Fresh from the workhouse, Prep V arrived at Styal Mill to see if we could be taken on as apprentices at Mr. Gregg’s cotton mill. Apprehensively, we walked up to the Apprentice House where the strict supervisor Mr. Shawcross put us through our paces.
Firstly, 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 much better than the meagre workhouse rations. We also peeped in at Mr. Shawcross’s accommodation, which looked very comfortable with a cosy fire, four poster bed and even a cake for tea!
Next it was time to visit the dormitories, with one bed between two for the next nine years – the mattresses were stuffed with straw (and included a few “guests” such as spiders and bedbugs!) Under the beds we spotted chamber pots, as the apprentice children were locked in at night time. Florence bravely volunteered for emptying duties… that cold tea looked alarmingly realistic! Bed making was completed by Lucie and Daniel, although Mr. Shawcross told them that they would need to be much faster to arrive on time for work at the mill by 6.00 am! 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.
Next we visited the schoolroom downstairs. As the boys’ brains were considered by Victorians to be superior, it was only the boys who received lessons, while the girls had to turn their thoughts to tasks such as ironing, sewing, laundry, cleaning, cooking and mending.
The afternoon was spent exploring the mill itself where we learned how the deafening clattering of machinery caused the workers to use lip reading and sign language. We tried out some of the tasks which the apprentices would have done: Oliver and Jensen practised carrying the can, Florence and Lucie were doffers and Sam and Emily did some excellent scavenging for bits of cotton dropped under the machinery. 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. Rooney and Mrs. Seward for driving and to Mr. Connolly for accompanying us.