Friday, 23 August 2013

The Cotton Mills

If like me you've recently been hooked on watching Channel 4's excellent historical drama series The Mill based on the real-life stories of people working in Quarry Bank Cotton Mill in Cheshire, you will be aware of the harsh and cruel working conditions that the young apprentices, some as young as 9 years old, working at the mill during the 19th century had to endure. The Mill illustrates a crucial moment in British history, when militant reformers forced government to act to provide controls on children’s working hours and conditions.

Children were recruited as apprentices because their smallness and agility made them suitable for crawling underneath the looms and spinning machines to mend broken threads and keep the machines oiled and cleaned.  Health and safety in those days was unheard of and accidents frequently happened and sure enough in the first episode we see little boy apprentice Tommy Priestley lose concentration, get his finger caught in one of the wheels and lose his hand. The treatment of mill children, and youths at the hands of the managers of apprentice houses was at times inhuman and the drama draws on real-life accounts from Quarry Bank and other mills in the north of England. They were apprenticed till they reached the age of 21, having no other option to stay more or less imprisoned there, roam homeless on the streets or go back to the Workhouse from which more than likely they had originally been bought.  Boys were routinely beaten, girls were sexually abused and malnutrition was rife. The apprentices became known as England's white slaves with conditions no better than those of slaves working on the cotton plantations which supplied the cotton to the mills. In the 1830s campaigners raised public awareness about the rights of children with the Ten Hour Movement which was a call to reduce the 13 hour working day to 10 hours and also to introduce better working conditions.  The campaigning exposed the cruel exploitation of mill children and eventually ushered in compulsory education and the first factory inspectors. 

Now the reason why I was so keen to watch The Mill, apart from it being much-trailered on C4 during the preceding weeks and thus looking worth a very good punt to invest in a 4-part Sunday evening series when time is precious, is two-fold.  The first reason is the brilliant Matthew McNulty who plays mill mechanic Daniel Bate. Now Matthew just happens to be the cousin of my good friend Mandy Elliott and the pair of us keenly follow his rising career.  Mandy of course has the lucky and extremely jammy advantage of meeting up with him regularly at family get-togethers and events so apart from other things she can tell me what forthcoming programmes he is due to appear in. Interesting trivia note here is that he is actually Michael (Mike) McNulty but he had to change his name to Matthew as there was already a Michael McNulty registered with actors' union Equity.

Now if ever there was a budding James Bond waiting in the wings if Daniel Craig ever decided to regenerate (and lets face it old DC is getting on a bit now) then Matthew McNulty would in my opinion be the heir apparent. Fabulous looks with a great body (did you see him as Joe Lampton in Room at the Top?) and a brilliant actor to boot.  His other TV credits include The Paradise, The Syndicate (Series 1) and films
Little Ashes and Control.

As Joe Lampton in the BBC adaptation of Room at the Top (2012)

Anyway, I digress - a lot! So the other reason (and main reason really) I am so interested in The Mill is that my paternal family were cotton mill workers from Oldham, Lancashire. My grandfather Nimrod Prestwich (b.1875 - Nimrod - what a grand Lancashire name that sounds although it originates from the Bible) was a 'cotton peeler' whose job it was to separate the cotton from the cotton seed.  The raw cotton was shipped over from USA, India and Japan. According to the 1901 census Nimrod and my grandmother Hannah lived with Hannah's parents and her sister Mary who was also a cotton peeler. By the time my dad was born in 1913 Nimrod's profession as stated on his birth certificate was 'cop yarn packer', the cops I think were the large spindles that the yarn was spun onto before weaving. I hope that was a bit of a step up for him money wise.  He would have needed it with 6 children to clothe and feed with my dad being the youngest.

My dad aged 19

To give you some idea of the history of cotton in England, by 1860 at the height of the cotton mill industry there were 2650 mills in Lancashire employing 440,000 workers and producing half of the world's cotton. At the turn of the 20th century 8 billion yards of cloth were produced in Lancashire and exported to all over the world. After the First World War though, cotton could no longer be exported and Japan started to produce its own cotton and by the 1930s 800 mills had closed making 345,000 workers jobless. My dad and his siblings were expected to follow suit into the industry but owing to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the closure of so many mills, he and two of his brothers chanced their arm and left Lancashire to seek jobs in the Midlands where of course industry was booming in the car and airplane manufacturing  industry. Sadly today there are only a handful of working mills still left in Lancashire.

Today Quarry Bank Mill and Styal Estate in Cheshire has been preserved as a site of National Heritage by the National Trust which has brought the mill back to life with working machines and a giant water mill. I have definitely put a visit here on my 'things to do' list to and I know from time to time they have held textile exhibitions here. It's highly likely that some of my ancestors from the 19th century also worked as young apprentices in the same appalling conditions portrayed in The Mill which is a sobering thought. Maybe thats why and where my fascination in textiles originates.I hope they fared better than poor little Tommy Priestley.

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