5.1. Long Working Hours

The working hours, for men, women, and children, were very long, from 12 to 15 hours. It appears that in the first years of the factories, the hours were not so long, but were increased starting in about 1815. Anyway, the long hours were part of the “contract”. The tiredness was exacerbated by the fact that the work was absolutely continuous, following the movements of the machines, and that the workpeople had to continue with the work, even after 12 hours, when they were already exhausted. To the times in the factory, were also added the times of walking to and from the factory. The work was made easier by automating some processes in the spinning machines from 1820; the weaving process was introduced in the factories starting from 1830, and could be carried out by women and girls.

In order to evaluate the amount of “overworking” of the men, women, and children, we have to take into account that there was a division between the “town mills” (principally Manchester) and the “country mills”. The country mills started in 1770-1780, and the town mills in 1790-1800, with the introduction of the stationary steam engine. The technical differences were that the country mills worked water-frames with water power (water wheels situated on rivers), and the town mills worked spinning mules with steam power. Estimates from 1819 give us to understand that one-third of the cotton production was from country mills, and two-thirds of the production from town mills (Lords Committee, “An Act to Amend and Extend an Act …”, 1818; evidence of Mr. Buchanan, pp. 116-118; evidence of Mr. Hodgson, p. 203); probably the proportion of number of persons was 40 to 60. 

The overworking of the men, women, and children, should be calculated more exactly using a multiplication of the hours, by the amount of physical work per hour. In the country mills, i.e. water frames, there were practically no men directly in the spinning process, the women worked standing at the machine, and the boys and girls only worked as “scavengers”, picking up pieces of thread from under the machine, or in general cleaning and maintenance.  This means that it was physically impossible for the mill owners to work the operatives to exhaustion. In the town mills, i.e. mules, the man had to push hard on the central position of the mule, there were few women in the spinning process, and the piecers had to walk along the length of machines to find and repair the broken threads, which meant long distances every day.

In both species of work, the working day was usually 12 or 13 hours, plus 30 or 60 minutes for the midday meal.

The social structure was also differentiated between the country mills and the town mills. The country mills were in the countryside, and thus the owner had to found a “village” with shops and with housing for rent; the community existed in the long term. The men were employed to weave the threads on weaving machines in their rooms (Arkwright at Cromford), to work in carpentry or mechanical maintenance, or to tend the fields where the cereals and vegetables were grown. In Manchester, the labourers lived in rented rooms in the town; no labour contract was valid for more than a week. The adults and children who worked in the country mills had to walk 200 to 500 yards to reach the door of the factory; the adults and children in the towns had to walk longer distances from their habitation to the mill.        

“The work requires more the attention of the eye and the hand, than labour?” “The work is little or nothing with the young children, they have merely to attend there.”

(Select Committee on the State of Children…. , 1816, Archibald Buchanan, manager and partner, Catrine Cotton Works, Ayr, p. 6)

“From your observation, is the growth of the children affected by being in the factory?” “Those who have grown up in the mills where I have been, appear to be as stout as any people in the country; they go to all trades, masons, and joiner, and weavers, and so on.”

(Ibidem, p. 10)

“Should you suppose, in the morning and the afternoon altogether, half an hour or three quarters of an hour is occupied in taking refreshment?” “As to myself, I view it in this way, that there is no remittance of labour; the labour of these mills is not perpetual labour, it is attention; and the child may be half an hour together, and have no labour to perform; so that the child takes refreshment at his convenience, and there is no interruption to the child; the master passes by and says nothing about it.” 

(Select Committee on the State of Children …., 1816, William Sidgwick, Owner, Cotton Spinner, Skipton, p. 116)

 “Are the children who attend the spinning department incessantly employed?” “They are not constantly occupied, there is not more than half of their time actually employed in piecing.”

 “What do they do?” “They generally have a book in their bosom, or they have a book tied round a post in the passage reading it. I must observe that their attention is required every three quarters of a minute, or a minute: but between the time of the carriage coming out and going in, they have nothing to do.”

“Do they sit down in that time?” “They have no means allowed them to sit down, and it would be scarcely worth their while from the space of time, but they generally have books in their bosoms to read.”

“Do they appear dull and fatigued at work?” “No, they do not; they are generally either reading or singing, or talking to their neighbours.”

(Select Committee on the State of Children…., 1816, Henry Houldsworth, Proprietor of spinning factories in Scotland, p. 232)        

Following we have a photograph of the only original water-frame in England, which probably worked in Cromford, and is now in Helmshore Mill Museum.  




In the years around 1800, the children did not have to work long hours, and were not badly treated:

“How long have you been in the cotton trade?” “I have been intimately acquainted with it forty-two years [1791]. I first came here in the employment of Bolton and Watt, and my business was chiefly to set up steam-engines for cotton factories. I have been a spinner myself thirty-six years.”

“Do you remember the time when mills were worked in private houses?” “Yes; when I first came here none were turned by power, and some of the first engines I set up were for the purpose of moving them by power.”

“Can you contrast the condition of the spinners and of the children employed by them as it was then and it is now?”  “Yes; at that time the spinners were not held to any regular hours of work; they frequently spent two or three days in the week in idleness and drinking, while the children they employed were often waiting on them at the public houses till they were disposed to go to their work; and when they did go they continued it sometimes almost night and day. Such is the case generally with all trades where the wages are high, and the work carried on in private houses.”

“Did the children attend them during these long hours?” “Yes; they could not do without them, and that was very injurious to the children’s health.”

“How many spindles did a mule contain at that time?” “About 120.”

“Was the work at them, in a given time, harder than it is at present?” “No, it is about the same, as the decreased labour which the spinners have to undergo by not working the mill by hand is made up to them by working two mules of much larger dimensions.”

“Is the work of piecers in general the same?” “The work of the piecers is about the same.”

“Do you remember any facts respecting the morality of the children forty years ago?” “They spent too much of their time about the public-houses and in idleness.”

“Were the spinners oftener drunk than now?” “Certainly; then they sometimes neglected their work for two or three days for the sake of frequenting the public house, but now it is so much the interest of the proprietor of a mill the keep the machinery in regular work, that unless spinners attend every day to their work they are dismissed.”

“Were women employed at that time in cotton-spinning?” “Only in water-twist mills and in the mills for making roving, and in jenny-spinning, which latter occupation is almost wholly superseded by the mules.”

(Factory Inquiries Commission, Second Report, 1833, Lancashire District Medical Reports, Peter Ewart, Master Cotton Spinner and Weaver, examined by Mr. Tufnell, D.2. p. 36)

“For several years after I began to work in the mill [1795], the hours of labour at our works did not exceed ten in the day, winter and summer, … 

(Fielden, 1836, p. 31)

“Another remarkable fact within my own knowledge I must also state; when my father introduced the machinery that is now used, into his own mill, the hours of labour were increased to twelve, for five days in the week, and eleven for Saturdays, making seventy-one hours in the week.”

(Fielden, 1836, p. 34)

“What Observations did you make during that Practice? [1800-1805]” “During that Practice the Children in the Cotton Factories were in general Healthy, and the Appearance of the whole of the Operators was friendly to Health; at that Period Labour was scarcer, the Men took more Liberties than they do now, the Children were not so closely employed, the Food was better, their Hours of Labour less, nominally the same, but they were then permitted to go Home to Breakfast, and in the Afternoon, and very frequently they worked only Five Days in a Week the Plan of conducting the Mills was not so systematised as it is now.”

(Minutes of Evidence …  State and Condition of the Children…, 1819, Dr. Thomas Jarrold, p. 311)

“The Children Fourteen Years ago at Stockport, or rather Four Years preceding the last Fourteen, were better fed in your Opinion?” “The whole Circumstances of the Children were better.”

“That they were better fed?” “Yes.”

“And worked fewer Hours?” “Yes.”

“And got better Wages?” “Yes.”

“Can you account for their getting better Wages for fewer Hours Work than at present?” “Labour was scarce.”

(Ibid., p. 314)

“There is one point I wish to mention, with regard to the prevalence of long hours, the practice is rather of recent date, for at the time when they were spinning night and day, they could not be employed a longer time than twelve hours each; but, since that time, I believe five or six or seven years back, it has become more general; the hours have been gradually growing longer and longer.”

(House of Lords, Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill…, 1819, Evidence of Dr. William Simmons, p. 87)

Anyway, the long hours were part of the “contract”. The tiredness was exacerbated by the fact that the work was absolutely continuous, following the movements of the machines, and that the workpeople had to continue with the work, even after 12 hours, when they were already exhausted. To the times in the factory, were also added the times of walking to and from the factory. The work was made easier by automating some processes in the spinning machines from 1820; the weaving process was introduced in the factories starting from 1830, and could be carried out by women and girls.

An important part of the evidence of bad treatment of the children was that of the “piecers”. These were children who had to walk along the length of the spinning mule, and join the ends of a cotton thread when it broke. The spinning mule was a series of spindles (rather like bicycle wheels), about 150 feet long in the 1819 version; on the longer mules, more than one piecer was employed. The whole series was moved backwards and forwards by the pushing movement of the adult spinner. The individual movements were not physically difficult; the problem was to keep walking for 12 to 15 hours, with a short pause for eating. The children usually could not keep it up for more than 12 hours, and were often hit by the adult spinner; there is no doubt of this from the 1819 evidence of spinners and parents.

The small boys and girls (6 to 9 years old before 1819, 9 to 12 years after 1819) were generally employed as “scavengers”. They had to crawl under the machinery to pick up the small pieces of cotton that had fallen to the floor. This work was not continuous, but in periods of about 6 minutes, perhaps several times per hour.

The above only applies to mule spinning. In water-frame spinning, the machinery was not moved, and there were no piecers. 

The expression of “children” referring to the piecers, is misleading; at the time of the 1833 investigation, they were not small children. In the factory of M’Connel and Kennedy, in 1819, there were 11 piecers of less than 10 years old, 320 piecers of 10 to 16, and 142 piecers of more than 16 years old, of a total of 1,125 persons.

(1819, evidence of Mr. John M’Connel, superintendent of the mill in Manchester, p. 438)

In Bolton in 1833, the big piecers were from 16 to 18 years old, or until they were promoted to spinner, and earned about 7s. 6d.; the middle piecers were from 12 to 15 years old, and earned from 3s. 6d. to 4s. 6d.; the scavengers were from 9 to 12 years old, and earned from 2s. to 2s. 6d. The spinners earned from 28s. to 30s. 

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report 1833, Part 1; p. 164)

For an idea of the movements of the spinning mule, see the video:


Gallery: Working Machine

We have two detailed government investigations as to the conditions in the textile factories, one which was carried out in Lancashire in 1819 as preparation for the debate on the Factory Act of that year, and an another as to the whole of England and Scotland for the Factory Act of 1833. There was a considerable improvement in the health situation of the adults and children between the two dates. In 1819, the adult male spinners usually died by the age of 40, or were so reduced in their bodily strength that they could not find work; the children were literally dying. 

The reality in 1819 was 14 to 15 hours total hours worked (72 to 74 per week, actual labour).

“What becomes of persons of the age of forty, when they are turned off?” “Some get to sweeping the streets and work of that sort, and some are sent to their own parishes.”

“When people of the age of forty leave the factories, is it generally on account of finding the work so severe?” “It is on account of their not being able to do so much work as the others, and the master will have the work done by them or somebody else.”

“Do you consider that when they quit the factories at that age, it is from feeling themselves to be worn out?” “Yes.”

(House of Lords, Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill,…., 1819, Evidence of John Frost, spinner, p. 7) 

(Similar information from William Boyle, spinner, p. 10; Robert Hyde, spinner, pp. 27-28, p. 29)

“Do you happen to know what has happened to the afterwards of many of them who have quitted the factory?” “I do.”

“Give the Committee an account of what they have done, those you know?” “I have known some go to weaving, some to the trade of dyeing; sometimes in Manchester, I could shew some of them standing in the street row, selling oranges and apples, and others driving sand carts.”

“Are there not many of them who have not lived a long time?” “Leaving the factory and being in the open has prolonged their life much longer.”

(House of Lords, Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill,…., 1819, Evidence of Robert Hyde, spinner, p. 29)

“…. In the schools I visited, I assembled together all the children who are fatherless, including those illegitimate; and from one fourth to one fifth of the whole of those fatherless children were cotton spinners. I assembled together the whole of the children whose fathers worked in cotton factories, or who ever did, and from one third to one fourth of those children were fatherless. Of the children who were at the school, from a tenth to an eleventh were fatherless; that is, of the whole number collectively.”

(House of Lords, Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill,…., 1819, Evidence of Thomas Jarrold, doctor, p. 89)

The children literally died from their work:

“From your experience of 24 years at Stockport, are you of the opinion that a greater number of children die in proportion who have been working in cotton factories than have died among children in other employments?” “I can have no doubt of it; I think by the bill of mortality for the parish of Stockport, that there are not less than 200 who have died of consumption in the last year.”

“Have you any data upon which you form your opinion as to the number who die?” “I form it from the number of cases which come under my care; I am frequently called in, and I frequently see them go off consumption before they come women; the females are more affected than the other sex.”

“Can you venture to state that young women in cotton factories do die in a much greater proportion than other persons of the same age in Stockport?” “I can, from much experience and observation.”

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of Dr. John Graham, p. 67)

“Did they look much more unhealthy than other children?” “Yes; so much that I thought in a little time I had scarcely any occasion to ask; I could say, you work in a factory, do you not?”

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of Dr. Henry Dadley, p. 80)

“From what I have long observed, I am satisfied, that instances are very frequent of people brought up in Factories dying of consumption, whose parents, brothers, or sisters, not so employed, enjoy a good state of health”.

(Answers to certain objections…., 1819, Evidence of Thomas Bellot, surgeon, pp. 43-44)

“Having been solicited to give my opinion as a minister, who for nearly 12 years have been almost constantly engaged in visiting the sick poor, in the populous town and vicinity of Manchester, I do not hesitate to affirm, in seven cases in ten, which I have attended, I have found the patients to be those whose illness has been occasioned by working in Cotton Mills; and I have observed, that most of these have been young people, and whose disorders have generally proved fatal. I have remarked, that consumptions have been the most prevalent diseases to come under my observations, and sometimes asthmas.”

Rev. Abraham Hepworth, Curate of St. Luke’s, Chorlton-row, in the Parish of Manchester; Manchester, March 21st. 1818

(Answers to Certain Objections….., 1819, Evidence of Rev. Abraham Hepworth, Curate of St. Luke’s, Chorlton-row, in the Parish of Manchester; Manchester, March 21st. 1818, p. 55) 

The parents told the Commission how their children died:

“Have you ever worked in a cotton factory?” “No.”

“Have you any children employed in any?” “Yes.”

“Give the Committee their names and ages?” “William, he would have been twenty-two if he had lived, but he is dead; John would have been twenty, but he is dead; Peter, he is living, he is about sixteen, turned; and there is Ann, turned thirteen; and Mary, turned twelve; those are all we have who have worked in factories.”

“These two sons you have lost, was their health good before they went into a cotton factory?” “Yes.”

“At what age did they go in?” “One went in at six and a half, or thereabouts, and the other about eight.”

“Of what complaint did they die?” “They grew weak with their employment.”

“How soon did you perceive them grow weak?” “We perceived it in about five years.”

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of Joseph Cartledge, labourer, p. 52)

“How old was your son James when he went?” “Ten”

“How was his health when he worked in the factory?” “When he first went he was a stout boy; but after he had been there a little while he began to grow very pale and white; and when he was about thirteen he began to have a pain in his limbs; he complained very much of it, and it continued till he was about fourteen, and then he began to grow very much out, bow-legged; and Mr. Murray recommended us to the Infirmary, and they ordered him irons; but he had grown so much out, the irons took no effect; they said it was owing to standing so long in the factory; he was near sixteen years of age then, and he began to decline very much; I took him from his work, and he worked about nine months at weaving; and he got quite stout again; after he was stout and healthy the weaving was very low, and he went to his work at the factory; he had not been there long before his health began to decline again, and he was twenty-two weeks off work, and did nothing; he got better again, and went to the factory in a little boy’s place at little wages, and he worked there about ten weeks; then he could not stand it, he was so weak in his legs; they grew so much out he could not bear irons on them; he came home, and in ten weeks after that he died.”

“You ascribe all his ill health and his death to the hardships in the factory?”  “Yes, that was his own statement; he believed it was nothing else; he was at that age, and so steady, he could not think it was any thing else; he was kept in the factory, being a big piecer; the big piecers spin a great deal, and they are obliged to spin at times when the spinner is eating his meat; and he, being weakly, and having to spin a great deal, it hurried him and overdid him, and he could not stand it; and that was the reason I took him home.”

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of John Houlsworth, weaver, p. 52)

The bad treatment and the long hours in the factories were well known, and generally felt to be inhumane. So much so, that a petition was sent to the House of Commons in 1819, signed by 1700 prominent personages of Manchester, including many magistrates, doctors, and priests:

“…. That the Manufacturies for spinning and preparing Cotton in Manchester and Salford, and their immediate vicinity, are very numerous, and the hands therein employed (consisting of children as well as adults) form a large proportion of the working classes in this district.

That your Petitioners most feelingly deplore the sufferings of those who are thus employed, inasmuch as their daily labour is not only protracted to an unreasonable and destructive extent in point of time, but is generally performed in a temperature and under circumstances, connected with the process of manufacture, which render the pressure of its lengthened duration still more highly prejudicial.

That the species of labour above-mentioned occasions results fatally injurious to many of the individuals who pursue it, and especially to the delicate frame and strength of children, who, in common with other hands, are obliged to attend the Factories early in the morning, and continue their toil until late at night; whence it is evident, that in passing to and from their houses, they experience the inclemencies of weather in a more than ordinary degree of severity and danger, owing to the heated and relaxing state of the Mills where they are so long and so closely immured.           

That from the generality of the practice which is productive of these evils, and the natural competition of the trade, such evils cannot be removed without the aid of legislative authority; and your Petitioners are unable to express the satisfaction they feel in the existing prospect of parliamentary relief. But your Petitioners, nevertheless, hope that they may be allowed to submit to your Honourable House the sentiments with which the subject so strongly impresses them. 

And earnestly to solicit the enactment of such regulations as may effectually reduce the working hours in Cotton Mills to reasonable limits, and, in principle, embrace the other humane provisions of the Bill recently introduced by Sir Robert Peel.”

(Answers to Certain Objections …, 1819, pp. 66-67)

An important witness as to the fatigue for the children in the factories was Mr. John Fielden. He was a Member of Parliament and a mill-owner, and an active part of the movement in the 1820’s-1840’s to reduce the hours worked by the children. But he had a personal experience of working long hours as a child, as his father – who owned a mill –put him to work with the other children. His particular point was that the very long hours made the children tired, even if the work was not physically demanding.

“As I have personally and from an early age engaged in the operations connected with factory labour; that is to say, for about forty years, a short account of my own experience may not be useless in this place, as it is this experience which teaches me to scoff at the representations of those who speak of the labour as “very light”, and “so easy, as to require no muscular exertion.” I well remember being set to work in my father’s mill when I was little more than ten years old [approx. 1795]; my associates, too, in the labour are fresh in my memory. Only a few of them are now alive; some dying very young, others living to become men and women; but many of those who lived, have died before they had attained the age of fifty years, having the appearance of being much older, a premature appearance of age which I verily believe was caused by the nature of the employment in which they had been brought up. For several years after I began to work in the mill, the hours of labour at our works did not exceed ten in the day, winter and summer, and even with the labour of those hours, I shall never forget the fatigue I often felt before the day ended, and the anxiety of us all to be relieved from the unvarying and irksome toil we had gone through before we could obtain relief by such play and amusements as we resorted to when liberated from our work. I allude to this fact, because it is not uncommon for persons to infer, that, because the children who work in factories are seen to play like other children when they have time to do so, the labour is, therefore, light, and does not fatigue them. The reverse of this conclusion I know to be the truth. I know the effect which ten hours’ labour had on myself; I who had the attention of parents better able than those of my companions to allow me extraordinary occasional indulgence. And he knows very little of human nature who does not know, that, to a child, diversion is so essential, that it will undergo even exhaustion in its amusements. I protest, therefore, against the reasoning, that, because a child is not brought so low in spirit as to be incapable to be incapable of enjoying the diversions of a child, it is not worked to the utmost that its feeble frame and constitution will bear. 

I well know, too, from my own experience, that the labour now undergone in the factories is much greater than it used to be, owing to the greater attention and activity given to the machinery that the children have to attend to, when we compare it with what it was thirty of forty years ago; and, therefore, I fully agree with the Government Commissioners, that a restriction to ten hours a day, is not a sufficient protection to children.

The work at which I was employed in my boyhood, while it was limited to ten hours a day, was similar to the work that children have to do in the woollen mills of Yorkshire at the present time, with this difference, that wool is the manufacture in the Yorkshire mills to which I allude, and the manufacture that I was employed in was cotton, the mode of manufacturing which, has been altogether changed since that period by the improvements made in machinery. These are facts which I mention, because the labour of the child in the woollen now, is what its labour in the cotton was then, the work being done on what are called “billies” and “jennies”; and I mention them, too, because the woollen manufactures would have had it believed (and Mr. Richards the Inspector appears to countenance the opinion) that the work of children in woollen mills is lighter still than in the cotton factories, and that children, much younger than those whose labour is now limited to eight hours a day, be worked sixty-nine hours a week. Indeed, it is on this, that the Yorkshire mill-owners have petitioned the House of Commons to allow them to work children of eight years of age as many as seventy-two hours in the week, or, twelve hours in the day!

Another remarkable fact within my own knowledge I must also state; when my father introduced the machinery that is now used, into his own mill, the hours of labour were increased to twelve, for five days in the week, and eleven for Saturdays, making seventy-one hours in the week. This he was obliged to do in his own defence, because others who used the same sort of machinery, worked their hands seventy-seven hours, and some even so much as eighty-four hours a week, a practice which continued to 1819, when the 59th of Geo. 3 was passed, and which limited the time-labour for children under sixteen years of age to seventy-two hours in the week, that is, one hour more than the time of work of both children and adults at the establishment in which I had worked myself, but in which I had now become interested as a partner. These hours I always thought and said were excessive; I thought so from my own practical bodily experience; and therefore, I have always been an advocate for a reduction by legislative enactment.” 

(Fielden, 1836, pp. 31-34)

“At a meeting in Manchester a man claimed that a child in one mill walked twenty-four miles a day. I was surprised by this statement, therefore, when I went home, I went into my own factory, and with a clock before me, I watched a child at work, and having watched her for some time, I then calculated the distance she had to go in a day, and to my surprise, I found it nothing short of twenty miles.”

(Fielden, speech in the House of Commons, 9th May 1836)

(But there were other calculations, which gave only 8 to 10 miles. The explanation is that with fine spinning mules, which were heavier and slower, the distance required was shorter, and with the coarse spinning, the distance per day was much more. See the information from Thomas Wilson, who had worked in both modes when he was a piecer from 10 to 16 years old [1811-1817], and had great pain in his legs when working in the coarse spinning mill; Factories Inquiry Commission, Second Report, …., 1833, p. 63.

Even today, there are jobs that require walking 15 miles a day (adults!).

“I wasn’t prepared for how exhausting working at Amazon would be. It took my body two weeks to adjust to the agony of walking 15 miles a day and doing hundreds of squats. But as the physical stress got more manageable, the mental stress of being held to the productivity standards of a robot became an even bigger problem.”

(Emily Guendelsberger, “I worked at an Amazon Fulfillment Center; They treat Workers like Robots”, Time Magazine, July 18, 2019)       

It is not clear why the mill-owners in Manchester and neighbourhood insisted on working such long hours. Apparently, it was a sort of rivalry, too see who could work most hours, and who could produce most yarn per day. “An invincible jealousy regarding the hours of work pervades the whole race of cotton spinners (Messrs. Calrow’s and Messr’s Grant’s are certainly exceptions), each competing with the other as to greatest quantity of yarn to be turned off, pending the protracted hours of labour, and yet collectively and individually a strong wish is expressed for such legislative restrictions as will apportion the hours of confinement, labour, and refreshment, to the age and strength of this juvenile class of our fellow-creatures. Mistaken, too, on the score of individual interest is this excess of confinement; because, by correct calculations, it is ascertained that, where establishments are conducted upon the humane principle that they ought to be, that where the health and comfort be a primary duty, as much yarn is spun, and betterspun, in twelve hours than in fifteen; in the one instance, human life is happily prolonged; in the other, misery, disease, and sorrow are identified with a short existence.”   

(Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill, 1819, James Watkins, magistrate, Bolton, p. 45)

“You think the different proprietors are less induced to shorten the hours than they would be, because the neighbouring factories have worked longer?” “That has been the answer; when I have complained, they have said, that my neighbour works his mill to such an hour, and as long as he works, I will work mine.” (Ibidem, p. 46)

“…. when my father introduced the machinery that is now used, into his own mill, the hours of labour were increased to twelve, for five days in the week, and eleven for Saturdays, making seventy-one hours in the week. This he was obliged to do in his own defence, because others who used the same sort of machinery, worked their hands seventy-seven hours, and some even so much as eighty-four hours a week, a practice which continued to 1819, ….” (Fielden, 1836, p. 34)

All of this gives the impression that we have here a cartel, with the intention to make sure that all the owners produce the maximum possible. The idea may have been to have a maximum purchase volume from the United States, and that there should not be any “free riders”.  

But many spinners and supervisors were convinced that the extra hours did not bring any extra production volume. 

“Do you think the masters would gain so much profit at the end of the year in well-conducted factories, if they worked only eleven hours instead of fifteen, if there was to be no change in the hands?” “I do.”

“Why do you think so?” “On account of the sicknesses and the loss of time, and the fatigue of the children, and their going out, the changing of the hands, and various other things, which make me think that the hours are so long that less hours would bring as much profit to the employer.”

“Do the children do as much work in the latter hours of the day as in the early hours of the day?” “They do not.”

“Do they do as much good work?” “No, they do not.”

(Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill,1819, Clement Dodenhoff, Manager Cotton Mill, Wigan, p. 16)

“Are you aware that if the Machinery worked Two Hours less than at present the Article could not be produced at the same Price?” “I am aware that it would make a small Difference, but very little. I have seen a Calculation made, and the Calculation was put to the Masters; and it would not make the Difference of a Farthing a Yard in a Hundred Reel of Cloth.”

(Lords Committees, State and Condition of Children…., Thomas Worsley, 25, spinner, Stockport, 1819, p. 25) 

“Do you believe that the Spinners in general wish their Hours of working in the Factories lessened, if their Wages were to be lessened also?” “In our Country it is the Desire.”

“Do you believe you could do more Work in Eleven Hours a Day, working only Eleven, than you would in Eleven Hours if you work 13 or 14?” “Yes, they would.”

“Do you believe there would be nearly as much Work done by the same Hands if they continue to be worked in the Factory all the Year, and worked Eleven Hours, as if they worked Twelve Hours?” “They would do more Work if they worked Eleven Hours than Twelve.”

“Why so?” “In working Twelve Hours it fatigues them more, and causes them to fall sick.”

(Lords Committees, State and Condition of Children…., 1819, John Moss, 26, spinner, Ashton-under-Line, Stockport, p. 39) 

Same idea in the same document from: John Frost, 32, Spinner, Stockport, p. 50; Roger Haslam, 34, Latchford, Spinner, p. 72; William Royle, 30, Warrington, Spinner, p. 78. 

There is, of course, a moral question, as to if the owners knew what was happening to the children. They did: 

“ … and when he was about thirteen he began to have a pain in his limbs; he complained very much of it, and it continued till he was about fourteen, and then he began to grow very much out, bow-legged; and Mr. Murray [the owner] recommended us to the Infirmary, and they ordered him irons; but he had grown so much out, the irons took no effect; they said it was owing to standing so long in the factory; he was near sixteen years of age then, and he began to decline ….” 

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of John Houlsworth, weaver, p. 52)

“Are the present hours of work longer than they used to be?” “Yes.”

“Since when?” “Since this day fortnight; we had a report that the Time Bill was thrown out of the house, and on the Tuesday following the hours were lengthened from six to half past nine, and half an hour for dinner; and before that it was from six to half past seven, and an hour for dinner.”

“Do the work-people complain of the hours being lengthened?” “Yes, we opposed it, and gave over that evening; when the master [Mr. Goff] came the next morning he went to the manager, and I believe he swore, at least he told me so, that those men that did not choose the hours might go about their business; we told him the children could not stand the hours.”

(Reasons in favour of Sir Robert Peel’s bill…, 1819, Evidence of George Paxton, spinner, p. 35)

“When you were discharged from the factory, was anything said to you?” “Mr. M’Connel [administrator of the mill, brother of the owner] told me, it was killing me by inches, and that my Parents must get me some other Trade.”

“Do you know whether any other Persons were discharged from the Factory at the same Time?”  “Yes, several.”

 “Were those deformed who were discharged?” “Some were deformed in their Knees, and some were sickly.”

 “How many were discharged of that Description?” “I cannot say.”


“How long did you work there?” “About a Twelvemonth at that Time.”            

“Were any Complaints made of you before you were turned away?” “No.”

“None at all?” “No.”


“You mentioned that when you were discharged there were some others discharged who were deformed or sickly, cannot you mention the number?” “No.”

“There was a good many, but you cannot say how many?” “No.”

“There were Ten?” “Yes.”

“At that Time?” “Yes.”

“All from being sickly?” “Yes; sickly and deformed.”

(Lords Committees, State and Condition of Children…., 1819, Thomas Wilson, 18, had been spinner, Manchester, pp. 190-191) 

[The statement starts out, as if the manager was interested in the health of the worker; but really the owners were “cleaning out” the deformed workers, before the doctors came to inspect the mill.] 

It is very clear that the mill-owners in Manchester were not good persons. 

When they knew that some doctors were going to inspect the mills, following the instructions of the Select Committee, they threw out some young persons who were crippled, they had the children’s hair cut, they adjusted the mules adjusted to run more slowly, and they lessened the heat. It is probable that they gave the doctors money to give false information to the Committee. They also sacked those workers who had given testimony to the Committee. 

They also did not support financially the primary schools (in contrast to the owners of the country mills!):

“It has also been stated, that the children in general who work in spinning factories have no other means of instruction than what the Sunday-schools afford. It has also been stated, that the annual contributions towards the support of all the Sunday-schools amount to about 2,400 l. or 2,500 l. I beg now to observe, that on carefully perusing the yearly reports of the several Sunday-schools, it appears to me highly probable that the owners of the spinning-factories, who it is conjectured employ at the least 23,000 spinners, scarcely contribute one-twentieth part of the money raised to the support of these schools. In examining the several reports, I had the assistance of an intelligent gentleman, who is better acquainted with the town of Manchester than I myself am, and on extracting a list of subscriptions of the owners of spinning factories, we found the united amount of them was not 90 l.”

(Select Committee on the State of Children…., 1816, Mr. Nathaniel Gould, Merchant and visitor of Sunday-schools, p. 337)

“Are there no schools in Manchester kept by Manufacturers?” “I do not know of one.”

(Select Committee on the State of Children…., 1816, Mr. George Gould, Merchant and visitor of Sunday-schools, p. 101)

There were many cases in other industrial regions, where the children had to work 12 or more hours a day. The difference was that in the cotton mills, they had to work without rest, at the speed of the machine.

(Lords Committees, State and Condition of Children…., 1819, Appendix, Tables 32-34, pp. 110-114) 

In 1833, the Factory Inquiries Commission recollected data from 904 factories (including Scotland), as preparation for the debate in Parliament on reducing hours of work, and limiting the ages of children employed. 

The reports sent in by the owners of the mills under oath to the Factory Inquiry Commission of 1833, from the reports of the Commissioners in their visits, and from the reports of doctors, show that the conditions in the textile mills had improved considerably. It is very clear that there were no cases of deaths of children, and that the adult male workers were able to work up to 50 years old. The working week was in general 67 hours (5 days of 12 hours and Saturday of 7 hours).

A Dr. Phillips informed the Commissioners as to the longevity of persons working in the mill of M’Connel in 1833 (total work force about 1000). “Persons still working” were 41, all except three, were between 47 and 68 years, all except 14 had worked in the M’Connel mill over 20 years. Those that had worked for M’Connel, had left the mill, and were still alive, were 35 persons (*); all except three were over 55 years, nearly all had worked 20 years in the mill. (*) Obviously, only those who could be located.

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, Part 1, 1833, pp. 292-294)

We do have information that contradicts the idea that the amount of work that the men spinners had to do in 1833, was the maximum that they could physically carry out:

“Are they able to do more work in a given time [in 1833, in comparison to 1814]?” “Considerably more, in consequence of becoming more proficient, and the improvements in machinery.”

“Are they employed more or less hours in the day?” “I think they are employed a less number of hours than they used to be.”

“Do they earn less wages than they did?” “I do not think they earn less money on the whole.”

“Does that apply to the average of operatives, or to any particular class of operatives?” “There are classes that are suffering more than they were then; but the majority, I think, taken upon the average, receive more. But there is to be said, that the working classes work much harder than they did.”            

“When you say they work harder, do you mean that they work more hours in the day, or that they work harder while they are at work?» “They work harder while they are at it; there is a disposition among some men to do a great deal, to make a boast of it, and they make a good week’s work, and it goads others on to do the same. They do more than human nature ought to do, to live and enjoy health.”

“If they earn the same amount of money wages that they did in 1814, and if the price of provisions has materially fallen since that time, supposing two families of equally prudent habits at each of the two periods, would not the condition of the family at the present period be very much improved?” “Very much.”

(Underline by this author)

(Report from the Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce and Shipping, 1833, Evidence of Mr. Henry W. Sefton, p. 623)

“All the seriously-deformed persons who were sent to me were adults; nor did a single case of a child badly deformed by its work come to my notice. The reason is this; many years ago it was the practice to work much longer hours than at present, and several persons who were injured by overwork at that time may be met with. But a far more potent reason for deformity being so much less frequent now than formerly is the disuse of the old spinning frame, which was made so low for many years after its invention by Arkwright that many thousand persons were deformed by working at it, before the introduction of the throstle machinery.”

(Factory Inquiries Commission, Supplementary Report, Part 1, 1833, Report by Mr. Tufnell, section, D.2., p. 200)

It remains to be explained how the fatigue for the men spinners and for the child piecers had decreased by 1833, such that the men were not exhausted by 40 years of age, and the child piecers did not die during their time employed in the mills. This despite the fact that the amount of cotton per hour per machine increased from 1819 to 1833, and the number of hours decreased only from 15 to 12 (!).  It appears that a large part of the explanation is the decreased physical exertion needed for the machines (particularly the fine mule spinning), the slowness of the machines, and the number of piecers per mule, which was now much longer. 

Mr. Tufnell, the Commissioner reporting on Lancashire, gives a description of the slower movements:

“The lightness of the labour is owing to the slowness with which the machinery moves in spinning fine numbers. The mule in spinning No. 30 or 40 makes in general three stretches a minute; in the high numbers only one, and sometimes less. This fact I have ascertained with the utmost precision by frequently timing the motion of the machine, holding a watch that marked the moments in my hand. During at least three fourths of this minute the piecers, five of whom usually attend two mules, each containing 360 spindles, have literally nothing to do; they then stand listlessly by, their attention engaged by anything but their work, till the mule recedes, when they instantly proceed to piece the threads which break or are purposely broken (in fine spinning, if a knot is perceived in any part of the yarn, it is intentionally broken). The piecing cannot take long, as the mule has no sooner arrived at the frame than it instantly begins to advance, and when it has got about a foot and a half or two feet from the frame, it is impossible to reach over to the rollers, and the period of idleness begins.” 

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report 1833, Part 1, Report by Mr. Tufnell on the Lancashire District, p. 207)

See again the video of the mule at Quarry Bank:


Gallery: Working Machines

We see that the machine waits for 2 pauses of 10 seconds in a cycle of 40 seconds.

We also see that the mule is about 250 feet long, and thus 4 piecers would be needed to walk along sections of the machine; one child could not do it. We know that the total of mule spinners for fine threads in Manchester in 1833 used 4 piecers each (837 spinners, 3,233 piecers). 

These spinners certified in a personal interview, that in their opinion, the piecers did not suffer in health from the 69 hours of work (66 % not injured, 21 % injured, 13 % no opinion). As to their own health, 75 % said they had good health, 20 % “pretty good” health, 5 % indifferent; 30 % of them had reported sick in the previous year. The average age of the spinners was 32, and they had worked 22 years in mills. 

(Shuttleworth, Vital Statistics of the Spinners and Piecers employed in the Fine Spinning Mills of Manchester, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 1842, Vol. V, pp. 268-273)

Many of the mules in 1833, were much lighter, and could be managed by women or by young persons.

“Do you remember any Dispute upon Wages?” “Yes, a great many.”

“Ten Years ago?” “I have made my Observations on several of the Mills, and it is from finding that their Ages bear so less a proportion than ours that it caused me to examine more particularly the Cause of it; we employ Men regularly through all our Works as Spinners, but in many of the large Mills, is consequence of the Difficulty that the Masters had with the Men in arranging with them about Prices, the Men have been very apt to turn out at different Times, and the Masters have about Ten or Eleven Years ago (*) adopted the Plan of employing younger People, and encouraging young Boys and Women to work the Machinery instead of the Men; this has been followed by a great many of them; I could mention the names of several of them, if it be of any Use.”

“Has this been the Cause, in your Opinion, why a considerable Number of Persons more advanced in Age have been turned out of the Mills?” “I am quite confident of it; there has been a great many old Men whom I know, who are out of Employment in consequence of these Turn-outs, and the younger Hands are employed instead of them in a very considerable Proportion.”

“In your Opinion, many of the Masters have dismissed the older Hands in consequence of those Disputes, to replace them with Women and younger Hands, from whom they expected less Difficulty?” “They do not exactly discharge them; the Men turned out, and while the Men were out, other Persons were taken in, and they left them out; and when they would come in, the Masters would not receive them.”

“Can you state the Names of any of these Masters?” “M’Connel and Kennedy’s have Two-thirds of the whole Machinery carried on by these young People and Women, James Kennedy the whole, Birly and Ormby, Fogg and Hughes have one Mill entirely, and several others; Marriott’s is another; several within these few Years, in consequence of this, have made the Machinery of a smaller Size, to make them more suited to these younger People.”

(*) (It was actually in 1812, according to a list of wages made by a manager of M’Connel and Kennedy in 1819; the men spinners earned 30 to 34 shillings, and the women spinners 16 to 18 shillings. McConnel, 1906, p. 51)

(Lords Committees, State and Condition of Children…., 1819, Thomas Welsh, 36, Master Spinner and Manufacturer, Manchester, p. 342

In 1843, a number of young men in the Manchester Athenaeum, led by William Marsden and Robert Lowes, embarked on a campaign to convince the owners of shops, warehouses and factories to reduce the working day on Saturdays, from a whole day, to a half-day ending at 1 pm. This was done without reduction of weekly earnings. They were successful, and a joint document was signed by 440 business owners in September 1843.

Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday, November 4th, 1843; http://www.genesreunited.co.za/searchbna/viewrecord/bl/0000206/18431104/054/0005; British Newspaper Archive)

(The Spectator, Volume 16, 7 November 1843, p. 1079)

The effect was to give the working people more time for leisure activities on Saturdays, including concerts: 

(Report of the Proceedings Connected with the Grand Soirée of the Manchester Athenæum, Held on Thursday, October 3rd, 1844: From the Manchester Guardian of Saturday, October 5th, 1844, Printed by Cave & Sever, Manchester, 1844; p. 6)

Engels was in Manchester in 1843 and 1844, but he does not comment this change, and the good intentions, in his book on Manchester in 1844!

We see that the change did not bring the feared licentiousness of the workers. In fact, the project was extended to other towns in the following months:

(The Student: A Magazine of Theology, Literature and Science; Provincial Intelligence: Half-Holiday for the Young Men engaged in the Retail Trade, Vol. 1, James Gilbert, London, 1844; p. 288) 

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