In Episode 2 of The Mill we see Jack Howlett nearly reach a horrific end, when his head is almost crushed between the draw frame and the back plate of the spinning mule.
Luckily for Jack, his father John Howlett in an act of superhuman strength brings the mule to a stop by grabbing the belt that drives the machine, and chastises his son for being careless:
John Howlett (matter of fact): You could’ve been killed, son. Your skull could have been like an apple under a sledgehammer. And whose fault would that have been?
Jack: I’m sorry, Dad.
John (gentle, kind): Do you understand now why you have to concentrate? Why you can’t be careless for a second?
Harsh words from a father to a son, but sadly true – as a worker or an apprentice in a cotton factory you had to keep your wits about you every second of the day. For a handful of unfortunate souls at Quarry Bank Mill, they were not to be as lucky as Jack Howlett.
One of the earliest recorded accidents was the incident surrounding Thomas Priestley, whom you may remember from Series 1. In the series, Tommy’s arm is caught up in one of the drive belts powering the spinning mule, and his hand is crushed and later amputated by Dr Holland.
In 1806, the real Tommy Priestley recounted his accident to the Magistrates’, when he was put before them after running away, as follows:
“About 2 months before I left the place…one of the wheels caught my finger and tore it off; it was the forefinger on my left hand. I was attended by the surgeon at the factory, Mr Holland and in about 6 weeks I recovered.”
There were two accidents some years later which provided the archival material for the fictional Tommy’s accident.
Joseph Davenport was 25 years old and an assistant to one of the weaving overlookers. On 23rd June 1845, he was working on a loom when his shirt sleeve was caught on the drive belt which “snatched him up to the drum.” Joseph’s arm was completely ripped off. He was immediately taken to Manchester Infirmary (some miles away) on the back of a cart. His arm was amputated, but sadly, after lingering for a few days, Joseph died from his injuries.
A few decades later, on 1st April 1881, William Bowker, was working as a carder. The carding machine cleans the raw cotton and brushes the fibres into alignment, ready for it to be twisted into a workable thread. William had to “press down the fly”, which was usually done using a metal rod – on this occasion William pressed it with his hand which was “drawn in by the licker in” and performed a horrifying trick known as “degloving” – his skin and flesh was peeled off by the needles used to clean and align the cotton. (I abhor the carding engine for this very reason – every time I think about it, it sends shivers down my spine). William was taken to Stockport Infirmary where his arm was amputated.
“He recovered in the course of time and came back to work again; a mechanical arm being provided for him by the firm”. This is the remarkable piece of technology that we see the fictional Daniel Bate create for Tommy in The Mill. In reality, and still just as remarkable, the mechanical arm was provided by Edward Hyde Greg who was in charge of Quarry Bank Mill at the time.
The unfortunate act of degloving also happened to two lads within a few weeks in the same room. On 14th December 1888, Christopher Bower lost a thumb to the grinder in the carding room. After a miserable Christmas nursing his newly thumbless hand, lockjaw (tetanus) set in and Christopher died. Soon after Christopher’s accident, Philip Sprowson was also degloved, but he was fortunate enough to survive.
What of the fictional Jack Howlett’s almost deathly accident?
On 6th March 1865 a young boy called John Foden suffered the fate Jack escaped. We’re not entirely sure what happened; whether it was in the last hours of the working day and John was therefore exhausted and lacking that vital concentration, or if his overlooker saw another boy come up from one of the mules and mistook him for John, allowing the draw frame to move back. Either way, poor John’s head was crushed between the roller and carriages; “completely smashed, death being instantaneous…a very melancholy incident.”
On 3rd January 1889 an unnamed boy almost suffered the same fate. He was sweeping underneath the mule but left it too late to get out; “was caught between the carriage and the roller beam…the upper portion of one ear was cut off and a severe scalp wound inflicted.” He recovered after 6 weeks and went back to work.
Whilst these are some of the more well recorded incidents, there were probably far more accidents that happened on a daily basis. The shuttles on the looms were a constant hazard; moving at the speed they did, fellow weavers were constantly in danger of being smacked round the head or in the stomach by a rogue shuttle that had shot off a nearby loom.
The records of Dr Holland also point to more aches and pains incurred through working at the Mill:
“18th April 1804 – William Topping – Let the fingers be dressed each morning with the white salve”
“25th April 1804 – James Bayles – Let his hand be dressed with the white salve in three days.”
No doubt the salve was probably need to soothe blisters incurred from piecing all day.
There are plenty more prescriptions recorded of poultices for knees and ankles – probably caused by scavenging under the mules for hours on end.
What then, were the Gregs doing to protect their workers, particularly in an era when Health and Safety and First Aid was non-existent? Well, as in many other areas, the Gregs were pioneers in attempting to provide a safer work environment for their workers and apprentices. By 1833 Samuel Greg had fenced off most machines, some eleven years before this became compulsory by law under the Factory Act of 1844, which required that “every fly-wheel directly connected with the steam engine or water-wheel or other mechanical power, whether in the engine-house or not, and every part of a steam engine and water-wheel, and every hoist or teagle, near to which children or young persons are liable to pass or be employed, and all parts of the mill-gearing in a factory…” to be “securely fenced.”
The employment of Dr Holland in the late 1790s is in fact the earliest recorded instance of a factory doctor being employed anywhere in the world. He was also the Greg family’s personal physician, which indicates how highly Samuel regarded the health of his workers; ensuring they received the same level of medical care afforded to his own family – of course they weren’t working in the Mill 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. That the Gregs allowed their workers to heal and recuperate and return to their jobs also sets them above other mill owners, who immediately sought to replace injured workers – leaving them mutilated and jobless.
In comparison to other mills the accident rate at Quarry Bank Mill was extremely low; whilst some might say three deaths in the span of 100 years is three too many, other mills saw hundreds.
Even today our Machine Interpreters have to take the same level of care as the mill workers, only now their time working with the machines are limited, they are given weeks of intensive training, are provided with ear defenders (visitors are advised to only spend 15 minutes in our Weaving Shed), and every part of the machinery it is possible to fence off is guarded.
You can find out more about the working conditions at Quarry Bank Mill here: http://bit.ly/QBMconditions