R.H. Gregg, a factory owner at Styal near Manchester, was having difficulty in finding enough workers for his mill. His solution is set out in this letter to Edwin Chadwick secretary to the Poor Law Commission on 17 September 1834. The plan was adopted by the Poor Law Commissioners who began to send unemployed labourers from the south of England up to the industrial north. Unfortunately, just as the scheme was implemented, an industrial recession occurred, leaving many people in the north of England without work.
I have for some time thought of addressing you on the same matter as my friend Ashworth did some time ago; namely, the propriety of opening a communication between our (strange to say) underpeople districts and the southern overpeopled one. It is at this moment a most important suggestion, and deserves to be put into immediate operation.
It must be looked upon as a happy coincidence that at the period of depriving or curtailing perhaps the facilities of gaining a livelihood to the people of one half of England, and causing a fall in their present low wages, and a scramble amongst them for employment, there should exist a difficulty in obtaining labourers at extravagant wages in these northern counties. This fortunate occurrence should be taken advantage of.
But for the operation of the poor laws in binding down the labourers to their respective parishes, in the mode and to the degree I need not attempt to explain to you, of all men, there would have existed a free circulation of labour throughout the country, to the benefit alike of the northern and southern parts. Nothing but the poor laws has prevented this circulation, or could prevent it, short of the labourers being reduced again to the state of adscripti glebae [serfs].
At this moment our machinery in one mill has been standing for 12 months for hands. In another mill we cannot start our new machinery for the same want. My parlours are without doors, having been sent some time since to be altered, and their progress having been stopped by a meeting of the joiners. The carpenter in the village in which I reside (12 miles from here) cannot get on with my work, having, as he says, been short of men all the year.
The suggestion I would make is this, that some official channel of communication should be opened in two of three of our large towns with your office, or any office, to which the most overcharged parishes might transmit lists of their families. Manufactures short of labourers, or starting new concerns, might look over the lists and select, as they might require (for the variety of our wants is great), large families or small ones, young children or grown up, men, or widows, or orphans, &c.
If this could be done, I doubt not is a short time, as the thing became known and tried, we should gradually absorb a considerable number of the surplus labourers of the south, and be supplied from there instead of from Ireland.
It must be understood at once, that we cannot do with refuse population and insubordinate sturdy paupers. We should require fair play. Hard working men, or widows with families, who preferred gaining an honest living to a workhouse, would, I am confident, be in demand.
I may add, that I think something on a small scale might be attempted soon. We are now in want of labour. Next year will, unless some unforeseen accident occurs, be naturally a year of increase in our manufactures, buildings, &c., and should this prove the case, any farther demand for labour would still further increase the unions, drunkenness and high wages.
Whilst food is cheap and wages high, the want of education (I do not merely mean the ability to read and write, which few here are without), but education which may affect manners, morals, and the proper use of their advantages, is extremely felt and to be deeply deplored. I do hope Government will not allow another session to pass without making some struggle to effect this most desirable object.
Annual Report of the Poor Law Commission, Appendix C number 5 (1835).
Last modified 16 November 2002