9 Interesting Facts About Life as a 19th-century Mill Worker

Mills are a rich and fascinating part of our history. These sleeping giants are a defining feature on the skyline of our industrial landscape, standing as a tangible link to the past.

They once stood at the centre of new industrial communities influencing the identity of these places and the people who lived and worked within them, and they continue to capture our imaginations today.

Here Historic Environment Advice Assistant Apprentice, Emi Putnam, looks at what life was like for those who worked within the mills.

1. Creating conversations at work

Workers operating heavy machinery in the power loom house
Workers operating heavy machinery in the power loom house, Early Blanket Mill, Witney, Oxfordshire, 1898 © Historic England Archive HT13127

Think about chatting over a coffee with some work colleagues, or more recently having a ‘virtual tea break’ over Zoom? Well imagine trying to hold a conversation with the thunderous roar of machinery in the background.

This was exactly the case within the textile mills, but it didn’t stop people from communicating. Workers had to learn to communicate by different means and for some this meant becoming expert lip readers.

This could be very useful as due to the intense level of noise they were exposed to on a daily basis it wasn’t uncommon for workers to suffer from loss of hearing.

2. A hot day’s work  

Factory workers operating a carding machine at Early Blanket Mill
Factory workers operating a carding machine at Early Blanket Mill, Witney, West Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire, 1898 © Historic England Archive HT13127

When the weather is hot, we can pop on an electric fan or open a window to make sure the temperature is manageable. In many textile mills however, the temperature could reach nearly 30°’C.

Textile mills needed to be kept hot to stop the thread from snapping, but this created harsh conditions for the workers, who weren’t allowed to open windows to cool down.

3. Disease wasn’t far away

Mill workers attending a machine
Mill workers attending a machine in Early Blanket Mill, Witney, Oxfordshire 1860 – 1922 © Historic England Archive HT13127

As well as battling the heat and ear-splitting noise, even breathing the air within the mill could have dangerous consequences for the workers. Cotton particles filled the air making breathing them in unavoidable. With nothing in the way of modern day PPE, this put workers at risk of developing a lung disease called Byssinosis.

These harsh and challenging working conditions could also lead to a range of other ailments from eye inflammation to cancer of the mouth. There was even a cancer of the groin called Mule Spinners’ Cancer named due to the high number of mill workers who developed it due to prolonged exposure to oils and minerals used on the machinery.

4. Hard living conditions

Back to back houses and under-dwellings in Calderdale
Back to back houses and under-dwellings in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, 1962 – 1972 © Historic England Archive AA083873

Getting home from work and putting your feet up on the sofa would have been a luxury to a 19th century mill worker. Their living conditions were far from comfortable.

Due to the speed at which the industrial revolution progressed, Victorian slum housing was quickly erected to house the mill workers. Often families would all live and sleep together in one room.

One contemporary writer discussed the poor living conditions of workers in Manchester, describing how up to 15 people were crammed into damp cellars.

5. Children at the mill

Children changing bobbins.
Children changing bobbins. Jhayne via Flickr.

It was common in Victorian England for children to be employed as part of the workforce. Some were expected to work from as young as 4 years old.

Orphans and children from poor families would be taken on as mill apprentices. These children didn’t get paid for their labour with mill owners believing that basic food and a place to sleep was payment enough.

However, these children would be tasked with some of the most dangerous jobs within the mill. Being small meant they could do jobs adults couldn’t, such as cleaning under moving machinery, with many children tragically losing their lives undertaking these perilous tasks.

They would work 12 -14 hours a day, as well as being exposed to brutal discipline if they made mistakes, were late work or – through sheer exhaustion – were caught falling asleep at their machines. Punishments included beatings, having heavy weights tied around their necks or even having their ears nailed to tables.

6. Workers could be fined

A group of factory workers operating the gig milling machine
A group of factory workers operating the gig milling machine, used to raise the blanket nap after weaving, 1898 © Historic England Archive HT13218

As if life wasn’t hard enough in the mills, workers could find themselves actually owing money to their employer. Mill owners could fine their workers for something as simple as talking, leaving the room, and in some cases even looking out of the window.

Another way to be fined was arriving late to work. It has been suggested that some mill owners would actually change the clocks to catch out unsuspecting workers to make it appear they were late, in order to fine them.

For child apprentices who didn’t get paid, this meant they had to work off their fines through overtime, which could mean grafting over 14 hours per day.

7. Dangerous work

Bobbinet machines
Bobbinet machines used within textile mills, South West Mills, Somerset © Historic England Archive DP101384

Accidents were common place in mills within Victorian England and if you couldn’t afford to see a doctor (as many mill workers couldn’t), even the smallest ailment could be fatal.

Up to 40% of accidents dealt with at the Manchester Infirmary in 1833, were factory and mill related. A lot of accidents occurred within the last few hours of the workers shift, and unfortunately it was not uncommon for people to lose fingers or even limbs.

Many of the jobs involved working closely with huge pieces of moving machinery, which were easy to become entangled in. One young girl, Mary Richards, aged just 9 or 10, was tragically crushed to death when her apron strings got caught in the drawing frame she was working at, dragging her into the machine.

8. Life wasn’t the same for all mill workers

Exterior view of Quarry Bank Mill
Exterior view of Quarry Bank Mill, 1956 © Historic England Archive

Not all mill owners were tyrants; some were progressive and wanted to create a better working environment for their staff.

Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire provided better housing for its workers and even gave access to a doctor. This meant that its workforce was generally in better health than those at other mills.

9. Social reform

Young woman winding bobbins on wheel in the loom shop
Young woman winding bobbins on wheel in the loom shop, 1898 Blanket factory, Witney, Oxfordshire © Historic England Archive CC73_00946

The appalling working conditions of mill workers started to attract the attention of social reformers. This was part of a wider landscape of social reform, which challenged the Government’s uncaring attitude towards the poorest in society. A number of acts of parliament were passed in an attempt to ease some of the pressure put on workers, particularly children.

In 1819 the Cotton Factory Act was passed, stating that mills could only employ children over the age of nine and restricting the working day to 12 hours. This still left children with cripplingly long hours working within dangerous conditions, and because the act was not enforced by inspectors, some mill owners still exploited child labour.

In the following years, further factory acts were passed bringing in new stipulations. The new acts stated a set amount of education per week should be provided to child workers, they reduced working hours of women and children under 18, raised the age of child employability to 11 and made it a requirement to install protective guards around machinery in an attempt to reduce accidents.

However, there were some in society, including mill owners, who strongly opposed these reforms, stating they would increase costs and lower the productivity of their workforce.

If you’d like to find out more about mills, head over to Historic England’s Mills of the North.

Further Reading

5 responses to 9 Interesting Facts About Life as a 19th-century Mill Worker

  1. Rose says:

    My Grandma worked half day cotton mill & half day school at 10 years old! My mum told me this but she doesnt know which one it was in Lancashire. Then at some point my Great Grandma, Grandma & the family came to Rotherham on a donkey cart!! Xx

  2. Denise says:

    My nan ,who was born in 1891, said there was never a question ,of what you were going to do ,when leaving school. She went to work in a mill in Stalybridge, at the age of 13 .

  3. Marlene Storah says:

    My great great grandfather worked in Fielden’s mill at Lumbutts. From the census records aged 11 he was a tenterhoist doffer, ten tears later on the census he was a school teacher Lumbutts Old School. My grandmother told me that Fieldens had a Mill school and children attended half day, bright hard working children were made pupil teachers and some progressed to being teachers. My ancestor died in 1916 aged 64, from his Obituary in our local paper I see he became a music teacher and had a music shop was leader of Todmorden orchestra for over 40 years and Grand Master of the Masons.

  4. An excellent article illustrating very well the harsh life of early mill workers. As a volunteer guide at Quarry Bank Mill I have learned a lot about the personal experience of apprentice workers. It inspired me to write 3 novels using much of the information. So much was almost unbelievable but so incredible that I have become an ardent reader of 19th century social history. This article has helped me enormously!

  5. As a volunteer guide at Quarry Bank Mill I found this article extremely interesting and informative. The harsh lives of workers and child apprentices inspired me to read much more about the social history of the 19th century – even to write 3 novels about the workers!

Leave a Reply