5.4. Life in the Mills outside the Towns

The conditions of housing and sanitation in the towns of Lancashire, particularly Manchester and Liverpool, were bad and very bad. But this does not mean that all the persons in the textile industry in Lancashire, Cheshire, and Derbyshire had horrible housing. There were a large number of mills in the hilly areas with cottages for the working population, good treatment by the employers, and schooling. An incomplete report gives 72 mill estates with 2983 cottages.

(Smith, 1976, Appendices A, B, C)    

There is an information from the correspondent of the “Morning Chronicle” from 1849: “A “rural factory”! To how many will the phrase seem a contradiction in terms! In the minds of how many are even the best features of the cotton mill associated with the worst features of a squalid town. And yet, thickly sprinkled amid the oak-coppiced vales of Lancashire, with the white-washed cottages of the work-people gleaming through the branches and beside the rapid stream, or perched high on the breezy forehead of the hill, are to be seen hundreds on hundreds of busily working cotton mills. In the vicinity of these there are no foetid alleys, no grimy courts, no dark area or underground cellars. Even the smoke from the tall chimneys passes tolerably innocuously away – sometimes, perhaps, when the air is calm and heavy, dotting the grass and the leaves with copious showers of “blacks”, but never seriously smirching nor blighting the dewy freshness of the fields and hedgerows, through which the spinner and the weaver pass to their daily toil.”

(Morning Chronicle, Vol. 1, p. 33)

(It should be pointed out, that the rapporteurs of the Morning Chronicle were sent to out to report on the poverty in the working classes; when they found horrible poverty, they did not hesitate to give the facts)

The activities of these country mills, from 1790 to 1860, are not commented in contemporary books on the cotton industry or in government statistics, nor in modern history books or academic investigations.

Mr. Isaac Hodgson, owner of a mill with water power at Caton, in the North of Lancashire, gave the 1818 Lords Committees on the Preservation of the Health and Morals of Apprentices, some information about the operation in his mill. He has 137 persons, including 57 children.

Age. Number

9 1

10 to 11. 9

12 to 15 47

16 to 19 21

20 to 29 30

30 to 39 18

40 to 49 7

50 to 5 3

67 1

(p. 201)

Is the Nature of the Work required in the various Departments of Cotton Spinning such as to demand the Labour of Adults beyond a certain Age, or is it chiefly young Persons who are so employed?” “In all the Water Spinning, Spinning by Water Frames, whether turned by Steam or by Water, a very small Number of Adults are required; I have not Occasion, including Joiners and Smiths, for Eleven or Twelve Men altogether; the Remainder may be Children or young Women.” (p. 202) 

“I have not any of those called Piecers, mine being water-spinning.” (p. 208)

“Do they draw out the Frames themselves?” “They do not draw out; the Water Frames are constantly going, and the Spindles are stationary” (p. 208).

A young person of 12 to 14 years would earn 3s. to 5s. A young woman of 18 or 20 would earn 7s. An adult woman of 18 years would earn 7s., but would have any increase in the following years. A child of 10 years would start with 18 pence a week for three quarters of a day, and then increase to 7s. in the following years, with more experience. A young person of 14 years earns from 4s. 6d. to 6s.

(p. 212)

The rapporteur of the General View of the Agriculture of Lancashire for 1815, received the following information from Mr. Hodgson. We see that the amount of food is considerable.

Mr. Strutt, owner of the Belper Mill in the Derwent Valley, sent a written report to the 1816 Commission:

“Average weekly earnings of each child under ten years old, 2s. 6d. The average size of the rooms is from 100 to 150 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 9 feet high, and the number of cubic feet of space for each person is 1,104.

Pure air, (warmed when necessary), is transmitted into every room constantly, at the rate of upwards of 100 gallons per minute for each person. 

No apprentices, (except as mechanics) are employed, and they reside with their parents, and receive weekly wages. 

The working hours are twelve, six before dinner, (which is from twelve to one), and six after; each of which six hours includes the time for breakfast and tea. This has been the invariable practice at the original silk mill at Derby, in this neigbourhood, for more than a hundred years. 

In complexion and general appearance, the persons employed here are not at all inferior to those whose occupations are in the open air, being without the paleness which generally accompanies sedentary employments, better fed, better clothed, and accustomed to habits of much greater regularity than persons whose trades do not require attention at regular and stated periods, their health is more vigorous, and in consequence of the good conditions of their houses, and the invariable practice of white-washing them, infectious diseases rarely occur. 

The number of children instructed at day schools at the expenses of the proprietors: 64.

The number of children instructed at Sunday schools at the expenses of the proprietors: 650.

The number of children instructed at day schools by their parents: 700.

The number of children who attend other Sunday schools: 700.

The proprietors of the works are now erecting Lancastrian schools for 500, which are nearly completed; after the establishment of which, it is their intention not to employ children that are unable to read.

It is well known in this neighbourhood, that before the establishment of these works the inhabitants were notorious for vice and immorality, and many of the children were maintained by begging; now their industry, decorous behaviour, attendance on public worship, and general good conduct, compared with the neighbouring villages, where no manufactures are established, is very conspicuous.”

(Mr. Jedediah Strutt, mill owner, Belper, Derbyshire, 1816, p. 217)            

Two external inspectors certified the good conditions in Pappelwick Mill in Nottinghamshire:

“We, the undersigned, beg leave humbly to certify to the Honourable the Committee appointed by the House of Commons to take into consideration the state of the hands employed in the manufactories of the United Kingdom, that we have this day visited and carefully inspected the cotton mills of Messrs. James Robinson and Son, situate at Pappelwick in this County, and that we paid particular attention to the establishment, as to the general conduct observed towards the children. The rooms wherein the work is carried on we found spacious, airy, clean, and particularly calculated, by warm flues and ventilators, to ensure comfort in all seasons. The employment of the children is neither laborious nor sedentary, constant motion being requisite for working the machinery. The hours of work are twelve, beginning at six in the morning and ending at seven in the evening; out of which an hour is allowed for dinner, besides sufficient time for breakfast, as also for tea at five in the evening. Such of the children as were apprentices we particularly attended to; they were all well-clothed and clean, appeared cheerful, and professed to be perfectly contented with the usage they received in, every respect. The proficiency of the older boys in various branches of learning was far beyond what could have been expected of children in their situation; of the younger ones there were very few but could read well, and say the whole of the church catechism; every Sunday they attend church as well as a Sunday-school. We should feel it an intrusion to trouble the Committee further on this head, than merely to observe, that the whole of the establishment appears to us to be conducted with the utmost propriety and humanity; and that its rules and ordinances are highly calculated to inspire the lower orders with a spirit of industry and subordination.”

[Signed by the Acting Magistrate for the county, and the curate of the nearby town]

(1816, p. 221)

A number of the mill owners treated their employees well, for example, Messrs. Strutt, Belper and Milford; Messrs. Greg, Bollington and Quarry Bank; Mr. Grant, Bury; Messrs. Ashton, Hyde; Richard Arkwright Jr. at Cromford and Matlock; Messrs. Ashworth, Turton and Egerton; Akroyd, Copley; The Duke of Norfolk, Glossop.

The factory at Belper (founded 1804) had day schools for the small children, and evening and Sunday schools for those work during the day.  Belper and Milford together had 609 cottages. 

The mill at Quarry Bank (built 1784, taken over by the Gregs in 1832) at Styal, took generally apprentices (orphans or abandoned) from the poorhouse at Liverpool, started with young boys, but later only young girls. They were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and the girls had lessons in sewing. The working hours were 12 daily. There were about 50 workers’ cottages, with parlour, kitchen, two bedrooms, outside privy, and a small garden.  The five Greg mills had about 2,000 employees.

(Report from the Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce and Shipping, 1833, p. 675, pp. 680-682)

Styal village cottages in the nineteenth century (built from 1805 to 1830)


Quarry Bank revealed, National Trust, https://quarrybankmill.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/

A recreated cottage interior, part of the housing at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, built for mill workers. The housing was relatively good compared to those in industrial towns. Each cottage had an allotment garden to supplement the families’ basic diets.


“The Styal Community

Having built his mill in a place with a very scanty population Greg had to obtain the workers he required from other places. The labour imported into the mill was of three types: (a) apprentices taken from the workhouses (no children younger than nine years were ever employed at this mill) who were housed, clothed and fed, but who received no wages; (b) apprentices, who were engaged by a contract made with their parents, and who were housed and fed (but not clothed) and paid a small weekly wage ranging from 9d. to 1s. 6d.; (c) free labour, much of which was obtained through Cheshire overseers and taken from Buckinghamshire and Berkshire through the Poor Law Commissioners.

Greg had also to provide for the needs of the families he persuaded to settle at Styal. To do this he built cottages, or bought farms and made them into cottages, and opened a shop, which, judging from the bewildering variety of commodities stocked, was a forerunner of Harrods. As the colony increased in size, a farm was bought which supplied the workpeople with milk, butter and other farm produce. In 1822 a chapel was built – many of the operatives were Baptists – and a minister was engaged at a stipend of £80 a year. The following year an institution for lectures and social functions and a school were erected at Styal. 

The shop accounts cover the period 1823-1828 and tell us the goods purchased for the shop, the general running expenses, the sales, and profits. The farm book contains the amounts of milk and butter sold to the villagers every day from 1825 to 1831. The Apprentices House accounts relate to the years 1823-1828 and give the cost of maintaining the apprentices.

There is little evidence as to the cost of living at Styal, but plenty of evidence as to the kind of food eaten by the workers’ families. Flour, meal, potatoes, bacon, a little fresh meat, cheese and large quantities of skimmed milk were the staple foodstuffs sold to the operatives and their families. The better-off families always had new milk (at 2d. a quart) and butter (at 1s. 4d. a pound), and nearly all families had at least half-a-pound of butter a week in days of prosperity; but in the hard times of the late ‘20s butter became a luxury beyond the means of all but men earning the highest wages; even the consumption of skimmed milk, at 1d. a quart, had to be cut down. Buttermilk, the demand for which remained fairly constant, was sold at ½ d. a quart.          

The only articles for which prices are given are new, skimmed, and sour milk, cream and butter, which, as one would expect in an agricultural district, were sold at prices considerably below town prices. This would probably be the same in the case of all farm produce, such as bacon, cheese and vegetables. The prices paid for the other commodities would, of course, depend on the way in which the Gregs took advantage of their monopoly of sale.

The shop accounts afford us a glimpse of human nature which shows how quickly an increase of income is reflected in the attire of the women and girls. There are no wage books for the ‘20s, but it is probable that wages were increased through overtime. Before 1825 the shop stocked pattens, or clogs, and shawls for its women customers, but during 1825 hats and shoes figure in the accounts; £21 7s. 3d. was laid out on millinery, and “plate” hats were evidently fashionable in Styal. The boom in hats did not last long, for declining trade checked the spread of the new fashions; only about £10 was expended on hats in 1826, and still less in the next two years, and clogs once more became the principal footwear.

To be just to the women it must be added that they took advantage of the period of prosperity to replenish their household goods generally, and a brisk trade was done in blankets, calico, cambric, stockings, underclothing and clothing of all kinds. The shop laid out £318 16s. 9d. on these goods in 1824, £490 13s. 7d. in 1825, but only £314 3s. 6d. in 1827.”

(Collier, 1964, pp. 39-40; information taken from the account books of the enterprise)

The factory of Mr. Ashton at Hyde employed 1,500 persons (10,000 in total of 5 factories in different locations). The houses for the workers, were 300, in long streets, and were rented at three shillings a week. Each house had a sitting-room, a kitchen, a back-yard, and two or three bedrooms in the upper storey. The owner supplied the water and made the necessary repairs. There was a large schoolhouse, which also served as a chapel. From an official report in 1833, out of 1175 workers, 87 could neither read nor write, 512 could read, 576 could read and write well. The average wages were for men 24s. to 25s., women 12s., children 3s. to 5s. There were ten men who had saved up enough money to build 46 houses for renting.

(Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 1, 1839, pp. 416-420)  

“What time do you allow for meals?” “As to breakfast, it is very irregular. In the summer-time the bell rings for breakfast at half past eight; those who go to breakfast, which includes the workmen, but not the spinners, go and stay half an hour. There is a room called the dinner-house, in which there is a range of hot plates or stoves, much the same as in gentlemen’s kitchens; the mothers, or the younger sisters of the hands employed, bring the breakfasts into this room; they bring them probably a quarter of an hour before the bell rings. As soon as the bell rings, a number of boys, perhaps eight, carry those breakfasts into the different rooms in the factory; those who come first may receive their breakfasts probably in two minutes; those who come later may not receive it for a quarter of an hour; so that possibly some of the hands may have eight-and-twenty minutes at breakfast, others cannot have more than fifteen, they cannot have less. In the afternoon the bell rings at four, and they are served in like manner; but very few have their refreshment, probably not more than one in five, I should think.”

(Select Committee on the State of Children …, 1816, Sir Richard Arkwright, son, mill-owner at Cromford, water-spinning, p. 277)

The children are not taken into work under ten years old, this with the intention that they have learnt to read when they start employment.

The two factories of the brothers Ashworth employed 500 workers of both sexes, but married women were not allowed to work in the factories, but given tasks to be done in their houses. The houses were rented for ten pounds a year.

The houses of the workers of the factory of the Duke of Norfolk in Glossop, were built of stone walls, slate roofs, and stone flagging on the floors; they were about 30 feet by 15 feet, and 7 feet 9 inches high. They had a supply of water, privies, area for a pigsty and allotment. 

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition, 17. Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire; p 248-250)

(See laudatory comments on a number of owners: Faucher, Études sur l’Angleterre, 1845, Tome I, La Manufacture Rurale, pp. 377-441; and Chadwick, 1842, Employers’ influence on the Health of Workpeople by means of improved Habitations, pp. 233-253)

Those mills that were outside the towns, and not near to other settlements, as is reasonable, had a community life (leaving aside the “apprentice” mills in the early years): 

“In 1806 we purchased the print works belonging to Sir Robert Peel, &c., situated at Ramsbottom. In 1812 we purchased the Nuttal factory. In consequence of the death of Mr. Alsop, the workpeople had been long short of employment, and were very destitute. We ordered the manager to get new machinery of the first-rate construction, and greatly extended the building; and before we began to spin or manufacture we clothed the whole of the hands at our own expense, prepared an entertainment for them, and observed that the interests of masters and servants are bound together, that there are reciprocal duties to perform, that no general or admiral could be brave unless he was supported by his men, that we know how to reward merit, and would give constant employment and liberal wages to all faithful servants; and I am happy to say that they, as well as those at our printing establishments, with very few exceptions, have conducted themselves with great propriety.”

(Letter of William Grant, mill-owner, in 1837, quoted in Collier, 1964, p. 14)

We have an exceptional case of a “chain of evidence”:

“One old lady of 80, the daughter of an apprentice, gave, in answer to our enquiries [Mr. Unwin was writing in 1924], a graphic account of her mother’s journey from the Duke of York’s Orphanage at Chelsea, in a stage coach, and her life in the ‘prentice house. According to her account the children worked long hours, but every day went through exercises in the meadows in front of their house, which kept them in good health. On Sundays they went to church in the morning and evening, by a private road to Marple Church made by Oldknow [the mill owner] for this purpose. They were dressed in their best clothes and were accompanied by their employer. Their food was the best that could be procured. They had porridge and bacon for breakfast, meat every day for dinner, puddings or pies on alternate days, and when pigs were killed were regaled with meat pies which were full of meat and had a short crust, such as, the inquirer was solemnly informed, cannot be produced in these days. All the fruit in the orchard was eaten by the children.”

(Unwin, 1924, p. 174)

“Oldknow died at Mellor Lodge on September 18th, 1828, and he was buried on September 24that Marple Church. “Few men,” says the Gentleman’s Magazine of November 1828, “who have of late quitted this transitory scene have led a life of greater industry and more active benevolence, or died more universally lamented than this individual … How he was loved and honoured is perhaps best told by the spontaneous feeling of all classes of society on that occasion. From an early hour the people began to assemble, and lined the way from his house to the Church, closing as the procession moved along. On its arrival at the gateway a line was formed by the children from the Military Asylum, each dressed in a scarlet spencer, and a black band around the arm …  The funeral service was read by the Rev. Mr. Litler, The Reverend Gentleman himself was much affected and hundreds gave free vent to their feelings of real sorrow. … Probably the number assembled was not less than 3,000. As it was the general wish to see where the body was deposited, several hours elapsed before the vault was clear.””

(Unwin, 1924, pp. 234-235)

But we cannot, at this distance of time, know what proportion of the mill owners treated the children well, and what proportion treated them badly.

“The law was not passed for such mills as those of Messrs. Greg and Co., at Bollington, Messrs. Ashworths, at Turton, and Mr. Thomas Ashton, at Hyde; had all factories been conducted as theirs are, and as many other I could name are, there would probably have been no legislative interference at any time. But there are very many mill-owners whose standard of morality is low, whose feelings are very obtuse, whose governing principle is to make money, and who care not a straw for the children, so as they turn them well to money account. These men cannot be controlled by any other force but the strong arm of the law; …..”

(Nassau Senior, Letter from Mr. Horner to Mr. Senior, 23 May 1837, Letters on the Factory Act, B.Fellowes, London, 1837)

(Mr. Horner was the Chief Inspector of Factories)  

But possibly the good mill owners were in the majority:

“When I entered a factory, I am bound to remark that I experienced much readiness on the part of the proprietors and of their overlookers in procuring for me ample means of making an impartial inquiry. If I am able to confide in my own observation, and in the accounts furnished to me by workpeople of every age in private conversations frequently repeated, I must arrive at the conclusion, that the proprietors are generally anxious to promote the convenience and comfort of their dependents as far as the system admits; that they usually endeavour to prevent acts of harshness and of immorality; that if such cases arise, it is mainly owing to their absence, or to their neglect of personal superintendence; and that there are not a few among them who really act a paternal part, and receive the recompense of respect and gratitude. Their situation is a difficult one; but the more closely they assume the character of the observant master of a great family, and the more narrowly they investigate, appreciate, and purify the composition of their family, the more likely is every factory to become respectable and happy.”

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Second Report, 1833, Medical Reports by Dr. Hawkins, General Report respecting the Counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, and Derbyshire, D.3., p. 5)   

But apart from these more “magnificent” mill villages in the lowlands, there were a large number of small and medium-size mills in the valleys of the Pennines, which used the water power of the streams. We know very little about them, as they were not included in the recipients of the questionnaires of the Factories Inquiry Commission in 1834. The Commissioners sent out questionnaires to all the areas of Great Britain, but with respect to Lancashire sent the letters to practically only the Greater Manchester area:

Manchester, Salford, Chorlton-upon-Medlock  93
Blackburn    8
Bolton and Little Bolton  10
Wigan  11
Other Towns  19
Total Lancashire141

Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report, 1834, Part II, Section D. 1., List of Manufacturers

But Mr. Baines, in his “History of the Cotton Manufacture” informs us that he privately received complete data from the Commissioners, which showed that the number of mills in Lancashire was 657:     

Manchester101  32,709
Bolton  56  11,301
Wigan  21    4,831
Blackburn  13    4,537
Preston  31    6,665
Rochdale  38    4,296
Rochdale, Todmorden  63  12,990
Oldham  89  18,352
Other Localities276  46,208

(Baines, 1835, extracted from the table on p. 386)

Not Reported516
Total 657

Thus we have a majority of mills in Lancashire which are not reported, and which are probably outside Manchester and the large towns. It may be 200 to 300 units. A visual inspection of the Ordnance Survey maps of 1844-1847 for Lancashire gives 180 “cotton mills” and “cotton factories” outside the urban areas. Probably there were 100 to 200 workers for each mill. These workers did not have excellent wages, but they had the advantages of living in the countryside, without the horrible conditions of sanitation, bad housing, and smoke contamination of the cities. In many cases they lived in rows of cottages, with a privy attached, built by the factory owners.

In the sum of the large well-known rural mills and the smaller ones in the countryside, there were possibly 50,000 to 60,000 workers in these establishments. This additional number of textile workers is very important when we make a “moral evaluation” of the Industrial Revolution in the North of England. We cannot say “the majority of the workers had a bad life because they worked in the mills in insanitary towns, & etc.”, but rather we have to build an average, possibly 70/30, between the conditions in the urban factories and the conditions in the country mills. 

The wages in Styal were not high per person, but the advantage was that the whole family was contracted (often the wife and children worked at spinning in the factory and the father worked at weaving, or as a carpenter or as a labourer on the associated farm), and thus the total income was more than sufficient:

Family Bailey (9 persons, 1831): man, two youths, four women, two children; odd hand, two saddlers, two spinners, carder, reeler, two winders; total income L 2 16 s. 4 p.

Family Venables (6 persons, 1831): man, two women, two youths, boy; mechanic, maker up, picker, two spinners, winder, carding room; total income L 1 15s. 11d.

Family Pepper (4 persons, 1831): two men, two women; mechanic, carder, spinner, reeler; total income L 1 19s. 1d.

It appears that the weekly amounts did not increase much from 1792 to 1851 

(Collier, 1965, Appendix A, p. 54)   

In Egerton (Mr. Ashton) in 1835, the earnings were:

Family Shepherd (6 persons plus 2 small children): one man, wife dead, four youths, one girl; total income L 2 1s. 6d.

Family Stevens (10 persons): man, wife non-earning, 3 youths, 1 girl, 4 small children; total income 28s. 6d.

(First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners, 1835, pp. 316-330)

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