Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls

Yorkshire has recently got a lot of publicity out of PBS's soapy series, "Downton Abbey", allegedly set there. What many people don't realize, however, is that the stately home used for the filming, Highclere Castle, is many miles away in posh Hampshire in the south of England. You'd never know from watching "Downton Abbey" that Yorkshire, in the north of the country, is historically best known for its moors, mills, mines, and religious reformers.
1820's workers row houses in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire.

I recently traveled to Yorkshire to visit Knaresborough, the native town of a Minneapolis master builder (See  "Henry Ingham's Yorkshire."). Being interested in industrial history, I hired a guide, Keith Britton, to take me around to relevant sites in the county, the largest in England. We concentrated on the West and North sections where many of the industrial centers are located. Cities in West Yorkshire developed during the industrial revolution include Bradford (textiles), Leeds (transportation, textiles), and Wakefield (coal mining).

Knaresborough, North Yorkshire. The old linen mill was located on the River Nidd below the railroad viaduct.
What I found was a curious and sad incongruity between the quality of technology vs. the quality of the workers' lives.  Technological advancement and engineering marvels of nineteenth-century Britain are indeed impressive--as were the dangers to life, limb, and health of the workforce.

Let's start with mining. We visited the National Coal Mining Museum for England in West Yorkshire and got a tour of what was a working mine not too long ago. We heard the stories of the darkness, cramped and hot working conditions, dangerous machinery, rats, the stench, child labor, explosive gases, and deadly flooding. I've also visited the Big Pit mine in Wales and mines in Pennsylvania, where the stories are similar.
Headstock of the Capshaw Colliery, now part of the coal mining museum
The more recent the mining machinery, the more dangerous--big and fast. Most of the shaft/pit coal mines in Britain and America are now closed, replaced by strip mining. Nevertheless, an estimated 12,000 workers are still killed annually worldwide in the coal mining industry (BBC News, 2010).
The Clydesdale draft horse playing "pit pony" at the museum contemplates lunch. He has a much better life than the real pit ponies, who worked and died in the darkness and filth of the coal mine.
We visited two 19th century textile mills, which offered glimpses into what life was like for the workers 150 years ago. Saltaire Village near Bradford is named after Sir Titus Salt who in 1853 built a textile mill on the River Aire. When completed, Salts Mill was the largest industrial building in the world by total floor area. Salt also constructed a town, Saltaire Village on the site for his workers, a project that's been heralded for its enlightened urban planning. In mid-century Britain, this owner-built town was far better workers' housing than offered in the slums of nearby Bradford.
Part of the huge Salts Mill complex
 The Saltaire site is interesting because it has been saved as a commercial property instead of as a museum. In 1986 the woolen mill closed, and the next year entrepreneur Jonathan Silver took up the daunting task of redeveloping the complex. Thanks to his efforts, Saltaire today is a successful shopping and arts center. The sturdy brick workers' houses have been rehabbed and sold to private individuals.  In 2001, Saltaire was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Windows installed in a former mill room in the arts wing of Saltaire.
My guide Keith enjoying a tea break at the Saltaire cafe.
The large bookstore in Saltaire. The complex also houses a wonderful housewares store.
The mill exterior by the canal. Nineteenth century mills were often dependent on water power.
On seeing Saltaire, I immediately thought of the textile mills in Massachusetts, which I wrote about last year ("Remaking Industrial America"). As it turns out, there is a strong connection between the textile mills in Bradford and those in Lawrence, Massachusetts. (Read the details here.)
Between the mill buildings at Saltaire.

Despite the successes of the paternalistic ethos of Salt and other mill owners, friction between the textile industrialists and their workers inevitably escalated. Among other cost-saving measures, mill owners constantly tried to replace male workers with cheaper female ones. But unlike in the U.S., in Bradford trade unionism was notoriously weak. In the 1870s the owners of Salts Mill broke a strike by using the strategy of a lockout (sound familiar?).

In contrast to the privately developed Saltaire complex is the Quarry Bank Mill in nearby Cheshire, a National Trust property that predates Salts Mill by seven decades. In 1783, Irish-born Samuel Greg found the perfect spot for his new cotton mill on the River Bollin, harnessing the flow of the river to power the mill. Like Salt, Greg built on-site housing for his workers, carrying on the paternalistic tradition found in textile mill owners on both sides of the Atlantic.
Quarry Bank Mill 

What's fascinating about Quarry Bank Mill is the assortment of working textile manufacturing machinery on display. The museum takes visitors through the historic process of spinning and weaving cotton fabric, from hand-spinning and weaving to power looms. When the machinery is running, it becomes very obvious why workers usually lost most of their hearing within a year.

1926 spinning mules in operation:

                                      1790's water power loom weaving shirting material:

 The first mills were powered by water wheels on fast-moving streams. Here's a video of water flowing from a holding pond onto an 1840's overshot wheel powering an old flour mill in Wales:

But to power a mill as large as Quarry Bank, a huge wheel was required. The "Great Wheel" installed at the mill in 1818 was 21 feet wide and 32 feet in diameter. The wheel was an undershot wheel, with the water pouring in from the back near the bottom of the wheel. This gives a definite mechanical advantage over the older overshot wheels. From 1810 on, steam turbines generated additional power for the mill.
The water wheel currently powering the mill is 25 feet in diameter. It is of similar design to the Great Wheel and was brought from a mill in North Yorkshire.
As in coal mining, airborne particles generated by the textile mills' operation caused a number of disabling and often fatal lung diseases, including "brown lung" and COPD. And as in other industries, accidents involving large, fast-moving machinery caused many deaths and horrible injuries. Long working hours with few breaks contributed to hazards for exhausted workers--often children and women.

"Yorkshire, West Riding"--Photo by B. Hobson, 1921. Which was worse, the air inside or outside?
Whether coal, textiles, or steel industries, life for workers during the 19th century was often nasty, brutish, and short. I find it one of the great ironies of Andrew Carnegie's career that his family emigrated to the U.S from Scotland in 1848 because his father, a handloom weaver, was put out of work by the textile mills. While Carnegie was quite bitter about his family's exit from the old country as paupers, he apparently had few concerns about the hand workers and artisans forced to find work in his mills. Carnegie aimed to settle the score by buying a castle in Scotland, where he could lord it over his former countrymen--a castle where he was staying during the summer of 1892, far from the squalor and violence in Pittsburgh.

The history of the industrial revolution has many, many chapters, most of them not pretty. Still, the lives of fantasy English aristocrats don't interest me nearly as much as the lives of the millions of industrial workers in Britain and North America. For many of us from Pennsylvania, as with many from Yorkshire and all the other industrial places of the world, these stories are our family stories.

The song and old photos are American, but the experience of these textile workers is universal:

 "Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls"
Power loom at Quarry Bank Mill

Suggested reading, Social Novels:
Sybil, or the Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli (1848). Deals with the conditions of the working classes.
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (1849). Set in Yorkshire during the Luddite uprisings.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855). Based on Gaskell's experiences in industrial Manchester. Adapted for television in 1975 and 2004.
Suggested viewing.
Detective series set in the North of England.
Vera. ITV. Set in contemporary Northumberland.
Inspector George Gently. BBC One. Set in 1960s North East England (Newcastle, County Durham)
Brassed Off (1996). Comedy-drama about coal miners in a North England town where the colliery may be closed.
Cambrian Woollen Mill just north of Llanwrtyd Wells is one of the few remaining operational woolen mills in Wales.The brick mill building dates from the 1820s. In the 1990s I bought a Welsh tapestry coverlet here. Today their production is limited to smaller items such as tartan scarves.

--Except where noted, all photos were taken by Trilby Busch. Please credit if you reuse.