Seducing Artificers: Fighting to Retain Scottish Labourers

As Britain’s industrial revolution began to whir in the 18th century, the desire to protect the nation’s economic interest was increasingly enshrined into law.

In 1718, Parliament passed An Act to prevent the inconveniences arising from seducing Artificers in the Manufactures of Great Britain into foreign parts. This statute, bolstered by An Act for the effectual punishing of Persons convicted of seducing Artificers in the Manufactures of Great Britain or Ireland, out of the Dominions of the Crown of Great Britain in 1750, aimed to prevent the emigration of craftsmen and mechanics, who represented the backbone of the nation’s industrial machinery. Yet, efforts to prevent such emigration were largely ineffective. Many, including the famed Samuel Slater, were still able to travel to foreign realms, taking their mechanical knowledge with them. By 1824, legislation restricting the movement of free British subjects was repealed, a reflection of the already steady stream of postwar emigration.

With their skills so prized by economic rivals, one would imagine there being a torrent of advertisements ‘seducing’ artificers, mechanics and factory workers. Indeed, the English periodical press often raged against the actions of ‘seducers’ and faithless workers who left the kingdom. Yet, even after the revocation of the 1718 and 1750 statutes, such advertisement were relatively rare in the Scottish press, as were commentaries against them; most came from a few particularly impassioned authors. Instead, the emigration of Scottish labourers was initially seen as more an abstract and yet-unrealised fear rather than an active reality.

For example, in 1805, those debating the Corn Bill in Perthshire refereed to the emigration of mechanics as a hypothetical calamity rather than a pressing and on-going concern. One speaker rhetorically pondered if  enacting such a bill was ‘wise or politic in a country like this, whose sole dependence is on commerce and manufacture? Ought not the British mechanic and labourer to eat bread at a more moderate price, when favoured with plentiful crops, and not pay a high price of what their families require.’ If they could not procure food at a reasonable rate, he argued, the industrial classes, so critical to Britain’s continued success, would diminish–either through starvation, a refusal to procreate or mass emigration. Despite this appeal, however, his primary concern remained cheap corn, not the 1750 statute.

Yet, by 1815, post-war depression was in full swing and impassioned discussions of industrial employment opportunities in the United States were certainly present. Indeed, local newspapers made ever effort  to dispel these encouragements as rumours, or outright lies, and convince Britain’s industrial hands to remain at home. Take, for example, a notice appearing 1819, which boldly declared that

difficult as the temporary condition of our affairs at home is, in America it is a thousand times worse; that there is an entire stagnation of trade, no manufactures, an exhausted population, and almost universal bankruptcy in public and private.—Need we tell our mechanics that where there is no national wealth, it is impossible they can be employed or paid? Need we inform our labouring classes that the quays of every sea port in America, from Boston to the Gulf of Florida, are thronged with the most forlorn and miserable of their unhappy countrymen, who have been beguiled into a trial of American hospitality and happiness; and would now, after enduring privations almost too much for human nature, and woes to which negro slavery is heaven, given up half of their future existence, to be able to spend the other and die in the land of their forefathers!

This damning indictment of American prospects certainly provides a strong contrast to earlier efforts to stem the flow of mechanics and labourers. More importantly, the shift from a hypothetical loss in a tangential debate to concerted and direct effort to prevent industrial emigration suggests that the pull towards industrialising America was a growing one.

Indeed, even for those who wished to remain in Scotland, selling the idea of emigration could be a profitable endeavour. Striking workers in Glasgow often threatened to emigrate en masse if their demands were not met; a threat that was generally effective. And what worked for those wishing to stay worked equally well for those wanting to leave. Scottish emigration societies began to insert radical rhetoric in their petitions for government assistance, explaining that staying in Glasgow would only result in their contamination by radical elements.

Thus, the seduction of Scottish labourers was critical issue of debate throughout the long eighteenth century. This becomes clearer still when compared with the view the Scottish press took on agricultural emigration.

To be continued next Monday

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