Disabled mill workers, shoddy fever, harsh times, positive contributions

Bringing two of Shoddy’s themes together, I wanted to find out about disabled people’s roles in the textile mills during the industrial revolution (1760 – 1820) and the period afterwards. This also led to thinking about the textile industry as a cause of impairment / disability. A number of academics and researchers on Twitter pointed me in the direction of some really interesting information (Thanks @daniel_blackie, @DisIndSoc, @CDSLeeds, @LouiseCreechan, @VictorianMasc @SabenCallaghan).
But I can’t pretend that this post is an academic or thorough exercise.

Much of the writing about disabled people’s lives during the industrial revolution says that they were excluded from the workplace (see, for example, Disabled People in Britain & Discrimination by Colin Barnes, 1991, particularly Chapter 2). Whereas before this period of industrialisation, disabled people might have been able to make an economic contribution to the community. Disabled people became dependent on others, and this social “problem” led to the proliferation of workhouses, asylums, poorhouses, special schools and other institutions where disabled people were segregated from society.

I wondered whether there was another side to disabled people’s history, was there any evidence of disabled people working in the factories and particularly textile mills. Were there disabled people who made their living and avoided the workhouse? But perhaps I was looking for stories that didn’t exist.

Powerloom_weaving_in_1835The textile industry was the first to adopt the factory as a place of work for production of wool and cotton. These factories or mills were hazardous places, with workers, including a great many children, working long hours amongst dangerous machinery. Many became disabled as a result. Accidents, such as losing fingers or arms in machinery, were common. The cumulative effect of working in such punishing conditions led to impairment and deformity in many others. If they were unable to work they would be thrown out of the factory and left to rely on their families – or the poorhouse.

Benjamin Gomersal worked at a mill in Bradford:
“I was a healthy and strong boy, when I first went to the mill. When I was about eight years old, I could walk from Leeds to Bradford (ten miles) without any pain or difficulty, and with a little fatigue; now I cannot stand without crutches! I cannot walk at all! Perhaps I might creep up stairs. I go up stairs backwards every night! I found my limbs begin to fail, after I had been working about a year. It came on with great pain in my legs and knees. I am very much fatigued towards the end of the day. I cannot work in the mill now.”

The constant din of the looms and other machines led to many workers becoming deaf. This wouldn’t necessarily have resulted in losing your job. Deaf people weren’t at such a disadvantage in these loud workplaces. Hearing and deaf workers became skilled lip readers because it was often impossible to hear above the noise in any case. They developed sign language and this became a useful way of communicating without the bosses being able to understand. But the affects of hearing loss on a person’s life would be significant, often devastating. Industrial deafness due to noise remained an issue well into the 20th century.

As well as these dangers, textile mills caused many health problems amongst workers, particularly respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis, bronchitis and byssinosis or “brown lung disease”.

Elizabeth Bentley, Leeds:
“It was so dusty, the dust got up my lungs, and the work was so hard.”

The shoddy trade had its own disease, “shoddy fever”. The machines to grind the wool were not enclosed, so the atmosphere became full of fibres, constantly breathed in by the workers. (These fibres were sometimes called “devil’s dust”, the grinding machines being the devil). The majority of workers were affected by this. Shoddy fever was first identified by Charles Thackrah in 1832, a surgeon from Leeds who was a pioneer in occupational medicine. The illness caused headaches, dryness and of course, difficulties in breathing.

Further illnesses were caused by chemicals, machine oil and other materials used in the mill.

These various hazards would have resulted in a significant proportion of disabled people in the population, but many of them must have carried on working for as long as they were productive – they really had no choice. While the mills were harsh places, the workhouse or poorhouse was a worse prospect.

Children_at_crumpsall_workhouse_circa_1895Today’s Work Capability Assessment and benefit cuts aimed at “incentivising” people into work are clear echoes of the central workhouse principle of the 19th century, that workhouse conditions should be worse than the lowest living standards of the independent labourer. Following the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the focus of poor relief shifted from offering support to deterring people from seeking help, and reducing costs.

Much is known about the workhouses and poorhouses of Victorian times, and of disabled people’s lives there. But much less in known of disabled people who managed to avoid that fate.

In Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain 1780 – 1850, Peter Kirby asserts that there is evidence that disabled or small children were sometimes positively chosen to work in the mill, and that children’s health in the mills was not significantly affected by their work. This is contested however, as it appears to dismiss most of the medical commentary of the time.

An interesting research project into another major area of industrialisation, Disability and Industrial Society, looks at industrial injuries and diseases in three British coalfields between 1780 and 1948. This has found countless examples of disabled people working and continuing to work in the mines. So it is probably safe to say that there were lots of disabled people in textile mills too.

William DoddOne of those was William Dodd, who wrote an account of his life, working in textile mills from the age of five. The work led to him becoming disabled and eventually having an arm amputated while working as a mill clerk. A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd a Factory Cripple came to the attention of reformer Lord Astley, who employed Dodd. Dodd wrote The Factory System: Illustrated to describe the conditions of working children in textile manufacture, which was published in 1842. Although this was discredited, Dodd wrote a further study, The Labouring Classes of England, following his emigration to the United States.

Disabled people did, in fact, make many positive contributions to the industrial revolution despite cruel treatment and the harsh conditions of the times.


Sources of information:

Spartacus Educational

Making the Modern World – National Museum of Science & Industry

Disability and Industrial Society

Historic England

Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds



4 thoughts on “Disabled mill workers, shoddy fever, harsh times, positive contributions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s