Hidden Histories

of Disabled Mill Workers

For Our Year’s textile theme in June, we invited Gill Crawshaw to Horbury Library to talk about her research into disabled mill workers.

Here Gill outlines some of this research, with a focus on a local worker.

I’ve been researching the hidden histories of disabled people who worked in textile mills in this region, to challenge persistent and harmful stereotypes of disabled people, and to acknowledge the contributions that disabled people have made, and continue to make, to our history and culture.

One of those hidden stories is of James Scott, a 19th century mill worker who lived and worked in Horbury. I’ve made James the subject of a zine, A Handsome Testimonial.

James led a fairly ordinary life in the small town of Horbury. So he might not seem like an obvious subject to focus on. In fact, he’s an excellent example of a disabled person who contributed to his community, supported others, and led a productive life.

James was alive during the Victorian era, when negative and limiting stereotypes of disabled people developed. The narrative that disabled people had to depend on the workhouse or on charity, on the goodwill of others, really took hold. This idea of disabled people as being dependent and needy continues to influence attitudes towards disabled people today.

I discovered James, and other Deaf mill workers, in a report by the Yorkshire Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, as it was then known. The school carried out a survey of employers, family members and others, to find out what their ex-pupils were doing.  The first survey was carried out in 1844, with updates into the next decade.

Richard Poppleton, owner of a large mill in Horbury, sent back a glowing report about James, who worked as a hanker of worsteds, measuring lengths of yarn and twisting them into hanks. James was a reliable worker, “attentive” and “very obliging” who had also impressed his previous employer. He was far from being needy or dependent, in fact other people depended on him. He was the main wage earner in the household and supported both himself and his mother.

We rarely hear stories like this, of ordinary disabled people living purposeful, productive lives. This is despite disability being a prominent feature of industrialisation and of the campaigns to improve conditions in the textile factories.

Disabled people’s voices were a key part of the factory reform movement. Many disabled people, who had become disabled through the punishing working conditions in early 19th century textile mills, gave evidence to the parliamentary commissions set up to investigate the factories. There was a drive to reduce the hours of child workers and to raise the age at which children could start work.

From workers’ evidence it became clear that the most harmful effects of long hours of hard work were on people’s bodies. Worker after worker described – and showed – how their limbs were bent and how their mobility had been affected. Nonetheless, they continued to work, through necessity and to meet the needs of the industry. These disabled workers, rather than being passive victims of industrialisation, spoke up, often in the face of opposition from mill owners. They were a vital part of the movement to improve workers’ rights.

There are doubtless many more stories of disabled workers to discover. They perhaps challenge some widely-held notions of disabled people. They are important because they show that disabled people were, and are, part of the world and part of their communities. Not dependent, not tragic, not inspirational, but reliable colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members with valuable contributions to make.

Copies of the zine are available in Wakefield libraries.

You can read the zine online here.

A large print version is also available here.

A Handsome Testimonial was funded by Unlimited, the disability arts commissioning organisation.