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Experience of Child Labour in British Factories

John Simkin

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Robert Blincoe was born in 1792. At four years old Blincoe was placed in St. Pancras Workhouse, London. He was later told that his family name was Blincoe but he never discovered what happened to his parents. At the age of six Robert was sent to work as a chimney boy. However, Robert was not a success and after a few months he was returned to St. Pancras Workhouse.

In 1799, Lamberts recruited Robert and eighty other boys and girls from St. Pancras Workhouse. The boys were to be instructed in the trade of stocking weaving and the girls in lacemaking at Lowdam Mill, situated ten miles from Nottingham. Blincoe completed his apprenticeship in 1813, worked as an adult operative until 1817, when he set up his own small cotton-spinning business. Blincoe married a woman called Martha in 1819.

John Brown, a journalist from Bolton, met Robert Blincoe in 1822. He later explained: "It was in the spring of 1822, after having devoted a considerable time to the investigating of the effect of the manufacturing system, and factory establishments, on the health and morals of the manufacturing populace, that I first heard of the extraordinary sufferings of Robert Blincoe. At the same time, I was told of his earnest wish that those sufferings should, for the protection of the rising generation of parish children, be laid before the world. If this young man had not consigned to a cotton-factory, he would probably have been strong, healthy, and well grown; instead of which, he is diminutive as to statue, and his knees are grievously distorted."

Brown interviewed Blincoe for an article he was writing on child labour. Brown found the story so fascinating he decided to write Blincoe's biography. John Brown gave the biography to his friend Richard Carlile who was active in the campaign for factory legislation. Later that year John Brown committed suicide.

Robert Carlile eventually decided to publish Robert Blincoe's Memoir in his radical newspaper, The Lion. The story appeared in five weekly episodes from 25th January to 22nd February 1828. The story also appeared in Carlile's The Poor Man's Advocate. Five years later, John Doherty published Robert Blincoe's Memoir in pamphlet form. This included the following passage:

A girl named Mary Richards, who was thought remarkably handsome when she left the workhouse, and, who was not quite ten years of age, attended a drawing frame, below which, and about a foot from the floor, was a horizontal shaft, by which the frames above were turned. It happened one evening, when her apron was caught by the shaft. In an instant the poor girl was drawn by an irresistible force and dashed on the floor. She uttered the most heart-rending shrieks! Blincoe ran towards her, an agonized and helpless beholder of a scene of horror. He saw her whirled round and round with the shaft - he heard the bones of her arms, legs, thighs, etc. successively snap asunder, crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her round, and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works, her blood was scattered over the frame and streamed upon the floor, her head appeared dashed to pieces - at last, her mangled body was jammed in so fast, between the shafts and the floor, that the water being low and the wheels off the gear, it stopped the main shaft. When she was extricated, every bone was found broken - her head dreadfully crushed. She was carried off quite lifeless.


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One of the most disturbing cases involves William Dodd. He was born into a poor family living in Kendal on 18th June 1804. At the age of five William was sent to work as a card-maker and the following year was employed in a local textile factory. William's three sisters also worked at the same factory. During busy periods William and his sisters worked an 18 hour day.

Dodd's first job was as a piecer. As he was later to point out this work put a great deal of pressure on the "right knee, which is always the first joint to give way." Within a few years Dodd was a cripple: "My joints were like so many rusty hinges, that had laid for years. I had to get up an hour earlier, and, with the broom under one arm as a crutch, and a stick on my hand, walk over the house till I had got my joints in working order."

In 1819 found work at Isaac and William Wilson's textile mill in Kendal. William Dodd became an overlooker with responsibility for checking the ages of children working in the factory. Dodd attended evening classes given by a local schoolmaster. Once Dodd had been taught to read and write he was asked by his employer to help with clerical work in the factory.

Dodd, who was now badly crippled, found working at Wilson's textile mill increasingly difficult and in 1837 left to form his own school. Dodd taught reading, writing and arithmetic but after a few months he lost the right to rent the rooms he was using as a school.

Dodd made several attempts to find a wife but he claims he was rejected because he was a cripple. After being refused by several women of his own age a friend told him "that after a certain age women would take up with anything." He became friends with a woman much older than himself. In his autobiography he described how she reacted when he asked her to marry him: "I saw a slight curl of the upper lip - her eyes then began to descend, till they settled the intensity of their gaze upon my knees. At the moment, I wished the earth to open and swallow me up."

After this rejection Dodd decided that he would "live and die a bachelor". He now moved to London where he looked for work as a clerk. Unable to find permanent work, Dodd was forced to do a wide variety of temporary jobs.

In 1839 Dodd was employed by John Kirby as a clerk but by In the spring of 1840 the pain in his joints became intolerable. According to Dodd his right wrist now measured "twelve inches round". William was sent to St. Thomas' Hospital and the doctors eventually decided that he would have to have his right arm amputated. A doctor told him that "on dissection, the bones of the forearm presented a very curious appearance - something similar to an empty honeycomb, the marrow having totally disappeared."

Dodd decided to write a book about his experiences as a child worker. When the manuscript was finished he sent it to Lord Ashley who arranged for it to be published as A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd a Factory Cripple. Lord Ashley decided to employ Dodd to collect information about the treatment of children in textile factories. William Dodd's research was published as The Factory System: Illustrated in 1842.

William Dodd's books created a great deal of controversy. Dodd was attacked in the House of Commons as an unreliable source of information. John Bright: "I have in my hand two publications; one is The Adventures of William Dodd he Factory Cripple and the other is entitled The Factory System - both books have gone forth to the public under the sanction of the noble Lord Ashley. I do not wish to go into the particulars of the character of this man, for it is not necessary to my case, but I can demonstrate, that his books and statements are wholly unworthy of credit. Dodd states that from the hardships he endured in a factory, he was "done up" at the age of thirty-two, whereas I can prove that he was treated with uniform kindness, which he repaid by gross immorality of conduct, and for which he was discharged from his employment." As a result of this attack Lord Ashley decided to sack Dodd.


Here is his description of working in a factory as a child:

At the age of six I became a piecer. The duties of the piecer will not be clearly understood by the reader, unless he is acquainted with the machine for spinning woollen yarn, called a billy. A billy is a machine somewhat similar in form to the letter H, one side being stationary, and the other moveable, and capable of being pushed close in under the stationary part, almost like the drawer of a side table; the moveable part, or carriage, runs backwards and forwards, by means of six iron wheels, upon three iron rails, as a carriage on a railroad. In this carriage are the spindles, from 70 to 100 in number, all turned by one wheel, which is in the care of the spinner. When the spinner brings the carriage close up under the fixed part of the machine, he is able, to obtain a certain length of carding for each spindle, say 10 or 12 inches, which he draws back, and spins into yarn; this done, he winds the yarn round the spindles, brings the carriage close up as before, and again obtains a fresh supply of cardings.

These cardings are taken up by the piecer in the left hand, about twenty at a time. He holds them about four inches from one end, the other end hanging down; these he takes, with the right hand, one at a time, for the purpose of piecing, and laying the ends of the cardings about 2 inches over each other, he rubs them together on the canvas cloth with his flat hand. He is obliged to be very expert, in order to keep the spinner well supplied. A good piecer will supply from 30 to 40 spindles with cardings.

The number of cardings a piecer has through his fingers in a day is very great; each piecing requires three or four rubs, over a space of three or four inches; and the continual friction of the hand in rubbing the piecing upon the coarse wrapper wears off the skin, and causes the finger to bleed. The position in which the piecer stands to his work is with the right foot forward, and his right side facing the frame: the motion he makes in going along in front of the frame, for the purpose of piecing, is neither forwards or backwards, but in a sliding direction, constantly keeping his right side towards the frame. In this position he continues during the day, with his hands, feet, and eyes constantly in motion. It will be easily seen, that the chief weight of his body rests upon his right knee, which is almost always the first joint to give way.

I have frequently worked at the frame till I could scarcely get home, and in this state have been stopped by people in the streets who noticed me shuffling along, and advised me to work no more in the factories; but I was not my own master. During the day, I frequently counted the clock, and calculated how many hours I had still to remain at work; my evenings were spent in preparing for the following day - in rubbing my knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists with oil, etc. I went to bed, to cry myself to sleep, and pray that the Lord would take me to himself before morning.

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