By Paul Chrystal

Pen & Sword Books. 249 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-39901-192-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It took me a long time to understand how hard my mother must have worked in her lifetime. She was born in Whitehaven and her father (killed in 1915 in France) and step-father were both miners. When she was sixteen, around 1921, times were hard in the coalfields and she moved to Preston to look for work. She got a job as a “skivvy” in a doctor’s house, rising early to make the fires and help prepare the breakfasts. There were all the other menial jobs that a young servant did – dusting, washing, running errands, and more. Later, when she was married, she raised a family of four (there was also a boy who died young), and somehow kept us fed and clothed despite my father being in and out of work in the 1930s. During the Second World War she worked in a Royal Ordnance factory. After the war she went into a cotton mill. When she left the mill she worked as a cleaner for a firm of solicitors. She was well into her seventies when she retired.  

What I haven’t mentioned is all the housework she must have done over the years in addition to whatever outside jobs she had. I don’t recollect that my father ever helped around the house, though to be fair he would turn his hand to repairs and other problems he felt were a man’s responsibility. He’d served for twelve years in the Royal Navy and worked as a steeplejack, docker, labourer, and any other job he could get during the Depression. He’d go on the roof to replace a chimney pot, or take down and reconstruct a small interior wall.  But it was my mother who kept the ageing two-up-two-down, toilet-in-the-backyard property clean and tidy.

I was reminded of all that when reading Paul Chrystal’s Factory Girls. He initially takes a brisk look at how women had a place in the social and economic systems in Roman times, during the Middle-Ages, and leading up to the Industrial Revolution.  Women and children had always worked in the fields in rural communities and in the home had cooked, sewn, and looked after the younger children. Chrystal says: “Textiles and food, complementary to child-rearing, therefore, became women’s work from the dawn of time through millennia into the pre-industrial age – until machinery and the Industrial Revolution ejected many from the home into factories to do the same or similar work but with the added complication of noisy, dangerous machinery and, most significantly, finding childcare”.

The main focus of Chrystal’s book is “from the Industrial Revolution to 1914”, arguably the period that shaped our lives, at least until the advent of the widespread use of computers and other innovations that have changed patterns of employment and, in some ways, altered the roles that men and women have in society. I’m not convinced that things have moved away from what might be called “traditional roles” all that much. I travel on trains, trams, and buses quite a lot and there are few women drivers on any of them. One argument to explain this might be that it’s work that involves extensive shift patterns and is consequently difficult for women with children to fit in with their domestic involvements. As Chrystal points out it’s often enough of a problem finding childcare at acceptable economic rates for routine (9 to 5) daytime hours.

It’s not easy to determine just when the Industrial Revolution got underway. Chrystal says that Lombe’s Mill which opened in the Derby area in 1719 was “the first successful silk-throwing mill in Britain, at its height employing some 300 people. It also has claims to be the first fully mechanised factory in the world”. In terms of its size and the number of people working there it might appear to have been a fairly small operation. But the point is that it set the style for what was to come later.

In Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby there’s a scene where Sidonia meets Coningsby who expresses a desire to visit Greece. “Phantoms and spectres. The age of ruins is past. Have you seen Manchester?”, responds Sidonia.. It was, in its way, how a lot of people felt about the startling rise of Manchester and surrounding towns such as Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, and Bolton, into a highly productive textile conurbation. Writers, intellectuals, politicians and businessmen flocked to the area to view the new phenomenon, take lessons from it, write about its problems, and forecast what the future would be like as the Industrial Revolution transformed society.

Some were horrified by what they saw, but others felt differently. “And yet there is a great deal of money to be made here” replied a businessman after listening to Engels talking about the vast social problems (poverty, lack of decent housing, disease) caused by the rapid expansion of Manchester and surrounding towns. Chrystal quotes a passage from The Condition of the Working-Class in England in which Engels paints a grim picture and refers to “the Workhouse, the ‘poor-Law Bastille’ of Manchester, which, like a citadel, looks threateningly down from behind its high walls and parapets on the hilltop, upon the working-people’s quarter below”.

Thousands of workers were required for the mills that, often several stories high, sprang up, and in some cases are still there, though converted into other uses. Mill owners realised that the work force needed to operate the looms and other machinery could be recruited largely among women and children: “Women gave employers an adaptable, less entrenched, flexible, cheap workforce suited in many ways for factories and sweatshops…..Nimble-fingered women and small-bodied children were major assets in the textile industries with their close ranks of machinery”.

There were few rules relating to the employment of children in factories, so boys and girls as young as three or four could be employed to do jobs (crawling under machinery to remove excess fluff, etc.) and when they got older put to work operating a machine.  They weren’t paid much, but then neither were their elders. The hours were long and the conditions resulting from looms in rows so close they left little room for manoeuvre, and a lack of proper ventilation, were terrible. The noise alone could cause permanent injury. The noise factor wasn’t much different many years later if my brief experiences of the inside of a spinning shed in the early 1950s were anything to go by. I always had to be careful at home in the presence of my mother. She could lip read thanks to her years in the mill.

Reformers such as Lord Ashley, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, battled to get laws passed through Parliament which would limit working hours and improve working conditions. It sometimes took years to put the legislation into effect, and even then it was often ignored or, at best, paid lip service to. There were too few factory inspectors to carry out regular checks. And according to Chrystal, women may have made up a large portion of the workforce, but “management and supervisory roles, even in textiles, remained the almost exclusive preserve of men and it was men who were usually delegated to operate the most exclusive and sophisticated machinery”. When these men belonged to a trade union they created rules which denied membership to women: “An insidious sub-text underscored the early development of trade unions: one of the driving forces was the opportunity they offered to marginalise women, roughly one-third of the labour market, into traditionally low-paid and tedious jobs while widening job segregation and repeatedly harassing any women who did not comply”.

To counter the misogynistic attitudes of many men, women set up their own unions. The Women’s Protective and Provident League (later the Women’s Trade Union League), an organisation which promoted women’s trade unions, “enabled the creation of several women’s unions. Women were becoming more militant, as witness the 1875 West Yorkshire Weavers’ Strike which arose out of an attempt by the employers to cut wages because of an alleged decline in trade. Around 9,000 workers, both female and male, took part and eventually “caused the Masters Association to capitulate”. There’s a sad note added by Chrystal when he says that the key strike leader, Ann Ellis, “died in Bradford Workhouse in 1919 at the age of 76”.   

I’ve tended to look at women and children working in the textile industry, but Chrystal is concerned to widen his survey into mines and other places. It seems shocking to us now that women and very young children worked underground. Respectable people raised their voices in protest, though they were often more bothered about the moral dangers of semi-naked men and young women in close proximity to each other than they were about dangerous conditions, injuries, low pay or any other practical problem. There were some who campaigned to limit working hours and increase the age at which children could be employed at the coalface. They encountered stiff resistance from the coal owners and their representative in Parliament.

Another aspect of children at work can arouse a feeling of horror. Young boys, and sometimes girls, by which I mean those often below the age of ten or so, were employed as Chimney Sweepers’ Climbing Boys.  Sweeps did not use extended brushes or other devices and instead sent a child up a chimney to physically remove the soot by hand. The graphic descriptions of what it was like clambering up chimneys in large country houses and the like can make one shudder in disbelief, Worse still are those of boys who got stuck and died in a chimney. In Shaftesbury’s words: “Some are burnt, some suffocated, some tortured or half-killed when stuck in a chimney by the very means used to extricate them”,  Not everyone was sympathetic to the plight of the Climbing Boys. A lady, upset when she could not get her chimney swept because the boys were now entitled to go to school in the afternoon, remarked “A chimney-sweep, indeed, wanting education! What next?”.

It might be relevant, too, to mention Chrystal’s pages on the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888. There had been several previous strikes, all of which were unsuccessful. The conditions at the Bryant & May Works in London were “lamentable”, with hazardous materials like phosphorus causing dreadful injuries, including “phossy jaw”, the signs of which were “toothaches”, and  “unbearable abscesses in the mouth leading to facial disfigurement and sometimes fatal brain damage”. Chrystal quotes from a report which said, “”One woman had completely lost her lower jaw, a young girl at earlier stages was constantly in great pain while her suppurating jaw bone was gradually decaying”.  It’s little wonder that the matchgirls struck so often. Their 1888 strike did bring some improvements in working conditions. Chrystal additionally outlines a number of different medical problems which affected workers in mines, mills, and other locations where toxic substances were in use and little or nothing was provided in the form of protective clothing.           

There were employers who tried to provide decent conditions for their employees, and Chrystal, in a chapter entitled “Philanthropy and the Industrial Village” looks at establishments such as Robert Owen’s New Lanark Mills, Saltaire, Bournville, Port Sunlight, and Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, which is a few miles down the road from where I live. He describes them as examples of “enlightened” employment, and indeed they were, with houses, shops, and other facilities for those lucky enough to have a job there. It isn’t being cynical to suggest that it was “enlightened self-interest” on the part of the employers.  Contented workers were more-likely to be productive and less-likely to strike. It would be interesting to know more about how people were selected for tenancy of the houses, and what were the responses to matters like the obvious religious impulses behind many of the projects, rules about behaviour, the maintenance of gardens,  and the absence of pubs and shops selling alcohol. 

How did writers and artists respond to the Industrial Revolution? Chrystal throughout his book quotes from poets and others. Thomas Hood’s 1843 “The Song of the Shirt”, about the life and work of a seamstress, is an obvious inclusion, but there were other poems, such as Michael Thomas Sadler’s “The Factory Girls’ Last Day”, sympathetic to the plight of the poor. Chrystal says it “has no pretence at being fine poetry”. Perhaps not, and it may not be the kind of poem likely to arouse much interest amongst most literary academics, but it tells its story in an effective way. And it can be said to meet one of the requirements of a poem – is it memorable?

As for novelists, Dickens with Hard Times, and Mrs Gaskell with Mary Barton and North and South, immediately spring to mind. Disraeli’s Sybil or the Two Nations is mentioned, along with books by Arthur Morrison (A Child of the Jago) and George Gissing. Several of Gissing’s books are relevant – Workers in the Dawn and The Nether World, for example – but I would like to have seen one of my favourite nineteenth century novels, New Grub Street, on the list. It perhaps doesn’t seem relevant, but its account of Marion, a young woman who toils “in the valley of the shadow of books” (the British Library), researching material for her father’s periodical essays, surely says a lot about the possibilities and prospects for women’s employment in the late-nineteenth century. When her father dies, and she is jilted by an ambitious young journalist, she disappears. Towards the end of the novel we’re told that she had been offered a place as an assistant in “a public library in a provincial town”. Not a factory occupation, but most likely just as routine and poorly-paid.

Factory Girls is a book with lots of information packed into it. By its very nature it’s more of a broad survey than in –depth analysis of specific subjects. But Paul Chrystal provides a useful guide through the years concerned. And he does it in a way that is aimed at a general readership rather than specialists. His writing is clear and concise and he avoids theory and academic jargon. There are ample extracts from government reports, memoirs, and other documents, and their sources are given. The book is illustrated and has a good bibliography. There appears to be a minor error on page 59 where Shelley is said to have written The Revolt of Islam in 1822 but all the references to the poem that I found date it as 1817.