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This page has been archived and is no longer updated.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

24 September 2014
Nation on Film

BBC Homepage
Where I Live

Contact Us

Workers leaving millWhere there's muck there's brass as the saying goes, and as world leader in textile production England was enjoying unparalleled wealth and trade.
So whilst England raked in the coffers and revelled in the 'brass', factory workers in cramped, filthy housing and often dangerous working conditions, were firmly on the receiving end of the muck!

The rapid growth of the cotton industry demanded an ever increasing work force.

Workers moved out of the country and into the city attracted by the prospect of better paid jobs in textile production.

City slums

And an ever growing work force demanded ever growing accommodation.

Mill worker
Danger at work - there were numerous health hazards inside and outside the mill

As towns and cities sprang up around the factories, living conditions declined. Badly planned, poorly built slums were seriously overcrowded.

Open sewers and shared privies meant disease was rife and in 1831, Manchester was hit by a severe cholera epidemic which claimed hundreds of lives.

Whilst living conditions remained a cause of serious concern, the occupational health risks of factory work soon became apparent to the medical profession.

'A fair day's pay for a fair day's labour!'

Woman in mill
A long working day

Whilst modern day workers may rue the nine to five routine, cotton mill workers were three hours into their 13 our working day by 9am.

Long working days continued throughout the 18th Century and for much of the 19th too.

Mechanisation may have shifted cotton spinning from a craft to an industrial process, but it came at a cost - a human cost.

The noise from machinery was deafening, many workers became skilled lip readers in order to communicate over the noise.

Ear protection was not compulsory leading to many workers becoming deaf.

Fighting for breath

The air in the cotton mills had to be kept hot and humid (65 to 80 degrees) to prevent the thread breaking.

Women spinners
A dangerous job

In such conditions it is not surprising that workers suffered from many illnesses.

The air in the mill was thick with cotton dust which could lead to byssinosis - a lung disease.

Although protective masks were introduced after the war, few workers wore them as they were made uncomfortable in the stifling conditions.

Eye inflammation, deafness, tuberculosis, cancer of the mouth and of the groin (mule-spinners cancer) could also be attributed to the working conditions in the mills.

Long hours, difficult working conditions and moving machinery proved a dangerous combination. Accidents were common and could range from the loss of a finger to fatality.

Working for wakes week

Life in the mill was harsh and the only respite came in the form of wakes week, in which the mill would close for a week or fortnight to allow workers an annual holiday.

Those who could afford it headed to seaside resorts such as Blackpool or Morecambe for a week, while others would enjoy the delights of the fair on a day trip.

Holiday trains would be specially laid on to cope with the influx of workers and for a short time, hardships at work were forgotten - almost.

Harsh conditions, unfair practices in the mills provoked demands for reform with mass protests, strikes, disputes and the growth of trades unions.

The passing of numerous Factory Acts over the years saw a gradual improvement in working conditions, but life as a mill worker was never an easy one.

see also

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