The Mill Series 2, Episode 1 – The Poor Laws
Series 2 of The Mill has kicked off by exploring of one of the most contentious pieces of legislation of the 19th century; The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which saw the wide-scale introduction of the infamous workhouse, as we greet a brand new family; the Howletts.
Daniel Bate: Robert Greg’s asked the Poor Law commission to send workers from the south under this new migrant labour scheme. These men are farmers…They’ve lost land, everything, and they’re being forced up here, and they’ll be desperate, and the men I speak for they’re scared, they’rescared they’ll drive down our wages.
John Doherty: They’re not the enemy. They’re victims of the Poor Law. We have to unite with them, not fight them. Save your famous rage for those that deserve it, Dan.
The Poor Law Amendment Act was was designed to reduce the rate of tax levied on the middle and upper classes, who complained that the working classes were lazy and disruptive; the ‘un-deserving poor’. A Poor Law Commission was set up, which created Poor Law Unions across the parishes.
Whilst workhouses had existed prior to 1834, the Act made it so that all unemployed able bodied persons could only receive poor relief from their parish workhouse, where they were given accommodation, food, and clothes, in exchange for labour.
Workhouses were built in each Poor Law Union, but families were often split up from one another and sent to different workhouses. Conditions were so terrible inside that people would only seek relief as a last resort. Even before the Act was introduced, many parents begged for mill owners, like Samuel Greg, to take on their children as apprentices where they would receive a better standard of care.
The Northern mill owners saw the Poor Law Amendment Act as an opportunity to source desperately needed labourers. On 17th September 1834, Robert Hyde Greg wrote to Edwin Chadwick, secretary to the Poor Law Commission:
“But for the operation of the poor laws in binding down labourers to their respective parishes in this mode…there would have existed a free circulation of labour throughout the country, to the benefit of all alike of the northern and southern parts. Nothing but the poor laws has prevented this circulation…
At the moment our machinery in one mill has been standing for 12 months for hands. In another mill we cannot start our new machinery for the same want…
The suggestion I would make is this…the most overcharged parishes might transmit lists of their families. Manufacturers short of labourers…might look over the lists and select as they might require large families or small ones, young children or grown up, men, or widows or orphans etc…
Hard working men, or widows with families, who preferred gaining an honest living to a workhouse, would, I am confident, be in demand.”
Bledlow was one of the worst poverty affected areas following the Act. Men of the parish joined together to appeal to the Poor Law Commission in December 1834, echoing Robert’s sentiments:
“We who sign this letter are the paupers of Bledlow in Buckinghamshire…We have asked the magistrates of West Wycombe to order the overseers of the poor to give us more relief. They told us the overseers have no more money to give us and cannot find work for us…
We are all able-bodied men and willing to work, and very unwilling to live in idleness or in charity…”
The letter went on to explain that despite searching for work there were no jobs available in the South and they were unable to support their families on the meagre sum of 7 shillings (roughly £17 in today’s money) a week (made from agricultural work), for once they had bought what little food they could:
“We have nothing left. We have no money remaining for buying clothing or fuel, or to pay our rent.”
Their appeal was published in The Times and Dr Kay, assistant to the Poor Law Commission, was sent to assess the situation in Bledlow. More factory owners wrote to the Poor Law Commission requesting they be allowed to employ these men in their factories, and so a system was set up and the first of the migrants moved from Bledlow in October 1835.
These families were the Howletts and the Steevens, who moved to Styal, and were indentured to work at Quarry Bank Mill for Robert Hyde Greg.
John Howlett signed his indenture on behalf of himself and his four children; Mary-Ann, Ann, Celia, and Timothy. John was to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, whilst the children were to work 11 1/2. John had been widowed a couple of years before moving to Styal and brought with him his new bride Mary, who was not put to work in the mill.
They were indentured for two years and in return they were given lodging in 5 Oak Cottages in Styal (their cellar would soon be lived in by Esther Price and the Holt family) and were paid “Twenty four shillings per week in the first year and twenty seven shillings for the second year”. This equates to roughly £100 in today’s money. John was illiterate, and signed his name with a cross.
John worked in the scutching room for the first two years, and then became a labourer on the estate. His children continued to work in the mill well into adulthood.
The Howletts and the Steevens remained in Styal for decades, as did their descendants. A man named Thomas Tonge, in the 1920s, a very elderley man at this point, remembered John Howlett from his youth in the 1860s:
“His wife Mary, a big, fat woman, not a bad sort, was a character. In his later days he was querulous and complaining. One night John awoke his wife saying ‘Meary, Meary, I am a dyin’.’ She had heard that sort of thing before more than once, so merely replied ‘All right John, get on wi’ thy dyin’ and I will cry for thee in the mornin’, I am going to sleep’, which she did”.
Meanwhile, back in the South, by 1837, around 6,000 people had migrated to the North, and the poor relief rates in Bledlow were thought to have fallen by half. The mass migration meant wages were able to rise and the availability of work increased.
It must have taken a lot of courage for these families, orphans and widows to leave their homes and the life they knew to uproot themselves into an entirely new village or town, and an entirely new way of life and working. As a rural labourer there was no one to tell you when you could eat or what time you had to get up, but in the mills and the factories, every last part of your life became regulated, something which we will see the characters of The Mill fight against in the coming episodes…