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Weaving Life at Quarry Bank Mill

By Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: November 18, 2011 
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School groups visit the Apprentice House and its garden to learn of life at Quarry Bank in the early 1800s.
School groups visit the Apprentice House and its garden to learn of life at Quarry Bank in the early 1800s.

Story and Photos by Dana Huntley

And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark, Satanic Mills? –William Blake

Our favorite images of England are the rustic, the rural and the picturesque, where nature appears to advantage and humans live happily in harmony with the natural world. The idylls of early 19th-century Romanticism and the unshakeable optimism of Victorian England color our expectations of Britain today.

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William Blake's Jerusalem, of course, was one idyll of the Romantic. But what if those dark, satanic mills weren't so bad? What if, in fact, they were the New Jerusalem?

Oh, life was grim enough in the textile mills and mill towns that grew up across the West Midlands and the North with the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Looking back from our sanitary, efficient and leisure-filled 21st-century perspective, life was dirty, hard, dangerous and just plain depressing. Working hours in the mills were long. Health and safety were not exactly up to present standards. In many places, living conditions were unsanitary and even deadly. Diet was often limited and "disposable income" a rarity.

It's hard to believe that for the workers and their families of Georgian England, however, the mills meant a way of life far superior to that available to agricultural laborers, crofters and the subsistence farming of the time. After all, in the mill villages there was a sense of community, and medical care in extremis. There was opportunity for schooling for children, the security of a steady cash income (however meager by contemporary standards), a chapel or church and opportunity for things.

South of Manchester, and quite near Manchester Airport, Quarry Bank Mill in Styal offers perhaps the best working model available of what life in the textile mill communities might have been like. 

Samuel Greg was one of an "enlightened" group of mill owners, who saw his workers as people and not simply as engines of labor. He built Quarry Bank Mill on the River Bollin in 1784. The original iron waterwheel powered five floors of cotton textile production, from ginning to weaving, for 120 years. Then, steam power took over.

A mill needs workers, however, and the nearby hamlet of Styal didn't have the workers or the housing. So Greg built the village that still thrives today—farm buildings converted to houses and terraces built of mill worker cottages. Though Unitarian himself, Greg also provided a Methodist chapel for his workers (see "Wesley" in our last issue, p. 39).

The Apprentice House, just up the lane from the mill, housed child "apprentices" indentured to work in the mill. Greg acquired orphans about age 9 from workhouses and from Manchester's streets. Yes, he got free labor, at hours we would not want to work. Greg also contracted a doctor for their care; the children received regular schooling, and each worked in the large garden adjacent that provided fresh fruit and veg to their diet. They were looked after, and life was much better than in the workhouse. At its height, the Apprentice House could accommodate up to 90 children. It was closed in 1847. 

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