“No I never liked the mill. I’ve nothing against… I liked my companions and I had nothing against the mill owners or anything like that. It was just the machinery that I was scared of”Mrs Yates (p.11)
Cotton mill factories in the nineteenth century were not pleasant places to work. With their loud machinery and stuffy environment, it’s no wonder that Mrs Yates wanted to work in the post office. Unfortunately for Mrs Yates, lower Darwen was a mill village which meant there wasn’t much option when it came to occupation. Blackburn was dominating the cotton industry in her youth: ‘By the end of the nineteenth century, Blackburn was the cotton weaving capital of the world. By the First World War, the town peaked in terms of both population and industrial output.’ (Greenlees, 2013, p.8). As you can imagine, village life in Darwen centred completely around the encompassing cotton mills.
From the age of ten, Mrs Yates worked in the mill factory firstly working half-time and then commencing full-time work at the age of thirteen. Writer John Fraser wrote in The Windsor Magazine after a trip to Lancashire from London in 1899, ‘As soon as a child is able to read, write and spell well enough to become a half-timer it spends the other half of its life in the mill’ (Fraser, 1899, p.45), Fraser contemporarily spoke to the entrapment children faced in mill villages in the nineteenth century. Fortunately, Mrs Yates was born after the Factory Act of 1833 was put in place which improved conditions for children working in factories. The act ensured that no child under nine could work, that children aged nine to thirteen could not work for over nine hours a day and that children should also have two hours of schooling each day. Mrs Yates would earn eleven shillings when she worked full time and all the money earned would go to her mother who gave her back two shillings to spend.
Before anyone could start work they had to visit the doctor who would decide if they were fit for the mill, and this was called ‘passing the doctor’ (p.9). Mrs Yates repeatedly talks about the dangers of the mill in her interview and her constant fear of the loud machinery which explains why workers had to be medically fit before they entered the hazardous workplace. Children were utilized for their small stature as they could fit into places where adults could not such as inside of the machinery: ‘you had to fetch the weft, and you had to go through the narrow alleys and the picking sticks were going and that was where I was small you see’ (p.10). Fires were also very common in cotton factories and Eccles Mill, where Mrs Yates worked, had previously burned down in 1857. This would more than likely be the mill fire that Mrs Yates recalls in her interview: ‘My mother went to the mill too for a time, you see, until she had babies […] and then this card, this mill was burnt down.’ (p.2). Below is an extract from the Blackburn Times dated February 21st 1857 where the Eccles family thanked the villagers of Darwen for their help extinguishing the fire:
Mrs Yates’s full-time workday started at 6 am and ended at 5:30 pm with frequent half-hour breaks in between. She and her father were both woken by a ‘Knocker up’ (p.13) at 5:30 am who they would pay weekly, and Mrs Yates and her father would then share a cup of tea before they headed to the factory. The work at the mill was very demanding and if mistakes were made workers were fined to make up for the lost cotton. However, work-life proved even more difficult for Mrs Yates due to her crippling fear of the machinery, and her biggest worry was potential injury: ‘I didn’t like it at all. You see the sleigh goes like this and if you miss getting over the sleigh, your hand goes down what you call the temple and you get all sorts of scars up your arm, if you went past the picking sticks they’d take your elbow’ (p.10). Mrs Yates would have to turn off the machinery when she went inside to clean out the loose cotton, and this then put a halt on work. As a result of this Mrs Yates would lose money. In the interview Mrs Yates puts the true danger of the mill into perspective when she informs Berger of an accidental death that happened at Eccles mill: ‘In our mill there was a man taken round the shaft to tackle her and was sort of mending the strap and they must have sort of set the loom on or something and he went round the strap. He was killed.’ (p.16), this event no doubt scared a young Mrs Yates into being very careful around the machinery in the mill and also heightened her existing fear of injury.
Mrs Yates’s work-life was not something she reminisces fondly upon, and she confesses to Berger that she still has nightmares when she thinks back to her time at the mill: ‘well you do have nightmares sometimes […] the picking sticks are hitting me’ (p.31), it’s evident that the mill was a terrifying experience for Mrs Yates which stuck with her throughout her life. For many workers, the mill was all too encompassing and demanding, and on June 18th 1901 a seventeen-year-old female from Lower Darwen had taken poison after her dismissal from the mill for not getting ‘sufficient work done’ (Schwarzkopf, 2004, p.85). Her unfortunate suicide exhibits just how difficult life at the mill was for young people and also illustrates the pressures the working class were under to provide ‘sufficient’ work under such difficult conditions.
Fortunately, Mrs Yates managed to escape from the confinement of the mill when she married her husband Jack in 1906. She could not see any other way out of the mill other than marrying. Although she does inform Berger that she ‘didn’t just marry him because he could keep [her] at home’ (p.21), but I’m sure she was delighted that she would not have to step foot in the mill again.
Fraser, J.F. LIFE IN A LANCASHIRE COTTON MILL. The Windsor magazine : an illustrated monthly for men and women, 10, pp. 45-52. 1899.
Greenlees, J. ‘The dangers attending these conditions are evident’: Public Health and the Working Environment of Lancashire Textile Communities, c.1870–1939. Social History of Medicine, [online]. 2013. Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/shm/article/26/4/672/1632283> [Accessed 7 April 2021].
‘Mrs Yates: Before My Time’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection
Schwarzkopf, J. D. Unpicking Gender: The Social Construction of Gender in the Lancashire Cotton Weaving Industry, 1880-1914. Taylor & Francis Group, Abingdon. 2004. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [18 April 2021].