Suffer The Children

I recently read about a local retired clergyman, Canon Jim Burns, who has written a book about the history of the whit walks in Manchester. He says that the first procession of Church of England members took place in 1801, between St.Ann’s Church and Manchester Cathedral.

In those days children worked for six days a week between 4.00am and 8.00pm. The local Sunday schools did not want the children, on their one day off, to become involved in cockfighting, gambling, or the drinking of gin.

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The idea they came up with was for the Sunday schools from around Manchester to have a big assembly for the children to attend, but the place to hold it could not be decided upon. Some argued for St.Ann’s church, which was more fashionable, while others argued in favour of the Cathedral.

In the end a compromise was reached in that the children would all meet together at St.Ann’s and then walk to the Cathedral. Thus was the walk born.

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I cannot help but think of my own children today. We ensure that they are nourished, educated, get enough sleep and have enough leisure time . In short, we allow our children to be children. Contrast this with the description we have already heard-of children working between 4.00am and 8.00pm. In a difficult, dangerous environment, children were used as they could fit into places among the machinery, and reach parts with their small hands, that adults couldn’t. Small hands that were often caught in the machinery. Accidents with children being injured or maimed was common. Disease was often present too.This was a time when children were not allowed to be children. In times of poverty, every member of the family had to contribute.

Ancoats has been described as the world’s first industrial suburb. It is now a heritage site. I have walked the streets where my ancestors lived, worked, and died. This is an area where some of the old mills still stand. I have seen a door with a handle positioned low in order for it to be reachable for these young members of the workforce.

A window on childhood. Does this girl look outside, imagining her escape?

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It just doesn’t seem right to think of these two girls as workmates, or colleagues. I have a daughter around the same age as these two.

I like to think that they remained lifelong friends. But we will never know what life held in store for them.

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I am reminded of something an elderly great aunt of mine once said. When thinking of some of the younger generations of the family now starting out on their own, with their own homes in nice gardens, and new cars.

She said “I look at them and think to myself, ‘if you only knew where you have come from, how poor we were and how much of a struggle things were.'”

I feel thankful for my own childhood, and for that of my children. I am still learning where I have come from.