opinion. / Social history


I hope you can see this, there seems to be a problem with wordpress and leaving commments.

This week a new drama “The mill” started on British TV.

A  compelling, fact based drama about the ” apprentices” at Quarry Bank Mill, not far from here  in Cheshire in the early 19th century.

 This could well be the new Downton Abbey, here is a



.My first job at age 16 was in a local textile mill as a quality controller.  Whilst I studied textiles at the local college I ran the laboratory in the local mill,  regularly taking over the  running of the machinery from the workers to assess their efficiency.

Even then, in the mid 1960s,  despite health and safety legislation, conditions in the mill were uncomfortable.   Hot, noisy,  dirty and by necessity poorly paid, to compete with cheap imports from  Asia.   So  much so that it was difficult to recruit local women ( and they were mostly women)   The mill owners looked to India and Pakistan for workers,  starting a new wave of immigration to Bolton and the north west of England.

I left the mill at the age of 20, realising it was a dying industry and trained for the profession I am still in today.   By 1980 all the mills in Bolton had closed.  Ending 200 years of the textile industry in Lancashire England

Much later in my life, when I researched my genealogy I went on the journey of discovery of where I had come from.  What was in my genes?.

During this journey I uncovered a long history of  working class heroes.  Hard working honest people just trying to get by.  Most of them did not have much access to education, were forced to go out to earn a living as soon as they could and they struggled to survive.

They often lived in overcrowded conditions and worked long hours. Families of eight or nine, or more, living in two up two down houses.  Working in shifts with only an outside toilet and a tin bath in front of the fire.  Many of them worked in the mills and supporting industries like coal mines.   The owners of these mills and pits luxuriated in large houses , sometimes they were philanthropic  and developed education plans and health plans for the workers,  but mostly they were  just interested in profit ( sound familiar?)  and woe betide any worker who was injured or died in the mills.  There was no support or compensation for the workers or their families, they were just thrown on the scrapheap.

The censuses, parish  records and  other documents I read   often detailed the horror of the conditions in which  they lived and worked in the mills, factories and mines..

A lot is written about the abuse and  exploitation of black slaves in the US in the 18th and 19th century.  Black slaves were certainly  treated appallingly,    but a lot of  the time,  the way these white workers were treated in the Northern England textile mills, was no better. and there is never any recognition of this.

  This is England’s shameful secret of white slavery,  when child labour and adult exploitation was often used to fill the cofffers of the British empire,  to fund the drive to dominate the world.

During my family tree research I came across this story of one my ancestors from 1832

Mary Anne aged 32, fell on hard times.  Her husband was killed in an accident in the mill and she was left destitute with two young boys.

Being practically blind she had no way of earning a living herself, so she went to the “parish”….a committee of church elders and local influential people,  run by the church, to beg for charity to keep herself and her boys.

 The parish committee decided not to give her charity, but to send them to the workhouse instead.   Workhouses were foreboding institutions, with harsh conditions,  for the destitute poor,  housed in dormitories,  given minimal food and put to some menial work. The mentality was that they should not be too comfortable least they would encourage people to want to go there.

 (Most people have read the story of Oliver Twist)

At the workhouse, Mary Anne was separated from her boys Thomas aged 8 and Henry aged 6.  She was sent to the women’s dormitory and the children to the children’s wing.

Thomas was quickly ” apprenticed” to a local man, a ropemaker.  Under this scheme individuals and organisations (like mills or mines) were given £10 to take in the children and teach them a trade.  Thus saving the workhouse the cost of supporting the children till they grew up and hopefully turning the children into productive adults.   The children were “indentured” ( legally bound)  until they were 21.  Sounds like a good idea.  but  in reality a lot of these children were just used as unpaid labour and treated very badly….enslaved. 

Henry followed Thomas into an apprenticeship two years later.  I am not sure what happened to him.

Thomas ran away from his “master” at age 12.

Mary Anne died in the workhouse aged 39 from “consumption”

Today when I hear people complaining about “benefit scroungers” and the “undeserving poor”  I think of Mary Anne. and her boys and everything I read about the workhouses and the conditions in them.

Whilst I agree there are those who seek to exploit the system and there will always be that minority who are unable or unwilling to work…. would these complainers wish a return to these workhouses conditions, where children, whose only crime was to be born poor,  are sold off and blind women are given such a poor diet that they die before they are 40?

I even read some minutes from a workhouse guardian committee meeting discussing if the inmates should be given a hot meal and a day off to pray  on Christmas day.    Some of the members thought the inmates should be given a hot meal for “Christian charity and compassion” whilst other members thought they should be given their usual bread and gruel because giving them a hot meal  would “give the wrong example to those starving unfortunates on the outside.”…..by the vote the inmates did not get the meal.

God forbid, in a civilised society,  we should ever have to return to such harshness.

Love Denise

A year ago we were watching the

London Olympics


  1. Hi Denise. I have just read your wonderful piece on ‘white slavery’ and the workhouse. There was no ‘comments’ box, but I have found this one under the ‘About’ tab. What a good piece of writing, which I really enjoyed. You know, I read ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ in (say) the early 70s and was shocked at how workers were treated in Victorian times. And then I re-read it in the 80s and was shocked at how some of it seemed to be creeping back under Thatcherism. Now I think with the continuation of her policies we are heading back to the poor being treated as less than human again. I am currently half-way through reading “Chavs: the demonisation of the working class” by Owen Jones and it makes chilling reading. The first time I heard the term chav used I instinctively hated it. It is so alienating – how much easier it is for the comfortably-off to dismiss people as less-than-human when you can put them all in a box labelled ‘Chavs’ and scum. Present policies encourage this ‘us and them’ mentality, and people are less likely to have any sympathy for ‘scroungers’ who only have themselves to blame for not trying hard enough. Policies which deliberately destroyed industries are conveniently overlooked as having a part in the situation. Not everyone is like this, of course, but in the 21st Century there are still plenty who would sit in positions of power, like those deciding whether or not Mary Ann and her sons deserved charity, and plump for the ‘let them rot’ decision. Bossy xx

  2. Hi bossy, thanks for persisting and finding a way to comment.. There is obviously a problem and they tell me they are trying to fix it. When I get back to normal I will transfer these comments to the right post.

    I too read “The Ragged trousered philanthropist” many years ago and I agree there are parallels today with the attitudes displayed in the book. I must get the book you talked about. “chavs. the demonisation of the working classes”

    I have been involved in the trade union since the 1970′s. I lived through the “winter of discontent” when strikes ( brought about by rampant inflation) caused much disruption and misery to people. I also lived through the miners strike and the closure of other nationalised industries by Thatcher, in a deliberate policy to create unemployment and keep the working classes down……it was deemed more economic to pay these workers unemployment benefit than subsidise the industries they worked in…… a massive failure as we still have the “benefit class” that her policies created.

    I have seen over and over that clearly most employers, (including public services) given the chance will exploit their workforce to the maximum they legally ( and sometimes illegally) can get away with, unless there is legislation to prevent this.

    This is probably worse these days with capitalism, as the employers are answerable to shareholders who have no loyalties and will take their money elsewhere if they are not making a profit. It is just a fact of life. Shareholders are not going to say ” oh I will leave my investment alone, even though it is not making as much money, because workers really should be paid more so they can look after their children.

    I agree that current policies and attitudes could take us back to those Victorian kind of conditions if not controlled. There is demonisation of people by the media, of those who claim benefits, immigrants and asylum seekers. as if they are responsible for the current recession.

    Whilst there are those who exploit the system, my experience is that most are just trying to survive….. The bedroom tax, repeal of legislation giving workers rights, withdrawal of legal aid for those who can’t afford representation in law. Limitation on claims for unfair dismissal and upfront CHARGES for bringing a case. ( If you are thrown out of work, how do you afford this?) all designed to support exploitative employers instead of policies to help create jobs and provide self respect, confidence and training to support people into work..

    The current government has brought in a lot of changes (cuts) to the benefit system in this country, but done little to the bankers who caused the crisis or rich greedy people and corporations who creatively avoid paying tax.

    Where I work, in 2012..we were told we must work 12 hour shifts. ( this is a public service) Ironically in the programme there was a portrayal of a political movement for the Factories act and their chant was . “SUPPORT THE 10 HOUR BILL” which would have made it it illegal to work more than 10 hours……..not much has changed in 200 years!

    Sorry for the rant but this is something I feel strongly about.

    Again, thanks for your comment.
    Love Denise

    • Don’t worry, I loved your rant – you are a woman after my own heart! Maybe we’ll (wo)man the barricades together one day, ha ha! I can see that you will love that book!
      We don’t have the problems to the same extent here, but our current National (i.e. Tory) government is following all the tried and true policies which have caused the gulf between the haves and have-nots to grow enormously since the early nineties (when we started to adopt Thatcherism here).
      Bossy x
      p.s. one of my first ‘proper’ jobs was in the office of a textile dyeworks near Stockport (no longer in existence).

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