The Story of Weaving in Crieff & Strathearn ( Part Three )
A Crieff Weaver
The weavers were virtually a community within a community . They often lived in specific locations within a town or village and from the late 18th century developed an individuality that was strongly apparent . In Crieff , hand loom weavers were found in High Street , East High Street up to and including St Margaret’s College Buildings or what is now the Tower Hotel .
Weavers lived in King Street , Burrell Street , Commissioner Street ( or the New Feus ) , Mitchell Street including the bottom part which was known as the Water Wynd , Miller Street , Comrie Street , Milnab Street and the lower part ( geographically ) around Bridgend and Earnbank Road .
In Parish Life in Eighteenth Century Scotland ( Steven M, 1995 ) the author highlights the Statistical Account of Caputh , north of Perth where the minister highlighted conveniently the annual budget of a weaving family comprising the weaver , his wife and three small bairns under five years of age . As Caputh is on the edge of Strathearn , the use of these figures is considered apposite to their contemporaries in the Strath .
The weekly income was assessed at 9 /- or 45 pence and the expenditure 5 /11 or approximately 30 pence . This outgoing was listed as three pecks of oat meal, two pecks of barley , milk, salt , onions, potatoes, butter ,cheese , bacon and meat , soap , starch , blue and oil , thread , thrum and worsted . Out of the weekly surplus of 3/1 or 16 pence had to met certain annual costs which were listed as a man’s suit , jacket and breeches , hat and handkerchief , 2 shirts , a pair of stockings and for his wife a gown and petticoat, 2 shifts a pair of shoes , two aprons a pair of stockings handkerchief ,and caps , children’s clothes , fuel and most importantly , money to cover such contingencies as “ lying in , sickness, loss of time thereby and burials ,one year with another ” . This came to a total of some five pounds thirteen shillings and six pence leaving an annual surplus in the family budget of over two pounds or 30 % of gross income ! The missing factor from this equation is carefully added to the Account , “ the cost of housing being a rent of one pound for both house and garden .” The family’s food is from “ the garden , dressed by the man in the mornings and evenings , and affords them cabbages , greens and potatoes , to the amount of the rent .”
In those pre Napoleonic War days , the hand loom weaver in Crieff was living a comfortable existence , working a four day week and in modern parlance would be deemed a self employed middle class citizen .
Unlike many of the rural areas of Scotland, the weavers in industrial centres such as Glasgow and Paisley were politically active being involved both in protests about cheap labour and imports as well as with electoral reform . The influx of Irish labour posed a threat to their status. The trade was comparatively easy to learn and the cosy paternalism of many of the factories where spinners and hand loom weavers and their families had worked for many years came under threat. The weavers organised and protested against change including special taxes levied against them but were usually defeated in their attempts as the acts of protest were called riots and dispersed forcibly by troops. In Strathearn as else where the return of soldiers after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the situation of no work and high prices seriously alarmed the government. Weavers became involved in movements for reform and in Glasgow the Calton riots saw 47 weavers arrested and put on trial for treason . Three were convicted and executed . James Wilson was hanged and beheaded ( the special procedure if found guilty of treason) on Glasgow Green on the 30th August 1820 , whilst the other two John Baird and Andrew Hardie were tried in Stirling and hanged and beheaded on the 8th of September of the same year.
In Strathearn things were not quite as politically explosive as in the industrial west of Scotland. The passions of reform had however reached here as well . The following account of the action played by the Crieff weavers is graphically recalled in Crieff Traditions and Characters ( Macara , 1881 ).
“ A special meeting was held on 6th May 1831 when it was resolved that an address be transmitted to His Majesty William lV for what he has done in supporting his ministers in reforming the representation of his subjects and dissolution of Parliament . It was also resolved to assemble in the Market Park on 12th May and to send orders to the Comrie and Muthill weavers to put in an appearance . The day came round and the utmost excitement prevailed amongst the congregated thousands.” The minute detailing the affair is dated " Town Park Crieff , 12th May 1831 " and says " This Society along with the rest of the societies having assembled and after an able address by Mr John Kidd , Presses of the Shoemaker's Society, to His Majesty King William lV the procession moved on three and three through the principal streets of the town , South Bridgend etc returned to the Town Park and dismissed with the greatest of regularity. They then assembled in the Mason 's Hall and the Weaver's Hall when appropriate sentiments were given and the healths of these brave men who supported the Reformers were given and drunk with great applause . The scene of the day closed with a fine display of fireworks and passed with the greatest of harmony. Addresses were also delivered by Dr Fyfe , William Clement , merchant , John M'Nab , weaver and John M'Farlane , shoemaker . This procession was in reality a general procession of the inhabitants of the district . Each trade society and party had appropriate banners and equipments and each had its band of music. The procession was about half a mile in length and the day was a red letter one for all who witnessed these doings , and old people still look back to it with admiration through the vista of half a century. ”
In 1755 ( Dr Webster’s analysis ) Comrie and Muthill were the largest of the four parishes . Some 80 years on the position had changed . There had been a 60% rise in the head count overall but now Crieff and Auchterarder had overtaken their neighbours . Crieff was up by some 125 % whilst Auchterarder , the Lang Toon , had seen a growth of a remarkable 178% .
The demise of the weavers in Crieff
The economic decline in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars had a traumatic effect on hand loom weaving throughout much of Scotland . The prosperous weavers found themselves caught in the poverty trap as prices for their product plummeted and the cost of basic commodities soared . The situation nationwide was desperate and the following Government Report based on submissions by various groups of hand loom weavers was published in July 1835 :
Wages paid to weavers in Scotland, the North of Ireland and England declined by between one-half to two-thirds between 1815 and 1835, resulting in widespread and severe suffering and distress. Although the price of food fell in the same period, it did not match the fall in wages, falling about 30 %. Many weavers have resorted to theft of weaving materials
The reasons for the decline in wages are the increased use of steam machinery, heavy taxation necessitated by the war, the fluctuations in the amount of money in supply, the competition from foreign manufacturers, and the over-supply of cloth caused by the need to work long hours to earn a basic subsistence. The effect of the introduction of the power-loom was aggravated by the general fall in the price of agricultural products and by contraction of the currency. The foreign competition was to a large extent fuelled by the export of British yarn.
A Bill should be introduced to regulate the wages paid to weavers, using the average wages paid by the highest-paying employers in the previous quarter as a minimum wage for the following quarter.
The establishment of local boards of trade, with wide powers to encourage the best use of men and machinery, facilitate development of skills and inventions, and collect information, was suggested by James Jenkins, and the Committee commend the idea. Other measures which may be helpful are: more exact specification of the length and breadth of pieces to be manufactured; a cheaper system of apprenticeship; and an improved system for preventing and detecting embezzlement of materials.
The sad eclipse of the weavers as a close knit group can be seen by referring to the table below . They were aging and unemployed . The CEBs ( census enumeration books ) which provide such a rich source of identifying patterns fail somewhat in the instance of the weavers as a trade . Indeed from the first census of 1841 through 1851, 61 , 71, 81 and 1891 they fail to differentiate fully between power loom (plw) and hand loom (hlw) weavers which was the intention of the Registrar General for Scotland as noted in the preface numeration books . This reducing considerably the efficacy of relevant analysis . Murray’s book “ The Scottish Hand Loom Weavers 1790 - 1850 ” ( Murray N ,1978 ) provides one of the few detailed accounts of the part the weavers played in the overall story of this country . As noted above the exact description given and recorded in the census returns is not always definitive enough to pin point the exact nature of the persons job but the table is indicative enough to illustrate that in Crieff and probably Strathearn as a whole the position of weaving and kindred trades was extremely important and was for a time the dominant occupation in the town’s economy . If one looks at the analysis of the 1851 census , it can be seen that some 16% of the total population were engaged in weaving and kindred trades. Taking into account young children , the elderly and woman who did not work , the weavers as a percentage of the working population would at that time have reached around 30 % , a not inconsiderable figure . By 1881 the position had rapidly altered . Looking at the few weavers remaining of the 28 identified their average age was close on sixty . Nineteen had been born in Crieff , three in nearby Muthill, one in Comrie and one in adjacent Monzievaird . Two came from what is known as Highland Perthshire ( Killin and Dull ) whilst the other two came from Fife and Alloa respectively .
The gender breakdown showed that 22 were men and only 6 women . What were living and working conditions like amongst the weavers ? A letter written to the Crieff Herald in 1857 described conditions prevailing some 25 years earlier in 1832.
“It was a well known fact that before the railway commenced operations almost all the money which upheld our village was derived from agriculture and weaving ; and whatever other occupations were carried on within the village were dependent on these two for employment , and their work paid with the money paid from either of them . I do not wish to be misunderstood when I say that agriculture and the weaving trade solely upheld the village of Crieff 25 years ago ; other minor sources might have helped and do so still ; but I think that no one acquainted with our village will doubt , that if the money derived from the two above - mentioned sources now spent in Crieff were diverted into another channel , many of the shops would soon be found with closed doors . Such being facts , I shall take the liberty in the present letter of bringing to your notice the condition of those who earned their bread at the loom in Crieff 25 years ago . At the time the weaving was liable to fluctuations , the same as it is now , and so were provisions , but in not in such a ratio as in late years , and seldom of long duration .
But deductions on the price of work were small and of rare occurrence , and were undeserved , legal redress could easily be obtained . At that time also many working men had small plots of ground at an easy rent by the cultivation of which a great part of their winter’s provision was provided . Many kept a pig , and got ground for the manure that they had collected thereby from any farmer in the neighbourhood for a crop of potatoes , so that when the pig was killed and the potatoes gathered in , the principal part of their winter’s food was beside them , and if they were obliged to be idle a short time in winter they were not in such difficulties as wont of work creates at present . At that time there was hardly any failure of the potato crop and I have known a weaver have as many as ten bolls of potatoes grown from manure collected by himself and family, and which cost him no expense but tolls and no trouble but the cleaning and taking them out of the ground. At that time the neighbouring proprietors and farmers were not so careful of their withered or useless branches of trees or decayed herbage as they are now ; neither had the fishing association of Perth arrived at the legal acme of perfection regarding the finny tribe which they now possess. For when the first of February had arrived they took no more concern with the River Earn until the net fishing ended on the 14th of September. Ever since that date of my recollections of the village of Crieff, namely 25 years ago, the cords have been tightening around the majority of the working population , so that between house rents , high priced provisions , high priced coals and other fuel ( more so than in other places not many miles distant ) deductions from the price of labour of the most unusual kinds , and a scarcity of work which has been of regular occurrence every winter except one for these last seven years , there is now a great change in the condition of those who earn their bread at loom ; but what this change is , and how accomplished , I must defer to another communication , as I do not wish to take up too much space in your valuable paper . ”
It can be seen from the general tone of the letter all was not well in the weaving community . Indeed it was written the very year that the Weavers Society in the town was dissolved.
The demise of the weavers in Crieff followed the pattern elsewhere although interpretation of the available statistics gleaned from the census returns does indicate that as a group they held on here rather longer than elsewhere in the country . It was however a combination of market forces and cheaper alternatives that drove the final nail into the coffin . They had in the early 1800s held out for an improved pay structure which the existing “ closed shop ” guarded fiercely through the various Guilds or Societies . This had led to violence and combined with the Chartist agitation and support amongst their fraternity serious confrontation with authority . The serious of their plight can clearly be seen by reference to the table above . In the decade between 1841 and 1851 the number of weavers in Scotland dropped dramatically from 84 560 to 25 000. The Perthshire Courier of December 1839 claimed that number of webs that had arrived from Glasgow have been very limited that it is nearly impossible for the working man to earn a bare existence . One month later in January 1840 the same paper remarked that “ the state of weaving in Crieff is low at present . Very few webs have arrived from Glasgow for a number of weeks back and the consequence is that a great number of individuals are out of employment many of whom have large families and have had nothing to do for some weeks past and as little prospect for some weeks to come . What makes the case more distressing is that no outdoor labour can be procured at this time of year . We believe that if it was not owing to a number of individuals having still a few potatoes on hand many would be bordering on actual starvation . ”
The Crieff Society staggered on until 1857 when on March 28th of that year the Crieff Herald and Strathearn Advertiser ran the following about the eventual end of the Society . “ The Society was formally dissolved on Monday last . The house property of the Society was disposed of last summer and the funds arising from that and other sources amounted to nearly five hundred pounds . This sum was distributed amongst the members in proportion to the length of time which each had been connected with the Society in shares ranging from 10/- up to £7.10s. These dividends have come very opportune to many poor persons in this inclement and dear season . As usual on such occasions there are a good many disputes some of which may require legal proceedings before they are rectified and there have been rather too many instances in which the dividend has proved but a questionable benefit . ”
Crieff as we have mentioned sustained a weaving industry for a longer period than other similar places . On the 30th of September 1879 The Perthshire Courier had a head line “ Depression Of The Handloom Weaving Trade ” . It declared that “ three quarters of those engaged in this branch of the industry ( the principal trade of the place ) are out of employment . About the 4th of the month there were only 6 or 8 looms working and since that time only 34 webs have been received from Auchterarder ( the principal source of supply ) and a few short webs from Perth . These are all pretty high wrought out and it is extremely doubtful whether any more can be had from Auchterarder as the Messrs Halley are almost out of orders ; and it is said that should the firm not be fortunate in securing further orders they intend to close their premises for some time . The village is ill enough at present for want of employment but since this fountain of supply ceased , it is indeed dismal to contemplate what must be the result . ”
As to the conditions in Crieff immediately after the Napoleonic Wars , Porteous gives a vivid account taken from the diaries of the Misses Wright whose father was the blacksmith at the top of King Street where the police station is now situated .
At this period money did not seem to be plentiful in Crieff and house proprietors appeared to have difficulty in getting their rents . On the 26th May which was a Term Day , Miss Wright remarks “ that everything was uproar and confusion in the street , the Feus ( now Commissioner Street ) still worse, Sheriff Officers in every house arresting furniture . In this year ( 1818 ) a Society , called the “ Crieff Female Sick , &c., Society “ was formed and a very full account of its inception and inauguration is given by Miss Wright who took a prominent part in its constitution .
The account goes on to describe that the energetic Miss Wrights enrolled Lady Baird of Ferntower as Patroness and she immediately donated 10 guineas and informed the Committee “ that the rest of the ladies in the district with property may be applied to “. The account confirms that indeed support from these sources was forthcoming with the Murrays of Dollerie and Abercairney , the Maxtons of Cultoquhey and Mrs Burrell ( Drummond ) all participating . A graphic account of attending to a despairing family in the Feus is quoted :
“ 14th March 1818 . After my usual work , Jessy came at twelve and we set out , and such scenes of wretchedness as we did see in the Feus and in this street . Mrs Weems in particular lying in a corner of a dark garret on straw , some dirty blankets , but neither sheet nor cape , and such a state of filth as the house was can not be described . Sandy McCulloch’s family in a sad state . Him blind , the daughter daft , the wife and son ill of fever “ .
The Garret People
Social history when studied on a local basis often causes surprises . The tendency is to forget or ignore what went before . Often little can be deduced about what conditions were really like .From the modern perspective towns like Crieff attempt to project a “ tourist view “ rather than the historical reality . It is however important to appreciate just how people did live not that long ago. The sketch below depicts a property still standing in Burrell Street . The building at the junction with Roy Street (formerly MacFarlane’s Wynd ) is currently owned by the Somerville family who have long connections with the town . Iain Somerville was born ,brought up and educated in Crieff but more especially was born in this very house . In the 1990s , nos 62 / 64 functioned as the Highland Tryst Museum . During the refurbishment the curators Dr Micheil MacDonald and his wife Penny carefully examined the detritus of years of habitation. Gradually an incredible picture of the past emerged. The buildings were erected in the 18th century as part of the efforts by the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates to establish hand loom weaving as a base industry in Crieff . They feued off plots of ground and buildings were erected along the length of what is now Burrell Street . Initial thoughts that these were built as single dwellings but the conclusions from the MacDonald’s “ dig “ painted a quite different picture .
Nos 62 and 64 were not two “ cottages “ and home for two families but home for possibly as many as eight families . The social structure was that the on the ground and first floor , the hand loom weaver and his family lived and carried out their work and life in a modicum of comfort . The upper , attic or garret portrayed a quite different picture . The following is the account published in the Strathearn Herald of the period .
“ The garret is a veritable time capsule throwing new light onto the lives of everyday people more than one hundred years ago “ said curator Penny MacDonald . Fifth year school girls from Crieff High School are sifting through the day to day effects abandoned by the folk living in the garret who seem to have been abruptly evicted earlier this century ( 20th ) . The garret an area in the roof space which was divided into tiny rooms was closed up and left undisturbed but the litter of broken crockery , schoolbooks , newspapers , magazines , boots , buttons , beads and ragged clothing eventually fell through the worm ridden floor boards and settled in the “ deadening “ below where wheat chaff laid between the floors to deaden the sound of tackety boots clomping around .
Following clues from newspapers , photographs , letters and clothing styles , the girls have been able to date the occupation of the garret from at least the late 1830s to 1924 .
“ Everyday folk in the 19th century seemed to place a high premium on thrift and preservation “ said Penny MacDonald . “ By necessity , reading matter was saved for decades and hand me down shoes and dresses were worn till only the scraps were left to repair the garments for the next generation “.
At some time in over 150 years of occupation , the garret was divided between three or perhaps four separate households . Some of these may have been made up of only one person , like the widow Doncaster who is described on the rent rolls of the 1880s as a “ mangler “ . Sleeping and eating in her tiny bed sit she would spend most of her waking hours in the yard below pressing basket loads of washing on a great laundry mangle for threepence a time .
This prototype “ Mrs Mangle “ was one of the neighbours shared by many of the great great great grand parents of the teenage archaeologists from the local High School . History is suddenly coming alive for them and the Scotvec Local History Certificate they will earn from this project will be more meaningful than those wrung from text books.
Among the many hundreds of items discovered in the garret dig are a number of animal bone and skeletons which suggest that the stockpot on the peat fire hearth was sometimes simmering with illicit mutton ,beef , rabbit or pheasant stews .
Amongst the more enigmatic discoveries is a mummified cat corpse, found under the floorboards on a bed of bone dry wheat chaff . The 100 year old nest of new born kittens discovered close by had a dubious relationship to the mummy , which ( on close examination ) proved to be a tom ! “
This particular area of the town still has a number of remnants of its weaving past . Many of the old weaving sheds to the rear of the properties have now been modernised into “ Mobanised “kitchens – a far change from the draughty usage of yesteryear . If one wanders up Burrell Street to the quaintly named Drummawhandie , you may spot this quaint old “ weaver’s attic window “
The weavers of Crieff have long since gone . Victims of “ progress “ and a changing life pattern . They enjoyed good times and indeed they suffered horrendous bad times . One trusts that the present and future residents of our town do not forget “ the gallant weavers” !