World of child labour was essential to Bolton’s mills

Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history

If you were a boy or girl growing up in Bolton in 1900, there’d be a strong chance that from the age of 12 you’d go to work as a ‘half-timer’ in the mills. The other half of the day would be spent at school.

The system came into force in the 1830s, as a progressive measure to limit the employment of children as young as five or six. Child labour was particularly prevalent in the booming industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. It was not uncommon for children to work 12 hour shifts or longer and the accident rate was horrific.

The Government stepped in to regulate child labour with legislation in 1833 and then by the Factory Act of 1844. The hours that a child could work were dropped to eight hours a day.

Children between the ages of eight and 13 would be expected to attend school for three hours each weekday, either before or after lunch.

Although the half-time system applied to the country as a whole, it was most widespread in Lancashire.

A half timer

A half timer

In 1892 Lancashire had 93,969 children working half-time, compared to less than a hundred in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Middlesex, Norfolk and Shropshire. Yorkshire had the next highest total with just under 45,000 followed by Cheshire (including the cotton towns of Stalybridge, Stockport and Hyde) having nearly 10,000.

Bolton had just under 6,000 half-timers, accounting for about half of all the children aged between eight and 13. Blackburn had nearly 8,000 and Oldham just over 6,000. Most worked in the cotton industry.

The half-time system was not compulsory; parents had the option of keeping their children at school full-time until they reached 13 – or longer if you could afford the fees.

In reality, most Bolton working class parents valued the extra income which their sons and daughters brought – in the 1890s a half-timer’s weekly wage was about 10/- (or 50p in today’s money).

TEAM WORK: Minders and a little piecer

TEAM WORK: Minders and a little piecer

A feature of employment in cotton spinning was that ‘the minder’ – the ‘operative’ cotton spinner who managed the spinning mules – was the employer of the half-timer. Typically, a ‘minder’ in one of the big Bolton mills would employ a ‘side piecer’ (sometimes called a ‘big piecer’) and a little piecer, who would often be a half-timer; the little piecer’s job was to help the minder ‘piece up’ broken threads but also to keep the machinery clean.

Sometimes the three-person team would be a family unit, with dad employing his sons. In weaving sheds, most of the workers were women, apart from the overlookers (or ‘tacklers’). Mule spinning remained an exclusively male preserve well into the 20th century, though Heaton’s Mills in Lostock was the exception to the rule, employing women in spinning from the early 1900s.

In the weaving sheds, an experienced weaver, usually tending four looms, would have the help of a tenter – often a young girl.

The relationship between the weaver and her tenter was often a close one, almost a mother-daughter relationship, which in some cases it actually was. However, many girls were less fortunate and suffered from bullying and sexual harassment by the male overlookers.

Life for a half-timer was not easy, though if you were part of a family unit it helped alleviate some of the worst features.

But there was no getting away from the punishingly long hours children had to endure. Dr John Johnston, the Bolton GP (see Bolton News March 2021), described a half-timer’s day in his book The Wastage of Child Life: “Let us look at the day’s work of a little ‘half-time’ girl. It begins at five o’clock in the morning with the ran-tan-tan of the ‘knocker-up’ with his long wand on the bedroom window. ‘It’s five o’clock Mary Jane’, calls the father; ’get up!’ Reluctantly and with a struggle against Nature’s demands for a little more rest, Mary Jane tumbles out of bed and gropes her way down the dark stairs into the cold kitchen where she picks up her meagre breakfast of tea and sugar screwed up into a smoke-grimed can.

HALF-TIMERS: Barnes Mill girls

HALF-TIMERS: Barnes Mill girls

“But not now may she have breakfast – that is yet nearly three hours off, and will be taken in the mil. Throwing her shawl over her shoulders she hurries out into the street where she meets her companions…now the streets are alive with men, women and children hurrying along to the calls of hooters, sirens, bells and whistles all clanging and shrieking to them to make haste – for steam is up and it is nearly six o’clock; and woe betide the half-timer if, by the overseer’s watch, she is a few minutes’ late!”

Work stops for a half-hour breakfast and then the grind continues until 12.30. Mary Jane and her friends rush home for a quick dinner before going to school.

“And this,” says Dr Johnston, “with weekly alternations of work and school, is the daily life of the little ‘half-time’ child of 12.”

Conditions inside the mills and weaving sheds were physically dangerous, noisy and extremely hot. Children were expected to crawl under moving machinery, even though it was technically illegal.

Inside a spinning mill

Inside a spinning mill

The practice of ‘sweeping under’ was described by Allen Clarke in Effects of the Factory System. He wrote “it consists in sweeping, with a short brush, the space between the advancing and receding mule-carriage and the base-work creel. The mule carriage slowly draws out for two or three yards, then suddenly rushes back like the shutting of a lid, and the piecer has to slip out of the way in ‘half a jiffy’…”

Accidents while ‘sweeping under’ were common. Clarke notes that 172 serious accidents occurred in the Bolton mills alone for the first quarter of 1890.

As well as the risk of physical injury – typically the loss of an arm or hand through to death – there was the longer-term impact of working in the hot stifling atmosphere of the spinning room or weaving shed.

Many local doctors, including Johnston as well as colleagues in neighbouring towns, pointed to the literal stunting of growth of children working ‘half-time’ in the mills, compared with their pals who were at school full-time.

Half-time children’s performance at school was noticeably worse than their full-time colleagues.

Allen Clarke was a ‘pupil teacher’ in several Bolton schools in the 1880s.

He wrote: “I have seen them fall asleep over their lesson-books or tasks, after they have been in the factory all morning (six hours). They were generally dull and sleepy…the half-timers, as a rule, hamper and hinder the progress of the rest of the class.”

From the early 1890s there was a growing clamour to end the system. The National Union of Teachers was at the forefront of the campaign, led by Richard Waddington, headmaster at Bolton’s St James National School. They were supported by the fledgling socialist parties – the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party.

In 1892 Joseph Shufflebotham was elected to Bolton School Board on a socialist ticket and campaigned to improve conditions for half-timers at school. Mrs Mary Haslam, one of the first female poor law guardians in Bolton and wife of a wealthy cotton spinner, was a vigorous opponent of the half-time system.

Some of the strongest opposition to ending the system came from the textile unions.

The loss of the children’s earnings would have affected the family income, though it has to be said that a ‘minder’ was one of the most highly-paid workers in British industry, earning (in Bolton) 38 shillings a week in the mid-1890s.

Some of the half-timers themselves preferred working in the mill to school, though few liked getting up at five in the morning!

Allen Clarke wrote extensively about the half-time system in Lancashire, using Bolton as a typical example. His book The Effects of the Factory System helped rally national opposition to child labour in the mills and was even translated into Russian by Tolstoy.

Many of his fictional stories, such as Killed by Kindness, were about the realities of life in the mills for thousands of children. Clarke pleaded with the parents of half-time children to support the system’s abolition.

His poem Voice of the Half-Timers, published in 1895, bristles with indignation:

If Christ coom lookin’ Lancashire through,

An’ seed us hauve-timers at wark an’ skoo,

What would he say neaw? – What we would he do?

Us plagued mites know! An’ yo’ done too!

Why he’d punce an’ pummel yo’ black an’ blue!

An’ then, maybe for a change o’show

Make parents of us an’ childer o’yo,

(if He thowt fit he could yessy do that

For He were a dab wi’t’conjurin’ hat).

So yo’ could larn what it’s like for t’be

Hauve-time in skoo an’factory,

An’ then – but we wouldn’t make things wuss,

For we couldn’t treat yo as yo’ treat us!

The weaving shed, 1880s

The weaving shed, 1880s

The system was finally abolished by the Education Act of 1918, bringing a long, sad episode of Lancashire’s history to a close. Several half-timers went on to become nationally-famous politicians.

The Oldham ‘little piecer’ J.R. Clynes became a cabinet minister in the 1924 Labour Government. George Tomlinson, who spent his part of his childhood working half-time in a Lancashire mill, was elected MP for Farnworth in 1938 and became Minister of Education in the Post-War Labour Government.

He was commemorated by the naming of ‘George Tomlinson’ school in Kearsley after his death in 1962. It is now called ‘Kearsley Academy’.

Where is the monument to ‘the poor little half-timer’?

Details of Paul’s new book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, featuring aspects of Lancashire’s history, can be found at A new edition of his biography of Allen Clarke will be out in May

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