Lancashire cotton famine
Following the Australia lead, I contacted Rose Docker, an archivist at the Australian Museum, Sydney, and made enquiries regarding Whitelegge. Rose replied immediately (what a great service they give there!) with a very detailed obituary of Whitelegge written by Frank A McNeil, for the Records of the Australian Museum.
What a life Whitelegge had!! His childhood was incredibly hard. He worked in a tarpaulin factory, become a ‘piecer’ in a cotton mill, worked as a weaver and then a nut tapper and bolt threader in a machine shop – all by the age of 11!
The obituary has cleared up the whole ‘breaking indentures and living as a fugitive’ cloud that was hanging over Whitelegge’s reputation…
At the age of eleven he entered Christy’s Hat Manufactory at Stockport, after undergoing medical examination and being certified as a youth of fourteen years. After gaining an insight into this trade, the youth signed indentures and became bound as an apprentice to another hat manufacturer for a term of seven years. The wages were six shillings a week for the first two years of this employment, and then an increase of two shillings per week until half of the apprenticeship term was served. After that Whitelegge was to be put on journeyman’s rates but was to receive only one third of these earnings. Just prior to this last employment he was receiving only four shillings per week, on which he and his mother subsisted during the awful days of the Lancashire cotton panic, brought about by the American Civil War. During the whole of one year the little family had no meat of their own buying, and in order to replenish the larder young Whitelegge used to rise at daylight on Sundays to scour the countryside for blackberries and mushrooms and occasionally seized potatoes and turnips from the properties of unsuspecting farmers. At this time his earnings provided the rental of a house. at one shilling and sixpence per week, leaving a balance of two shillings and sixpence for food and clothing. It was pitiful to here Whitelegge relate these facts, and to realize that the family would have been better off if he had been out of employment, as the relief money given at the time of the cotton panic amounted to two shillings and twopence per head. Having all this suffering still vivid in his memory, Whitelegge soon became acutely aware that the terms of his apprenticeship were iniquitous and after some contemplation he deserted his master. Setting out on foot towards Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire, he reached the Village of Hurstbrook near this town, and succeeded in getting work as a Journeyman with a kindly hat manufacturer to whom he confessed his trials. With his new employer’s help, Whitelegge evaded police inquiry, and sheltered at a farmhouse some distance away, where all available work was taken him. Except that he was all but arrested on several occasions when surreptitiously visiting his mother at Stockport, his stay of two years on the farm, was spoken of by Whitelegge as one of the most enjoyable periods of his life.
Whitelegge certainly lived an eventful and interesting life. The stories I have discovered about Whitelegge’s life and work will really bring his specimens to life when they go out to our local communities in our ‘Museum Comes To You’ boxes.