‘Tired beyond all telling’: Revealing the hard, often brief, lives of pauper apprentices

A collaborative project has brought to light the lives of a 19th-century community living and working in Fewston, North Yorkshire. Among their number were many children who were indentured to work in the nearby mills, and whose lives may have ultimately been cut short by this labour. Kathryn Krakowka talked with Rebecca Gowland to learn more.


The often-abysmal conditions of urban workhouses in the 19th century remain alive in the public imagination thanks to the works of Charles Dickens and other social critics and reformers of the time. Many children were brought from the countryside to work in the quickly expanding manufacturing cities of Liverpool, Leeds, and London – and the environment in which they lived was often poor, cramped, and unsanitary. But while rural-to-urban migration was by far the most common direction of travel, there was also a less well-known reverse migration occurring at the same time. Pauper children, from as young as seven, were taken from urban workhouses and sent to labour in rural textile mills or farms, often located in the north of England.

While there exist many historical records documenting this phenomenon, there remains comparatively little archaeological evidence from this period, and the exact physical impact that this labour had on children is largely unknown. Recently, however, a collaborative, community-led project between the Universities of Durham and York and volunteers from the Washburn Heritage Centre in Fewston, a small village near Harrogate in North Yorkshire, was able to shed new light on these rural pauper apprentices, highlighting just how nasty, brutish, and short their lives likely were (see CA 400).

The excavation of part of the churchyard of St Michael and St Lawrence in Fewston provided the rare opportunity to not only learn more about a rural post-medieval community, but also about the lives of the many children indentured to work in the nearby mills at the time. Photo: John Buglass

Rare rural remains

Between 2009 and 2010, part of the churchyard of St Michael and St Lawrence in Fewston was excavated by John Buglass Archaeological Services in advance of constructing the heritage centre at the side of the church. While the graveyard was in use from the 14th century until its closure in 1896, the 300m2 section that was excavated revealed 154 graves mostly dating to the later part of its lifespan, as attested by the 19th-century dates found on some of the associated coffin plates and headstones.

This work provided the rare opportunity to learn more about a small rural area at this time, since, previously, most post-medieval cemeteries have been excavated from urban settings and predominantly from the south of the country. The discovery was particularly exciting given that the names of 22 of the individuals were known from the above-mentioned coffin plates and headstones, allowing researchers to trace the ancestry of some of the burials.

After funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund was secured by the Washburn Heritage Centre, the remains were sent to a laboratory at the Department of Archaeology, Durham University, where their analysis was led by Professor Rebecca Gowland and Dr Anwen Caffell. The team at Durham found that, of the 154 skeletons excavated, roughly a third were under 18 years of age when they died. It is true that, before the advances of modern medicine, children died at a much higher rate than they do now, but this is still an unusually high percentage compared with other contemporaneous cemeteries – and in particular, there was a disproportionately large number of children and young adults who had died between 8 and 20 years of age.

This was an intriguing discovery as it tallied with the age range that boys and girls could be indentured to work in the mills – beginning as young as seven years old, and released by the age of 21 (or at the time of marriage for girls). Significantly, during the 19th century there were five mills operating in the upper Washburn Valley, where Fewston is located, including the West House Mill, which was one of the largest in Europe. This led the researchers to wonder whether some of the children from the Fewston burials may have been pauper apprentices. Could further analysis of these remains confirm this? And if so, what could their skeletons tell us about their lives working in the mills?

While these images were taken from cotton mills in America instead of England and almost 100 years after the majority of the Fewston pauper apprentices would have been buried, there were many similarities between the two and they give us an idea of the conditions under which Fewston pauper apprentices may have suffered.
Photos: Lewis Hine

A world apart

Each adult skeleton from the Fewston graveyard was assessed to establish their probable sex and age at death, but in juvenile skeletons morphological analysis cannot accurately be used to determine biological sex. Instead, the team used a new scientific technique of identifying sex-specific proteins found in tooth enamel (see CA 337 and p.10 in this issue) to determine the sex of 15 of the children aged between 8 and 20.

Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis was then conducted on 31 individuals, including 11 of the named adults who had been identified through the coffin plates and headstones. Most of the named adults were found to have an isotopic signature that suggested that they were local, born and raised in the Washburn Valley, and this was confirmed by census records. The majority of those aged 8 to 20 years, however, had a distinctly different make-up, with many having isotope ratios consistent with having spent the early years of their lives in London.

These results would make sense if the children were indeed pauper apprentices, since they were frequently brought to the mills from further afield. As highlighted in the Liverpool Select Vestry, distance between the child and their home was thought to be desirable as it prevented ‘the interference of idle or profligate relatives’. Historical documents indicated that children brought to Fewston were frequently recruited from workhouses in Hull, as well as from the parishes of Southwark and Lambeth in London.

The churchyard is one of only a few rural post-medieval cemeteries to be excavated in the north of England. Photos: John Buglass

Analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios undertaken by colleagues at the University of York also revealed a potential social hierarchy amongst the burials. The unknown adults as well as the non-local children revealed a diet low in animal protein when compared to the adults of known identities, and in comparison to other published post-medieval populations. In particular, their 15N isotope values were similar to those seen at the Kilkenny workhouse in Ireland (CA 278), which was associated with victims of the Irish Famine, and where the residents were known to have consumed a restricted, primarily vegetarian diet.

There was an unusually high number of children aged between 8 and 20 years old buried in the graveyard – could these have been the remains of pauper apprentices? Photo: John Buglass

All told, while these individuals were buried in the same cemetery, they seem to have lived a world apart, with the isotope analysis seemingly identifying three separate populations: the probable middle-class adults and children, who were local to the Washburn Valley and whose diet included a good proportion of animal protein; the unnamed adults, some of whom came from further away, ate a more restricted diet, and may have been from poorer backgrounds; and the non-local children, who probably had a primarily vegetarian diet.

Many a life destroyed…

Perhaps the most striking characteristic about the children in the Fewston graveyard, however, was not their origins or diet, but their overall health.

‘…hundreds he employed/And in his service many a life destroyed… Some they maimed or killed outright/By running them both day and night.’

So goes the 1877 poem, entitled ‘Mr Colbeck’s Spinning Mill’, which was written by Moses French, a farmer in the Fewston parish, about the brutal working conditions to be found at the West House Mill, owned by Colbeck and Company. While, by the time this poem was written, social reforms including the Factory Act of 1833 should have changed the worst of these practices, Moses was 76 at the time he wrote this poem and probably would have been witness to the harsher conditions the pauper apprentices lived under during the first third of the 19th century. Certainly, the health of the children found buried at Fewston suggest that this poem was in no way hyperbole.

Palaeopathological analysis of their skeletons was able to attest to the harsh conditions they probably encountered during life, both during their indenture at the mill and before. For one, the disparity seen in the stature of these children was staggering. One boy, who was probably aged 12-14 years old based on dental development – which is the most accurate way of determining the age of death for children – was the height of a 7-8-year-old. The same was true of a probable girl, aged 16-18 years, whose long bones were still unfused (they are usually mostly fused by the age of 16) and were the length of an average 10-year-old. In contrast, the average stature of the named adults (176.8cm for men and 159.7cm for women) was at or above the average for adults from this period (168-174cm for men and 156-164cm for women).

One of the project leads from the Washburn Heritage Centre, Sally Robinson, working with Dr Sophie Newman in the lab, learning how to lay out a skeleton from Fewston during a workshop. Photo: John Buglass

In addition to their stunted growth, the children also showed signs of extreme malnutrition and respiratory illnesses. Amongst the children identified as ‘non-local’ based on their isotopic signatures, 50% had evidence of rickets, a disease in which the bones soften and bend due to vitamin D deficiency, while only two of the 22 named individuals (9.5%) appeared to have had the disease. Additionally, 76% of the non-local children displayed signs of dental enamel defects, including enamel hypoplasia, most often caused by malnutrition during the period in which the tooth is forming. While enamel hypoplasia was also high across the board, with 69% of the named adult population also showing evidence for it, in their case it was usually only present in a small number of teeth, suggestive of an acute period of stress. In contrast, the non-local children’s teeth had more extreme enamel defects on both deciduous (milk) and permanent teeth, indicative of a prolonged period of health deficiencies during childhood.

The names of some of the individuals were known from coffin plates and headstones. Photo: John Buglass

As the teeth affected by enamel defects would have formed before the children were indentured as apprentices in the mills, they most likely reflect the conditions that they were born into, highlighting the fact that the poorest, and hence most vulnerable, children were often the ones sent to work in these mills. Historical records suggest that this was seen as a positive outcome for all involved, except for the children themselves. As the team highlight in a paper recently published in PLOS ONE: ‘The transport of urban pauper children, often in “batches”, to work in these rural mills… relieved urban parishes of the immediate financial and logistical burden of supporting poor children, whilst providing a ready source of cheap and malleable labour to these nascent industries.’

Signs of respiratory illness amongst the non-local children were also frequently observed, and one child had lesions on his skull and vertebrae that were diagnostic of tuberculosis. While the poor urban conditions from which they came may have contributed to their overall ill health, the impact of breathing in cotton and flax dust was a known occupational hazard of mill work. Over 50% of the non-local children had bony growths in their nasal passages, indicating maxillary sinusitis, while 42% had bony growths on the inside surfaces of their ribs, which can be caused by lung infections. Overall, based on the state of the bones, it was apparent why many of these children had not survived into adulthood.

Meet the ancestors

Reverend Robert Collyer, who was a child labourer at one of the Fewston mills, and whose parents were also both pauper apprentices, wrote about his experiences in a memoir in which he described how the work made him ‘tired beyond all telling’, recounting how ‘[we were] …rung in at 6 in the morning and out at 8 in the evening with an hour for dinner and a rest’.

While the few first-hand accounts we have of pauper apprentices attest to the harsh conditions that they frequently endured, the full impact that this labour had on generations of children was previously underappreciated due to a lack of direct evidence. These results, however, have added that necessary data, showing just how much these children probably suffered. Through this project, the short lives of these pauper apprentices have been able to be fully appreciated for the first time, and they can finally rest after their hard labour.

76% of the non-local children had extreme dental enamel defects, suggesting that they had had prolonged periods of ill health. Photo: John Buglass

In addition to being able to tell these children’s stories, the project also succeeded in harnessing the research and creative talents of volunteers who led the project and played an integral part. They provided their own knowledge of the history of the valley as well as ancestral knowledge of some of the people whose burials were excavated. Various pieces of art, songs, a play, a booklet, and a monograph were just some of the creative outputs. A wall hanging produced by the volunteers takes pride of place in the Heritage Centre: this essentially functions as a skeletal report, with each square colour-coded by age and sex, and including the skeleton numbers and names (where known), along with embroidered images representing the area. This piece exemplifies a project in which the contributions of the scientists and volunteers are literally interwoven. Direct descendants of some of the named individuals from the cemetery were even able to come into the laboratory to meet their ancestors ‘in person’, and talk with the team about their discoveries. Through this collaborative process, the 19th-century inhabitants of the Washburn Valley were brought back to life once more by their modern-day counterparts.

A lesion found on the cranium of one of the children is characteristic of tuberculosis. Signs of illness in the children’s skeletons was common. Photo: John Buglass

Since the project has now ended, all the remains have been reinterred in a new section of the Fewston churchyard. The reburial ceremony was a large community event, and the lives of each of the 154 individuals were celebrated in true Victorian fashion, with speeches, songs, and cake.

This textile wall hanging, made by volunteers from the Washburn Heritage Centre, is essentially a skeletal report of the site – each square is colour-coded by age and sex, along with the skeleton number and an image that represented the area or person. Photo: John Buglass

Further information
Rebecca L Gowland, et al (2023) ‘The Expendables: bioarchaeological evidence for pauper apprentices in 19th-century England and the health consequences of child labour’, PLOS ONE, 18(5): https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0284970
Michelle M Alexander, et al (2017) The Fewston Assemblage: churchyard secrets revealed. Washburn Heritage Centre.
– The results from this project are also now on permanent display at the Washburn Heritage Centre at Fewston parish church: https://washburnvalley.org