The working life of a mill girl

Elizabeth Shorrock

Recorded by Julie Lee in the 1980's in conversation with Mrs Eva Pugh when Mrs Pugh, now deceased, was a resident at Greenfoot elderly people's home in Settle. Julie Lee was a care assistant there. No corrections have been made to the grammar.

Eva Wright (later Mrs Eva Pugh) was born in Langcliffe in 1897. She lived in quite a large cottage on Church Street. She was the oldest daughter in the family of six and had one brother older than herself. She said that as she got older it was the custom to take more of a share of the household chores.

Eva attended the village school at Langcliffe and remained there until she was 12 years old. At the age of 12 she went to work at one of the local mills. She had to work at the mill as there was nowhere else to go. Although the ages of the women who worked at the mill varied the majority were young girls. Eva remembers that about six of them used to walk to work together, some of their names she could remember - Molly Parson, Laura Knowles, Hilda Knowles and Maggie Heaton.

She worked at High Mill which belonged to the Fine Cotton Spinning Association. She worked from Monday to Friday 6 am to 5 pm and some Saturday mornings for 5 shillings a week. They got a quarter of an hour for breakfast and one hour for lunch. They brought their own breakfast and cans with tea in (as there were no such things as flasks) which they kept warm on the hot pipes that ran across the room. If they went home for lunch it was a two mile round trip otherwise they brought a basin with stew in which they would ask the foreman to put on the boilers downstairs to warm up. There was as you can see no canteen facilities.

For work they all wore heavy clogs with brass toe clips and nails in the wooden soles. The bottom of the sole was protected by what they called 'calkers' which were made of iron. They wore their ordinary clothes but made their own aprons out of thick sacking called Harden aprons. This protected their clothes from the oily machinery. Nothing was provided by the factory.

Young girls like Eva started life at the bottom as a roller lifter. Roller lifting means watching the threads going through the rollers off the cops onto the next process. If the threads broke they would lift the rollers before the threads wrapped around them. They would stand and do this all day.

When they mastered this they would eventually move on to the next process which was fly spinning. Eva had the responsibility of three frames. This means watching a hundred bobbins in each frame filling up and then changing them when they are full and putting a fresh one in and set it off spinning. Imagine watching 300 bobbins!

The other processes that follow were perning - putting threads onto shuttles for the weavers and then onto winding - putting cotton on bigger bobbins for the beams or warps.

At 14 years old Eva reached the height of her mill career and went into the beaming room to do creeling (the women who worked in here could even wear shoes instead of clogs; it was a much cleaner room). This was a very important job where the warp threads were put onto rollers about six feet long ready for the weavers for use at the mills like the one down Kings Mill Lane, Settle.

The mill owner Hector Christie only lived about a field's distance away from the mill. Eva's father, Mr Wright, worked for him as a gardener, and they lived in one of the mill houses in Langcliffe. Eva gave all her wages to her father, which seemed to be the norm in her time.

She had an accident one day at the mill and it was just before she took her annual holiday. She had trapped her hands in a machine when cleaning it and nearly lost a finger; all the finger end now looks squashed. Because she was not twenty one years old her father had to go to the mill and collect the small amount of compensation.

Accidents were often happening at the mill and many local people have various scars to prove this statement. This was because there were no safety guards on the machines like there are today. Eva said that there were leather belts going across the top of the room for each machine. If it broke a person could be knocked off their feet with a nasty slap.

Working conditions at the mill were awful, dirty, dusty, and very noisy. The machines were oily and the floors were running with oil. They had one week's holiday a year and three days off at Christmas and New Year all taken without pay. No pay for being off sick and they got time knocked off even if they were just five minutes late for work, in fact they were locked out for being half an hour late and fired.

Eva left the mill when she got married and moved to Settle. She said life used to be all bed and work as when she arrived home she had all sorts of household chores like making the tea and baking bread and ironing. Although this seems a very drab existence to people like myself, Eva said 'Everybody lived the same way but just got on with life, moaned about it, but kept on doing it'.

Contributed by Elizabeth Shorrock