A few days ago we found ourselves visiting the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, which is one of the most interesting places I've visited for a long time. We're getting used to seeing former mills all over the north-west - those huge three or four storey buildings, some now converted to offices and often with a tall chimney. Our industrial heritage is very visible here.

But this museum has a working life. We saw tea towels for sale - up here sensibly called pot towels - which are woven on site. The waste wool (as it's called) is collected and goes through the process with working machines. Lots of information and videos online. Get Googling!

However, there's also a lot of information on the lives of mill workers - their housing, their employment, their struggles to make a living. We were told that if a boy or girl could reach over the top of his or her head and touch an ear, that child was old enough to work in the mill. Families living in the countryside always had a loom in the house and every member had a role in making cloth, a necessary backup in case farming didn't provide a living.

But what struck me forcibly was a huge photograph of the town as it was in the 1800s. Row upon row of terrace houses, little space between the rows, nothing green to be seen. The people may have had shelter but they certainly didn't have security or comfort. This kind of housing is quite close to where we now live, and Low Moor was a settlement close to Clitheroe with its own cotton mill right on the bank of the River Ribble. Nowadays, of course, the housing has been upgraded, and most have been extended rearwards.

After living in Dudley and working in the Black Country for fourteen years, some of this was very familiar. Large parts of the Black Country have a similar story - just replace "cotton" with "iron". I used to have a picture showing the sky at night - clouds of smoke lit up by a myriad small furnaces in houses where they made chains.

The Black Country Museum shows all this very clearly - well worth a visit. But while it may be interesting, it's also quite tragic that so many people, from childhood on, had no future except one of struggling to make ends meet, and if they didn't meet, there was only the workhouse. It's a salutary reminder of Matthew 26:11 - "You always have the poor with you." And so we do - and poverty is so much more than just financial shortage. The measure of a "compassionate society" is the effort made by people with the power and resources to relieve poverty of all kinds simply because that's the right thing to do. And that's all to do with politics. The Greek word is polis - a city - and politeia - the right or privilege of being a citizen. And that brings its own responsibilities. I'm sure Matthew didn't mean that the poor are always with us so that's just the way things are. Being a Jesus-follower means being aware of the way things are and doing something about the things that aren't the way they should be.

26 July 2021

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