Fresh from the workhouse, Prep Five arrived at Styal Mill to see if we could be taken on as apprentices at Mr Gregg’s cotton mill. Apprehensively, we rang the bell at the Apprentice House where the stern and unsmiling supervisor Mrs Shawcross put us through our paces.
Firstly we visited the schoolroom, where Holly was immediately punished for daring to write with her “sinful” left hand. As the boys’ brains were considered by Victorians to be superior, the girls were quickly told to put away their slates and turn their thoughts to tasks such as darning, sewing, laundry, cleaning, cooking and mending.
Next it was time to visit the dormitories, with one bed between two for the next nine years, and the generous allocation of one chamber pot between ten for night time. Hugh and Hari steeled themselves for emptying duties… that cold tea looked alarmingly realistic. Bed making was completed with varying degrees of success, although Mrs Shawcross dismissed our attempts as, “Despicable!“ More practice needed over half term Prep Five. As a modern and philanthropic employer, Mr Gregg ensured that his apprentices had the most up to date medical care, and we learnt about the explosive qualities of brimstone and treacle, and were suitably horrified when the pot of blood-sucking leeches was passed around. This was a remedy for sore eyes, which was a common complaint from those employed in the dusty cotton mills.
Finally we visited the kitchen where we learnt about the apprentices’ diet; we were particularly unimpressed by the breakfast porridge which was so thick that it could be held in unappetising lumps in one’s hand! However, fresh fruit, vegetables (grown by the boys in the garden) and meat were also included in the meals, and as Anya observed, it was much better than the meagre workhouse rations.
The afternoon was spent exploring the mill itself, where the deafening clattering of machinery had us reaching for ear defenders and practising our lip reading. Some of us particularly enjoyed the gory stories of industrial injuries way back before health and safety rules existed. Well, it is nearly Halloween….
We headed back to school reflecting on the lives of Mr Gregg’s nine year old apprentices. While it was fascinating to step back in time, few of us would swap our twenty-first century lives for the daily grind of twelve hour shifts in the mill. Our thanks go to the excellent and inspiring staff at Styal who brought the past to life so vividly, to Mr Suter and Mr Rooney for driving and to Mrs Hadgianni for accompanying us.