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THERE are many contemporary accounts of the plight of poor working children, but time seems to lend weight to this one, by millworker-turned -journalist Allen Clarke in his 1899 book, The Effects of the Factory System.

"WHEN I read the accounts of the factory cruelties at the beginning of this century I rage between roaring wrath and tears of pity; I feel ashamed of my countrymen, of my county; I cry, that the Lancashire people were never fit to be parents; I say, that the factory system was a system of torture and murder, as dreadful as any massacres of Christians by Turks; a disgrace in the story of any race or age; a big, ghastly, horrible stain of blood on the history of England. As I write, pictures of the past rise before me; pictures for the present to weep over, and for the future to shudder at.

"I see the little innocents rudely dragged from bed to be pitched into the factories at the early age of three and four; I see them stunted, sickly, with sad eyes imploring mercy from parents and masters in vain;

"I see them pining, failing, falling, struggling against hell and death, knowing not what to do for relief, knowing not where to ask for aid, dying by agonising inches, and blest when the end comes;

Wondering dully, no doubt, in their day-long torture and night-long feverishness, what they are, and where they are, and how they came to this fate, and what these tormentors called fathers and mothers and overseers brought them here for, and what they ultimately mean to do with them;

"And thus they exist - alive, but breathing and eating slow death, sleeping in death, with no flowers, nor grass, nor toys, nor any childish joy in their young lives;

"Not knowing, and therefore unable to take any pride in the fact, that they are being crushed into the mortar wherewith to build the commercial glory of England, that shall rise to such admirable splendour over their dust;

"Not thinking that there must be sacrifice and victims, as in all noble causes, and thus they, being unable to help themselves, might as well be slaughtered as any other, so that in years to come a rich manufacturing aristocracy may rule and govern the debilitated offspring of such of them as survive to breed more slaves ... "

DAVID ROWLAND worked as a piecer at a textile mill in Manchester. He was interviewed by Michael Sadler and his House of Commons Committee on July 10, 1832.

Q: "At what age did you commence working in a cotton mill? A: Just when I had turned six.

Q: What employment had you in a mill in the first instance?

A: That of a scavenger.

Q: Will you explain the nature of the work that a scavenger has to do? A: The scavenger has to take the brush and sweep under the wheels, and to be under the direction of the spinners and the piecers generally. I frequently had to be under the wheels, and in consequence of the perpetual motion of the machinery, I was liable to accidents constantly. I was very frequently obliged to lie flat, to avoid being run over or caught.

Q: How long did you continue at that employment? A: From a year and a half to two years. Q: What did you go to then? A: To be a piecer.

Q: Did the employment require you to be upon your feet perpetually? A: It did. Q: You continued at that employment for how long? A: I was a piecer till I was about 15 or 16 years of age. Q: What were your hours of labour? A: Fourteen; in some cases, 15 and 16 hours a day.

Q: How had you to be kept up to it? A: During the latter part of the day, I was severely beaten very frequently.

Q: Will you state the effect that the degree of labour had upon your health?

ALLEN CLARKE: '...pictures for the present to weep over, and for the future to shudder at.'
A: I never had good health after I went to the factory. At six years of age I was ruddy and strong; I had not been in the mill long before my colour disappeared, and a state of debility came over me, and a wanness in my appearance.

JOHN BIRLEY gave this account in 1849 of his early days as a child worker at Litton Mill in Derbyshire:

"I was born in Hare Street, Bethnal Green, London, in 1805. My father died when I was two, leaving two children, me and Sarah my sister.

"My mother kept us both till I was about five years old, and then she took badly and was taken to the London Hospital. My sister and I were taken to the Bethnal Green Workhouse. My mother died and we stayed in the workhouse. We had good food, good beds and were given liberty two or three times a week.

" The same year my mother died, I being between six and seven years of age, there came a man looking for a number of parish apprentices. In a day or two after this, two coaches came up to the workhouse door. They gave us a shilling piece to take our attention, and we set off." The youngsters went by canal barge and cart to Litton Mill in Miller's Dale, near Buxton in Derbyshire.

"They brought us some supper. We were very hungry, but could not eat it. It was Derbyshire oatcake, which we had never seen before. It tasted as sour as vinegar.

"Our regular time was from five in the morning till nine or ten at night; and on Saturday, till eleven, and often twelve o'clock at night, and then we were sent to clean the machinery on the Sunday. No time was allowed for breakfast and no sitting for dinner and no time for tea.

"We went to the mill at five o'clock and worked till about eight or nine when they brought us our breakfast, which consisted of water-porridge, with oatcake in it and onions to flavour it. Dinner consisted of Derbyshire oatcakes cut into four pieces, and ranged into two stacks. One was buttered and the other treacled.

By the side of the oatcake were cans of milk. We drank the milk and with the oatcake in our hand, we went back to work without sitting down. We then worked till nine or ten at night when the water-wheel stopped. We stopped working, and went to the apprentice house, about three hundred yards from the mill.

It was a large stone house, surrounded by a wall, two to three yards high, with one door, which was kept locked. It was capable of lodging about 150 apprentices. Supper was the same as breakfast - onion porridge and dry oatcake.

All the boys slept in one chamber, all the girls in another. We slept three in one bed. The girls' bedroom was of the same sort as ours. There were no fastenings to the two rooms; and no one to watch over us in the night, or to see what we did. Mr Needham's five sons and a man named Swann, the overlooker, used to go up and down the mill with hazzle sticks. One son, Frank, once beat me till he frightened himself.

He thought he had killed me. He had struck me on the temples and knocked me dateless. He once knocked me down and threatened me with a stick. To save my head I raised my arm, which he then hit with all his might. My elbow was broken."