Wilfred Middlebrook (b.1899): Life and Labour

For the majority of the working-class, work dominated their lives and Wilfred was no different. At the age of 12, Wilfred began working half-days at the cotton mill, as a half-timer. Speaking of his first shift, Wilfred recalls that ‘it was a bitterly cold morning in early January 1912 when I was lifted out of bed by my father and stood upon my bare feet ready to go to work– and it was not yet half past five’ (p.73). After reaching the mill, Wilfred’s first lesson in the art of weaving was ‘devoted to ‘skewering’ cops’ (p.77). He explains that the shuttle, ‘a steel-tipped, hollow, wooden torpedo about twelve inches long and an inch or so square, had a steel spring-seated tongue that carried the weft , ready wound on cops’ (p.77). Thus, Wilfred had to practise ‘getting a soft cap of weft on to the shuttle tongue without breaking it, a case of holding the cops firmly in the left hand while the right hand skewered the tongue into the cop’ (p.77).

Lancashire Loom Machine

The noise of the mill was blaring, and Wilfred notes that ‘shouting and lip-reading were the only two possible means of verbal communication’ (p.78). After working for a week, alongside his uncle Jim, Wilfred had gained an insight into the basic principles of his craft: ‘learning how to tie weaver’s knots and how to replace broken threads in their proper place in the healds and reeds’ (p.81) and was passed on to a six-loom weaver as a tenter. As a half-time tenter, Wilfred was paid ‘three shillings and six pence a week’ and his weekly spending money increased from ‘three halfpence to threepence-ha’penny on the basis of a penny in the shilling’ (p.82). His boss had a wife and a large family to support, and squeezed every penny he could out of his looms. Wilfred notes that in those days, ‘piece work was the rule and weavers were paid each week for whatever ‘cuts’ or pieces of cloth they had woven by a certain making-up time’ (p.82). He adds that various tricks were used to get ‘pieces into the warehouse before the deadline, such as turning the take-up wheel occasionally to help it along’ or wetting the ‘coloured cut mark while it was some laps away on the warp beam, thus bringing a faint tinge to the surface that could with any luck be passed off as a cut mark’ (p.82).

When Wilfred turned 13, he finished school and become a full-time tenter, ‘earning seven shillings a week’ and his spending money rose to ‘seven pence a week’ (p.84). With the end of school, Wilfred’s childhood days were over and he now had to send 10 hours a day in the cotton mills. Emma Griffin notes that ‘at the start of Victoria’s reign children as young as five or six could be put to paid employment, and although successive legislation restricted the employment of young children, in the 1890s children could still legally start work from the age of ten’ (2020, p.4). Although Wilfred was born after this point, the case still stands that young children were being put to work and losing out on both their freedom and childhood, to instead work long, exhausting shifts in factories. I think Wilfred’s realisation that work signified the end of his days as a child is rather upsetting. This transition must not have been easy for children living in the 19th and early 20th century.

Child Worker at a Cotton Mill

The work at the mills was very demanding and there was no room to make any mistakes. If for any reason you did, workers were faced with serious consequences. Wilfred recalls an occasion when he stood watching, with keen interest, a new design developing on one of the fabrics being woven. He notes that it was a ‘dobby loom, which meant that a fancy design could be woven’ (p.83) onto the fabric. Suddenly, Wilfred states, his ears sang as a ‘heavy hand was brought across them and Fred Kitchen stopped the loom with a roar of anger that could be heard above the noise of the weaving shed’ (p.83). Unbeknown to Wilfred–because he had been daydreaming–a float had formed in the fabric. A ‘float’ was a ‘fault in the cloth caused by a broken thread that prevented the others from intertwining’ and this meant precious time had to be wasted while the float was ‘pulled back or unwoven’ (p.83).

Factory life was dangerous also, and a weaver’s life was not without its darker moments. These moments, Wilfred notes, were bound up with such things as ‘being locked out when late for work…being ‘fetched’ up and rowed by an irate ‘outlooker’; sworn at by irascible and foulmouthed weft man or chivvied by his tackler’ (p.89). Couple these worries with a bit of bad work, such as ‘yarn that is causing trouble, or a spell of slack trade when looms stood idle and work was scarse, and it will be realised that a weaver’s lot was sometimes a hard one’ (p.90). One incident Wilfred recalls, occurred in earlier days when his mother worked in the mills. He recalls an old man named Eli, who possessed a long beard, and was observed by his tackler to be unweaving. When Eli was questioned and asked what he was doing, Wilfred notes that Eli shouted ‘carnta see I’ve gotten me whiskers fast?’ and indeed, he had. Eli had been ‘peering over the moving heald shafts to make sure there were no broken ends behind, and before he could do anything about it the fringe of his beard had become mingled with the weaving cloth and become part of the fabric’ (p.90).

Even, the more dangerous or boisterous side of factory life are depicted through a light-hearted and, often humorous tone (as demonstrated through Wilfred’s story of Eli). Working life seems to be something that Wilfred enjoyed, or at least took in his stride. This completely contrasts the experiences Mrs. Yates endured, in her working life. Mrs. Yates, born in 1882, had a constant fear of the machinery in the factories–her biggest worry being a potential injury, enforced even more after witnessing a man be killed via the factory machines (Olivia Parr’s blog on Mrs. Yates Life and Labour can be accessed here). This demonstrates the stark differences between Wilfred’s and Mrs. Yates’ experiences with work.

As Morgan notes, ‘in neither the cotton industry nor chain-making were women positioned, nor did they position themselves, as equals’ (1997, p.379). Quoting the work of Mary Mortimer–a correspondent of the Daily Express— Morgan states that ‘in the trade “the nicer work, the finer work, the work requiring delicate handling, is done by the men” who used more tools, thereby making a better class of work’ (1997, p.379). The gender inequality of the workplace, and the inferiority enforced on women workers could signal a reason behind Wilfred’s and Mrs. Yates’ varying experiences. Perhaps, being a man and embodying that traditional role as a ‘breadwinner’ enabled Wilfred to have more enjoyable, pleasant memories of the mill.

Mill Workers in Rochdale, Lancashire (1911)

Wilfred’s working life was something he reminisces quite fondly on, and he confesses that one of his more favourable parts of factory life was that his stammer became less noticeable: ‘my stammering was made more bearable by the constant noise’ (p.84). He adds that completing tasks and communicating were made easier at work, because he only had to use ‘short and simple statements’ (p.84). For example, when explaining what was wrong with a piece of work, Wilfred only had to use two or three word phrases, such as: “warp out”, “picking strap broken” or “t’loom keeps stopping” (p.84). It’s evident that Wilfred’s experience in the mills was something he took a liking too, and seemed to appreciate.

The theme of life and labour is key in Wilfred’s memoir, and I think this demonstrates that his working life was a core part of his being. Although, Wilfred may not have had much choice in the matter of having a job or having to get up for work–due to his class and background– it was something that he definitely prioritised, enjoyed and pushed himself in. There is no sense of anger or hatred towards factory life, in Wilfred’s memoir, and I think compared to other working-class individuals, Wilfred was rather fortunate to have such a smooth run.

Bibliography

Griffin, Emma. Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. Yale: University Press, 2020

Middlebrook, Wilfred. Trumpet Voluntary, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0527

Morgan, Carol E. Gender constructions and gender relations in cotton and chain-making in England: a contested and varied terrain. Women’s History Review. 1997. 6(3)

Parr, Olivia. Mrs. Yates (b.1882): Life and Labour, 2021. Accessed 01.05.21. Available here: http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/mrs-yates-b-1882-life-labour

Images

[1] Plain Lancashire Loom. Accessed 02.05.21. Available here: http://www.weasteheritagetrail.co.uk/Resources/Machines%20used%20in%20Lancashire%20Cotton%20Industry/index.htm

[2] Young Doffers in Cotton Mill. Accessed 02.05.21. Available here: https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/child-labour/

[3] Mill workers at Rochdale, Lancashire, 1911. Accessed 02.05.21. Available here: https://www.historytoday.com/working-woman’s-place

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