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. They continue to capture our imaginations today.
Here are nine insights into what life was like for a 19th century mill worker.
1. Creating conversations at work
Think about chatting over a coffee with some work colleagues or, more recently, having a ‘virtual tea break’ over Zoom. Well, imagine trying to converse 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. 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 daily, it wasn’t uncommon for workers to suffer from hearing loss.
2. A hot day’s work
When the weather is hot, we can pop on an electric fan or open a window to ensure 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, which created harsh conditions for the workers, who couldn’t open windows to cool down.
3. Disease wasn’t far away
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 unavoidable. With nothing like modern-day PPE, this puts workers at risk of developing a lung disease called Byssinosis.
These harsh and challenging working conditions could also lead to various ailments, from eye inflammation to mouth cancer.
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
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
It was common in Victorian England for children to be employed in 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 were 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 dangerous tasks.
They would work 12 -14 hours a day and be exposed to brutal discipline if they made mistakes, were late for work or, through sheer exhaustion, were caught falling asleep at their machines.
Punishments included beatings, heavy weights tied around their necks, or even having their ears nailed to tables.
6. Workers could be fined
As if life wasn’t hard enough in the mills, workers could owe their employers money.
Mill owners could fine their workers for something as simple as talking, leaving the room, and sometimes even looking out the window.
Another way to be fined was arriving late to work. It has been suggested that some mill owners would change the clocks to catch out unsuspecting workers to make it appear they were late 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
Accidents were commonplace in mills within Victorian England, and even the smallest ailment could be fatal if you couldn’t afford to see a doctor (as many mill workers couldn’t).
Up to 40% of accidents at the Manchester Infirmary in 1833 were factory and mill related. A lot of accidents occurred within the last few hours of the worker’s shift, and unfortunately, it was not uncommon for people to lose fingers or even limbs.
Many jobs involved working closely with huge pieces of moving machinery, which were easy to entangle.
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
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 healthier than other mills.
9. Social reform
The appalling working conditions of mill workers started attracting social reformers’ attention.
This was part of a wider landscape of social reform, which challenged the Government’s uncaring attitude towards the poorest in society. Several acts of parliament were passed to ease some pressure on workers, particularly children.
In 1819 the Cotton Factory Act was passed, stating that mills could only employ children over 9 and restricting the working day to 12 hours. This still left children with cripplingly long hours working within dangerous conditions, and because inspectors did not enforce the act, some mill owners still exploited child labour.
Further factory acts were passed in the following years, bringing in new stipulations.
The 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, some in society, including mill owners, strongly opposed these reforms, stating they would increase costs and lower the productivity of their workforce.
Written by Emi Putnam, Historic Environment Advice Assistant Apprentice
Mills of the North
England’s textile mills, once the workshop of the world, were the original Northern Powerhouse. They’re fundamental to the history, culture and landscape of northern England. Find out more.