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But soon they fell on hard times again as business suffered another slump and wages went down and prices up. When Henry’s winnings had gone, the higher rent they were now paying meant they ate little other than potatoes and oats or corn. They began wishing they hadn’t moved from the cellar. And he was down on his luck, losing at cards more often than he won. He went to the Cloak and Dagger less and less. Johnno and Isaac didn’t go much either. None of them could afford to, with just about all their money going on food and rent.

Henry often worked into the evening. When he finally finished, he would slump in the armchair and stare at the wall in front of him, not having the energy to talk or read or do anything. Sarah sometimes told him to cheer up, reminding him they were better off than most of their friends and neighbours. She somehow forced herself to make supper and clean the house after twelve hours at the factory. And she and Emily had to care for Bridget – the Wakefields still called her Baby – who constantly had fever and was clinging to life. And Emily and Catherine had croup and Thomas diarrhoea. At eight, he had to work as the money was so short.

Then, one winter’s morning in early 1819, Sarah went to pick Bridget up from her cradle and found her little body cold and lifeless. She held the baby in her arms and was about to cry, when she realised it was for the better. It was no life for a sick baby, in Manchester. The little tot had suffered long enough. She decided not to go to work that day, even though she would lose a day’s pay and her master wouldn’t be happy. She held her emotions together while she got the boys off to work. Henry had already gone out to collect yarn from a factory. Emily and Catherine were resting on their bed. Quietly, she picked the baby up again and carried it round the house a while and prayed. Then she took it back upstairs, kissed it and laid it ever so gently in its cradle. She sat on the side of her bed and stared at the tiny figure, lying there so peacefully.

Sarah wondered what her youngest daughter would have been like as she grew up, whether she would have got over her illnesses, if she would have faced the same hardships her siblings currently suffered, and if she would have married and had a family of her own and afforded to feed them more than potatoes and oatmeal and perhaps moved back to the country one day. Now Sarah would never know any of these things.

As she sat there going over what might have been, she thought how unfair things were. She felt it was her baby’s right to have lived. Poverty and misery weren’t the baby’s fault. She knew if only they had more money and everything wasn’t so expensive they could afford more food. And if they had more time to go to the country to fetch plants, they could make up more medicine. The children wouldn’t get so sick and Baby mightn’t have died.

Perhaps Henry had been right after all, she mused, when he went to his reform meetings at Middleton. She now felt sad the Hampden clubs had disbanded soon after thousands of workers took their blankets and tried to march to London to take a petition to the Prince Regent but were stopped before hardly leaving Manchester by magistrates and troops and the march’s leaders arrested. The push for reform stalled. Workers became frustrated with authorities and resorted to unruly demonstrations, often leading to riots. Later, union societies had been set up and there were strikes and meetings of spinners and weavers, and reform was revived, but neither she, nor Henry of late, had taken part as they couldn’t afford to lose pay. One day many operatives from Sarah’s factory had gone on strike to attend a meeting to seek reform, but she worked instead.

A Weaver's Web ebook cover 150 dpi

Later that morning when Henry got home, he guessed as soon as he saw her what had happened. All he had to say was ‘Baby?’

She nodded. They embraced silently for several minutes. He stroked her hair back off her forehead. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

‘We must be strong,’ she said to him at last. ‘Heaven’s a better place than this.’

‘I’ll pray for her every night.’

‘Henry, I’m going to the next strike meeting, and help them in their quest for reform.’

He stared at her a moment. She had never shown any interest in reform, always believing things would get better by themselves. ‘It’s dangerous these days, Sarah. The magistrates send spies who often provoke the workers and the meetings turn into a riot.’

‘We owe it to the next generation,’ she said.

‘I thought you were a loyalist at heart.’

‘I am, but we can still seek reform.’

‘We can’t afford the time to go to any meetings.’

‘But Henry, we can’t afford not to. The way we’re going, we’ll soon be worse off than we were at Middleton, and five of us are working.’

‘What’s it achieved in the past? Nothing. Look what happened to the Hampden clubs two years ago.’

‘That’s no reason to give up,’ she said, still tearful.

‘All that’ll happen is you’ll lose a day’s pay. And you could be hurt, too.’ He still had memories of his own injuries when he was thrown out of the meeting at Middleton.

She drew a deep breath. ‘Henry, I’m going, for Baby, and the other poor babies and little children that are suffering and dying.’

He sat in the armchair, not having the strength or inclination to talk her out of it, and pondered, before forcing himself back to work. That night during supper, Sarah told the children what had happened to Baby and they all prayed for her soul. They couldn’t afford a funeral or a coffin, and Baby was buried in a cotton bag in the graveyard of a little church just outside the city. There was no headstone, only a rough marker. Sarah visited the spot from time to time and picked flowers and put them on the grave.

She went to her first strike meeting, with other workers from her factory. …

– end of excerpt –

My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available at the following outlets:

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