A brief description of a tour through the Calder Dale

“A brief description of a tour through the Calder Dale being a letter to Richard Oastler, surnamed by Baines ‘’King of the factory children” by George Crabtree, an Operative. Huddersfield, 1833.

The full text containing interviews with children, parents, mill owners, and clergy are available on Weaver to Web at www.calderdale.gov.uk/wtw and could be used as the basis for a play script.

When Richard Oastler was campaigning for a maximum ten hour working day for factory children, George Crabtree set out on a tour of Calderdale to provide Oastler with evidence for his campaign.

At Ripponden, the Rev. Mr Custons refused to sign the petition because he knew many of the mill owners personally and was sure they were ‘very good and humane towards their workpeople’. He refused to allow Crabtree and his friends to use the Church for a ‘Ten Hour’ meeting, which was held in a Methodist chapel instead. None of the mill workers took an active part in the meeting because they were afraid of losing their jobs, but afterwards told of “woes, fines, strapping and oppressions”.  

As Crabtree pointed out, the mills they visited did not on the whole reflect this supposed humanity, “Mothers wished the bill might pass, for their children worked past their strength”. At one mill the overlooker kept a shop on the truck system, and when a young woman went to ask for her brother’s wages of 4s 6d, she asked for one shilling in money but was refused, and told she must have it all in goods. The truck system is where workers are paid in goods rather than in money and many over-greedy employers adopted the truck system, compelling their employees to purchase the necessaries of life at shops opened by the masters."
Yorkshire Scenes Lore and Legends M Tait, 1888
They held a meeting at the White Horse in Hebden Bridge at which many speakers described the evils of the factory system, and agreed that a petition should be forwarded to Parliament. A Methodist minister called Mr Farrer said that he was always preaching against the factory system and “frequently tells the masters that they will all be damned”. As a result, when it was his turn to preach in the chapel at Mytholmroyd, a local mill owner, Mr Walker, “will lock up the door and prevent him going in!”

At Todmorden they heard that a Ten Hour meeting was to be held when John Feilden MP was at home and able to advise them. There were 900 power looms at Fielden’s Mill and it was so noisy that they could not hear themselves speak. The man who showed them around had three children working at the mill; the youngest girl was crying and looked ill.

In Sowerby Bridge the Revs Mr Bull and Mr Rogers refused to sign the petition, which Mr Rogers said was ‘foolish and uncalled for’ as he knew the system to be “quite easy and pleasant for those engaged in it”, the workers “all comfortable and well fed’. Amongst those who supported the limitation of child labour was a gentleman who said he would sign twenty such petitions because he thought the system a ‘disgrace to a civilised country”.

They visited a young girl called Mary Holland who was sick at home – she had been ill for six weeks from overworking. She said that the children at Mr Priestley’s mill were sometimes severely beaten and that the spinner sometimes beat her to raise great lumps on her head.

A mill owner called Mr Greenup refused to let them into his house or visit his mill, but they “met a little ragged fellow with a piece of bread in his hand running to the mill, he had the appearance of a moving bundle of rags; we asked what wages he had, he replied sixpence a week”. They also saw an elder sister running home with a younger girl who was badly hurt because she had got her fingers caught in the machinery. When they asked a group of children if their master was in favour of the Ten Hours Bill they got the reply, “not he by G-d, if he wor he wodent work us fourteen hars ith day.  One little fellow, discovering the petition in our hands, cried out see ye lads, that’s Ten Har Bill, let’s gie em a sheat, and the poor children shouted as loud as they cam, and away they ran for the bell was ringing”.

In Mytholmroyd some boys told them that they were strapped if late for work and said they had never learnt to read.

As they passed two mills in Cragg Vale they met a woman who said she had two children working at on of these mills which belonged to the Hinchcliffe family. They worked from half past five to half past eight and had to make up for any time lost through the machinery breaking down, if two minute late they were fined a penny, if an hour late sixpence and got the strap, and were also fined for any fault in their work. This mill also operated the truck system.

 The working conditions in Cragg Vale were discussed by the curate of St John in the Wilderness,  the Rev. Devine, “If there was a place in England that needed legislative interference it was that place for they work 15-16 hours a day and sometimes all night. Oh! It is a murderous system, and the mill owners are the pest and disgrace of society. Laws, human and divine, are insufficient to restrain them. …they say let governments make what laws they think fit, they can drive a coach and six through them in that valley.”

The curate had just buried a boy who worked in one of the Cragg Vale mills. The boy had fallen asleep after working 15 or 16 hours and had been beaten awake by the overseer. The day before he died he worked 17 hours but by night he was ill and had to be carried home by his father. He woke at 4.00 am and asked his brothers if the lights were up at the mill as he was afraid of being late, but he never spoke again and died shortly afterwards.  

I mentioned these circumstances from the pulpit and affirmed that their deaths was caused by the cruel system of over-working, and so displeased some of the mill-owners that they have never spoken to me since’.


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