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Dark Satanic Mills

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November 2008

In 1833 the new Factory Act made provision for the role of Factory Inspector. To cover the whole of England, there were only four. Happily the number of people who came to The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society to enjoy Ian Mack’s revelations about mills in the Stroud area was rather higher.

Cloth manufacture in the Stroud area can be traced back as far as the 1300s as a cottage industry and so it endured until around 1800 when for the first time the mechanisation of the carding and spinning processes were moved to the mills. Stroud, being an area where rolling adjacent hills provide for the rearing of sheep and steep valleys provide an abundant water supply to turn mighty water wheels and later fuel boilers, lies in an ideally suited geographical location.

Stroud produced two types of cloth. A long fibre ‘worsted’ cloth for export and the famous short fibre, thick, high-quality ‘Stroud Scarlet’ known as broadcloth because of the size of the loom on which it was produced. England’s territorial ambitions from the time of the Civil War onwards ensured a great demand for this cloth which was mainly used for military uniforms. When times became more peaceful after 1880 and competition from the Yorkshire textile industry became fiercer, this inevitably signalled the end of Stroud’s first industry and saw the beginning of its decline.

The long building of Ebley Mill remains however in use today as the offices of Stroud District Council. This particular building was erected between 1818 and 1820 and was immediately leased to John Figgins Marling. With so few Factory Inspectors appointed in 1833 it was clearly going to be impossible for them to visit each mill and so it was decided to send each mill owner a questionnaire about practices in each of their establishments. It has to be said that there was no requirement for the owners to answer every question and very little, if any, checking-up was carried out but the answers do provide an interesting insight into conditions.

The Stroud return revealed that many entire families, including children from nine years old upwards, were working there. An average working week comprised ten hours per day and eight on Saturdays which the owners thought was ‘reasonable’ and allowed for families to have time together at weekends so that they could ‘work their allotments and benefit from the fresh air’. At the suggestion that long hours spent working in the mill might not have been the best thing for these children, the mill owners argued their benevolence in allowing the children to work alongside their parents thus contributing to the family budget and staving off starvation or the workhouse. It also appears that because some of the mill owners had taken it upon themselves to provide Sunday schooling, a surprising number of the older children could ‘read and write very well.’

However, the figures show that it was often the children who were the victims of mill accidents. By 1855 these were so numerous that it had become necessary to build an accident hospital in Stroud. The building still exists near the Subscription Rooms. Nationwide figures indicated that there had already been 21 people killed by being drawn into the machines, 182 had lost part or all of their hands, 28 had lost an arm or leg, 350 had suffered a fracture and 1272 had been painfully bruised or cut. The timing of accidents was very interesting with many occurring during the period for lunch. It was thought that during working hours parents closely supervised their children but during their lunch break the children sometimes climbed under, into or onto machines to retrieve objects essential to the games they were playing, sometimes with tragic consequences. Figures also indicate that when the prosperity of the industry was at its peak, so were the numbers of accidents. A major factor here seems to have been the unwillingness of the owners to shut down the machines for maintenance for fear of not fulfilling their order books.

The idea that mill owners were in someway cruel is strongly refuted by their answers in the questionnaire return. There is no mention of physical punishment of children who broke the rules. The preferred sanction seems to have been fine or discharge and fear of this together with the effects this would have on family income ensured that parents kept a close eye on their children at work. If there was any physical punishment to be meted out, the mill owners argued that it was the parents who discharged it and on rare occasions, were dismissed themselves for being too cruel to their children.

Nonetheless there was cruelty in the physical surroundings of the mills. Undoubtedly the noise levels were literally deafening. The fulling machines which repeatedly beat the cloth with heavy weights hour after hour in order to soften it, were the source of much deafness in later life. Furthermore, there were no washing facilities at the mill to remove chemicals from the arms of the dyers, or wash away the urine that was collected from local public houses and used by the mill employees in the softening process.

Despite all of this, the record shows that many families remained entirely loyal to a single mill throughout their working lives. In the Stroud area, the only real alternative employment opportunities were agriculture which, of course, was hard physical work out of the reach of many older people. Work in the mill demanded far less physicality and so was essentially for life. With no pension schemes, employees worked until they died and if they could not, the only alternative was the dreaded workhouse which in Stroud had been built to accommodate five hundred souls.

The Thornbury Society for Local History and Archaeology is very grateful to Mr Mack for this insight. Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 9th December when local historian Paul Wildgoose will deliver a much-anticipated talk on Thornbury’s walls and boundaries at St Mary’s Church Hall commencing at 7.30. Visitors are very welcome.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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