Lucy’s working life at the silk mills
Like so many Victorians, Lucy’s life is dominated by work and is an aspect of her life that leaves Lucy with some traumatic memories. Throughout her life, Lucy’s work is turbulent and begins when she is thrust into working at the Brook End silk mill in Tring, when she is aged just 9 years old. Although it may be shocking to read that Lucy started work at 9 years old, it was common to see children in the workplace, particularly in silk mills as “children under the age of 10 made up 7.28% of the silk mill workforce in 1835 (McCunie,2005,55).” These figures reflect how the introduction of the Factory Act of 1833, did not provide protection for children in silk mills in the same way it protected other industries. It is a gap that effects Lucy herself and many other child silk workers, who were placed in dangerous situations on a daily basis. In her book Bread Winner: An Intimate History of Victorian Economy Emma Griffin touches on how children remained unprotected after legislation had passed: “although successive legislation restricted the employment of young children, in the 1890’s children could still legally start work from the age of 10” (Griffin, 2020, 4).
Lucy’s first day at the silk mill, is one that is depicted as entering the adult world of working through the eyes of a child, “the first day I went to work I was so frightened at the noise of the work and so many wheels flying round, that I dare not pass the rooms where men only were working, but stood still and cried (3).”Her fear of the “many wheels flying round” conveys how the mill looked to the child worker. The machinery itself, is an element of the factory that struck fear into Lucy and is something that she remembers as clearly now, as she did on her first day. It is hardly surprising that Lucy was overwhelmed by the number of wheels and machinery that surrounded her on her first day, as the diagram displays the same type of mill that Lucy worked at, and what she would have faced on her first day.
The sheer mass of machinery within the mill, highlights just how dangerous the silk mill was for children, due to its lack of safety. “I was too little to reach my work,” remembers Lucy, “and so had to have what was called a wooden horse to stand on (4).” This shows how there was no room for excuses for children not to work in the mills, no matter how unsafe the environment was. It raises questions as to how this treatment of children was permitted. However, this attitude towards child labour was supported by Henry Rowbotham, the manager of the silk mill that employed Lucy, as he “stressed that children should start work at an early age so they would be worthy of their hire later on, and that they must have done nothing previously as their hands would otherwise be too rough (Austin, The Tring Silk Mill, 2014).” His views clearly express his desire to employ children for his own benefit and his attempts to put a positive spin on child labour highlights the lack of care or consideration for child workers.
“Come to the mill; come to the mill”
As Lucy was only a child she did not receive payment for her work. It went instead to her guardian, appointed by the parish guardians, who received a measly “two shillings and sixpence a week up to the time I left, and the parish made this money up to three shillings and sixpence (5).” Lucy highlights how parish children were looked after by paid families who acted as guardians, however the money given to the guardians was barely enough to feed the parish children.
The working day of the average Victorian often included long hours and laborious work; Lucy’s work was no different. Her working days were often long and tiresome in the silk mill, starting at “six o clock in the morning until six at night (4).” However, it is not something that Lucy ever complains about, as she often continues working after her day is finished at the silk mill, in order to make more money for her guardians. Her extra work entailed straw plaiting for her guardians. Lucy was actually grateful to her guardians for this opportunity for it provided an apprenticeship in the trade she would continue throughout her adult life.
Throughout Lucy’s time at the silk mills she progresses into her teenage years and is fit for service. She embarks on the next stage of her working life with the same strong sense of perseverance that she developed during her time working as a child and fending for herself.
Griffin, E 2020, Bread Winner : An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy, Yale University Press, New Haven. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [5 May 2021].
456 LUCK, Lucy, ‘A Little of My Life’, edited by J. C. Squire, London Mercury, Vol. xiii, No.76, Nov 1925-Apr 1926, pp.354-73. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil. Autobiographies of working people from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1974), pp.68-77.
McCunnie, Tom. Regulation and the health of child workers in the mid-Victorian silk industry. Local population studies. (2005)
Austin, Wendy. The Tring Silk Mill. Tring Local History. (2014)
Tring Silk mill then image and Water Silk mill image, Tring Local History (2014)
Tring silk mill now image, Tring Local History Museum (2014)