Apprentices and their boxes: rethinking the girls’ dormitory in the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank

I am lucky enough to be working with the National Trust at Quarry Bank on the Styal estate in Cheshire as a Historic Advisor. The Quarry Bank team have just embarked upon a £9.4m expansion project that will incorporate opening-up several buildings at Styal that are currently closed to the public, as well as reworking the way some existing sites are presented and interpreted. As a social historian who researches the use of domestic and work space in the north west of England in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this is, of course, very exciting.

The first building we have in our sights is the Apprentice House, built to house Quarry Bank mill’s child apprentices in the mid 1780s.

The Apprentice House

The Apprentice House

There would have been up to 100 children living here during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, aged between 8 and 17 years old. One room that I am particularly interested in is the girls’ dormitory. Currently the room is laid out with simple beds and bedding in a style likely to have been used around the late eighteenth century – complete with uncomfortable straw-filled mattresses. Marks and indentations on the walls have been used to help decide how many beds were in the room and where they were positioned, though the need for modern-day visitors to move around the space means that it is not nearly as rammed full of beds as it must have been when it housed around 60 girls, two to a bed. The walls are whitewashed and the floorboards bare, again, as would likely have been the case when the building was in use originally, and there are some chamber pots placed under the beds, containing straw and a non-specified liquid to evoke the sights (if not the smells) of the original toilet arrangements. A few cloaks and hats also hang on the wooden hooks on one wall to show the types of outer garments that the apprentices would wear.

The girls' dormitory

The girls’ dormitory

One of the things I would like to do in Apprentice House is to give visitors a clearer sense of what it was like from the point of view of the original occupants: that is, the child apprentices. So, for me, this room as it is currently presented is too airy, too roomy and far too quiet. And more than this, it gives very little sense of the individual children who have lived here – not even their names appear. In the weeks and months to come, along with the fantastic National Trust interpretation, learning and archival team at Quarry Bank, I’ll be exploring what we can do about this: how we can turn this quiet, still space into something that gives more of a sense of its earlier, noisier, smellier and more cramped past, when it was full of children.

One way that I am thinking of achieving this transformation is by examining the material culture of the apprentices, or put less technically, the things that surrounded them. Specifically, I want to explore the possibility of introducing apprentices’ boxes into the room, and by doing so, telling the individual children’s stories. Amanda Vickery’s work on privacy in eighteenth-century London has shown how even the most lowly of inhabitants in the capital, such as servants and other mobile employees, would have a portable locking box to keep their personal possessions safe.[1] The same source that Vickery used in her examination, the records of the Old Bailey Proceedings, provide ample evidence that London apprentices commonly had their own box, which was usually described in court either as the hiding place for stolen goods, or the site from which items were stolen. Thus in 1794, the court was told that the tailor, Richard Packer, had forced his apprentice, John Piper, to open the locked box which he kept in his room, in which was discovered sewing silk which had been stolen from his master.[2] On 14 September 1808, 13 year-old William Green was sentenced to a year in the house of correction for stealing 39 shillings worth of goods from his master, the shopkeeper, John Wheeler, to whom he had been apprenticed since he was 8.[3] Some of the goods concerned had been found in Green’s locked box. Conversely, in 1821, the plaster’s apprentice, Thomas Harris, accused his own brother, James, of stealing a coat from Thomas’s box that he had subsequently pawned for half a crown.[4] We can find similar cases outside of London as well, with the tailor, John Martin, reporting at the Huntingdonshire Court of Quarter Sessions in 1827 that he had found stolen buttons and cloth in the box of his apprentice.[5] Likewise, the Caernarfonshire Court of Quarter Sessions was told in 1836 that a stolen book had been discoverd in the box of Robert Thomas, apprentice to the printer, Josiah Thomas.[6]

Though no equivalent records have been found for apprentices at Quarry Bank, we do know that it was likely that they each had at least two sets of clothes,[7] and that they sometimes borrowed money from their employer to buy other items, such as a new gown, shoes, a sliding rule, a flute and even a watch.[8] In addition, though some of the Apprentice Indentures (the formal agreements between the mill owners and the apprentices’ parents) at Quarry Bank show that apprentices were provided with clothing by the mill owners, others were paid higher wages (9d or pence a week instead of 1d between 1786 and 1796, the period for which records survive), but that these higher paid apprentices appeared to have to buy their own clothes.[9] These facts – coupled with the ubiquity of apprentices’ boxes in other records – makes it very likely that the Quarry Bank apprentices also had their own boxes, perhaps stored under their beds, in which to keep their possessions. Recreating some of these boxes and their contents, alongside providing details of the lives of their owners using Quarry Bank’s rich archival holdings, will give us a much stronger sense of these children’s experiences working and living at Quarry Bank. I hope it will help visitors to feel both a closer connection with these child workers and develop a clearer sense of what being an apprentice at the mill would have been like.

[1] Amanda Vickery, ‘An Englishman’s Home Is His Castle? Thresholds, Boundaries and Privacies in the Eighteenth-Century London House’, Past & Present, No. 199 (May, 2008), 147-173, pp 163-7.

[2] Old Bailey Proceedings (OBP: available online at, 16 July 1794, John Piper, t17940716-56.

[3] OBP, 14 September 1808, William Green, t18080914-28. For other similar cases, see OBP, 12 September 1804, Hammond Chapman, t18040912-55; OBP, 29 October 1806, Charles Hogg, t1806129-6; OBP, 1 November 1809, Robert Carter, James Furneaux, Robert Shipley, 18110710-76; OBP, 10 July 1811, Joseph Baylis, James Winks, t18110710-76; OBP, 18 February 1818, Henry Wood, t18180218-61.

[4] OBP, 14 February 1821, James Harris, t18210214-141. For other similar cases, see OBP, 17 September 1794, James Brazier, t17940917-54; OBP, 25 October 1797, John North, t17971025-43; OBP, 30 October 1806, John Percival, t19051030-20; OBP, 12 April 1820, Ann Anderson, t18200412-59.

[5] HCP/1/11, Huntingdonshire Archives.

[6] XQS/1836/69, Gwynedd Archives, Caernarfon Record Office.

[7] Copy of letter from J. Barton from unspecified parish authority, to Samuel Greg, c. 21 February 1817, C5/8/9/2, Quarry Bank Archive.

[8] Stoppage ledger (children), 1815-47, Quarry Bank Archive.

[9] Apprentice Indentures, 1786-1796, Quarry Bank Archive.

Living above the shop: life for those ‘in trade’  

John Ralston, Views of the Ancient Buildings in Manchester (Manchester, 1823-5), plate 4: Chetham's Library

Image: John Ralston, Views of the Ancient Buildings in Manchester (Manchester, 1823-5), plate 4: Chetham’s Library.

This post was also published on the FindMyPast website as ‘Life above the shop: A behind-the-scenes glimpse of a tradesman’s world’.

Many family historians will discover ancestors who were ‘in trade’. The small businesses that tradesmen and women ran were at the heart of urban economic growth and social transformation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, where shops and workshops dominated town streets and helped to satisfy an increasing desire for consumer goods.

This view from 1821 of one of Manchester’s main thoroughfares, Market Street, shows the timber-framed structure of William Hyde’s grocery shop, at the centre of the picture on the left, with its porch leaning at a rather drunken angle. Next to Hyde’s shop (moving towards the foreground) was the cheesemonger and provision dealer Charles Pollitt’s premises, in another timbered building. In the more modern four-story brick building adjacent to that, John Hemingway, silversmith and watchmaker operated. On the other side of Hyde’s shop and adjacent to it was Mary Walker’s ironmongers, and next to her, Catherine Crossley’s toy warehouse, the premises of John Wickstead, umbrella maker and the Red Lion public house. Across the street were shops variously run by a druggist, a boot and shoemaker, a hosier, a linendraper, another cheesemonger, a straw hat maker, a cutler and surgeon’s instrument maker, a milliner and a tea dealer.

Today shop-workers commute into town centres to sell goods produced elsewhere. But in the past these buildings were generally inhabited day and night, by individuals who both lived and worked in them, and who were often involved in both the manufacture and the sale of the goods that they stocked. Not only was living in the same building in which one worked common, but so too was co-habiting with employers, servants, apprentices, business partners, one’s own blood relatives and those of one’s employer. As one might expect, living and working cheek by jowl in this manner, often in very cramped circumstances, was not always easy.

When George Heywood, a young journeyman grocer, moved into the shop and home of John and Elizabeth Jones on Hanging Ditch in Manchester as their employee in 1811, household relations were to prove tricky. A six room building, in which at least one room was given over to the business, had to accommodate Mr and Mrs Jones, a female servant, three adult male employees and the three daughters and one son of John and Elizabeth Jones, plus Mrs Jones’s two daughters from her first marriage, who were in their mid to late teens. This almost certainly meant that children and employees had to share rooms for sleeping, and probably beds too.

Heywood does not seem to have understood a set of unwritten rules within the Jones’s packed household designed to uphold propriety. This resulted in an argument in which Mr Johns reprimanded him for sitting up late at night so that the women of the household couldn’t mend their clothes privately, washing in the kitchen when females were present and talking to a female servant in a bedroom on her own. Not surprisingly, Heywood soon left the Jones’s employ. Whilst he didn’t like his business partner with whom he subsequently lived and worked, he seems to have learned a lesson, and noted that ‘to be comfortable I must not dispute anything with him, but be silent where I cannot agree’.

More on living above the shop here.

If you are interested in information on individuals and families in trade in north-west England between 1760 and 1820, you can explore my project database. This has information on 2487 individuals and 806 businesses.