Speaker Margaret Camp: ‘Life among the cotton mills in word and song’.
Margaret grew up in Bolton and gave us an entertaining history of cotton production in
Lancashire as well as some interesting social history. She added colour to her stories by
playing the guitar and singing songs about the area, most of which she had written herself.
She started writing songs many years ago, when there were still 15 mills in the local area. In
the heyday of the industry there had been 247 in the borough. In the 1300s, Flemish
weavers arrived in Britain, but it was not until the 1600s that cotton was imported from the
USA via the port of Liverpool. In the early days, cotton was produced using water power, but
following the Industrial Revolution, mills were built closer to the coal mines. In these early
days, children as young as 5 worked 12 hour shifts in the mills. The RSPCA was founded in
1824, but it was not until 1842 that an Act was passed, which prohibited children from
working in the mines. Women and horses used to push coal tubs until 1842.
Mill owners preferred women and children as employees because they were cheaper.
Margaret’s first song was an old folk song called Poverty Knock, which she told us she had
first heard at the age of 15, but she had not taken it seriously. However, mill owners and
their foremen could be very callous. Children could be whipped if they were a few moments
late for work and 6 or even 7 day working was common. In 1932, a man was climbing Kinder
Scout on the Duke of Devonshire’s land on his day off. He was told by one of the Duke’s
men that he was not allowed on the Duke’s land. In response, a fortnight later, 400 turned up
to climb the mountain. They met a rough response from the Duke’s gamekeepers and the
local police. Press coverage of the dispute resulted in a crowd of 10,000 gathering at the
next attempt. Ewan MacColl wrote a song ‘I’m a rambler’ which Margaret sang.
Margaret recounted the strong sense of community in the cotton mills which became very
obvious when in World War I, the government wanted people to volunteer. Following a
skilfully produced campaign, anybody not coming forward risked becoming a social outcast.
This feeling continued beyond the end of World War II and money was regularly passed from
the poor to the very poor. She illustrated this with a story about Nellie’s fiver, a note that was
passed to Nellie early in every week only to be returned every payday.
A sad song was about Annie, who terrified young Margaret and her sister. She was very
manly and was the subject of ridicule. These days she would have been able to receive
hormone treatment or have an operation, but she got no help or even sympathy. Margaret’s
song about her hard life chronicled her eventual embrace of alcohol as a source of comfort.
When Margaret was at primary school, the mill girls terrified the pupils. They were very
raucous and noisy. This was at least in part because of the literally deafening environment in
which they worked. She told a story about a young trainee foreman who had been warned
by the older men not to be too clever. When he overstepped the mark, the girls cut off every
piece of his clothing! Margaret sang I’ll never be a Mill Girl.
By 1966, only 8 mills were left in Bolton and cotton was replaced by engineering as a source
of employment. Margaret worked as a fettler for 18 months. This was still a very noisy
environment. Margaret used to wear ear protection, but most people did not. She explained
how the men thought it great fun to prevent her from getting to the clock at starting time so
that she regularly lost a quarter of an hour’s pay. The foremen knew what was going on, but
never prevented it.
Thereafter she did a shorthand and typing course before working for a Catholic battered
children’s charity. She has always loved singing and learned enough chords on the guitar to