This story appears in my collection, Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories, published by Armley Press. But in many ways, it’s not mine at all. It’s taken from John Dawson’s evidence in 1833 to the Factory Commissioners when they came to Leeds, investigating the employment of children in the ‘manufactories.’ John was one of several people interviewed. The facts are exactly as he described them. All I’ve done is paraphrase his words.
He came in, walking slowly, almost in a shuffle, using a stick to keep himself balanced. His knees bent inward, making each step awkward. Still holding the doorknob he peered around the room, straining his eyes the way a mole might. He wore thick spectacles, almost a frail old man, although he couldn’t have been more than twenty.
The three members of the factory commission – Mr, Turnbull, Mr. Wakefield, and Sir Edward Jepson – sat behind their table as a clerk put papers in front of them. There was an air of sleekness about them; they all looked comfortable with authority.
The young man was wearing his best clothes, a dark jacket, cut high at the waist, a stock and shirt, with breeches and thick woollen hose. On the other side of the room a fire burned in the grate.
‘Come in, please, sir, and sit yourself down,’ Sir Edward said. ‘Thank you for coming to speak to us.’
The young man bowed his head slowly and crossed the floor, his heels tapping on the boards. He sat as upright as any defendant, his back straight, eyes straining to take in the face: the commissioners, the pair of clerks and the scribe waiting with his paper and steel nib to take down every word.
‘What’s your name and what do you do?’ Mr. Wakefield asked.
‘Yes sir, my name is John Dawson,’ the young man began, repeating the words when he was asked to speak more loudly, ‘and I make my living as a tailor when I’m well enough to work.’ He glanced at his audience. ‘As you can see, sir, that my eyesight is bad. That’s why I wear these glasses.’
‘Do you believe there’s a reason for your bad eyesight?’ Mr Turnbull wondered.
‘I do, sir,’ Dawson answered with a nod. ‘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.’
‘When did you begin in the mills?’
‘I started in the mills when I was six, sir, 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,’ he added, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. ‘It was the standing all the time that was worst. Every day my knees ached.’
‘Did you receive any education?’ Sir Edward asked.
‘Not as you’d call it, sir.’ Dawson held his head up to face his audience. ‘I always wanted to learn to read and write. And 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.’
‘But that was all?’
‘It was, sir.’
‘Please continue,’ Mr. Wakefield told him, with a glance at the others.
‘My da left Tennant’s when I was ten, and I went with him to Garside’s Mill.’
‘Do you know why he left?’
‘I do not, sir, no. I was just a boy, so they never told me. At Garside’s 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 around my forehead.’ He moved his hands to illustrate, each of the commissioners nodding. ‘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.’
‘No one looked after you there at all?’
‘No sir. They worked us hard there. After a while my da and I left there. We went to Clayton’s, and I was made a doffer again.’
‘Did that help you at all? Mr Turnbull said.
‘The work was easier but the hours were bad. Sometimes five in the morning to half-past nine at night. They gave us forty minutes for us dinner but nothing for breakfast or drinking.’ The lad’s voice was quite even, not angry. Just remembering his life of a few years before. ‘Wasn’t always six days we worked. Sometimes there was only enough for five or four. Weeks like that didn’t bring home enough money.’ He removed his spectacles and polished them on a piece of linen he took from the pocket of his waistcoat. When he spoke he was quieter. ‘It was dangerous work there, 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.’
‘Might we see your knees, Mr-’ Sir Edward glanced down at the page ‘-Mr. Dawson. If you’d be so good.’
Holding on to the chair with one hand, Dawson stood and unbuckled the knees of his breeches, rolling them up. His face was red, not from effort but the embarrassment of being watched so closely.
It was just as he’d said. His knees were misshapen things, bent forward and inwards into something grotesque, beyond human.
‘Thank you,’ Sir Edward told him quickly, looking away and conferring with the other commissioners while Dawson closed his breeches buttons and sat once more.
‘You said you went to the workhouse,’ Mr. Turnbull continued.
‘That’s right, sir.’ Dawson gave a quick nod of his head.
‘What was your experience there?’
‘It was good, sir. At the workhouse they taught me my trade, sir, made a tailor out of me. It’s better than I might have had otherwise. And I did see someone about my knees. They sent me to Mr. Chorley at the infirmary.’
‘Was he able to help you at all?’
‘Very much, sir.’ There was heartfelt gratitude in Dawson’s voice. ‘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 I’m very grateful for that. It used to be I couldn’t manage thirty yards without a rest. Now I can walk a hundred yards and more before I need to stop.’ He gave a proud smile.
Sir Edward glanced at the other commissioners. Many more waiting outside to be interviewed before the day was done. Surgeons, overseers, workers, people from all walks of life. When Turnbull and Wakefield shook their heads, he turned back to Dawson.
‘Sir, thank you for coming here today. You’ve been most gracious with your time and we wish you well as a tailor.’
They waited silently as John Dawson left the room, leaning heavily on his stick.