By John Aldworth

Published 30-07-18


It is not often a determined, youthful rebel against religion, parents and society finds himself in agreement with God. But that is what happened to me.

Growing up as a small child in the heart of a soot-laden, poverty stricken Lancashire cotton spinning town in England, I was a first-hand witness of the misery capitalism brings. The mill owners lived in fine mansions and drove Bentleys and Jaguars. Their mainly female workers, stoop-shouldered, clogged and shawled in black, would totter the stone cobbled streets to buy a penn’orth of chips and a steak pudding from the corner fish and chip shop - if they had the money. If not, they went without.

There was no dole and few social welfare benefits. In the 1950s in Rochdale the question always on everyone’s lips was, ‘Are ye to work or play today?’ The once mighty, textile industry that had employed millions was crumbling into dust. Ordinary mill workers could never be sure of more than a day’s work or three before being sent home. Banks would not lend to them; they could not buy their own home, purchase a car, or even afford a bicycle.

I remember Lancashire Communist leader Harry Pollitt addressing a crowd of thousands of bitter and largely unemployed textile workers on Cronkeyshaw Common in Rochdale. The backdrop: two huge cotton spinning mills, each more than 300 metres long, five storeys high, their tall chimneys belching thick black smoke into the sullen sky.

Pointing to them Pollitt thundered, ‘See those mills. Me mother died working in them. But by God they’re not going to kill me – nor you if you do as I say.’ And that was only for starters. He had yet to warm up. A stream of angry invective against capitalists, capitalism and the price paid by the poor followed. It was how millions in Lancashire felt. In a dying industry they couldn’t strike for more than the meagre pittance they received; they would have been locked out, their jobs gone forever.

Over the next 20 years Rochdale’s more than 100 spinning mills closed one by one, until only two or three were left. The quarter of a mile long, five-storey high, factory of textile machinery manufacturers, Tweedale and Smalley fell silent, having despatched the last of hundreds of turnkey spinning and weaving mill plants, to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and elsewhere. Paying their workers little more than the price of two meals daily, these new overseas mills so undercut British textiles that in less than 30 years the great cotton industry that for nearly 200 years had employed millions on both sides of the Atlantic, all but vanished.

In Blackburn, days before flying out to emigrate to New Zealand, I rode a bus crowded with mill workers heading in to work at the town’s last functioning weaving mill. ‘Pakkies’ paradise,’ shouted the conductor as the bus halted. The mill, I learned, was manned from manager down to sweeper, entirely by Pakistanis., native Lancastrians having long vowed never to send sons or daughters ‘into t’ mill’.

If further evidence of capitalism’s innate cruelty were needed my father found it in courtyard of the Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel in Rochdale, of which he was caretaker. Imagine a small block, set amid a mass of Coronation St type houses with a huge cotton mill close by and largely filled by the chapel itself, a large Sunday school block, eating hall and the caretaker’s house. The remaining space was filled with flat gravestones, laid end to end and side by side. Among them my father found the graves of two families, each comprising babies, children, teenagers and parents. In 1863 they had died together of starvation, unable to find work or food.

Historic UK, that authoritative but concise history recorder, states that by 1825, cotton was Britain’s biggest import and the dominant force of the economy was the Lancashire cotton industry. It spearheaded the Industrial Revolution for Britain; replacing small cottage weavers and spinners of wool with huge factories spinning and weaving cotton imports.

Lancashire had a climate that prevented the cotton fibres splitting, water sources to power the mills that ran the factories (and then coal supplies as technology progressed), a willing work force and creative entrepreneurs with the vision and drive to construct the new regime. Factories in the south of Lancashire spun the cotton threads and the weaving of vast cloths occurred in the towns to the north (with Blackburn at the forefront). The mills supplied the enormous demand of the Indian population: “dhootie”, cheap cotton loincloth, woven in the northern English mills, clothed the nation. Lancashire became the “Workshop of the World”.

War brought grim starvation

Production continued to increase except during the American Civil War (1861-1865). At that time trouble struck.

Blockade of the southern ports by the United States Federal Navy cut off the supply of raw cotton to Lancashire. Because five months’ supply of cotton was stockpiled the impact didn’t hit immediately. Soon, though, the cotton supply soon ceased entirely. By October 1861 mill closures, mass unemployment and poverty hit northern Britain; soup kitchens were opened in early 1862.

Relief from government benefits was inadequate; so some workers emigrated to America, others worked in the Yorkshire woollen mills. Blackburn alone lost approximately 4,000 workers and their families. Those who remained face the grim prospect of starvation.

Yet, in 1862 in a brave act of Christian charity and genuine worker solidarity, Lancashire cotton workers, meeting in Manchester decided to support Abraham Lincoln and the Union forces fighting to abolish slavery. This, despite their bitterness at relief so meagre families still starved and the miserliness of the wealthy mill masters, who mostly refused to put hand in pocket to help. What little help there was came from affluent donors residing outside Lancashire.

The horrible truth my father found in the chapel graveyard was that one family of eight and the other of seven had been left to starve to death apparently without help from either the chapel, its pastor, deacons or the mill master who had funded the building of this place of worship ‘to teach his workers religion’. They were more easily controlled, exploited and could be paid less when they ‘believed’, you see. A caring capitalist, Christian society? I don’t think so.

Soon I was to experience capitalist miserliness for myself. As an indentured trainee journalist on an evening newspaper I was paid only pennies more than dole. It was supposed to be a 40-hour week and that was all I was paid for. However, I often worked many additional hours, covering night meetings and weekend sports matches. After two years and denied extra leave to compensate, I asked for payment in lieu, only to be told by the chief reporter I didn’t deserve the money and that it was brass-faced cheek for me to ask for it. Never mind such payment was stipulated in the contract.  My take home pay at the time was 30 shillings a week from which I had to pay board, buy food, clothe myself and provide my own transport.

Small wonder then a few years later, fed up both with my parents’ religion, which could not stop their interminable rowing, and the meanness of my employer, I became convinced both chapel and capitalism were evil.

A wrong decision

My parents were stunned the day I told them I would go no more to chapel but instead attend the Communist Sunday School. I was now in work and so my father ordered me out of the house. My response was to become a card-carrying member of the British Communist Party. We used to attend rallies, organise peace marches, and meet in pubs to day dream of the day revolution would come to Rochdale and its streets would run with blood.

Later I joined the Trotskyite International, which was far more active in fomenting strikes in a bid to bring British capitalism to its knees. We held protest marches, infiltrated unions and Labour Party branches, often meeting in secret to avoid the attentions of MI5. However, for these comrades enough was never enough. ‘The revolutionary vanguard still lags behind its tasks’, we were sternly told. (Many years later the movement came near to toppling the Thatcher Government in its bid to largely close down Britain’s coal industry. Mine workers leader, Communist Arthur Scargill, who led a nationwide strike, was asked what the miners really wanted. ‘To get rid of this government and install a workers’ government instead,’ he said.)

In the late 60s, however, my eyes were opened, seeing clearly the hypocrisy and corruption that marred both the Communist Party and Trostkyite leadership. Then there was the dreadful slaughter of countless millions in Russia, China and other communist countries. Why were their deaths needed to advance the cause?

So, married now with children, disillusioned with communism, and needing to advance my career, I bade the comrades goodbye, narrowly missing out on a beating ‘for abandoning the cause’. Instead I threw myself into newspaper work, rising from reporter to sub-editor and then to editor. Serious illness in the family led me to emigrate to warmer climes and thus to New Zealand. And in the aftermath of my marriage breaking up I surrendered to the Lord Jesus Christ and became a Christian.

Yet something of those political years stayed with me. I still believed, as I do now, that the communist ideal is right. A society in which all work and all shared the proceeds is obviously better than a capitalist system which kills, slaves or starves countless millions to enrich a few. The tragic truth, however, is that because of his wickedness man is incapable of bringing about such a wonderful world.