Schooling and Employment in the Mills


This article, written by Caroline Densham in 2003, provides background information about the setting up of schools - such as the Strutt School at Belper - to educate the children employed within the Mill system. The passing of the Factory Act of 1833 required that schools should be provided for children working in the Mills. Attendance was required from Monday to Saturday every week, and every child between 9 and 13 years had to produce a certificate on a Monday morning, confirming that he had "been schooled" for two hours each day of the preceding week.

Schooling and Employment in the Mills

From the 18th century Sunday schools were widely regarded by the ruling classes as a cheap way to tackle the problems of ignorance and vice in their workers. A twelve hour day for all age groups had the backing of the working classes because they were on piece work and any reduction in hours for any member of the family meant a proportionate reduction in income. The large mills in which they worked were described in an article 'Manufacture of Cotton' by John Farey. "A large cotton mill is generally a building of five or six stories high: the two lowest are usually for the spinning frames, if they are for water twist, because of the great weight and vibration caused by these machines. The third and fourth floors contain the carding, drawing, and roving machines. The fifth storey is appropriated to the reeling, doubling, twisting and other operations performed on the finished thread. The sixth, which is usually in the roof, is for the batting machine, or opening machine, and for the cotton pickers, who for a large mill are very numerous. This last is not always so occupied, many manufacturers thinking it better to have out-buildings for these parts of the process, and only to have such parts in the mill as require the aid of the large water-wheel, or steam-engine, which turns the whole mill. If the mule is used for spinning instead of the water frame, then the cards are usually put below, because they are then the heaviest and most powerful machinery."[1]

In the 1770s and 1780s the mills "are worked night and day or at least 23 of the 24 hours one hour is allowed for examining oiling and cleaning. There is as regular relief of hands watch and watch about as in a ship."[2] Once a factory was built and production was running smoothly the need for adult labour was limited, men were needed for machine making, maintenance and supervision whilst women and children were needed for 'picking' and beating the raw cotton to prepare it for carding, but the bulk of the workers needed on the spinning frames were young children. After his visit to Manchester in 1802 Robert Southey explained why child labour and apprenticeship was so beneficial . " In most parts of England poor children are a burthen to their parents and to the parish; here the parish, which would else have to support them, is rid of the expense; they get their bread almost as soon as they can run about, and by the time they are seven or eight years old bring in money. There is no idleness among us; -they come at five in the morning; we allow them half an hour for breakfast , and an hour for dinner, they leave work at six, and another set relieves them for the night; the wheels never stand still."[3]

James Neild's letter to the Gentleman's Magazine in June 1804 estimated that in the previous year one out of ten of the children working in Manchester were apprentices, he said "it is not uncommon to hire four or five out of one family, by whose earnings alone (about 25s per week) their parents are supported in idleness and profligacy. I was informed none of the children could read, but those who were apprenticed out by the parishes of London, &."[4]

On Feb 15th 1785 the Manchester Mercury reported that Sir Richard Arkwright had set up a Sunday school at Cromford Mill where it "already consists of two hundred children. Pleasing it is to the friends of humanity, when power like his is so happily united with the will to do good". However profit came first, and when he was asked to consider giving women one half day off each week to learn sewing and be instructed in their Christian duties because working in a factory was unlikely to prepare females for domestic life he "assented to the importance of the objects, but said he could not possibly allow his neighbouring competitors such an advantage over him as the sacrifice of a half day would prove".[5]

In July 1785 Mr. Jedidiah[6] Strutt opened a Sunday School for mill children in his cotton mill and the Derby Mercury in Aug 1785 reported he was "An example worthy of imitation by all whom Providence has blessed with Affluence"supplying free "all the necessary Books, &c for learning to read and write. This school was opened on July 3, and 120 Scholars have already been admitted".[7]

On Saturday August 22nd 1801 Joseph Farington wrote about the young Cromford mill hands "In the evening I walked to Cromford, and saw the Children coming from their work out of one of Mr Arkwright's manufactories. I was glad to see them look in general very healthy and many with fine, rosy, complexions. - These children had been at work from 6 or 7 o'clock & it was now near or abt 7 in the evening. The time for resting allowed them is at 12 o'clock 40 minutes, during which time they dine. One of them, a Boy of about 10 or 11 years of age told me his Wages were 3s 6d a Week, - & a little Girl said her Wages were 2s 3d a week".[8] In the 1770s those under 9 only worked nine hours on Saturdays. These wages of 3s 6d and 2s 3d were equivalent to £6.19 and £3.98 in 2003, for a 72 hour week - and attendance at church and school was compulsory on the children's one non-working day!

Joseph Farington also described the religious instruction and education system at Cromford in his diary on Sunday August 23rd 1801 "We went to church at Cromford where there is a chapel built about three and a half years ago by Mr Arkwright...On each side the Organ is a gallery in which about 50 boys were seated. These children are employed in Mr Arkwrights work in the week-days, and on Sundays attend a school where they receive education. They came to Chapel in regular order and looked healthy & well & were decently cloathed and clean. They were attended by an Old Man their School Master . - To this school girls also go for the same purpose, and alternately with the Boys go to Church the Boys on one Sunday, - the Girls on the next following. -Whichever are not at Chapel are at School, to which they both go to every Sunday both morning and afternoon. - The whole plan appears to be such as to do Mr Arkwright great credit".[9]

In 1802 Peel, influenced by reports of mill children's bad health and stunted growth, persuaded Parliament to pass the 'Health and Morals of Apprentices Act' which applied to all mills and factories which had three or more apprentices or twenty or more other workpeople. The Act forbade the employment of apprentices for more than 12 hours a day (mealtime was not included in this total) and from 1 June 1802 night work was forbidden between 9pm and 6am. Other clauses regulated education and religious instruction. A printed copy of the Act was put in every mill or workshop and visits were made by magistrates and clergymen to enforce its rules.

Children began to work unofficially when they were very young, as infants they were scavengers who picked up waste cotton from the floor and went under machines where larger children could not creep and they wiped dust and dirt from the machinery. Henry Houldsworth explained "I have known children that carry up their parent's tea in the afternoon, kept by their parents for half an hour, to do a job of that kind, and perhaps to go up for half an hour, as much as four times a day, to assist in what they call wiping down, which is generally done in the course of fifteen minutes".[10] These children were employed by their parents, he said.

In 1774 mill owner Jedidiah Strutt said the Cromford partners employed children over seven and preferred to have them at 10 to 11 years old,[11] at ten they were tall enough to reach up to twist together, or piece, the loose ends of broken thread on the spinning loom. Each piecer would walk up and down to check that one of the sixty odd threads had not broken on their loom. In 1802 Britton and Bailey said children at Cromford were "not admitted into the mills till they have been sometime at school; and the Sunday schools are supported by Mr Arkwright for their instruction afterwards".[12] Children were supposed to learn to read before they were allowed to work at Cromford but Arkwright confessed that parental pressure had severely affected the standard of reading required for admission to the mill, and they were taken on if they could read just a few small words, "the parents are so anxious to get their children to work, that the man appointed to hear them read will sometimes examine them very little, and probably they can scarcely read; that is a matter that has been obligded to be attended to sometimes, to make them adhere to the rules".[13]

Jedidiah Strutt's first School room at Belper was in the attic of North Mill and used until a proper school was built at the bottom of Long Row in 1818.[14] Some of the Mill School Registers from this date have been transcribed.[15] Children old enough to work paid 1d a week for their schooling until the charge was abolished by Jedh[16] Strutt on the 3rd of March 1837, those too young to work were taught free of charge. George Benson, William & Joseph Strutt built the first Long Row Mill School, which used the Lancasterian School system.

Two early pioneers in the field of mass education for the poor were Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster. They both claimed that one teacher, using the older pupils as monitors, could teach one thousand pupils. A single master educated the older boys who in turn passed on their knowledge to the younger boys by rote. Followers of Lancaster formed a committee to encourage the foundation of such schools in 1809, which in 1814 became called the British and Foreign School Society. Such schools, founded by local efforts, would offer undenominational religious teaching. The Established Church promoted a rival National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church to encourage similar schools but based on Andrew Bell's principles and under which the local clergy would retain control.

Under the Act of 1819 a statutory minimum age of 9 was made law and mill owners agreed not to take on children until they could read. This came about because changes in machinery had lessened the number of children needed in the mills and mill owners felt threatened by Peel's draft bill of 1815 which proposed a statutory minimum age of 10 and no night work. No change was made to the hours worked.

The Strutts forbade corporal punishment so if misdemeanours or breakages occurred discipline was enforced by withholding part of the pay. Only five of the six days a week worked were paid for (less deductions for rent, milk, food and schooling, if any) at the end of the week. The remaining one sixth of the pay was retained by the firm until the end of each three month period and then was paid in a lump sum as Quarterly Gift Money. Anyone who was absent, late, did not attend Sunday school, broke factory rules or misbehaved was fined from the Gift Money. One worker was actually fined for not going to collect his Gift Money.

The Factory Act in 1833 was special because it applied to child labour in all textile mills, it raised minimum age of work to 9 years and said no one under thirteen could work more than nine hours each day. Young persons of between 13 and 18 could work 12 hours each day but not do night work. All children under thirteen had to attend school for two hours a day. The Strutts ran schools at Belper and Milford that were open from 6.30am to 6.30pm and were taught by a mistress and two young persons. In 1838 records show 84 boys and 119 girls were attending school in 'seven sets' each day. Both boys and girls were taught to read and write and the girls were also taught sewing and knitting for about half their time.

Although the law on education was superficially obeyed, as school vouchers were given and certificates of attendance were issued for the under thirteens, where no mill school existed there were still problems. When on 31st March 1840 the chairman of the Select Committee on Mills and Factories asked Thomas Jones Howell esq, a factory inspector, if the rules of attending school for children employed in Factories was being observed he replied "The children attend two hours daily but get no education that is worth having." He took evidence from a Mr Shiel who pointed out that " if a child which is entitled to work eight hours daily does work eight hours daily, that child cannot go to any school that is open for other children, because ordinary school hours are from nine to twelve and from two to half past four or five; and those hours will not suit the child working 8 hours a day in a factory" .[17] Howell suggested that an employer should give up half a day so that the factory child could have either a morning or afternoon in school.

Pay was low and hours were long for the working class but in those days anything was better than being a pauper and sent to the workhouse.


[1] Ree's Cyclopaedia, November 1812.
[2] Atholl MSS.
[3] Letters from London, J.Simmons (ed) London 1951, pp207-8
[4] Gentleman's Magazine in June 1804, James Neild
[5] Some Account of Life, Death and Principles of Thomas Paine J.S Harford 3rd ed Bristol, 1820 p.94
[6] Original documents indicate Jedidiah Strutt (1726-1797) did in fact spell his name with two "i's". Various inaccurate combinations of "i" and "e" abound, both on the web and in printed sources. Added 16 Nov 2006.
[7] Derby Mercury Aug 1785
[8] Diary of Joseph Farington, K. Garlick and A.D. Macintyre (eds) New Haven 1979
[9] Manchester Board of Health report-25 Jan 1796- Dr Thomas Percival
[10] Select Committee Report, Children in Manufacturies 1816 p.240
[11] Commons Journal xxxiv, 709.
[12] Select Committee Report, Children in Manufacturies 1816 p.517.
[13] Select Committee Report, Children in Manufacturies 1816 p.284
[14] Belper -First Cotton Mill Town E.G.Power p.21.
[15] Belper, Strutt School Admission Records also transcribed by Caroline Densham.
[16] The actual quote is "3 Mar 1837, last charge for shool wage. Ordered to cease by Jedh Strutt". This may have been Jedidiah senior's grandson (1785-1854), son of George Benson Strutt. Added 16 Nov 2006.
[17] Select Committee on Mills and Factories. 31st march 1840 p.8

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