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Liverpool Hall of Science, Lord Nelson Street

In this, the City of Radicals Year, we remember here one of the city’s less well-known figures, John Finch. Radicalism is often associated with calls for wholesale structural changes – the word radical comes from the Latin for ‘root’ and suggests getting down to the basics rather than the branches or leaves; a famous example of radicalism is Marxism which seeks to change the whole capitalist system – root and branch. But it is well to remember that one of the most prominent radicals in recent British History was Margaret Thatcher who is associated with monetarism and weakening of Trade Unions. Certainly in the nineteenth century, it may be better to see key figures as radical reformers. Before the end of the year. we’ll look at many of these figures; some of them will be described on Hope Street Chronicles (several relate to the reform of health and conditions in the workhouse). The description of John Finch below is based on an essay by Professor R.B.Rose, details after the piece:

John Finch: Radical?.

John Finch is largely forgotten today yet his work in Liverpool during the mid-nineteenth century, as well as nationally, although it ended usually in failure shows him as a visionary for much of what he attempted to start took root shortly after his death. Born to a poor but respectable working class family in Dudley, he received a basic education at a charity school. From there and through several clerical jobs he became a self-made and successful businessman after entering the employ of Irvin and Sons, iron merchants of Liverpool in 1818. During the rise of the industrial revolution when iron was needed for engines, machines, railways and ships he began his own business in 1827.

Early co-operative movements in Liverpool largely dependent on Finch’s initiative, failed (although ten years after his death the Rochdale Co-operatives proved the soundness of the idea). Finch, as a Unitarian Christian, understood Christianity to mean practical action to lessen suffering, poverty and injustice. He was a fervent adherent of the Temperance movement, travelling great distances in the North and into Scotland to get people to take the pledge. Further, he wanted to understand what lay behind drunkenness, and sought its economic and social causes. Among the Liverpool docks he discovered that about 120 “Lumpers”, men who were given a certain sum to load  and unload ships took to ‘subcontracting’ the jobs at a lower rate. These secondary hires were done in pubs, so in order to have a chance of getting work men had to patronise the pubs; indeed, some of the lumpers kept pubs themselves.

Finch organised the setting up of a Dockers’ co-operative. He pointed out, successfully, to employers, that erecting shelters for men overseen by “a steady person” who would keep lists and assign work would remove what Rose calls ‘the endemic dishonesty of desperation, and the shoddy work of drunkenness.’ The Dock Labourers’ Society began successfully, recruiting 2,000 of 6,000 dock and warehouse workers. Wealthy merchants and sympathisers contributed so that the fixed wage went from two shillings a day to three shillings, and the cutting out of the middle man’s take also increased income. Branch offices were equipped with libraries and school equipment, and literate dockers were to instruct their mates during slack periods. (more…)

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