George Thompson worked at Gotts Mill, now Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, in the 1840s. George’s job was as a handle-setter, putting teasels into metal frames which were fitted onto a teasel-raising gig. This machine was used in the finishing stages of cloth making, and there’s an example of one in the museum. The cloth would pass over the spines of the teasels in the gig to raise the nap of the fabric. It was then cropped to give it a smooth surface.
George was a young man who lived near the mill in Armley. Jobs preparing teasels for cloth-finishing were usually done by young men and boys, and perhaps George started work as a preemer, sorting and cleaning the teasels. His boss reported that George ‘acquired the business equally fast, and as well as others’ and reckoned that ‘when he is of age he will be able to earn as good wages as any other men in the same employment’.
How do we know this about George and why did his boss make these remarks?
In the 1840s and 1850s, the Yorkshire Institute for the Deaf and Dumb (now Doncaster School for the Deaf) sent a survey out to employers and families of former pupils of the school. The responses formed a series of reports. George was one of many pupils who went on to find jobs in the textile industry in Leeds and the region.
I’m an independent curator and I’ve been researching the lives of people like George, to show that Deaf and disabled people are part of our history and contributed to society. Disabled people are often portrayed as dependent or as burdens, in the past as well as today. Disabled people have always been part of the workforce, but this is rarely acknowledged and disabled workers’ stories are often untold.
My research has focused on disabled people who worked in textile mills from the Industrial Revolution onwards. I became interested in this topic when I organised an exhibition called Shoddy a few years ago, which showed textile-based artworks by disabled artists. As well as looking back at the textile industry, the exhibition commented on contemporary society’s often shoddy treatment of disabled people, with cuts to benefits and public services.
I shared some of my research with a group of disabled people at an event at Leeds Industrial Museum in November. This event was part of Leeds Museums and Galleries’ 200th birthday celebrations, and also fell within UK Disability History Month. Being in the surroundings of the mill, with its large collection of textile machinery, set the scene for thinking about life for disabled mill workers and the harsh and hazardous conditions they faced.
Industrial injury was a feature of early factory work, from lost limbs to severe respiratory problems. There would therefore have been a high proportion of mill workers who had some sort of impairment. This wasn’t necessarily equated with a lack of productivity, and many of these workers continued or returned to work.
They had little choice; they would have wanted to avoid the even harsher conditions of the workhouse if at all possible. Of course, there were people whose injuries meant that they were no longer able to work, and did end up in the workhouse. But many other disabled people stayed in work, through sheer necessity.
Workers didn’t just accept the terrible conditions passively. There were a number of trade disputes in the 18th and 19th centuries where workers came together to resolve issues at work. If the textile workforce had a high proportion of disabled workers, then it follows that these emerging trade unions would also have had many disabled members. Disabled people were shaping the world of factory work, fighting to improve conditions for themselves and the workers who came after.
One of the most striking features of textile mills was the great din produced by rows of spinning mules, power looms and other machinery. The noise made by a single spinning mule still in working condition during a demonstration at Leeds Industrial Museum gave some idea of what it would have been like. As a result, hearing loss was common amongst mill workers. This continued to be an issue well into the 20th century. People who became deaf in this way would carry on working in the industry which, after all, did not require its workers to be able to hear over the racket of the machines. Indeed, workers developed sign language to communicate.
Janet Alexander, a Deaf theatre professional and actor, skilfully brought the story of another of the Doncaster School’s former pupils to life at the event. Janet performed a monologue as Sarah Hartley, a bobbin-winder at Dickinson and Barraclough’s worsted factory in south Leeds.
Taking the limited information about Sarah, along with general knowledge about mill workers’ lives, plus her specific knowledge and understanding of the history of Deaf people in Leeds, Janet created a rounded and relatable character.
Sarah was described by her boss as a good learner with ‘proper’ conduct. However, he wrote that ‘she is not quite so even-tempered as other girls in the same employment’. Janet gave us a real insight into the life of Sarah, a spirited, proud young Deaf woman.
Vickie Orton, artist and storyteller, drew on her family history to tell us about her great aunt Gladys who worked in a mill from the age of 14 until she was 65, retiring in 1978. She had become Deaf and was an expert lip reader. This skill was a badge of honour amongst the hard-working weavers. It showed that you’d had a ‘proper job’ rather than worked in the mill offices.
In the past as today, disabled people want to work, to be independent and to be part of their community, although the world of work is not always supportive of disabled people. In discussions at the end of the event, we noted how we are bombarded with stereotypes of disabled people as scroungers and of being unable to work, perpetuated by the benefits system. We need another narrative that challenges these stereotypes and shows the contributions that disabled people have made to society.
By Gill Crawshaw, independent curator