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Thursday, 26 June 2008

Spending a penny

There’s a news story today about workers having to clock off whenever they need a toilet break. Workers in Victorian Lancashire endured poor sanitation at home and at work. Although Manchester passed a bye-law in 1845 insisting all new houses that were built should have a separate privy, but there were still 38,000 privy middens in 1869. Around this time, Liverpool, too, had over 30,000 houses without a flush toilet.

Workers couldn’t even ‘spend a penny’ in comfort at work. As late as 1893, inspectors who visited the cotton mills found there was still much room for improvement – the toilets were filthy, with no ventilation – and in many mills, they were right next to the machinery. One Preston mill’s lavatories were so bad, the manager tried to stop the factory inspector from seeing them at all. In many mills, inspectors found that the toilets were rarely, if ever cleaned. Although some firms paid for the toilets to be cleaned, in other mills workers paid one penny (pre-decimal coinage) per month to have the toilets cleaned, plus one penny per week for hot water. In some factories, women workers were expected to take turns to clean the lavatories. Some mills used hot water from the steam engine to flush the toilets, but workers complained this made the smell from the privies even worse.

Image: Weaver, believed to be at York Mill, Rishton, early C.20th postcard. Author’s collection.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A chequered past

Peover Hall and its gardens form a beautiful, tranquil oasis in the heart of Cheshire. The original hall dates back to 1585, and for centuries was home to the Mainwaring family. Harry Brooks, a wealthy Manchester entrepreneur, acquired the hall in the 1940s, but the Second World War meant his family did not get to enjoy their purchase for some time. General Patton of the U.S. Army used Peover as an HQ, and the building was returned to the Brooks family in 1950, rather the worse for wear. Sadly, the Georgian wing added in the 1760s has not survived, but the Carolean stables (Grade I listed) are very beautiful. The stables, built in 1654, still have the original Tuscan columns and arches, with a delicate strapwork ceiling; splendid housing for the family's steeds, who must have enjoyed looking at all the beautiful architecture while munching their hay. You can find out more in my Footsteps feature for the July edition of BBC History magazine.
Image of Peover Hall gardens © Sue Wilkes

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A Grand Day Out

The summer holidays are almost here! Nowadays, families can enjoy holidays all over the world, limited only by their budgets or perhaps worries about their ‘carbon footprint.’ In Victorian times, the working classes got few opportunities for holidays. Whit Monday was the great workers' playtime, but workers were not necessarily all on holiday at once. Some mill-owners gave their workforce a week’s holiday each year, but others only had one or two days’ annual holiday. Workers scrimped and saved all year for their holidays – if they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid.
Traditionally, workers were limited to local fairs and races during Wakes week. But the advent of the railways meant some lucky workers could now travel much further afield.
One especially grand day out in the summer of 1851 was a visit to the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on 1 May. At first, its five shilling entrance fee meant only visitors from the upper and middle classes could afford to attend, but on 26 May the fee was reduced to one shilling on Mondays to Thursdays. The lower classes could now join in the fun. The Exhibition was considered educational as well as recreational; railway outings were laid on from the great manufacturing districts such as Manchester and Liverpool.
Lancashire ingenuity was well represented inside. Workers marvelled at the very latest in cotton spinning machinery from firms such as Hibbert, Platt & Sons of Oldham, cotton goods from Manchester, and a scale model of Liverpool Docks.

Image: Nave of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Engraving from Old and New London, Vol. 5, (Edward Walford, c.1894.)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Children of the Furnace

Furnace work in Victorian glass 'houses', where glass was manufactured, was the province of men and strong boys. Apart from ‘intemperate habits,’ no ill effects were found from working in the furnaces. However, some of the lads were treated quite roughly. The young apprentices began work before the men. Gaskell, a twelve year old apprentice, told the 1865 Children’s Employment Commission that the boys at Pilkingtons’ crown and sheet glass works: ‘always get called about three hours before we start with the men, for we have to sweep up and get ready for them before they come. We could do it all in an hour if we liked but we like to play in that time. We are called at all times night and day. The “teazer” or furnace man goes round the town and calls every boy in the house (glass house) when the furnace in that house has heated the metal in the pots enough to start working in about three hours. He comes to the door and knocks and calls “Gaskell,” and then, if it’s night, my father looks out of the house and says “Number – called,” that is the number of the house. So I get out of bed and go off.’
Like iron foundry workers, their lives revolved around the needs of the ever-hungry furnaces. Shift times depended on the type of glass being manufactured and the size of the crucibles used to melt the glass. Boys worked in the cutting and polishing departments, too, along with young girls and teenagers.

You can find out more in my feature on Victorian child glass workers in this month's issue of children's magazine Aquila and in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Glassblowing, engraving by G. P. Jacomb Hood, Grindon’s Lancashire.