If you’ve been watching The Mill you’ll know that Esther Price’s story is central to the series. As I’ve been discussing here on the blog, with most historical dramas some parts of the truth are adapted to make the story seem more compelling or to fit in with story lines – and so I wanted the opportunity to tell you about the ‘real’ Esther Price.
Esther was born in Liverpool in 1820 to Thomas Price, a sail maker and his wife Maria. She entered Liverpool Workhouse as a child but we do not know when or why – it is likely that she was one too many a mouth to feed. She was brought to Quarry Bank Mill as an apprentice in 1831, and signed her indenture in 1833, along with 18 other girls, after being examined by Dr Holland and declared fit and old enough to work.
We know little of Esther’s early years at Quarry Bank Mill until she was involved in a serious incident with another girl. Following the departure of Mrs Shawcross, who had cared for the apprentices for 25 years until her husband’s death, Mr and Mrs Timperley became the new superintendents. The period of transition saw a decline in the behaviour of the apprentices, and in November 1835 Esther and another girl assaulted a fellow apprentice. Their attack was so violent that Samuel Greg sent them before the Magistrates who punished them.
Samuel and his son Robert announced that they intended to bring back the old punishment of shaving off the girl’s hair, should any more apprentices misbehave or attempt to run away. Despite this threat, Esther and her friend Lucy Garner ran away in August 1836. It seems that Esther ran away in order to visit her father, rather than search for her baptism certificate as depicted in the TV show, although she did find this later on. Whilst Lucy returned after five days, Esther disappeared for ten. They begged to keep their hair and Robert, after discussion with his sister and Mrs Shawcross, did not dole out this punishment.
Robert described Esther’s punishment as follows:
“The windows were boarded, partly to prevent her escape and partly to prevent communication without. The room was partially dark. Her food milk and porridge and bread, morning an evening same as the other girls, but no dinner. She was put in on Monday or Tuesday night (that of her return); on Friday, after all the girls were in bed, Mrs Timperley died of apoplexy. On the following day, Esther Price feeling alarmed at being by herself, in the same house as the dead body begged to come out, promising to complete her terms of imprisonment afterwards. She was thereupon let out and never put in again.”
Whilst it was a lovely touch in the show to have the well-meaning Hannah Greg rescue Esther from her confinement, Hannah had actually died a few years before Esther arrived at Quarry Bank.
It seems the incident caught the attention of John Doherty and a Mr Turner of the Short Time Committee in Manchester, who visited Quarry Bank Mill in 1836.It was around this time that Esther obtained a copy of her baptism certificate, which confirmed that she would be eighteen in 1838, meaning she was eleven, rather than nine when she arrived, as Dr Holland had estimated. This would illustrate that she was keen to get out of the Apprentice House
In 1837, Esther’s sister, a Mrs Doughty visited Styal with John Doherty and they made a deposition, we think to bring Esther’s case to court. It is possible that it was Esther’s sister who found her certificate. In 1838, an anonymous pamphlet was published about misrepresentations of the Factory Act and the effects on cotton manufactures. The pamphlet personally attacked Robert Hyde Greg and his response to the Ten Hour Bill – “The Factory Question”.
The pamphlet details Esther’s case and we can speculate that it was in fact John Doherty who was the anonymous author as he printed the pamphlet and had great knowledge about Esther. According to the pamphlet, Esther had been refused permission to see her father and so she left during a temporary stoppage of the Mill, returned some days later and was ordered into solitary confinement after she had worked until breakfast. The pamphlet claimed that Esther was not released after Mrs Timperley’s death but rather she “rushed past the person” who brought her lunch. After these incidents it makes it all the more remarkable that Esther decided to continue working at the Mill after she left the Apprentice House.
Around 1838, Esther met William Whittaker (played by Mark Strepan in Series 2 of The Mill), a shoemaker, and in 1839 she gave birth to an illegitimate child, William Price, who sadly died in infancy in 1840. Esther was at this time living in Styal village, at 5 Oak Cottages with two other families. Esther’s relationship with William continued and she gave birth to a second child, Thomas Price, in 1843. At this time William remained living with his family in Holts Lane. In October 1851, William and Esther finally married in St Mary’s, Stockport. They had two more sons, William in 1853 and Abraham in 1855.
During this time, Esther was still working at Quarry Bank Mill. She began in the spinning rooms, before moving to the reeling room where she earned 8 shillings a week. Esther remained at Quarry Bank Mill for the rest of her life, working in the weaving sheds from 1841. She died in 1861, leaving behind her three young sons, and was buried at St Bartholomew’s Churchyard.
That’s all we know of Esther’s story at Quarry Bank, there are lots of gaps which sadly will probably never be filled – such as what happened to her during her absence from the Mill.
Images of ‘The Mill’ courtesy of Channel 4 Publicity Photographs/Ryan McNamara and
Images of “Account of the Circumstances Connected with the Punishment of Esther Price, 1843″ and Esther’s indenture, Esther’s birth certificate are courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council.