Dark, Satanic Mills Indeed

WE live a long way from where we grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, having settled in Southend-on-Sea 20 years ago and feeling committed to this area as both of our children live in the South.

We still have connections in the North, though, and as we want our grandchildren to know that part of their heritage is Yorkshire, we took them to stay for a few days and visited friends and relations.

I had an idea that I’d take them to see a sad little monument in the graveyard of a nearby village church as our grand-daughter is interested in history.

I remember so clearly being taken to see it when I was about her age, nine, and thinking about the conditions that must have prevailed during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. I was probably on an outing with a primary school class learning about local history.

My home town of Huddersfield was, and remains, an industrial town, and was an important place for the early textile industry, fine and not-so-fine woollen cloth was woven in a multitude of mills which could be six or seven storeys high, turning some streets into noisy canyons.

The monument was erected to commemorate 17 children who were burned to death when a mill in which they were working caught fire.
Their names and ages are listed, and I suppose that it was seeing ages the same as mine for children working 12 hours a day that impressed me.
Today’s children complained about being led through the neglected graveyard as I had forgotten the exact location of the monument and Robert, aged seven, was underwhelmed. Heather aged almost ten, was mildly interested, but I suppose never having seen the inside of a weaving shed she couldn’t appreciate what it might have been like to work in one, with the noise, the swaying, oil-soaked wooden floor and huge unprotected driving belts, “Dark, satanic mills” being merely words in a poem to her.

The monument was raised by subscription, so sensibilities were at least being stirred or consciences pricked even in 1818, although as children of eight were still working in factories in 1887 they were not being pricked too hard.

My grandfather, who was born in 1879, used to tell me that he started work in a plush factory when he was eight and earned half a crown a week.

I feel a bit historical when I reflect on the fact that the school-leaving age was 14 when I left, and that staying on until 15 was like having higher education. Even with the extra year learning shorthand and typing, the wage that could be expected was one pound five shillings per week, with a rise of 2s 6d after a year. I rarely mention this as it makes me sound as if I come from the Middle Ages instead of just being middle-aged – a term I prefer to elderly.,

J.M. Spurr.