Croppers, Doffers and Weavers

Melody -

The croppers of the West Riding of Yorkshire were highly skilled workmen who trimmed the nap on woollen cloth with huge hand-shears. In 1806, some 3,000 of them were at work, together with 2,000 apprentices. When trade was good, they could earn thirty shillings a week, at a time when an agricultural labourer was paid only eight shillings. The introduction of shear-frames partially mechanized the process, and the output with a frame equalled in eighteen hours what took eighty-eight hours by hand. Potentially, at least half the croppers would be put out of work if the frames were widely used. Under the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, strikes and trade union organization were illegal (though by no means unknown), so the croppers secretly banded together to resist by smashing the offending frames or even by burning down the workshops in which they were housed. To carry out their work of destruction, they carried great hammers, known as Enochs, from the name of one of the partners of the firm that made them, Enoch and James Taylor of Marsden. Ironically, the same firm also made the shear-frames, which gave rise to the saying 'Enoch has made them and Enoch shall break them'. The Government deployed special constables and also soldiers. It is said that a greater military force was arrayed against the Luddites in England in 1812 than against the French armies in Spain, and Byron made fun of the 'marchings and counter-marchings' of the soldiery.

Despite the strong military presence, there were several attacks, including that on Foster's Mill, between Horbury and Ossett (near Wakefield), which took place on 9 April 1812. Three days later the croppers were less successful: their famous assault on Rawfolds Mill in the Spen valley was successfully repulsed by the owner, William Cartwright, and some workers and soldiers. Eight men later stood trial at York for their part in the attack, three others involved having already been hanged (and their bodies delivered to the surgeons to be dissected and anatomized) for the murder of the owner of another mill, William Horsfall. Five of the eight were found guilty, and hanged. They included John Walker, who had enlisted in the Royal Artillery at Woolwich to try to escape detection. He was remembered for many years afterwards at the Shears Inn (not far from Rawfolds, and still standing) for his singing of 'The Croppers' Song': 'Long before Walker had come to the end of his song the rollicking chorus was eagerly caught up by his delighted audience, and when the end was reached the refrain was twice repeated with extraordinary vigour, many of the men beating time on the long table with their sticks and pewter mugs.' The piece itself is clearly home-made, and is closely related to a song that tells of a conflict between keepers and poachers. On the other hand, the reverse might possibly be true, for I have come across no version of the poaching song dating from as early as 1812.

By 1817, out of 3,625 croppers, only 860 had full employment. From the second quarter of the nineteenth century the factory system was dominant, and a new subculture was generated, albeit drawing on traditions inherited from the workshop system (which continued to exist in some areas and trades). The harsh and demanding regime of the great factory bastilles was humanized by close camaraderie among the workers, by their sense of humour, and even by their rivalries.

In the grim linen mills of Belfast, the routine until within living memory was from six in the morning until six at night, with meal breaks of one and a half hours, on weekdays, and from six till noon, with a break of half an hour, on Saturdays. In the spinning rooms the work of removing full bobbins of yarn from the frames and replacing them with empty ones was the work of the doffers, sometimes girls, sometimes young women, often barefoot, wearing aprons (called rubbers), and wielding pickers to dig out yarn which wrapped itself round the roller when the thread broke. The bobbins were large and heavy. The work was hard, noisy, and dirty, and the wages low, but the doffers still found the energy to sing: You Might Easy Know a Doffer

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