‘There's been a murder. Master Daniel Bonneviot. His family came from the Low Countries nigh on 150 years ago, but the name has stuck. Normally we let the family sort out finding the killer, but this Bonneviot was important. Important to the city, I mean. Besides, his wife is said to be something of a ninny and his only son has gone heaven knows where.’
‘Damned fine workers, the Huguenots. Sober, industrious, highly skilled. They brought a great deal to this city. Of course, nearly all the present generation were born here. Still, they’ve generally kept to their forefathers’ trade.’
‘Weavers,’ Foxe said.
‘That's right. Calvinists, most of them. Prickly too.’
‘I seem to recall …’ But Alderman Halloran wasn't listening.
‘Much better than being Papists! I hope we’ll be free of their kind now. Was it less than twenty years ago … yes, 1745 …’ He was losing the thread of his story.
The alderman shook himself. ‘An important man, as I said. He’d done well. Bonneviot employed thirty or so weavers as out-workers. Worsted and damask. I’ve sold him yarns, on and off.’
‘What was his secret?’
‘Bonneviot was a hard man. He’d had to make his own way from weaver to employer. He had no time for those who wouldn’t work as hard as he did.’
Now things were becoming clearer. Mr. Daniel Bonneviot was, it seemed, a noted master weaver in Norwich, who had done well for himself. Not quite one of the elite of the city – yet – but a rising star. Describing an employer as a hard man generally meant he demanded more than his workers wanted to give. A bully? Cruel to any who couldn’t keep up?
Foxe didn't speak. Instead, he closed his eyes for a moment, then reopened them. Why come to him? The weavers formed their own community. It would be hard for any outsider to get them to talk.
’No one is quite sure who will take over the business. Maybe his son – he only has the one – maybe not. He and his father rarely saw eye-to-eye. He doesn’t even live in the city, so far as I know.’
‘How did he make his money. Bonneviot, I mean?’’
‘Norwich produces the finest worsted cloth in Britain. That makes us the ones to beat. We’ve plenty of competitors elsewhere and many are turning to new-fangled machinery to let them undercut our prices. Most of it’s water-powered, so Norfolk isn’t suitable for these manufactories, as they call them.’
‘So they’ll take our business?’
‘If we let ‘em! They can’t come close to us in quality at present, but it’s not every buyer who cares about that. Men like Bonneviot are vital. He employed a good many people. He cut costs harder than anyone and kept his trade when others lost theirs. And he had no time for all the restrictive working practices left over from the past.’
‘None of which would make him popular.’
‘There’s the problem. This city is notorious for hotheads raising the rabble. The future for cloth trade is very uncertain, what with problems at home and wars abroad. Some have already lost their employment. More will follow them, if our weavers, dyers and other outworkers cling so stubbornly to their old ways. The fools blame anything and everyone else for taking their work. They never look at themselves. We’re always sending constables in to break up various strikes and disturbances.’
The alderman drank all the rest of his punch in a single gulp. Foxe discreetly rose to fill his glass again, before returning to his seat.
‘We can't afford to have problems like this now,’ Alderman Halloran continued. ‘Very bad for our trade in fine cloth. Very bad for the city. That's why the mayor sent me here. So far we’re holding our own, but …’
‘How may I assist His Worship?’
‘This isn't a job for the constables. They’re only fit to deal with vagabonds, whores, pickpockets and the like. We thought of asking someone to come from Bow Street in London, but they’d be far too conspicuous and none of the locals would speak to them anyway. Then your name came up.’
Foxe hadn't tasted his punch. Now he picked up the glass and took a delicate sip. Alfred had mixed it carefully and it tasted delicious.
‘The job you did for us before was outstanding. I know this one will be tough but you’re our best hope. We all agreed on that.’
What he meant was their last hope.
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