Employing the Unemployed

Nottingham, like many towns and cities suffered periods of economic depression and high unemployment throughout the 19th century. For many, the final resort was the much criticised workhouse. In reality, in towns more people were supported by ‘out-relief’, that is small payments that allowed the poor to remain in their own homes, than went into the workhouse. Both systems were administered by the Board of Guardians whose fortnightly meetings were reported in the local newspapers. In one week in June 1862, there were 660 inmates in the workhouse while outdoor relief was given to 4,448 people at a cost of £300 3s 11½d to the town’s rate payers.

At a time when respectability was paramount and the poor were divided into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, another way of supporting the poor was for the local authority to create work specifically for the unemployed, usually some kind of manual labour and Nottingham’s green spaces were often the sites for such work.

In the 1860s, many of the unemployed were from the hosiery trade which was in decline due to competition from America and increased mechanisation. A report in the Nottinghamshire Guardian on 30 August 1860 claimed that about thirty out-of-work hosiers were working on the Forest. There had been more but many had left to follow the harvest. What they were doing is not reported, but the Town Council’s financial records for the same year show purchases of soil for the ‘plantations’ on the Forest, fencing materials, paint and general improvements to the race course. It seems likely that the hosiers were involved in some of this work.

The Forest, showing tree plantations with sports fields in distance

The Forest, showing tree plantations with sports fields in distance

Their work was supervised by ‘overlookers’. In 1862, one overlooker on the Forest called Stedman received 5s a week for his work, but he did have another job elsewhere. In April 1862 another overlooker, Weatherbed, who probably earned 16s asked for a pay rise. He may not have received it, though, as in June it was decided that the number of workers had reduced to the point where only one overlooker was required and the man earning 5s was kept on, while the man earning 16s was given a week’s notice.

The work was not always popular and there are reports of men not turning up or even going on strike rather than work on the Forest. It was even claimed that some men had used ‘the grossest language towards the overlooker in order that they might be re-admitted to the Workhouse’. Nevertheless, in 1865, there were still calls to the Council to create work for out of work framework knitters and hosiers.

Some twenty later, in 1885, another slump in trade led to petitions to the Town Council to find work for ‘distressed working men’ so that they should not become pauperised. Part of the cause this time was a depression in the building trade. In February 1885, the Estates Committee reported to the Town Council that because the 1845 Enclosure Act had released land for building there was a large population of building labourers. Forty years later, these were now out of work. Projects such as levelling Hunger Hills could only employ half the number of applicants for the jobs. Shifts had had to be reduced to 27 hours a week, and men earned only 3½d per hour, the equivalent of 7s 10½d gross/6s 6d net, which was said to be ‘scarcely enough to keep the wolf from the door’. By December 1885, Nottingham’s clergymen had written to the Council naming 1,200 unemployed men. In February 1886 a petition with 2000 signatures was presented asking the Council to find work for deserving working men; the matter was referred to the General Works Committee and the Estates Committee to try to establish if any work was available.

Almost another twenty years passed, and the problem was still there and the solutions still the same. In 1904, the General Purposes Committee was asked to find work for the unemployed but while expressing sympathy said the ‘Corporation cannot provide employment on any scale for them’. In 1906, the Distress Committee did find some work, again on the Forest where ground was levelled to create new cricket and football grounds. Two years later, 420 ‘unemployed’ men were working on the Forest, though financial restrictions meant that they were only employed for 30 hours per week for the first three weeks, which then reduced to 25 hours spread over five days (the normal working week was 6). They were paid 5½d per hour and the total wage bill was £1,369 14s 6d. The work comprised

  • Excavating and levelling land on the old race course to extend the cricket grounds by 4 acres
  • Spreading excavated soil on the rough ground at the east end of The Forest where, in future, it would be turfed or seeded to provide further cricket and football grounds
  • Lowering a portion of the footpath across The Forest, re-ballasting and refixing a portion of hurdle fencing.

c-drew-forest-8In total 21,038 loads of sand were carried and spread at the east end, and 4,267 square yards were turfed

Even this did not alleviate the problems of the out of work. In a letter dated 30 May 1908, the genuinely unemployed were asked to gather on the Forest to sign a book which would be presented to the Mayor asking him and the Council to help the unemployed. The writer asserted that the distress caused by unemployment lead to death or suicide; he personally knew of two attempted suicides by his own friends who had tried, but failed, to secure work.




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