Hard workers, not burdens: Disabled and Deaf mill workers in Yorkshire

This week we hear from artist Gill Crawshaw, who has been delving into the Central Library archives to uncover the hidden history of disability and West Yorkshire’s textile heritage. The article is published to mark the start of UK Disability History Month, which began on November 18.

A few years ago, I became interested in stories that brought together disabled people’s lives and the history of the textile industries. This began when I organised an exhibition of textile-based art by disabled artists. Shoddy had a number of themes: disability rights, disabled people’s lives today and in the past, recycling and textiles. The exhibition title was a play on words. People from West Yorkshire will no doubt know the original meaning of shoddy, which is new cloth created from woollen waste and recycled fabric. But the word has come to mean shabby, of inferior quality, broken-down. Shoddy, however, rejected assumptions that disabled people, our work and ourselves, are inferior or second rate.

With this in mind, I began to question the theory in disability history that, during the industrial revolution, disabled people were excluded from the workplace. Before this period of industrialisation, starting in the mid-eighteenth century, disabled people were often able to work and make an economic contribution to their communities. But the industrial revolution made disabled people dependent on others as they were unable to work in the factories and mills. This social “problem” led to the proliferation of workhouses, asylums, poorhouses and other institutions where disabled people were segregated from society.

I wondered whether there was another side to this story. Was there any evidence of disabled people working in the factories, particularly textile mills? Were there disabled people who made their living and avoided the workhouse?

Textile 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. As well as accidents, poor working conditions including excessive dust, and freezing or stifling temperatures led to health problems and impairment amongst mill workers.  Many people disabled through industrial injuries had little choice but to carry on working so they could bring in a wage and not be a burden on their families.

Some of their experiences were recorded by the various Factory Commissions of the mid-nineteenth century, which led to legislation to improve conditions. The commissions’ reports and Factory Acts can be found in the reference collection at Central Library.

William Dodd wrote his own 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. A Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd a Factory Cripple (1840) 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. These fascinating documents can be found in the Local and Family History department.

One of the children Dodd interviewed was Benjamin Gomersal of Bradford, who related the effects of mill work:

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 without any pain or difficulty, and with a little fatigue; now I cannot stand without crutches! … My mother is dead; my father was obliged to send me to the mill, in order to keep me. I had to attend at the mill after my limbs began to fail.

The constant din from the looms and other machinery led to many workers becoming deaf. Workers became skilled lip readers because it was often impossible to hear above the noise. Some developed rudimentary sign language and this became a useful way of communicating without the bosses being able to understand. 

Another report in the Local History Library reveals that deaf people were regularly employed in the textile industry around Yorkshire. Results of an Inquiry Respecting the Former Pupils of the Yorkshire Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (1844, reprinted with additions 1859) aimed to prove the effectiveness of the school’s educational methods by showing that pupils went on to be useful members of society in various trades. The institute sent a questionnaire to employers, families and other contacts.

George Daniel of Bradford went to work as a woolcomber at John Rand and Sons. Thomas Vity wrote:

As his foreman I have to inspect his work, and can assure you that for diligence, and attention he has few equals among the youths of his own age in our employ. Since he began to finish his own work I have never had occasion to find fault.

William Craven of Leeds was said to be “as fully active as any boy in the same employment”, a doffer at Titley, Tatham, & Walkers, flax spinners.

George Thompson of Armley worked as a cloth-dresser at Messrs. W. & J. Gott, who reported that “He acquired the business equally fast, and as well as others… When he is of age he will be able to earn as good wages as any other men in the same employment.”

The reports weren’t all glowing though.

Sarah Hartley and Jane Holmes were both employed as bobbin-winders at Dickinson and Barraclough in Leeds. While they learned the trade well, they were “not quite so even-tempered as other girls in the same employment”.

At Titus Salt, Sons & Co., Saltaire, Edwin Haley worked “pretty well” as a weaver. “The sorters complained that he was volatile, but the weaving overlooker makes no complaint.”

We can only guess at the experiences of these young deaf people, amongst a largely (or probably entirely) hearing workforce. While some workplaces had their own sign language, this wasn’t universal and communication would have been a barrier. Colleagues and bosses might not have accepted deaf workers easily. No wonder some of them rebelled from time to time.

Despite appalling working conditions in the textile industry, disabled and deaf people were part of the workforce. Some of them, like William Dodd, became part of the drive for reform. I’m sure there are many more stories to be discovered that show the contribution disabled people made.

Gill Crawshaw, November 2020


The featured image on this page shows the late 19th-century premises of the Leeds Institution for the Indigent & Industrious Blind (c) Leeds Libraries

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