|Mrs Jenny Burt - 22nd April 1985
J Burt - Thesis - Chapter 2
The Relationship between the growth of the Boot and Shoe Industry
and Non-conformity in Rushden, 1881-1901
The social life of the shoeworker
In this section I propose to look at the social life of the shoe worker, the provision made by the churches and the secular alternative. The general impression I have formed is that either one was immersed in the religious life of the community or one stood wholly aside from it, I found very little overlap, and two distinct communities seemed to live side by side.
Many historians have seen the second half of the nineteenth century as a period of decline from a religious society to a secularisation of Christianity. B. Webb describes this as ‘the flowing of emotion away from the service of God to the service of man’. Religion was a burning question and the latter part of the century witnessed a general expansion of theological speculation and widening scientific knowledge. Gilbert believed that 'doubt and theological uncertainty percolated downwards into the ranks of ordinary believers to an extent unprecedented’. He does not present any evidence of this, and, indeed, I could not find any concrete proof in Rushden during the period of study, at least in those who left records of the religious community. The records I examined show a steadfast belief in the fundamentals of religion, a simplicity of faith quite clear cut in its outline.
The Independent Wesleyan Society Meeting minutes record obituary notices drawn up by two church members and presented to the Society Meeting and some examples are set out in Appendix E. The life of the deceased brother or sister in the fellowship of the church is outlined and commented upon, and the impression I receive both from the contents and the language used, is of the deceased having lived a life on earth with the goal of heaven and everlasting life with Jesus as the reward. The earthly life is a short period on the way to eternity, doubt does not appear. Similarly, I could find little evidence of theological revision, although, admittedly, only texts of local sermons rather than specific contents seem to have survived. The Higham Ferrers Methodist Circuit minutes, which apply to Rushden, set down the procedure for becoming a lay preacher, i.e. to be examined in the Second Catechism and appendix on the elements of English Grammar, to spend at least twelve months on trial on the Plan in addition to time spent as Exhorter, and finally full admittance depended upon having read the Standard Sermons of Mr. Wesley and his notes on the New Testament and passed an examination in the definitions and scripture explained there as proofs of the leading doctrines of Christianity. The examination also had to give an account of conversion and call to preaching and the applicant's sermons were reported upon. This procedure was still in force after the turn of the century and seems to me to contain no evidence of 'theological revision'.
In 1881 'The British Weekley'3 organised an essay competition regarding the social provision made by the non-conformists which reflected two opposing views, firstly, that those who come to chapel because of the amusement to be found there remain only as long as this attraction lasts for them and are not eager to attend the services for worship and spiritual communion; and secondly, that if amusements are regarded by the church as contraband, the young will be repelled, and the masses of the people whose lives are so much in want of being brightened will be confirmed in their indifference to public worship. The non-conformist churches of Rushden seem to have held the latter viewpoint as their provision of weekday and social activities expanded enormously to cater for the increasing leisure hours of the shoeworker and reflect the vigour and vitality of the church members.
The list of activities of the village's chapels is enormously long and space precludes detailed recording so that a few examples must suffice.
Each chapel had its own Sunday School, the 'primary recruiting agency for active church membership', which usually met twice on Sundays, the scholars often also attending the main morning and evening services. Some of these schools were enormous and required highly detailed organisation by their superintendents, rapidly outgrowing buildings and requiring large and additional premises. The following extracts give an indication of their size and influence:-
The Old Baptist, Park Road
The Mission Church
As well as religious instruction, the Sunday School organisations endeavoured to develop the moral character of their scholars. The Baptist Sunday School in 1881 decided to offer its scholars ‘facilities for obtaining good literature, e.g. Publications of the Sunday School Union and Messrs. Cassall such as 'The Leisure Hour’, ‘The Sunday at Home’, ‘The Boys' Own Paper' and ‘The Girls' Own Paper’. The scheme lasted for twelve years, and the Teachers' Library, founded in 1858, was extended to general use until the opening of the Carnegie Free Library in 1905.
The Dorcas Society and Ladies sewing meetings for Senior Ladies and Young Ladies proved invaluable both for the social intercourse they provided and for the provision of clothes for the poor, particularly after the devastating Cave's factory Fire of 1901. The Independent Wesleyans held social evenings on Thursdays, the Leaders being appointed to organise proceedings and a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon group met at the Congregational Church. Sport was not forgotten, cricket teams were formed for the young men which in effect led to the whole family, wives and children, gathering at cricket matches. Great emphasis was laid on music, with, choral societies meeting at both the Anglican and the non-conformist churches and the Brass Band of the Mission Church was much in demand at concerts and public garden parties and teas.
Side by side with this extension of social activities, whose meetings incidentally always commenced and ended with a hymn and a prayer, ran the religious and spiritual life of the church. Sunday evening prayer meetings, Methodist class meetings on several nights of the week, a Branch of the International Bible Heading ^fellowship, Young Hen's Improvement Societies, the Christian Endeavour Societies, all helped to strengthen spiritual life in the church. In fact the Primitive Methodists in 1894 resolved that 'the catechism class be confined to our own members and scholars'.
I cannot agree with those historians who see a change in emphasis from the religious to the secular on the part of the Church Leaders. As far as Rushden is concerned, I would agree with Cox that 'the social changes involved in secularisation do not invariably lead to a decay of religious ideas and institutions’, but is rather an 'ongoing adaptation of religious forms to an outside world'. Cox quotes Mrs. Charles Booth who said 'when a man says he does it all from religious motives and to a religious end, one must believe him’.
The non-conformist churches in Rushden were seeking to become 'a way of life' and were 'a significant social centre'. They drew in attendants from the surrounding villages and tried to create a family atmosphere for their members combined with a sense of belonging. This was of paramount importance to a village like Rushden with the tremendous influx of immigrants. If the newly-arrived worker went along to the local chapel or its society meetings, he could immediately be drawn into this respectable and all embracing family. Everitt writes of 'the intense fellowship of the chapel community' offering 'safety and affection in an unfamiliar and uncertain world’. On a more practical note, Moore7 writes that the Methodist Society provided an opportunity for young people to meet and find marriage partners', and I have noticed from reading the chapel records the number of young people meeting in the chapel, marrying and their children being brought up within the community 'the nexus of local dynasties'8. Unfortunately time and space restricts further investigation into this interesting question.
S. Yeo in his studies on Reading comments that there is 'a tendency for denominations to resemble wach other in the late 19th and 20th Centuries'9. I would certainly agree with these comments with regard to the social aspect of Rushden's non-conformist churches. They appeared to co-operate enormously with each other, inviting other chapels to attend public teas and lectures and sharing Sunday School treats. Instead of being rival institutions, they complemented each other, not only in their social sphere but also their religious aspect. Before the end of the century, the non-conformist churches were already helping each other to provide preachers at services such as Harvest Festivals' and references were made to The Free Church Council in 1899. During the First World War services were held around the ‘Rolls of Honour' erected in the village, when the Rector gave the address and the non-conformist ministers said the prayers and this led to greater exchange of preachers between the Anglican and the non-conformists.*
Rather than the religious and secular sides of chapel life rivalling each other, the contender for the leisure hours of the shoeworker was the development of the Working Hen's Clubs Organisation10.
The first Working Men's Club under this title had been set up in 1852 in Condon by a Committee under the Chairmanship of Viscount Ingestre. Other clubs followed and the Working Men's Club and Institute Union came into being in 1862 with the aims of its first prospectus to help working men to establish clubs 'where they can meet for conversation, business and mental improvement, with the means of recreation and refreshment, free from intoxicating drinks ... recreation must go hand in hand with education and temperance'11. The first Organising Secretary was the Rev. Henry Solly who proved to be indefatigable in raising funds for setting up new Clubs all over the country, despite various quarrels with the Union's Council. The 1870's and 1880's witnessed a break with patronage and saw the rise of self-governing clubs and the introduction of alcoholic beverages. The social side of Club life complemented politics and education, but later this social side appeared as an alternative.
By the time the first Working Men's Club was established in Rushden around 1891 in Griffith Street, the movement was entirely self-governing and the Club appeared to be composed almost wholly of shoeworkers, including some who later became manufacturers with their own factory premises. The Club movement snowballed and Table 6 gives some indication of the position in the town at the end of the nineteenth century.
Table 6 Working Men’s Clubs in Rushden
Just as the churches rapidly built new premises, so did the Clubs. For example, the Athletic Club formed in 1895 as the result of a Cycling Club, had urgent need of new premises by 1896, so much so that new membership nominations had be to halted. Land was purchased and new premises erected only two years later at a cost of more than £2,000. The Union Secretary, Mr. B.T. Hall, came down from London to open the new building when 300 members and guests sat down to dinner, the ceremony coinciding with the inauguration of the Northamptonshire Branch of the Union, a measure of the importance of Rushden in the movement.
The objects of the 3ociety were 'to provide for working men the means of social intercourse, mutual helpfulness, mental and moral improvements and rational recreation’, not so very far removed from the aims of the churches, but leaving out all reference to temperance which was incorporated in the Union's 1862 prospectus. The Clubs provided reading rooms where besides books, newspapers and journals could be reviewed and bought by the members. Regular concerts were held and a String Band and Brass Band sections set up. Sport was catered for by cycling sections, cricket clubs, and inter-club competitions in darts, whist, snooker and billiards and skittles took place. Other recreations included quoits, bagatelle, cribbage tournaments, Slower Shows and fishing. Sick members were given financial help and sent to the Union's Convalescent homes and donations made to the 'Transvaal War Fund and to the Relief Fund in 1898 for 'those in distress in Wales arising out of the Coal Strike'.
The Clubs exercised strict discipline over their members cautioning or suspending them for breach of rules such as gambling, bad language or causing disruption, even for eating onions in the smoke room. Letters were sent to parents who kept their children late at the Club and names of any suspended or expelled member were sent to other Clubs in the village to prevent admission.
It was equally necessary for the Working Men's Clubs to present a sober, industrious image of the working man as it was for the churches and the sense of Belonging to a respectable family group was applicable to both the churches and the clubs in the village,
Although the Working Men's Clubs movement owed a great deal to a clergyman, the Rev. Solly, at its inception, by the end of the century and, particularly after the introduction of intoxicating beverages, the split between the clubs and the churches had widened and the Clubs were derogatorily referred to as 'drinking clubs' by the Baptist Minister, Rev. W. Harris in 1901.12
I could find no bridge between these two distinct ways of life apart from the Christmas visits of the Mission Band and the visits of the Salvation Array, and it seems to me that perhaps the greatest divider was the question of temperance, and that the social life of the shoeworker who wished to join a group had to be centred exclusively on the chapel or Club life.