The Quarry Bank Mill, one of England’s largest cotton mills located south of Manchester, is now a museum. The old cotton mill, opened in 1874 and shuttered in 1969, is run by England’s National Trust.
Many of the same types of machines used back in the day are run by staff showing how raw cotton gets converted to fabric. Cotton goes through 5 processing stages with a series of machines: scutching, carding, drafting, spinning, and weaving.
It was fascinating but deafening to watch the machine demos, and the employees wear headphones. Because of the noise, the workers back then learned to read lips to communicate since this was inescapable during their 12-hour work shift. Hearing issues and deafness were so common it was called ‘cotton ears.’ Cotton dust inside the factory led to vision and breathing issues creating the ‘cotton lung.’
The machines, powered first by an enormous water wheel with river power and later ‘power looms’ with electricity, are dangerous. They could catch trap hair, clothes, and even fingers and arms and during a long 12-hour work shift, not that surprising. When an accident occurred, the machine couldn’t be stopped for some time making the injury worse.
In 1833, factory inspectors started visiting the factories. Over the next few years, they were fined 12 times for violations. I became so nervous hearing about everything that could go wrong and had over the years that I urged the employee to skip the demo, but she was brave!
Samuel Greg, the founder of this cotton mill and four others in different locations, was originally from Ireland. He prospered during the British industrial revolution. Raw cotton was shipped from the Americas, the Caribbean, or India to Liverpool, England, processed and sent out again as an export.
Naturally, I wondered how this operation could be profitable with all these shipping costs. And I soon found out why they bothered. Cotton mills were mainly in this western and coastal area of England because of the dampness. Raw chilled cotton wouldn’t tear and was easier to process and convert into fabric in cool, wet England, but it was too wet to grow there. I experienced firsthand lots of rainy, chilly days during our visit in early May.
The mill owner’s wife, Hannah, was progressive, and it sounds as if she did try to help their workforce. The couple built a village with housing, which helped the employees, but also made the factory more efficient. A framed, unnamed photo in their formal dining room looked familiar. When I asked if he was George Washington, the docent said yes, and only some of their American visitors ask about it. She said Hannah was an admirer of our rebellious first president.
Cotton beat out other fabrics since it was softer and more wearable. British sheep are everywhere, but wool is heavy and for me, itchy. Linen is too coarse. Silk and muslin, popular with the well-to-do then, was too expensive and out of reach for most.
Child workers for the mill came from charity workhouses in cities or towns throughout England. Small employees, as young as 6, were a major plus since they could climb under the mill equipment. Despite the long working hours, six days a week with church and chores on Sunday, this was preferable from where they were had lived. As mill workers, they were fed better and had access to more fresh air and light. The mill’s workrooms had large windows to capture daylight.
When they reached the age of 18, the young ones could apply for an adult position. But if they weren’t successful, they were returned to their town. So most wanted to stay despite such difficult working conditions. Girls were favored by the mill’s owners and outnumbered boys since they were considered less troublesome. (They didn’t know me!) Unfortunately, girls didn’t qualify for schooling on Sunday as the boys and were trained to do housework instead.
And if you are wondering why the mill is no longer operational, despite being more modernized and downsizing over the years, it could not compete with foreign manufacturers. Samuel Greg came to a sad end. His wife, who served as the peacemaker with his oldest son, died before him. During a hunt on the grounds of this mill, a stag gored him. Samuel Greg survived but died from his injuries.
While there isn’t a library per se, there were a couple of places with books. Sadly, probably not in the dormitory building that housed the children. A small collection of books was in the owner’s house, a part-time residence. And a used bookstore, with only a request and box for donations, had many books to choose from.
Oh, the dangers of life back in the 1800s. Despite all our problems today, I prefer staying right here and hope that the conditions are safe for all workers in today’s cotton mills. Now you should have a bit more appreciation and knowledge of what went into making your cotton t-shirt.
Karen Stensgaard is a novelist avoiding computer ears and lungs and other types of dangerous machinery. Her two novels, AQUAVIT and BLUENESS, are widely available from the usual suspects but probably not in any cotton mills.
P.S. If you’d like to see more unique libraries, sign up for an email reminder. I’d like to do this weekly since I have a huge 2019 backlog with England, India, and the USA, but twice a month is more realistic.
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