9. Mary, Elisabeth and Agnes Wilkie

Power Loom Weavers

Mary, Elisabeth and Agnes Wilkie were probably sent to work as soon as they were old enough most likely around the age of nine or ten. They were certainly working as power loom weavers at the time of the 1841 census and had probably been working during most of the 1830s. We might assume that William and Janet Wilkie would have weighed up the advantages and disadvantages of having their daughters work in the cotton mills before they sent them to work. Why should they go out to work? Was there a financial need? Did the income earned by William Wilkie fall short of that required to raise a family of six children? Was William Wilkie himself earning an income during the time that his three daughters worked in the mills? He died during the late 1840s aged in his mid fifties and may have been in ill health.

It has been observed that families that had several children working could often survive on the income of the children, and could be relatively well off financially . In 1828 G.M.Ritchie reported in the Glasgow Medical Journal that

In families in which all the members are so far advanced as to be fit for labour, the aggregate of their earnings is very considerable and is in general placed at the disposal of the eldest female, whose sole employment consists in making purchases and attending to household duties.

This appears to have been common among working class families in Glasgow .

A Report to the Factories Commission in 1833 by Sir David Barry described the case of a widow living in Bridgeton who was fairly well off as she had an eighteen year old daughter working as a power loom weaver, and a lodger working as a spinner. Her son, also a spinner, was unemployed at the time .

It seems possible that the Wilkie family, during the 1830s and 1840s was fairly comfortable in terms of finance if all six children were working and contributing to the family income.

The Role of Females in the Labour Force:

In 1839 40,868 out of a total of 59,314 employees in the Glasgow textile industry were female, and 43% of these were under eighteen years of age, mainly thirteen or fourteen year olds. It appears that it was more acceptable for single females to work than for married women. It was the norm for working class wives to remain at home . It appears that Janet Wilkie followed the norm for most of her life, while her unmarried daughters worked in the mills.

Interviewed by the Factory Commission in 1833 the manager of the Adelphi cotton spinning works in Glasgow claimed “women do not work much in factories after they get married” . However, the role of females in the work force is not reflected accurately by census figures as much of the work done by females was seasonal or casual and was not regarded as being full time work for census purposes. Given the large families raised by many working class couples it is hardly surprising that not many women continued to work in paid occupations after getting married. Nevertheless, it appears that even during gaps between pregnancies working class wives generally remained at home.

In 1841 ninety percent of the female labour force in Scotland was engaged in four main areas of work domestic service, agriculture, textiles, and clothing. By 1850 one third of all male and female labour in Glasgow was located in the cotton mills and factories. The remainder worked at home or in small workshops. In all cases women’s' work was characterised by low pay and occupational segregation . But at least men generally believed that women could operate the weaving machines more quickly than the male spinners.

At John Dennistoun's cotton mills in Calton there was serious trouble in 1833 when the company engaged a number of women as spinners in the hope that the wages bill could be reduced to about one thirteenth that paid to male spinners. When the Male Spinners Association heard of this they set up a picket line to prevent the women going to work. A delegation from the association declared that they would not allow the women to work for lower wages than the men. It might be noted that they did not argue for women to be allowed to work for equal pay, but rather, that they shouldn't be allowed to work for less. The mill manager, David Sloan, claimed that the company preferred women because they were less troublesome a statement which incited the male spinners further. Members of the mill management accompanied the female recruits to and from work for three days to prevent the picketers causing them any injury. On the third day the women stayed overnight at the factory as the crowd outside had become significantly larger. The protesters then attacked the factory with whatever missiles they could lay their hands on. By Thursday there were eight thousand people outside hurling stones, bricks and other objects at the mill. For several days the women remained in the factory so the crowd attacked the women's homes. Two policemen sent from the Calton Station could do little. After several more days the company finally offered the women the same wages as the men and the protesters dispersed.

These were the conditions and events taking place in the textile mills within streets of William and Janet Wilkie's home in Calton.

Conditions in the Glasgow Cotton Mills During the 1830s:

If we can take the reports heard by the 1833 Factory Commission as being an accurate indication of conditions in the Glasgow cotton mills, and of those in Calton in particular, we might assume that many women and girls put up with the deplorable conditions purely for the sake of the wages earned. Many of the Commission's witnesses indicated that they would prefer not to have the hours of work reduced so that their wages might be maintained, and yet many of the same witnesses also complained about the physical conditions of work.

The mills belonging to Bartholomew and Company, and to James Dunlop and Sons, employed over seven hundred people between them and were fairly well managed. Bartholomew's also employed another 2,500 hand weavers who worked mainly from their homes. All weaving mills had to have relatively high temperatures because the cotton had to be dressed with a mixture of flour and water before being woven. The high temperatures assisted the drying of the dressing. At Bartholomew's the temperature was generally around 65 degrees F. At many other mills the temperatures were not controlled and went much higher, often to 100 or 120 degrees F. Some mills installed thermometers to keep check of the temperature, but most, such as MacPhail's in William Street, Calton, did not. Dust from the cotton fibre and the dressing also caused problems for the workers. Some mills installed fans and extra ventilation but most claimed that additional ventilation decreased the heat necessary for the dressing process. At many mills the machinery itself was poorly protected and injuries were common. MacPhail's mill in William Street, Calton, was one of the least desirable places to work. It had no separate facilities for male and female workers, no thermometers to check the heat, and an excess of dust. The Factory Commission reported that one of the weavers here had become a representative of the Female Power Loom Weavers Association and had lost her job. MacPhail's mill in Greenhead Street, only a few hundred yards from the William Street mill, employed 220 workers and had a web dressing room in which the temperature regularly exceeded 80OF. Most of the young workers in this factory complained of the heat, the long hours, and were often ill with fever or headaches, or suffered from sore and swollen limbs from having to stand most of the day. Most of the men working at the mill were determined that their own children should not be allowed to work in the web dressing room. This mill also had only one “necessary” provided for male and female on each floor and the stench from these was often overpowering. Perhaps the only good thing to be said about MacPhail's Greenhead Street mill was that the children did not suffer physical punishment, unlike those at James Maxwell Graham's Spinning Mills in Calton, where the adult spinners strapped the children who could not keep up with the work.

For many years Mary, Elisabeth and Agnes Wilkie worked in mills such as these as power loom weavers. Although it is not known exactly which mill they worked in, those described were close to their home and many of the others operated under similar conditions.


Full documentary referencing of sources is available for this information. Contact me for details.


Anonymous said...

What a cool thing :P

Douglas W said...

Thanks for the comment. Don't hesitate to email if you have any questions.

Kindle Wilkie said...

this is relly cool :)

Douglas W said...

Thanks Kindle

Anonymous said...

Hi, just found this interesting story about the woman working in the mills. Only became interested because ancestor Thomas Hunter was part of the Glasgow Cotton Spinners who was sent before the High Court of Justiciary at Edinburg on charges of murder etc in 1837-1838.