London Boot Operatives who were imprisoned for conspiring to obtain Better Wages, August, 1811
ON the 17th of August, 1811, John Stanley, Thomas Jeffry, W. Braine and William Brunt, journeymen boot and shoe makers, were brought before the aldermen, Messrs Scholey and Magney, on an information charging them with forming a conspiracy, with thirty-six others, to obtain, contrary to the statute, an increase of wages from their master, Mr Hale, bootmaker, Fleet Street.
Mr Alley, as counsel for the prosecution, stated that the defendants, under an improper and delusive sense of the law, had illegally held a meeting for the purpose of compelling Mr Hale to allow them the same prices for work that Mr Hoby and other masters at the west end of the town gave. Mr Hale had, from motives of humanity, selected a few persons for punishment rather than the whole of those who had left his employment, and a hope was entertained that his lenity would have had the effect of inducing them all to return to their work, in which case the prosecution would not be followed up; but if, on the contrary, they should persist in their refusal to work, justice would take place.
Mr Hale, being examined, deposed that he was informed, while in the country that his men had struck for increase of prices, and that they had held a meeting for that purpose. In consequence of their conduct he attended their meeting, and he was informed, by two they had delegated, that the prices they required were contained in a book. The men contended they were entitled to the price given by Mr Hoby for boots, jockey-boots and shoes, which differed from that given by the prosecutor. He refused on pretence that he gave the same price that others did in the City. Finding them persist in their refusal to work for him, he requested a final answer by letter, as he was unwilling to resort to force precipitately. The meeting did not send him any notice, and he applied to a magistrate, in consequence of which the defendants were taken by warrants.
The brother of the last witness confirmed the preceding statement.
Mr Spankey, for the defendants, contended that they had not offended against the statute by merely entering into what he termed a shop association to obtain one of two rates of wages, payable and allowed in the trade.
The magistrates, sitting in their double capacity as judges and jurors, found the defendants guilty, and sentenced them to two months' imprisonment in Newgate, where they were to be allowed, by special order, to work at shoemaking for the support of their wives and families.
Watts and Bulger also appeared on the same charge; but the former, by pleading guilty, escaped prosecution; and the latter was acquitted, as it did not appear that he had attended the meeting of the other conspirators. The wives and children of the defendants were present. This decision was of great importance to journeymen, as it decided a question on which they had hitherto entertained very erroneous opinions. The defendants in this case had the power of appealing to the court or sessions, but they declined doing so previous to the decision of the aldermen. The magistrates had power, by the Penal Act, to commit the defendants for three months to the house of correction.