Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Woolwich Early Closing Riot 1859

Do you enjoy having a weekend? Or leaving work some time between 5 and 6? Indeed, do you enjoy football and other sports which only really took off once people had enough free time to go and watch them en masse? Then give thanks to your ancestors who fought for shorter working hours. One aspect of this was the Early Closing Movement of the 1850s, where shops were persuaded to limit their opening hours. Some more enlightened employers went along with this on the basis that giving workers longer breaks might make them more productive (see this account of the movement in the USA); others needed a bit more persuasion, as this example from Woolwich demonstrates. Sadly the gains of the 19th century are gradually being undermined in the age of full Sunday opening and 24 hour supermarkets - where are the ghosts of Alfred Rickards and Frederick Cable to come to the aid of shop workers today?

The Early Closing Riot At Woolwich, To the Editor of the Draper and Clothier.

Sir,—Allow me to call your attention to a very unusual occurrence, which took place at Woolwich on Friday night last, and which was thus noticed in some of the London papers on the following Monday:—

"Two young men of respectable appearance, named Alfred Rickards and Frederick Cable, the former an assistant to Mr. Brangwin, draper, of Powis-street, and the latter in the service of Mr. Vant, draper, High-street, were placed at the bar, before Mr. Traill, charged with being concerned with others not in custody in riotous proceedings, and committing damage to the amount of £10 to the premises of Mr. Stone, draper, Alma House, Powis-street, Woolwich. It appears that, with few exceptions, the drapers of Woolwich recently agreed to close their shops at eight o'clock, and handbills were issued to that effect. The complainant, Mr. Stone, declined to close his premises until nine o'clock, and consequently he had been much annoyed every night by the assembly of numerous drapers' assistants and other persons, who threatened violent measures, unless the early closing movement were carried out by Mr. Stone.

It was proved by the evidence of the prosecutor, Mr. R. Barleymow, and other witnesses, that between the hours of eight and nine o'clock on the previous night a mob of more than 200 persons assembled in front of Mr. Stone's shop, and kept up an incessant yelling. The prisoners were actively engaged in the mob, and the prisoner Cable was seen to extinguish a lamp over the prosecutor's window, and also to raise his hand as though in the act of throwing, and immediately after a plate glass front window, value £10, was smashed. By the timely arrival of the police further damage was prevented, and the prisoners were taken into custody. In reply to the magistrate, it was said that others of the mob were known, and could be apprehended. Mr. Traill commented in severe terms upon the disgraceful conduct of the prisoners, and stated that recent events would lead to the conclusion that employers were expected to submit tacitly to the will of the employed. He should remand the prisoners, in order that the other offenders might be apprehended, and for the attendance of the other witnesses; and he considered the offence was of that nature, that he should send the case to the sessions for trial. The prisoners were then admitted to bail."

Although, as a resident, I may regret exceedingly that such an occurrence has happened, I must call your attention to one point in Mr. Traill's observations, which, I think, is open to some question. He says that recent events would lead to the conclusion that employers were expected to submit tacitly to the will of the employed. Now, I should submit that, however true the observations of the worthy magistrate may be as to other trades, —such as the building, the brick making, &c.,—they can have no possible reference to the drapery trade, especially to the proceedings in this case. Here the drapers had agreed to close their shops at a particular hour, and, with few exceptions, there was no dissentient. The assistants had nothing to do with the movement; it was the idea of the employers themselves, and I much regret that, so laudable as it was, it did not meet with universal approbation. So far from the employers being expected to submit tacitly to the will of the employed, in this case it would appear that they did all in their power — and I am sorry that they went a little too far — to assist their masters. Seeing what was the wish of the majority of the trade in the matter, I was much surprised that Mr. Stone should resist their proposal; but as many able letters have appeared in your Magazine respecting the early closing movement, I shall be glad if you will insert this communication, showing, as it does, that masters and assistants are, as a fact, using all means in their power to bring about a more healthy state of affairs. Your obedient Servant,

A Woolwich Draper. Woolwich, Nov. 15,1869.

P.S.—After my letter was sent (viz., on the 21st Nov.), Rickards and Cable, together with two young men, named Roger Langstaff, secretary to the Woolwich Early Closing Association, and John Hellard, a printer, appeared before Mr. Traill, to answer summonses charging them with aiding and abetting the riot. After the evidence I have already reported to you had been repeated, and some further matter had been brought forward on behalf of the accused, Mr. Traill said it was clear that damage had been done by a riotous assembly, with whom the prisoners were acting. He discharged Dangstaff and Hellard on bail, and decided to send Cable and Rickards to trial; but subsequently the prisoners offered an apology, and to pay for all damage, and were discharged upon bail for their future good conduct'.

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