In trying to find the origins of one ancestor, I have gone down many of the 4000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire looking for a boy called George. That’s the name of my research file, Boy George.
One day my heart stopped, and I confess I had a tear in my eye. There was a girl on the 1871 census records called Susannah. I thought she was possibly related. Her entire family was out working as weavers and she was with them, a full-time worker at 10. Beside her name it said, ‘little piecer’.
I had to look this up. Little piecers stayed beside the spinning machines and tied broken yarn threads together. This was Susannah’s life at the age of ten. We all know that children worked in mines and mills, but this was the name of a child staring at me, and suddenly she was more real.
Some children worked as doffers. They were often bare footed boys who removed and replaced bobbins (or doffs), pins and needles or spindles holding spun fibres from the spinning machines. Many children were scavengers. They gathered loose cotton from underneath moving, unguarded machinery. Children were considered ideal for this work because their fingers were tiny. The mills spun thread at high speed and the machines jammed and clogged regularly. Sometimes children became caught in the machines with their ill-fitting clothing, and they might be maimed or killed.
The Factory Inquiry Commission of 1833 heard that children as young as four were being carried to mills, half asleep, by older siblings. The spinning sheds were baking hot, and the weaving sheds were cold. Children worked twelve to sixteen hour-shifts having had very little to eat. They got tired and dizzy and became clumsy. If they fell asleep under a machine, they might be punished by the machine or by man. There was great deal of cruelty from the overlookers or supervisors.
Children were paid around 10 to 20% of an adult’s wage and some factories had more children present than adults. Children were cheap. When the Factory Act was (finally) applied in 1870, children could only be employed as half timers. This meant they could not work more than an 8-hour day. That was called half time, but it was easy to obtain orphans, so factory owners found ways and means around this restriction.
Forget school. Forget being asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ And forget having normal hearing. Weavers quickly learned to lip read because the machines were so loud. It became an essential skill later in life. Most of them had gone deaf.
Was it any wonder that people poured out of the north of England (and Europe) onto ships heading to the New World? Some went in search of gold, but the search for a decent life for your children would have been another kind of gold back then.
The older George that I am researching landed in Western Australia with a wife and two young sons and left this world behind. He was ordered, a few years after arriving, to go to the Western Front. Gas nearly killed him at Passchendaele, but he lived to a good age and is remembered for, among other things, enjoying cricket, motoring in his beloved Buick, playing bridge, and being kind.
I haven’t found my younger George, but in a strange way, I think he has found me, tapping me on the shoulder from Lancashire in the 1880s to say, you are very lucky. And he is absolutely right.