The Early Days
It might seem strange today that a group of men would abandon their livelihoods and take off in a totally new direction merely on something as insubstantial as a political speech. Samuel Bamford's view that O'Connor was mad was I suspect more accurate than he knew. O'Connor deteriorated mentally and in 1852 was declared insane and put in a mental home. It is perhaps an indication of the sheer power of his speeches, one of which so motivated these Middleton men, that in spite of the stigma and loss of esteem that seven years in a mental home would have entailed in those days, when Feargus O'Connor died in 1859, over fifty thousand people attended his funeral in Kensal Green, London.
The farm that the co-operative took over was known as Walmsley's Farm after the family that were tenant farmers there at the time. On later maps it is named Grimshaw Lane Farm but it is most commonly known as Jumbo Farm after the district where it was sited. "Lowbands" was more of a nickname used by the co-operators and never was its official title. The exact location of the farm was where the houses 172-178 Grimshaw Lane now stand, right next to and to the east of what is now David's Farm Close, which must surely qualify for a nomination as Britain's most inapt or inept named street. We should be grateful that the person or body of people who selected this name were not in charge of selecting place names on a national basis, in what would now probably be known as the London Underground.
Grimshaw Lane in the 1850's was but a cart track. At the eastern end there stood the station, Lees Brewery and a small hamlet of houses skirting either side of the lane. Travelling west down the hill was the hamlet of Jumbo which was sited opposite where the Victoria Hotel now stands. Further west and downhill there was a hamlet known as Springs around the bottom of Sandy Lane. It was here that travellers would turn right climbing up Sandy Lane and then via Kenyon Lane on to Middleton. To the left was a footbridge over Wince Brook (or River Dane) which was the eastern end of Sunk Lane and used by travellers heading for Alkrington and Manchester. If instead of turning left or right, one had carried straight on along Grimshaw Lane towards St Michael's Church then this would have been no more than a worn grass path. At the very edge of where Jumbo became Springs stood the farmhouse. The farm was six acres and ran between Grimshaw Lane and Wince Brook stretching, on a rough estimated measurement, eastwards from the farm house to the area around what is now the Victoria Hotel.
The lease was in Joseph Jagger's name and was for an annual rent of £28 per year. The group selected Jagger and his wife Alice to live at the farm. The co-operative paid Mr and Mrs Jagger £1 a week in wages plus free rent and free coal. As this was rather an attractive little package in those days, one suspects that Jagger's name on the lease might well have been a crucial factor in deciding who would live there and run the show. As they do not appear here on the 1851 census they must have moved in at the very earliest, after the end of March 1851 when the census was taken. (There is evidence to suggest that they took over late in 1851 at least after the harvest. One report states that "As there were no profits at the years end differences arose ... " and then moves on to George Booth being asked to take over in 1853, indicating perhaps that although they took over in 1851, their first full year of farming On which they made no profits, was actually 1852.) The system that they had worked to was that "They dug up the land on Saturday afternoons after they had quitted their looms each turning out with a spade". George Booth says that "Some on 'em favvurt as if they'd ne'er used a spade i' th' wuld". This was a little unfeeling of George considering that these men were hand loom weavers and as such cared for their hands in a manner not unlike a violinist would do. Rough skin or callused hands easily snagged or broke the fine silk threads when they worked and consequently they would have dug with great care.
During their time running the farm they had given credit rather than run a "cash down" business, consequently many bad debts were made and there were no profits. "Being somewhat disappointed at the management they asked Mr George Booth and his wife to become the managers". George Booth's account is rather more blunt than the "disappointed at the management" line. He outspokenly says "some on 'em thowt Jagger wur chetting 'um, un they wanted me to try".
It is a matter of personal opinion as to whether Joseph Jagger was "chetting 'em" or not. He bought a beer house and grocery shop further up Grimshaw Lane which he developed into the Victoria Hotel. Where would the money have come from? It is possible that he had owned, rather than rented his house near the Tonge Tollgate and thus had funds from its sale when he moved to the farm. However when he left Lowbands after these allegations, his move must have looked very suspicious in the eyes of other group members and is sure to have entertained the local gossips for some time.
Whilst all this had been taking place George Booth had been getting considerable business experience and educating himself in the co-operative ways. It is known that he had worked both as a stock-taker and as a shop-man for the retail group. It is probable that he held other positions as well. He was also elected to the committee. The work appears to be unpaid as he says that "It was a labour of love" and "We needed nowt for us wark". Presumably he was still earning his living from hand loom silk weaving at his Jumbo home during this period. Unfortunately there is no way to check this as records of the Middleton and Tonge Industrial Society weren't kept for the first ten years. The incredible reason for this lies in the somewhat petty "personal status" that must have existed at that time. The secretary who would normally have recorded the minutes of the meeting was a deemed a "paid employee" of the society rather than an elected member of the committee, as such, he was not allowed into the meeting and hence was unable to record any minutes. (Sic).
George Booth was soon to prove that he possessed exceptional managerial skills, vision, and the ability, determination and persistence to see his ideas turned into practical ventures.