The Mill: The real story of the child slaves of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution made Britain great – but it was a success story built on the sacrifice of children, says historian David Sekers

Thirty boys and 60 girls were roused from their dormitories in the Apprentice House early one morning in May 1806 to walk to work on the cotton-mill spinning machines. They were used to the early start and the 13-hour day, and felt undaunted by the large building with its numerous floors in the Cheshire countryside: it reminded them of the workhouses from which most of them came. But it was hard to adjust to the incessant motion of the wheels and shafts that turned the machinery.


Thomas Priestley’s job that morning was routine: he had to look after one of the spinning machines. Brought north from a workhouse in Hackney, east London, when he was ten years old, he’d been at Quarry Bank Mill for three years. “My business was to supply these machines, to guide the thread occasionally and to twist them when they snapped,” he later recalled.

But then he lost concentration and disaster ensued. One of the wheels caught the forefinger of his left hand and tore it off.

Children were needed in these early cotton-spinning mills; their smallness and agility made them suitable for mending broken threads and keeping the machines oiled and clean. But even in the best managed mills accidents happened. Discipline was hard to maintain; fatigue was also often a cause. But the effect on the children is not hard to imagine, since their ability to work and earn a livelihood was threatened.

Quarry Bank Mill was one of the few to employ a doctor, and under his care Priestley recovered within six weeks. The way he expressed his shock and trauma was simply to say that he missed his mother. He decided to run away with an older boy. Breaking their signed agreement with the mill owner, Samuel Greg, the two set off on foot for London. Priestley found his way back to Hackney and his mother, but in a matter of weeks he was picked up and sent before magistrates.

Priestley and his fellow fugitive told the magistrates about their treatment at Quarry Bank, a rare chance to hear the authentic voices of young mill workers in the Industrial Revolution. Their evidence showed that Greg’s mill was unlike many others. They spoke of the discipline of the working day, of the regular meals they were given, the clean sheets and clothing provided and the fair treatment when they were at the Apprentice House. They spoke of church, lessons and time to play on Sundays.

Samuel Greg recruited some children from local families, but more were taken on as apprentices from workhouses. As with almost all his apprentices, Greg contracted to employ, house, feed and clothe Priestley until he reached the age of 18. In return, the youngster had to pledge to serve and obey. There was no wage, just the prospect of a few shillings at the end of the apprenticeship, subject to continuous good behaviour.

Greg could pick the fittest of these paupers in London, Liverpool, Cheshire and further afield. Like Priestley, they were often as young as nine. Working in spinningmills might sound preferable to a life of penury and drudgery in workhouses, but in some of the remote new cotton-spinning mills in the north, children could be the victims of harsh managers. There was no redress: they were contractually tied to their masters. Little by little, stories of inhumanity emerged. Boys were routinely beaten, girls were sexually abused and malnutrition was rife.

How was it, then, that Greg’s mill at Quarry Bank stood out among other factories of the period? It was the role and character of Greg’s wife Hannah that made the difference. Samuel had already set up Quarry Bank Mill and the Apprentice House before he married the Liverpool heiress in 1789, but she soon saw it as her role to take the mill workers under her wing. She’d been brought up in a nonconformist family and taught to help the poor. She was convinced that rich or poor, anyone could make the most of their life, and that women were gifted with the same potential as men. What workers needed, she believed, was to be able to read and write, to learn practical skills such as sewing or growing vegetables, and to become upright, dependable and self-reliant people.

Hannah saw it as the responsibility of the mill owner to encourage these latent abilities in their employees, young and old; in return he would be rewarded by loyal and steady workers. She helped organise maternity cover and child care 200 years before such arrangements were common, and with her children taught the apprentices literacy as well as scripture. She funded a village school for the other mill children, and organised presents and rewards at the annual Christmas party for the apprentices.

Working with the factory doctor, she acted as a community nurse and dispenser of medicine. She was remembered as a compassionate leader of her community, leaving her mark on generations there, as well as influencing her own children, too. She’d also have denounced slavery, like most of her friends, but for the fact that she could not speak out publicly against her husband, who’d inherited slave plantations in the West Indies.

It was only after Hannah’s death in 1828 that the lives of mill apprentices were compared with those of slaves on plantations. By then the battle for the emancipation of slaves had won over public opinion; yet at the same time, as was becoming widely known, the workers in the textile districts in the north of England were suffering from exploitation, recession and waves of unemployment.

Campaigners wanted the government to intervene, to regulate the industry, and to limit children’s hours of work. In the 1830s their campaign, the Ten Hour Movement, became an epic encounter between the mill owners and the workers. Was it right that slaves could be freed while apprentice children were still bound to serve their term? Campaigners raised public awareness about the rights of children; they organised a demonstration in Manchester in 1833, when hundreds of mill children paraded with their banners and presented their petition.

The Ten Hour campaign exposed much cruel exploitation of mill children and eventually ushered in compulsory education and the first factory inspectors. Most mills stopped hiring apprentices soon after.

At Quarry Bank Mill, at the Apprentice house and in the whole landscape of the Gregs’ factory community a few miles south of Manchester, visitors can still see where these events took place, and get a flavour of the lives of those pioneering mill owners, managers and workers. In the hands of the National Trust, the mill has been brought back to life with working machines and a giant water wheel.

Channel 4’s drama The Mill now adds another dimension to the story, much of it based on the Mill’s archives. We see Hannah’s son Robert, opposing the Ten Hour Movement and determined to defend the way he employs apprentice children at Quarry Bank Mill, while Esther Price, one of his young apprentices leads a fight back that symbolises the aspirations and grievances of her generation of young mill workers. Esther’s views and character are based on her own words, revealed in the mill’s archives.

By 1833 when this story is set, the world of mill masters and mill workers had changed: public opinion was alert to the treatment of children at work and relationships between employers and employees were becoming polarised. The Gregs’ brand of paternalism at Quarry Bank, a model for several decades, was to be challenged. A new phase in the Industrial Reolution was evolving as workers – the so-called “white slaves of England” – began to fight for their right to be free.


The Mill starts tonight at 8pm on Channel 4