Lost in the cotton mills
"A historical narrative, written as a model text for Year 9 studies of the English Industrial Revolution"
Born in 1765 - a time of massive social change encouraged by the development and application of many technological inventions. These changes forced my family to move from a rural area near Bolton to the industrial town of Manchester.
This is some of my story...
It was Jamie and my 2nd month in the city and the cold gust of wind coming off the canal was a piercing one. People were saying it was the coldest month of the year. As we turned the corner, we were met with crowds of other girls, some as young as 4 and 5 and as old as 14 and 15. There was eagerness in the air. On a soap box Mr. Paul stood shouting,
"Welcome to Arkwright Mills, New Steam Powered Engines, Work, Work, Work! Be an apprentice or an experienced Pauper! Best pay in town!"
People were pushing and shoving, so I grabbed Jamie's hand and rushed past the crowd into the entrance, but not before glancing up and seeing the 5 stories of long steam windows and the sweat that coated the window panes, a constant complaint I hear all day. The older women talk constantly about the changes in their work. Previous to my arrival they celebrate how they used to use simpler machines such as the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame and how the factory was full of them.
However, Arkwright, the largest cotton mill owner in Manchester has since changed to the use of coal and steam to power the Spinning Mule. While it "The Mule" is said to be the best of the two because it produces finer stronger thread. However, factory work has become much more strenuous.
We were late yesterday, Mr. Paul warned that we could be fired if we were late again. As we entered the door, Jamie went off to scavenge and oil the machines. I took my position next to a new girl and was quick at work as a piercer.
For 12 hours I knew I would have to stand in this same spot and the blisters on my sweaty feet ached just thinking about it. I had to use my thin hands to fix and rethread the broken threads. When done I had to start Doffing, which meant that I had to replace the frames with ones which were empty of cotton all while the machine was going. As I worked, I sweat profusely, the air from the engines was hot and humid and often made it difficult to breathe. The cotton dust in the air was suffocating. Word around town is that if we work here too long we can get mule spinners cancer; that was what Madison died of. My daydream was interrupted by Mr. Paul yelling at a little one about refilling the cotton buckets.
“Is this what my life will always be, if I am lucky I thought to myself, if I am lucky”
(The above section was authored by L. Johnson)
Inside the Mill, the air was warm and humid –to prevent the thread from breaking. So, stepping out into the winter night, at the end of a tortuous thirteen-hour shift, Jamie and I knew to huddle together and brace ourselves against the frigid air. Our feet began to sting in the cold as we walked home barefoot - we would work barefoot all day on the oil soaked floors of the Mill. As the air temperature was freezing and the ground littered with a light covering of snow, we walked briskly - almost running, alongside the gently running Rochdale Canal, pitch black but glistening in the chilly night air. Jamie was unusually quiet, so I guessed that she was exhausted from her long shift in the mill; plus Mr. Paul had been in a severe mood all day, which upsets Jamie more than some. She was worried about how Dad would react if we lost our jobs or had money deducted from our pay for being late to work.
We had learnt that children who were late for work would be severely punished and also have money deducted from their wages. Time-keeping was a problem for our family as we could not afford to buy a clock. At work we were not allowed to carry a watch and suspected this was an attempt to trick us out of some of our wages.
Our home was only a twenty-minute walk away, but tonight the journey seemed a particularly tortuous trek as the frigid cobblestones were stinging our feet that were also now putrid from the stench and filth that spilled out onto the streets. The streets of the industrial suburb of Ancouts, built during the sudden growth of manufacturing in Manchester, were unpaved and worn into deep ruts and holes filled with stagnated water and filth. At least during the cold night the stench was not too intolerable. Anyhow, Jamie was exhausted, we had not eaten for a few hours and so for the last five minutes of walking, I carried her on my back. Even though the cold air was biting at our skin, Jamie snoozed lightly on my back, at least providing me some protection from the cold.
Privy midden (noun) an open toilet which drained into the a cess pool, which could flood into the street
On the way home we decided to make quick use of the ash privy that we shared with twelve other families, but wondered immediately why we had bothered as the night-man had not been and the contents of the privy were overflowing onto the ground and out into the street. Jamie and I simply relieved ourselves into the gutter before washing our feet at the water pump (our only source of water) before sneaking quietly inside.
We stumbled into our living area taking care of where to step as the family before us, an Irish lot, had not hesitated to use the wooden portions of the house for firewood, which left some gaps in our floor.
We shared the house with two other families employed at the cotton mill. One family lived in the upstairs room while the other was in the cellar. I always felt sorry for them as the cellar was constantly damp and filled with stench as sewage would leach from street level and collect under the floorboards.
We are lucky as our 12ft x 14ft room was on street level and therefore not so damp. It was basic but not really big enough for myself, Jamie, our parents and our five brothers.
Having little energy for play or socializing at home, we jumped straight into bed as it was still cold inside despite a slowly burning coal fire. A close inspection of the walls of our house showed that the walls were only one brick thick, hardly enough to keep in the warmth of our meager coal fire.
Our living conditions were frightful and cramped but for the moment it was home.
We had only been living in the industrial town of Manchester for a short time, having been evicted from our plot of land near Bolton. A native of Bolton, Samuel Crompton, invented the spinning mule in 1779 and opened his first cotton mill in 1780. Anyhow, Bolton was a fair, well-built town with broad streets, where our father was used to the freedom of working in the countryside, on his own. He would dig turf or peat from common land for use as fuel or for thatching. Our life was basic but we were content there. I used to love going into Bolton with my father, for the Monday fair to get supplies for the week.
Here in Manchester, we were struggling to cope with the squalor that pervaded this ever expanding industrial city - the first manufacturing city of the world. It is an appalling fact that, of all who are born of the labouring classes in Manchester, more than 57% die before they attain five years of age; that is, before they can be engaged in factory labour, or in any other labour whatsoever.
However, despite the harshness of our living conditions, we were hopeful that Dad would gain promotion at work to become a manager. However, he was struggling with the demands put on him by Mr. Paul and beginning to drink each night when at home.
Drinking too much plonk, Dad would sing of the old times, living in the country away from the pressing urbanisation that was threatening to consume us all.
(The above section was authored by S.Keily)