Mrs Knight, by Linda Boyles

Image courtesy of Manchester Histories. Painting in Free Trade Hall by A. Sherwood Edwards. Contributor: Manchester Central Library (ref: GB127.m07598)

Four dead. Two left. Here I am again, by the freshly dug grave of another child.  Ben, Phil-ip, William, all gone before they’d even come of age. And now my beautiful girl has joined them in the cold dark earth. Hannah. Only nineteen. I feel cursed by a God that could be so cruel.  The wind rushes off the moors to whip my hair, and howl around the gravestones. It stings my cheeks red, and bites my chapped fingers. John holds my hand tightly, the mooring that stops despair tearing me away. He has devoted his life to fighting for the rights of others, but is powerless to save the lives of our children.

'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust'.

The thud of earth on her coffin.

Those days at Ma & Da's farm seem like another age.  My beloved and I were so full of joy and hope as we began our life together. I remember the first time I spotted him, at the May market. The air was full of the fresh promise of spring, and relief at winter's bite releasing its icy grip. The market ground was crowded with the jostle and bustle of Mossley folk catching up on gossip. The hollers of traders echoed around the valley, luring shoppers to their wooden stalls and barrows. They were deep in lively debate, wedged between the carrots and tatties.  Da's friend Bill, with this sparkling stranger.  He was passionately arguing about something, and I was curious to find out what. I edged closer to listen in, pretending to inspect the produce.

"The thing is, they're never to give us what we want; it’s against their own self-interest.  They know nothing of our lives and the hardships we endure every day.  Hunger, when your belly growls for the want of food.  Seeing our kids go barefoot and with-out. We have to stand up and fight for our rights. Those greedy buggers are never going to do it for us.”  

“Hush that talk, John. You’ll get yourself thrown in the clink if you keep up talk like that.” 

He ignored Bill and just carried on.  I was drawn to the energy of his piercing eyes; the right one dreamy looking as if he was gazing into the future.  

“Did you know that the ministers of our government have granted the Queen an in-come of more than £1,000 a day?  Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of us subjects are starving on 2d and 1d per day. That just can’t be right.”

His Lancashire voice was solid and strong, like the millstone grit of our hills.  His words rushed out with such fervour that my skin prickled with excitement.  I didn’t know anyone that spoke like that.  I could imagine him standing on one of those platforms I’d seen once at St. Peters Field. Platforms where politicians and the like put themselves on so they can talk down to us when they want us to do their bidding.  

He caught me glancing over at him, and a growing heat crept up my face.  I quickly returned my attention to Mr Cartwright’s potatoes, but I fooled no-one.  Bill shouted out to me. 

“What do you think to this talk, our Lizzie? Should we give these politicians a run for their money? Your Da seems to think we should, and now this here John’s saying the same.” 

I wasn’t often asked my opinion, especially not about big things that mattered.  It was usually everyday things, like whether we should give the herd more fodder.  I en-joyed the thrill of being asked, and the close attention with which he looked for my reply.

“For my part, I quite agree with your friend.  They couldn’t care tuppence for our day to day troubles.  It suits them that has lots to keep it that way, and to keep the rest of us poor.”  

He seemed pleased by my answer.  

“Quite so, Miss Lizzie, if I may call you Lizzie?”  

The sound of my name in his mouth made me flush again. 

“I believe your father shares your feelings. He and I had quite a chat about it in The Shears the other night. It’s gratifying to meet his lovely daughter. He told me so much about you too.”

Timing brilliant as ever, my Ma called to me to help her with the carrying.  I scarcely had time to wave goodbye, as Ma began marching away from the market ground. I weaved my way in and out of the throng, and felt an invisible thread tugging between him and I. I knew if I looked back I would see his gaze following me as I joined my Ma. We trudged up Quickedge hill to the farm, loaded down with Mr. Cartwright’s King Edwards. Our clogs rang out on the rough stones of the track, accompanied by the sound of our laboured breathing. The cobbles shone with the lacquer of spring rain. I was lost in thought and still blushing from my exchanges with John.  Ma noticed my colour and teased me all the way home.  I pretended it was down to the exertion of climbing, but she knew better. 

“He’s trouble, that one.  You’d do best to keep your eye off him if you don’t want a life of strife”. 

But I could no more heed her warning than a moth could keep away from a flame.  Our destinies had been set and were to be entwined from that day on. 

A week later, he called round to give Da a pamphlet he had printed about some-one called Thomas Paine.  They talked for ages, and I could see he wanted to draw me into their conversation.  From then on, he would come regularly with another pamphlet, book, or newspaper he thought might interest us.  Each time his visits grew longer, and our conversations deeper.  She saw there was no keeping us apart, and over the coming months she and Da grew to accept him as one of their own. Life trundled on in that busy humdrum way it does, and my meetings with John were the sparks that kept me alive and connected to something bigger.

It was a year later that he proposed. It was Tuesday, baking day. Me and Ma were busy with batches. Normally we'd be chatting away and laughing as we worked, but this day she was quiet and distant. 

"You're not yer'self today. What's up?"  

"I hear Hill Top Farm's selling up.  Another one gone.  When I was a girl there was seventy-five farms in our valley, and now that's three given it up this year. This cotton business will be the death knell for our wool. I'm mithered that we'll be next. Four generations we've been up here. What would me Da say if he could see all he'd worked so hard for crumbling away." 

I watched her chapped red fingers deftly pummel the dough.

"It's going to be alright, Ma. There's always going to be a demand for mutton, lamb, and wool. People need to eat and keep warm. Cotton's only good for undergarments and the like.  On the other hand, my John says cotton is the way of the future and there's a lot of money to be made if we can keep the greedy mill owners out of it.  He's got ten folk weaving for him at Neet Mill and they can't keep up with the demand. Think how much better our lives would be with a bit more money."  

She banged the dough down hard, and the tins clattered in unison. 

"I'll have no rude talk of undergarments while you're still under my roof.  I do hope that John's dream comes true, but I worry that it is just a dream. He's got some fierce competition.  There's talk of them building huge mills like those ones over yonder, packed with hundreds of looms. They're gobbling up all the work with their cheap cotton. John won't be able to keep up with the likes of them."

"I can't imagine it, Ma, sounds like hell on earth. The noise and dust from one loom is bad enough. Who could work in a room with a hundred of the things? You'd go deaf and not be able to breathe. And John says those Oldham mill owners pay the workers a pittance. Why would you want to work like that?"

Ma slumped down into the worn wicker chair, its legs rattling on the flags. Her head sank into her flour-dusted hands, clouding her hair white. 

"That's all true, our Lizzie. But the likes of them bosses just see us as money-making machines. So long as they're raking in the pounds, they're happy. And weavers and the like will be forced to get jobs there, if that's where all the work is.”

Our chat was interrupted by a knock at door, and in walked John. He joined in with us for a bit, but then there are too many chores to be standing around yakking. He came out to help me with the milking, and it was over Daisy’s rumps that he blurted it out. 

“How would you feel about doing this together every day, Lizzie?  It’s about time we got hitched, don’t you think?  I had a word with your Da at the pub the other night, and he seemed quite happy with the idea. How about you?” 

I looked up from my milking stool and we both blushed this time. It wasn’t the most romantic of proposals, but he wasn’t a romantic man. I Ioved him for his integrity, down to earth nature, and passionate energy.  I didn’t hesitate with my answer, and Daisy mooed in unison.  We both laughed with relief and joy.

When we wed and he moved in with us, it felt as natural as if he’d always been there.  He and Da would spend the long winter nights arguing about the best way forward to change the current state of affairs.  Ma and I would chip in between ladling up the usual hash of potatoes and scraps of meat.  He could turn your thoughts to his way of think-ing in a trice with his clever arguments.  It was like he saw to the heart of the truth, this nugget of gold shining through in the dirt.  He understood our people, because he was one of us.  He’d been a handloom weaver living off next to nothing. He felt what we felt. But he wasn’t just out for himself.  He cared about all of us in Mossley, and all those like us.  He made you feel like change was possible; that a better future could be ours if only we could get our voices heard where it counted.  Because of the way he had with words, he got asked to speak regularly at these gatherings that were happening more and more. It fair made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with his vision of a better future for all. It gave us all hope.

I proudly remember the first speech I heard him give, word for word: 

“The making and administering of the laws is exclusively enjoyed by the men of property, and, therefore, in the promotion of their own interests they are continually diminishing the rights of all the labouring classes. In all disputes between employers and workmen the magistrates almost invariably protect the employers. Such is the power op-posed to the working class that until their influence does actively preponderate in the House of Commons, there is no possibility of their circumstances being bettered.”  

Though he wasn’t a tall man, his great words made him grow in stature.  I can see him now, raising his scarred arm in defiance. The scar those men of property had given him would bleach white with anger. The mole on his pale cheek seemed to punctuate his bold statements that rang out around the valley. Mossy green hills framed his silhouette, encircling him in their protective embrace.  

But the hills can’t protect us from the deaths of our children, and the despair I feel as I stand by Hannah’s grave.  

Sometimes I wonder if we were right to follow that path in life we set ourselves on.  The price has been so high for us, and yet we’ve achieved so little.  He would scold me for thinking that way, if he could read my thoughts.

‘We must never give up the fight,’ I can hear him saying now.  ‘We’ve got them running scared now.  It will get worse before it gets better.’

I know all that in my heart, but when he’s away at his meetings and rallies and the like, it’s hard to keep the spirits up.  He has the people’s praise and adoration to feed his fire, but my world is so much smaller.  I only have the cows and the children to share my ideas with.  Our farm feels so far away and alone, like a ship being tossed on a wild sea. The wind howls like my soul as it whistles its way in through the cracks in my heart.  The hardest times were when he was in prison. Three long spells we endured, with only my hard slog and the love of our friends and family to keep body and soul together. 

The worst time was when he was in that hell hole in Reading. Eleven months alone in a damp cell with no air. And not even a trial to put him there. John Junior was only two when that villain Constable Nadin carried his father off.  Chained up in a guard-ed mail coach like he was a wild animal.  In the rare letter that got through to me, he’d beseech me not to think of him, as if this was possible. I used to write and tell him as much.

“I request that you will not again repeat these commands, for you might as well lay claim to the powers of Joshua at once and command the sun to stand still.”
God must have been watching over us then. I don’t know how I could have got through those times without my faith. You could see those mill owners gorging on the wealth created by us workers, while those that laboured starved.  It turned my stomach, but it helped us both steel our resolve to continue the fight in their name.  My conscience couldn’t bear the injustice of it all. 

The newspapers talked about us like we were criminals, but we were only trying to live. Da used to read out bits to us round the fire.

“Listen to this, our Lizzie….’We were led to believe that the inhabitants of the village were advanced in civilisation beyond their brethren found in the South Lancashire villages, but scarce could we traverse a dozen or so yards without knots of urchins and hobble-te-hoys passing audible but not flattering remarks of not the most complimentary nature.  We resolved never again to visit Mossley without having hired for the day a new policeman.’  What a load of rot that Ashton Reporter does talk!  Being poor is not a crime. It’s them that are the criminals, taking all the money for themselves.” 

My Da was right as ever. His forehead used to crinkle with that earnest way he had.  Dark shadows were cast by the glow of the firelight, and lit the hollows of his deep set eyes. I could see the ghosts of our children pass across his eyes as he looked into the flames.

If only we’d known then where this fight would take our lives, I wonder whether we would have started it?  As I stand here weeping into my shawl, I still feel we would have made the same choices. I look around the graveyard, steadily filling with so many lost young lives, and I know it was right to stop others following in their wake. Sweet John Junior squeezes my other icy hand.

“Don’t be sad Ma, Hannah’s at peace now. God’s stopping her cough. I bet you she’s telling him what needs sorting down here just like you do. She was so proud of what you and Da have done.” 

My heart swells with love at such wise words coming out of the mouth of a babe. I lead us away from Hannah’s grave, the three of us strong together like a plough digging into the earth. The sun suddenly bursts through the shoddy clouds and scatters light across the moors, transforming their muted greys and greens to golden hues. Our truth will win through in the end.

by Linda Boyles