I write from Manchester. Manchester England. The town for which the largest city in New Hampshire is named. Perhaps more importantly Manchester, England is where the industrial revolution began. Here in this midland city mechanized textile mills were first introduced; cotton grown by slaves from the south of the United States and elsewhere was turned into mass produced fabric with the help of laborers, some six years old, who worked 14 hour days, 6 days a week shifts under squalid conditions.
As I walk through the newly inaugurated People’s History Museum, I learn much about the workers’ struggles for fairer living and working conditions here. I close my eyes and see the face of some of the young children mill workers in towns throughout New Hampshire and western Massachusetts captured in sepia tones in old photographs I have seen. Their lives not so different from the English Manchester workers.
Nearly a decade I have been living in the Monadnock region but there are still aspects of the culture here that puzzle me. One is the clear lack of government and general citizen support for funding education from pre K all the way through university. Despite New Hampshire’s relatively high per capita income, as a state we consistently rank towards the bottom of education funding. This includes being 50 out of 50 states in university funding.
Recently a multigenerational native helped me understand this phenomenon. As he put it, “New Hampshire was historically primarily a state with many mills and factories. And like mills everywhere, the mill owners and wealthy elites found it to their advantage to keep their workers undereducated. ”
He continued by stating, “There is still a lot of that mill mentality in New Hampshire.”
Back to the People’s Museum in Manchester, England. Crowds of young school children are visiting and learning of the heroic struggles and brave quests for better working conditions and a more just society. These working men and women are lauded as strongly as military figures and veterans. And in a way the struggle for the average person to not be exploited and society to be more fair can be viewed as one of humanity’s greatest efforts.
I wish I knew more of the brave men, women and children in New England who fought for better working conditions. Some cultural commentators of the United States point out that as a nation we sometimes avoid acknowledging the role of class and presence of entrenched social inequities. Some in New Hampshire may date back to mills and have not yet been fully redressed.
Perhaps Manchester, New Hampshire can learn something from its namesake in England.