Trouble at mill

The true story behind the television series ‘The Mill’ has several Merseyside connections, as Alison Sullivan explains.

Channel Four’s drama series The Mill (showing on Sunday nights) is based on actual historical events at Quarry Bank Mill near Styal, Cheshire and many of the scenes were filmed there. The mill was opened in 1784 by Samuel Greg, who became one of the Industrial Revolution’s most successful cotton manufacturers.

Esther Price (Kerrie Hayes)

Esther Price (Kerrie Hayes)

 

The script for the series is by Liverpool writer John Fay, a Brookside, Coronation Street and Clocking Off veteran who’s also written two episodes for the Jimmy McGovern series Moving On. Fay’s background in soaps possibly shows through as so far some of the characters are a little two-dimensional, conforming rather too readily to easily recognisable stereotypes. There’s the feisty heroine (female apprentice Esther Price, played by Liverpool actress Kerrie Hayes), with a villainous boss (the cruel overseer Charlie Crout) and a potential love interest in the mill’s rebellious new employee, talented engineer Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty).

Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty)

Daniel Bate (Matthew McNulty)

 

The series has clearly been very well researched however, and there’s a convincing (and often shocking) authenticity about the child apprentices’ grim working conditions, even if there’s some understandable dramatic license. A young boy (Tommy) loses a hand in a preventable accident; the real Thomas Priestley did indeed have a similar accident, though he only lost a forefinger – but worse accidents (not to mention deaths) certainly occurred at other mills.

The broader historical context is also well conveyed. We learn for example about the Ten Hour Movement (the campaign to legally restrict the length of the apprentices’ working day) and about how the apprenticeship system worked. Children – some as young as nine – were effectively sold by workhouses to mill owners, who in return were responsible for feeding, clothing and housing them until they came of age ( the parallels with the American slave trade have often been noted). The deal made economic sense for the mills, who gained workers whose small size and agility made them especially useful when access to the inner workings of the machinery was required.

Like many of the Quarry Bank Mill apprentices, the real Esther Price came from the Liverpool workhouse, which stood on Brownlow Hill on the site now occupied by the Catholic cathedral. Much of the television account of her life is heavily fictionalised, but she did claim she was older than the mill said she was, ran away with another apprentice and on her return was locked up in an attic room (the television version of this episode was filmed in the actual room where Esther was confined). She gave evidence about working conditions at the mill to an official committee, which proved useful to campaigners for workers’ rights. As an adult however she chose to stay on at the mill, living in one of the workers’ cottages. She married, and died in 1861.

Kerrie Hayes, who takes on the role of Esther Price, is from Anfield and went to Holly Lodge Girls’ College in West Derby. She had her first big break when she played Ruby Moss in the BBC series Lilies. Recently she appeared on screen in the series Good Cop, as Warren Brown’s new police partner WPC Amanda Morgan. Film roles have included parts in the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy and the remake of Brighton Rock.

Hannah Greg (Barbara Marten)

Hannah Greg (Barbara Marten)

Another character in The Mill with Liverpool connections is Hannah Greg, mill owner Samuel Greg’s wife. The real Hannah Greg was born in 1766 and was the daughter of Adam Lightbody, a wealthy Liverpool cotton merchant with premises on Dale Street. When she became Greg’s wife in 1789 she brought with her a dowry of £10,000, which was invested in the mill. Samuel Greg, a Manchester businessman, had equipped it with the latest spinning machinery, driven by water power from the River Bollin. In Liverpool the Lightbody family moved in liberal, Nonconformist circles, and numbered among their friends important figures in Liverpool’s history, including William Roscoe and William Rathbone. Hannah’s diary records her hearing in 1788 a celebrated (and, given its likely reception in Liverpool, highly controversial) anti-slavery sermon by the Reverend John Yates. She is likely to have been sympathetic to Yates’s views, though there is no evidence that she publicly supported the abolitionist movement  – unsurprisingly, as her husband owned a plantation in the West Indies. In The Mill Hannah’s position is more clear-cut, and she attends an anti-slavery meeting in Manchester.

A portrait of Samuel Greg

A portrait of Samuel Greg

Samuel Greg was a hardheaded businessman with a less humanitarian outlook than his wife (the television drama reflects this), but she certainly influenced his treatment of workers at the mill, and he was a more progressive employer than many of his contemporaries. She organised education for the apprentices, worked as a nurse alongside the factory doctor and tried to improve the diets of the mill families. Rather like William Lever some years later, Greg built cottages to house many of his adult workers and their families – a strategy that had practical advantages, as the mill’s distance from Manchester made acquiring an efficient workforce difficult.

Samuel Greg (Donald Sumpter)

Samuel Greg (Donald Sumpter)

 

Hannah Greg actually died in 1828, five years before when The Mill is set. John Fay has said that he chose 1833 for his drama because it was a pivotal historical moment, when the Ten Hour Movement was in full swing and there was a new factory act, alongside bills to end slavery in British colonies and plantations. Samuel Greg died in 1834, but his descendants continued with the business (his son Robert is accurately portrayed as an opponent of the Ten Hour campaign). In 1939 Alec Greg gave the whole estate to the National Trust, along with its huge written archive (the source for several of The Mill’s storylines).

Quarry Bank Mill is a fascinating place to visit: the mill itself, the Apprentices’ House, the workers’ cottages, the Gregs’ own home and garden – all of this and much else can still be seen. The often brutal lives of those who lived and worked there will be even more vivid in visitors’ imaginations after The Mill.    

Further reading

David Sekers: A Lady Of Cotton (a biography of Hannah Greg)

The Diary of Hannah Lightbody, 1786 – 1790 (edited by David Sekers)

Author David Sekers also has his own website: http://davidsekers.com/

Channel Four’s website has several pages on The Mill, including its historical background (www.channel4.com/programmes/the-mill )

The National Trust’s Quarry Bank Mill website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/quarry-bank-mill/