“I never wanted to go near the mill[…] I really didn’t like the mill. At all”– Mrs Yates
Across England in the 1800s cotton and textile mills emerged throughout northern towns and still to this day remain as visual testaments to Britain’s industrial past. The mills were essential to Britain’s place and dominance as the world’s first industrial nation and Lancashire’s textile industry was at the forefront of innovation. Interestingly, in 1853 Lancashire provided the world with ‘over 30% of its cotton goods and accounted for over half the nation’s exports.’ (Phelps, Gregory, Miller and Wild, n.d.). The statistics alone show the dominance that cotton mills had over British society and economy in the nineteenth century.
Someone who witnessed this dominance first-hand was Mrs Yates who grew up in a mill village centred around the cotton mill industry in Lancashire. Born Nancy Alice Fenton in 1882 in Lower Darwen near Blackburn, her autobiographical interview for Granada television in 1963 explores in great detail her childhood, work-life, home-life and education in the working-class mill village. Mrs Yates belonged to a family of seven and was the eldest sibling of four (with two sadly dying in infancy). In this interview, Mrs Yates is asked many questions about her working-class childhood which includes a life of busy labour with little time for recreation.
She belonged to a working-class family and Mrs Yates was sent to work in the mill at the young age of ten. Her father worked in the card room and her mother tried her best to make money whilst simultaneously looking after her four children. Her mother’s jobs consisted of laundry washing for villagers and child-minding. Sadly, the child-minding had fatal consequences for two of her children after they both contracted measles from a child her mother took in. It seemed there was a risk of danger wherever there was work for the working-classes.
Mrs Yates autobiographical interview is generally positive as she reminisces upon her childhood. She does not focus upon the hardships of poverty and working-class life; however, the interview does centre around the oppressive cotton mill factory and her unpleasant experience of working life. Mrs Yates was terrified of the machinery and the factory was unbearably hot and noisy. She even recalls the memory of witnessing a tragic accidental death that was caused by the forceful machinery whilst on the job. The Eccles family who owned the mill were helpful and tried their best to support workers the best that they could however, if mistakes were made prices had to be paid. It appears that everyone in the village was destined to a life in the mill which was unfortunate for Mrs Yates who wanted to escape the life that she was doomed to. Mrs Yates sadly viewed marriage as a way of escaping her work life in the mill and she married at the age of 23 in 1906. Mrs Yates had a child with her husband John in 1907, they named him Richard.
Front Cover of the Granada Interview Transcript
Aside from the all-encompassing mill, Mrs Yates talks about family holidays to Blackpool, Southport and Morecambe alongside the recreational Sunday School and Band of Hope committee attended by all villagers that were run by the mill owner’s daughter Miss Eccles. Her home life features plenty within the interview and Mrs Yates describes in detail her home, furniture and cooking supplies. Although she does confess that she was not given many domestic chores due to her busy work and school schedule. Mrs Yates also describes the timetable of her education in the factory school that was centred around her job at the mill. She would work ‘half-time’ which meant that she would work at the mill in the morning and school in the afternoon and vice versa the week after. Unfortunately, she would only be in school for six years. Beginning work at ten and full-time work at the age of thirteen.
All together this memoir provides us with a considerable amount of information regarding working-class life in Lancashire and how existence was wholly focused around the cotton mills. Mrs Yates’s trials with mill life give insight into the restrictions posed upon working-class people who were sadly bound to laborious lives in nineteenth-century Britain.
‘Mrs Yates: Before My Time’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.
Phelps, A., Gregory, R., Miller, I. and Wild, C., n.d. The Textile Mills in Lancashire: The Legacy. [ebook] Lancaster: Oxford Archaeology North. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/textile-mills-lancashire-legacy/ [Accessed 19 February 2021].