We were delighted to receive this piece by Mike who visited Hat Works earlier in the year. He has given us permission to share it with you.
My research at Hillingdon Family History Society recently took me on a journey to the Hat Works museum in Stockport, south of Manchester, where I learned about the working conditions faced by my paternal grandfather’s 12-year-old sister.
Standing in the recreated hat factory, surrounded by some 20 fully restored Victorian-style machines, I felt as if I had travelled back in time. The experience was both fascinating and shocking: the more I learned about the difficult conditions in the factory, the more empathy I felt for my 12-year-old ancestor.
My family history research had led me to a 1911 census document that named my great grandmother Mary Brooks and her family living at 64 Chatham Street, a six-room terraced house in the residential centre of Stockport.
Mary, a widow with five children from her first marriage, had recently married William Downs, a foreman at a clothing factory who was widower with two children from his first marriage. Of the seven children, the youngest was my grandfather Harold Brooks, then six.
This was an era when children were put to work at a young age. The occupations recorded for the four oldest children in the household – aged 12 to 16 – are intriguing. Hilda Brooks, 16, was an “assistant at manufacturing chemicals”. Doris Downs, 14, was a “toffy maker”. Emily Brooks, 14, was a kitchen assistant who also attended technical school. And, when not in school, 12-year-old Dorothy Brooks was a part-time “lasher” at a felt hat factory.
I was struck by the young age at which Dorothy had been sent to work – and also puzzled by the term lasher, which intensive internet searching failed to clarify. So I decided to investigate.
Hat wearing was at its most popular in the UK in the late 19th century – adults and children were not considered properly dressed unless they wore a hat – and Stockport was home to the highest number of felt hat factories in the country, with around 30 large factories circa 1900. (Football fans may know that Stockport County are nicknamed The Hatters.)
Prior to visiting the Hat Works museum, I had little sense of what working in a hat factory might entail – partly due to my limited knowledge of history, but I think also because the present era of health and safety makes it difficult to imagine how different the workplace could be in 1911.
I learned that a lasher – lashing meaning to sew – was the person who sewed the leather band around the inside of the hat, and the binding around the edge of the hat’s brim. This was a task given especially to girls when they started at the factory; typically, children would attend school in the morning and work in the afternoon. Commenting on the work of a lasher, Hat Works museum literature notes that “every element had to be precisely lined up and straight, or the work was sent back to be done again”.
But what of the factory itself? The sewing room, which had a low ceiling, would have been damp with the moisture of the hot water and chemicals used in other parts of the factory. There would have been an unpleasant acrid smell – acidic near-boiling water was used in machines operated by “plankers” to shrink fragile sheets of fur to create the firm “hood” of the hat. The planking solution formed acidic puddles on the floor that could melt shoes, so the workers wore clogs to protect their feet. Even so, the acidic water burned the plankers’ hands.
Much of the machinery was uncovered – with working parts dangerously exposed. The noise was deafening, so that workers needed to yell to be heard. Fur fibres clung to clothes and floated in the air, and chest infections were common. In parts of the factory, it was difficult to see through the steam.
Being based in the sewing room, Dorothy would not have been exposed to the worst conditions in the factory. Even so, I tried to imagine what a 12-year-old would have made of this experience. Of course, back then, this type of hard work, with all family members required to do their bit, was normal, so it is unlikely there would have been a sense of exploitation.
My visit to the Hat Works museum left me with a sense of gratitude that life has changed, and with a sense of admiration for the resilience and robustness my ancestors must have possessed.
Dorothy Brooks eventually emigrated to New Zealand, no doubt enjoying the tranquillity and fresh clean air as her years advanced – a stark contrast to her childhood in industrial Stockport.
- Mike Brooks is a writer and psychotherapist who helps people write and publish their memoir or family history. For more info visit www.brooksbooks.co.uk