Historians' Watch

Unwritten Histories of Disabled Workers

Disabled people have always been at the heart of British economic and labour history, but their contributions in the workplace often go unrecognised. Once the Industrial Revolution got underway in the late eighteenth century, the narrative that disabled people were unable to work and instead depended on the workhouse or on charity took hold; a myth that persists to this day. But this stereotype is not historically accurate.

As a curator I research and exhibit the lives of disabled mill workers in the north of England during the nineteenth century to tell a more complex story. Disabled people’s own accounts, as well as reports of employers, prove that Deaf and disabled people were an intrinsic part of the textile workforce. In addition, evidence collected as part of investigations on behalf of the Government into conditions in textile mills show high levels of industrial injuries amongst workers. Accidents from machinery, constant loud noise and the effects of working in unventilated premises led to large numbers of workers becoming disabled as a consequence of work. Some people’s injuries meant that they were no longer able to work, and many did unfortunately end up in the workhouse. However, many other disabled people stayed in work – through sheer necessity, to meet the demands of the industry, or simply because they were able to.

Textiles: men working at large fabric printing machines. Engraving. Wellcome Collection. Public domain.

My research puts disabled people at the centre of the history of industrialisation, rather than pushing them to the margins. It challenges some widely-held stereotypes of disabled people and shows that they were (and continue to be) part of the world of work. Not dependent, not tragic, not inspirational – but reliable colleagues, friends and family members. Disabled people were involved in Britain’s leading industry during the nineteenth century: textile production. They also played their part in improving working conditions in the textile factories at the height of industrialisation. For instance, the 1832 parliamentary committee to investigate factory conditions, chaired by Leeds Member of Parliament Michael Sadler, followed by the Government’s Factories Inquiry Commission of 1833, finally gave disabled workers the chance to speak up. Giving evidence meant that they were not merely victims of industrialisation, but that they were contributing to the movement for reform and the struggle for better working conditions. The resulting reports ultimately led to legislation which reduced working hours, set up factory inspections and made further improvements to the workplace.

There were many disabled witnesses to these committees from Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Preston and other northern English textile towns. Their stories are remarkably similar, particularly when they tell of the toll that strenuous, repetitive tasks took on their bodies. Joseph Hebergam of Huddersfield was 17 years old when he spoke to the Sadler committee about his disability. He had started working as a worsted spinner aged 7, a highly-strenuous job that eventually took a toll on his body. He points out that he was compelled to continue working, otherwise he would have lost his job. Below details his responses (in italics) to various questions posed to him by members of the parliamentary committee.

How long was it before the labour took effect on your health?
Half a year.

And did it at length begin to affect your limbs?
When I had worked about half a year, a weakness fell into my knees and ankles; it continued, and it has got worse and worse.

Was that weakness attended with very great pain, and the sense of extreme fatigue? – Yes.

Had you to work as often as you could under these circumstances?

Otherwise no allowance would have been made to you by the occupier of the mill?
 – No.

Disabled people’s role in the workplace is interwoven with the exploitation of industrial capitalism. Nonetheless, John and other disabled people were resilient, had agency and were integral to the workforce and the emerging trade union movement.

A Victorian child’s shoe and leg caliper in leather and steel. Wellcome Collection. Public domain.

Because of the noise, weavers in the textile factories gradually became expert lip readers. This was a necessity rather than a choice – the weaving sheds were such noisy places that a combination of lip-reading and hand-signing was the only way to communicate. Lip-reading was more than just a practical form of communication for the weavers – it was a badge of honour. It showed that you were used to manual work, no matter that you were now deaf, and set you apart from the mills’ office workers and management.

Weavers had been working in factories or mills, amongst the tremendous din of power-looms, since the early part of the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, deafness was common. A century later, it was considered an occupational hazard, taken for granted by the workers. In fact, the Government and employers did little to protect mill workers’ hearing until the late twentieth century. One weaver, Marjory Shaw, recalled her time at work in a textile mill in Lancashire during the mid-twentieth century, quoted in Janet Greenlees’ research into the workplace health of Lancashire mill workers.

Oh, it was very noisy. But I knew that. Ahh, I knew it was noisy, but all the family had gone weaving, so I thought, well, it’s in the blood. Foolish, you know. Very foolish, but there it is. And, ah, it didn’t bother me, cause everybody was talking with yer lips, you know, lip reading, and you could have a conversation and nobody would know what you were talkin’, only you who were eye to eye.

Deaf people – that is, those born deaf or who became deaf early in life – were amongst those who were able to get work in the mills. For once, they weren’t at a disadvantage in the noisy environment of the textile mill! Thanks to the surveys carried out by the Yorkshire Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (as it was then called), we know the names of some of those Deaf mill workers. From 1844, with several updates, the institution published its Results of an Inquiry Respecting the Former Pupils. This survey went to parents, employers and other acquaintances to find out what those pupils were doing now.

The survey returns showed that the young people had left school and gone into a range of occupations and trades. Many of them had, unsurprisingly, taken up jobs in Yorkshire’s woollen and flax industries, working as power-loom weavers, pattern designers, woolcombers and cloth dressers.

Many of them stayed in these jobs throughout their lives, as census records show. One of YIDD’s former pupils, James Scott, worked in textile mills in Horbury near Wakefield for many decades. His employer, Richard Poppleton, gave him a glowing report:

“I have much pleasure in replying to your inquiries respecting the conduct of James Scott, once an inmate of your Institution. He entered on my service on the 28th June, 1852, as a hanker of worsteds and general packer, at twelve shillings a week, and has been employed at the same wages ever since; prior to that time he had been employed by another firm in a similar manner, from whom he holds a handsome testimonial…

“I have inquired of his family this morning as to his general conduct at home, of which they speak very satisfactorily; a married sister, whom I saw, says that he carries his wages home very regularly to his mother with whom he lives, and that he is her main support… He is very attentive to his work and very obliging.”

Deaf communities were developing at this time in cities around the country, and the pupils of Deaf schools would have been at their heart. While the sign language that Deaf people used was different and more complex than that used by hearing textile workers, communication in the mill might well have been facilitated between the different groups of Deaf and deafened workers through their use of signs and facial expressions.        

Following World War One, there was an influx of disabled workers into industries across the country. This was encouraged by The King’s National Roll, a scheme set up in 1920 to give employment to disabled ex-servicemen, and hundreds of textile mills were keen to take part. Disabled veterans took up jobs in all branches of the industry, from spinning and weaving to finishing, bleaching and dyeing. The scheme was a success, proving that disabled people were reliable and useful workers. However, the lessons learned were perhaps short-lived.

A disabled boy sitting in a wheelchair in a garden. Photograph 1910/1925. Wellcome Collection. Public domain.

Today, employment levels amongst disabled people are much lower than in the general population: 52% of disabled people were in work in 2021 compared to 81% of the general population, according to the Office for National Statistics. Many of these unemployed disabled people want to work, but a myriad of disabling barriers excludes them. Employers discriminate against disabled job applicants and, as in the past when no allowances were made for disabled workers, fail to make adjustments to the workplace.

Work is not, of course, the only measure of contribution or worth in any given society or time period. However, in a capitalist society that focuses on profit above all else, the ability to work has become the main indicator of people’s value. The disabled people’s movement rejects the idea that people must be in paid employment to be considered full members of society. Our humanity and value are not dependent on getting or holding down a job. Those disabled people who do not or cannot work deserve respect and inclusion as much as anyone else.

Ableism and discrimination take many forms, from thinking that disabled people cannot work or do things for themselves, to believing that disabled people’s lives have less worth than others. Disabled people continue to challenge these harmful ideas. We want our contributions – and our lives – to be recognised, whether as members of the workforce, or members of our communities. Those disabled people who worked in the textile industry during the nineteenth century were active in both the workplace and in wider society. Now is the time to weave their stories into the very fabric of British labour and social history.

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