« Bernard | Main | Xmas Cards And All That Jazz »

Luddite Spring: Episode 9

Continuing his novel concerning the establishment of the first modern industrial nation, Ronnie Bray's narrative vividly highlights the plights if child "slaves''.


John Atkinson, the infant son of agricultural labourers James and Mary Atkinson, moved to Holmeside to work at Outcote Mill when their employer lost his farm at the time when smaller tenanted farms were clawed back by landowners to make bigger and more profitable farms. Their jobs gone and their rented cottage taken from them, they followed other migrants to work in the factory.

The family of seven, father, mother and five children, of which John was the youngest, lived in the cellar of a house that was home to four other families that lived together in the two upstairs rooms. The Atkinsons and their older children all worked at the mill. An eight-year-old girl from one of the upstairs families stayed home to care for eleven small children, including John.

One Sunday morning while the parents of the five resident families rested inside, John and some neighbour children played out in the filthy street. Without warning, the whole row fell down killing everyone inside. John and seven other children were orphaned by the disaster and were confined in an institution with two hundred other orphans and some dozens of pauper children until they were apprenticed out to clothiers to labour without pay and care until they were twenty-one. John didn’t live long enough to understand the apprentice system. He took his own life when he was still a child in his personal condemnation the of legal English child slave system. Even grown ups questioned its existence.

Carter and Carrier, Harold Starkey, sat in the taproom of the Pack Horse in conversation with his friend, Commission Spinner Job Gladstone.

“They’re calling it Child Slavery,” said Gladstone, looking up from his newspaper.

“Who’s calling what Child Slavery,” demanded Starkey.

“The Radical are calling the factory Apprentice System Child Slavery,” returned Gladstone.

“Damned Radicals,” snorted Starkey. “They’re always on about summat!”

“Well, as you know, I’m no Radical, but I’m wondering whether they are right this time.”

“What do you mean?”

Yesterday’s Leeds Intelligencer has a report on the factory apprentice system that makes me think that all is not well within the walls of some mills. It says that they are no better than slave plantations, in some cases they are much worse, and they ask whether it is proper for a civilised nation to countenance such goings on.”

“What goings on are they on about? I’ve heard nothing bad about apprentices, and I’m always at one mill or another."

“I’ve still got the paper in my greatcoat pocket. Wait until I get it, then you’ll see.” Gladstone rose and went to the coatroom where his topcoat was drying. He took the paper from its pocket and returned to the table he shared with Harold Starkey. Having sat down he unfolded the newspaper and commenced reading.

“It says here that apprentice children are dying every day in mills because they never leave the mill to get out into the fresh air. They work in unbearable heat and the air is filled with dust and fibres of cotton and wool and the fumes of machine oil, so that their lungs are congested and they go down with ‘factory fever,’ and die. Children that live with their parents suffer from it less because they get to spend some time outside the factory’s baleful atmosphere, and recover if they do get it.”

“But children are dying everywhere,” protested Starkey. “Not only in the mills.”

“That is so, but the proportion of mill apprentices dying against the normal population is about ten to one!”

“I don’t see how they know such things. You can’t trust a Radical. If his mouth is moving he’s probably lying!”

“The Government has had inspectors out and about making visits and these are their findings. It’s not coming from Radicals but it supports what Radicals are saying, and have been saying for years.”

“It’s hard to keep up with Radicals. They are always upset about something or other. Why can’t they mind their own business and leave the rest of us in peace? That Member of Parliament, Robert Peel, uses apprentices in his own mill. Such a good man wouldn’t do anything to hurt children.”

“That’s what we’d like to think, but the facts speak for themselves. The report says that common epidemic factory fever took the lives of most of his apprentices. They died in lumps so that he almost had to close down.”

“What did he do?”

“It says here,” went on Gladstone, after finding his place in the report, that, ‘Peel perpetuated the system with new supplies of paupers and orphans from institutions eager to shed their financial and human responsibilities for young children that had none to care for them.’”

“Then he was doing them a favour by taking them in and caring for them. What’s wrong with that?”

“What kind of favour is it that abuses you, makes you sick, and shortens your life? It’s not all it is said to be by mill owners. Listen to this. ‘Peel and other owners wanted them because they were free labour and he provided barely the minimum by way of clothing, food, or other comforts to keep them from early graves.’”

“There’s nothing wrong with free labour if it gives bairns a roof. Clothes, and food, and stops them starving to death in the workhouses.”

“There is if it is a place of abuse, torture, shortage of food, beatings, rapes, and early death. That’s the reality of apprentice life according to this official report.”

“If things were as bad as that says, then the Government would act to put an end to it.”

“The Government won’t stop anything that favours its own members that it might have to rely on in Parliament for support. Peel and his kind vote against every move to improve the lot of textile workers, even that of helpless children that can’t stand up for themselves and have no champion to stand up for them!”

“They’ve got that Robert Owen. He got a law passed that made life and work better for children about ten years ago.”

“Yes. That was the Health and Moral act of 1802.”

“I didn’t know what it was called, but that’s it. That changed everything.”

Gladstone was warming to the discussion but feeling that his friend wasn’t hearing what he was saying.

“Listen, Harold, I’ll read you another bit. It goes on down here: ‘The 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was intended to reform conditions in factories using child labour, thanks to Robert Owen, a socialist mill owner with an uncommon degree of compassion for the misery of workers at the hands of mill owners that were indifferent to the welfare of their employees. The 1802 Act limited working hours for apprenticed children to twelve each day. It also had provisions to make mills healthier, airier, and cleaner. Boys and girls were prohibited from sharing sleeping quarters, and there were to be only two children in each bed. They were to be provided with a set of clothes annually. They were to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and have an hour of Christian instruction each Sunday from an Anglican parson.’ Then is says, ‘If these laws been attend by interested and incorruptible Factory Inspectors, then the lives of apprentice children would have been longer, better, brighter, and happier.’”

“Well, didn’t it get better?”

“No! It did not. Like it says here,” he jabbed the paper with his forefinger to make his point, ‘The old regime of Ignorance, Terror, Want, and Brutality continue undiminished.’ Harold, these children are treated worse than slaves on American Plantations are treated.”

“If that is true,” said Starkey, “and I’m not saying it is, but, if it is, then summat ought to be done about it. I’ll go so far as to agree with you on that.”


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.