In 1796, an advert appeared in the Manchester Chronicle, containing within a single sentence both a tempting offer, and a palpable threat:

RUNAWAY. Two hired servants from Messrs Calrows Cotton Mill, near Bury, on Wednesday the sixth of June. Thomas Warburton, aged 19. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and striped trowsers: is short made, has brown short hair, and wants a joint of the little finger on the right hand. William Kelly, 12 years of age. Had on when he went off a blue jacket and linen trowsers, is short made, and has brown hair. Whoever will give intelligence of the above lads, so that they can be found, shall be handsomely rewarded; and anyone employing them after this public notice will be prosecuted as the law directs.

Higher Widdle, near Bury, Aug. 1”

The context of this ‘manhunt’ becomes clear to anyone availing themselves of John Waller’s excellent book, ‘The real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe: A life that illuminates an age’. Waller’s contention was that Charles Dickens based his character ‘Oliver Twist’ upon Robert Blincoe, a seven-year old orphan who was taken from the workhouse at St Pancras, to work at Litton Mill in Derbyshire, in 1799. 

Oliver Twist as represented within Charles Dickens’ narrative.

In later life, Blincoe was to relate his narrative to the prolific Bolton journalist and author John Brown, who published this to a horrified public. Blincoe’s ill treatment at Litton Mill had been nothing short of barbaric, and it was only now that the middle classes became aware of the fate of any child unlucky enough to be passed from the parish overseers to northern millowners.

Such a child was legally bound, or ‘indentured’, to his or her employer, until the age of 21. The youngest such children were just seven! For just bed and board, they were required to work for up to 15 hours per day, six days per week. And just like Warburton and Kelly, you too would be ‘short made’ if you were fed watery gruel every day, and you too would lose fingers (or even limbs) if you were worked continually in an exhausted state in very close proximity to unguarded mill machinery.

Sir Robert Peel, 1st Baronet, who built much of
his £2m fortune upon the labour of unpaid parish apprentices.

But why were children brought all the way from Staffordshire or Birmingham or even London? Lancashire’s old landed gentry were not impressed by the activities of the newly jumped-up industrialists. As the gentry controlled the magistracy, the abuse of local children might be less easy to conceal, and would facilitate attacks on men such as Robert Peel, as indeed happened when Dr Thomas Percival launched his tirade against conditions at Peel’s Radcliffe Mill in 1784.

But no-one would make any fuss about orphans brought from far-away places such as Birmingham or even London, and captured absconders were frequently sent to prison for several months, before being returned to the millowner whose conduct had caused them to run away in thefirst place.

Between the 1790s and the 1830s, many tens of thousands of such child apprentices were brutally worked to exhaustion (and sometimes to death) in textile mills across the north of England. The older Robert Peel, when as an MP introduced his ‘Health & Morals of Apprentices Act’, claimed that he had used 1,000 such pauper children within his Bury mills, but that he had had no control over how his overseers had mistreated them.

James Holmes was Peel, Yates & Co’s manager at Makin Mill, near Heywood, visible in background. Fifty female apprentices worked and lived at the mill.

Historian John Ainsworth related how a new batch of apprentices had arrived at Burrs Mill, and mistakenly used tough oat-cakes to light a fire, disbelieving that this ‘bread’ might in fact represent part of their diet from then onwards.

More reliable evidence for the existence of an apprentice house at Burrs has come to light. In about 1801, poor law records state that fifteen year old Elizabeth Powell, from Staffordshire, worked for Sir Robert Peel “in Elton [probably Bury Ground], and slept in the apprentice house in Walmersly (sic) until she was 21” (Aspin, 207).

And in 1796, two Birmingham Poor Law Guardians visited Peel’s Hinds Mill, in Elton, to investigate reports of physical abuse of their former charges (Aspin, 203). Such a journey would not have been made unless the Guardians had good cause to visit Hinds, and there is no reason to believe that apprentices employed at Burrs were treated any better, as hinted at by Ainsworth.

By 1800, Robert Peel senior was the seventh wealthiest individual in Britain, with a fortune of £2 million, much of that generated by the free labour of indentured children. He had outstripped most of the old aristocracy, including his own landlord, the Earl of Derby. From the printing works at Bury Ground alone, Peel was taking £70,000 per year, and probably as much again from all of the other mills and printworks.

We are shocked today to hear of the scale of abuses perpetrated against vulnerable children in our northern towns; but the scale of what happened to children across the north during the first decades of the 19th century would have made today’s abuses seem insignificant by comparison.

Then as now, wherever vulnerable adolescents were to be found, there too would have been found opportunistic abusers. And although cases of sexual abuse within the apprentice system have been only rarely recorded, they were much more easily concealed, and may well have been widespread.

The immediate fate of the boys Warburton and Kelly is nowhere recorded, but it is not likely to have had a happy ending, especially if they were returned to the ‘care’ of Calrow’s overseers at Higher Woodhill. We take a walk through Burrs Country Park for pleasure now, but it is difficult to conceive just how these ‘slave children’ might have viewed this same location just two centuries ago.


The Real Oliver Twist’, John Waller, 2005, Icon Books Ltd

The Water Spinners: A new look at the early cotton trade’, Chris Aspin, 2003, Helmshore Local History Society