s, a narrow frame could make 480 women’s cotton hose each year
Wages fell as a result of the influx of cut-ups and as a result there were several Luddite attacks on stocking- and lace-frames in the Nottingham area. Arrests were made, several Luddites transported, and frame-breaking made a capital offence.
The stocking-frames were often worked by
children. The Second Report of the Commissioners: Trades and
Manufactures, an investigation into children’s employment in the early 1840s, found that at Nottingham: “When the boys come to ten or 12 they begin to work in the frame; some begin at nine.” At Leicester, framework knitter John Grant said that girls began knitting worsted stockings at “nine or ten” years old. Children worked the same hours as adults, which was often a 14-hour day excluding mealtimes.
It took children three to six months to master one of the most difficult skills on the machine: ‘meeting the presser’. The knitter’s hand and foot had to work together so that the frame moved up while at the same time bringing down the ‘presser’ and throwing the work over the needle heads.
Very young children helped with the work at home too in the mid-19th century. Cornelius Smith, a silk glovemaker, said: “It is a general custom in the hosiery trade for the mechanics to set their children, of both sexes, to seam and wind at the age of seven or eight; many begin at an earlier age.”
There were many different roles in the industry performed by both adults and children. Seamers stitched the seams of the hosiery; winders wound thread onto bobbins; and the intricate work of embroidering and ‘chevening’ (adding decorative raised stitching) was usually done by girls.
The children who worked at seaming, chevening and winding earned from 1s (5p) to 4s 6d (22½p) per week, depending on their age and skill. By this date, very few children were apprenticed to framework knitters, except those bound by the parish authorities under the Poor Laws. In Leicester alone, nearly 13,000 under 18s worked in the industry.
In addition to the long hours, the workshops’ dense, close atmosphere affected the workers’ health and child cheveners often fainted while stitching. Framework knitters of all ages suffered from eye complaints because the stitches were so tiny; many became extremely short-sighted. To aid their delicate work, the knitters would suspend a large globe filled with water in front of a lamp to act as a lens to condense the light into a concentrated beam.
(Taken with permission from “My Ancestor was a …Framework Knitter” by Sue Wilkes in “Who Do You Think You Are?” magazine and www.suewilkes.blogspot.com and Who do you think you are? | Our Media)
Almost ten years on from the 1812 ‘Declaration of the Framework knitters’, conditions for the framework knitters of the counties of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester has not seen any sign of improving. The pay for these workers, of whom there were estimated to be about 15,000 in these three counties, was insufficient to keep them in daily bread. Each family was suffering from abject poverty and some from starvation. The knitters would spend between 15 and 16 hours a day at the frames making stockings.
The work of the stocking maker continued in this way seven days a week and were paid between 5s and 7s a week for that labour. Bread was the staple diet for the poor in this period but bread for one person would cost about 1s. A family of five may eat up to 4s of bread a week (at a subsistence level) how then could they manage? Their weekly income also had to cover rent and whatever else they needed. What was the cause of the low wages?
The hosiers were the owners of the manufacturing businesses. They employed the frameworkers to knit the stockings, renting out the frames to the household and providing the yarns to make the finished product. The hosiery trade, once seen as producing good quality products into a buoyant market had seen an influx of unscrupulous manufacturers who had entered the trade with little or no capital behind them. They forced down the quality of the product and decreased wages until they were below subsistence level. A minority of manufacturers saw the need to do something about the intolerable conditions, they recognized that it was an unsustainable set of circumstances but without the support of their fellow manufacturers, could not or did not take the necessary action to make changes. Their advice to their workers was to throw themselves upon the public and charitable organisations for temporary support until the reluctant manufacturers changed their position. This the workers did, in a considered and sensible manner they addressed the public and won a great deal of respect for the manner in which they carried themselves. These men and women, the starving and exhausted frameworkers were described thus;
“Never were privations so distressing, endured with more manly fortitude: and for my own part, I cannot look back on the patience and constancy displayed through such a protracted scene of suffering, without ascribing it to a calm confidence in that providence which sooner or later never, fails to interpose in behalf of such as trust in it, and which at length has inspired wisdom to discover, and resolution to apply the only remedy. They have deplored their misery, they have exhibited their grievances to the view of the public in the language of nature and of truth, but rarely if ever have they forgotten their duties.”
From a pamphlet ‘An appeal to the public on the subject of the framework knitters fund’ 1821
So what were they asking the public for?
They were addressing the noblemen and gentlemen of the counties to take up their cause for them and through investigation find some way of rectifying the dreadful situation they found themselves in. They hoped that sympathetic gentlemen might intercede on their behalf to negotiate some sort of deal for them. What they wanted was to strike a permanent deal between themselves and their employers.
The problem lay in the inadequate system of poor relief.
The problem in part, rested with unemployed workers, of which there were hundreds of thousands in this period, offering their work for below a sustainable wage, forcing wages lower and lower. The unemployed, still in the minority, should have received poor relief but the system failed them and so this surplus supply of labour had the effect of bringing about a universal depression. It was a case of the tail wagging the dog, in that the misery of the minority, instead of heralding an adequate support system became a signal to spread the calamity of unemployment so that it affected all workers. The workers were not asking for anything more than a sustainable wage. They offered to work longer hours, it was never an issue of asking for shorter hours or more holidays but enough money to put food on the table. Although prices for the goods lower than in the past demand remained high. Driving down the wages of the workers was the result of greedy manufacturers.
Competition among the hosiers.
As commented on earlier, hosier manufacturers who entered the trade with insufficient capital, were creating a whirlpool of poverty. They made an inferior product at a cheaper price. They drove the market downwards and more respectable hosiers followed, the trade of hosiery was being degraded. These hosiers placed other demands on the frameworkers, for example they could demand that as they changed the pattern, such as requiring them to make fuller hosiery, the frameworker had to pick up the cost of the extra yarn involved. Poorer quality hosiery could not hold its own in foreign markets. British hosiery goods had always competed with foreign goods based on the superior quality of the British product. Poor quality products could not compete in foreign home markets. Many manufacturers knew this and were very troubled by it. Tradesmen of all descriptions were anxious for a positive outcome for the frameworkers. The majority of manufacturers saw that higher wages meant an increased spending power that would benefit all sectors of trade.
Fear of pauperism.
Pauperism served nobody in society well and there was a very real fear in those anarchic times that such an existence amongst those ready and willing to work could be the catalyst for the revolution they all feared. It was thought that if others in society stood by and did nothing about the conditions of the frame-workers then the plight of the frame-workers would soon become their problem. The value of land and housing was falling where the greatest concentration of frame-workers lived. It was hoped that good government would prevail and that the strong hand of the law which might be brought into force, would be stayed. It wasn’t merely a question between the framework knitters and their employers but also between the land-renters and the hosiers, between the landowners and the hosiers, in fact, between parishes and hosiers. It was a question of whether the hosiers of character and feeling would allow those more disreputable manufactures to take over the trade.
It had been tried before.
It was not the first time such an appeal had been made by the workers. In one part of Leicestershire prior to 1821, a union of parishes was formed. Parochial subscriptions were raised and the workmen themselves contributed a share to the general fund. Noblemen and Gentlemen of the county took an interest in the business and a provision was made in support of the framework knitters who had been refused a formerly agreed upon wage. This meant an equitable rate of wages was secured for the workers. The parishes benefited from being relieved of a constant and heavy burden, which they faced providing poor relief to these workers. The workers were lifted to a subsistence wage and could thus feed and provide housing for themselves and the hosiers had no trouble selling their higher priced, better-quality goods into the markets. The small increase in the price of the hosiery was not even felt by most of the purchasers. The local economy benefited because these workers made up the bulk of the population.
“Suppose in a particular parish a hundred frames at work, and each of the Framework-knitters earns, clear of all deductions, ten shillings a week instead of six, that parish is benefited to the amount of a thousand pounds yearly and, considering the inadequacy, of the former, wages to procure the necessaries of life, the, alteration will be nearly equivalent to an annual donation of a thousand Pounds to the parochial, Treasure.”
Still unscrupulous manufacturers could not be stopped.
The more unscrupulous manufacturers were not interested in the new union and promptly took their business to workers in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire where they did not have to deal with the union. The ‘Stocking Workers Fund’ as it became known, could only be a temporary measure, the fallback position was poor relief provided by the parish. It would take a union to ensure that change was permanent and acts of parliament that were enforceable to bring about real rights to a living wage for workers.
(Taken from a blog called “Intriguing History” Intriguing history researched curated mapped and timelined (intriguing-history.com))