6.6. Industrial Diseases and Pollution

“In examining factories, we have frequently asked, “Where are the old men?” In fact, our towns and manufactures present but a small proportion of the aged,- no such proportion as we can find in the pursuits of husbandry. In the employments, moreover, which do present a considerable number of old workmen – weaving for instance – these individuals are by no means robust. They are vastly inferior in strength and appearance to old peasants. Though life may be protracted, it is not full life. On the whole, our inquiries shew that some artizans are cut off by severe maladies; but that the majority have their constitutions so impaired by premature labour, or by intemperance, that they fall under comparatively slight attacks of disease, – attacks, – which the constitutions of countrymen would resist.”

(Thackrah, 2nd. ed., 1832, pp. 203-205)

A number of industries caused specific damage to the worker. Bent or sitting position (weavers, tailors, shoemakers), or continuous standing position; great muscular efforts; high temperatures in the workplace; dust or poisonous gases in the air, affecting the lungs; poisonous substances taken in through the skin (solution of lead, mercury); dust affecting the eyes; noise from machinery, causing deafness. In general, these were caused by the new activities in industry; working on the farms, or working individually as a spinner or weaver could not cause this type of afflictions. 

(Thackrah, 2nd. ed., 1832, pp. 192-199)

Deformity, as an occasional result of manufactures, we must briefly notice. In manufacturing districts we frequently see not very marked deformity, but such a degree as to affect the figure and capability of motion. Many operatives have an absolute defectof motion. The smaller muscles only are brought into full activity. The limbs consequently, and especially in the growing youth, take the form which is induced by the weight of the body and the posture required in the employ. The spine evidently suffers. Wanting the action of its extensor muscles, it falls into curves, and these, by altering more or less the situation of the upper extremities, produce decided deformity. Such is the natural result of defect of muscular exertion. But many operatives have an excess. In some of these, however, this excess is partial. One set of muscles is immoderately and almost constantly exerted, while another wastes for want of action.” 

(Refers to all sorts of manufacture, not solely textiles)

(Thackrah, 1832, p. 207)

According to the Assistant Commissioner, Mr. Tufnell, the causes of deformities in the cotton industry had disappeared by 1833: 

“All the seriously-deformed persons who were sent to me were adults; nor did a single case of a child badly deformed come under 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 low for many years after its invention by Arkwright that many thousand persons were deformed by working at it, before the invention of the throstle-machinery.” 

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report …  as to the Employment of Children in Factories, 1834, Part I, Mr. Tufnell’s Report from Lancashire, p. 200)

Sallow faces

There are a number of descriptions of the Lancashire cotton workers, referring to their sallow skin, low stature and thin body, sharp features of the face, and the skin being tight on the muscles and bones:            

“The bad effects of the cotton business have already appeared in the pale sallow complexions of the people in it and some young tender constitutions have already fallen sacrifice to it. Whether this is to be attributed to some pernicious effluvia arising from the [cotton-]wool, or the smaller fussy particles of it flying about during their work and drawn into the lungs by respiration, or the attitude or action of the spinner who is obliged to lean upon his breast or stomach, or the close confinement in the crowded rooms where they suck in corrupted putrid air, or as in such numbers of men and women assembled together in this employment.”

(Samuel Finney, An Historical Survey of the Parish of Wilmslow, 1785, National Trust, Quarry Bank, Source 67)

“These artizans are frequently subject to a disease, in which the sensibility of the stomach and bowels is morbidly excited; the alvine secretions [solid excrements] are deranged, and the appetite impaired. Whilst this state continues, the patient loses flesh, his features are sharpened, the skin becomes pale, leaden coloured, or of the yellow hue which is observed in those who have suffered from the influence of tropical climates.”

(Kay, 1832, pp. 11-12)

“It is perfectly true that the Manchester people have a sickly, pallid appearance; but this is certainly not attributable to factory labour, for two reasons; first, because those who do not work in factories are equally pallid and unhealthy-looking with those that do, and the sick society returns show that the physical condition of the latter is not inferior:- secondly, because the health of those engaged in country cotton factories, which generally work longer than town ones, is not injured even in appearance. … Mr. Wolstenholme, surgeon at Bolton, says that “the health of factory people is much better than their pallid appearance would indicate to any person not intimately acquainted with them”.”

(Factories Inquiry Commission, Supplementary Report …  as to the Employment of Children in Factories, 1834, Part I, Mr. Tufnell’s Report from Lancashire, p. 198)

“The Physical Appearance of Factory Workers

“Of course the air in which they work exercises a marked effect upon the appearance of the people. This is a subject which I shall treat of at length later; but I may be here permitted to remark upon the more obvious physical characteristics of carders, spinners and weavers. In the first place I do not remember seeing one male or female adult to whom I would apply the epithet of a “stout” man or woman. There is certainly no superfluity of flesh in the factories. When I say this I do not by any means intend to insinuate that the people are unhealthy or unnaturally lean; they are generally thin and spare but not emaciated. By such occupation as is afforded in the various branches of cotton spinning, much muscle cannot be expected to be developed. There is no demand for it – the toil does not require it – it would be useless if it existed. I cannot therefore term the appearance of the people “robust”. They present no indication of what is called “rude” health. They are spare, and generally – so far as I can judge – rather undersized. At the same time their appearance cannot rightly be called sickly. Their movements are quick and easy, with nothing at all of langour expressed either in face or limbs. The hue of the skin is the least favourable characteristic. It is a tallowy-yellow. The faces which surround you in a factory are, for the most part lively in character, but cadaverous and overspread by a sort of unpleasant greasy pallor.” 

(Razzell, Wainwright, 2014, Selections from the Morning Chronicle, Manchester, report from 1850)            

“One of the first things that strikes a visitor is the large number of women and girls at work compared with men. Recent statisticians quote the number of women employed in textile industries as 867,000, and over 300,000 of these are workers in the Lancashire and Cheshire mills. To see these women at work at the factories is a somewhat depressing spectacle. Most of them are languid, expressionless, anaemic; many are mere children, “half-timers” of from 12 to 14, or “young persons” of from 14 to 17 years of age. The younger girls are under-sized, sallow and anaemic; the older women bear the marks of excessive strain in their thin, worn faces. Nearly 40 per cent. of the women workers in factories are married women. Both the older women and the girl workers look insufficiently fed; they look as if they never breathed fresh air; they look cheerless and sad.” 

(Elizabeth Sloan Chesser, Women and Girls in the Factory, Westminster Review, Volume 173, No. 5, May 1910, https://search.proquest.com/openview/b54c1fcfcd6a9d39/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2287, p. 516)  

There has been no investigation as to the causes of this state of the workers. This abnormal bodily constitution of the workers was not due to insufficient food, nor toexcessive work. We can see this, as the condition still subsisted in 1910. It probably was due to conditions of poor ventilation in the factories.

A particular illness caused by work in the cotton and flax mills, was the “spinners’ phthisis” [phthisis = consumption, present = pulmonary tuberculosis], described by Dr. Kay, and commented by Dr. Thackrah, and caused by the dust in the air, in the rooms where the cotton/flax was prepared for the spinning process  This was an inflammation of the bronchial membrane, which led in the long term to difficulty in breathing, and sometimes caused the man to be incapable of work. It still exists, and is now known as “byssinosis”.

(Thackrah, 2nd. ed., 1832, p. 147)

In Manchester in particular, there was pollution in the rivers, from ash, cinders, chemical wasters, pig excrements from upstream; the water for drinking was black from the coal particles in the air. 

In general, there was damage to the people from human waste, smoke, industrial waste, slag heaps, noise of the machinery, chronic health problems, mental illness, and reproductive problems of the women. The worst cases were in the Black Country. 

Many women and girls who worked in lace, after a number of years were functionally blind.

“We scarcely need remark that the air of a large town is always in an unnatural state. The excess indeed of carbonic acid gas is said to be very trifling; but our skins and linen prove an abundant admixture of charcoal itself. Ammoniacal and other vapours from manufactories, sewers, and places of refuse add to the general impurity. This state of atmosphere affects, in a greater or less degree, all the inhabitants. The complexion is pallid; and the tongue shows that digestion is disordered and imperfect. I should think that not 10 per cent. of the inhabitants of large towns enjoy full health.”

(Thackrah, 1832, pp. 23-24)

The worst environmental problem was that of the coal smoke from the stationary steam engines in the textile mills.

View of Leeds 1844, Thomas Burras


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