Apprentice life at Quarry Bank

So who watched The Mill last night on Channel 4? If you did you’ll already have seen that the plight of the apprentices is a central part of the story – but what was life really like for the apprentices of Quarry Bank?

The apprentice girls
The apprentice girls, photo courtesy of Channel 4/ Ryan MacNamara

Between 1790 and the 1830s approximately one-third of Samuel Greg’s workforce were pauper and orphan children. By 1816 they made up 36% of the workforce. They were not paid for their work but were obviously housed, clothed and fed by the Gregs. Thanks to the testimony of two runaways, Joseph Sefton and Thomas Priestly, we have a fantastic insight into the lives of the apprentices who worked at Quarry Bank Mill.

The indenture of John Ellis, binding him to work at Quarry Bank Mill
The indenture of John Ellis, binding him to work at Quarry Bank Mill

By law, children could be apprenticed from the age of seven but the Gregs preferred to take children at the age of nine or ten. In the absence of proper record keeping the ages of the children could not always be properly determined. The method used at Quarry Bank by Doctor Holland was to see if the children could reach over their head and touch the top of their ear – the logic being that they were developed enough to do so.

The Apprentice House in the 1860s
The Apprentice House in the 1860s

Once the children had passed a medical examination by a doctor they were contractually bound to the Gregs by an indenture. On average, children completed their contract at eighteen years of age, although some girls did stay until they were twenty-one.

The Apprentice House in the 19th century
The Apprentice House in the 19th century

Their day started early at 6am until about 7pm, with a ten minute break for breakfast at 8:30am when they were served porridge so thick they could eat it out of their hands! They were also allowed an hour for lunch. Their work was largely unskilled and varied from doffing the bobbins to moving full drums of cotton from the carding machines and replacing them with empty ones. The more dangerous jobs included that of the ‘little piecer’ whose job it was to follow the moving carriage of the spinning mule, fixing broken ends of threads and cleaning under the machine, all whilst at risk of having their head crushed by the machinery!

The spinning mule at Quarry Bank
The spinning mule at Quarry Bank

Whilst the children were not paid, they could do overtime for which they earned 1 penny per hour. Since they would be fined (rather than whipped or beaten) if they made a mistake, they had to earn money somehow. What they did earn was kept for them by the mill so they could earn a pot of money when they finished as apprentices to start their adult life.

Quarry Bank Mill in the 1860s
Quarry Bank Mill in the 1860s

When they returned from work they had to complete chores, and three times a week they received a basic education in writing and maths. The boys progressed further than the girls, who were expected to learn housekeeping skills such as sewing. The boys and the girls were separated for their lessons, which occurred three nights a week. The Gregs gave prizes to the apprentices for their achievements.

The schoolroom at the Apprentice House
The schoolroom at the Apprentice House

When they finally got to rest their weary heads it was in dormitories split into one girls’ dormitory and a couple of boys’ dormitories cosying up two to a bed. On a Sunday the children were expected to attend the local church, St Bartholomew’s in Wilmslow, walking two miles to get there in their Sunday best.

The dormitory at the Apprentice House
The dormitory at the Apprentice House

They were allowed some recreational time in between their regimented days, and there are reports of a playground with a swing and some toys for the children to play with.

The Apprentice House today
The Apprentice House today

There a few cases of runaways, most notably Joseph Sefton and Thomas Priestly whose court testimony reveals what life was like at the Apprentice House. Neither boy had any complaints about their treatment, they merely missed their families. Thomas, who is the same Tommy Priestly who loses his hand in the first episode of The Mill, lost his finger in 1806, which is partly the reason he ran away to see his mother. Esther Price and Lucy Garner, also characters in the show, were two other famous runaways, who returned to the Apprentice House days after they ran away.

The testimony of Joseph Sefton, image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives
The testimony of Joseph Sefton, image courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

When they were naughty the usual punishment was to work overtime, or, in the case of girls, have their hair cropped short. For more serious offences, such as running away, the apprentices were locked in a room for a few days at a time with only porridge to eat and no bread, as in the case of Esther Price.

The Apprentice House kitchen
The Apprentice House kitchen

The children were cared for by Doctor Peter Holland, previously the Greg’s family doctor and uncle to the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, who prescribed the children poultices, pills, laxatives and leeches. Healthy workers meant more productive workers!

Treatments were prepared for the children of the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank Mill
Treatments were prepared for the children using herbs from the Apprentice House garden

Generally, the apprentices of Quarry Bank enjoyed a greater level of care than most child mill workers who had poor diets, worked longer hours, did not receive an education or decent health care, and were subject to corporal punishment.

Quarry Bank Mill today
Quarry Bank Mill today

You can still visit the Apprentice House today on a timed, guided tour by one of our wonderful costumed interpreters, as well as the Mill and the gardens created by Samuel Greg and his descendants.

For more on the fact that inspired the fiction take a look at the Channel 4 page: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-mill

Laura

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. Jane Pietrusiak says:

    The colour palette used in the TV programme of generally grey was, as I suppose was intended, rather depressing. Knowing something of the subject matter already I felt some reluctance to actually sit watching the unpleasant events unfold without being able to try and defend the characters. The overseer who misbehaved with the girls did show unsuitable behaviour but I suppose that his personal history was also a deprived upbringing and perhaps little guidance on the correct way to behave as we would understand it in today’s world.

    1. Sue Brandis says:

      My gggrandfather Charles Crout was the overseer in the tv program “The Mill”. There is no historical evidence that he was in fact abusive in any way to the workers. This was all just fabricated for TV viewing. As he himself had been an apprentice at the mill I would like to think that he was in fact a compassionate person.

      1. Hi Sue,

        Thank you for your comment. If you would like to contact Channel 4 about the series then please do so at http://www.channel4.com/4viewers/contact-us.

        Laura

  2. Amanda says:

    Hi Laura
    My g-g-grandfather was Charles Crout. I was also shocked to find him portrayed in such a bad way by Channel 4 in ‘The Mill’ – and from the post from Jane proves, people actually believe it to be true!

    I’ve since found from various sources that there was no historical documented evidence that he (or any other overlookers at Quarry Bank Mill) ever abused the workers under his care. The Channel 4 ‘The Mill’ website even states that he’d started as an apprentice in 1806 and gone on to a career in the mill becoming an Overlooker in 1841.

    I wonder why Channel 4 would take Charles Crouts real name and then write a totally fictional storyline for him – and such an unsavoury one at that? As you are in the achives for this blog, maybe you could have another look to see if there actually is any truth behind the fiction.

    I have already written to Channel 4 and and still await a reply.

  3. Hi Amanda,

    Thank you for your comments. I understand your point of view, as I know do Channel 4: the distinction between fact and fiction is important, particularly where real characters are involved. This is one of the reasons both C4 and we at the NT have worked hard to ensure that the information and facts (or lack of them) behind characters is set out clearly for those who are interested, on both our websites.

    I am sorry that you are upset about the portrayal of Charlie Crout and can confirm that this portrayal is entirely fictional. In terms of the archive we know very little about the historical Charlie Crout beyond that he was an apprentice in 1806, and went on to become an overlooker in 1841. We know that he lived in Styal Village with his wife and their daughter. The archive is about to be catalogued so unfortunately we cannot carry out more research at present.

    Thank you for your concerns which have been noted.

    Laura

    1. Amanda says:

      Hi Laura
      Thanks for your reply. Luckily I have read the website set up by C4 and the NT and it does go a long way to clearly separate fact from fiction. Thanks to the National Trust and David Sekers for it’s input.
      I do wonder though how many of the viewing public are aware of (or even interested enough in knowing) how much of the portrayal, both of Quarry Bank Mill and the characters within the drama, is is of a creative nature. I still don’t feel that C4 have tried very hard to inform the viewers of the availability of such web pages – I caught the last few works of a voice-over of ‘The Mill Speaks’ before the programme even started last week – but could easily have missed it.
      I also feel, unfortunately, that C4’s ‘The Mill’ is a truly wasted opportunity for a more serious and educational look at the history of the mill – it is rather ‘soap-like’ in it’s approach – but obviously popular – which in many ways can’t be bad, at least it’s led to further discussion all over the web!

      Thanks again

    2. Amanda says:

      Hi Laura
      Thanks for your reply. Luckily I have found and read the websites you mention – thanks to C4 and David Sekers for this.
      Unfortunately I’m not sure how many of the viewers will be aware of, or interested enough in, knowing that these website exist and where they can be found. C4 still haven’t managed to make this at all clear. Other docu-dramas manage this kind of information better, perhaps C4 hadn’t anticipated they’d have the need – so have missed the opportunity in post production to apply the information to the front or back credits.
      I still feel that a great opportunity has been missed to show life at QBM in a more factual and educational way. ‘The Mill’ in my view is far too dumbed down historically and ‘soap-like’ in its characterisations – but at least it’s started off interest and dialogue on the web and in the press which can do now harm for QMB.
      Thanks again for your reply – it is appreciated.
      Amanda

  4. Amanda says:

    Oh dear how embarrassing – thought I’d lost the first reply so wrote again and posted it – again, then saw I hadn’t lost the first after all. It rather duplicates and overstates my case now – apologies to readers (and moderators) – I’ll shut up now.

    1. Thank you for your comments Amanda, they have been noted.

      Best wishes,

      Laura

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