Occupations: Rag Grinder

Many occupations in Batley, both male and female, were linked to the textile industry. As Kelly’s 1893 Directory of the West Riding describes it:

Batley is celebrated as the principal seat of the rag and shoddy trade, which took its rise here about 50 years ago, and has proved a source of great wealth to many engaged in it: the manufacture of army cloths, pilots,1 flushings2 and druggets3 is very largely carried on, and has raised Batley to a position of considerable importance in the clothing district.4

Rag grinding is one of the key processes in the manufacture of shoddy and mungo.

Based on the 1921 census occupation classifications the job was described briefly as follows:

Grinder, rag; shoddy grinder; rag puller, shoddy miller; feeds and operates machine (devil) which grinds rags to powder; carries rags to and from the grinding machine.5

There are more detailed explanations. Grinding was one of the early processes in shoddy and mungo manufacturing. Once the woollen rags were sorted, and the dust shaken out by a ‘rag-shaker’ machine, they were spread in layers on the floor of the grinding room, and each layer sprinkled with olive or galipoli oil to facilitate the grinding process and reduce friction.

In 1876 William Smith described the subsequent mungo rag grinding process:

The rag machine at present consists of a swift or cylinder, containing some fourteen thousand teeth, revolving at the rate of seven hundred revolutions per minute, and would travel, if running over the ground in a straight line, nearly one hundred miles per hour; it is, in fact, this rapid revolution which is the cause of its effectiveness. The rags are placed on a travelling “server” which carries them to the swift, when the machine seizes them and tears them at one point only, viz., at the centre of the ascending motion, or at the front of the swift. The rags are now suddenly transformed into fibrous wool, which is used, along with other materials, to produce a cheap cloth with a fine surface and of moderate strength.6

Patent Rag Grinding Machine, The History and Antiquities of Morley, in the West Riding of the County of York, 1876 – out of copyright

Samuel Jubb earlier explained that the swift contained between ten and fourteen thousand teeth, depending on whether a coarse or fine grind was required. The coarser-set swifts were used to grind soft rags like stockings, flannels and carpets into shoddy. The finer-set ones tore cloth rags to produce mungo.7

Another description of rag grinding appeared in the Batley Reporter in 1904. The rags:

…are fed into a machine called a “devil” (otherwise a rag-grinding machine), which consists in the main part of a “drum” or “swift” covered in sharp spikes. The spikes tear the cloth to pieces as they rapidly revolve, and in this way the raw material for the making of the cloth called shoddy is obtained. There are several processes for it to go through, of course, before it is ready for the loom. The shoddy may have to be mixed with wool or cotton in order to secure the quality required, and for this purpose it passes into the hands of the “willeyers,” who have charge of the willeying machines…8

A worker adds a woollen sock to rags being shredded on a grinding machine. The resulting ‘shoddy’ will be added to new wool to produce new cloth. April 1942. © IWM D 7445, IWM Non Commercial Licence

Once the rags had been ‘devilled’, this ground material was then combined with sheep’s wool to produce yarn. The process enabled the manufacture a cheap cloth, from a combination of this ground recycled material and new wool, which could then be made into products and clothes.

Health Issues:
Batley woollen cloth manufacturer Samuel Jubb tried to minimise any detriment to health, stating the occupation was not an unhealthy one, inducing asthma in only a few people.9 Despite this assertion the grinding process did cause health problems.

In 1849 Angus Bethune Reach visited several Yorkshire textile towns as part of a Morning Chronicle investigation into the condition of the British working classes. In his visit to Batley and Dewsbury he described mill buildings covered with thick clinging dust like a mildewy fungus, workmen moving amongst the clouds. In the words of one worker dust lay on the floor as if it “had been snowing snuff.10

He explained how the workmen wore bandages over their mouths to prevent inhalation of the dust. Although none would admit it was harmful to them, they did say they felt the effects of the dust on a Monday morning after being in the fresh air all of Sunday. They also admitted that when they first took to the work it hurt their throats a little, but drinking mint tea soon cured them.

Although predominantly a male occupation, overwhelmingly so as the years progressed, there were the odd exceptions.11 Reach described how two Irish women employed as rag grinders in Batley, in their:

…squalid, dust-strewn garments, powdered to a dull greyish hue, and with their bandages tied over the greater part of their faces, moved like reanimated mummies in their swathing; I had seldom seen anything more ghastly.12

Reach’s investigation included the following passages about the health of those subjected to the dust produced by rag grinding:

I asked whether there was not a disorder known as “shoddy fever”? The reply was, that they were all more or less subject to it, especially after tenting and grinding of the very dusty sorts of stuff – worsted stockings, for example. The “shoddy fever” was a sort of stuffing of the head and nose, with sore throat, and it sometimes forced them to give over work for two or three days, or at most a week; but the disorder, they said, was not fatal, and left no particularly bad effects.13

Reach was not convinced stating it was clearly impossible for lungs to breath under such circumstances without suffering. After his only minimal exposure he said the experiment left an unpleasant, choky sensation in his throat, which lasted the remainder of the day.

A local doctor, Dr Hemingway, provided more information about “shoddy fever”:

The disease popularly known as “shoddy fever”, and which is of too frequent occurrence hereabouts, is a species of bronchitis, caused by the irritating effect of the floating particles of dust upon the mucous membrane of the trachea and its ramifications. In general, the attack is easily cured particularly if the patient has not been for any length of time exposed to the exciting cause – by effervescent saline droughts to ally the symphtomatic [sic] febrile action, followed by expectorants to relieve the mucous membrane of the irritating dust; but a long continuance of employment in the contaminated atmosphere, bringing on as it does repeated attacks of the disease, is too, apt, in the end, to undermine the constitution, and produce a train of pectoral diseases, often closing with pulmonary consumption.14

The doctor also explained how opthalmic problems were not uncommon amongst the shoddy grinders, some of whom wore gauze spectacles to protect their eyes. He also said that the occupation on average shortened life by about five years.

In 1902 a book included rag grinding amongst the country’s dangerous trades. Whilst the amount of dust produced had decreased from Bethune’s days due to the increased amount of oil used on the rags, it stated:

This process is accomplished by means of a swift which is really a drum, studded with sharp teeth, which are set very close for grinding cloth, and more openly for the transformation of soft rags, such as stockings, flannels, etc. These swifts perform six or seven hundred revolutions per minute, and the rags are metamorphosed into a soft, fluffy, woolly mass. Oil is largely used in this process. This prevents dust.

The dust which rises from rag machines consists of particles of wool and also of filth adherent to the various kinds of rags. It is highly irritating to all the respiratory passages, especially in those who are novices in the trade, but older hands become inured to it, and tolerate it well. A train of symptoms is developed, called “shoddy fever.” It is accompanied by high fever, with nasal catarrh and frontal headache, and a certain amount of bronchial catarrh. It is ushered in by shivering, malaise, and general muscular pains. It is almost indistinguishable from epidemic influenza, and if treated on similar lines, recovery is soon secured. The only difference is, that the catarrhal symptoms are the result of local irritation, and consequently, when that is removed, the febrile condition soon subsides. Shoddy fever is easily induced in persons who have been out of the mill for a few weeks and return to work, in persons suffering from general catarrh, or in habitual drunkards…

…A few of the workers in shoddy mills suffer from bronchitis and emphysema of the lungs, but those who do so are the older men who began to work before so much oil was used with the rags. The dust is also apt to combine with the wax in the ears and plug them, as is the case in any dusty occupation. Granular inflammation of the eyelids is also seen among rag grinders. Acne is common through plugging of the sebaceous ducts….15

And of course, as with any machinery particularly in days with minimal health and safety regulations, mechanical failures could also cause injuries and death. For example in May 1907 rag grinder Willie Hinchliffe, employed by Messrs. Illingworth and Sons of White Lee, Batley was killed after being struck on the head by a metal hoop bursting off one of the swifts.16

Rag grinders on the whole were not well paid. In 1849 Reach stated the two Irish women he saw had a weekly wage not exceeding 7s. or 8s. a week. Men fared better, with Reach saying none made less than 18s. per week, and many earning as much as 22s.

Samuel Jubb, in his tabulation of textile wages paid in Batley in 1858, stated that the 130 rag grinders earned between 16s. and 26s. per week. 16s. put it at the lowest end of the scale for adult male shoddy occupations.17

The issue of low pay rumbled on. In January 1903 at a meeting in Dewsbury under the auspices of the General Union of Weavers and Textile Workers the resolutions included:

That this meeting urges all rag grinders, willeyers, and fettlers to join the Weavers and Textile Workers’ Union, and claim a wage of not less than 25s. per week, for 55½ hours’ work, and 6d. per hour for overtime.18

The campaign to improve wages continued as the decade progressed. 1906 proved a pivotal year, with the wages of textile workers the subject of meetings that summer. At a Dewsbury and District Trades and Labour Council monthly meeting on 16 July 1906 the resolution was passed hoping that local willeyers, fettlers, rag grinders, pickers, and others whose wages range under 25s. per week will at once unite and insist upon a living wage basis for their work. It was claimed it was impossible for a man and his wife and family to live on anything under that.19

In August packed meetings took place in Dewsbury, Birstall and Batley, with the aim of getting workers to join a union in order to push for a standard minimum wage for fettlers, willeyers, rag grinders, packers and spinners.

At a General Union of Weavers and Textile Workers meeting at the Savile Hotel, Dewsbury, Alderman Ben Turner, Batley town councillor and Trade Unionist, stated wages varied across the district, but no one could defend the low wages paid to willeyers, fettlers and rag grinders. It was an admitted fact that it was not alone the dirtiest and hardest job in a mill, but the worst paid. The unanimously adopted resolution was again for 25s. and a 55½ hour week for rag grinders, willeyers, fettlers, with additional pay for overtime.20

One by one the district’s firms increased wages. At an open-air meeting on 23 September 1906 in the corner near Dock Ing Mill dyehouse it was revealed that 18 firms had increased wages for willeyers, fettlers and rag grinders since the start of the campaign eight weeks before.21

Dock Ing Mills, rebuilt in 1899 after being destroyed in a fire the previous year – Photo by Jane Roberts

But much remained to be done. And rag grinding continued to be seen by many as a lowly occupation, with one Batley News correspondent asking:

Would it be a feasible thing to bring a man of eminence and worth to the grovelling level of a rag-grinder…?22

As for the number of rag grinders, they only formed a small proportion of those engaged in textile production. Samuel Jubb put the Batley total at 130 in 1858.

A rough and ready census search on Findmypast, limiting the parameters to Batley, resulted in the following rag grinder numbers:

  • 1881 – 265;
  • 1891 – 219;
  • 1901 – 254;
  • 1911 -257;

The results are broad brush as, for instance, some of the entries are for women described as rag grinder’s wives (eg the 1881 census has 10 of these). But it does point to a figure of around the 200-250 mark.

The 1921 census has a combined total of 505 breakers, rag grinders, hecklers and willowers. The male/female split is 488 men and 17 women. At this point I have been unable to disaggregate this figure to show the number of rag grinders alone. The 1921 census release will help with this.

It should also be noted that this job was one predominantly associated with Yorkshire’s Heavy Woollen District. John Harold Clapham stated that in 1904 of the 908 rag-grinding machines in the UK, 881 were in Yorkshire. Most off these could be found inside a circle, with Dewsbury at the centre and the radius extending six or seven miles.23

1. According to Batley woollen cloth manufacturer Samuel Jubb in his 1858 history of the shoddy trade, pilots were a stout fabric and staple article of shoddy manufacture. They were a cloth much worn by sailors, and used for overcoats and other garments.
2. Jubb describes flushings as a heavy, coarse, well-raised cloth, particularly used by the navy.
3. Jubb states druggets were a mixed unraised cloth principally used as low quality carpeting, or to provide protection in terms of cover or underlie for superior carpets.
4. Kelly’s Directory of the West Riding of YORKSHIRE, 1893.: With New Map of THE Riding, and Large Plans of Leeds, Sheffield and Rotherham. London, etc.: Kelly & Co., 1892.
5. 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.
6. Smith, William. The History and Antiquities OF MORLEY, in the West Riding of the County of York. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1876.
7. Jubb, Samuel. The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position. Houlston and Wright, 1860.
8. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 26 August 1904.
9. Jubb, Samuel. The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position. Houlston and Wright, 1860.
10. Morning Chronicle, 3 December 1849.
11. For example by the 1881 census there was only one female rag grinder, and in 1911 none. See the later section dealing with numbers for more information.
12. Morning Chronicle, 3 December 1849.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Oliver, Thomas. Dangerous Trades. London: Murray, 1902.
16. Batley News, 7 June 1907.
17. Jubb, Samuel. The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position. Houlston and Wright, 1860.
18. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 23 January 1903.
19. Batley News, 20 July 1906.
20. Batley News, 10 August 1906.
21. Batley News, 28 September 1906.
22. Batley News, 1 November 1907.
23. Clapham, J. H. The Woollen and Worsted Industries. London: Methuen, 1907.