BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

18 June 2014
Accessibility help
Text only
Legacies - Millies and Doffers

BBC Homepage
 UK Index
 Millies and Doffers
Your stories
 Site Info
 BBC History
 Where I Live

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

old lady in a spinning room
on the frontline

© BBC 2004
Millies and Doffers

The meaning of the terms mentioned at the beginning of the article are: – Millies: a general, and condescending, name given to mill workers. Doffers: the name given to the mostly women who doffed or tied up the full spindles of linen thread and quickly replaced this with a fresh empty spindle.

Detailed descriptions of the linen processes leading up to and including flax spinning and doffing can be heard in this audio clip, along with the dread of the doffing mistress, as mill workers tell their stories from the early 1900`s.

Even before the millies and doffers got to the workplace they had to deal with the factory gateman. Being “shut out” was not only humiliating but also costly. If you were not inside the gates by 6.00am precisely, you were locked outside to await your fate, this included a fine and having your name entered into a complaints ledger. Digital alarm clocks that wake you up slowly to the soothing sound of your favourite CD’s weren’t an option for these factory workers.

old fashioned pocket watch
© BBC 2004
For some the distant noise of the factory horn sounding at 5.30am was enough to wake them, for others a “knocker up” was essential. In one part of Belfast it was an old, one -armed sailor, who went from house to house in his designated patch, knocking on doors with a stick. Only when he heard a shout from inside, verifying his job was done, would he move on.

Once inside the mills, the hot, dusty and moist environment of the wet and dry spinning rooms made life very unpleasant for the spinners and doffers. Along with the dangers of the open machinery, the women had to contend with:

Onychia – inflammation of the nail on the big toe caused by spinners working in their bare feet in the hot and dirty water lying on the floor. Dyspnoea - Abnormally uncomfortable awareness of one's own breathing effort. Caused by the enormous amounts of fine dust which affect the lungs of the spinners.

In this audio clip, the damp and dusty conditions are described, including a process by which disease was passed from worker to worker called “kissing the shuttle” and a mill manager recalls his horror at discovering a mill worker had fainted, through pure hunger.

Pages: Previous [ 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ] Next

Your comments

Print this page
Look back into the past using the Legacies' archives. Find nearly 200 tales from around the country in our collection.

Read more >
Internet Links
Watch a reconstruction of the inside of a spinning mill
A New York linen business with Ulster roots
Find out about the modern linen trade
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Web sites.
Porteous riot
Related Stories
The Scottish Borders Textile Industry
More Factory tales in Victorian Lancashire
The Rowntrees Women of North Yorkshire

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy