My mother was born in 1918, was very bright and it was suggested she go to the Grammar School to continue her education. This was not possible because at the age of 8 her father was killed in a “pitfall” and her mother who was disabled, was unable to pay for the uniform and all other associated costs.
So at 13 years of age she left secondary school and started work in one of the local cotton mills in Leigh, J & J Hayes. She only got the job because she had been brought up a Methodist and the owners of the mill were leading lights in the Methodist church (a bit like having Masonic connections!).
She spent over 30 years working in the cotton mills and as a child I can remember her coming home from the evening shift covered in bits of cotton and extremely tired. I often heard her talk about the work in the mill but had no real understanding of what it was really like.
This changed when I was a teenager and once went to the mill to meet my mother and I was told to go inside as she was just finishing her shift. The noise was appalling and I couldn’t breath properly because of the cotton in the air (the only thing I have seen worse was in the old steel furnaces in Sheffield…….now that was “Hell on Earth”).
With all of this in mind a good friend and colleague invited me to go with him to visit the Helmshore Textile Museum at Rossendale in Lancashire (as a Yorkshire resident I had to get a permit to leave the county for a day) which, is a working museum. Unusually, the original works had two mills, one spinning cotton goods and the other weaving wool which, is normally associated with West Yorkshire.
The museum itself consists of two mills; the Higher Mill which is a woolen fulling mill built in 1789 and driven by a water wheel. Whitaker’s Mill was built in the mid 19th century and is a specialised cotton spinning mill, starting from waste recycled cotton and finishing with mule spun yarn. There are other significant exhibits including a full size Hargreaves Spinning Jenny and a portrait of Sir Richard Arkwright. All exhibits are described by means of extensive video presentations and informative plaques.
There are demonstrations of the machinery working, accompanied by explanations of the background and history by very knowledgeable and helpful guides. Our guide was telling us that they get many visitors who actually worked in the old cotton mills in Lancashire and are able to give first hand accounts of the working conditions.
Health and safety was never a real priority in the mills (I know, as my mother lost the top of a finger of one hand when it was trapped in the machinery) and there are stories of women being “scalped” when their hair got caught in the moving rollers. You will note that in the photograph I have posted above all the women have their hair “up.”
Children as young as eight worked from 5.00am to 9.00pm at night and who, after nightfall had to be kept awake “by the overseers strap.” All employees had to abide by pedantic rules and would be fined (or dismissed) for any infringement. Rule 16 on the list I have posted states:-
“The masters would recommend that all their work people wash themselves every morning, but that they shall wash themselves at least twice every week, Monday morning and Thursday morning ,and any found not washed will be find 3d for each offence.”
For anyone interested in the industrial heritage of our country I would strongly recommend a visit. There is a nominal entrance fee and you can finish off your visit with an excellent pot of tea in the little café (a “gradely” cup of tea as we say in Lancashire, in a proper tea pot, none of this metal rubbish!)
So a big thank you to all the staff and guides who made us so welcome, I will be back.