The life of children in the mills of the Calder Valley

Life at Home
Children originally used to work in their homes – helping their parents who were handloom weavers. Daniel Defoe, in his journey round Britain in 1726, visited this area and described it:

“Houses are likewise scattered an infinite Number of Cottages or small Dwellings, in which dwell the Workmen which are employed, the Women and Children of whom, are always busy Carding, Spinning and so that no hands being unemployed, all can gain their Bread, even from the youngest to the ancient; hardly anything above four Years old, but its hands are sufficient to itself."

The work was hard for the children but they also had their good times. Joseph Greenwood, a local man who was born in the 1830s, wrote of his childhood in Wadsworth:

“The times were hard and the fare was bare. We had oatmeal porridge and skim milk for food with rarely a change during the week.

“In slack times we took the liberty to go bird nesting or to bathe in the river when off the main road. In those times Sir George Grey’s rural police were not there to molest us; there was only the local constable and he had his other ordinary duties to attend to in connection with his trade.

"Winter time with us poor lads was not without its pleasures. The roads on the hillsides when covered with snow, and trodden down and hard frozen, afforded an excellent surface on which to slide. We had simple skates of thin bar steel, bent and pointed at each, which we could drive into our wooden clogs, and with these we could slide down the bill for half a mile or so at a furious rate; most exhilarating and with far more pleasure than in a crowded closed room, now the rage with roller skates.

"If we wanted a change we could sit down on our haunches and form a train; one or two with skates in the front to take the lead; lads and lasses could all slide down together. Now and then a mishap would occur, and all get off the track and roll in the snow.

"In these times only a few well-to-do people had water taps in their houses. The water for the home had to be fetched from spring wells; it might be a couple of hundred yards away, and under a drift of snow eight or ten feet deep. I have known that a path to these wells has had to be cut and tunnelled in order to get to the water. Work was scarce, altogether it was a bad time, but for the handloom weaver not at its worst."

He compares his own life, although hard enough, to that of a child working in the mills. “There was a painful contrast in the neighbourhood of the factories ... the wages of the operatives would not allow for more than poor and patched clothing, and the poverty which was apparent, made a dull, heavy, cheerless life, a relief from which the weekend brought but a lean respite.

"Some of the masters, whose greed or niggardliness did not allow for better conditions in the interior of the factory and its surroundings, would allow the cottages, which they owned, to run to the same neglect. There was no consideration in regard to drains or any other sanitary regulation, and frequently the ashpit and cesspool would abut on the main road."

Life in the Mill
Whist some mills owners like the Fieldens of Todmorden took care of their workers, whilst others, such as the Calverts at Wainstalls and the Hinchliffes of Cragg Vale Mills, treated them very badly. Most mill owners at that time saw nothing wrong with children working and it was common business practice to employ children. John Fielden had worked in his father's mill as a child which was why he was he tried to make it better for others.

The noise from the belts that came from the line shafting which drove the machinery from the water wheel was deafening and the air was full of cotton fluff.
The children’s jobs would be as piecers in mills using spinning mules, who had to lean over the machinery to tie broken threads together and scavengers who had to crawl underneath the machinery – all this whilst the machinery was still working.

Some people, like James Fielden of Todmorden, became concerned that children were working long hours and in such bad conditions and they tried to do something about it. The first Factory Act to be passed was called "The Factory Health and Morals Act, 1802" and applied mostly to apprentices in cotton and woollen mills. It said that the children should be educated in reading, writing and arithmetic and on Sunday taught about the Christian Religion.

The 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, 3000 filthy children marched past the hotel where the commissioners were staying.

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.

See Interviews.
Some of the interviews that were carried out.

In the Upper Calder valley, the Commission recorded people working 68 and 72 hours a week, with most of the mills employing children under 9 years of age.

See FIC reports
Factory Inquiry Commission Reports of Gibson and Midgehole Mills.
Use of orphans

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it became common practice for mill owners to obtain orphans and children from the parish who became their apprentices. There is a tradition in Mytholmroyd that Walker and Edmondsen used pauper children, and this may well be true. Walker and Edmondsen paid very low wages – 11 boys under 8 were paid 1 shilling a 1 penny for a 72 hour week and girls the same age 1 shilling and 3 pennies for the same time.

Although after the Factory Acts and the Education Act of 1870, the number of hours children could work were limited, they were still employed as half timers.

Calvert’s of Wainstalls, Halifax, brought a number of orphan children from Liverpool from 1879 onwards, to work in the mills. In return they were housed in hostels and received pocket money instead of wages. In the nearby churchyard a gravestone marks the grave of seven of these children - young girls who died at the mill. They worked a 56 hour week, Monday to Saturday, and on the Sunday attended Church.

A Mr Murgatroyd, who had been company secretary of the firm, was reported in the Halifax Courier in 1966 as saying of them “it was to be expected that we should lose one or two through illness, however well we looked after them”.

The mills themselves were closed in the 1950s.

Some people thought that working long hours was good for children – that poverty was natural and that it would be a bad thing to improve conditions for the working class as they would then live longer. It was also thought to be bad for trade.

William Cobbet, a reformer of the time wrote “A most surprising discovery has been made, namely, that all our greatness and prosperity, that our superiority over other nations, is owing to 30,000 little girls in Lancashire. If these little girls work two hours less in a day than they do now, it would occasion the ruin of the country.”

The West Riding of Yorkshire was at the heart of the factory reform movement and Richard Oastler of Fixby near Halifax (as it was then), became the leader of the “Ten Hours Movement outside of Parliament and John Fielden of Todmorden and Lord Shaftesbury led the campaign inside Parliament. It limited the number of working hours in textile mills that children could work in a day to ten hours.

The Factory Act of 1833, introduced after campaigners fought to change the working conditions, limited working hours in cotton mills for the under-12s to eight hours a day, and twelve hours for those aged 13-18. It also guaranteed two hours schooling a day.

At this time, people were debating the anti slavery movement and it was remarked by some that it was strange for people to be so concerned about slavery when the mill children were being treated no better.

Richard Oastler said, “can well-meaning people can campaign on behalf of slaves in a far-off land and ignore the plight of child slaves nearer home?”

Life at School
Before 1870, when the Education Act was passed, there were few opportunities for children to get a proper education. Children who worked in the mills had no easy access.

In his memoirs, Joseph Greenwood wrote that about being a child in the 1830s, “I well remember being set to my first work, which was as a bobbin winder for my parents, who were handloom weavers on the hill-side above Hebden Bridge. My father had had the advantage of a fair education for those times considering the class among which he lived and the circumstances of the family. He had for a teacher, a Cambridge scholar to whose school he and his two elder brothers went.
My work was at the loom side and when not winding, my father taught me reading, writing, and arithmetic (Walkinghame’s). He could not teach me singing; he said it was an attainment in which the family could not succeed, nor were we encouraged to express ourselves in conversation or in writing.”

Some church, charity and ‘dame’ schools offered the basics of education to children who were not working. A good example of this was Heptonstall Free Grammar School which was established in 1642 by The Reverend Thomas Greenwood. He donated the school to the town, it being maintained by income from rents at School Land Farm in Colden. The Classics was free to any people living in the Chapelry of Heptonstall but Maths, History, Geography and English were charged for. Most children however, could not go to the school as they would be working in the mills. Many of the local mill owners attended the school as children, amongst whom were Abraham Gibson of Gibson Mill and Gamaliel Sutcliffe of Lumb Mills. The school is now run as a Museum by Calderdale Council.

The Education Act (Forsters Act) of 1870, for the first time attempted to provide education for all children. The country was divided into 2500 school districts and a board was to be elected by ratepayers in each district. They had to examine their district and if there were a shortage of places at existing voluntary schools, they could build new ones, paid for by the rates. Attendance was made compulsory for children from five to twelve years old.

Some of the schools in the Upper Valley that were built as ‘Board Schools’ are:
Stubbing, Heptonstall, Midgeley, Eastwood, Cornholme, Lane bottom, Crimsworth
Fees could be charged, but not for poorer parents.

The Act allowed women to vote for and sit on the School Boards. Several feminists of the time saw that this demonstrated they were capable of public administration.
The Act was not popular with everybody – some people thought that educating poor people and it would make them revolt. The Church saw it as a threat as they were already being paid by the state to deliver education.

The Factory Acts of the 1830s and 1840s also said that children could only work if they attended school for a certain number of hours each week. Some mill owners ran schools in the mills themselves and Lumb Mill (probably Lower), Colden, is an example of this. The school room was 20' in length and 16' in width. There were 51 pupils, 34 girls and 17 boys. The schoolmaster, John Marshall, was 23 years old and came from Boston in Lincolnshire. These children were called half timers as they worked part time in the mill and part time at school.

It could be said that today children work around six hours a day - at school.


From: "The Costume of Yorkshire" by George Walker 1814

From: "The Costume of Yorkshire" by George Walker 1814

Handloom Weaver
Later picture of handloom weaver – at Bogg Eggs of Wadsworth
Photo: Alice Longstaff Gallery Collection


Image 1
Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work that appeared in Trollope's Michael Armstrong (1840)

Image 2
Illustration of scavengers and piecers at work that appeared in Edward Baines' book The History of Cotton Manufacture (1835)

The gravestone reads:
In Memory of orphans employed by I ad C Calvert, Wainstalls.
Mary Ellen Clark, aged 14 years
Alice Devitt, aged 12 years
Elizabeth Edwards, aged 17 years
Jane Johnson aged 12 years
Sarah Shaw, died May 17 1892, aged 15 years
Marie Emery, died January 27th 1895, aged 15 years
Annie Lockhart, died March 7th 1895, aged 16 years





















Lower Lumb
Lower Lumb Mill
Photo: The Jack Uttley Photo Library

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