By Morgan Halane
Before coming to Lancaster for my semester abroad, I had been aware that life in the textile mills of Northern England during the Industrial Revolution was harsh. However, a trip to Quarry Bank Mill in Styal gave me a much better indication of how harsh life in the mills could be. The Northwest of England was a hotbed for cotton spinning factories, in part because the damp climate hindered the combustion of the cotton, obviously a major problem for factories filled with wood and cotton. The Quarry Bank Mill was powered, in part, by a large waterwheel, which we were able to witness in action.
Before touring the mill, the other students and I were able to experience life as a mill apprentice living in an apprentice house. Mill apprentices were very young, and in exchange for working in the mills they were fed and housed. The food was hot and all-you-care-to-eat, but consisted primarily of a gruel-like dish with vegetables sometimes added. We were able to actually sit down on beds very similar to the ones used by the apprentices. The beds were very short and padded with straw and would obviously be uncomfortable by modern standards. As part of the apprenticeship, students took school lessons. The other students and I were able to try our hand at writing with slate boards and quills. I found that writing with the quills was somewhat easier, but I still had some trouble with even that method.
After learning about life as an apprentice we toured the mill itself. In the mill we were given a demonstration of cotton carding and spinning, time consuming processes which were eventually sped up with technological advances. One of the most fascinating pieces of machinery to see in action was the mule jenny. We sadly learned that Quarry Bank Mill’s sole work-related death occurred when a young worker was crushed behind a mule jenny, unable to hear the calls of warning over the din of the mill. Quarry Bank Mill was actually one of the more pleasant mills to work in, however, and conditions there were much better than conditions in larger cities such as Manchester.
Visiting the mill really gave me a better understanding of not only the conditions of the workers at Quarry Bank, but it also opened my eyes to the sheer amount of labor that was needed to produce textiles during that time period.