Tuesday, May 21, 2013


    As mentioned before, the Voces de la Frontera May Day March ended at Milwaukee’s Pere Marquette Park.  As we left the park I pointed to Marquette’s statue and said to a policeman, ”Officer, that man over there doesn’t have documents to prove he is here legally.” “Sorry Sir,” the policeman replied, “I can’t move that individual.”

The Tale of the Historian and Magistrate

   Tricia had invited two friends to lunch, Douglas and Heather Wilson, who were very knowledgeable and especially interested in local history.  Douglas is a retired solicitor for the city of Todmorden and Heather is a city magistrate.

   The Wilsons were delighted to share their knowledge of the Todmorden story with us.  Neither knew much about Sam Fielden of the Haymarket and welcomed the opportunity to discuss his autobiography and the history of the Todmorden Fielden family.  Douglas Wilson is described in a local historical pamphlet as a person with ‘inexhaustible knowledge of local Parish Registers.’

   We exchanged questions and information about the Fielden family.  Both Tricia and Douglas had ancestors who were Fieldens.  Douglas noted that the first Fielden in the area was Nicholas Fielden of Pendle who settled in Walsden near Todmorden in the late 1500’s.  Douglas Wilson described Nicholas Fielden as a Grindletonian or a pre-Quaker.  Jeremy Burgoine had told us the Fieldens were Quakers.  Joshua, founder of the Todmorden Cotton Mill and father of ‘Honest John’ was a Quaker, but Douglas Wilson makes a case the Joshua got his religious principles from his grandfather Nicholas Fielden.  According to Douglas Wilson, during the time of Nicholas Fielden, “The whole Pendle area was a seedbed of non conformity.” Grindleton is a small village north of Pendle Hill in the Todmorden area.  The Grindletonians’ formulating principle was family love which meant that, according to Douglas Wilson, “Christian communities should respect no hierarchy either in religion or society. (which) sounds like Quakerism and Anarchy in its principled form.”

   George Fox is considered to be the founder of the Quakers.  He claimed his ‘illumination’ occurred at Pendle Hill.  Does ‘illumination’ mean that he learned something talking to the Grindletonians?   The Fielden’s faith commitment is significant because Todmorden is considered a non-conformist community.  Can their non-conformist reputation be attributed to their Grindletonian and Quaker roots?  Fieldens proudly bore given names from the Hebrew Bible.  Torah, The Prophets and the Writings emphasize freedom from slavery and government oppression. 

   Max Weber’s classic work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, provides a useful guide in understanding the influence of religion on the development of capitalism. According to the pioneer sociologist Max Weber the Quaker insistence on respect for individual conscience, belief in the ability of the individual to receive direct revelation from God was crucial to capitalism overcoming mercantilism which was directed by the crown.  Quakers also saw government service as questionable and refused to pay taxes used to support the Church of England.  Strict Quaker moral principles resulted in their acceptance and trust in the business community.   Weber cites Calvinist Benjamin Franklin’s advise, ‘honesty is the best policy’ as an example of Protestant ethics.  Weber explains:

   Now, all Franklin’s moral attitudes are coloured with
   Utilitarianism.  Honesty is useful, because it assures credit;
   so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the
   reason they are virtues.

Do such people stand above good and evil or are they missing the notion of the common good and responsibility to future generations?

   Sam Fielden was not the first Fielden to serve time in prison.  The Quaker Book of Suffering dated 1688 reports, John Fielden and fellow Quaker John Whalley:

   were both taken from a Meeting of the People of God who
   were mett to worship him at Padeham in Lancashire and
   sent to the house of correction at Preston in the said county
   where they remained eight weeks. (Shore in Stansfield a Pennine Weaving Community 1660-1750, Worker’s Educational Association, Todmorden, 1986, p. 48)

   Quakers refused the ‘hat honor’ (the custom of removing one’s hat to social superiors).   Sam related a story about his brother who refused to doff his cap to a boss and left Mr. Fielden’s employment.
   Thus must the proletariat bow the knee to the bourgeoisie
   or starve, and some people call this liberty of contract.
   There was no work to be had in the town, and he was
   compelled to go on the tramp. (The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, op. cite. P. 144)

Walsden Cemetery – The Graves of Sam’s Parents

   After lunch Douglas and Heather offered to take us to Walsden were Sam’s father and mother are buried. Again as we drove to the nearby cemetery we were treated to a view of the beautiful green landscape of the Pennine Hills area.   I felt connected to the land and the people.

   The cemetery grounds were on a hillside just below the soot blackened Walsden Church of England.  Douglas Wilson knew approximately where the graves were and after a little searching we found the grave of Sam’s father Abraham Fielden, Alice Fielden, Sam’s mother and Abraham Fielden’s second wife all buried under the same headstone.

   In his death row autobiography Sam wrote about a visit to his mother’s grave when he returned to Todmorden in 1880.

   My uncle remarked, they have been selling graves between
   the graves as the place has filled up, and crowding the
   bodies between the others.  I remarked they have crowded us
   while we live, and they are not satisfied but they must follow
   us to our graves, and make us move over there also to satisfy
   their greed.(ibid. p. 135)

   Douglas Wilson informed us that the non-conformist act passed shortly before Abraham Fielden’s death made it possible for dissenters such as Abraham Fielden to be buried in a Church of England cemetery.  The brooding soot covered Gothic Church of England looked down at the cemetery. The graveyard reminded me of the Jewish cemetery in Prague where bodies are piled on bodies under a sea of headstones.

The Unitarian Church of Todmorden

   I felt uncomfortable and alienated as we headed back towards Todmorden to see the Unitarian Church and the grave of ‘Honest John’ Fielden.  The friendly conversation of the Wilsons and the beautiful vista provided a cure.  A gigantic rainbow appeared and we were appreciative.

   ‘Honest John’ has a simple grave site and marker; Douglas assured us that he wanted it that way.  The nearby Unitarian church built by his sons is another matter.

   ‘Honest John’ was originally a Quaker but changed to Methodism, then Methodist Unitarianism.  His sons, John, Joshua and Samuel were Unitarians.   In 1864 the three brothers, wealthy from the textile business, decided to build a classical Gothic church reminiscent of the great cathedrals of Europe.  Expense was not spared.  John Gibson of London, who designed the Dobroyd Castle and the town hall, was hired as the architect.

   The church is located on a hill overlooking the town.  Its steeple seems to penetrate the heavens.  Early Quakers characterized such churches, usually Anglican, as ‘steeplehouses.’  The caretaker knew the Wilsons and opened the building for us.  We were amazed.  The inside of the church, like the exterior, looked like a cathedral. Marble pillars, a marble baptismal font, and beautifully carved choir stalls are unusual in a Unitarian church.  There were no symbols of the Trinity to be seen but otherwise cannons from the Church of England would have felt comfortable in the building.  

   The church closed in 1987 and is now owned by the Historical Chapels Trust which, according to a pamphlet, “has been established to take into care redundant chapels and other (non-Anglican) places of worship in England of outstanding architectural and historic interest.”

   We drove back to Todmorden and said goodbye to the Wilsons at their home a short way from our hotel.  We expressed our appreciation for their hospitality, and our admiration for the rich cultural heritage of Todmorden.  Heather commented that Joanne and I must have an interesting cultural heritage as well.  We agreed, and we mentioned our immigrant ancestors from Germany and Ireland.  It was then I realized that as American working people our heritage also included Todmorden.  The people of Todmorden were non-conformists.  They demanded sovereignty as did the American revolutionaries.  They were working people that demanded justice as did those of the American labor movement.  I felt I could claim Sam as one of our own.

(Why do we remember and march on May Day?    “A small percentage of Milwaukee’s fast food workforce walked off the job this week demanding a greater than 100% increase in the minimum wage – to $15.00 an hour from Wisconsin’s current $7.25 an hour.”  “The striking Milwaukee workers might be well intended, but they are only fighting the laws of economics – and that’s a fight they can’t win.”  ‘Fight for $15’ protest only fights the future, Michael Saltzman, “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” May 17, 2013, p. 11A)

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