Most of the Irish who made their lives in 19th century Leeds lived on the Bank. It was one of the poorest areas of the town, a hill of land that looked down towards the canal and the river from the north. They lived in the worst quality housing – a report following a cholera outbreak there in the 1830s started the entire idea of public health in Leeds.
It wasn’t a place for ambition. It wasn’t much of a place for hope/ The chance of getting off the Bank was small. It was probably better for girls if they went to become maids. And mills or maids was as far as opportunity extended when they left school aged nine. Mill generally meant Black Dog, located on the Bank, most of whose workers were first or second-generation Irish.
On Monday morning when she comes in/ She hangs her coat on the highest pin/ Turns around for to view her frames/ Shouting, “Damn you, doffers, tie up your ends.”
Nine years old, me first day at the mill and I was shivering like I might die. I swear, I’d never known cold like having me bare feet on that floor. I can still feel it now. Doffing girls, that’s what we were. When a thread on the loom ran out we had to duck under the machine, quick like. No shoes or stockings allowed, to make sure we didn’t slip. Take off the old bobbin and put on a new one. And all the while the mistress is yelling at you to go faster, and you’re nipping in and out of machines that feel like they’re alive. You’re that terrified you can hardly hold the bobbin, let alone do owt with it.
Black Dog Mill in the background
The first morning, all the girls from my class were on our way there. Me and Mary McLaughlin from across the road, holding hands as we walked. We were too scared to speak, although we’d always known it was coming. Mary Dawson, Kathleen Cook, Eileen O’Toole, Jane Clark. They lined us up like they’d always been expecting us and took us inside. Off with the shoes, off the stockings. We knew what would happen. Lasses who’d done it the year before had loved every minute of telling us. But words…it’s never the same as when it’s real, is it? They marched us to where we’d work, a few in this room, a few in that. I was shaking.
But no one had said anything about the noise. It was all around, it seemed to fill you until you felt it in your chest and in your head and you were part of it. The doffing mistress told us what to do, she was tapping a quirt against her leg. One of the older girls showed us the job, darting in and out like it was nothing. Work a child could manage, that’s what they said. Happen that’s why it paid next to nowt. That was how you started. As long as you were small and nimble, and you didn’t get killed or maimed by the machine you could end up running the loom one day.
The mistress would beat us if we were too slow, the overseer would take his belt to us if we didn’t obey. All that for a few coppers a day. That’s how it was. Who were we to think it could be any different? We had to stand there, wait for the word then run. Two weeks on the job and I was looking after ten machines, slipping here and there, like I’d been doing it all me life. Then I’d stand again until my legs were aching and my knees hurt. Never a chance to sit. And in the air were all the little bits of this and that. They caught in your throat and made it dry, they made you cough, but there wasn’t any water for us to drink. No nowt. Why bother? We were muck.
Me mam had been at Black Dog. Her and all the other women around. Started there when she were nine, same as me. But they let her go a few months before I began. All those little things in the air…she’d taken in so many that she could hardly breathe any more, let alone do a day’s work. They couldn’t get their moneysworth out of her anymore, so they sacked her. Like I said, muck. Two a penny. If we became a problem they could throw us away and get another. There were always more.
Never had a doctor out to her. We didn’t have the brass. What could he have done, anyway? Nigh on twenty year of being there six days a week, breathing in all that dust, those little bits… it were too late. Wasn’t like she was the first; too many of them had been taken that way over the years. You saw them on the streets, wheezing as they tried to move. Couldn’t even walk to the shop and back without stopping every ten yards. That was my mam. Look at her and you’d think she was sixty. But she wun’t even forty. That’s what the mill done to her. Six month after they got rid, she was dead, and she’d not had one single day of joy.
It was Sunday morning. Me da was downstairs, just sitting, not saying a word. Me, I was by the bed, holding her hand and watching her drown from everything in her lungs. And I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. I could hear the bells ringing for Communion at Mount St. Mary’s. I had me hand behind her back to help her sit up, so she might last a few minutes longer. But she didn’t couldn’t even find the breath to speak. Just this look in her eyes, like she was pleading. Then she couldn’t breathe at all. The funeral were Tuesday. I had to beg for an afternoon off to go. Beg to go to me own mother’s funeral.