S3.2 – Elizabeth Dixon Smith

Elizabeth is buried a long way from her family, and alone, here in Todmorden – we know little about how she got here, but she is one of a long line of working people who dared to stand up for their rights and as such deserves our respect.

The image above is a list of those buried in this Smith/Dixon family plot in Burnley. It’s really also a Livesey plot; the Elizabeth Smith buried here in April 1857 is journeyman wheelwright Robert Smith’s first wife, Elizabeth Livesey. A year and two months after her death, he married again, this time to widow Elizabeth Dixon. She was 11 years his junior but in a similar position to him – bereaved and with several children. Together they had another five children. Three, John, James, and Herbert, are buried here. The other two were Robert Henry Dixon Smith and Elizabeth Dixon Smith.

Elizabeth was born in 1863, four years before her father Robert died. Her widowed mother moved around Burnley with her children and stepchildren, with the children all entering the workforce as soon as they were able to leave school. Elizabeth became a cotton weaver. Following mother Elizabeth’s death in 1885, Elizabeth and Robert Henry stayed together and shared a house, both continuing to work in the cotton mills. Robert Henry married in 1899 and he and his wife moved into their own home; Elizabeth, preferring to retain her freedom as a single woman, stayed on her own and continued to work.

Now, cotton was a dangerous business. From skin cancer due to the mineral oil used in spinning to tuberculosis or bacterial illnesses from “kissing the shuttle”, and not forgetting external physical injuries, you could have a job for life in the mills but your life wouldn’t always be so long. In 1912, there began to be concerns about “weaver’s cough”, with the Cotton Weaver’s Times suggesting that workers felt it was the particular fibre content of the cotton being spun (mixed with other fibres, you see) that was causing threads to get into their mouths and was causing them to become sick. In Burnley, the employees of Robert Maxfield of Stoneyholme Shed had had enough and one day in April, without warning, walked out in protest. The next day they returned to work to find the doors locked, and their wages deducted not just for the day they walked out but for that subsequent day. The Burnley Weavers’ Association took Maxfield to court, and three complainants were named: Charles and George S. Harrison, and Elizabeth Dixon Smith.

Maxfield countersued, claiming damaged for loss of productivity, and ultimately the magistrates tried to calm the waters by saying that a verbal agreement to accept this had been made on the following morning to allow everyone to return to work. Therefore, what the complainants had lost in wages, Maxfield would have to pay, and what Maxfield had lost in productivity, the complainants would have to pay. Everyone breaks even. But Elizabeth hadn’t had such an offer made to her at the factory gates, and so she wasn’t having it, and appealed with the support of the Weavers’ Association. Their eyes were on the bigger issue: did a company have the right to lock its employees out and then demand compensation? Who was to say that the magistrates would always judge fairly, after all? To lodge the appeal, both Elizabeth and her representatives had to pay an eyewatering £30 each in recognisance for their appearance and the costs of the appeal.

Burnley Express, April 13th 1913

Ultimately Elizabeth’s appeal meant that what she owed Maxfield was only half what they owed her, which was better for her, but still left the Weavers’ Association wondering what guarantees were actually there for employees. To this day, unauthorised industrial action can indeed result in locking out, or even dismissal – but locking out employees in retaliation for lawful industrial action or to force them to accept changes to their contracts or terms and conditions counts as an automatically unfair dismissal. A good trade union rep would certainly argue that a walkout over H&S concerns should be a starting point for negotiations and not result in a lock out, certainly not deduction of wages…

By 1918 Elizabeth had left Burnley and moved to 3 Lane Head, Blackshaw Head. Still living alone, she was still working in cotton, although in 1921 her occupation is annotated with “not in work”.

Elizabeth later moved to Dry Soil, and died in 1931 aged 68 at Stansfield View Hospital. Living alone and getting older, maybe even with a case of weaver’s cough, our first thought was that she relied on parish relief at the end – but her estate was about £657 which was a decent amount of money. Her beneficiary was Grace Elizabeth Hindle, spinster. Grace’s mother Alice had been born Alice Smith, the first child from Robert Smith’s first marriage to Elizabeth Livesey. In 1921 she was living with Grace in Blackpool, a widow and her spinster daughter getting on with their lives together. Did Grace know she was the lucky one? Did Elizabeth refuse to go live with her family, remaining independent as long as she could manage it? Whatever the circumstances, she came to rest in Todmorden, and her story is now told.

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