Reports published by the British government in the nineteenth century can often provide tantalising glimpses of people’s work and living conditions. The authors of these reports often visited homes as well as factories to gather information.
Bridgend Spinning Mill, Dalry
A report on the ‘Employment of Women’ compiled in 1893 by female commissioners contains valuable facts about women working in a spinning mill in the small town of Dalry in the west of Scotland. Although reports anonymised the places of work, Mill No.17 was most likely Bridgend Mills, as only it could have employed ‘600 women…in various branches of worsted spinning.’
The authors of the report note that there was a scarcity of female labour for the textile industry in this part of Scotland. There had been a decrease in the town’s population and the low wages offered by the mill were rarely enough to induce young women to leave their families to come and work in the area.
There was also no real transport network to convey women to the mill from further afield. And some of the women, who already worked there, had to walk two to four miles a day to and from the mill.
The report records the wages paid for the various occupations in the mill. The first stage of processing was wool sorting, which paid 10-11 shillings per week. Once the fleece was sorted and washed it would be combed or carded, and this paid 9 shillings per week. Finally, the spinning processes could begin and drawers, twisters, and reelers could earn 8-14 shillings per week depending on the occupation.
In 1886, the women went on strike for three days. When they returned, they negotiated a slight wage increase and were put on piece work rather than being paid by the day. Piece work gave them an opportunity to earn slightly more depending on the speed and quality of their work.
Dalry was a small town and the rents were apparently low because of the poor standard of accommodation available. The authors observed that meat was more expensive here than in larger towns, which meant workers could not afford to eat much of it or often.
The authors of the report also visited the homes of workers and recorded their impressions of living conditions. In one household they visited –
They were living in one room and kitchen for which they paid £5 per annum. The house and the persons of the inmates were extremely dirty and the general aspect of things very miserable. The dinner, of which the family were partaking, consisted of tea, bread, and butter, which would be followed by a similar meal about six in the evening, to which a herring, or, very occasionally, a little fried ham would probably be added.
Next door two workers were found keeping house together on a wage of from 8s. to 9s. a week each. They paid £2.10s. for the single apartment they occupied. The same standard as regards food, rags, dirt, and untidiness seem to prevail here. These girls were also employed in mill No. 17.
Although there appeared to be work available at the spinning mill for women in the area, it was low paid and could only support a poor standard of living.
By the early twentieth century, the spinning mill – and the local knitting factory attached to the mill – were acquired by Fleming, Reid and Co. Ltd, a spinning and hosiery manufacturing company based in Greenock.