Sunday, March 03, 2019

GUEST POST Joseph Merrick in the cigar factory

Joanne Vigor-Mungovin looks at an early episode in the life of Joseph Merrick ('The Elephant Man') and in so doing opens the shutters on the Dickensian conditions of working-class life in Leicester in that period.

At 13 years old Joseph Merrick left school, and just like many other children of his age, attempted to bring money into the home. He writes in his autobiography that nothing would "satisfy [my] step mother until she got me out to work". 

Many hard-working families were often up against intense household poverty. Emma (Joseph’s stepmother) came into the marriage with two young daughters, and Joseph Rockley (Joseph’s father) with two less-abled children.

Joseph like most children when he reached the school leaving age, he would have been expected to find employment and contribute to the family purse. Even basic additional household tasks such as fetching wood or water were effectively allowing for a higher standard of living. It must have also been very hard work for Emma, who has been described as the ‘Wicked step-mother of the East’, to have two extra children to look after. 

Marian, Joseph's little sister, who had been disabled from birth, may not have been able to work or even attend school. There is no record suggesting the type of disability she suffered from, only what has been written on the census record of 1881, which states ‘deformed from birth’.

Joseph found employment with Freeman’s cigar manufacturers on Lower Hill Street in Leicester a road which ran parallel to Lee Street, Joseph's birthplace. Making cigars was a fiddly business. Before Joseph could make and roll the cigars they were prepared by his work colleague, who would take the leaves one by one, fold them and strip off the stalks with very quick and dexterous movements. The leaves would then be laid out smoothly and handed to Joseph, who was the cigar maker. 

Joseph would be seated on a low stool in front of a low workbench which had three sides with raised edges. Joseph started by smoothing out the leaf in front of him and cut it into a long cigar shape, similar to the shape of the side of a hot air balloon. A few fragments of tobacco leaf were spread on the balloon-shaped leaf, consisting of various small cuttings, and then he would roll the leaf to form the cigar and place it into a gauge made of iron, cutting it to the given length. 

After taking it out of the iron guide, Joseph rolled the cigar and twisting the end to prevent the tobacco leaf from loosening. Joseph would have to do this very swiftly, as only a few seconds were required to make the cigar, and a good maker could turn out 1000 cigars a day. 

While Joseph was working at Freeman's, a terrible incident occurred to one of his work colleagues. John Nicholas Higgott, a young cigar bundler, at fifteen-years-old the same age as Joseph, when he died at the neighbouring Gladstone Arms beer house at 38 Lower Hill Street on 28 February 1877. Higgott, who lived at 54 Burgess Street in the north end of the town near St Margaret’s Church, suffered from pleurisy, an inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the rib cage. 

In his post-mortem, the surgeon Dr Henry Meadows noticed his left lung was slightly smaller than his right and that he died from the formation of a blood clot on the right side of his heart. Although Meadows stated in his report the pleurisy was not brought on by neglect, Thomas East, another of Joseph's work colleagues, and who also worked next to John Higgott in the workshop, said that on several occasions Higgott had only a bit of bread to eat which lasted him all day. 

On the Monday before he died, Higgott told Thomas his father had made him get up at 5.30 in the morning and had not given him any food. Higgott had been ill for weeks and on his last working day, Wednesday, 28 February 1877, his manager Bernard Rothschild sent him home, buthe was so ill he had to be carried to the door of the factory. Rothschild gave him 3d and sent him to the beer house across the road to keep warm before sending for his parents. 

John Higgott died at 2.30 that very afternoon in the presence of his manager, Bernard Rothschild. Even though his parents had been sent for between one and two o’clock, his mother didn’t arrive until after 2.30 in the afternoon, and his father until after half past three.

On one occasion before his death, Bernard Rothschild had caught Higgott crying. Rothschild wanted to send him home but Higgott refused, saying his father would beat him and if he lost any time at work, he would not eat. Following Higgott's death, the surgeon noted that he was not wearing undergarments such as socks or stockings, even though it was very cold. 

An inquest was called, and even though no charges were brought against the parents for neglect, the coroner concluded his findings at the inquest stating he "had never seen a person display less regard and more indifference at the loss of a child then the mother in this case has shown."

Joseph worked at Freeman's for about two years until he was 15-years-old,but by then the increasing heaviness and awkwardness of his malformed right arm, hand and fingers made it almost impossible for him to accomplish the delicate work required in making cigars and had little alternative but to leave.

This is an edited extract from Joanne Vigor-Mungovin's book Joseph: The Life, Times and Places of The Elephant Man. You can follow her on Twitter.

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