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Weavers and freemen in Coventry, 1820-1861 : social and political traditionalism in an early Victorian town

By Peter Searby


This thesis is concerned with Coventry from about 1820\ud to 1861, and in particular with the social and political attitudes\ud that characterised it. The dominant industry in the city and the\ud area of Warwickshire to the north was the weaving of silk ribbons.\ud They were usually made in domestic workshops often by family\ud labour; piecework rates by a standard 'list' were the traditional\ud method of payment. A chronic surplus of labour threatened to\ud disrupt the list-system and depress earnings. Before 1835 the\ud list-system was several times generally abandoned; moreover, each\ud successive list was lower than the last, and real earnings fell\ud more rapidly than prices for those continuing on the same type of\ud loom. On the other hand, many weavers turned to more productive\ud looms and so increased their earnings. The home market for ribbons\ud expanded, Warwickshire had little competition from other domestic\ud producers, and much continental competition was effectively excluded\ud by the statutory prohibition of imports until 1826. Although the\ud tariff that then replaced it proved an inadequate barrier against\ud continental producers between 1828 and 1832 - and those years were\ud disastrous for Coventry as a result - it did suffice to guard and\ud preserve for Warwickshire a growing market for cheap ribbons from\ud the early 1830s onwards. Standard prices were not lowered after\ud 1835, and were generally abandoned only once, from 1840 to 1842;\ud the continued adoption of more productive looms further increased\ud earnings.\ud Throughout the period, there was a strong tradition of support\ud for the list system from 'honourable’ manufacturers and citizens at\ud large, anxious for the prosperity of the weavers and the town itself.\ud The same tradition sustained a lavish system of statutory poor\ud relief until 1830; and though it became more frugal thereafter,\ud the fortunate exemption of Coventry from the close control of the\ud Poor Law Commission until 1844, owing to the autonomy conferred\ud by a local act, helped to preserve outdoor relief for the unemployed.\ud At times of distress relief funds were collected: but a far greater\ud amount of money was disbursed to the poor from the dole charities,\ud with which the city was exceptionally well endowed. Some charities\ud were a special preserve of the city's freemen, who also enjoyed\ud rights of pasture on land near the city. The freemen, a large and\ud growing group, were determined to retain their privileges or\ud convert them into rights as substantial. With the city’s\ud assistance or acquiescence, they did so.\ud Many weavers were freemen. Their common good fortune\ud helped to create complaisance and a pervasive moderation of conduct.\ud Although the city had a popular electorate because of its freeman\ud franchise, it was never predominantly radical; radical electors had\ud to coalesce with moderate liberals to return their candidates.\ud Radical movements that disavowed middle-class prescriptions were\ud numerically weak: and even these minorities were distinguished by\ud their constitutionality. There were scarcely any violent clashes\ud with authority. Industrially, the record is similar: of militant\ud yet disciplined conduct. Even in the one act of Luddism that\ud occurred there was little violence to person.\ud The weavers were always characterised by a preference for\ud the outwork system. Steam factories were few in Coventry until\ud the 1850s. They then threatened through superior productivity to\ud displace the outwork system. The outdoor weavers competed with them\ud by the installation of larger looms in their domestic topshops: and\ud then, in a movement in which they were supported by the factory\ud weavers and the city, compelled upon the factory proprietors a system\ud of remuneration which removed the superior productivity of their\ud looms. By 1859 the outwork system seemed more secure than ever.\ud But the free trade measures of 1860, by removing the tariff which\ud had long shielded the city, led to an influx of continental ribbons,\ud a great excess of labour in Coventry, and the end of both support\ud for the weavers from the city - now mindful of the need to cheapen\ud labour-costs - and also the list-system which paternalism had long\ud sustained

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