Book Review: Children of the Mill


Children of the Mill: True Stories From Quarry Bank, by David Hanson, was written to accompany the Channel 4 series, The Mill, which first screened as two series in 2013 and 2014. The TV show is a drama based on fact. The book reveals the real lives of the main characters, showing how close to the truth the dramatisation is. I had not watched the TV show prior to reading the book.

Quarry Bank Mill was built in 1784 on the banks of the River Bollin near Styal in Cheshire. It was built by Samuel Greg, the son of a wealthy Scottish/ Irishman whose business empire included slave plantations in the American South and Dominica, and privateering in the Atlantic. The Mill was built to spin cotton and later went on to include weaving. It was owned by the Greg family until being handed over to the National Trust in 1939.

The Gregs were careful, pragmatic, paternalistic millowners. Employee conditions at Quarry Bank compared favourably to those in nearby city mills in the 18th century, although when looked at through 21st century eyes they still appear harsh.

The author quotes extensively from source material including letters, diaries, mill records and court documents to bring to life the mill workers, particularly the children. Quarry Bank Mill employed child apprentices until 1847. Between 1790 and then most lived in an Apprentice House built near the factory. Greg hired a superintendent to keep the children in order and, most unusually for the time, a mill doctor, although medical care for all at the time was rudimentary at best.

Most of the apprentices were sourced from workhouses. Parishes received a payment for them and they were then indentured until their eighteenth birthday, a date that would be guessed at as few records existed. They worked long days, 5.30am to 8pm, with schoolwork and gardening after their shift at the mill. The work was dangerous, with fingers at risk of being severed and limbs crushed by the machines. Arguably, life at a workhouse could be even worse, at least at the mill the children were fed, but ultimately they had no choice in their fate.

A little over half of the book is devoted to the lives of the apprentices: their background, arrival at the mill, experiences there, the toll this life had on their health, and how those who survived coped with adulthood. The remaining chapters look at the impact of the mill on the wider community, and at the Greg family who built and controlled Quarry Bank. Although it was a hard life, now difficult to fully comprehend, the comparisons with other mills at the time belie some of the slightly sensationalised wording which the author employs at times.

This is an interesting history of factory life during the industrial revolution told from the point of view of real individuals. It reads like a television documentary rather than a history book being episodic and slightly tabloid in style. The quotes from source add authenticity even if they are sometimes little more than lists.

Useful background reading for anyone wishing to visit the mill, now operated by the National Trust, and providing an interesting factual backup to the TV drama. I suspect a serious historian may find it less satisfying.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.



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