Hugh Beavin

Hinckley in the Hungry Forties

UNEMPLOYMENT and poverty were often the fate of hosiery workers in the past and never more so than in Hinckley in the 1840s.

By the early 1800s hosiery had become the major source of employment in the Hinckley area with nearly 10,000 people being occupied in the production of knitwear and hose - much of it for the armed service during the wars with France.

The work involved the whole family and was truly a domestic industry with the family hiring a frame that was housed in their own home. The man usually worked the frame while his wife and elder daughters seamed the stockings and his younger children wound the wool.

Each week, when there were orders, the hosier arranged for the delivery of the wool and the collection of the finished stockings at the end of the working week.

After the Napoleonic Wars came to an end orders from the services also finished and demobilised men returned to Hinckley hoping to take up their old trade as framework knitters.

Gradually conditions became worse until, by the 1840s work for much of the year ceased to be available. Many entered the new workhouse - built by Joseph Hansom - in 1838.

In June 1842 a poster appeared in the town which read: "No Work. No Bread. No Hope. A meeting of the inhabitants of Hinckley will be held near the Holy Well on Tuesday evening, June 28, 1842 at seven o'clock to consider and to adopt such resolutions as are required by the present times, in which the Hosier has little Trade and no Profit; the Landlord no rent; the Shop-keeper no Custom; the Stockinger neither Bread nor Hope; and in which the heavy Poor-Rates are involving the Householder and the neighbouring Farmer in one Common Ruin".

It took some little time for the resolutions to result in a petition to Parliament from the framework knitters of the Midlands. In February 1844, Richard Muggeridge, Parliamentary Commissioner, began his investigation and in his report are to be found about 80 pages of evidence from the Hinckley area. These were recorded by John Gent Brooks, an inmate of the Hinckley Workhouse, who insisted on recording the evidence dressed in his workhouse clothes.

Just a few examples of evidence follow to indicate the condition of life in what must have been Hinckley's darkest hour.

The Rev Salt, Independent Minster, said: "I have a decided conviction that there is not a town in England worse off than this."

Mr Eales, the pawnbroker, stated: "We have people in this town at the present moment that bring their blankets to us in the morning and fetch them out at night for a day's subsistence... Women take the shoes off their feet for a few pence."

Dr Cotterell, the Medical Officer of the Workhouse, commented: "Food is decidedly insufficient and clothing, all of which predispose them to disease."

This was only a small portion of evidence on the horrors of Hinckley in the Hungry Forties!

Author: Hugh Beavin

Written for: Hinckley-on-line