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Friday, 2 September 2016

Down at the Mill - Sepia Saturday Work & Play 1

What was life like for our ancestors, many of them women,  who worked in the textile industry, helping to produce cotton goods, knitwear, tweeds, tartan and blankets?  For they faced long working hours, poor conditions and often dangerous machinery. 

This month's  Sepia Saturday prompt on the theme of "Work and Play" show a ten year old girl leaving her loom to stare out of the window.  Was she dreaming of a more leisured childhood?  

The choice for my post was an obvious one for in the collection of my local heritage group Auld Earlston are photographs taken at Rhymer's Mill  at the turn of the 19th/20th century.  Take a look at the serviceable clothes worn, the working environment and the the daunting large scale machinery. 

The 1851 census for Earlston  described Charles Wilson as  "of the firm of Charles Wilson & sons,  blankets and plaiding manufacturers employing 18 men 7 women and 19 girls".  Ten years on, the business had extended to making tweeds, and employed  128 men and 44 women, boys and young women". At the end of he century the business was taken over by  Simpson and Fairbairn. 

Although no child features in these photographs, child employment was a feature of life for many families.  In  the Earlston 1861 Census, boys  from the age of 11 were employed as agricultural  labourers  and girls  as domestic servants. Under 14's were also employed as  a cotton winder,  a cotton factory piecer,  as workers in a woollen factory, a power loom weaver,  labourers in a timber yard, and as  apprentices to a  shoemaker, tailor, and grocer.  

A press cutting of 10th November 1871 in "The Kelso Chronicle"  makes illuminating reading:
"EARLSTOUN. Short-Time Movement.— Last week Messrs (Chas. Wilson & Sons intimated to their employees that they should henceforth have one hour each meal instead of three-quarters formerly, thereby reducing the time of labour for the week to fifty-seven......The announcement was very well received by the workers."
In this period,  the average working week was  between 55 and 60 hours, often over six days.  What a contrast to today's 35-37  hour week!   Given the long working hours, the noisy factory environment and the complex machinery, it is not surprising that mill accidents were an ever present danger.
Rhymer's Mil, Earlston,  Scottish Borders
Along the road from the mill, housing was built for the workers. 

Scottish Borders woollen mills were always at the mercy of the dictates of fashion and economics.The late 1950's and early 1960's saw declines in the industry   In Earlsto a firm,  which at one point had employed more than 300 workers and been mainstay of the local community,  experienced short time working with the tidal wave of workers coming up Mill Road reduced to a trickle.  Rhymer's Mill  finally closed in 1969. 

Earlston's role in the  Borders textile industry came to an end. 

   Sepia Saturday encourages bloggers to tell their family history through photographs.

Click HERE to discover tales of "Work and Play" from fellow bloggers.


  1. Wonderful old pictures and a reminder of just how hard our ancestors worked and what a long working week they had! Mill work was hard as well as dangerous, with many accidents.

  2. Do you know if the girls who worked in these places lived in the housing provided? I'm wondering if they were separated from their parents. Hard for me to imagine a ten year old girl in these circumstances. Very enlightening and thought provoking.

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    1. Thank you for your interest, Helen. Although the young girl in the prompt photograph was said to be only 10 years old, I did not come across children as young as that working in the Earlston mill. The rural village had a population of 1977 in 1871 and child workers would be living with their families in their own homes, most of which would be within reasonable walking distance of their work.

  4. Already I can see the similarities between your mill post and mine...the architecture and the conditions. Love those old shots of yours; the clothing, the demeanor of the people at work.

  5. Thanks, Susan, for your informative and thought-provoking post. As you may recall, I have posted about a woolen mill owned and operated by my husband's Howe ancestors in the 1800s into the early 1900s in Kentucky. The information I have in Sarah's scrapbooks is all about ownership and management. I know nothing about the workers' perspectives. Your post makes me want to learn more about conditions at the Howe's mill.

  6. Since we're celebrating Labor Day here in the US tomorrow, we are reminded how many workers struggled and finally got some fair treatment thanks mainly to unions. The work week here is still considered 40 hours, and there are many ways employers have been creative to keep their businesses going.

  7. Wonderfully evocative photos. When I see the array of machinery I hear the noise - a loud and continuous rhythmic clatter through all the shifts. Impossible to hear voices, I think they must have communicated with hand signals.

  8. Your post put me in mind of my ancestors in Blackburn - the whole family working in the cotton mills one way and another!

  9. It's wonderful that they took such photographs that show us what the working conditions in those mills really looked like. Hopefully the workers managed to enjoy what little free time they got.

  10. I wonder how many died of TB. The photos are very evocative.

  11. I'm curious sometimes to see how folks love to grow nostalgic for ages past, as if those times were easier. Clearly, life was hard.
    What a treasure trove of photos, though!
    Visiting from Sepia Saturday.
    Linda Ann - at Nickers and Ink

  12. Thanks, Linda, for your comment. I think often we look back at the past with rose coloured spectacles, envying the grand costumes and grand houses, so fine if your family was wealthy with an army of servants. But as family historians we know that life for most of our ancestors was anything but a life of luxury.


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