The Exploitation of the “Parish Apprentices”

Probably one of the most shameful episodes of the industrial revolution in Britain was the systematic and horrific exploitation of children. With the inventions of Hargreaves “Spinning Jenny” in 1764 and Arkwright’s Water Frame in 1769, a new generation of capitalists eager to exploit the vast potential of these new machines began the process of industrialisation

In order to generate huge wealth in the shortest time possible the cotton mill and factory owners sought to recruit the cheapest possible available labour. By scouring the workhouses and orphanages of the major cities, especially London, many unscrupulous employers found they could “buy” large numbers of poor orphaned and abandoned children under the premise of offering apprenticeships.

Ever keen to alleviate the cost to the ratepayers for the care of these boys and girls, the Parish Overseers of the poor would readily allow a mill or factory owner to “Indenture” a child for a fee. Following indenture these children would then be the property of the owner and bound by law to be apprenticed, more often, from the ages of 8 to 21. From about 1784, “Parish”, or “Pauper” apprentices as they were also known were forcibly sent to Lancashire, Cheshire, Notts and Derbyshire. By the late 1790’s it is estimated a third of all workers in Britain employed in the textile industry, were Parish apprentices. The wealth they generated was enormous.

Among these apprentices some did receive a degree of education while being treated reasonably well. However the majority faced a life of being worked 75 or more hours each week for no wages at all, while being kept in notoriously bad conditions. Many became lame and deformed as a consequence of having undertaken gruelling work at such a tender age.

Among the local Lancashire cotton mill owners who willingly chose to exploit the Parish apprenticeship system was John Watson from Preston. Watson was a man of some importance in the town having been a Councillor for many years. He established the Roach Bridge cotton mill at Samlesbury in 1784, followed by the Penwortham mill at Factory Lane a year later in 1785.

During a period of 10 years between 1798 and 1807, John Watson procured 123 “Pauper” apprentices from a number of London Workhouses listed here,

1798-St Margaret’s & St John (Westminster) 8 girls 8 boys

1800-St George The Martyr (Southwark) 5 girls 8 boys

1802- St George The Martyr (Southwark) 12 girls 10 boys

1803- Lambeth 5 girls 12 boys

1805- St George The Martyr (Southwark) 2 girls 16 boys

1806- St George The Martyr (Southwark) 10 girls 16 boys

1807 -St George The Martyr (Southwark) 3 girls 8 boys

Total 123

(Katrina Honeyman-Child workers in England 1780-1820. Parish apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force)

At Watson’s Penwortham mill the apprentices were housed under strict supervision in cottages near to the cotton mill. On Sunday they were taken on foot to the Walton-le-Dale Church.

Joseph Livesey the famous Temperance Reformer remembered these children and many years later in 1858 wrote about them saying,

Every Sunday Watson’s apprentices, as they were called, attended Walton-le-Dale church. They were workers in the cotton mill known as Penwortham factory and came in order under suitable superintendence, wearing a uniform of brown coats with cuffs and collars of yellow. Poor, squalid deformed beings, the most pitiful objects I think I ever beheld. They were apprenticed to a system to which nothing but West Indian slavery can bear any analogy. Many of the children were obtained from the Foundling hospital in London and were crooked-legged, becoming deformed with having to stop the machinery by placing their knees frequently against it.”

A Preston surgeon, Mr Tomlinson who attended the Penwortham mill 4 or 5 times a week when it was owned by Mr Watson, found ,

“ The child workers were in a wretched condition from being overworked, a great number of them had crooked legs. I saw children sleeping over their supper, who were due to go to work in ten minutes time for the whole night shift, owing to their having got up so early in the day and tired themselves.”

At evidence given to a Select Committee in 1816, a man named S J Chapman described Parish apprentices in general as,

“It was no exaggeration to call them white slaves, as they were treated merely as sources of profit. They were sometimes whipped and starved to render them obedient and cases have been placed on record of their being chained if they attempted to escape

(Eye witness accounts from Select Committee on the State of Children Employed in Manufactories of the UK-1816)

Escape From the Penwortham Mill

From a modern perspective it is difficult to comprehend the daily misery and pain these poor children endured. We do however have a written account from one young man named Samuel Davy, who had been a “Watts apprentice” at Penwortham. He was “purchased” by Watson in 1805 aged 7, along with 13 others from the poor-house of the Parish of St George’s in the Borough of Southwark, London. He was brought , in Davy’s words, to the mill at “Penny Dam” (Penwortham). From there he was later moved on to Mr Birch’s mill at Backbarrow, near Cartmel, before being sold to Messrs David & Thomas Ainsworth’s mill near Preston.

In 1817 Samuel Davy aged 19 escaped from Ainsworth’s mill along with his younger brother and despite being relentlessly pursued by men on horseback and on foot, eventually reached safety in London. The Davy brothers were not orphans and had been sent to work for John Watson without the parent’s knowledge. Upon reaching London the brothers made numerous applications to the authorities, for information concerning their parents, all of which came to nothing. It was revealed years later the parents never knew the whereabouts of Samuel or his brother. The loss of her children affected the mother so greatly, that it brought on insanity and she died in a state of madness.

(Letter from John Betts to radical journalist Richard Carlisle, Feb’ 24th 1828)

Years after his escape Samuel Davy described the cruelty he witnessed during his 12 years as a Parish apprentice, saying,

One boy Richard Goodall was entirely beaten to death. Irons were used as with felons in gaols and these were often fastened on young women in the most indecent manner from the ankles to the waist. It was common to punish the children by keeping them nearly in a state of nudity, in the depth of winter for several days together. I often thought of stealing from the desire of getting released from such a wretched condition, by imprisonment or transportation; and, at last, at 19 years of age, though followed by men on horseback and on foot, successfully ran away and got to London.”

John Watson’s career as a cotton spinner, businessman and public figure came to an inglorious end, when in 1807 he became bankrupt. His apprentices were duly turned out into the open fields to fend for themselves. For some time after, numbers of these poor children were discovered sleeping along hedgerows and under trees. By 1809 he was in Lancaster Castle for debt. He later died in 1813.

The 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act was an early attempt by Parliament to regulate this obnoxious trade in Parish apprentices, but with no provision for Factory Inspectors to police the regulations, the law was simply ignored. The Cotton Mills and Factory Acts of 1819 again attempted to stop the worst aspects of child exploitation, but again failed due to no scope for Factory Inspectors.

It was the persistent lobbying of Parliament by reforming MP’s such as Robert Peel senior( who himself had made a fortune from the use of Parish apprentices in his own cotton mill), and others, who helped initiate the Factory Acts of 1833, which strengthened the law against child exploitation and provided Factory Inspectors. The widespread introduction of steam power also meant cotton mills could be constructed in towns and cities, rather than isolated rural locations and were subject to more scrutiny.

Employers finally turned away from the use of “Parish apprentices” as the law caught up with them, while an abundance of so called “free” children were readily available in the major centres of population at low cost. Child labour continued in Britain for many years, which provoked the emerging Trade Unions into continuing the struggle for better protection.

From the 1770’s through to the 1830’s, thousands of “Parish Apprentices” suffered and died in the cotton mills and factories of Britain. The horrors they encountered, the suffering they endured, is a bitter and defining reminder of a society controlled and governed by a wealthy elite who cared nothing for working people.

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