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Children in the Factories

Some of the worst working conditions were found in the flax industry. Women and children as young as 9 were employed in the mills, because they were cheaper to employ than men and were more submissive. Marshall and Co. preferred older children of 11 or 12 rather than the younger ones of 9 or 10 as they worked harder and did not have to be supervised. Working conditions were harsh, the hours long, (69 hours a week), and the wages low. In 1858 a general labourer in the flax industry earned 15 shillings a week, women 6s 6d and lads about 5s. Weavers were paid 10-15 shillings a week and overseers 21 shillings. Workers in the woollen industry did slightly better, girls and boys getting 5s-6s a week and women 6s-12s.

Accidents were common. Working such long hours, on an inadequate diet, meant that the workers were frequently tired and made mistakes in operating the heavy and dangerous machinery. There were usually no guards on the machinery to prevent accidents; the air was full of dust, especially in the heckling room of a flax mill. The work was physically exhausting, and often caused children to suffer physical deformity. Eliza Marshall was one of these. She appeared before the Factory Commission in 1832, as did others working in factories in Leeds. Their evidence gives a graphic picture of what working conditions in the factories were like. Here are some extracts from the report of the Factory Commission, published in 1833.

William Cooper's evidence. 'When I first went to a factory I was a bobbin doffer in a flax mill, Mr.Benyon's, Meadow Lane. I am twenty nine now. I was then between nine and ten. We began then at five in the morning and worked till nine at night. We had no time for breakfast, forty minutes for dinner, and no time for drinking. I worked in the spinning room………. I cannot exactly say what my wages were then. I should think it would be about four shillings or thereabouts………I used to take a sup of coffee, or tea, or milk for my breakfast: for dinner a meat pie, or a few potatoes, or a bit of meat to warm up, and a sup of coffee for drinking. That was generally what the lads took.

On Food : 'The children in the factories on the low diet as we call it, have generally a nearly a pint of coffee or tea for a halfpenny, it is very poor stuff, and about half a pound of bread: then for dinner those that can go home will have potatoes or a little bit of meat. With a family of five or six or seven they will lay out happen 3s 6d in meat for the week, and some less than that. The cheapest would be about 5d a pound bacon or offalish cuts of beef or mutton from the inferior joints. Tea the same as breakfast.'

On Accidents: William Swithenbank, talking about his eldest son, John. 'The way the boy was nearly choked was, that the Lewis machine caught his handkerchief as he was leaning over, and nearly choked him by dragging it ……….. John was minded at the Leeds infirmary after his accident. His arm had been drawn in between two rollers.

James Carpenter: 'Harriet Wilson worked at Mr. Tennant's: her arms were taken off by the side gearing of a card, on the opposite side to where the straps run. I saw it done. She was picking the flyings off, just a little before 12 o'clock in the day; and the wheel caught her sleeve and pulled one arm in. In trying to extricate that the other went in.'

William Hebden had started work in the mill when he was 5 and a half years old. He suffered several accidents. 'The first accident was my arm being nearly taken off ...I was reaching a roving down, and a shred of my shirt caught in a wheel and dragged my arm in, and took the flesh off right round. I was three weeks an in-patient in the infirmary…….We were not allowed to stop the machinery to clean it.' 'My legs began to be crooked before that. They are very crooked now; it has come on entirely by working. 'Dr. Loudon's evidence states that 'Nothing could be more deplorable than to witness the state of this unfortunate creature's knees and ankles: the protruberances of the ends of the bones, the twisting of the ligaments, and the general deformity which was apparent about his limbs, was shocking to see. Moreover I am firmly convinced it was the long hours and factory labour which were the cause of the evils.

On tiredness: 'I have seen the children go to sleep over their work when they were working seven days a week, that is from five to eight. We have not done that for several years: we have wrought six and a half lately; they were tired enough with six and a half, and some of them with six………. I have seen the overlookers give the children snuff, or throw water at them, to waken them.

On Punishment : Mark Best, an Overseer. 'There was a good deal of beating at Marshall's. They were beat with a strap. We had them of all ages in our room, as low as eight and up to twenty and more. It was I that had the strapping of them mostly. I did not strap them so bad as others………There has been many a one badly beat with strapping in my room. I've seen them flogged while they had marks on them, boys and girls both. They don't strap the big ones; they fine them. The ages differ according to men's temper. I have seen men strike at young women. There was no rule as to the age in strapping. They would strap a girl of fifteen or sixteen as a matter of course, if they did something that did not please them.

Charles Binns, who worked at Hives and Atkinson.
If ever we used to let the machine stand, the machine – minder would call out 'Stricks', and then the overlooker would come and strap the screwer.

William Hebden 'He used to nip up t'roller if we let a carding through, and fetch us with it over the side of the head. He has struck me so many a time. He has knocked me down scores of times, I may say, when he has been out drinking That was the time he lick us most, after he had been out.

Matthew Crabtree 'I think the greatest beating takes place in the evening, and in the morning when they are sluggish from not having rested from their previous day's work. I believe the strapping would be more at the latter end of the week than the first…In our work the hands would bleed after one or two days piecening; that was another thing that made us work slower at the end of the week.

Most of the illustrations show the various stages in the manufacture of linen thread from flax. The last two illustrations are of workers in the woollen industry.
Click images to enlarge
Factory children, 1814
Factory children, 1814
Marshalls Mills, interior
Marshalls Mills, interior
Flax heckling
Flax heckling
Drawing the flax
Drawing the flax
Doubling the drawing
Doubling the drawing
Tow carding
Tow carding
Factory hands leaving for dinner
Factory hands leaving for dinner
Mill girls, 1890
Mill girls, 1890
Wortley Low Mills
Wortley Low Mills




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© 2003 Leeds City Council | Site created by: LCC electronic information team | 25 March 2003