Chapter 21– John Thornton, manufacturer and magistrate
After the removal of the Latimers and Leonards, life finally settled into normality. Time inexorably went on, its progress relentless and bold.
It was December the 20th and, for weeks, an Arctic winter held Milton in its clutches. Snow lay 20 inches thick, frozen solid as the temperature didn’t rise above minus 15 C by day.
John Thornton was sitting at his desk in his ice-cold office, trying to work on the Mill’s books.
Many worries were keeping him from his work. There was, of course, Marlborough Mills and its many problems. At least the Mill was prospering, bringing in a steady amount of money from the selling of cotton to the draper’s shops and clothes factories. Yet, when a factory made profit, its workers started clamouring for a raise, and that was something John was not prepared to grant. It was far too early to be handing out too much money now. The profit had to be consolidated first, at least over an entire year. Knowing this and making his workers understand were two very different things.
An icy gust blew in when the door opened letting Nicholas Higgins in. He shook the snow from his shoulders and grumbled in his deep, gravelly voice. “Bloody ‘ell! What a foul weather it is! And it’s not much better in here, is it? Why don’t you light a fire when it’s that freezing?”
John chuckled. “Would make the place all nice and cosy, wouldn’t it? No, Nicholas, I need to keep focused in here and a fire would make me doze off, which I can’t afford with all the amount of work on my desk. Now, tell me, how’s the mood among our workers?”
“Bit turbulent, I’d say. They know the Mill is making good profit. Moreover, prices of food are exorbitant and coal is unaffordable for most of them. Once Winter will set in for good, and that’s not going to take long, their children will grow sick. Then, they’ll be clamouring for higher wages.”
Sighing deeply, John rubbed his hand through his face. “I can’t blame them, Nicholas, but I can’t give in either. We’re still staggering between profit consolidation and bankruptcy as it is. I need all the money I can get right now.”
Higgins sharply sucked in his breath and looked John in the eye, in a way that reminded the latter of the man Higgins really was, first a union committee man, before anything else. The glimpse of fierce awareness he caught in Higgins’s glare made John brace himself. Inwardly he prepared himself for battle.
“Master, you know I’ll have to take the workers’ side when it comes to a strike. Me being your Administration Manager must come second to their welfare, I’ve warned you about that.”
With a pinch of disappointment in his heart, John rose from his seat. Higgins always switched back to master when he was in union mode, instead of using John’s given name when he was not.
“You do what you have to do, Higgins, I cannot discuss raises right now, it’s out of the question!”
Higgins suddenly grew red in the face and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, in that case, sir, prepare yourself for another strike!”
Anger welled up in John and he too crossed his arms. Just when he was about to give a caustic response to Higgins’s words, the door opened again and his wife entered.
“My God, how cold …,” Margaret began but stopped when she saw the grim expressions on the two men’s faces. John, she noticed had his master face on and Nicholas … well, it had been a long time since she’d seen the union man on him.
“It’s the wage demands again, isn’t it?”, she said softly, loosening her scarf and coat.
John looked at her now but his mouth didn’t relax into a smile. “Margaret, don’t get involved in …”
“Stop! Don’t go there, John!”, she interrupted him in a trembling voice. “I have a right getting involved! It’s my money supporting this mill, isn’t it? I’m a share holder so let me have my say!”
The sudden hurt in John’s eyes nearly did her in but it was necessary to shock him before he did something stupid like ruining the fine understanding he had with Nicholas Higgins. Margaret took a deep breath and turned towards the older man with a sad smile on her face.
“Nicholas, dear Nicholas, listen. I have a proposition for you.”
At least she had his attention and his goodwill, Margaret saw.
“I want you to speak to the workers tonight and ask them for patience,” she said.
She raised her hand quickly when she saw him open his mouth to retaliate. “Yes, I know about the meeting you’ve planned at the Lyceum Hall, Nicholas. I talk to people and I listen to them as well. I know there’s much suffering amongst them, especially when the weather is as cold as it is now. At least we can try and relieve part of it, so I’ve hired a dozen women with small children to help out at the infirmary and soup kitchen. There’s Jenny, who can come in and bring her newborn baby with her. It will allow her to feed him at the required times, and he’ll be kept warm. Betty will come too, bringing little Alice with her, and she’ll be able to keep up her strength in the last trimester of her pregnancy. These are just a few I’m thinking of. There are loads of women too weak with or coming out of a pregnancy, and they cannot work. I hope you see my point here, Nicholas? Me and Mary, we are organising an income for the weakest members of our society, allowing them to survive when they are not fit to do factory work.”
She’d got him to listen, Margaret saw, with an avid interest. So she went on. “Nicholas, talk to them about that at the meeting. You, with your talent to reach out to their hearts, must make them see that it is important to keep funds free for this kind of work first. Later, when things are going to pick up, we can talk about higher wages. First we must care for the weakest members of our society. Our workers will understand when winter lasts and children and mothers grow sick.”
Higgins was smiling at her now and she returned his smile fully. “Margaret, thank you,” he replied, “you’re right and I will do as you ask. But, John?”
John involuntarily startled when his attention was snatched away from the enthralling sight of his beloved holding up a torch for his workers.
“John,” Nicholas enquired, “give me your word that wages will be raised in time, when Margaret’s projects will be properly organised, because that’s the only thing I’m willing to plead for with my men tonight, that they withhold their demands until the weak are provided for.”
Margaret’s heart clenched in fear seeing all these conflicting emotions crossing John’s face. How come he still didn’t trust Nicholas, or her, for that matter? When it came to Marlborough Mills, John still had a one-track mind on letting it come before everything else. She still had a long way to go before he would open his heart for his workers and see their needs.
“Okay, Higgins,” he replied, mouth set in grim determination, “you have my word on those wage raises if you can guarantee me a winter without strikes. Take it or leave it.”
Higgins wetted his lips, drew himself up to his full six feet and said evenly. “It’s a deal, Master!”
He offered his hand to John who took it in a strong grasp. Turning on his heels Higgins then stalked out of the office room. Margaret felt so relieved that her legs started shaking beneath her. She hastily sat down on one of the wooden chairs and wiped her brow with her handkerchief, only now realising she had been terrified that Nicholas would bristle on John’s haughty reserve.
John’s voice, harsh with suppressed fury, startled her. “So, Mrs. Thornton, tell me? Which side are you really on? I need to be sure that you’re on mine if I’m to put your money to good use!”