Occupations: Willeyer

This curiously named job is one synonymous with Batley’s textile industry. In fact, it was a function carried out across the textile industry, not just shoddy production, with a number of regional titles and spelling variations. It was a job undertaken by several of the St Mary’s War Memorial men and their fathers

So, probably one of the first questions is how did it get such a peculiar name? It is a fairly simple answer. It is said to be a corruption of the old word “winnowing.” Winnowing was the process whereby chaff and dirt was removed from grain. And the removal of dirt was part of the willeying process, hence the winnowing link.

In order of tasks in the textile and shoddy production process, willeying took place prior to scribbling and carding. It was therefore one of the earlier of several preparatory processes necessary before reaching the loom stage. William Smith in his 1876 book about Morley set out the various production steps from raw material to a finished piece of cloth as:

  1. Selection and Sorting of the Wool.
  2. Scouring the wool to remove the grease and dirt.
  3. Rags, Shoddy, and Mungo – cleaning and grinding.
  4. Willeying, for rough-cleaning the various materials.
  5. Sprinkling with Oil, to facilitate the working.
  6. Teasing, with the Teaser, to mix or blend the materials.
  7. Scribbling, Carding, and Condensing.
  8. Spinning, by means of the Self-acting Mule.
  9. Dressing or Beaming of Cotton Warp.
  10. Weaving, at the Power Loom.
  11. Burling, to pick out dirt and irregularities in Weaving.
  12. Milling, or Fulling with soap.
  13. Raising the nap or face of the Cloth with Teazles.
  14. Cutting or shearing off the nap.
  15. Boiling, to give the cloth a permanent face.
  16. Dyeing the cloth.
  17. Drying and Tentering, to keep out the width.
  18. Pressing in hydraulic presses with heat.1

There were two objects to willeying. The first was to open the material to expand it, and make it light and feathery. The second was to remove and blow out the dirt to free it as far of possible from all manner of extraneous matter.2

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

willeyer, willey girl, willeyman, willier, willyer, willower, willowyer, willow tenter, willow machine minder; breaker-up (wool), bumble worker, devil minder, devil worker, duler, shaker, shaker-up, teazer, teazer man, wool breaker, wool duster, wooleyer; throws handfuls of wool or hair, hemp or flax tow, etc., on to the brattice or other feed apparatus of willeying machine, which separates fibres, and breaks up their natural matted state, and shakes out dirt and foreign matter therefrom, in preparation for carding; sometimes also blends materials together in process of willeying.

willeyer, rag; shoddy teazer; minds and feeds willey machine, which prepares rags for grinding or garnetting.3

This occupation classification came under Occupation Code Number 362 for the purpose of the 1921 census. This code came under the overall heading of breakers, rag grinders, hecklers and willowers, in the textile workers category.

Note how teazing is one of the terms used for the process. I have therefore included a description of this element in this piece too. Notice, too, how blending is referenced. These two processes could fall within the mill’s willeying department.

Samuel Jubb, in his 1860 look at Batley’s shoddy trade, described willeying thus:

Willeying – First of all the “teazer” only was in use for opening the wool, and mixing the materials together; afterwards the shake willey, a stronger and coarser toothed machine, was introduced, for the purpose of rough-cleaning the materials, by beating out the dust and dirt, and, at the same time, of giving them a preparatory mixing, prior to their being oiled and passed through the “teazer.” The latter machine has been improved, principally by having the swift and workers ranker toothed; by this means it is better adapted to fine work…4

There was little change in William Smith’s 1876 description:

Willeying. Fifty years ago the “teazer” only was in use for opening the wool and mixing or “blending” the material together. Abour the year 1825, the “shake-willey,” a stronger and coarser-toothed machine, was introduced, to open and disentangle the locks of wool and other materials, whilst at the same time ridding them of sand, dust, seeds, and other impurities. The willey consists of an open cylinder or drum, with ten or twelve ribs, on each of which is a row of spikes. Three rollers, each with ten rows of similar spikes, are placed over the drum, so that when the machine is in motion, the spikes on the roller pass through the spaces between those on the drum. By this arrangement the wool is opened, and the impurities fall through the wire grating beneath.5

Shake Willey Machine, The History and Antiquities of Morley, in the West Riding of the County of York, 1876 – out of copyright

The dust and impurities extracted were blown away by fans, swept and taken away, or removed from the dust box beneath the machine. Sprinkling with oil, blending and a further willeying process known as teasing then followed. These processes were part of the overall willeying department.

Smith explained:

The time has now arrived when it is necessary to decide upon the proportions of the various materials which are intended to form the “blend,” and having laid them upon the floor of the willey house, proceed with the operation of mixing together. As the wool is mixed with the other materials, it is plentifully sprinkled with oil, which renders the fibres soft, flexible, and better fitted for later operations.

SPRINKLING WITH OIL. — This is a most necessary operation, in order that subsequent processes may be accomplished satisfactorily. The oil is sprinkled on the wool by means of a tin vessel, having a wide spout with numerous small holes, emitting a continuous spray. Gallipoli, olive, and “Price’s Patent” are the oils chiefly used in this district…

As the blending and oiling proceeds, we may remark that, forty years ago, the weavers and spinners were called from their own work to assist in the operation, and with the exception of an allowance of beer, received no remuneration, but blending is now done by persons appointed solely for the purpose. The materials having been mixed, they are next passed through the teaser.

TEASING. — By means of the “teaser” the matted portions of the materials, which have not been subjected to the process of willeying, are torn open and separated into small tufts. The machine consists of one large and a number of small cylinders, studded over with many thousands of iron teeth, and performing from 1,000 to 2,000 revolutions per minute; they tease the materials as they revolve, and throw them out in light and airy flakes.6

Teazer, Woollen Spinning: A Text-Book for Students in Technical Schools and Colleges, and for Skillful Practical Men in Woollen Mills, 1894 – Out of Copyright

Health Issues:
This was a filthy job, which left workers dust-covered. Besides the usual mechanical occupation hazards of operating dangerous machinery, or issues resulting from dust, one of the more unusual health issues of willeying was anthrax.

A disease more commonly associated with wool sorters, it did occasionally strike other textile workers. The micro-organism, the bacillus anthraci, could enter the body via the skin, lungs or stomach, hence giving rise to three types of the disease: cutaneous, pulmonary and intestinal.

John Harold Clapham in his book about the woollen and worsted industries wrote:

One very horrible danger hangs over the wool sorter and the “willeyer,” when dealing with certain classes of material – the risk of anthrax….The need for special precautionary measures in dealing with dangerous wools was recognised in Bradford long ago, and suggestions for the guidance of masters and men was drawn up locally in 1884. These rules were taken over by the Home Office and turned into legal enactments in 1889, and have since been revised and expanded. They affect the Bradford district almost exclusively; for the chief materials scheduled as dangerous are Van mohair, alpaca, East Indian cashmere, and camel hair, all of which go primarily into the Bradford trade. Bales of Van mohair and “Persian locks,” the most dangerous substances of all, may not even be opened until they have been throughly steeped in water. The less dangerous wools on the list must be opened over a wire work screen “with mechanical exhaust draft, in a room set apart for the purpose”. The willeying machine must also have an efficient exhaust draft. All the details of the operations, the dress of the operatives, the conditions under which they take their meals, the very nail brushes in lavatories, come within the scope of the law – so completely has the State become the official guardian of those whose daily occupations involve risk.7

Batley willeyers were not untouched by anthrax. Though relatively rare, it did strike. In April 1904 Mount Pleasant resident John Thomas Wrigley, a willeyer employed blending East India wool and calf hair at Albion Mill in Batley Carr, died as a result of the cutaneous form of disease, with the micro-organism entering his body through a scratch or wound. As a result, local willeyers, along with fettlers, rag sorters, packers and wool blenders, were asked to be more aware of the disease and take precautions such as brushing the finger nails and hands on leaving work.8 Employers’ instructions included that any man working with foreign wool who had a scratch or wound should be immediately seen by a medical professional.

The death of 45-year-old Batley Carr willeyer William Henry Grace on 26 December 1917 showed lessons still needed to be learned – both by workers, but above all by employers.

Employed by Messrs. G. H. Wright Ltd., yarn spinners and dyers at Dale Street Mills, Batley Carr, on 18 December Grace noticed a spot on his forearm. He reported it to the foreman willeyer and blender John William Thornton on Thursday 20 December. At the inquest Thornton described it as “something like a boil, the size of a sixpence. It was black in the middle, and red all round.9 It resembled the Home Office anthrax pictures in the mill. The illustration below shows a typical anthrax lesion, which matches the description given by Thornton.

Meat handler: skin lesion of anthrax. Credit: Royal Veterinary College. Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

As per the firm’s orders in cases where an employee had a scratch, mark or cut, he sent Grace to the office for further inspection. Here, the firm’s managing director George Henry Wright sent him not to a doctor but to the local chemist Walter Pickles. Pickles had no experience of anthrax and, although aware of its link to woollen mills, only cleaned and bandaged the wound, advising Grace to go to Dewsbury Infirmary if he felt no better on Friday.

Instead, Grace returned to Pickles on Friday, saying his arm felt a lot better, asserting “I feel as fit as a ——- bull.10 Pickles was unconvinced. Re-bandaging the arm he claimed to have told Grace to go straight to the Infirmary. Grace did not.

When he returned home later that day his wife described his arm as “like a roll of bacon.11 But even now no action was taken. She had heard of anthrax but had no idea what it was. Her husband thought he had blood poisoning. It was not until Monday, Christmas Eve, that the doctor was finally sent for. He immediately took Grace to hospital, but it was too late. He died on 26 December.

At the inquest the Coroner, P. P. Maitland, learned from Thornton there were no nail brushes for the men (the requirement for which had been specifically emphasised locally after the 1904 death), only brushes. There was no proper lavatory, only a stock-hole “where there is everything you require.” Furthermore, despite Thornton telling all the men to wash before meals, which they took at home and not in the willeying department, they did not always do it.12

The Coroner’s biggest censure though was directed at managing director Wright, who had not even troubled himself to get off his seat to examine Grace, merely sending him to a chemist quite unqualified to deal with suspected anthrax. Maitland went on:

“I think your conduct was very reprehensible. It was very wicked…If the man had been given proper medical treatment on the Thursday it is probable he would have been living to-day.”13

The jury’s verdict was:

“That Grace died from the poison of anthrax bacilli, accidentally contracted at his work, but greatly aggravated by his employers’ neglect, in not ordering for him medical treatment, when his arm was reported as having a spot on it.”14

Willeying was not a well-paid job. Samuel Jubb, in his tabulation of textile wages paid in Batley in 1858, stated that the earnings of the 100 willeyers employed locally ranged from 18s to 20s per week. This put it at the lower end of the scale for adult male occupations in the shoddy industry.15

Willeyers were involved in the turn of the 20th century wage protests locally alongside rag grinders. 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.16

The campaign to improve wages and hours continued as the decade progressed. 1906 proved a crucial year, with the wages of textile workers the subject of meetings throughout 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.17

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.18

In a further August meeting at the Savile Hotel, a tabulated list of 43 firms represented showed the weekly wages of willeyers varied from 20s. 7½d. to 25s. Three firms were still working above a 55 ½ hour week, and one Batley district firm had a 61½ hour week.19

The push for unionisation amongst the workers as a lever for better wages and hours though was proving successful. The August Trades and Labour Council Meeting at Dewsbury revealed one-third of the willeyers and fettlers in the Heavy Woollen District had joined the Union since the previous month’s Trades and Labour Council meeting.20

The campaign began to bear fruit. One by one the district’s firms agreed to increase their workers wages. At an open-air meeting on 23 September 1906 in the corner near Dock Ing Mills 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

The campaign for better wages and conditions for underpaid textile workers, including willeyers, did not end with this 1906 success. The push for improvements continued. For example at the end of August 1910 a conference between manufacturers and workmen in Batley about the wages of willeyers and fettlers resulted in an agreement that in future a uniform rate of wages of 5½d. per hour be paid, with 5¾d. per hour for night work, and 6d per hour for overtime.22

In the annual meeting of the General Union of Weavers and Textile Workers, at the Carlinghow Labour Rooms, Batley, at the end of February 1911, Ben Turner, who was re-elected president of the Union, in his presidential address said:

There had been a spirit of greater enterprise of late, and in the last three years they had learned that time, patience, skill, and activity in management, and unity amongst the members, would ensure a rise in the wages of any section of workers in Yorkshire. That, he said, had been proved by the success of the movement for obtaining advances of wages for the willeyers and fettlers, spinners, twisters, weavers, shoddy workers, and in many other grades…23

In a Dewsbury County Court case in February 1916, a Mirfield mill paid weekly wages to a willeyer amounting to 27s. 6d., with a further weekly overtime sum of 4s. 8d.24

As for the number of willeyers, they only formed a small proportion of those engaged in textile production. Samuel Jubb put the local total at 100 in 1858.25

A rough and ready census search on Findmypast,26 limiting the parameters to Batley only, resulted in the following willeyer numbers:

  • 1881 – 52;
  • 1891 – 85;
  • 1901 – 104;
  • 1911 – 112;

The results are very broad brush, but give a rough indication.

The 1921 census has a combined total of 505 breakers, rag grinders, hecklers and willowers recorded for Batley under Occupation Code 362. The male/female split is 488 men and 17 women.27 Using the same Findmypast search term parameters as the 1881-1911 censuses, and limiting the results to Batley parish, the number of willeyers is 118.

1. Smith, William. The History and Antiquities OF MORLEY, in the West Riding of the County of York. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1876.
2. Vickerman, Charles. Woollen Spinning: A Text-Book for Students in Technical Schools and Colleges, and for Skillful Practical Men in Woollen Mills. London and New York: Macmillan Co., 1894.
3. 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.
4. Jubb, Samuel. The History of the Shoddy-Trade: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Position. Houlston and Wright, 1860.
5. Smith, William. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Clapham, J. H. The Woollen and Worsted Industries. London: Methuen, 1907.
8. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 22 April 1904.
9. Dewsbury News, 5 January 1918.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Jubb, Samuel. Ibid.
16. Batley Reporter and Guardian, 23 January 1903.
17. Batley News, 20 July 1906.
18. Batley News, 10 August 1906.
19. Batley News, 24 August 1906.
20. Ibid.
21. Batley News, 28 September 1906.
22. The Bradford Weekly Telegraph, 2 September 1910.
23. Brighouse News, 28 February 1911.
24. Batley News, 26 February 1916;
25. Jubb, Samuel. Ibid.
26. The search, conducted on 2 February 2022 was limited to willeyer, willier and willyer spelling variations, and applied directly to Batley. The results were not checked, so may include irrelevant results such as willeyer’s wife. But it gives a rough feel for numbers.
27. Census of England & Wales 1921 – Yorkshire. London: H.M.S.O., 1923.

I will be writing a fuller, separate post focusing on local textile industry anthrax cases during the late 19th and early 20th century.