John Castle (1819 – 1888): Life & Labour – Writing Lives

John Castle (1819 – 1888): Life & Labour

Life and Labour

‘I calculate that is, or should be, the motive of all persons who set up in business – every new beginner must take his customers from some other tradesman – such is life that no great good can be done without a small amount of injury.’ (31)

John Castle spent his life in the silk trade. From learning to be a ‘draw boy’ at the age of nine right up to becoming a successful foreman of a factory in his later life. Before 1826 the silk industry in Britain was being artificially supported with as many as fifty per cent of Great Coggeshall employed in this industry. The government had banned any imports of and silk goods because of superior quality and cheaper goods abroad. When the ban was lifted in 1826 the industry declined rapidly meaning when Castle entered the industry in 1828 it was already in decline.  His first job as ‘draw boy’ was to ‘clean the silks ready for weaving’ (3). Castle mentions the Jacquard being introduced into his factory in approximately 1830 this revolutionary machine made possible the production of unlimited varieties of pattern material, essentially making the traditional weaver redundant. Messrs William and Charles Beckwiths continued to employ two weavers however with Castle continuing to clean silks for them. After a short time Castle then showed good aptitude at weaving itself and was granted a position as a weaver at four shillings per week. This is estimated to be the year 1835. In the same year Messrs W. and C. Beckwith went bankrupt making one hundred people unemployed. At the same time ‘great failures took place in America, causing the silk trade to be bad all over England’ (4). Castle became unemployed and could not find work in any other silk factory due to the state of the market. It is not until around the time of the death of King William that Castle gain full employment again. He found employment for a Mrs Owens in Brick Lane London as a porter eventually becoming head porter and holding the position for twelve years. The next port of call was to return to weaving for Messrs Henderson and Co where again the industry began to decline and saw people losing employment. Upon experiencing this John Castle and a few other men began to seek out investors to take over the company. The year was 1850 and writing to the mayor of Colchester Dr Williams and using his guidance, John Castle was able to gain investment from a London based manufacturer Messrs. Campbell, Harrison & Lloyds. The company then gave him the position as foreman of the factory that he continued to hold up until the point of writing his memoir.

‘Thus you see what changing scenes of thirteen years had brought about . . . I was a poor tramp calling upon the foreman at the Royal Mortar asking for employment and failed to obtain it; now here I am blessed by the good providence of God to be living there as Foreman’ (27).

The importance of this, however brief, summary of the working life of John Castle shows the ethics that he carried with him throughout his life the notion of hard work and perseverance. This perseverance enabled a man from difficult beginnings could prosper in his industry and earn a respectable place in society.

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