Samuel Hird and Lancashire mill life

Dr James Peters writes:

Samuel Hird (1878-1956), factory inspector

The Library has recently acquired the papers of Samuel Hird (1878-1956), a factory inspector in Manchester during the first half of the twentieth century.  This archive provides an original and illuminating perspective on industrial life and work, which complements the official (public) records of the Factory Inspectorate, held at The National Archives.

We are fortunate that this archive has survived. After Hird’s death in 1956, his papers were passed to family members, until they came to rest in the attic of his son’s home in Orpington, Kent. There they remained until 2015, when his granddaughters began to investigate the collection. Realising their significance, they very kindly offered to donate the archive to the Library.

Samuel Hird was a factory inspector  in Manchester from 1908 to 1941. At retirement he was the superintending inspector for the East Lancashire division, i.e. the senior factory inspector in the Greater Manchester region. Hird’s papers describe this working life. He was a reflective man, who wrote about his work throughout his professional life and retirement.  Hird was an acknowledged expert on the cotton industry, and witnessed the changes in that industry as it went from its Edwardian prime to the inter-war slump.

Perhaps the most important constituent of this archive is Hird’s unpublished memoir, a lengthy manuscript conceived “as an attempt to record the life and times in which I lived”.  This is an extremely informative document which describes Lancashire factory and mill life over several decades of change and upheaval. Hird describes not only the work of the factory inspector, but also offers his reflections about the economic, social and political contexts in which it was undertaken.

Extract from Samuel Hird’s memoir.

Hird’s memoir is perhaps most informative about the Lancashire cotton industry. He was deeply ambivalent about the industry; as a patriotic Lancastrian, he appreciated its global economic success, but he was critical of the human cost to the millworkers. This was something he knew from personal experience, having worked in his teens as a little piecer – the junior member of a mule-spinning team – in an Oldham mill.  Hird seems to have hated his time there, finding the environment alien and hostile: “Everybody was driving or being driven, and the machinery set the pace for all”.   Here he witnessed the short-cuts taken with safety: “there is no place like a cotton mill…for learning awareness of danger.” As visits from ‘T’Finer’ (as factory inspectors were known locally from their former powers to levy fines directly) were rare, employers paid scant attention to the Factory Acts.

By sheer hard work, Samuel Hird managed to escape the mill. He studied at night school in Oldham, and then at Owens College, where he took a degree in engineering. After a short period teaching, he became a factory inspector initially in the West Midlands, and then in the [South] East Lancashire Division, centred on Manchester, which was considered to be a particularly complex and challenging posting.

The Factory Inspectorate had been created by the Factory Act of 1833 to oversee enforcement of statutory factory regulations. The Factory Acts had initially focussed on the working conditions of children, but over time, inspectors became involved in wider issues of health and safety.

The memoir provides a wealth of information about how factory inspectors conducted their work through routine and special inspections, dealt with recalcitrant employers in the courts, and tried to educate both employers and workers in health and safety matters. Hird became the Inspectorate’s acknowledged expert on the cotton industry, and having experienced mill life he had few illusions about the industry: “the cotton trade was the one trade in which there was a deliberate intention to cheat operatives and to evade the most important provisions of the Factory Acts.” Inspectors spent much time in ensuring mill machinery was properly fenced off, and that workers were not subjected to “time cribbing” (the illegal use of time to operate and clean machinery).

The memoir notes the differences within the cotton industry in different localities, for example, between spinning firms in Bolton and Oldham. On balance, Hird  believed that some of the older family-run firms were better in complying with the Factory Acts than the “Oldham Limiteds”, believing standards at the latter were poor because of excessive competition between too many firms. However, he was also damning about the mediocrity of some second- and third-generation family firms, and welcomed the growing professionalism of management in some of the larger cotton combines, which saw greater compliance with safety regulations.

Looking back on his work at the end of his life, Hird  believed that factory inspectors had achieved their greatest successes through education and suasion, rather than prosecutions:  “the best results are achieved …by the quiet unobtrusive workings of a comparatively small number of people…teaching self help with competent and active guidance, and, above all, introducing and cultivating that spirit of good will through which alone reform is accomplished.”

Samuel Hird’s papers are an important addition to our existing collection of archives relating to industrial history, which include the records of cotton spinning trades unions and employers’ associations. They provide a vivid sense of what factory and mill life was like in this period, and of the struggle to make it more humane.

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