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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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