Channel 4 has recently concluded its four part drama series The Mill. It focuses around the lives of the apprentices, owners, and various other workers of the Quarry Bank Mill in Lancashire (countryside near Manchester & Liverpool) during the 1830s.
At the center of the drama is the treatment of the mill’s apprentices, under 18 year olds who are given into the care of the mill. These apprentices often come from the British workhouses (think like debtors prisons) and are either orphans or from families that are unable to provide for them. Mills act as their parents: providing food, housing, and some schooling, in exchange for their 12 to 14 hours of work 6 days a week.
In the series Quarry Bank Mill is at a turning point, with leadership of the mill passing from William Greg to his son Robert. William established his mills following the principals of paternalism, that the mill is a family and that mill owners have an obligation to look after their workers, especially their young apprentices. As Robert takes over leadership of the mill, he struggles with the need to compete with other mills to make a profit (part of the story line deals with his hiring of a mechanic – with labor union sympathies – to build a more automatic loom). With this more capitalist outlook at the mill, treatment of the apprentices suffers, and Robert spends much of the series fighting (successfully) the passage of the 10-hour bill in Parliament. Over the course of the series the workers realize the inadequacies of their situation and do push bank against the system (led by redheaded spitfire apprentice Ester). The Mill ends with a potential silver lining and Robert Greg gives a speak to his workers at his father’s funeral implying that he will ease up on his anti-union lobbying.
What the series does a very good job with is depicting the filth that accompanied every day life at a mill back then. Meals were usually some sort of porridge ladled into workers dirty hands. Morning washing up was done outside, without soap, from cold pumps from wells. And providing some comic relief; when you have a bout of diarrhea you better hope you make it to the chamber pot in time!
The Channel 4 website does provide several resources to accompany the series. What I was particularly impressed by were the short ‘Fact or Fiction?’ articles were they highlight were they have taken creative license, for the sake of the series, and what the general time period was like.
Now for perhaps the greatest test; would I show the series in my classroom? Yes, but it is not necessarily a ‘must show’ in the classroom. One episode is about 45 minutes, so it wouldn’t monopolize an entire instructional period. Of the four episodes I would probably show the first of second one to show workers conditions. A word of note; the first two episodes does have a small story line of sexual exploitation of some of the apprentices by the overseer. Nothing graphic is shown, but discussion of the act is fairly prominent in the first episode, and an apprentice’s retaliation towards the overseer is the topic of about first 10 minutes of the second episode. The age and maturity of your students, along with your school’s policies should be taken into account.
I don’t know if this series will be made available online (through something like Netflix), optioned for broadcast in the US, or if clips will be made available on YouTube (YouTube clips would be best for classroom use). If you do show it in your classroom, make use of some of the ‘Fact or Fiction?’ articles, not solely to teach history, but in the hopes it will awaken students to view what they watch on TV with a more critical eye. We certainly don’t want any student who has managed to pay attention to the whole of the movie Troy, to think the people of Ancient Greece spoke with a British accents.