To consolidate our Victorian topic, Prep Five visited Styal Mill in Cheshire yesterday.
After a short stroll by the River Bollin, which was used to power the mill wheel, our morning was spent exploring the mill. We learned about the start of the Industrial Revolution, and tried out some of the tasks which the young mill apprentices would have done. We all practised carrying the can, working as doffers and everyone did some excellent scavenging for bits of cotton dropped under the machinery. The clattering of all the machines was deafening, and we learnt how workers communicated using sign language. Some of us particularly enjoyed the gory stories of industrial injuries way back before health and safety rules existed
After lunch, we walked up to the Apprentice House to see if we could be taken on as apprentices at Mr. Gregg’s cotton mill. The strict supervisor Mrs. Shawcross put us through our paces in the cobbled yard before we entered the house – boys first, as they were considered far more important and clever!
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 Mrs. 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. Ollie, Aqsa and Andrew bravely volunteered for emptying duties… that cold tea looked alarmingly realistic! We all had a try at bed making and Mrs. Shawcross was especially impressed with the skill of Jack and Florence. 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.
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 Miss Gregory for driving and to Mr. Connolly and Miss McCaffrey for accompanying us.