A day in the life of...
5 o'clock on a winter's morning. In the front bedroom are Bill and his wife and the three youngest children. In his dreams Bill can already hear the approach of the knocker-up. The rattle of the wires and his hoarse voice is growing louder as he comes down the street. Bill groans as he surfaces from his dreams. "It can't be morning already. It's not 2 minutes since I shut my eyes!" The sudden staccato rattle on the window is like a flurry of hail. "Are you going to lie in bed all day?" a voice from the street demands. Bill rolls out of bed, bangs on the window to show he's awake and sends a curse to accompany the knocker-up on his way. He reaches under the bed for the gerry. His head feels as though its stuffed full of cotton waste. "I shouldn't have had that last pint," he mutters to himself. He reaches out and gives the inert lump next to him a shove. "Come on lass. Are you going to lie there all day?"
A few miles away at Woodlands Manor, home of Sir William Warp, heir to the biggest weaving concern in all Cotton Town, all is darkness; all is silence. Up in the attic, in one of the partitioned rooms where the maids sleep, Little Annie, the under maid, is bestirring herself. She has a dozen fires to light and breakfast to start for the rest of the staff before 6 o'clock, but she makes no more noise and is of no more consequence than the merest mouse scuttling about in the wainscoting.
Bill has just time for a mouthful of tea out of the pot left overnight in the oven. His two sons and daughter who are old enough to work leave it too late for that and Bill cuffs them out of the door. Its raw outside, the wind is keen enough to take the skin off your face, icy underfoot, and black as the bottom of the pit until your eyes get used to it. Bill and his family join the silent army tramping the cobbles. There's little conversation. Many are half asleep. This is a defeated army being marched to its day's labour, and the invisible bayonet point that prods it along is fear, fear of hunger, fear of being homeless, and fear of the workhouse.
The lights are on in the servant's hall at Woodlands Manor. Butler, Housekeeper and Cook are sitting at table waiting for the kitchen maids to serve them. Rawlings, the butler, is in his shirt sleeves still. He's feeling fragile; having the key to the wine cellar is a constant source of temptation. "Don't use them eggs Millie!" Cook shrills, causing Butler to wince. "We've had them since I don't know when. They'll do for them upstairs. We'll have the fresh ones, if you don't mind." Little Annie is lighting the bedroom fires. She takes great care to be as silent as a mouse in Sir William's room. She knows what will happen if he wakes up and catches her bending over the hearth.
By 6 o'clock the streets are empty and quiet. The mill has swallowed up its workforce. And then, inevitably, comes the lone clatter of clogs as a latecomer hurries along, desperate to get there before the mill gates close on him and he loses a day's pay. Inside the mill the engine is starting to roll, the looms are starting to clatter, the male operatives are stripping down to their shirts and thin white drawers, the female ones are doffing their shawls and tying up their hair; what would result if it got caught up in the machinery is too horrific to contemplate.
Soon the weaving shed is a deafening and dangerous place. Speech is impossible, but the workers communicate by lip reading. They move with practised ease down the aisles, deftly avoiding the thrust and grab of the machinery. It only requires a moment's inattention though, a lapse caused by weariness or preoccupation with some private grief and serious injury or death can result. It isn't unknown for someone to get caught up by the rope that connects the looms to the driving shaft from the engine and they can be whirled from floor to ceiling a dozen times before the machinery can be stopped. Breakfast is at 8 o'clock and is generally brought in by the younger children and eaten at the mill. At 8.30 the machinery starts again.
Daylight has dawned on Woodlands Manor at last. Smoke drifts up lazily from behind the greenhouses where the gardeners are burning rubbish. The gamekeeper walks up from the South Coppice with a couple of rabbits in his pockets he's taken out of poachers' snares. In the breakfast room Sir William is warming himself at the fire. Rawlings glides in with the post and newspaper on a silver tray. He offers them to Sir William, who selects the newspaper and waves the post away. Rawlings bows gravely and deposits the tray on a convenient table. The maids are still arranging breakfast: silver salvers of bacon, tomatoes, sausages, kedgeree, mushrooms, eggs and toast; silver jugs of coffee, tea, hot water and milk. Sir William's lady wife is already seated at the table. "Carriage at ten I think today Rawlings." Sir William announces. " I'm lunching at the Exchange". Rawlings bows. Sir William toasts his behind a little longer while he casts an eye over the paper, then he ambles over to the breakfast table and begins to pile up his plate. "You haven't eaten all your egg!" he exclaims, eyeing his wife's plate. "They don't seem to taste like they did," she complains. Sir William shakes his head at the waste and spears a few rashers of bacon.
The looms need constant attention; an idle one costs everybody money. Somebody has to keep the battery topped up with weft. Somebody has to piece up broken threads. Somebody has to deal with faults. The pace is frantic as human sinew tries to keep up with steam driven steel. Tacklers make sure neither man nor machine lags behind. One of them, a huge fellow with a walrus moustache has his arm round Bill's shoulder and looks for all the world like he's offering a kindly word. In fact he's pointing out that a loom has stopped and what the consequences will be if Bill doesn't get it going again right away. Bill says nothing, but his scowl is eloquent enough.
At 12.30 there's an hour's break for dinner. Many stay in the mill to eat it. At 1.30 the machinery starts again and rattles on relentlessly until 5.30, 1 o'clock on Saturday. In winter its dark again by 5.30, so Bill and his comrades emerge into cold blackness. It's a while before the din of the machinery has faded from their ears, but their spirits are high at the prospect of a few hours free of toil and there's much banter and laughter. The pubs present a cosy prospect and Bill doesn't hesitate long when his mates suggest a pint or two in the Boilermaker's Arms.
Over lunch at the Exchange Sir William conducts business and in the time it takes him to despatch a couple of chops he makes more money than Bill will do in a whole year. Afterwards he and his cronies smoke cigars and swap horror stories about their workforces. "Do you know?" Sir William begins. "A chap came up to me the other day and said my houses weren't fit to live in. I told him straight: The houses aren't for living in; they're for sleeping in. The mill's for living in." The company chuckled appreciatively. "I can cap that," said another. "I was at the mill last week and saw a fellow leave work and run for a tram. I had him in the office the next day and dismissed him. "If you've enough energy to run for a tram after working for me all day, you can't be working hard enough," I said. This was greeted with a roar of approval.
After lunch Sir William returns to Woodlands Manor and has a snooze to recruit his strength for dinner. There is great activity in the kitchen, much shouting and banging of pots and pans and red faces all around. Rawlings escapes from all the steam and bustle to the peace and quiet of the wine cellar, where he grabs a couple of bottles for Sir William and with rather more care selects a couple for himself.
Bill returns from the Boilermaker's Arms in a jovial mood. His wife Carrie doesn't begrudge him a drink. It doesn't turn him nasty like some, and she thinks he deserves a bit of relaxation after a day in the mill. They have a few minutes together by the dying embers of the fire before going up to bed. "We'll try and put a bit by and have a day at Blackpool in the summer lass." Bill says. "That'd be nice. The kids'd like that," Carrie replies. "Come on though lad, it's getting late and we've to be up at 5."
Bill puts his arm round her and they make their way upstairs.