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Family history looming large

Image reproduced with the permission
of the Whitaker Museum and Gallery
I have recently had this painting brought to my attention and I couldn't help be fascinated. It's called 'girl at a Preston loom' and it was painted by one William Clegg in 1869. I've no idea if William was a relation - Clegg is a fairly common name in Lancashire - but I can't help be drawn to the image.

Apart from anything else, it was unusual for painters then to represent such lowly figures, so it's a rare example of a painting of what was then a common sight.

But apart from the coincidence of name, it also grabs my attention because my grandmother started work in a cotton mill at an early age and my suspicion is that, though the machines were probably rather larger in Annie Pickersgill's day, the technology was likely to be very similar.

To my shame I can't remember exactly when Annie started work - I know that she began to attend the mill for half days before she left school to get used to it, and I've a feeling that started when she was around age 11 (which would be in 1910). She was certainly no older.

Although I certainly heard tales of camaraderie from my grandma, the mills were not a pleasant place to work. The noise from the machines was intense - communication on the mill floor was largely by sign language - and early deafness was common. If looking at that painting makes you wonder if it was a good idea to be stood in full skirts in such close proximity to whirling, unprotected gear wheels (remember this, next time you moan about health and safety gone mad), you might be inclined to think that the painter was using some artistic licence, but I certainly heard plenty of tales of clothes (and hair) getting caught in the machines, sometimes with dire consequences.

I'm not the kind of person who has a rose-tinted nostalgia for the 'olden days'. It was a horrible way to work, though we probably had to go through it as a nation to haul ourselves out of the earlier rural squalor that most lived in. But equally it's not a time or a way of life we should forget, and I think we should celebrate people like Annie Clegg (as Miss Pickersgill later became) and their work.

The painting is now at the Whitaker Museum and Gallery in Rossendale, though I believe it is currently in store rather than on display.

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