As the principal seat of the rag and shoddy trade many Batley occupations, both male and female, were linked to the textile industry. A piecer or piecener was one such job. For consistency I will use the term piecer.
The 1921 census occupation classifications describes the job as follows:
Piecer, piecener; mule piecer, spinner’s piecer, spinning piecer, spinning mule piecer, spinning mill piecer; pieces or joins together, by hand, threads broken in spinning; keeps mule clear of waste; sometimes adjusts temper weights, collects full cops of yarn from spindles, and assists spinner.1
It was within the overall category of textile workers under Classification Code Number 365 covering Spinners and Piecer (Mule, Ring, Cap, and Flyer).
The spinner operated the spinning mule containing hundreds of spindles, and the piecers allotted to the mule were responsible for piecing together, with finger and thumb, the broken threads which occurred in the spinning process. It was a job requiring alertness, speed, dexterity and nimble fingers.
To take it to the basic level a piecer’s job involved joining broken threads.
Occupational accidents included limbs being caught and crushed in machinery. One particularly common hazard was fingers becoming trapped. Newspapers contain reports of piecers who, as a result of this type of accident, needed fingers amuptutating.
Being hit by machinery was another common cause of injury, including head injuries, from crawling below machinery.
Fatalities could result, as in the case of the death of 18-year-old piecer Thomas MacNamara in October 1887. Whilst working at Messers R. Brearley and Sons on Bradford Road he got his arm caught up in a condenser minder machine when sweeping up dirt.2
Away from accidents producers and purveyors of medicinal concoctions deliberately aimed products at those working in mills, including piecers. Below is an advert from the Batley Reporter of 11 May 1900 for Biles Beans which cured a piecer’s indigestion. Presumably it illustrates the stricken piecer at work.
The company ran similar adverts specifically mentioning the beans would be of interest to Batley mill workers.3 They also claimed scores of weavers, piecers and spinners were afflicted with dizziness arising from indigestion and liver troubles – and the beans would remedy the condition.4
A piecer job was in effect a starter job for youths in the mill.5 As a result wages were low. There were also accusations that the wages paid were deliberately held down in order to pay other mill workers.
By way of comparison in a far earlier era, in 1858 when Batley willeyers (by no means a well-paid job) were earning between 18s. to 20s. per week, general piecers were earning between 1s. 9d. to 3s. 6d. per week, with those working as piecers on the relatively new mule machinery earned between 3s. 6d. to 5s. a week.6 Note this was prior to the Education Acts making schooling compulsory, when factory child labour was commonplace. But it gives some idea of where piecers were in the wages pecking order.
In a 1905 Court case the wages of a woollen piecer in Thongsbridge were stated to be £1 2s. 6d. a week. But piecers wages were not standardised, and pay varied from factory and district, with age and night work also impacting.7
It is also the case that, particularly in the early days of 19th century industrialisation, piecers were paid indirectly via their spinner, although a general understanding between the spinner and his employer may have existed as to the earnings of the piecers.8
The bottom line though was this was essential work, and a way of getting a foot into the textile industry. It was basically a starter occupation. Piecers in spinning departments had the opportunity to learn from those they worked under in order to progress to better paid spinning, or other mill jobs.
A rough and ready count using the 1911 Census via Findmypast showed 68 pieceners and 173 piecers in Batley.9
The 1921 Census noted 3,842 men and 4,043 women in Batley were textile workers. Of these 593 men and 243 women were in Classification Code Number 365 encompassing spinners and piecers (Mule, Ring, Cap, and Flyer).10
1. A Dictionary of Occupational Terms: Ministry of Labour. Based on the Classification of Occupations Used in the Census of POPULATION, 1921. His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1927.
2. Batley News and Advertiser, 22 October 1887.
3. Batley News, 26 October 1900.
4. Batley Reporter, 12 October 1900.
5. Before restrictions on child employment, this was a job undertaken by children.
6. Jubb, Samuel. The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position. Houlston and Wright, 1860.
7. The Factory Times, July 28, 1905.
8. Clapham, J. H. The Woollen and Worsted Industries. London: Methuen, 1907.
9. Findmypast 1911 Census search for piecer and piecener in Batley conducted on 22 May 2022.
10. Census of England & Wales 1921 – Yorkshire. London: H.M.S.O., 1923.