Joseph Fielding: the early years
I did not become a half-timer in the cotton mill until I was ten years old, but Joe experienced the half-time system when he was eight, and broke his left arm in the process, which brought him out of the mill, to which he never returned. He was, however, working on the stone as a half-time mason before he was nine, and I well remember in our early teens how envious I was of him and his brother, for being able to earn a man's wage very soon after they became full-timers. I am quite certain I had the support of all the men in the town of Mr Fielding's experience and standing when, as a journalist, many years later, I advocated in "The Blackburn Times" the raising of the half-time age from ten to eleven. What chance had we, at ten years of age, of "bettering ourselves," when we worked in the mill from six o'clock in the morning until half-past twelve noon, and then had to turn to our schooling in the afternoon, with the tiresome home lessons at night, which were necessary to keep up to the Government standard? There are no half-timers now.
When Joe was 17 years old he had more than served his apprenticeship to his trade, so he and his elder brother, William, set up in business for themselves as contractors, and obtained the sub-contract for the stonework of various cottages, out of which they made a little money, besides paying themselves good wages as journeymen. When he was 18 they were both offered jobs at Stonyhurst College, then being extended, and Joe was offered a foreman's place, not because he was a better mason than his elder brother, but because the head foreman at Stonyhurst knew him better. So to Stonyhurst they went. Youth was not in Joe's favour here. He had fifty or a hundred men under his direct supervision at times, and some of them looked askance at their youthful overseer. A number of men who had struck work on the Law Courts in London were very hard to deal with. The Government had brought in German labour, I believe, to finish the Law Courts, and the strikers were not in the best of humours at having to come so far north for employment. One of them flatly refused to take his orders from Joe, but Joe refused to give way an inch, and sent the man to the office to be paid off. The authorities backed up Joe, the man was paid off, and there was no further trouble about taking orders from the lad that had been set over them.
At 19 years of age, the health of Joe's father (Mr Robert Fielding, pawnbroker - himself formerly a mason) began to fail, and he asked both his sons to come into the shop and succeed him. William, however, had already decided to go into the church, and when they both left Stonyhurst, Will went to Cambridge University to take his degree, and Joe went into his father's shop at the bottom of Addison St, as manager. The father died nest year, and Joe succeeded to the business, but had to find all his own capital. It was a very trying year to Joe, for it was the year 1878, which all men and women of my age will remember as the year of the Great Strike, when Dragoons had to be galloped over from Preston to put down the rioting, when the rioters set fire to Col. Jackson's house at Wilpshire, and when many a kind-hearted Blackburn tradesman lost all he had through giving credit to starving people. I remember that Joe himself lent his last penny. He was sitting in his shop early one morning, unable to open the doors because he hadn't a penny to lend, when he heard the crowd outside talking, one man grumbling outrageously that he had walked all the way from Accrington to redeem a pledge, and now found the shop closed against him. At this, Joe pricked up his ears. It hadn't struck him that anyone would be bringing him money, he thought they all wanted to borrow money. So he opened the door and the crowd surged in. Rolling up his sleeves, and standing behind the counter ready for business, Joe said, "We'll take the redeemed pledges first. Is there anybody here wants to redeem a pledge?" "Ay, me!" spoke up the man from Accrington, and Joe held out his hand for the ticket. His face fell when he saw that the pledge was only one for 1s., and with interest to date he would only have one and three-halfpence to draw. Not much "capital" that for him to do business as a money-lender with, but he swallowed his disappointment, and asked, "Any more to redeem pledges." But there was never a one. All the others were borrowers. With a sad heart Joe fetched out the pledge of the Accrington man, and demanded his one and three-halfpence. The man had only one and a penny, so Joe said, "All right, give us that", and the man walked off a halfpenny to the good. "Now," said Joe, "this is all the money I've got. A lot of you will have to go away empty. But is there anybody here wants to borrow a shilling?" A dozen hands were held out, and a dozen voices clamoured for preference. He selected one, examined the article offered in pledge, made out the ticket, and handed over the shilling. Then said he, "I've a penny left. Does anybody want to borrow a penny?" And he lent his last penny to another customer, turned the others sadly away, and locked up his shop.
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