Insanitary Conditions within Cotton Mills

A report was issued in the first week of November 1893 by a number of ladies appointed as Assistant Commissioners under the instructions of the Labour Commission, to inquire into working conditions experienced by women in various industries.

They included a report by Miss May Abraham on the conditions of work in the cotton industries of Lancashire and Cheshire and the textile trades of Yorkshire. Miss Abraham commented on the sanitary arrangements in connection with certain Lancashire mills, reiterating the observations recorded by the Medical Officer of Health, Dr Pilkington some years previous. Her report also gives a shocking insight into the insanitary conditions prevalent in most cotton mill establishments, along with the lack of ventilation, adequate fresh air and poor health prevailing as a result among the operatives. She wrote,

“I found the sanitary accommodation in Lancashire mills more universally bad than in mills of a similar class in Yorkshire and I attribute this to the greater heat used in the manufacture of cotton, which tends to increase the effluvia (an unpleasant or harmful odour). In the majority of mills the lavatories are without ventilation and open directly out of the room”.

In the days before adequate water flushing toilets were in widespread use, Miss Abraham then went on to describe the emptying and disposal of human waste.

“The tub or pail system is very general and in addition to its other disadvantages, is the method of removal. In Yorkshire the common practice isto take away the tubs from outside but in Lancashire they are carried through the rooms. This is done during working hours about twice a week and on each occasion the air is vitiated “(Impaired)

“Another system I have found objectionable is that known as the “bog” system. Pipes connected with the lavatories pass through every storey of the mill and at the bottom floor end is a cesspool described as a “bog”. The cesspool remains untouched always for a considerable time and sometimes for as long as 12 months. The effluvia is generally extremely bad and as a rule, worse in the lowest room. No water is used and the pipes become blocked, causing the lavatories to get into a filthy condition. I was surprised to find this system in a modern and otherwise well constructed mill of considerable size, although the cardroom, out of which the lavatory opens, is lofty and well ventilated. The effluvia was at the time of my visit, noticeable at a distance of about 10 yards. This was so not withstanding good ventilation in the lavatory, the floors of which had been disinfected in anticipation of my visit.

At a mill in Preston where the sanitary accommodation is very bad, the manager made no attempt at concealment or apology. He frankly admitted it was bad, adding it was so bad that he thought it unwise on my part to persist in my wish to see it. In almost every district water is used in at least a few mills. In one Preston mill the sanitary accommodation is extremely good and the manager states that no trouble has been experienced in consequence of the carelessness of the operatives. As this witness spoke from four years experience his statement is important. It contradicts the numerous employers who allege that their only objection to improving their sanitary accommodation is the certainty of it being damaged by the operatives. Generally speaking the sanitary accommodation is dirty and neglected and situated only a few feet from some of the looms and other machinery”.

Miss Abraham then concluded her observations on the toilet arrangements by criticising the practice of shared lavatories for both men and women, which she said was far more common in Lancashire mills than in Yorkshire, saying,

I found a larger number of cases of actual immorality and immoral tendencies. Two cases of immorality have been directly traced to this and it is mentioned as the cause of much loose language and immoral behaviour. Moreover common provisions for decency are sometimes absent as in mill No 375, where the lavatories open from the shed in which men and women who are working together are not provided with doors. In several cases also the sanitary accommodation for the women is situated in the taper room or in other rooms in which men only are employed.”

The Assistant Commissioner then went on to describe working conditions in general within cotton mills, including ventilation and the controversial practice of “Steaming”, which had been the source of huge discontent between the employers and the Trade Unions over many years.

“The operatives experience considerable difficulty in regard to preparing their food during the day. The ventilation in the majority of mills is inadequate and the ventilators are frequently sealed. In the Nelson district many of the mills are without ventilation in any form and the manager of mill No 246 admitted that it is a common occurrence for weavers to faint in hot weather.

Several cases of fainting were reported to me by the operatives, especially from those mills where in addition to bad ventilation, heavy “Steaming” prevails. The use of fans in cardrooms is exceptional, even in the mills which were pointed out to me as best. I seldom found good window ventilation and even if the windows could open, little use was made of the opportunity. I was told by the manager of the mill that the control of the windows is left to the operatives but from the operatives themselves I received a wholly different statement. In these rooms the atmosphere was almost invariably hot and close.

All the weavers I have seen complain of general prostration and of rheumatic pains, the former they attribute to the excessive heat of the shed and the latter to the sudden change from a hot atmosphere laden with moisture, to the cold outer air in the winter or even summer months. Steam is most heavily used in winter but some firms continue its use throughout the year. Much suffering is also caused by the condition of the floors, which from condensed steam or from frequent “degging” (i.e. flooding with water), are always damp. In mill No 289 the weavers state that the water rises above the clogs and I have myself found most of the floors in a very wet and dangerous condition. The manager of mill No 289 which is noted for heavy steaming expressed his readiness to take me through if I would wait for a few minutes in the office. Believing he was anxious to turn off the steam in order that I should not see it and knowing that I should afterwards receive evidence from the weavers as to whether this had been done, I agreed to the delay.

When I afterwards entered, the steam was off and I noticed that the wet bulb thermometer registered a much lower temperature than seemed in accordance with the moist heat of the shed. Upon touching the water surrounding the bulb I found it to be quite cold, although it was then 3.00 pm. I learned from the operatives that the steam had been turned off and the thermometer watered immediately before I passed through. I also learned from them that this is done habitually twice a day at the time appointed under the Act of Parliament for registering the temperature. In mill No 323 the register for the current month was not hung up in the shed as required by the Act and upon asking to see it, I was informed that it was kept in the office. Upon inquiry there I was told it was not kept at all. In several mills the thermometer and register are hung out of sight”.(PC Nov’ 11th 1893)

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