Punishment in Factories

Children who worked long hours in the textile mills became very tired and found it difficult to maintain the speed required by the overlookers. Children were usually hit with a strap to make them work faster. In some factories children were dipped head first into the water cistern if they became too tired to work. Jonathan Downe told Michael Sadler and his committee in 1832: "When I was seven years old I went to work at Mr. Marshalls factory at Shrewsbury. If a child was drowsy, the overlooker touches the child on the shoulder and says, "Come here". In a corner of the room there is an iron cistern filled with water. He takes the boy by the legs and dips him in the cistern, and sends him back to work."

Children were also punished for arriving late for work and for talking to the other children. Joseph Hebergram pointed out: "if we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue." Sarah Carpenter was beaten on a regular basis: "There was an overlooker called William Hughes... He came up to me and asked me what my drawing frame was stopped for. I said I did not know because it was not me who had stopped it. A little boy that was on the other side had stopped it, but he was too frightened to say it was him. Hughes starting beating me with a stick, and when he had done I told him I would let my mother know. He then went out and fetched the master in to me. The master started beating me with a stick over the head till it was full of lumps and bled. My head was so bad that I could not sleep for a long time, and I never been a sound sleeper since."

Samuel Fielden observed what happened in a textile factory in Lancashire: "The infants, when first introduced to these abodes of torture, are put at stripping the full spools from the spinning jennies and replacing them with empty spools. They are put to work in a long room where there are about twenty machines. The spindles are apportioned to each child, and woe be to the child who shall be behind in doing its allotted work. The machine will be started and the poor child's fingers will be bruised and skinned with the revolving spools. While the children try to catch up to their comrades by doing their work with the speed of the machine running, the brutal overlooker will frequently beat them unmercifully, and I have frequently seen them strike the children, knocking them off their stools and sending them spinning several feet on the greasy floor."

Parish apprentices who ran away from the factory was in danger of being sent to prison. Children who were considered potential runaways were placed in irons. Robert Blincoe explained: "The blacksmith had the task of riveting irons upon any of the apprentices, whom the master ordered. These irons were very much like the irons usually put upon felons. Even young women, if they suspected of intending to run away, had irons riveted on their ankles, and reaching by long links and rings up to the hips, and in these they were compelled to walk to and fro from the mill to work and to sleep." Samuel Davy of Preston claims that: "Irons were used as with felons in gaols, and these were often fastened on young women, in the most indecent manner, by keeping them nearly in a state of nudity, in the depth of winter, for several days together."

Thomas Savage in Wandsworth Prison
Thomas Savage in Wandsworth Prison

John Birley was an orphan living in Bethnal Green Workhouse when he was sent to become an apprentice at Cressbrook Mill. Birley later commented: "Mr. Needham, the master, had five sons: Frank, Charles, Samuel, Robert and John. The sons and a man named Swann, the overlooker, used to go up and down the mill with hazzle sticks. Frank once beat me till he frightened himself. He thought he had killed me. He had struck me on the temples and knocked me dateless. He once knocked me down and threatened me with a stick. To save my head I raised my arm, which he then hit with all his might. My elbow was broken. I bear the marks, and suffer pain from it to this day, and always shall as long as I live."

Sarah Carpenter claimed that she saw children beaten to death: "There was a young woman, Sarah Goodling, who was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bed-fellow found her dead in bed. There was another called Mary. She knocked her food can down on the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her where he should not do, and it caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson. They beat her till she went out of her mind."

Some of the children tried to run away: "We were always locked up out of mill hours, for fear any of us should run away. One day the door was left open. Charlotte Smith, said she would be ringleader, if the rest would follow. She went out but no one followed her. The master found out about this and sent for her. There was a carving knife which he took and grasping her hair he cut if off close to the head. They were in the habit of cutting off the hair of all who were caught speaking to any of the lads. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of it than of any other, for girls are proud of their hair."

William Rastrick, who worked as an overlooker at Shute's Silk Mill, admitted: "I have been compelled to urge them on to work when I knew they could not bear it; but I was obliged to make them strain every nerve to do the work, and I can say I have been disgusted with myself and with my situation; I felt myself degraded and reduced to the level of a slave-driver in such cases."

Edward Baines, the author of The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1835) argued that only a minority of child workers were treated badly: "It is alleged that the children who labour in factories are often cruelly beaten by the spinners or overlookers that their feeble limbs become distorted by continual standing and stooping, and they grow up cripples. That they are compelled to work thirteen, fourteen or fifteen hours per day. Views such as these have been repeatedly given of factory labour which have persuaded many to think they must be true. But this is the exception not the rule."

Primary Sources

(1) Sarah Carpenter was interviewed about her experiences in The Ashton Chronicle (23rd June, 1849)

The master carder's name was Thomas Birks; but he never went by any other name than Tom the Devil. He was a very bad man - he was encouraged by the master in ill-treating all the hands, but particularly the children. I have often seen him pull up the clothes of big girls, seventeen or eighteen years of age, and throw them across his knee, and then flog them with his hand in the sight of both men and boys. Everybody was frightened of him. He would not even let us speak. He once fell poorly, and very glad we were. We wished he might die.

There was an overlooker called William Hughes, who was put in his place whilst he was ill. He came up to me and asked me what my drawing frame was stopped for. I said I did not know because it was not me who had stopped it. A little boy that was on the other side had stopped it, but he was too frightened to say it was him. Hughes starting beating me with a stick, and when he had done I told him I would let my mother know. He then went out and fetched the master in to me. The master started beating me with a stick over the head till it was full of lumps and bled. My head was so bad that I could not sleep for a long time, and I never been a sound sleeper since.

There was a young woman, Sarah Goodling, who was poorly and so she stopped her machine. James Birch, the overlooker knocked her to the floor. She got up as well as she could. He knocked her down again. Then she was carried to the apprentice house. Her bed-fellow found her dead in bed. There was another called Mary. She knocked her food can down on the floor. The master, Mr. Newton, kicked her where he should not do, and it caused her to wear away till she died. There was another, Caroline Thompson. They beat her till she went out of her mind.

We were always locked up out of mill hours, for fear any of us should run away. One day the door was left open. Charlotte Smith, said she would be ringleader, if the rest would follow. She went out but no one followed her. The master found out about this and sent for her. There was a carving knife which he took and grasping her hair he cut if off close to the head. They were in the habit of cutting off the hair of all who were caught speaking to any of the lads. This head shaving was a dreadful punishment. We were more afraid of it than of any other, for girls are proud of their hair.

(2) Jonathan Downe was interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee on 6th June, 1832.

When I was seven years old I went to work at Mr. Marshalls factory at Shrewsbury. If a child was drowsy, the overlooker touches the child on the shoulder and says, "Come here". In a corner of the room there is an iron cistern filled with water. He takes the boy by the legs and dips him in the cistern, and sends him back to work.

(3) John Brown interviewed Robert Blincoe in 1828 about working in a textile mill.

Blincoe was promoted to the more important employment of a roving winder. Being too short of statue, to reach to his work, standing on the floor, he was placed on a block. He was not able by any possible exertion, to keep pace with the machinery. In vain, the poor child declared he was not in his power to move quicker. He was beaten by the overlooker, with great severity. In common, with his fellow apprentices, Blincoe was wholly dependent upon the mercy of the overlookers, whom he found, generally speaking, a set of brutal, ferocious, illiterate ruffians. Blincoe complained to Mr. Baker, the manager, and all he said to him was: "do your work well, and you'll not be beaten." The overlooker, who was in charge of him, had a certain quantity of work to perform in a given time. If every child did not perform his allotted task, the overlooker, and was discharged.

A blacksmith named William Palfrey, who resided in Litton, worked in a room under that where Blincoe was employed. He used to be much disturbed by the shrieks and cries of the boys. According to Blincoe, human blood has often run from an upper to a lower floor. Unable to bear the shrieks of the children, Palfrey used to knock against the floor, so violently, as to force the boards up, and call out "for shame! for shame! are you murdering the children?" By this sort of conduct, the humane blacksmith was a check on the cruelty of the brutal overlookers, as long as he continued in his shop; but he went home at seven o'clock and as soon as Woodward, Merrick and Charnock knew that Palfrey was gone, they beat and knock the apprentices about without moderation.

(4) Joseph Hebergram was interviewed by Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee on 1st June, 1832.

Question: What were your hours of labour?

Answer: From five in the morning till eight at night.

Question: You had fourteen and a half hours of actual labour, at seven years of age?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Did you become very drowsy and sleepy towards the end of the day?

Answer: Yes; that began about three o'clock; and grew worse and worse, and it came to be very bad towards six and seven.

Question: How long was it before the labour took effect on your health?

Answer: Half a year.

Question: How did it affect your limbs?

Answer: When I worked about half a year a weakness fell into my knees and ankles: it continued, and it got worse and worse.

Question: How far did you live from the mill?

Answer: A good mile.

Question: Was it painful for you to move?

Answer: Yes, in the morning I could scarcely walk, and my brother and sister used, out of kindness, to take me under each arm, and run with me to the mill, and my legs dragged on the ground; in consequence of the pain I could not walk.

Question: Were you sometimes late?

Answer: Yes, and if we were five minutes too late, the overlooker would take a strap, and beat us till we were black and blue.

Question When did your brother start working in the mill?

(5) Robert Blincoe was interviewed by John Brown in 1828.

The blacksmith had the task of riveting irons upon any of the apprentices, whom the master ordered. These irons were very much like the irons usually put upon felons. Even young women, if they suspected of intending to run away, had irons riveted on their ankles, and reaching by long links and rings up to the hips, and in these they were compelled to walk to and fro from the mill to work and to sleep.

(6) Samuel Davy was seven years old when he was sent from the Southwark Workhouse to Penny Dam Mill in Preston.

Irons were used as with felons in gaols, and these were often fastened on young women, in the most indecent manner, by keeping them nearly in a state of nudity, in the depth of winter, for several days together.

(7) John Birley was interviewed by The Ashton Chronicle on 19th May, 1849.

I was born in Hare Street, Bethnal Green, London, in the year 1805. My father died when I was two years old, leaving two children, myself and Sarah my sister. My mother kept us both till I was about five years old, and then she took badly and was taken to the London Hospital. My sister and I were taken to the Bethnal Green Workhouse. My mother died and we stayed in the workhouse. We had good food, good beds and given liberty two or three times a week. We were taught to read and in every respect were treated kindly.

The same year my mother died, I being between six and seven years of age, there came a man looking for a number of parish apprentices. We were all ordered to come into the board room, about forty of us. There were, I dare say, about twenty gentlemen seated at a table, with pens and paper before them. Our names were called out one by one. We were all standing before them in a row. My name was called and I stepped out in the middle of the room. They said, "Well John, you are a fine lad, would you like to go into the country?" I said "Yes sir".

We had often talked over amongst ourselves how we should like to be taken into the country, Mr. Nicholls the old master, used to tell us what fine sport we should have amongst the hills, what time we should have for play and pleasure. He said we should have plenty of roast beef and get plenty of money, and come back gentlemen to see our friends.

The committee picked out about twenty of us, all boys. In a day or two after this, two coaches came up to the workhouse door. We were got ready. They gave us a shilling piece to take our attention, and we set off. I can remember a crowd of women standing by the coaches, at the workhouse door, crying "shame on them, to send poor little children away from home in that fashion." Some of them were weeping. I heard one say, "I would run away if I was them." They drove us to the Paddington Canal, where there was a boat provided to take us.

We got to Buxton at four o'clock on Saturday afternoon. A covered cart was waiting for us there. We all got in, and drove off to the apprentice house at Litton Mill, about six miles from Buxton. The cart stopped, and we marched up to the house, where we saw the master, who came to examine us and gave orders where we were put. They brought us some supper. We were very hungry, but could not eat it. It was Derbyshire oatcake, which we had never seen before. It tasted as sour as vinegar.

Our regular time was from five in the morning till nine or ten at night; and on Saturday, till eleven, and often twelve o'clock at night, and then we were sent to clean the machinery on the Sunday. No time was allowed for breakfast and no sitting for dinner and no time for tea. We went to the mill at five o'clock and worked till about eight or nine when they brought us our breakfast, which consisted of water-porridge, with oatcake in it and onions to flavour it. Dinner consisted of Derbyshire oatcakes cut into four pieces, and ranged into two stacks. One was buttered and the other treacled. By the side of the oatcake were cans of milk. We drank the milk and with the oatcake in our hand, we went back to work without sitting down.

We then worked till nine or ten at night when the water-wheel stopped. We stopped working, and went to the apprentice house, about three hundred yards from the mill. It was a large stone house, surrounded by a wall, two to three yards high, with one door, which was kept locked. It was capable of lodging about one hundred and fifty apprentices. Supper was the same as breakfast - onion porridge and dry oatcake. We all ate in the same room and all went up a common staircase to our bed-chamber; all the boys slept in one chamber, all the girls in another. We slept three in one bed. The girls' bedroom was of the same sort as ours. There were no fastenings to the two rooms; and no one to watch over us in the night, or to see what we did.

Mr. Needham, the master, had five sons: Frank, Charles, Samuel, Robert and John. The sons and a man named Swann, the overlooker, used to go up and down the mill with hazzle sticks. Frank once beat me till he frightened himself. He thought he had killed me. He had struck me on the temples and knocked me dateless. He once knocked me down and threatened me with a stick. To save my head I raised my arm, which he then hit with all his might. My elbow was broken. I bear the marks, and suffer pain from it to this day, and always shall as long as I live.

I was determined to let the gentleman of the Bethnal Green parish know the treatment we had, and I wrote a letter with John Oats and put it into the Tydeswell Post Office. It was broken open and given to old Needham. He beat us with a knob-stick till we could scarcely crawl. Sometime after this three gentlemen came down from London. But before we were examined we were washed and cleaned up and ordered to tell them we liked working at the mill and were well treated. Needham and his sons were in the room at the time. They asked us questions about our treatment, which we answered as we had been told, not daring to do any other, knowing what would happen if we told them the truth.

(8) Edward Baines, The History of the Cotton Manufacture (1835)

It is alleged that the children who labour in factories are often cruelly beaten by the spinners or overlookers that their feeble limbs become distorted by continual standing and stooping, and they grow up cripples. That they are compelled to work thirteen, fourteen or fifteen hours per day. Views such as these have been repeatedly given of factory labour which have persuaded many to think they must be true. But this is the exception not the rule.

(9) Samuel Fielden, Autobiography of Samuel Fielden (1887)

Todmorden lies in a beautiful valley, and on the hillsides are small farms; back about a mile are the moorlands, which could be made into fine farms, as the topography of the moors is more level generally than the enclosed land. There are numerous large mills in the town, Fielden Brothers being the largest; it contains about 2,000 looms.

When I arrived at the mature age of 8 years I, as was usual with the poor people's children in Lancashire, went to work in a cotton mill, and if there is any of the exuberance of childhood about the life of a Lancashire mill-hand's child it is in spite of his surroundings and conditions, and not in consequence of it. As I look back on my experience at the tender age I am filled with admiration at the wonderful vitality of these children. I think that if the devil had a particular enemy whom he wished to unmercifully torture the best thing for him to do would be to put his soul into the body of a Lancashire factory child and keep him as a child in a factory the rest of his days. The mill into which I was put was the mill established by John Fielden, M.P., who fought so valiantly in the ten-hour movement.

The infants, when first introduced to these abodes of torture, are put at stripping the full spools from the spinning jennies and replacing them with empty spools. They are put to work in a long room where there are about twenty machines. The spindles are apportioned to each child, and woe be to the child who shall be behind in doing its allotted work. The machine will be started and the poor child's fingers will be bruised and skinned with the revolving spools. While the children try to catch up to their comrades by doing their work with the speed of the machine running, the brutal overlooker will frequently beat them unmercifully, and I have frequently seen them strike the children, knocking them off their stools and sending them spinning several feet on the greasy floor.

When the ten-hour movement was being agitated in England my father was on the committee of agitation in my native town, and I have heard him tell of sitting on the platform with Earl Shaftesbury, John Fielden, Richard Ostler, and other advocates of that cause. I always thought he put a little sarcasm into the word earl, at any rate he had but little respect for aristocracy and royalty. He was also a Chartist and I have heard him tell of many incidents connected with the Chartist agitation and movement.