I've often discussed workers and the types of machinery they tended on this blog, and the long hours they worked. But what was a typical timetable for a working day in the 1840s for a Lancashire mill family (including my ancestors)?
Their day began at 5.30 a.m. with a rap at the window from the long stick of the knocker-upper – they paid him or her a small fee to act as their alarm clock. If the family lived a long way from the mill, they might have to get up even earlier to allow time to walk to work. Even if workers were only two or three minutes late for work, they were ‘quartered’ - fined 15 minutes’ wages - and if they were 15 minutes late, they lost a whole quarter of a day’s wages. Some mill masters locked the mill gates after ten minutes, which meant that workers were locked out till breakfast time.
On their way to work, our factory family bought hot coffee or cocoa from street vendors. The factory bell began ringing at five to six in the morning until 6 a.m., when the mill engine started up. The youngest child workers arrived at the factory gates, still half-asleep. Breakfast was from 8.30–9 am; perhaps some bread wrapped in a cloth, but not every mill stopped for breakfast, so workers ate while they worked. The factory owner sometimes provided hot water for the operatives to make tea, but in some mills in the 1830s, the mill engineer’s wife sold hot water to the workers for 2d a week. (One witness estimated that the engineer’s wife made 30-40s every week just selling hot water). If they could afford it, workers took tea and coffee to the mill, and brewed up with jugs kept at the mill. If they couldn’t afford fresh tea, it was left at home: tea-leaves were dried out and re-used whenever possible.
After breakfast they worked until the dinner-hour at 1 pm, when our family met up by the factory gate; they might perhaps buy lunch from the corner shop. If the mill was too far away for them to go home for lunch, some took bacon with them and paid 1d to the engineer’s wife for a dish of mashed potatoes, and 1d a week for cooking the bacon to go with it. If Grandma was minding her daughter’s children, she might cook lunch for her daughter and take it to the factory, so she didn’t have to rush home. Work started again at 2 pm, and finished at 5.30pm - so workers were at the factory for 11 and a half hours including meal breaks.
Saturday was payday - the highlight of the week, when the factory closed at 2.30. After work, the operatives hurried to the shops, which stayed open until midnight; they knew from experience if they left it too late only the worst food would be left - rancid cheese, rotten meat and vegetables. Tea, coffee and sugar were bought a ‘pennyworth’ at a time, as was pickle, which was used to relieve the monotony of their usual diet of potatoes. By the time they reached home, Mum was often too exhausted to cook much, but a typical supper might be oatmeal gruel or potatoes boiled in their jackets. Working children instantly fell asleep after supper. Next day, the whole routine began all over again (holidays were rare).
And that’s why mill workers were considered ‘old’ if they were lucky enough to reach the age of forty.