As part of the Piston, Pen & Press project and with the assistance of our partner institutions, we’ve been running three MOOCs under the ‘Working Lives’ banner.   

The third outing for our ‘Working Lives in the Factories & Mills’ has recently finished.  Every time we’ve run the MOOC we’ve been fortunate enough to have had a lively and committed cohort with students who don’t just engage thoughtfully and respectfully with the material (and with each other) but who also generously share their own knowledge.  ‘Co-production’ is a word which often crops up in current discussions of teaching approaches and it seems apposite as a description of the way in which our MOOC course has worked.

A key part of all three ‘Working Lives’ courses is their use of literary material.  Many of the individual steps on each course feature songs, poems, novels, stories and life-writings from the period, and it has been very pleasing to see our students engage so positively with what is often difficult and unfamiliar material.  Towards the end of ‘Working Lives in the Factories & Mills’ we set an exercise inviting students to either write their own factory poem (or outline the plot for a tale featuring a beautiful young factory girl) suitable for publication in a C19th newspaper.  This exercise always elicits some great responses, but this time round we were suitably organised to ask for permission from the authors to reprint some of our favourites.  We’ll begin with a poem which was commended by many of our students who felt that it captured an important aspect of the C19 textile worker’s experience:

Face to face, along the shadow and night machines 
The shuttle flies and the loom works 
In the cold of winter, in the cold and hunger 
Sitting on her loom, she grits her teeth 
Wait and hope, wait in vain, hope in vain 
She weaves by day, she weaves by night. 
Life suddenly horribly 
No longer commensurate with the time that painfully passes 
Woe, despair 
She only lives in the dark.

Another student produced a beautiful poem reflecting on the experience of those who migrated from the Highlands in search of work:

Their language is not mine 
Now the voice of the loom 
marks my days and nights

I think of my Highlands 
Shall I ever again call them home 
Or will this dark mill be my life

Fourteen hours, in Gaidhlig I count 
The beats, the threads, to remember 
Sounds of family, voices of home

Our final poem too, reflects on the hardship of factory life:

Who cares – who can tell if it is day, or if it is night. 
A day, a life, beginning and ending without sunlight. 
Grey, and beyond it darkly greyer, the factory gate. 
Twelve hours of waiting for this day, this life, to end, 
this is my plight; my fate, beyond the factory gate.

As we move into the field of the ‘industrial romance’, one student supplied a couple of tantalising titles, On Tenterhooks: Beaten, Beautiful but Betrayed and Satan’s Needle: Or, Bound by False Threads.  Personally, were I the editor, I’d commission both on the strength of the title alone!  Some students sent in plot outlines for ‘industrial romances’ and here’s one proposal:

My heroine, Eliza, would be beautiful, tall, athletic, with glossy dark hair. She is the breadwinner for her two younger sisters because her father was killed in a mining accident and her mother, unable to cope, drowned in the river soon afterwards. She is feisty and stands up for herself and her fellow workers. At event in the local hall one winter’s evening, she catches the eye of the mill owner’s son. He is very impressed with her poetry. He encourages her to send her writing to the local press and they are both delighted when it is published. When his father hears of the friendship he sends the young man away to source new raw materials and fires Eliza. She uses the money she has saved from her writing to seek work in another town.  When the young man returns he is distraught to find Eliza has gone and writes to all the newspapers asking her to return. He has no success but does not forget her. When his father dies a year later he becomes the mill owner. He visits a mill in a distant town to look at a new loom and finds that Eliza is the worker who tends to it. He takes her and her sisters, who also by now work in the mill, back to their home village, he marries her and they all live happily ever after in the big house.

I’ve read a few plot summaries for serialised newspaper novels on an industrial theme and I’d be hard pushed to identify this one as a C21st pastiche!

Finally, one of our students entertained us with the closing paragraph of their tale:

Her frame was lithe but she had the will, nay, the soul of a mighty giant as she loyally tended the loom. Struggle as she might to remain awake her beautiful eyelids drooped. And no wonder; she had been awake all of the previous night assisting her invalid mother. But it was not for her to complain. She bit her faultless ruby red lip so that the bitter pain would keep her alert. Duty first. 
A shadow fell over the loom. The Overlooker! “And how is my sweet girl today.” He reached down and touched her. She did what her unsullied honor required and slapped him. In a rage he raised his stick. The other mill girls averted their eyes as they heard a sharp crack followed by a thud. 
But she was untouched and the Overlooker was sprawled on the floor. Jack had returned from the Australian gold fields just has he had sacredly promised. “Come away with me,” he said. “I have purchased this mill and will turn this rascal out this very day.” As they left the floor he announced to the other workers. “You will all have a half holiday in a fortnight to attend our wedding.” 

Be honest, with such a cracking final paragraph, wouldn’t you want to read the rest of this novel?

With thanks to all our students on the ‘Writing Lives’ courses, but particular thanks to N’nancocquot, Kathleen, Adrian, Morag, Ann, and Herbert, for giving kind permission to reproduce their work on this blog.

Mike Sanders July 2021

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