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Saturday, 8 December 2012


My great great uncle Frederick ran Reyner’s Ltd in Ashton under Lyne, at first with his brother Joseph and then after Joseph’s death in 1891 as sole proprietor. The company was what was known as a combined firm: Reyner mills both spun cotton and wove it. His large workforce made him a significant figure in the local community and as a result he also served on the local bench as a magistrate. Many of his cases were recorded in the local newspaper The Ashton Reporter, mostly the sort of petty misdemeanors that itch the skin of a well-ordered patriarchal society such as Ashton’s.

The Ashton Reporter building on Warrington Street
(the site now occupied by Marks & Spencer)

By the end of the century Reyner’s was finding it hard to compete with more modern weaving operations. In 1903 it closed one mill altogether and in 1912, having let out its weaving sheds to another firm, concentrated on spinning alone. It was against this background of decline in the industry that Charles Allen appeared before Frederick on Monday 24th February 1902.

Mr Allen, a middle-aged man, still regarded himself as a weaver; but the fact was that he hadn’t worked in that capacity for three years. Instead he scraped a living filling and delivering bags of coal. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, and of course thirsty work.

A lodging house, or doss house (this one in London)
where often beds were used in shifts by different men throughout the day

Mr Allen, who I think was relatively new to the area, was staying at the Model lodging house in Scotland Street, Ashton, built in the 1890s to accommodate itinerant cotton workers. At no more than a few pennies a night its facilities were, one assumes, basic, and it seems that Mr Allen had planned to indulge himself with a little luxury the previous Saturday night. He left a full shilling, twelve pence, with the mistress of the Blue Bell inn down the road. But he went drinking elsewhere and found himself locked out of the Blue Bell when he returned there after closing time.

With just tuppence in his pocket he wandered up to the Model – but all the beds there were occupied, and he had no choice but to walk away. It was a bitterly cold winter’s night, and Charles asked a policeman where he might find a bed. All the constable could suggest was that Charles keep walking. This he did “until he was tired and done up.” At about half past three in the morning he found himself passing a brick kiln belonging to one George Barlow. It must have been recently fired because it was open, empty and – most importantly – still warm.

A brick kiln (this one in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire)

Charles gratefully stepped in and lay down, and it was there an hour later that Constable Cameron found him fast asleep. Although he may have been new to the area, Mr Allen was, it emerged, no novice at sleeping rough. Speaking for the prosecution at the hearing, a certain Superintendent Hewitt reported that Allen had seven previous convictions, six of them for sleeping out. “For a time,” Hewitt recounted, “Allen has kept teetotal, but he has broken out again.” Lugging coal sacks is thirsty work. It may have been in part a charitable act by Frederick Reyner, the mill owner with no work for weavers, when he sentenced the prisoner to seven days’ detention in a warm cell.

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