A Day in the Life of… An Apprentice House Interpreter

Today at Quarry Bank you will find interpreters all over the site working to bring the mill to life. This week we hand over to Jenny who wants to compare her average day to that of the apprentices who worked here long before any of us…

Day in the life... apprentice 3


It’s 9:45am. I’m carrying a bucket of coal across a cobbled courtyard, clogs clacking against the stones.

It doesn’t sound like a morning at your typical job.

I’m Jenny, I work in interpretation at Quarry Bank where every day is spent in the 18th Century. My home is the Apprentice House, a striking white building built in 1790 to house the child mill workers.

My job is to interpret the fascinating story of these apprentices to our visitors, and to give them an idea of what it would have been like to experience life here. The apprentices, of course, would have lived it.

To compare, I’ll separate our days into two. Two very different lives in one house.

Apprentice House in the 21st Century

I’ll arrive at 9:30 with more keys than a night watchman. I’ll unlock the house and turn on the lights. Our bulbs are disguised in old-fashioned lanterns, which admittedly, upon joining the team at Quarry Bank, I was fooled into believing had candles inside. Silly, I know.

Another morning job is to take down the rabbit fences. At the Apprentice House, our gardeners grow produce similar to that which would have been grown here hundreds of years ago – produce that the rabbits think is delicious – the challenge is to let our visitors in, but keep the rabbits out! The handy fences have done the job… so far.

It’s then time to light the fires.

Day in the life... apprentice 1

The Apprentice House is very damp because it has no foundations or damp proof course, so lighting fires on wet mornings can be a challenge! We have the fires roaring when we can, particularly in the kitchen – as it would have always been crackling in there – not just for accuracy but for warmth! I always explain to shivering visitors in winter that it is often colder in the house than it is outside!

Day in the life... apprentice 2

Our ‘school room’ or more accurately ‘the multi-use room’ is very popular, and each morning we need to make sure our 18th Century punishments are set out (a pair of wooden dumb bells, pleasant to hold, unless you were made to stand with them held out straight for a full hour, as was custom in the school room!), the date is written on the blackboard in cursive and slates are put out on the tables. When inviting our visitors, young and old, to doodle on them, I find some rather wonderful drawings of the mill itself!

With the room set up and the fires merrily dancing, it’s time to get dressed. In our staff room, you will find a rainbow of period attire – from aprons to caps to breeches. All of us have our own costumes, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t briefly lost items and mixed and matched with any spares…! Some guides wear clogs on their feet – shoes accurate to apprentices and workers of the time – but mine hurt my back, so it’s an occasional affair for me. In the winter, it is so cold in the house that we all wear several layers and thermals beneath our costumes.

By comparison, an apprentice’s morning would be a lot more strained…


Apprentice House in the 18th Century

The superintendents, often a married couple, would be in charge of the house, its supplies and staff, so locks and keys would be up to them. Apprentices’ mornings would start from half past five when chamber pots would be emptied, beds made, faces washed and breakfast had. In comparison to my average five hour day, the apprentices would be marching down the hill to a twelve hour shift at the mill.

The Apprentice House Kitchen at Quarry Bank Mill, Styal, Cheshire

Whilst I am chatting to our visitors, these apprentices would have been toiling by metal monsters, piecing broken threads and scavenging cotton debris from beneath the machines. The apprentice house would have been their home – far more impressive to them than the gloom of the orphanage or workhouse.

The toil doesn’t end there. Spare time for the apprentice boys was spent in the garden, tending to the vegetables – something our gardeners and volunteers look after now. Girls would have perched in the multi-use room (our ‘school’ room), sewing and reinforcing the notion that the Apprentice House would not have been a home as we know it, but an institution.

Today, we reinforce this to our visitors with detailed guided tours and roleplays with school children (an exercise that can end in many tears, even though that isn’t the intention). Our information comes from a wonderfully abundant archive, where indentures, apprentice testimonials and receipts survive for us to gather knowledge from. We’re still learning new things, which makes the job all the more fascinating.

The Apprentice House and garden in May which are part of the Quarry Bank Mill and Styal Estate, Wilmslow, Cheshire

Working in the Apprentice House does have its stories and quirks. I hope seeing a small corner of that in my ‘day in the life’ has peaked your interest!

Perhaps we will see you soon?

I’ll have the fires burning.

Day in the life... apprentice 4


One Comment Add yours

  1. Neil Sledge says:

    Great commentary Jenny, well done!

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