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Volume 18 - Autumn 2004


 
 

One Hour Less

by Trevor Hickman
 

The funeral of William Wood, the bookbinder, took place on a bitterly cold day in March of 1788. He had died of gaol fever in Newgate Prison. Nearly a year before, William Wood and four others had been tried, found guilty and sentenced to two years in Newgate, for trying to get the working week reduced by one hour. At this time, a bookbinder worked an eighty-four hour week (seventy-five of which was actual work), from six in the morning to eight at night. For a week made up of six fourteen-hour days he could expect from fifteen to eighteen shillings. A skilled finisher in a top class shop might even earn a guinea. Bookbinders had long been in the habit of forming themselves into little groups that met in various taverns and alehouses and what energy had not been used up during the fourteen-hour day, was expended in drinking, singing, carousing and bawdry.

By 1786 three of these groups of convivial binders amalgamated but with the rather sinister aim of trying to put pressure on their employers to get their working week reduced by one hour. The immediate result was that most of the journeyman bookbinders in London were laid off, and the masters started legal action against the conspirators. The binders received some strike money, and many, anticipating the unpleasantness and uncertainty to come, left for the provinces. Twenty-four binders were finally indicted and sent to prison, but just after a week later a lenient magistrate at Bow Street let them out on bail. At the next petty sessions the Judge, a man by the name of Ashurst, ordered the accused to return to work under the previous conditions and for the same pay, and warned them that unless they did so, the leaders from each shop would be imprisoned. However the uncertainty, the dissatisfaction and unwillingness continued, many of those involved felt that to back down at this point would be weakness and that a stand should be made. Eventually, six of the original twenty were hauled up and sentenced to two years in Newgate. They were Armstrong, Craig, Fairbain, Hogg (a very skilled finisher with only one eye), Lilburne and Wood. Hogg got off eventually for some obscure reason - it may have been his eye, or possibly because of poor evidence given by his employer.

William Wood was particularly unfortunate in that he had set up in business on his own just after the strike had begun, but evidence was still given against him by his former employer, James Matthews. He was his uncle by marriage and, it seems, bore him no ill feeling and very much resented having to give evidence against his nephew - the more so as he was now in business on his own account. All the five imprisoned men were finishers.

Life in prison was pretty grim, but not so grim as it might have been. The men, martyrs to their friends, were not forgotten. Their friends and workmates supported them to the tune of a guinea a week, and this enabled them to buy certain comforts and privileges - one of which was a room of their own - well away from the common felons - debtors, rapists, thieves and vagabonds. Most days binders and relatives came to visit them and continued that now firmly established tradition of ale drinking, started earlier and under happier conditions. There was at this time a tap room in the prison itself. After a while Wood began to disagree with his associates, he had never felt at ease with their rough humour, their rowdiness, and he could not stand their by now excessive drinking. He had never been strong, and his condition deteriorated. The others considered him to be something of a 'whiner' and he soon found himself friendless and alone in what seemed to him insufferable conditions. He caught gaol fever and died.

The funeral procession, which was particularly well attended, made a detour from Newgate, along Fleet Street, and on into the Strand, until it came opposite the home of Matthews, his last employer. Mrs. Matthews collapsed on seeing the corpse, whereupon the cortege went on to the Wesleyan Chapel in Tottenham Court Road, and from there after a short service, he was taken and buried.

When the remaining binders had been in Newgate for a little over a year, the prison was inspected by Bloxham, the newly appointed Sherriff. When he entered the living quarters of the binders he was immediately struck by the cleanliness and neatness of it all, by their smart appearance, and particularly by the large joint roasting on the spit. All this contrasted very oddly with the squalor and filth of much of the prison (the trade union guinea was being put to good use it seemed). He asked the governor who they were, and on hearing their story and background, he advised them to get up a petition with as many signatures from people of standing as possible. He promised that, if they did this, he personally would submit it to the Secretary of State. This was done.

Weeks later, Bloxham again visited Newgate, only to find the binders still there; nothing had been done. Incensed by what he felt was incompetence or dalliance higher up the line, he went to the Secretary of State's office, retrieved the petition which had been maturing in a drawer and immediately had it delivered to King George III. The next day, June 28th 1788, the men were granted a free pardon which meant their immediate release. Bloxham also paid the gaol fees to obtain their release.

The four men assembled in the 'Cheshire Cheese', Surrey Street, in the Strand and celebrated with their friends. For the next few days, the four rode round the town in a coach and four to thank personally all those friends and others in the binding trade who had supported them while in prison. Their employers, themselves pleased about the pardon and release because it had not been easy with the resentment of the other employees during all this time, re-instated them in their former jobs. For many years afterwards a 'Martyrs' dinner was held annually on June 28th to celebrate and to remember the release of the four book-binding 'Martyrs'.

Reprinted from: A Bookbinder Dies from Goal Fever by Trevor Hickman, Published as the text to Brewhouse, Broadsheet No. 5 1968.

 

Skin Deep - Volume 18 - Autumn 2004

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