Who would provide the muscle power?

Image of Isaac Sherratt's name appearing in the day book as a debtor

From the very beginning of his enterprise, Samuel Greg needed skilled workers to support the development of the mill and to maintain the water wheel and the supply lines. In a typically business-like fashion, he sought the cheapest possible labour and paid for the release of several skilled clockmakers from the Manchester House of Correction. These men worked as mechanics at the mill and repaid their debts in weekly pay deductions.

Clockmaking had largely been done by hand before the 19th century and required meticulous mathematical skill. A move towards factory-based construction put a lot of clockmakers out of work and, as was the case here, into debtor’s prisons. A key skill in the clockmaking industry was the manipulation of toothed wheels – a transferable skill to be used when installing gearing systems and supporting the development of the expanding estate. Compared with fellow workers at Quarry Bank these men were paid a good wage, but those bought from the correctional facility had deductions of up to 2 shillings taken each week as repayment for their release. 

It might not sound like the start of a fairytale but clockmaker Daniel Bate went from debtor’s prison to romance at the mill, marrying apprentice Catherine Holland who made a career as a spinner. To give an idea of the distinction of wages, Caroline earnt a weekly wage of 4 shillings and 6pence plus overtime, while Daniel was earning 15 shillings plus overtime as a clockmaker.

Ledgers from the time show that these mechanical labourers were employed to help with all aspects of mill development, from the construction of the tunnel and wheel chamber to the maintenance of the water wheel and installation of the earliest engines. However, some mechanical tasks were undertaken by apprentices and lower-paid workers. In 1806, 13-year-old apprentice Thomas Priestley appeared before magistrates to explain why he and a fellow apprentice had attempted to run away. In his statement he explained what life was like at the mill and gave details of his daily tasks, saying: ‘I also learned to take the machinery to pieces and apply the oil, a matter that applied some care.’