Working in a cotton mill aged 11

Reginald Cooper was 11 when he went to work at the Shepley cotton mills in Glossop, Derbyshire.

A centre of the cotton industry, all the mills suffered as they lost more and more workers to military service. Closure was not an option, as the mills were required to make materials for the Armed Forces such as fabric for aeroplane wings and so they employed adults over the age of recruitment and children to make up the workforce.

Reginald was still at school, but with his father’s permission he began part-time work at the mill, dividing his day between the mill and school. He had to arrive at 6am to start the morning shift. His mother would prepare a ‘can and a box’ for him; a packed lunch consisting of a hot drink in a flask and a sandwich. He then faced a frightening 1/2 mile walk in the dark crossing a narrow bridge and dodging water rats.

On arrival Reginald would hang up his jacket on a nail, put on his overalls and remove his shoes and stockings. Even in the freezing winter, the children worked barefoot as it gave them more grip when moving across the wooden floor boards alongside the moving machinery. The machines were cleaned with oil and the floors could be slippery. If an accident happened it had to be reported, but there were no nurses on site, only a first aid kit in a tin box.

The boys and girls working at the mill were given the jobs which took advantage of their small size. Reginald first worked as a ‘tuber’, filling canisters with paper tubes that were then fixed on to the machinery. He then graduated to being a ‘piecer’. The large spinning machines were 150 feet long, lined with threads of cotton. Whenever a thread broke, the piecer had to run to where the damage was and fix it, but all the time the machines were still moving. The piecer had to be quick and agile, the work was simple but tedious.

The morning shift ended at 1pm and the children had 30 minutes to get to school. Reginald and his friends enjoyed doing something essential for the war effort but were sad at missing out on elements of their childhood.

In particular Reginald enjoyed sport, having recently learnt to swim and begun violin lessons. Reginald’s school work suffered and in 1916, aged 13 he left school and started working full-time at the mill. People told him he had a great opportunity to make a career in the cotton industry and work his way up, so he began attending night school to study engineering.

However at the end of the war, his father died and along with his brother he took over his father’s butchers’ shop.


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