Child Workers at the Strutt Owned Mills

Recently I’ve been busy renumbering our D6948 collection, which relates to W. G. and J. Strutt Ltd, who once ran mills at Belper, Milford and Derby. There is a collection which we are currently re-cataloguing, and there is a lot of material to get through, comprising of fifty-one boxes and eighty outsize volumes. Whilst going through it, I came across a very interesting box full of registers and certificates for the child workers employed by the company, ranging from 1836 to 1875.

An example child register, D6948/H/3/1, May 1853-Apr 1860

These entries do bring about an emotional reaction as we can all imagine a child that we know in the present day and compare their ages with those who would have worked in mills from the late eighteenth century. We all can easily bring to mind a child mill worker: young, poor, replaceable, but most importantly anonymous, as they dived under machinery to catch spare cotton. Such child labour is, quite rightly, not legal any more thanks to many acts that have been passed to restrict working ages, but during the Industrial Revolution, it was common practice to send children out to work from a young age. They were seen as cheap labour who could easily perform tasks in small spaces that adults couldn’t access.

For these reasons, we often imagine that child labour in manufacturing processes is a product of the Industrial Revolution. However, children would also have worked prior to the invention of the factory system, albeit in different settings. In terms of the fabric industry, wools, linens, and cottons, as well as other items, would have been produced on a smaller scale. This would have been either in people’s homes or in communal workshops. Children would have also worked in these environments, but in a more flexible way than was seen later on. Roles assigned to the workers (including children) depended more on what was needed, rather than having set roles depending on gender or age.

Example certificate of a child over the age of thirteen, D6948/H/7/2, 5 May 1853

Mills employed large numbers of people and offered steady and reliable work. It was this reliability that largely attracted workers to the mills, and those found in Belper were no different. For the children entering this employment, it would have been seen as a job for life, as long as they weren’t injured or killed in the process.

Sadly, there is little information about the children mentioned in these registers; in fact, most didn’t give specific ages, just a date they entered, left, or changed their employment with the Strutts. The certificates give a little more information as the parents are named.

Life would have been tough for these children as the work usually involved working long hours in dangerous conditions for minimal pay. They would have had some education. In 1833, an act was passed ensuring that any employment of children was only allowed if they were provided with two hours of schooling for six days a week. Jedediah Strutt admitted in 1816, during a Parliamentary enquiry into working practices in factories, that they were already providing this. This cut the children’s working hours from twelve to ten hours.

Page from register of children in factory of WG & J Strutt where children under 13 years of age were employed, D6948/H/3/1, May 1853-Apr 1860

These recommendations had already been made. In 1802, the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was passed, which had been largely advocated for by Robert Peel (not the later prime minister, but his father of the same name). This Act had already ensured apprentices under the age of twenty-one did not work night shifts, restricted their working hours to ten rather than twelve hours, and were offered some form of education. By already offering these things, the Strutts were some of the better employers to work for at this time. This can be seen when out of the one hundred employees under ten that the Strutts employed at the time of the enquiry in 1815, only eight couldn’t read.

Even though the 1802 Act was well intentioned, it still had its issues, the main one being that it wasn’t very well enforced, so mill owners could easily flout the rules. There were so called ‘visitors’ appointed to inspect factories. A visitor could be an upstanding member of the community, such as a Justice of the Peace or a local clergyman. In most cases though, they were usually friends of the mill owner, so they weren’t impartial to the environment they were meant to inspect.

It was around this time that discussions were being held about the minimum legal working age. In the same Parliamentary enquiry mentioned above, the Arkwrights, who owned mills further down the Derwent Valley at Cromford and Masson, stated that they already excluded those under ten from working for them, as they wished for the children to already be able to read and write, before entering their employment. This age was significant as in 1815, an act to ban those under ten from working was unsuccessful. These recommendations had been brought forward by Robert Peel (again) and Robert Owen, a mill owner of the New Lanark Mill in Scotland. It is possible from Strutt’s appearance before the enquiry, that he would have been willing to apply these rules if the act had been passed.

Masson Mill, c. 1800, Picture the Past, credit to Miss Frances Webb

It is somewhat unusual to think that these types of debates were being discussed in the first half of the nineteenth century, as it is more common to find these arguments from the middle of the nineteenth century, when more acts that aimed to improve the working life of those in industrial sectors were passed.

In terms of the registers shown from our collection, whilst they do show the children involved, they offer very little contextual information about their lives and working conditions. Hopefully this post has gone some way towards explaining some of the moral debates about child workers, particularly in factory settings, at the time that children worked in the Strutt mills, as well as how the Strutts may have treated their child workers.

Bibliography:

Barbara J. Starmans, ‘Child Labour’, The Social Historian, https://www.thesocialhistorian.com/child-labour/

Katerina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820, Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force (London: Routledge, 2007)

R. S. Fitton and A. P. Wadsworth, The Strutts and the Arkwrights, 1758-1830 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958)

UK Parliament, ‘Early factory legislation’, https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/19thcentury/overview/earlyfactorylegislation/

5 thoughts on “Child Workers at the Strutt Owned Mills

  1. Pingback: Catalogue Available for Messrs W. G. & J. Strutt and English Sewing Cotton Company Limited Collections | Derbyshire Record Office

  2. Hi

    This is a very interesting post so thank you very much. As you say some context is missing . Arkwright probably employed children under 10 however Ellis Needham who ran Litton Mill certainly did. We know this from some of the testimonies given by the children themselves and kept at the working class movement museum in Salford.They make pretty grim reading. There is a suggestion that Dicken’s Oliver Twist is based on the appalling cruelty suffered by the children of Litton.

    Regards

    Netta Christie Discover Buxton

    • Hi Netta, glad you found the post interesting. It is a shame that there is a lot of context missing, but at least we can share the names of some of the children employed there. It is probable that Arkwright did, it is just mentioned that he certainly preferred them to be anywhere above 9 or 10. I can imagine that it would be grim reading, but at least their testimonies have been kept in someway. That is an interesting suggestion as to Dickens. I remember reading a very good book some years ago by Ruth Richardson about the workhouse used in Oliver Twist as she managed to successfully identify it as the old Strand Union Workhouse. Her research in turn, helped save it from complete destruction following this discovery.

  3. Hi

    Thanks for this,

    Very interesting indeed, and sad to reflect on how many children were injured or killed keeping the machines running.

    What thanks Christopher Mitchell

    Sent from Outlook for iOShttps://aka.ms/o0ukef ________________________________

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