I Shall Ne’er Get the Whirr Out o’ My Ears

Lancashire Mill Workers and their Working Environment, c. 1870-1939

Janet Greenlees (Glasgow Caledonian University)


This paper examines mill workers’ responses to their working environment. The noise, heat and dust associated with working in the Lancashire cotton mills of the nineteenth and twentieth century are well known, as are the delays in industrial regulation. While historians have analysed trade unions activities and legislative reforms, this paper addresses how workers’ adapted their strategies for coping, challenging and changing their working environment during a period when the industry rose to its peak of production, followed by its subsequent decline during the interwar years. During this period, mill workers had to cope with growing pressures to increase production on old machines with little improvement to the working environment. This paper argues that for cotton operatives, the importance of their working environment was fluid, yet workers’ always held some agency. They chose when to tolerate certain conditions, such as noise, and when to protest others, such as the risks surrounding contagious diseases in the factory.  Furthermore, they adjusted their strategies for addressing occupational health risks based on both the state of the industry and public health priorities. Operatives also differentiated between individual risk and responsibility and collective risk and responsibility. In so doing, this helped create fluid definitions of health and illness. These, in turn, held a fluid spot on workers’ list of priorities. Hence, this paper provides a more nuanced picture of workers’ relationship with health in the workplace than has previously been presented.


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