Kings Langley
Kings Langley
Local History & Museum Society
Kings Langley


When the Inspector Called

Factory working conditions for young people from and around
Kings Langley in the mid nineteenth century.

On Friday, April 23 1841 four young people under 17 years old set off from their homes at Doolittle in the parish of Kings Langley to walk to their paper making work at Apsley Mill for a 12 hour working day, or even a 24 hour ‘journey’ or shift. They were paid, according to their age and piecework production, between three shillings and six shillings a week. Along with some of their workmates they each had a conversation with a government official. A full report was subsequently published giving a rare insight into the working lives of typical young villagers of that time.

Throughout the nineteenth century there was an increasing demand for paper products. Providing the machinery kept working there was generally regular employment, regular hours and regular pay in contrast to the seasonal demands of traditional agricultural work. The industrial revolution had, however, often led to appalling exploitation of workers by mill and mine owners throughout the country. Harsh and often dangerous work for long hours and little pay was by no means limited to northern towns. In nearby Tring (known at one time as ‘Little Manchester’) and at Watford the working conditions in the Silk Mills continued to be quite dreadful. A landmark 1833 Parliamentary Act had limited the hours to be worked by children aged 9 to 13 to nine hours a day in some textile mills, though not silk nor lace. It was, then, to monitor the implementation of this legislation and to further inquire as to the working conditions of children and young people in many occupations nationally that inspecting Commissioners were appointed.

As befitting a newly appointed Sub Commissioner, Major J G Burns, set about his task most diligently. He inspected the buildings and machines, carefully describing the methods and conditions of production. Most significantly it was the young people themselves who were questioned and given the opportunity of describing their work and how they felt about it. What is more their names and ages were carefully recorded in the parliamentary published documents. No children under ten were knowingly employed at any of Dickinson’s paper mills which were all investigated.

Major Burn’s report to Her Majesty’s Commissioners began:

GENTLEMEN, 1. Having completed the duty entrusted to me by you of inquiring into the condition of children and young persons employed in the paper Mills in Kent, Bucks, and Herts I have the honour to lay before you the results of my labours...’

Two days prior to his visit to Apsley he had visited Dickinson and Longman’s Batchworth Mill. Of the young people he interviewed there three of them had previously worked at a nearby silk mill. Linda Rachley (aged 16) stated, ‘Been at the silk-mill before I came here. Like this best as we are not so tied to work as there.’ Sarah Sage (18) reported, ‘Was in the silk-mill before, like this line best;they beats you so there; they beat the little children shameful; my mother took me away; hadn’t good health there, have had good health since I’ve been here… would sooner be at the rag cutting them a silk-mill a great deal.’ Daniel Haynes (15) added, ‘Before I was at the silk-mill. Like this work better, they beat me about a good deal there.’

Crucially, throughout this area, the young interviewees consistently reported that they were well treated, ‘well used’, at the paper mills and that there was no beating.

Next day Major Burns visited Home Park Mill where he met James Marshall (15), and William Simmonds (adult). At Nash Mill he spoke to Joseph Kempster (17), John Childs (15), and Henry Roads (15). Arriving at Apsley Mill on the Friday he interviewed Thomas Child (13), Joseph Woodell (14), George Child (15), Henry Hunt (15), Thomas Lane (17), Joseph Lane (15), James Mansfield (16) and Ann Sexton (17). The last four were those who lived at Doolittle. Major Burns also visited Mr Steven’s Two Water’s Mill where he saw Alfred Andrew (16), Eliza Durrant (15) and Sophie Harding (15).

A typical interview response was that of James Mansfield (16) from Doolittle, Kings Langley who testified:

Can read and write. Attend Mr Longman’s Sunday-school. Been not a twelvemonth here yet. Employed in laying paper at the cutting machine. Before I came here was employed at service. Like this work best, it’s easier. Come to work at six mostly, but have sometimes come up to five, just as the work is, not very often; leave off at six, and sometimes at five or seven, have worked by later, but not often. Sit or stand at work, it isn’t very hard laying the paper, the hardest work is drawing up the reels from the machine-house with a crane and windlass, once in seven or eight hours, doesn’t take us about five or six minutes to pull up a reel. Half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner, go home for them. Machine stops at meals, (at these works the paper cutting is detached from the paper making machine, of great advantage). Sometimes feel tired being at it so long. Have very good health, not hurt by work. Regular wages 5s a week. Hired and paid by Mr Rothney, receive my own wages, my father works here. Never have no holidays, sometimes when anything happens to the machine or steam engine, get a holiday. Kindly used. Don’t leave off on Saturday sooner than other days.


Major Burns noted that of all the 57 mills he visited only two had schools attached and one of these was Mr Longman’s Sunday School at Nash Mill. ‘It is frequented by about 60 children and young people, but not confined to those in paper mills, as many others resort to it. None of the young people of either sex, from what I could learn, attend any industrial or other school during the week-days. A good many attend Sunday schools, but the instruction in them is very limited.’

Twenty three years later, in September 1864, the local paper mills were inspected again, this time by Assistant Commissioner Mr Henry W Lord. At Nash Mill he spoke to John Evans (managing partner), Mr Peacock (foreman), Samuel Lendon (13) and Henry Lane (11y 10m). At Home Park Mill he described the processes of manufacture but spoke only to the foreman. At Apsley Mill, where 250 lads from the age of 11 upward were employed, he interviewed the foreman and Frederick Rolfe (12), H Atkins (12), Thomas Sear (11), - Beckett (at 16, he had worked at Apsley for seven years), and Joseph Smith (15). He also visited Two Waters Mill (not owned by Dickinson) and spoke to Mr Hayes, Mr Johnson (foreman), and Mr Mutton (a bleacher for 45 years). In these reports Mr Lord relied more upon the employers for information and wages were rarely discussed. Mr Lord criticised the local system whereby youngsters were still working 24 hour journeys. Working conditions were broadly similar to those some two decades before with rag dust and cuts still hazards. Mention was made of increasing concerns regarding safety for at Home Park there had been a recent fatality in a machine room. Education, too, was being taken more seriously here for as John Evans testified, ‘We try as far as we can to make a certain proficiency in the elements of education a preliminary to employment; some general scheme of that kind might be made to work.’

At Apsley Mill, Mr Lord reported, ‘By a rule of the establishment, all the younger ones were compelled to attend Sunday school, and books of such attendance were kept by the respective masters, and regularly forwarded to the resident foreman. Any boy who had not been to Sunday school had to go to the day school at Nash Mill for the greater part of some one day in the following week. Several of them attended an evening school which was held on three or four nights in the week during the winter months’

At Two Waters Mills, Mr. Hayes claimed, ‘We have ourselves paid the fees for children to attend the national schools, and have found that they did not go; their parents preferring that they should earn a few pence at plaiting.’ The 1870 Education Act eventually laid the basis for all children to attend school up to the age of 13 but thanks to John Dickinson, Charles Longman and John Evans at least the opportunities for attending Sunday schools, day schools and evening schools were already well established in the area. A National School opened in 1838 in Kings Langley costing £288, was endowed by John Dickinson. His wife, Ann, and Mrs. Longman took an active interest in the girls’ School of Industry. Nash Mills School, costing £597, was built in 1847 on land owned by John Dickinson. Harriet Evans, wife of John, had ‘before1855 started a library at Nash Mills and had set up a school for the village girls in a derelict chapel’, assisting there herself. John Evans started a boys’ school at Frogmore End, with some financial help from the firm. Thankfully it was paper makers with social responsibility rather than silk mill owners who became established in this vicinity.

In 1861 approximately 110 adults (50 women, 60 men), and 17 young people under 17 years old (5 girls, 12 boys) from Kings Langley were employed in the local paper industry. Although having to work long hours for little money such young people were free from the beating and abuse particularly prevalent in the silk mills. There were also comparatively benign working conditions and the provision of some rented housing at Doolittle and Home Park. The encouragement to receive a little basic education was of great benefit to all.

While the investigative techniques of the Sub Commissioner/Assistant were quite basic, nevertheless the straightforward replies by the young people accorded with interviews conducted in other paper mills. Confirmed by other sources and thankfully preserved for family and social historians alike, these youthful personal testimonies remain a vital record of the day that the inspector called.


British Parliamentary Papers - Reports of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in Trades and Manufactures. Irish University Press

Evans, Joan. The Endless Web (1955) Jonathan Cape

This article, by Mike Reveley, was previously published in the 2009 KLLH&M Society Newsletter.