On Sunday 23rd of March the Working Class Movement Library is opening its doors for the Manchester Histories Festival. Unlocking Ideas will be showcasing objects from both the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library linked with Manchester’s Cottonopolis past. This post is just a flavour of the [true] tales you can come and unravel.
“It was gravely stated to them…that they were all, when they arrived at the cotton-mill, to be transformed into ladies and gentlemen: that they would be fed on roast beef and plum pudding – be allowed to ride their masters’ horses and have silver watches, and plenty of cash in their pockets.”
In August 1799 cotton mill representatives promised the children of the St Pancras workhouse a lavish life they could hardly imagine. Eagerly 80 boys and girls aged just 7 signed up as mill apprentices, contractually bound to the mill until the age of 21.
One of these children was Robert Blincoe, an orphan who told his story to John Brown; this was published in 1832. Though we can’t be sure that this account is entirely accurate, it certainly supports the wider, grim, history of young mill labour during Britain’s industrial boom.
Mill work was dangerous, particularly for children. Being the smallest, they were employed in the fiddly role of ‘Piecer’: crawling under working machines they tied off broken thread and collected dropped cotton. Being inside a moving mechanism was incredibly dangerous and aprons, hair and limbs were easily tangled, often to great injury:
Robert Blincoe describing the entanglement of another child worker, Mary Richards.
Extreme as the Mary Richards example is, injury was common; up to 40 per cent of accident cases at Manchester Infirmary in 1833 were factory accidents. This high risk made staying alert crucial to staying safe. Sadly, the children were expected to work nearly the same long days as adults – around 12 hours – often staying over their lunch break to clean the machines. And unscheduled rest was gravely forbidden.
“…he set to with diligence, although much terrified by the whirling motion and noise of the machinery, and not a little affected by the dust and flue with which he was half suffocated. They span coarse numbers; unused to the stench, he soon felt sick, and by constantly stooping, his back ached. Blincoe, therefore, took the liberty to sit down…His task-master (Smith) gave him to understand he must keep on his legs.”
Extract from ‘A memoir of Robert Blincoe’
The noise of the machinery Robert recalls was a huge problem, causing permanent hearing damage for many. Various diseases were also rife, including byssinosis, an incurable lung disease caused by cotton dust accumulating on the chest. The atmosphere, too, was stifling. The cheap cotton used to maximise profits snapped easily and so factories were kept humid (with temperatures between 65 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit) to keep the cotton supple. Factory work in Blincoe’s day was bleak.
Over the course of the 19th century, Acts began putting limits and conditions on working hours and the age of workers. The 1878 Factory and Workshops Act, for example, said no child under 10 should work and made laws regarding safety, ventilation and mealtimes. But mill work remained a hard and hazardous labour:
Cotton factory accidents from the 1960’s recorded in an injuries book which covered c.1910 – c.1970
And what of Robert Blincoe? After one failed escape attempt he saw out the rest of his apprenticeship, remaining as an adult operative until 1817 when he left to set up his own small cotton – spinning business. After his equipment was destroyed by fire he was unable to pay debts and went to prison. But upon release he built a successful business as a cotton waste dealer and continued as such until his death, from bronchitis, in 1860.
Objects and their images from the Working Class Movement Library
On Sunday 23rd of March come and drop in to the Working Class Movement Library as part of the Manchester Histories Festival. Unlocking ideas will have objects from the People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library out to be seen and discussed.