Costume dramas down at the mill

16:00, Dec 14 2013
quarry mill
HOME SWEET HOME: The Apprentice House where the child workers lived.

It was a rainy Monday afternoon, but Neil Holden was wearing his Sunday best - thumping great wooden-soled clogs with thick woollen socks; three-quarter-length trousers, a white-collared shirt and a scratchy-looking brass-buttoned waistcoat.

Holden, who grew up near Manchester, used to work "in factories and things", but he figured he couldn't be doing that all his life, so he did a Classics degree.

He learnt quite a bit about Ancient Greece, but one thing led to another and these days he earns a crust by dressing up as a 19th-century mill superintendent and sharing his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of a cotton mill in the northwest of England.

Holden's real job title is "interpreter", which means he's expected to make his own interpretation of the historical and archaeological evidence to hand as he leads groups around Quarry Bank Mill, which operated commercially from the 1790s to the 1950s and is now a museum run by the National Trust.

It's someone else's job to take tours around the mill itself, with its giant waterwheel and deafeningly loud rows of Victorian-era machinery which can still turn fluffy bales of unprocessed cotton into finished fabric (mainly tourist teatowels for the gift-shop, it seems).

Holden's patch, though, is the Apprentice House, 150 metres north of the mill.


In the parlour, his head almost scraped the ceiling. It wasn't that he was freakishly tall - it's just that 19th-century Britons were really short. The average full-grown man, said Holden, was about 5 foot 1 inch (1.5 metres), and women averaged 4ft 8in (1.4m). A 9-year-old child back then was about the height of a modern-day 5-year-old.

All the better to cram them in: until 1847 the Apprentice House was home to up to 90 apprentices aged 9 upwards. Their contracts were beyond a modern Western employer's wildest dreams: 13 hours a day, six days a week, zero pay.

Yet for children who'd been rescued from likely starvation and god knows what other horrors in the workhouses of Manchester 20 kilometres to the north, these conditions really weren't that bad: they learnt a trade, they got adequate food, a basic education and a roof over their head.

Long-faced and balding, Holden has one of those flat northern English accents that make the speaker sound simultaneously mildly depressed and wryly amused, even when reciting a bus timetable. That was just the right combination, as he rattled off the dreadful details of daily life during the industrial revolution.

Food, for instance. After rising at 5.30am and working from 6am, the children would have porridge for breakfast about 8am, eaten next to their machines.

The food break wasn't long enough to be messing about with dishes, so it's likely that a blob of cold, or at best warm, porridge would be served directly into the apprentices' unwashed hands.

And lunch?

"If you like boiled cabbage or boiled turnips or boiled onions, that's going to be very good news," Holden said.

"Because normally we'd boil up those vegetables and throw them in with the next lot of porridge. Porridge with cabbage and onions for your lunch."

Dinner, naturally, would often be porridge, only this time back at the House, in a bowl, and hot. On Fridays you might get lob scouse (thick vege stew with pork) and there'd be the occasional Sunday beef.

A dreary diet, Holden conceded, but at least there was plenty of it, and it wasn't bad nutritionally speaking. In fact, Holden said, Quarry Bank was cushy, and its founder, Samuel Greg, positively enlightened, by the standards of the day. Other mills had children working from the age of 5.

At some Manchester mills, discipline was extreme: "Boys were being dangled over machines, girls were being dragged around by their hair. You hear some horrible tales. You could be hung in those days of course, for the slightest of crimes."

At Quarry Bank, Greg decreed that misbehaving children were not to be physically chastised. They were instead fined small sums, which they could pay off by working overtime at a penny an hour.

The largest fine in the mill's records was handed out when an apprentice called James Sparks and his chums stole apples from a neighbouring orchard.

James ended up with 12 of the farmer's shotgun pellets in his bum, which was deemed punishment enough, but his friends were fined five shillings each - equivalent to two months of unpaid overtime.

The tour of the Apprentice House, which has been restored to the National Trust's best guess of how it would have looked 170 years ago, didn't take long: perhaps half an hour for Holden to show visitors the schoolroom with its sand-trays and slates for learning the ABCs, the kitchen with a readymade pot of cold porridge to remind visitors of its visceral gloopiness, and the girls' upstairs dormitory with its pile of fresh straw in the corner in lieu of toilet paper.

Holden appeared to take a particular delight in showing off a collection of the medicines of the day: live leeches for bleeding; mustard poultices to raise blisters which could then be sliced to release imaginary toxins; laxative senna pods to treat depression, which as any Victorian doctor knew was caused by an excess of "black bile" in the body.

You drink some senna tea, then "a couple of hours later you'll dash over to the chamber pot," said Holden.

"There's going to be lots of diarrhoea. Hopefully you'll be able to flush out all that sadness. And you'll be happy again, y'know."


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Adam Dudding travelled to the United Kingdom courtesy of Trafalgar with assistance from Emirates.

Sunday Star Times