Prescot Watchmakers and the "Truck System" 1871

Birmingham Daily Post, January 2nd 1871

The Truck System

In Brief ;-

The renewed attention which the mode of paying wages known as the truck system is attracting, and the fact that today a Government Commission is to sit in Birmingham to enquire into the operation of the system, will perhaps give to a few remarks on the nature and history of that system a more than ordinary interest.

The derivative meaning of the word “truck” is to barter, but owing to the enormous abuses which have attended the workmen’s wages in goods instead of money, the word is used now in a bad sense, implying fraud and tyranny on the part of the master towards his workpeople, even sometimes, though rarely the transactions are honourable, and only allowed to suit the convenience of the workpeople. But in that case, truck is an evil, because the workmen and their wives lose the moral and economic lessons which the disbursement by themselves of weekly money wages is fitted to supply.

The direct evils of the truck system, had in 1830 and 1831 attracted so much attention that in the latter year the “Truck Act” it repealed all the previous Acts passed for the same purpose, and provided more stringently for the prevention of payment of wages in truck in the departments of industry therein enumerated. Wages of agricultural workers and domestic servants were exempt from the Act. It declared all contracts for hiring artificers enumerated by which wages are paid wholly or in part, other than in the current coin of the realm, illegal, null and void. All payment in wages of money is legal, payment in goods declared illegal, wages paid otherwise than in the coin of the realm are recoverable, in actions brought about for recovery of wages, no set-off is allowed for goods given in payment, or goods sold at any shop in which an employer has an interest, employers are denied an action in return against artificers. If workmen or their wives and children become chargeable to the parish, overseers may recover from their employers wages which have been earned 3mths previously, and have not been paid in money. There are penalties on employers making illegal contracts or illegal payment of wages, convicting Justices are empowered to award a portion of the penalty, not exceeding £20 to the informer.

The truck Act was passed to protect working men from oppressive and conscienceless employers since it was passed, various Commissions, in 1842, 1853 and in 1867, have inquired into the evils which it failed to remove. The Commission which has recently been taking evidence in different parts of the country opens today its sittings in Birmingham

Liverpool Mercury January 2nd 1871



On Saturday Mr Charles S. C. BOWEN and Mr Alexander C. SELLAR, the commissioners appointed by Parliament to inquire into the operation of the Trucks Acts, and into offences committed against those Acts within the last two years, and to report to Parliament upon the operation of the law in that respect, held an inquiry at the Old Court at Prescot. Prescot is the seat in England of the watch movement trade. In Prescot and the neighbourhood, what are called watch movements, that is, the inside works of watches, are manufactured to a large extent, and they are sent off to London, Coventry, Liverpool, Birmingham and other places for finishing and making into complete watches. The watch movement trade is divided into branches, and it takes about 25 men to complete a single watch movement, and as many more to complete the watch. There are about 500 men employed in the watch manufacture in Prescot, and including, St Helens, Widnes and other neighbouring places the number so employed is computed to be about 1200. The inquiry was held at Prescot in consequence of a petition which was extensively signed and forwarded to the Government last July, setting forth that the Truck system was in full operation at Prescot, that the workmen were not only paid in provisions instead of money, but that they also took watches instead of their wages and sold them at a great loss. All this was fully proved at the inquiry held on Saturday.

Mr BOWEN having stated the object of the inquiry, and that they had power to examine witnesses upon oath, and if they did not speak the truth to have them punished for perjury, the first person was called.

William CHESWORTH, who said he was a small pinion maker at Prescot, where he had worked for many years. He worked on piece for different makers. He worked for Mr Edward BEESLEY of Prescot, and Mr Peter BURROWS of St Helens. Mr BEESLEY also kept a provision shop. The last work he did for Mr BEESLEY was 10 doz sets of pinions which came to 35s. When he went on Saturday for the reckoning, Mr BEESLEY said he had no money, and he was to take the whole of the 35s in provisions. Mr BEESLEY gave him 1s and he took the remainder in provisions, and sold what he did not want at a smaller price than he had given for them. He lost 5d per lb on butter, 3d on a loaf of bread, and 1d per lb on sugar. He had to sell the provisions at a loss as they could be obtained at the prices at other shops. He told Mr BEESLEY about being charged too much for the provisions, and he had given him no work since. He had worked for Mr BEESLEY for 3 or 4yrs and he had always paid him in provisions. He had given him money some times but never more than 5s at one time. Mr BEESLEY had kept a provision shop for about 18mths, before that he used to give his workmen tickets to go to Mr WHITFIELD’S who had a grocers shop. He also worked for Mr BURROWS of St Helens who had also paid him partly in provisions, he did 14s worth of work a fortnight ago for him and was paid 7s in money and 7s worth of provisions, he had worked for Mr BURROWS for 7yrs and had been paid mostly all in meat. He had complained many times, but, Mr BURROWS said he was short of money. He told him he could not take it all in meat and over the last 6mths he had paid him partly in money. He had never asked him to pay in money altogether. He had also worked a little for Mr John RANGE of Prescot and had to take his wages in meat there. Sometimes he made as much as 35s a week, but then there was four of them working at It, his wife, two sons and himself. He had taken watches instead of money, but had always asked for them. If he wanted to pay his rent he asked for a watch, he did not ask for money because they would not lend money. He had watches from Mr DEAN, Mr Peter MERCER and Mr BERRY. When Mr DEAN was without money he had asked him if he could not take a watch. When he got the watches he sold them and sometimes pawned them, and always disposed of them at a loss. He had several watches from Mr DEAN. He had a watch from Mr MERCER and paid 3s a week for it. It was charged to him for £6 and he sold it for £4-10s. He had worked for Mr MERCER for 20yrs and been mainly paid in money. He had, had two watches from Mr BERRY, the last he got was in July 1866 for £5 and he sold it for £4-10s. He asked Mr BERRY for it and told him he had a good customer for it -

Commissioner, do you call it having a good customer when you sell it for £4-10s and it cost you £5 ?

Witness, Yes. [laughter] It was common to get watches and raise money on them, the men complained very much about getting provisions instead of money, as they could buy provisions a great deal better and cheaper elsewhere. When he had been charged 10d, for what he could get for 7d or 8d at other shops. Mrs Jane GREEN of Prescot said her husband worked for Mr WYCHERLEY and Mr EATON, of Prescot. Both these employers paid in money and had always done so. Her husband had also worked for Mr BURROWS of St Helens and Mr BEESLEY of Prescot. They sometimes got a little money from Mr BURROWS but he generally paid in provisions., Mr BEESLEY paid part in money and part in provisions. In the quantity of provisions there was nothing to complain of, except they could get provisions of the same quality a little cheaper elsewhere. It was a common thing to have to take provisions and watches instead of money, there were complaints about it.

Thomas GREEN, husband of the last witness corroborated what she had said, and stated he had asked Mr BURROWS for money many a time, but could never get it. Mr WYCHERLEY and Mr EATON paid regularly every week in money. It was very common to have to take provisions and watches, the men pawned or sold the watches, just as they could get quit of them.

James SMITH of Prescot said, he worked now for Mr BEESLEY and Mr BURROWS. Mr BEESLEY kept a provision shop and had paid him in money except when he would like to have provisions. He had oftener had money than provisions. He had also worked for Mr Peter MERCER and had, had a watch from him. Mr MERCER asked him to take a watch and he did so and had so much a week stopped for it. He paid £6 for the watch and sold it for £3. He was obliged to take it or he should not have had work. Mr MERCER would not give anyone any work unless they took watches from him. He gave over working for Mr MERCER as he could not get any money from him. He had 3 or 4 watches from him and had lost £1 and 30s on each of them. He had known other men to take watches and lose in the same way.

William DYSON of Prescot said, he earned about 23s a week and had worked for Mr BEESLEY for about 10mths and had, had, both money and provisions for his wages. He signed a petition to Parliament in the summer. He was asked to put his name to it, but he did not understand what it was about. The workmen told him it was about the Truck System. He was dismissed for signing the petition, a workman in Mr BEESLEY’S shop told him so. They were expected to take provisions if they worked for Mr BEESLEY.

Mrs ATKINSON of Prescot said, her husband worked for Mr BEESLEY and earned about 25s per week. 3yrs ago he worked for Mr BURROWS of St Helens. They had been married for about 8yrs and during the whole of that time he had never had his wages in money. She had complained about it many a time and so had her husband. The most she had received in money was 10s. Before Mr BEESLEY had the provision shop he used to give them tickets to go to Mr WHITFIELD’S for bread. The bread there was as good and as cheap as they could get elsewhere and they did not object to the tickets. She might get provisions a little cheaper elsewhere, but, she would rather go to Mr BEESLEY’S as her husband worked for him. She thought it her duty to go there, but, if her husband did not work for BEESLEY she would go to BENSON’S for her provisions. She did not know, however, whether the provisions were as good there, as she had not bought any. Sometimes she had only 5s to receive in money. If they had a death in the family an wanted to raise money, Mr BEESLEY would lend it them, he was a kind master in that respect.

William TRAVIS, watch pinion maker, Rainhill, said he made about 24s per week, but, 3s a week was taken off for material, that left 21s. He worked for Mr Peter MERCER of St Helens and others. His wages were not paid in money he had to take watches from Mr MERCER. He paid for them at 5s per week and when one was paid off he took another. When he got a watch for £5 he pawned it or sold it, a man might think himself well off if he got £2-10s for a watch. The last two watches he got £4 each, but, that was through having a brother in the marines to whom he sent them. He lost only a £1 on each of those two watches. Work could not be got at MERCER’S without they took watches, he had complained, but, Mr MERCER said he would rather pay in money, but, he could not help himself as others kept provision shops. It was a common thing to take watches, he generally pawned them at Mr PENNINGTON’S at St Helens, but the last he pawned at Warrington, as they got so many at St Helens, they refused to take them He had worked for Mr BERRY at Prescot and had, had, two watches from him, and lost £2 on one. He had done work for Coventry men, and had always received his money by return of post.

Luke HEALEY said he worked at Prescot, and it was a common thing for men to be paid in provisions and watches. There were, however, a good many masters who paid cash. Those who paid in provisions and watches were enabled to undersell the masters who paid cash. He thought the system of giving provisions worse than giving the men watches. He had worked for Mr BURROWS and had, had, to take provisions, some butter was that bad that he had, had to render it down to take the dirt out of it. He had worked for Mr BERRY and had, had, to take watches from him. He had, had one watch from Mr MERCER and sold it for £3-15s, he gave £4-10s for it and considered it sold well. It was a common thing to sell £5 watches for £2-10s. The watch-making class was a poverty stricken class, the movement men could not get as much generally as common labouring man, and could not get their wages as regularly. Some of the masters actually wanted a discount when work was taken in. It was a poverty stricken trade, because you could not get your money. He always got ready money when he worked for persons at Coventry. Gold chains were often taken for wages at Prescot. He got it from Mr BERRY, but asked him for it as an inducement to get work. The last two watches he got from Mr BERRY were to induce him to give him work.

James WOODS, said he had taken, guard chains and rings, as inducements to get work.

John RENSHALL said he worked for Mr BERRY, Mrs WATKINSON, Prescot, Mr BURROWS and Mr BEESLEY. Mrs WATKINSON kept a provision shop and if he laid out anything with her, all well and good, but he did not think she expected it. He gave similar evidence with respect to the other employers as had been given by the other witnesses.

Henry WHITFIELD, movement maker and grocer, Prescot, said that before Mr BEESLEY had a provision shop he had an agreement with him to supply his workers with flour and bread, they used to get tickets signed by Mr BEESLEY, the latter paid him quarterly. The 2nd, quarter he wanted 6d per pound discount, but he could not give it and finally consented to 3d per pound discount. The arrangement lasted for 12-18mths, the first quarter Mr BEESLEY paid him £69. When a watch movement maker he had worked for Mr BEESLEY and Mr BURROWS, he had, had to take groceries from Mr BURROWS. The groceries supplied by the masters were inferior in quality and higher in price. -

Commissioner, But you are a rival grocer.

Witness, Yes, and I know my scale of prices.

When he was first married, which was 11-12yrs ago, he took some “best flour” and found it was nothing but bone dust. He had, had several watches and had lost money on all of them. He had a gold watch from Mr BERRY which was put down at £20, but he was afterwards told when it was examined that it wasn’t worth £10. At that time he kept a public house, and he got it for the brewer who paid him £20 for it. He [witness] paid for the watch in work. 6 or 7yrs years since he got a musical clock from Mr HITCHEN, the price was £18, he worked it out, he kept it for some time then traded it for some cloth at the price of £4-10s. He got it to induce Mr HITCHEN to give him work. There are no Trade Unions in Prescot, there only ought to be. The men had not struck, because he believed they were afraid one of another. The men were not organised and if one could not do a thing, another would, and the masters knew it.

Joseph LUCAS a workman gave similar evidence with respect to receiving provisions and watches.

Mr John PENNINGTON, pawnbroker, St Helens, who said he had been in business for about 15yrs, said the Prescot people were in the habit of pledging watches with him. They brought common lever watches with very thin cases, he did not take them in now. Mr PENNINGTON’S books were produced and it appears that from the 27th April last to October 27th, 842 watches had been pledged with him, but his assistant said that possibly only one out of 50 were pledged by watchmakers.

Mr John WYCHERLEY, watch movement manufacturer, Prescot, said he had been a master for 20yrs, during that time there had been periods of great depression in the trade. It had been in a state of depression since the American War until within the past few months and was caused by the tariff put on English goods by the American government. Prescot was the principal place for the manufacturing of watch movements, about 500 men were engaged in the trade at Prescot, not many women were engaged. He employed both time workers and piece workers, he had about 50 workmen. He paid them every Saturday, in ready money, without exception, he was told at other places they were paid with provisions, this affected the trade as it enabled those who paid in provisions to sell their work at a less price. He sometimes sold watches to his men but it was at their own special request, and he took care that the man had a good watch. He did not get for his men two watches in the year.

Mrs Jane WATKINSON, watch movement manufacturer and provision dealer, said she employed between 20 and 30 men in the watch trade. Every man was paid his wages in money, and if he chose to purchase his provisions from her he did so. 6 or 7 of her workmen dealt with her, she got watches for them, but it was at their own desire.

Mr LLOYD who worked for Mr WYCHERLEY said that the lower class of workmen drifted to the places were men were paid wages in provisions.

Mr BERRY, watch movement manufacturer, Prescot, said he got watches for his men but only when they applied for them and gave him a written description of the sort of watch they wanted. He produced books which the commissioners examined, and admitted that he was receiving about £150 a year in payment for watches, obtained by him for his workmen. During the past 2 or 3yrs he should think he had received from £80 to £100 a year from his men’s watches, he only sold watches to those he could trust to work out the prices in wages. He had known men to order watches for their masters and pawn them, and also in order to get work when there was a depression in trade. He had signed the petition for the inquiry, and had corresponded with Mr MUNDELLA on the subject. Some of the watches he had sold to his workmen they had resold for higher prices. One of the evils of the trade was that the masters who paid ready money for their work were not in a position to cope with the masters who paid their workpeople in provisions. He had seen watch movements sold in Coventry 15% cheaper than he could make them. Giving the men watches was sort of compensating movement to give them provisions. He thought it was a great evil to force a watch on a person, as to force provisions.

Mr Peter MERCER, watch movement manufacturer, St Helens, said about half a dozen men had got watches from him during the last year. Men went to him and said they would take a watch if he would give them work, he might stop so much a week. The men considered when trade was bad that the masters did them a kindness in dealing with them in that way. It had been the custom for 30yrs, he had done it when he was a workman, and now others did it with him. There was not a master in the trade who could say he had not sold his men a watch. Provision dealing was the curse of the trade. The masters who sold provisions, sold both provisions and watches to their men, and the masters who paid ready money could not compete with them.

Edward BEESLEY, watch movement manufacturer and provision dealer, Prescot, said he had about 10 men working for him. They got their provisions from him and then he paid the remainder of their earnings in money. He had sent them with tickets to Mr WHITFIELD’S but when he started provision dealing of his own account he gave up doing that. He did not agree with the last witness that paying men with provisions was the curse of the watch making trade. He disapproved of giving watches to workmen, which was a very common thing, and he considered it the curse of the trade.

Mr Thomas PRESCOT, watch movement manufacturer, said he employed about 40 men and always paid their wages in ready money. There was a great deal of pauperism in the town and he attributed it to laziness and drunkenness. It was not the custom for some of the best houses to get their workmen to take watches.

Mr Richard ENTWISTLE, maker of watch materials, Prescot, said he had suffered a great deal of loss as a result of the Truck System, the men were compelled to get their materials from their masters, instead of being allowed to go where they liked. He had often been told that they would purchase from him, as his materials were better and less in price, but they were compelled to get them from their masters.

Mr Peter BURROWS, watch movement manufacturer, St Helens, had been summoned to attend the inquiry, but his son brought a certificate signed by Dr MCNICOL, to the effect that Mr BURROWS was suffering from nervous excitement, which would be much increased by a public examination, the son also handed a written statement to the commissioners, but they said they could not accept any evidence except upon oath. The inquiry concluded shortly after 6pm, and the commissioners, before leaving , said that they would be at Birmingham Town Hall on Monday, and if any other person in Prescot, wished to give evidence he would have to go to Birmingham to give it before them.

Kelly's directory of Watch and Clock traders 1880


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