Every year, I have been taking my 3rd-year economic history students to the Quarry Bank Mill in Styal. My goal is that the students can actually see a bit of the the First Industrial Revolution, rather than just hear about it.
Last year, one of my best students, Anna-Maria Kohnke, liked the visit so much that she decided to write her undergraduate thesis about it. And so she did, supervised by me. I then invited her to write a short summary to post in this blog.
In what follows, Anna writes about the content of her dissertation, gives information about life at the mill, and about her experiences studying economic history. What follows has been written by Anna-Maria Kohnke.
Work as a measurement of wellbeing – What the early industrial cotton factories of Manchester can tell us about the importance of workplace relationships
The question of what wellbeing is and how we ought to measure it has been a central source of disagreement within all social sciences. There have been countless approaches – objective accounts, subjective accounts, resource-based approaches, approaches based on capabilities – but they all aim to identify aspects that are universally fundamental to all people’s welfare, in all societies, at all times. Manchester’s rich industrial history is the ideal starting point for the study of one of those fundamental indicators of wellbeing: working conditions.
When I first started thinking about writing my undergraduate dissertation, knowing that I wanted to explore the idea of work as a measurement of wellbeing, I tried to find the perfect framework for this project. I looked into macroeconomics, labour economics, and development economics; I talked to people from various different departments, but, to my surprise, nothing seemed quite right for what I wanted to do. Then, with my course mates from Topics in Economic History, we went on a trip to Quarry Bank Mill. This made me realise that it was not necessary for me to construct an international comparison concerning places I have no connection to at all; approaching my topic from a historical perspective meant that I could start with local sources and conduct my analysis in a much more detailed way.
Quarry Bank Mill is particularly interesting as a case study because it exposes the nature of the relationship between employers and workers prevalent in the first places of industrialised production. To make Styal attractive to workers, Samuel Greg, the owner of the mill, built cottages and organised the distribution of essential commodities. This meant he was not only employer, but also landlord and local shop-owner. Under what is now known as the ‘truck system’ and the ‘cottage system’, the cost of accommodation and commodities is deducted directly from the employees’ wages before they were paid.
While this was an expression of the employers’ responsibility for their workers’ wellbeing, factory owners also gained a great deal of control over their workers. Workers had no opportunity to buy goods from competitors, or to withhold payment in the case of disputes; prices were set by the factory owner and employees were left with little bargaining power. This was the case at Quarry Bank Mill, but many other factories across Lancashire, particularly in the cotton industry, operated under the same paternalistic system. As a result, the main differences between the wellbeing of workers in different factories were primarily due to the differences in employer-employee relationships. Comparing paternalist factories like Quarry Bank Mill to factories in Central Manchester shows very little difference in working conditions within factories, such as poor occupational health and long working hours. However, due to a lack of central regulation, significant differences in living conditions existed between the paternalistic factories surrounding Manchester and the non-paternalistic ones in Central Manchester, where labour was easy to find. For example, workers in paternalistic factories could expect greater standards of hygiene in their accommodation and more secure access to food – particularly in times of war.
In the context of my theory of work as fundamental to wellbeing, this was particularly interesting as it shows that work encompasses a broad range of factors beyond those immediately prevalent in the factory, and that these factors are hugely influential for the lives of employees. Choosing a historical approach to explore the universal significance of working conditions has an effect on which aspects of work we deem important – the example of Quarry Bank Mill emphasises workplace relationships and hierarchies. This can then be applied to the study of work in other social contexts, say, sweatshop labour in developing countries; modern sweatshop conditions exhibit similarities to industrialised labour in Lancashire, such as hazardous workplaces, poor occupational health due to either a lack of legislation or insufficient enforcement, and finally a relationship of dependence and asymmetry between workers and their employers.
Overall, looking at topics of interest in economics through a historic lens appears to be both insightful and feasible for a piece of undergraduate research. Learning about the very origins of the industrial revolution opens doors to a huge range of unique research questions – students are well advised to pick up this opportunity and engage with Manchester’s history.
Relevant literature on Quarry Bank Mill, the cotton industry, and early industrial working conditions in Manchester:
Ashton, T. S. (1997). Economic and Social Investigations in Manchester, 1833-1933: A Centenary History of the Manchester Statistical Society. New York: A. M. Kelley.
Aspin, C. (1981). The Cotton Industry. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd.
Babbage, C. (1832). On the economy of machinery and manufactures, 3rd edn. London: C. Knight.
Cooke Taylor, W. (1842). Notes of a tour in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire; in a series of letters to His Grace the Archbishop of Dublin. London: Duncan and Malcom.
Gaskell, P. (1833). The manufacturing population of England, its moral, social and physical conditions, and the changes which have arisen from the use of steam machinery: with an examination of infant labour. London: Baldwin and Cradock.
Greenlees, J. (2016). “Workplace Health and Gender among Cotton Workers in America and Britain, c. 1880s-1940s”, International Review of Social History, 61(3).
Hammond, J. L. & Hammond, B. (1917). The Town Labourer 1760-1832: The new civilisation. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
National Trust (2013a). “Apprentice life at Quarry Bank”, Quarry Bank Revealed, 29 July. Available at: https://quarrybankmill.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/apprentice-life-at-quarrybank/, (Accessed: 22 April 2019).
National Trust (2013b). “A brief history of Quarry Bank Mill”, Quarry Bank Revealed, 25 October. Available at: https://quarrybankmill.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/a-brief-history-ofquarry-bank/, (Accessed: 10 April 2019).
National Trust (2013c). “The fact that inspired the fiction…”, Quarry Bank Revealed, 6 August. Available at: https://quarrybankmill.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/the-fact-thatinspired-the-fiction/, (Accessed: 27 April 2019).
National Trust (2014). “Through the Keyhole in Styal Village”, Quarry Bank Revealed, 2 April. Available at: https://quarrybankmill.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/through-the-keyholein-styal-village/, (Accessed: 18 April 2019).
Quarry Bank Mill podcast – collection of short memories from those who grew up in Styal. Available at: https://audioboom.com/QuarryBankMill, (Accessed 27 September 2019).
Quiller-Couch, A. (1925). Charles Dickens and Other Victorians. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rose, M. B. (1986). The Gregs of Quarry Bank Mill: The Rise and Decline of a Family Firm, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Senior, N. W. (1844). Letters on the Factory Act, as it affects the Cotton Manufacture, 2nd edn. London: B. Fellowes.
Wingerd, M. L. (1996). “Rethinking Paternalism: Power and Parochialism in a Southern Mill Village”, The Journal of American History, 83(3), pp. 872-902.