Former British MP Michael Portello presents a TV programme where he travels around Britain by rail using his 150 year old Bradshaw’s Railway Guide. He investigates what has changed in those years and what has stayed the same. In one episode he visited the village of Cromford in Derbyshire where in 1771 Richard Ackwright established the world’s first water powered cotton mill. The age of the factory had arrived. The worker’s cottage as focus of industry was going.
Quarry Bank Mill, at Styall, Cheshire
Water gave way to steam power which meant that these factories were no longer confined to running streams. Often set in glorious countryside, such as the National Trust owned Quarry Bank Mill at Styall in Cheshire, these mills employed thousands of people. Many of these were young children, ‘apprentices’ working in atrocious conditions for extraordinarily long hours six days per week. These were the ‘dark satanic mills’ of William Blake’s poem, ‘Jerusalem’.
Women workers at Vickers Armstrong Factory
Photo Credit: archiveforchange.org
During the latter part of the 19th century conditions in England improved, slowly. It was only after his death that it was revealed that Charles Dickens had worked as a child in Warrens Blacking Factory in London. That experience, which apart from frustrating the young genius’ opportunity for a formal education, seared itself into Dickens being. Using all his literary skill and motivated by his own childhood, Dickens wrote against working conditions of his day.
Gradually the laws changed. Children went to school rather than the factory. Working hours, conditions and pay improved in Britain and elsewhere in the Western world.
What lay ahead for the factories where our clothes were manufactured?