JUST how badly were poor parish children treated by cotton masters in the early days of the Industrial Revolution? The interviews here give some idea of the extent of their misery.

Although there were good masters as well as bad, even the best of them left much to be desired.

Sir Robert Peel Snr was among the worst of these employers, importing children from London workhouses for his mills in Lancashire and later Tamworth.

He later changed his stance and argued vociferously against child exploitation in Parliament. But not before he had made his fortune.

The result of his endeavours was the 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, which was intended to prevent pauper children from working more than 12 hours a day in mills.

However the act was ineffective and Peel, backed by other mill owners such as Robert Owen, continued to press for changes. The outcome was the 1819 Factory Act, which barred children under the age of nine from working in mills, and reduced to 12 the hours that could be worked by children aged between nine and 16.

But statistics tell only a fraction of the story. To know the truth, one must hear the testimony of the children themselves. These are the words of Sarah Carpenter, a factory worker from Derbyshire, when she was interviewed later in life by Joseph Rayner Stephens. Sarah's account of her life at Cressbrook Mill appeared in The Ashton Chronicle on 23rd June, 1849.

"My father was a glass blower. When I was eight he died and our family had to go to the Bristol Workhouse. My brother was sent from Bristol workhouse in the same way as many other children were - cart-loads at a time.

My mother did not know where he was for two years. He was taken off in the dead of night without her knowledge, and the parish officers would never tell her where he was. It was the mother of Joseph Russell who first found out where the children were, and told my mother.

We set off together, my mother and I, we walked the whole way from Bristol to Cressbrook Mill in Derbyshire. We were many days on the road.

Joseph Rayner Stephens exposed what went on in the mills.

Mrs Newton fondled over my mother when we arrived. My mother had brought her a present of little glass ornaments. She got these ornaments from some of the workmen, thinking they would be a very nice present to carry to the mistress at Cressbrook, for her kindness to my brother.

My brother told me that Mrs Newton's fondling was all a blind; but I was so young and foolish, and so glad to see him again; that I did not heed what he said, and could not be persuaded to leave him.

They would not let me stay unless I would take the shilling binding money.

I took the shilling and I was very proud of it. They took me into the counting house and showed me a piece of paper with a red sealed horse on, which they told me to touch, and then to make a cross, which I did.

This meant I had to stay at Cressbrook Mill till I was 21. Our common food was oatcake. It was thick and coarse. This oatcake was put into cans. Boiled milk and water was poured into it. This was our breakfast and supper. Our dinner was potato pie with boiled bacon in it, a bit here and a bit there, so thick with fat we could scarce eat it, though we were hungry enough to eat anything.

Tea we never saw, nor butter. We had cheese and brown bread once a year. We were only allowed three meals a day though we got up at five in the morning and worked till nine at night. We had eightpence a year given us to spend: fourpence at the fair, and fourpence at the wakes. We had three miles to go to spend it. Very proud we were of it, for it seemed such a sight of money, we did not know how to spend it.