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Jobs in the Mills
Long hours for low pay was the general order of life for many mill workers. Though many workers earned more in factories than they might have done in farming or on the land as they had done before. In Scotland, mill workers could work from 10 to 19 hours per day, depending on the mill. Robert Owen reduced the working day at New Lanark to ten and a half hours. This was considered unusual. Also very few worked only 5 days a week.
In 1819, a special study by the Government discovered that "most of the children employed in Scottish cotton mills were aged ten or over and worked a twelve-hour day." So, children worked the same hours as adults. Even during break times, workers had jobs to finish:
This is William Kelly's clock. New Lanark village and its mills were run to a strict schedule using this very clock. You can still see it in the Institute for the Formation of Character today.
In times of high demand, mill workers had to do night shilfts. In summer when the river was too low for a full day's production hours were shortened. This time was made up though with longer hours in winter.
Laws called Factory Acts controlled the maxiumum number of hours that children could work per day. They also provided for statutory meal breaks and safety regulations. The Ten Hours Act was passed in 1847. This limited the hours that women and children could work to 10 hours per day. In 1875, their hours were restricted to 56.5 per week. These laws were designed to improve conditions for mill workers, but they were unpopular even with the workers who felt they couldn't work longer to earn enough. Many employers also resented them.
The way you were paid in the cotton industry depended on your job. Some workers earned fixed wages and they were paid the same every time. Most though, were paid on the piecework system. This meant that what you took home each week depended on how much you had produced [your output] and not an hourly or daily rate.
Workers were often paid in mill stamped coin or a ticket for wages, like the New Lanark one here. It wasn't real money, but had a value printed on it and it could be exchanged for goods in the mill village store. Many mills used this Truck System which was very unfair on some workers because it forced them to spend their wages in the mill-owned stores. At New Lanark though, Robert Owen provided fresh, good value produce for his workers at his store. This produce was fairly priced which meant that the workers' wages went further.
In boom time, when there was great demand, mill workers benefitted and were paid well for their long hours. Many workers who had migrated to the cities from the Highlands or Ireland were better off than they might have been if they had stayed in the countryside. However, unskilled mill workers could be easily replaced, so in harder times, many workers could find themselves out of work and in great hardship.
Wages at New Lanark were lower than in the urban areas like Glasgow and Manchester, but their standard of living was much higher. They had good housing and lived in a better, more sanitary environment.
Routine and order had to be enforced in the mill. This was usually done with deterrents like fines. Fines could be paid by children working over-time.The fine was different depending on the seriousness of the offence. They could weigh heavy on an apprentice who only earned a few pennies a week.
Some mills had more brutal methods to enforce discipline and keep people alert and busy during their long hours at work. Beatings were not uncommon.
Read these accounts about the discipline in some mills
Turning up late meant docked pay or worse …
|New Lanark World Heritage Site
South Lanarkshire, Scotland, ML11 9DB
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