The Factory Lad’s Testimony

In 1833 the Factories Inquiry Commission investigated the employment of children and found some shocking things. But still years would pass before legislation would give kids a full childhood and the chance to learn and grow fully; their labour was too cheap for factory owners to give up easily.
One person who gave sworn testimony to the Commission was John Dawson from Leeds. This is a paraphrase of what he told them:
Yes sir, my name is John Dawson and I make my living as a tailor when I’m well enough to work. You can see, sir, that my eyesight is bad. That’s why I wear these glasses. If you ask me, it’s from the flax mills I worked in as a lad. There’s always a powerful lot of dust in the air and it does affect the eyes of some folk. I daresay as I’d be blind now if I still worked there.
I started in the mills when I was six, a doffer at Shaw and Tennant’s. The work wasn’t too hard, we had to take the full bobbins off the machines and put on empty ones. But the hours were long, six in the morning to seven at night, six days a week. I was lucky, my da was the overlooker in the room. He beat me, same way he beat the other doffers, but not too bad, not as hard as some. It was the standing all the time that was worst. Every day my knees ached.
I always wanted to learn to read and write. I went to Sunday school whenever I could, unless my ma wanted me at him with the younger bairns or I had no decent clothes or shoes. My da taught me to read, and I was middling good with the Testament.
My da left Tennant’s when I was ten, and I went with him to Garside’s Mill. They put me to work bobbin-hugging, and that was terrible hard work, sir. I had to carry around a basket full of bobbins, some of them still wet. The basket was on my bag, and big it was, held in place by a strap. I often had to carry full baskets up the stairs to the reelers. My knees were so bad that I had to stop after two or three years. You could see them, all bent, but we had no money for a doctor.
When my da and I left there we went to Clayton’s, and I was a doffer again. But the hours were bad. Sometimes five in the morning to half-past nine at night, with forty minutes for us dinner and nothing for breakfast or drinking. Wasn’t always six days, sometimes there was only enough for five or four, and we didn’t bring home enough money then. It was dangerous, too. I knew one lad whose clothes caught in an upright shaft and he closed, and there were other bad accidents I can recall, too. My da died after I’d been there a few years, and when my ma was taken ill we had to go into the workhouse. By then my knees were bent so bad I couldn’t walk more than thirty yards without a rest.
At the workhouse they taught me my trade, sir, made a tailor out of me. And I did see someone about my knees, Mr. Chorley at the infirmary. He gave me strengthening plasters and bandages and they did me some good. You can see it’s still difficult for me to walk, sir, and I need a stick to help me. But it’s better than it was, and for that I’m grateful.

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