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Brutal and negligent? 19th century factory mothers and child care.


In Growing your own, health visitors in Oldham wrote that they had 'recently achieved UNICEF Baby Friendly Stage 3' status (Chalmers et al, 2011: 18). This achievement, they argue, was as a consequence of Oldham supporting and training 'their own' child health workers. This positive feedback will undoubtedly influence both the health workers working on behalf of babies born in Oldham and the mothers themselves--effective child care clearly is a must if children are to thrive.

Oldham, however, has not always been the subject of such positive childcare plaudits. During the 19th century, according to some historians such as Robert Woods (2006), Oldham faced severe challenges with respect to any positive childcare model, as it had an extremely high infant mortality rate. The reasons being, historians such as Millward and Bell (2001), Hewitt (1958) and Woods (2006) have argued, was the growth of industrialisation, which led to female factory work. Hewitt (1958) was damning of the impact that 19th century female waged factory work had on levels of infant mortality, remarking that it was impossible to reconcile with effective motherhood. Sheila Rowbotham (1977), although being more sympathetic toward the mothers, arrives at much the same conclusion, arguing that the archetypal Northern factory represented 'the separation of work and home and the new discipline of the factory made their diverse activities less easy to combine' (Rowbotham, 1977: 57).

It is clear that the 19th century factory system caused problems for mothers with children. Oldham was one among many areas where industrialisation had certainly changed the working landscape for 19th century working class women, as the move from cottage to factory work meant that women could no longer combine work with child care. The working pattern--which began at 5.30am and finished at 6pm, with an hour for lunch usually between 12.30 and 1.30, and a half day on Saturday--meant that factory mothers were unable to attend to their children during this time. Although the owner of the Enderly Mills in Newcastle, Richard Stanway, provided a 'play-room and a cot-room ... being equipped with cradles which were gently rocked by steam machinery', and a pram made available for mothers to rent that made 'carrying their babies to and from the mill much easier', such provision was an exception, meaning that mother and baby were unduly separated (Hewitt, 1958: 10, 22, 164).

The outcome of this, Rowbotham (1977) has argued, was that 'factories created particular problems for nursing mothers, as they would have to rush home to feed their infants in their break, and to breastfeed an infant was a time consuming affair and therefore not a realistic practice' (Rowbotham, 1977: 57). Mothers were therefore unable to tend to and breastfeed their infants and instead had to rely on an older sibling, neighbour or child carer to feed the infant with a 'pap', which was made out of bread and water or bread and milk. This food was clearly unsuitable for infants, and when given it on a regular basis caused them to incur digestive problems such as gastro-enteritis, colic and diarrhoea, leading sometimes to their death, thereby fuelling the high northern infant mortality rate (Reid, 2006; Fildes, 2006; Hewitt, 1958; PP, 1871).

Oldham was therefore among the towns that 19th century contemporaries, and latterly historians, have labelled the 'hot beds' of 'baby neglect'. Dr Asquith in particular were extremely damning of such practices, and argued that 'the main reason' for the high infant mortality rate, 'one of the most melancholy features of our vital statistics ... was the employment of young married women in factories' (British Medical Journal, 1894). Charles Dickens was also concerned that mothers' factory work caused problems for infants, that it was an unhealthy combination, and wondered how mothers reconciled their work with caring for the infants. On a tour of Oldham to assess the situation for himself, he asked the rector of the town: 'What do they do with the infants of the mothers who work in the mills?' 'Oh,' the rector replied, 'they bring them to me, and I take care of them in the churchyard!' (Dickens, 1874: 723).

Scale of mothers involved in factory work

19th century contemporaries believed that due to the strict time discipline imposed by industrialisation, women would not be sufficiently able to combine factory work with child care, and consequently mothers would remain in the home and domestic sphere. Working class mothers would therefore mirror their middle class sisters who stayed at home and were an embodiment of the 'angel in the house'--a phrase coined by Patmore (1854) in a poem written in praise of his wife--supported both financially and morally by a protective husband. Working class men, however, could not solely financially support their families as their wages were much lower than that of middle class men, and working class mothers had to work. These women therefore joined the workforce and were characterised by social commentators as 'brutal' for putting work before family and being thoroughly negligent toward their infants.

As a consequence of the time spent at work, these mothers became extremely proficient at their job and as such the commitment to their work did not go unnoticed by the factory foremen or the employers. As one textile manufacturer commented, he had 'a decided preference for married females, especially those who have families at home to support; they are attentive, docile, more so than unmarried females, and are compelled to use their utmost exertions to procure the necessities of life' (Dodd, 1968: 16; Perkins, 1993: 191; Hansard, 1844a). Thus 'he only employed women at his power looms' as they 'were easier to manage and cost less' (Perkins, 1993: 191). As many employers actually preferred them to men, many mothers became the family's breadwinner, whose work on behalf of their families was a necessity.

These duel circumstances, of women's economic necessity and manufacturer's preference, set the scene then for factory mothers' work. This was certainly the case within the cotton districts of Lancashire, where Rosalind Hall (2003) has argued that they featured prominently among the 500 000 factory operatives employed in the 2300 mills in the period from the 1860s to the 1900s (Hall, 2003). In Burnley alone, the town 'boasted 400 000 spindles along with 99 000 looms', most of which were operated by women, both single and married, and on a visit to the Lancashire mills in 1862, the female social commentator Ellen Barlee remarked that:

'The temptation [for wives] to work is great; for, so large is the demand for female labour, that 50 women can find employment where the man fails. Thus, it is quite true that many women do keep their husbands and families, the men merely doing such jobbing work as they can pick up' (Tilly and Scott, 1978: 131).

Clearly, mothers worked in the factories because they needed the money, were identified as a part of the workforce of the town, were actually very good at their job, and were preferred to men. Consequently, the factory colonised the time of these women. But what of these women's children? Did this cause problems for them?

It seems that the problems for mothers began as soon as they became pregnant. Having to endure periods of up to 10 to 12 hours stood over a weaving loom, particularly in the latter stages of pregnancy, was extremely difficult for these women, particularly as they had to endure these conditions up until the time of the baby's birth. These hazardous circumstances often led to stillbirths, and many babies were delivered on the factory floor. Once delivered (alive or dead), mother and baby would be sent home, and if the baby lived, since the 19th century offered the mother no maternity leave, in most cases the mother would have to return to work either one or two days later or lose her job. This meant that henceforth, the newborn infant was separated from its mother from dawn to dusk. This harsh situation was difficult for both infant and mother.

When mothers were faced with such trauma and difficulties, it is no wonder that some chose to rid themselves of their child as soon as they were born. Infanticide was practised among factory women. Ann Berry was but one example of such women who worked in the cotton mills of Bolton and who chose to commit this heinous act on their children. Three days after her son was born, she killed him, put him in a box and threw it in the water lodge in Mule Street (Public Record Office, 1876). A woman in Bradford was heard to remark that she preferred the loom to caring for her children, and employed her husband to stay at home while she worked at the mill. Despite these examples of neglect and indifference, new research has revealed that factory mothers also fought on behalf of the interests of their children.

The action of women

Despite being noted for their inaction, by Robert Woods (2006) in particular, it seems that factory mothers in the northern industrial areas were extremely concerned as to how factory work and its regulations got in the way of them attending to and breastfeeding their children, and they devised innovative ways to ensure their children were breastfed and did not have endure the unsuitable 'pap'.

Although wet nursing had gone out of fashion since the 18th century due to the idea that some wet nurses were immoral and could corrupt the child being fed, it made a reappearance in 1868. In Manchester, factory mothers called for women to wet nurse their infants and 207 mothers responded (PP, 1871; Hewitt, 1958).

Mothers at the Tean Hall Mill in Stoke-on-Trent were part of a particularly novel solution to this problem. As Jill Dunicliff has remarked, for 'the factory women [who] worked in the part of the mill near High Street ... there was a hole not much bigger than the span of a man's fingers, from thumb to little finger, in the wall, covered by a vertical sliding shutter and through this a nursing mother could feed her baby. The baby would be brought by its baby minder, usually by an aunt or an older sister, the foreman would fasten up the shutter on its cord, and with the baby being held to the outside of the hole, the feeding could be managed' (Collingridge, 2008).

Factory mothers in Leeds were also angry at being separated from their infants and actually berated the factory owners for not providing a creche such as in Newcastle. The owner of Derham Mill in Leeds remarked to Robert Baker, a medical doctor, that he was 'fed up of the violent language' directed at him and the accusations of mothers that he was 'killing their children' as they were unable to attend to their infants during the day time (PP, 1876).

For factory mothers in Leeds, the solution appeared to be working the night shift, thereby freeing themselves up during the daytime to care for their children. Of course, this practice would have been extremely tiring for them, as it would mean that they would effectively be feeding their infants by day and working in the factory at night, but as this would limit the amount of 'pap' their infants would be subjected to, then working the night shift appeared to be worth it.

Putting this practice in place was fraught with difficulty, but it seems that factory women were willing to take risks to care for their children. The Factory Act of 1832 determined that women should not work night-time shifts, and to ensure that the law was adhered to factory inspectors often called unannounced (Taylor, 1873; Dodd, 1968; Hansard, 1844b; PP, 1868-9). Despite this restriction, new research has shown that due to the mothers' proficiency, factory foremen were as keen for them to work the night shift as the mothers themselves, and as such a series of hammocks were erected in the roof space of the factories, whereby women could be hidden away should the inspectors come calling (PP, 1868-9). Getting around the prohibitive regulation meant that factory mothers in Leeds could be at home during the day and breastfed their infants 'in the morning and at meal times' (Taylor, 1873: 79; Dolan, 1882: 359).

This collusion meant, as factory inspectors conceded, that despite the restrictions it was still commonplace for women to work during the night. As Barbara Drake remarks, 'amongst the wool and worsted operatives' in the West Riding (Drake, 1984: 84), in particular, factory women labouring in the mills overnight was still evident within the early years of the 20th century.

Mrs Scatchard of Leeds stated that after being acquainted 'with a large number of women' who worked in the factories, she found that 'the bulk' of them were 'good mothers and that: 'Maternal affection was as strong among women of the working-class as in women of a better class' (Dolan, 1882: 359, 386).


The recent achievement of Oldham in obtaining UNICEF Baby Friendly Stage 3 status is an excellent example of a northern industrial town securing recognition of the efforts it has made in securing effective child care in order to allow future generations to thrive. However, as this article has attempted to illustrate, this achievement has been but one example of where towns such as Oldham have striven to reconcile the often difficult circumstances facing mothers of low socio-economic status when trying care for their children.

When seeking a cause for the high infant mortality rate during the 19th century, we have seen that contemporaries sought to blame 19th century factory mothers and their factory work, which played such a central part of their daily existence. Economic necessity was reconfigured into selfishness and wilful neglect, with the high infant mortality rate projected as the ultimate consequence of un-maternal behaviour. We have seen, however, that 19th century northern factory mothers responded to the problem by feeding their children through holes in walls, resurrecting a dated breastfeeding mechanism and hiding themselves in hammocks from factory inspectors in order to ameliorate the most damaging aspects of their work on their children. Furthermore, as Mrs Scatchard of Leeds remarked at the time, most factory mothers were 'good mothers', and as the scales fell from Mrs Scatchard's eyes so too should they fall from those who instinctively consider the maternal practices of those of low socio-economic status 'defective' or 'dangerous', as often portrayed by today's media.

Whether effective maternal practices are fostered from child health workers or from mothers themselves, as this paper has demonstrated, communities such as Oldham have a long tradition of grassroots endeavour to draw on in their drive to secure the best possible outcome for their children. As this paper has shown, 19th century factory mothers would not be separated from their children, despite their necessity to work, and their children were at the forefront of their minds to ensure they would not be sent to the 'church yard'.

Recognition of the endeavour and resourcefulness displayed by these factory mothers in the latter half of the 19th century is of value to community practitioners in the 21st century, as it indicates that solutions to the many challenges facing mothers are not solely the preserve of social policy imposed from above, but may be arrived at through a constructive dialogue with the mothers themselves. The past is not always a foreign country, and to enhance the life chances of the young it is not always necessary to do things differently.


* Working class factory mothers in northern Britain during the latter half of the 19th century did not drive up the high northern infant mortality rate by neglecting their children

* Although 19th century female factory workers in this paper were the main breadwinners of the family--and extremely productive 'key' workers--they did not forget their maternal role, and devised innovative ways by which to combine factory work with effective child care

* This reassessment of past childcare practices can help to challenge today's negative media depictions of both 19th century working class women and today's mothers of low socio-economic status


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Melanie Reynolds AHEA, PhD, MA, BA Lecturer in history, Oxford Brookes University

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Author:Reynolds, Melanie
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Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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