Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Apprentice.

Some time in the mid-nineteenth century a thirteen year old boy cleared away the waste cotton from the spinning machine. The machine had two functions. The first thing it did was to pull out the carded cotton fibres and twist. To do this one great arm holding hundreds of spindles would move backwards each spindle twisting yarn as it did so. The second thing it did was to move back to the beginning again while the twisted yarn was wound onto a reel. Sometimes the yarn would break and would have to pieced together, and then the man overseeing the machine would lean over and do this as quickly as possible because his pay depended on the movement of the machine not being interrupted. A skilled worker could manage to do this before the arm reached home again even if several yarns broke - hence the term 'pieceworker'.

Quarry Bank Mill showing the chimney used for the steam engine installed at the end of the nineteenth century and the bell in the shorter tower which called the workers to work.

This boy, however, was paid by the day, and was not due to see any of his money for another five years. He was an apprentice. This didn't mean he was learning a trade. It meant simply that in return for his bed and board, a little schooling and medical attention, and the promise of a meagre salary he would work from 6am until 8pm in the factory. After that he would, three times a week, have an hour's basic tuition until 9pm. His breakfast, at 8am, was served where he worked - a dollop of porridge in his hand - and his lunch was milk and bread or sometimes some pork and whatever vegetables could be grown in the factory garden. He slept in a room with nine others, and there was destined to stay until he was eighteen years old. It was, however, preferable to the workhouse - the only alternative.

The Apprentices' House. The girls slept in the room on the first floor with the arched window.

He had probably started at the mill when he was nine years old. Maybe he would have picked the dirt from the cotton bolls before moving on the the slightly more responsible job of clearing up the floor. His job this day was sweep the floor beneath the spinning machine. He would dart in while the machine was at its widest extent and clear the spindles of waste before dodging out again. It was important to work quickly. Important not to get in the way. The air was thick with cotton dust, the noise of the machines had probably already made him slightly deaf and maybe it was dark and his eyes sore from the scraps of cotton that he had to constantly blink away. No doubt he was tired, the last two hours of the fourteen hour shift were always the most dangerous. Probably all these things were the reason for what happened next.

The boy must have slipped and his head landed against the closing maw of the spinning machine. Perhaps he had been dazed and for a few seconds unable to move out of the way.

Then the machinery must have laboured and squealed; the gears fed by the water wheel must have locked and then ground together. There would have been shouts and a sudden sickening moment of disbelief. Then a dread of what they were about to see as they peered closely in the gloom. His head had been crushed and he had died instantly.

Scarecrows in the garden of the apprentices' house.

There were other deaths, other accidents, but this one struck me the most. Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire is a fascinating place. We saw around the apprentices' house which crammed 50 girls in one room and around 30 boys in three others. All of these were secured for the night with chamber pots and very little else. Then we saw how cotton had once been made by hand and then how this process had been mechanised. We also read about the conditions of the work force who were housed in nearby Styal village by the mill-owner. The conditions were better than for those unfortunate workers in the slums of Manchester nearby. At least in Styal they had fresh air, and the wages were slightly better. Also there were vegetables in the garden, and maybe the even the odd bit of goose...

Geese in the garden of the apprentices' house.

But the conditions were still atrocious and it must have been a perfectly miserable life. And really, sitting at this desk now a few hours after seeing the place, I realise it was not that long ago, less than a hundred years before I was born, in fact - and I think of how it would have been and if I could have stood it... and know that I could not. I would have been the girl who ran away, who when recaptured was threatened with having her hair cut off, and chose instead a week's solitary confinement and a diet of bread and milk and a deduction of pay from the sum she would have to wait so long to see.

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Anonymous Mary said...

There is no way I could survive this treatment, either. We are very fortunate to have a chance to do what we love on a sane schedule. Yet, there are still people to this day who are engaged in very hard labor. I admire their ability and fortitude.

Mon Mar 02, 02:35:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, child labourers too - even though there are international agreements to try and prevent it.

Mon Mar 02, 06:33:00 am  

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