The Mill worker's world

Mill workers at Quarry Bank Mill c1890 © Quarry Bank Images

Mill workers at Quarry Bank Mill c1890

The Greg’s are often cited as an example of a paternalistic approach to the workforce, yet whilst living conditions in Styal village appear to have been significantly better than those in the adjacent towns, inside the Mill working conditions were generally little different.

Working up a sweat

The workers had to accept long hours, performing stressful, repetitive work in return for a subsistence wage. To work cotton efficiently it was necessary to maintain a high temperature, above 20°C (68°F) with high humidity (up to 85%), obtained by keeping all windows tightly shut. Before 1833 there was little ventilation in the Mill. This meant the workers inhaled the cotton dust throughout the day and accumulated on their chests leading to the incurable lung disease, byssinosis.

Mind your fingers

As with other mills, at Quarry Bank the majority of accidents occurred in the last two hours of the working day, as tiredness caused carelessness and the loss of limbs and fingers was a frequent result. By 1833 Samuel Greg had fenced off most machines, some eleven years before this became compulsory by law. However, accidents still happened. The most ‘famous’ death in the Mill was that of John Foden who, on 6 June 1865, was killed whilst cleaning the mule. He failed to exit the machine and his head was crushed between the fixed and moving components. Mule spinners were also subject to cancer of the groin as a result of continually leaning into oiled parts of the machine. With the introduction of weaving, cancer of the mouth became a problem from the ‘kissing shuttle’ (sucking the cotton thread through the shuttle). A self help Sick Club was formed in 1817 and a Female Society in 1827. Workers were expected to contribute ¼ penny in each shilling (around 2%) of their weekly wages to the club.

Workin’ 6 til 8

It is believed that the workers of Quarry Bank Mill worked a 14½ hour day with perhaps 80-90 minutes of breaks including one hour at dinnertime. Being a water powered mill, Quarry Bank operated only one shift. Hours were sometimes shorter in summer when the water was low but made up at other times of the year. Robert Hyde Greg opposed the 1840’s ‘10 Hour’ campaign arguing it would lower production (and thus profits), reduce wages, invite unfair foreign competition and that water powered mills needed greater flexibility.