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The Wheelgate

R title begs an explanation, and thereby hangs a tale. When mechanised spinning began more than two centuries ago, the first successful machine was Hargreaves’ spinning jenny – sometimes spelt ginny – both words being a corruption of the word “engine.”

Crompton’s later spinning mule featured an enormous, hand-turned wheel which powered the machine, and this great wheel soon gave its name to the whole machine. So it was known variously as the muslin wheel, the Bolton wheel or the Hall in th’ wood wheel.

Because mules operate by moving back and forth, the area over which the moving parts traverse is quite naturally known as the Wheelgate. In Middle English, “gate” was an open area between two fixed points, in other words an area where movement was possible. So towns had countless Millgates, Churchgates, North Gates and the like, and it is hardly surprising that the working area of a pair of mules was known as the wheelgate, mulegate or ginnygate.
Mules were installed with the spindles of one facing the spindles of another. They were worked in pairs, and odd mules were seldom installed.

With both mules idle after their inward run, the distance from the carriage of one mule, to the carriage of the other, would be on average 14 feet, of which five feet four inches would be the distance travelled by each carriage when working.

This meant that should both carriages be out to their fullest extent at the same time, there would still be nearly three feet of space to ensure the operatives would not be trapped. The length of each mule might be more than 160 feet, which meant that these were very big machines indeed.

I started in the mule room as a learner little piecer, or scavenger, when I was 14. This was in 1945 and, as my father was spinning master at another of the four mills in the group, and my grandfather was general manager over all four, there was no shortage of admonitions to the effect that: “Tha mun shap thisen, thart Arthur’s lad tha knows,” (“You must do your very best, you are Arthur’s son, you know”). Arthur, of course, was my father.

Or: “By gum, tha’s getten a long way to go to catch wi thi grandfaither” (“You have far to go to emulate your grandfather”). The result was that I was big-piecing long before my 15th birthday.

One day, I overheard my mother tell my father: “Arthur thart a bugger, tha’ll ha’ yon lad spinning afore he’s 17, and he’s nobut a lad yet,” (“You will have that lad spinning before he is 17, and he’s still only a boy”).

And that leads us very nicely into the work-a-day world of the wheelgate, and the daily routine of the barefoot brigade of my youth. Happy days!

In those days, the mills worked from 7.30am to 5.30pm, with one hour for dinner – the term “lunch” was unheard of in Lancashire at that time.

A five-day week was worked. The hated Saturday morning had been dropped soon after the end of the war, but some cynics said that the working week had been reduced by three hours, with not a halfpenny-worth of production lost. “They just sped the bloody mules up, that’s all.”

My day began at 6.30am.when my father called me to get up, and then it was jump out of bed, get washed and dressed and into the kitchen for a pint mug of tea before setting off for the mill.

When we left home, mam and my sister were already up and about, and would leave the house 10 minutes after us at seven am. It was about 15 minutes walk to the croft where the various mills at which we worked were situated.

So it was that, every working morning, hail, rain or shine, we joined the stream of fellow mill folk, off to t’ mill. The four mills were on an open piece of ground of great size, each with its own lodge or reservoir to supply water to the steam engines that powered the machinery.

This open ground was termed, in Lancashire parlance, a croft. There were not only walkers arriving at the mills, but dozens of buses were depositing their passengers, changing the stream into a flood.

Dad and I went our separate ways at the mill entrances: two identical doorways on the corners of two identical mills led to two identical stairways, leading to the spinning rooms. He went in one door, and I in the other, and mounted what we called t’ steps, not to be reunited again until the day’s work was done at 5.30 goin’ wom time (going home time).

As I climbed the steps to the third landing, for it was in number three spinning room that I worked, I heard a church clock chime the quarter hour, which meant I had plenty of time to get changed out of my street clothes into white overall trousers and working shirt.

I opened the sliding door into the mule room, a door so constructed that it closed automatically behind you to keep the heat in the room. And heat there was! Ours was a fine-spinning mill, and the mules were never run at temperatures less than 85 degrees F.

Oil-soaked wooden floors

The wooden floors of the mulegate were soaked in oil, the result of years of spindle lubricant dripping onto the floor as the mules moved to and fro over the area year in year out.

These mules were installed between 1900 and 1903 and so had traversed their wheelgates for more than 40 years by the late 1940s.

I undressed and got changed and was at the headstock (the point from which the mules were driven) with my oilcan full ready to oil the spindle tops and bottoms, when th’ engine set on.

The great line shafts with their enormous belts were driven from the engine house by the steam engine. The drive to each floor was by rope, cunningly arranged so that the drive was taken from one floor to the next and that the complete mill was driven from one central point. At 7.30, the hooter blew and the lights came on full strength and where earlier the illumination had been but a dull glow, the great room was now filled with light.

Where there had been silence before, the ticking of the great driving belts as the joints went over the pulleys was rhythmic, not unlike the wheels of rail rolling stock going over the points.

While the piecers applied oil to the spindles, the spinner lubricated the headstock, the power source, and the control point of the machine and, once the driving or down strap was placed on the fast pulley, the mule would move backwards and forwards, until someone removed the drive by placing the down strap on the loose pulley.

The mechanics of these vast machines are complicated and need not concern us here because our interest is in the myriad tasks that the operatives had to perform to keep their charges running continuously.

Each of the mules in our tale contained 1,200 spindles, and each spindle was fed by two rovings, and already I have the problem of trying to explain technical matters in simple terms!

The roving was a length of softly-wound cotton not unlike hand knitting wool in appearance, but white or, in this case, cream in colour.

Each spindle produced a thread and this was the result of the two rovings being stretched and then twisted to produce something not dissimilar to the stuff mother used to use to sew buttons on, but not as strong. So now we know the feedstock and the product, the roving and the yarn.

We may now conveniently break down the work of the mule staff into its constituent parts.
Cylindrical packages

The rovings were cylindrical packages containing a considerable length of roving, and as the contents were used up, the empty or almost empty package had to be replaced by a full one.

The roving packages were arranged in racks, behind and above the spindles, and these racks were known as creels, so the act of replenishing the roving was known as creeling.

On top of the creels, replacement rovings would be laid three high, so as to be ready as and when required. This function was known as “laying the rovings on.”

The other main function in the mulegate staff’s life was repairing broken threads or, in mill parlance “piecin’ up.”
Our other tasks were cleaning, sweeping up and doffmg and, in the spinner’s case, doing repairs and maintenance and making continuous adjustments to the mules to ensure consistent quality and good running.

The yarn was built up on the spindle in cylindrical form, and at regular intervals it was removed, or “doffed”, and the whole process restarted.

So having outlined of what the work consisted, perhaps I should give some ides of the typical day of a piecer in t’ wheelgate.

Once the oiling was completed, the spinner would shout “I am going to have a draw.” this meant that he would allow first one, and then the other mule to make a complete cycle of movements. The piecers would repair any broken threads with the mule stopped and then, if all seemed well, first one and then the other mule would begin to run continuously.

So our work then was to piece the broken threads or ends, creel in the rovings where required, lay rovings on if need be and, of course, doff the full cops at intervals throughout the day.

The mules would be running within mmutes of the engine starting and the little piecer would take our mugs, with tea and sugar in them, to the window bottom of the first pair in the room, for the labourer to pour boiling water on, at a quarter to eight.

Keeping th’ends up

The little piecer would “keep th’ends up” (repair the broken threads) in the spinner’s half until he had had his sandwiches, and would then have his own.

The big piecer was expected to look after his own half and have his sandwiches at the same time; the mules were never stopped for meals.

To clear up a much misunderstood point, the “spinner’s half” is from the alleyway by which all the mules in the room are reached, to the headstocks, and the big piecer’s half is the other side of the headstocks to the windows at the far side of the room.

So, once breakfast was eaten there would be creels to be laid on, creels to creeled-in, (rovings replenished), doffmgs and cleaning and sweeping.

On medium counts, each mule might doff twice per day, and when it is considered that the cops (that is the cylindrical packages, which had been built up on the spindles) had to be removed and packed into wicker baskets called skips, and the skips taken out onto the landing and empty skips brought back, it can be readily understood just how much work there was in running a pair of mules.

It might be added that when one mule was being doffed the other was kept running.

One thing is certain – a day in the wheelgate was never boring, because one was also expected to clean the under clearers, top clearers, pick the roller ends and do the cleaning in the normal course of the day, and then there were rollers to be varnished, and a half of rollers to be scoured once a month.

The spinner might also have to repair a strap or a rope, or change the gearing on his mules in order to produce a different type or quality of yarn.

Yes, they were barefoot days all right in every sense of the word, but there was one consolation: it was skilled work – they couldn’t bring a man off the street to do your job. It took years to make a good piecer and more years to make a spinner.

My grandfather summed it up like this: “Tha needs a yed on thi showders, an’ fire in thi feet fer that job.” (“You need a head on your shoulders and fire in your feet for that work”).

Just a single day in the wheelgate, would verify his words beyond doubt.