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Modern History Sourcebook: Observations on the Loss of Woollen Spinning, 1794

The new machines did not all come at once. It proved easier to mechanize spinning than weaving. This is an account of the effects of the loss of spinning work for those previously employed in "cottage industry".

From Observations . . . on the Loss of Woollen Spinning (c. 1794)

The Combers being men and boys may possibly turn to some other work, but it is not so with the wife and daughters of the day-labourers, whose occupation in a country parish where no particular manufactory is carried on, must be within their own dwelling; who deprived of Woollen Spinning have no other employment, (except when they can go into the fields) to bring in any money towards the support of the Family. To tell a poor woman with three, four or five children, all under the age at which farmers will employ them to set her children to work, where no Wool is to be had is a mockery of misery, and if it is in a neighborhood distant from Machines, where some hand-work is still put out, the low price that is paid for her unwearied labour, of running with her children all day at the Wheel, disheartens her. The scanty fare it enables them to eat when the day's work is done, with want of firing makes her at length prefer breaking a hedge for her own fuel, and often for sale to the Village Tradesman, and bringing up her children to the same idle habits.

Many things combine to make the Hand Spinning of Wool, the most desirable work for the cottager's wife and children. - A Wooden Wheel costing 2s. for each person, with one Reel costing 3s. set up the family. The Wool-man either supplies them with Wool by the pound or more at a time, as he can depend on their care, or they take it on his account from the chandler's shop, where they buy their food and raiment. No stock is required, and when they carry back their pound of Wool spun, they have no further concern in it. Children from five years old can run at the Wheel, it is a very wholesome employment for them, keeps them in constant exercise, and upright: persons can work at it till a very advanced age.

But from the establishment of the Spinning Machines in many Counties where I was last Summer, no Hand Work could be had, the consequence of which is the whole maintenance of the family devolves on the father, and instead of six or seven shillings a week, which a wife and four children could add by their wheels, his weekly pay is all they have to depend upon…

. . . another advantage of this work was, that until these Machines were introduced, it was equally to be obtained in every County, unlike every manufactory, a child with a Wheel was never thrown absolutely out of bread, by change of place when grown up. - But all this is altered….

I then walked to the Machines, and with some difficulty gained admittance: there I saw both the Combing Machine and Spinning Jenny. The Combing Machine was put in motion by a Wheel turned by four men, but which I am sure could be turned either by water or steam. The frames were supplied by a child with Wool, and as the wheel turned, flakes of ready combed Wool dropped off a cylinder into a trough, these were taken up by a girl of about fourteen years old, who placed them on the Spinning Jenny, which has a number of horizontal beams of wood, on each of which may be fifty bobbins. One such girl sets these bobbins all in motion by turning a wheel at the end of the beam, a wire then catches up a flake of Wool, spins it, and gathers it upon each bobbin. The girl again turns the wheel, and another fifty flakes are taken up and Spun. This is done every minute without intermission, so that probably one girl turning that wheel, may do the work of One Hundred Hand Wheels at the least. About twenty of these sets of bobbins, were I judge at work in one room. Most of these Manufactories are many stories high, and the rooms much larger than this I was in. Struck with the impropriety of even so many as the twenty girls I saw, without any woman presiding over them, I enquired of the Master if he was married, why his Wife was not present? He said he was not a married man, and that many parents did object to send their girls, but that the poverty of others, and not having any work to set them to, left him not at any loss for hands. I must do all the parties the justice to say, that these girls appeared neat and orderly: yet at best, I cannot but fear the taking such young persons from the eyes of their parents, and thus herding them together with only men and boys, must bring up a dissolute race of poor.

These Machines then once set up, and the expence of them does not appear very great, 20 Girls do the work of 2,000 Women and Children, and when these Girls are of age to go into a Farmer's Service, how can they endure the fatigue and exposure to weather, necessary to their situation. Numbers confined together in one room cannot make them so hardy and strong, as running at the wheel in a cold cottage, and frequently at the outside of their door in the open air. - If they marry, they can neither teach their children to work, or spin, or bring in any earnings to maintain them. Who then shall patch the clothes, mend the shoes, and economize their little store?

Shut up from morning till night, except when they are sent home for their meals, these girls are ignorant of, and unhandy at every domestic employment, whereas if at her wheel in her mother's cottage, the girl assists in every occupation of the family. She lights the faggot, nurses the young children, gleans in the harvest, takes charge of the house in her mother's necessary absence to the shop, or when she can get work at neighbouring houses, becoming an assistant to her parents in sickness and old age, and in her turn a good wife to a day labourer, a fit mother for his family she lives with those to whom she ought to be attached, and therefore will feel an affection towards them: but a girl taken from six years old to sixteen, and employed at the machines, can know none of these habits....

If these are the miseries that result from the Machines to the day labourer's wife and children during his life, what must be their lot when deprived by his death of all support, but the pittance their own industry affords them. A widow could assist to maintain herself and her children by her spinning when she was paid Id. for every skain; but now, she must become a parish pauper, a wretched inhabitant of a Workhouse...

The manufacturing of Cotton and Wool by Machines bear no resemblance as to the detriment to the poor. Wool being in its raw state the produce of every parish, Wool-staplers were consequently to be found in every Market Town; Combers were set to work by them, to prepare it for every Cottager, who was glad at the expence of 2s. to find a wholesome employment within her own house for herself, and all those children who were able to stand to the wheel, and whom she could not place out. Thus from time immemorial the Hand or Jazey Wheel, has been the pride of the English Housewife. In bad and good weather it equally was a resource, and a better fated neighbour, would lend her a trifle on a sick or lying-in bed, she mortgaging the next hand-work her children should carry to the shop. But now the Wheel must be laid aside as a useless thing! - No Yarn is spun out of the ends to mend or knit a stocking, or darn a woollen garment, all is bought ready made at the shop, worn while it will hang together, and a lifeless slatternly race of young people will swarm in every village....

The assistance women and girls may be of in husbandry is sometimes proposed as a remedy for the loss of spinning: but for the mothers of families, common humanity will point without need of much argument, how frequently they must be unfit for working in the fields either when big with child, or with an infant at the breast. If from dire necessity they are thus obliged to expose themselves and infants in all the seasons of our varying year, what must be the consequence to their domestic happiness?


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu