Mill mechanics of the mid-nineteenth century

Group of blacksmiths at Quarry Bank

By 1868, our knowledge of the daily tasks of mechanics at the mill becomes much clearer. A wage book in our archives allows us to follow the 13 mechanics through their working week as it notes the room or engine worked by each man on any given day. Our understanding of the personal lives of these men is also much richer, allowing us to paint a more vivid picture of life as a mechanic at Quarry Bank.

James Scotson began his life at the mill as an apprentice and rose up to a position amongst the well-respected mechanics. This type of progression was rare, with very few apprentices given the opportunity to reach such heights. As with most of the mechanics, his daily tasks ranged from installing new machinery to maintaining the steam pipes and mill gears. James was earning £1 2shillings and paying a weekly rent of 3 shillings to live at 3 Oak Cottages with his wife and two children, all of whom took jobs at Quarry Bank. In his free time, James played the drums for Styal Drum and Fife band. 


Mechanics were the most skilled workers on the Quarry Bank estate and it took a lot of work to develop the necessary skills required to drive and maintain the engines. Subsequently mechanics were also the best paid workers, earning on average up to three times the amount of spinners and weavers. It is not surprising then that mechanics would train their sons to follow in their footsteps. 


Mechanical Families


The wage book lists both John and Henry Venables working as full-time mechanics and further research has shown that they were not only related, but part of a key mechanical family whose history spans generations. George Venables was the first member of the family to work at Quarry Bank and stayed in Styal following his apprenticeship. George worked his way up to overlooker, and his son John, whose 1825 indenture can be seen here, became the first Venables mechanic at the mill. 

Engineers doing maintenance work including Henry and John Venables
Quarry Bank workers in 1892
Engineers doing maintenance work including Henry and John Venables


John married Hannah Henshaw at St. Bartholemew’s Church, Wilmslow and together they had 10 children, though only 5 would survive childhood. At the time of the 1841 census, John and Hannah were living at 30 Oak Cottages with their 5 children and John was listed as a blacksmith. 


George Henry Venables was born in 1851 to single mother, 24-year-old Charlotte Venables, the eldest child of John and Hannah. Charlotte is still recorded as working as a power loom weaver at Quarry Bank during her eight months of pregnancy. Charlotte would later marry an agricultural labourer and move to Didsbury where she would have more children, but George Henry stayed in Styal with his grandparents, ready to take up a career at the mill. He was known by his middle name, and it is under this that we can trace his career working alongside his grandfather.

Engineers and estate workers. On the back row, Henry Venables is third from the right and Thomas Venables is first from the right
Image of Quarry Bank workers sitting for photograph
Engineers and estate workers. On the back row, Henry Venables is third from the right and Thomas Venables is first from the right


In 1868, aged 17 Henry was earning 7 shillings per week, compared with John’s £1 3shillings. But just 3 years later their earnings were on a par.


In 1872, Henry married Ellen Hopley and together they had three sons: John, Herbert who sadly died aged 15 months, and Herbert Harry. Henry went on to become Engine Driver and Turner and finally Foreman of the Mechanics, for which job he and his family moved into Apprentice House. His son John followed in the footsteps of his father and great-grandfather, taking work as a mechanic at the mill where he would work under his father until 1901 when Henry died of what we believe to have been a bacterial infection, similar to strep throat. 


Robert and John Brierley are both listed in the wage book and each day they undertook the role of roller-coverer. We have seen from the accident list that the roller was to blame for some terrible and even fatal accidents at the mill but what did the roller coverer do?


Robert and John had their own workshop in the mill in which they made tubes of leather to cover the roller upon which cotton was spun, with the cover creating the right grip to ensure a tight spin. The Brierley family consisted of Robert and his wife Mary and their four daughters and two sons, together they lived at 41 Oak Cottages. It was Robert’s grandfather who had first brought the family to Styal and he had worked as one of the first overlookers at the mill. 


Joined in Holy Matrimony


One of the joiners was Thomas Pepper, who, like James Scotson, began life at Quarry Bank as an apprentice. He found love with another apprentice, Arabella Pepper of Newcastle-Under-Lyme, and is said to have worn the blue, swallow tailed coat with brass buttons in which he was married every Sunday around Styal Village.