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The Orphanage Slaves of Monsal Dale

The Orphanage Slaves of Monsal Dale

The sylvan glades of the Derbyshire River Wye at Monsal Dale mask the site of the horrendous treatment of orphans.  They were dumped by the so-called Guardians of the Poor and treated as cheap labour for the rapidly expanding eighteenth-century cotton industry. Brian Spencer investigates.

Two roads lead down to the Monsal Dale section of the River Wye, one of the most tranquil of the Derbyshire Dales.  Linked only by a woodland footpath through the delightfully named Water-cum-Jolly Dale, each road leads to a cotton mill. Cressbrook Mill and Litton Mill were built originally to use the power of the swiftly flowing river.  It was in these mills, or at least their predecessors as the originals in common with many other cotton mills, were damaged by fire, that one of the worst acts of inhumanity against children took place.

From the late eighteenth to the nineteenth-century an early form of social service saw the building of workhouses in order to care for the growing population of paupers and orphans left behind by the all too rapid expansion of the Industrial Revolution.  Poor housing and sanitation, together with dangerous as well as unhealthy working conditions, led to children being orphaned by the untimely death of one or both parents, especially when it was the bread winner who died first.  Workhouses were financed by Parish Rates and run by committees of local worthies who were euphemistically known as Guardians of the Poor, but whose main interests were to keep costs as low as possible.   Almost every parish had its workhouse, where its doors opened to swallow the aged and to separate husbands from their wives, and children from their mothers.  Overcrowding was the norm, especially in large densely populated areas like the east end of London and as a result the so-called guardians were always on the lookout for ways to reduce the number of inmates under their care.

With the unprecedented expansion of the factory system, a need arose for cheap and plentiful labour which came to be looked on as the answer to the problem of overcrowded workhouses.  At the same time it offered an almost unlimited cheap labour force to be used by unscrupulous mill owners. In a system which was not to be exceeded until the Holocaust of the twentieth-century, children as young as eight who were unlucky enough to be living in a workhouse, were persuaded to become indentured apprentices to the cotton trade.  Not only were the workhouse authorities paid a premium by the employers for each child, but literally by the stroke of a pen, the problem of feeding and housing part of the indigent population was cleared.

No doubt children were gleaned from workhouses closer to Derbyshire, but the bulk of the so-called apprentices came from the London area.  Persuaded by the workhouse master that they were being apprenticed to a useful trade, most of them willingly signed their indenture papers; not that many of them could read or write and only signed the paper with either a cross or their thumbprint.  Even in the depths of winter and wearing the scantiest of clothing they had to endure the discomfort of the long journey north, huddled on the outside of the mail coach.  As they were only given a pittance to see them through the two or three-day ride, unless more affluent travellers bought them food, the children literally starved.  This was to be a harbinger of their life to come as slave apprentices.

Dumped from the Manchester Mail at Buxton the children were met by their future employers and driven the rest of the way to Monsal Dale in covered wagons.  To us the road into the dale is one of joy, for each season brings out the ever changing beauty of the place, but try to see it

through the eyes of a poor orphaned child who only knew the smoke and clamour of the east end of London.  Brothers and sisters and friends were split arbitrarily, some destined for Litton and the others to Cressbrook.  Even though the mills are little over a mile apart is unlikely they saw each other ever again.

The first Litton Mill was built in 1782 by the notoriously mean Ellis Needham of Hargate Hall near Tideswell, together with his partner Thomas Firth a farmer who also came from Tideswell.  It is hard to realise what conditions the pauper children, some as young as eight had to endure.  Paid an absolute pittance of a few pence a week, they worked for fifteen hours a day from Monday to Friday until nine or ten at night.  Not for them a five day week, it was sixteen hours on Saturday, the extra hour being devoted to cleaning the dangerous machinery they were expected to work on and under, at the beck and call of cruel overseers.  Housed in the ‘Prentice House’, a building now disappeared, but originally on the far side of the river from the present mill, they slept in two-tiered bunks, three to a bed, with boys on one floor and girls below.  Woken at 5 a.m., they began work with a breakfast of thin porridge, working until lunch break of oatcake and black treacle and maybe weak broth for lunch, when the water wheel stopped for half an hour.  The only respite to this drudgery came on Sunday when a local preacher would read to the children and during the last meal of the working day when one of the Needham sons or maybe Mrs Needham would lead them in prayer.  A replacement Prentice House, slightly better than the original, once used as stables, stands at the left of the far end of the mill yard.

Enduring such horrendous conditions it is hardly surprising that epidemics broke out and children were frequently maimed or killed while working the primitive spinning machinery, especially as skilled medical attention was hard to come by.  Bodies of children who died this way were secreted away often under cover of darkness and buried in unmarked graves in local church yards.  A small plaque in Tideswell churchyard commemorates this fact.  Corporal punishment was meted out for the simplest of misdemeanours and ranged from a beating until blood poured from the child’s back, or heavy weights hung about their bodies, or being hoisted in a flimsy cage high above dangerous machinery.  As a further twist to this horrific tale, when children reached their late teens they were deemed to have completed their apprenticeship.  Rather than be taken on as fully skilled workers they were dismissed and thrown out to try and find work in an already over crowded workplace.  Their only salvation was to return to the tender mercies of the Poor House.

Cressbrook Mill further downstream was originally owned by Sir Richard Arkwright, but he sold it to William Newton, a self educated poet and millwright, known as the Minstrel of the Peak.  He was also head carpenter during the Duke of Devonshire’s building of the crescent in Buxton.   Folk lore compares Newton favourably with his fellow mill owner Ellis Needham, making him sound like an ideal employer, but by reading reports left by his apprentices later in their lives, they were treated just as harshly as those working in Litton Mill.  Children who were questioned by visitors to Cressbrook Mill were so cowed by their employer that they only gave favourable answers to questions about their welfare.  Certainly they worked the same long hours and from reports published in the Ashton Chronicle dated May 1849, they were just as harshly treated as their brothers and sisters further upstream.  Their accommodation was also in a barrack block, the building which still stands beyond the recently restored mill.  Its unhappy memories a thing of the past, part of the Apprentice House was latterly converted into a hikers’ café known as Dave’s Tea Stop, one of the few places in the Peak where walkers are at liberty to eat their own sandwiches.

Both mills no longer spin cotton, Cressbrook’s frames were silenced in 1965, but Litton continued by spinning speciality yarns for another decade,  still powered by the river, but this time through a water driven turbine before it along with its sister mill fell into decline, mute memorials to the lives of countless so-called apprentices.  In recent years developers have restored the listed fabric and converted them into highly desirable apartments.

Alistair Plant


  1. I live in derbyshire and love the history , I take my pooch regularly for walks here and it’s a great place if not a little creepy

    1. Hi Alistair
      Interesting narrative. Any idea how many apprentices were brought to Litton and from what year , until what final year?
      Also what number of child deaths during that time or were the deaths unrecorded do you know?
      Many thanks

  2. It was later than 1965 when Cressbrook Mill closed. My grandmother used to work there, and I can remember visiting her there in the latter days before it closed. I can still remember the clatter of the machinery and endless reels of thread, I must have been around 8 or 9 and I was born in late 1960 so I would have been too young to remember pre 65. She lived in one of the houses in the row behind the mill.

  3. There has been a book written about the mills. In it it describes how boiling tar was poured over the orphans heads if they had lice. Their life expectancy was 11 I believe.

  4. I worked at Litton Mill in 1964’sh – it was of course modernised by then ,but was a noisy cold environment to work in . I hated to enter the lower levels/cellars it was very spooky and scary . They have now converted the old mill into ‘luxury’ apartments and I wouldn’t want to live there at any price!- too much sadness and misery in that building .

  5. An interesting and sad story about The Industrial Revolution that you never hear about in school. Rather like The Peterloo Massacre and The Potteries Riots of 1842. Slavery, cruelty and desperate hardship wasn’t only in The West Indies.


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