Monday, June 26, 2006

"satanic mills" or "Blame the system"

posted by k

The mills on the River Derwent in Derbyshire look peaceful and monumental today. Together they have been designated a world heritage site to show the wonders of the Industrial Revolution. On Saturday, I visited North Mill, in Belper.

The Strutt family - principally Jedediah and his son William - who ran the mill were regarded as enlightened, generous and charitable employers for their time. They preferred not to employ children under the age of 9 and insisted that, from their 12-hour day (6 in the morning until 7 at night, with an hour's unpaid break for lunch) two hours be devoted to schooling within the mill. Of course, this led William, in the end, to defend child labour on the grounds that child-employees were so much cheaper than adults, but that's another story.

The tale told at the Mill is one of model cottages for employees (the hands had space to keep chickens while the foremen, in their superior homes, could also have a pig-sty in the garden), a hospital, school and entertainments. It's also a tale of discipline and control with hands punished for a range of offences including "ill language" and calling out to soldiers. But, as bosses go, the Strutts were good employers for their time. They were thoughtful and inventive, always improving the efficiency of their machines. William Strutt's friends included Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Robert Owen - all seen as people in the vanguard of progress.

Behind this story, there are others. Nowadays the weir and canals look peaceful, but then the works - and the coming of the railway - wrenched the river from its course, disrupted the osier-beds, and hacked into earth and farmland. When Stephenson's railway was brought to Belper for the sake of the mills, the Strutt family insisted on deep cuttings so that their personal peace might be preserved.

There must have been an effect on the nailers of Belper, known for their drunkenness and the quality of their product. The small community with 500 residents suddenly grew, with farms and shops run by owners of the mills. Power came from wealth and ownership.

The mills processed cotton. It was a global industry. Slaves picked raw cotton in the West Indies and southern states of America. Supplies came from India, where weaving was to be forbidden to protect the British mills. The progress of the Industrial Revolution was built on slavery and colonial expansion. The Strutts' benevolence as employers was possible only because some human beings owned others as property.

Blaming the Strutts would be pointless. They lived, as we do, within a system of global economics and routine plundering of the environment. Within that system, they probably did their best. They were generous and charitable people by the standards of their times. I doubt it occurred to them to give their workers an equal say in their decisions. As far as they were concerned the wealth was theirs - they made it.

I wouldn't question the generosity of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who are donating much of their wealth to charity. The concerns of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are laudable. But a world in which individuals are richer than countries and in which the budget of philanthropic organisations rivals or exceeds the United Nations is also a dangerously undemocratic world. We need to consider where power lies - and where it belongs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note also the comment article on Empire in today's Guardian:,,1807335,00.html


6:42 am  

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