Mr Strutt's Mill, Character 2, Joe the Overseer by Bridget McLarnon
A florid faced man in his thirties. He wears fustian breeches, dark woollen hose, shirt, waistcoat, neckerchief and a baggy coat. All is clean but shabby, the coat is patched.
I’m Joe. I’m an overseer at Mr Strutt’s mill. I have charge of a carding room, my duties are to see that the work is done to time and of good standard, that the children keep the machines clean and that mill-hands only take their allowed time away from their machines – nothing else. They have to keep their work-stations tidy and leave them clear, which means to sweep up properly, not throw muck out the window into the Cut because you’re in a hurry to get home. We have both men and women in the mill; the lads are alright, we have a laugh and they want to learn; if you tell them something’s amiss with their work they’ll try to put it right.
The women? – hmm. The girls are a bit lippy truth to tell; if you say anything to them about their work, the mouth goes down, chin goes in; you turn away when you’re done and behind your back you hear their voices going yack-yack in that squawky way. You can’t hear what they’re saying but if you turn round quick, they all stop and smile at you nice as pie! But you know! And the lies! One lass came late a few days running and when she was told off for it she used Language – and her family chapel folk! Nothing for it but to report her to young Mr Jedediah then the story she told him! How her grannie was dying and she had to help Ma with the old lady before she came out. I told Mr Jedediah that she never, the old lady died last year; the other grannie is a midwife down Milford way and fit as a lop. They cut her wages for that.
It’s because they know they’re not going to stay – the girls. Can’t be bothered. They’ll be off getting wed and then babies. Of course, if they come back later then it’s all a bit different, they know by then that they need their wages. They usually remember the work pretty well, I have to say, but you try telling them anything, those older ones… They’ll be saying they could do my job next.
The children are alright, but you have to do their thinking for them – coming in wearing great flappy hand-me-downs that could get caught in the machines – they have to crawl under those to clean off the muck, d’you see? All trailing neckties and sleeves, rollers can pull the hands in – lose a finger quick as that! They don’t take them as young as some, here. The Strutts like them to be able to read, usually they are ten years old – Mr Arkwright says boys are capable of running wild when they are nine so they might as well work, but girls are usually busy at home. When they’re very young they’re apt to fall asleep, you have to keep waking them. It sounds hard but the families do need the wages – even lie about the ages to get them work.
A traveller came in the ale-house some years back, that once was overseer at a mill up Yorkshire way. Told how a boy lost an arm in the rollers on a carding-machine, he had to help take little un’ out. That night he went to the ale-house, didn’t go home for three days after. When he did, he found he’d lost his job. But he couldn’t face millwork after that. He found work with a jagger as had a line of ponies bringing packs across the Pennines. That’s a hard way to earn your bread, but he said he was better with it than going back to the mill. I always remember that and have a care for the youngsters since.
You get to have a bigger house when you’re made an overseer. That’s all well and good but there’s more rent to pay. The garden’s bigger and has a pigsty – not so sure about a pig but the landlady at the ale-house is thinking to experiment with bottling her ale. She may let me try some of it out – you have to keep it in a cold stone outhouse – pigsty’d be ideal... The wife was pleased as punch with the house and fell to spending my better wages on fancy calico prints to make curtains. She’s handy with the needle, so are the girls, I have to say. The cloth was expensive, we had it sent up on Strutts’ wagons so more deductions from Pa’s wages. The curtains do look very pretty now they are up, but I may need to ask the Office for another sub.
By Bridget McLarnon, White Peak Writers