Bancroft child labour in the Yorkshire Mills

Mill girl -  circa  1900

As a child, I have memories of my Grandmother telling me of how as a young girl, growing up in the late 19th century, she only went to school in the afternoons, and was expected to work in the local mill during the mornings.
She told of the mill overlooker in charge of her machines, walking round and checking that the children had cleaned up all the waste that was scattered around from the looms, and if this had not been cleared away, they all got a good slap with his leather belt.

 This got me thinking, because by the time my Grandmother was working half days in the mill as a child, around 1900, although we may think the conditions were harsh, many changes had already taken place with legislation, to help improve the working conditions and education of young children earlier in the century.

Working conditions in the northern mills were harsh and children were employed because they were cheap labour, and their families were desperate for any money which could be brought into the household. Looking through the census records from 1841 onwards, there are many entries showing Bancroft children working in Yorkshire wool and cotton mills, some as young as eight years of age, with occupations such as worsted weaver, factory jobber, spinner, errand boy, spoolwinder, factory hand [boys and girls], wool drawer, doffer and mill hand, to name just a few.

These might have been thought of as the lucky ones!...away from the mills, there were also Bancroft children listed as  stone getters in a quarry, and  one poor  eleven year old boy was even listed as a coal miner!

Timothy Bancroft - 1851 census
 My Great-Grandfather Timothy Bancroft, had all his children working, apart from the youngest as the above census record shows. One son, my Grandfather also called Timothy, must have thought of himself as the luckiest child,as he was working in a mill, often called ‘worsted factory’ on census records at the age of 9 years. The other working children, were all working in a nearby quarry as ‘Stone Getters’ which was the usual term for labourers in a stone quarry. This must have been a hard way of earning a living, particularly for children.

Shown below are extracts from local newspapers of 1833, describing the desperate plight of some young children, and the ill treatment they had to endure in some of the Keighley Mills…..[please be aware this make grim reading.]

courtesy of

Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days. As early as 1819, Factory Acts were passed to limit the working hours of workhouse children in factories and mills to 12 hours per day. These acts were largely ineffective and so a Factory Inquiry Commission was set up in 1833 to look at the problem. They went round the country interviewing mill owners and workers. In Leeds, three thousand desperate children marched past the hotel where the commissioners were staying to protest about child labour.

An inspector, called George Crabtree,  was collecting facts to support a 10 hours' Bill in Parliament, and made a brief tour of the Calderdale area. His findings make disturbing reading, and although he was not allowed to interview the employees of a local mill called Walker Priestleys, he did manage to talk to Mary Holland, a child age 11, who was sick at home at the time. His report stated:
“Her illness was occasioned by overwork. She had been ill for 6 weeks, and worked 6 to 8 [14 hours] with very little time allowed for meals. Mr Priestley had a strap pocket, in which he put a strap, and sometimes beats her with a billy roller and raises great lumps on her head. She says that they break their heads at Rawson's factory. They clear the mill during meal times. They stop their wages for going late of doing anything wrong. Her brother was poorly about a year ago with weakness in his knees. He is 12 years of age and she is 11. They have 3/- a fortnight, and her mother is a widow with 6 children”.
Child workers - c 1840

Giving evidence to Inspector George Crabtree, the Rev John Crossley of St John’s Church, Cragg Vale told him:
“I have just interned a poor boy that used to work 15 and 16 hours a day. He was aged 11 and when he died, a short time before he went for some wool and he was so overcome with sleep that when he got his arms full of wool, he fell down asleep with the remainder. He was missing and sought after and was found in a posture of almost standing on his head with his arms full of wool. The master gave him a savage beating with a strap to awaken the poor boy”.
Reports to the Commission showed that children as young as 5, but more often 7, were employed in some of the mills. They were working 14 - 16 hours a day, with short breaks for meals. The reports also showed that there was a lot of cruelty, with children being whipped and badly treated. Some of the children were deformed by the work – the long hours would make them tired and clumsy and there would be accidents as they were caught up in the machinery. The Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine should no longer be permitted to work. This act, however, only applied to the textile industry, and further agitation led to another act in 1847 limiting both adults and children to 10-hour working days.

1871 census
Moving forward in time, another example a Bancroft child working in a mill is little Willie Bancroft, the son of John Bancroft ,a stonemason from Cullingworth, near Bradford. At the age of only 8 years, Willie is shown on the 1871 census as a ‘doffer’ in the local mill, a job which entailed changing full bobbins for empty ones on the spinning machines. When the bobbins on the spinning frames were full, the machinery stopped. The doffers would swarm onto the machines and, as quickly as possible, change all the bobbins, after which the machinery would be restarted and the doffers were free to amuse themselves until the next change-over. On the newer and taller frames, the doffers often had to climb to reach the bobbins, which lead to many accidents. Doffing boys were free to do what they liked once they had completed a doffing, as long as they stayed within earshot of the "throstle jobber," who would whistle when they were next needed. They were motivated to do the work as fast as possible, since this gave them as long as possible to play. Between ten and twelve boys could handle a factory with about ten thousand throstle spindles, depending on the amount of yarn being spun.

To bring this sad story forward in time to the beginning of the 1900’s, here is an extract from a book written by Tom Bancroft O.B.E.  [1897-1985] where he related his memories about working half-days in the local mill in the early 1900’s, and although by today’s standards this may seems harsh, it is nothing like the hell that children were enduring 70-80 years previously, and shows just how far things had improved due to changes in legislation.

Tom Bancroft [centre with his 2 brothers]

The day started with a wild shriek of the mill “whew” [mill hooter] gently rattling his bedroom window at 5.30am. This was it!....He had been lying awake for a long time waiting for this great day, when he ceased to be a school kid and became a man. He had been looking forward to this for months, and had been fully accepted by the Spinning Department Manager at W.H.Foster’s Mill, Denholme to start work at six o’clock that morning, a beautiful day, 6th June 1908…his eleventh birthday. After a pot of tea with his father, who was an Overlooker at the same mill, they both set off for work, up the main street to ….THE MILL!

Millworkers starting at Foster's Denholme.
His father then left him in the scurrying crowd of other part-timers at the mill door at around 6.00am, with a tap on his back, saying “ See you at 8.00 o’clock lad.” If anyone arrived late, they had to wait until the door was reopened again, and lost an hour's pay.
 After making his way to the Spinning Rooms, he was directed to the Overlooker, Percy Myers, who was walking along the long isles banging the floor with a foot wide strip of leather, some 4-5 feet long, attached to a short wooden shaft. The noise this made on the floor could be heard above the howling of the two long rows of spinning frames. Percy’s first words to Tom, on seeing his size was “ I’ll hev ta finned thee a box ta stand on”. He then met Sarah, a nice lass of about seventeen, who looked after some spinning frames, and was given instruction as to what to do as a new “doffer”. He watched the more experienced boys and girls till 8.00 o’clock when the “Whew” blew again, and joined the swarm of men, women, boys and girls pouring out of the main gate. Just enough time to get home for breakfast and then back before the doors closed again at 8.30 am so he could get back to Sarah, before the Overlooker’s whistle blew to start work again. From then till 12.00 he then followed on, copying the other boys and getting the hang of doffing. It took him weeks before he do this properly, and found school dull after a morning in the mill. He couldn’t wait to get back again the following morning.
After he had picked up the knack of doffin, Sarah gave him some more instructions, about what to do when the thread broke on a bobbin. She was able to take the waste off the roller on the spinning frame, without stopping it and start it on the bobbin again. He had watched her do this scores of times a day with just a finger and thumb, so had a go under her watchful eye. When he tried to do this, he had to jump back from the frame sucking a blistered thumb and finger. Sarah stood there laughing and said “ It’s no good laking wi’ it, th’sta grab it ‘ard afore it burns tha”. He collected a few more blisters before he got the knack, but then enjoyed watching the new lads burn their fingers as they also learned the knack.

 The noise inside was frightening to anyone not used to it. The machines were driven by long leather belts, which would stretch the length of the room, or shed as it was known, and wrapped around huge wheels. The ends of the belts were fastened with metal clips, and if any of these gave way, due to wear and tear, the flying leather could, and did, cause serious injury. Despite the heat, the youngsters wore overalls, with the girls also wearing black stockings and clogs. Hair had to be kept fastened back out of the way of machinery, which in those days was unguarded and accidents were commonplace. Loose clothing, like the short smocks worn by the men, was easily caught up unless the greatest care was taken. The smell of lanolin, the natural wool oil, clung to clothing, and grease from the machinery made floors very slippery as it soaked into the floorboards. All this made the mills a serious fire hazard. Children of eleven years of age, both boys and girls, started as doffers, who had the job of removing the full bobbins from the spinning frames and replacing them with empty ones. For this they received 1s 6d (7.5p) per week. They were supervised by older ones who had become proficient at it and then graduated to spinning. The many and varied processes in a woollen mill all required nimble fingers and a keen eye. Broken threads had to be joined with a neat, flat knot. A poorly repaired knot was known as a “slub”, and the inspector could identify which spinning shed this had come from, so that the careless worker could be reprimanded.
When his twelfth birthday arrived, it found him as a fully trained doffer, and he automatically became a 53 hours a week full-time mill worker. On Friday, payday, he proudly handed his wage of half-a-crown to his mother, who always gave him something back. He felt he had grown up and was justifying his existence in a fine family life.”

The 1911 census shown below confirms Tom's job at the mill as a 'bobbin pegger', which is an alternative description for a 'doffer'

1911 census
Whilst today we still shudder at the practice of young children having to work long hours in mills from an early age under harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, Tom Bancroft's memories of his early days in the mill does show how, due to the efforts of many decent people, who campaigned for changes on the law, this practice did improve throughout the 19th century so that children were eventually working shorter hours in a safer environment, and getting an education…albeit for only half days, and it some ways they may have been the lucky ones!.....Going back to the 1860's, Joseph Bancroft, a quarry master from Oxenhope had his 11 year old son working as a 'coal miner' as the following census can only hope that the poor lad was working above ground, doing open-cast work, rather than underground down a coal pit.

1861 census

I just want to finish this article, with this picture of children coming out of the mill, after finishing their daily toil....they look happy with smiles on their faces, so it looks as though at least these children were not mistreated.
Children leaving their mill work

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