Trouble at t'mill

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Should the weavers smash the new machinery? This is one of the subversive questions pupils consider at Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, says Martin Whittaker

Here's a dilemma from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Imagine you and your family are all working in the same cotton mill. You all need to keep working just to make ends meet, but one of your children is injured in a mill accident, while another is ill through inhaling cotton dust.

What do you do? Do you demand higher wages, fewer hours or better conditions? Or do you struggle on, accepting that your children may die or that you might all end up in the workhouse? These are some of the grim moral issues pupils face in a drama workshop for schools devised by National Trust staff at Quarry Bank Mill and designed to bring social history to life.

Quarry Bank is a big working cotton mill in Styal, a village near Wilmslow in Cheshire. Built in 1784 by textile merchant Samuel Greg, it was one of the first water-powered cotton spinning mills. The mill was also one of the earliest factory communities. The area's sparse population meant that workers, including orphaned children, were brought in to live there.

Today the original brick buildings are owned and run by the National Trust as a living mus-eum. Its huge water wheel, fed by the River Bollin, still powers the looms to produce more than 18,000 metres of cloth a year. With its extensive archive material, the site is a particularly valuable resource for schools.

The mill covers three key themes: power, with galleries devoted to water and steam; people, demonstrating and contrasting the lives of mill owners and workers; and processes, showing how cotton fibres are made into cloth.

Many schools combine a tour of the mill and the Apprentice House, where child workers lived, with a 90-minute drama workshop in one of the mill's weaving sheds. The workshop, aimed at key stages 2 and 3, starts with warm-up games to break the ice. Then National Trust staff - in character as mill owner or worker - talk about how lives were changed by the Industrial Revolution. Pupils are split into three groups to represent handloom weavers and spinners, mill workers and mill owners. Each group is given a scenario to act out, then everyone gathers to watch each group's performance.

The workshops explore interesting issues. For the mill owner, just as you're planning to spend your profits, news comes that trade has slumped and you're in danger of going out of business. Do you lower wages or sack some of your workers?

The handloom weavers and spinners threatened by the new technology of water power also have questions. Do they sell up and go to the workhouse, apply for a job at the new mill, or protest and smash up the new machinery?

"It brings it alive and makes it real," says Quarry Bank Mill education officer Amanda Cowell. "It's no longer text in a book. It makes them realise there were different groups of people involved. If, for instance, they decide to smash the machines, we talk about what the consequences would have been. Often they don't realise there was no police force, and that the army would have been called in. We talk about incidents like Peterloo, where the army did come in and how many people died."

Getting pupils to address political, moral and social issues in this way makes a direct link to citizenship in the curriculum. The workshop allows children to compare conditions in the past with modern life, and to learn about the impact of civil unrest and political reform. "It's an ideal time at the moment when you think about the anti-war demonstrations," says Amanda Cowell. "There are lots of kids who have never known that."

Jim Melican, a history teacher at Hulme Grammar School for boys in Oldham, takes annual trips of Year 8 pupils to Quarry Bank Mill. He agrees that many of the moral dilemmas posed by the drama workshop apply today. "When you're teaching history, you're always trying to draw parallel lessons with current affairs and with the modern day," he says.

"Trying to get children to empathise with people in the past is one of the most difficult things you can do in history, especially at key stage 3.

That's what was so worthwhile about the workshop. You can then draw on the experience when you're back at school, to say well, look, it isn't black and white. How you related to a situation depended on who you were."

Citizenship links


* Social responsibility

* Political, spiritual, moral, social, cultural issues

* Taking part in school and community-based activities Skills

* Conflict resolution

* Discussion and debate

* Empathy

Quarry Bank Mill. Styal, Wilmslow, Cheshire SK9 4LA. Tel 01625 527468; Education Dept: 01625 532034. Opening times: 10:30am to 5:30pm, seven days a week from March 23 to September 30.

Apprentice House is open Tuesday to Sunday on a timed-entry basis and must be booked. Extensive education programme.

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