Interior of the loom shop showing a young woman winding bobbins on a wheel. The mill machinery can be seen in the background.
Historic photography

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.

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.

A black and white photograph of workers operating heavy machinery in a power loom house.
Workers operating heavy machinery in the power loom house at Early Blanket Mill in Witney, Oxfordshire, in 1898. Source: Historic England Archive. HT13127.

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.

A black and white photograph of factory workers operating a carding machine at a mill.
Factory workers operating a carding machine at Early Blanket Mill, Witney, West Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire, in 1898. Source: Historic England Archive. HT13127.

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.

A black and white photograph of mill workers attending a machine.
Mill workers attending a machine at Early Blanket Mill in Witney, Oxfordshire, between 1860 and 1922. Source: Historic England Archive. HT13127.

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.

A black and white photograph of back to back houses.
Back-to-back houses and under-dwellings in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, between 1962 and 1972. © Historic England Archive. AA083873.

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.

A black and white photograph of children changing bobbins.
Children changing bobbins. © Jhayne via Flickr.

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.

A black and white photograph of a group of factory workers operating a gig milling machine.
A group of factory workers operating a gig milling machine used to raise the blanket nap after weaving in 1898. Source: Historic England Archive. HT13218.

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).

A photograph of bobbinet machines.
Bobbinet machines were used within textile mills at the South West Mills in Somerset. © Historic England Archive. DP101384.

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.

A black and white photograph of a mill.
Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire in 1956. © Historic England Archive.

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.

A black and white photograph of a young woman winding bobbins on a wheel in a loom shop.
Young woman winding bobbins on a wheel in the loom shop, in 1898, at the Blanket factory in Witney, Oxfordshire. Source: Historic England Archive. CC73/00946.

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.

Further reading

12 comments on “9 Interesting Facts About Life as a 19th Century Mill Worker

  1. 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. 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

    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!

  6. David Fawcett

    Great Pictures. Earlys of Witney were my company’s clients right up to the end. Unfortunately I never managed to visit.

  7. Mark Watson

    photo 5 of child workers was taken in USA by Lewis W Hine and used by the National Child Labor Committee campaigns to bring American labour laws into line with those of the UK. c1908-1912.

  8. My Great great Aunty Margaret worked in one of these mills in Rochdale. i remember her well and she was great at lip reading.
    The Museum of Science and Industry in the centre of Manchester has a room full of weaving looms. The noise is huge from them. Amazing to listen to !

  9. My great grandfather, Isaac Peet, was one of ten victims of a disastrous fire at the Vernon No. 1 cotton mill in Stockport in 1902. The mill directors thought their mills were fireproof….they weren’t. I’ve told the story in a book, FIRE! The cotton mill disaster that echoed down the generations (Matador) You can obtain a copy direct from me via, £5.00 + p&p. Thanks for sites like this, a boon to researchers like me.

  10. Graham Mason

    My family operated a water-driven Mill in Painswick. Gloucestershire. I believe the building,Masons Mill is still there.?? Should anyone have a photo I would be most grateful

  11. Ellen Rauch

    This was interesting for me to read. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania US and worked in a shirt factory in summers to earn money for college. Though nowhere near the conditions described here, I recognize the fabric particles in the air, the huge machines, the noise, lack of AC and ventilation, and remember the hard-working and entertaining women and mostly benevolent men supervisors. Worst was getting up early enough to catch the company bus at 5 am, and being paid $1.60 an hour! (I’m 71, so this was in the mid 1960s.)

  12. Louise Hogg

    I’m interested in the first point, about communicating over the din of the machinery.

    I’ve been told that here in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders, the local accent changed to focus on the sounds most easily heard over the looms, though no-one has given me examples.

    However, as an extension from lip reading, was blinking also used?

    Relatives of my Dad’s generation seem to blink noticeably at a gluttal stop. (the semi-coughing ‘h’ sound that replaces ‘tt’ or ‘dd’ in ‘butter’, ‘patter’, or ‘adding’ in the local accent.)

    I’ve also noticed a very long, almost deliberate blink on the ‘question’ word when they ask someone a question. Up to half a second, like pressing ‘return’ on a keyboard, on words like: where; when; why; how; who etc.

    These would make sense to communicate the quiet ‘h’ sound visually, or to alert the listener that a question, requiring a response, was coming up. But are they known phenomena? Were they common adaptions? Or were they habits very specific to my family?

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