Home News Clockwork Captivity: The Industrial Mills of England, Where Even Time Was Your Adversary

Clockwork Captivity: The Industrial Mills of England, Where Even Time Was Your Adversary

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America began to seriously address the issue of child labor only in the late 1930s, with Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Public Contracts Act, which raised the minimum working age to 16. Prior to this, it was common for children to spend most of their days performing some of the most dangerous and delicate tasks on factory floors. This could be a glimpse into the future for today’s children.

In her book “Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History”, esteemed watchmaker Rebecca Struthers investigates how timekeeping technology and practices have influenced the evolution of the contemporary world, focusing on the most celebrated historical timepieces. In the following excerpt, we delve into 18th and 19th century Britain, where timekeeping was a tool of social control, forcing both adults and children into submission and productivity.


Excerpted from Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History by Rebecca Struthers. Published by Harper. Copyright © 2023 by Rebecca Struthers. All rights reserved.

Although Puritanism had long since receded from Europe’s mainstream by the time of the Industrial Revolution, industrialists continued to champion salvation through labor, aligning it with the adage of “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. Now, however, the focus was as much on productivity as it was on salvation, with the two often being conveniently merged. Provincial workers were considered lazy and disorganized by those accustomed to clock-regulated work. The concept of ‘time thrift’ was advocated as a virtue and a source of wellbeing. In 1757, Irish statesman Edmund Burke proposed that ‘excessive relaxation can be lethal, causing despondency, despair, and even self-destruction’, while hard work was essential for both ‘physical and mental health’.

Historian E.P. Thompson, in his acclaimed essay “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism”, eloquently portrayed the role of the watch in 18th-century Britain as ‘the tiny instrument which now dictated the rhythm of industrial life’. As a watchmaker, I appreciate this depiction. I frequently ‘regulate’ the watches I work on, tweaking the active hairspring length to get the watch running at the right rate, thereby governing our daily lives. For the managerial classes, however, their watches didn’t just control their lives but also the lives of their employees.

In 1850, James Myles, a factory worker from Dundee, chronicled his life working in a spinning mill. His rural childhood ended when he moved to Dundee with his mother and siblings following his father’s murder conviction and seven-year sentencing to the colonies. James managed to secure a factory job at the tender age of seven, a welcome relief to his mother and their impoverished family. He vividly describes the harsh conditions of work and the grueling factory hours that often ran for 17 to 19 hours a day with barely any meal breaks. To ensure punctuality, foremen would send people to rouse the workers from their sleep.

“Knocker-uppers”, or human alarm clocks, became a common sight in industrial cities. For a small fee, they would knock on your bedroom windows with a long stick or even a pea shooter, at a predetermined time. They carefully balanced serving as many clients as possible within a short walking distance, without disturbing non-paying neighbors. Their services became increasingly essential as factories started to implement shift work, demanding irregular working hours from people.

Inside the workplace, time was often intentionally limited and manipulated by employers. By eliminating all visible clocks apart from those they controlled, the factory master alone knew when workers had started and how long they’d been toiling. Shortening lunch and break times and prolonging the workday was easily achieved. As watches started to become more affordable, those who could afford them presented a threat to the factory master’s power.

Time became a mechanism of social control. Starting work at dawn or even before was seen as an effective way to curb the working class’s unruly behavior and help them become productive societal members. The concept of temporal control was even extended to children, who were expected to adapt to this schedule from a very young age. This extreme notion was embodied by the exploitative practices of the watch industry, such as the Christchurch Fusee Chain Gang. These practices led to long-lasting effects on poor working communities, resulting in toxic combinations of long hours, hazardous environments, disease, and poverty, leading to shockingly low life expectancies in Britain’s most intensive manufacturing areas.

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Harry Potter August 6, 2023 - 10:40 pm

The effects on health were devasting! cant imagine how it was living with such a low life expectancy. so sad

Emma Thompson August 7, 2023 - 1:00 am

wow!! didn’t know abt the knocker-uppers b4, interesting but also kinda creepy. waking up to someone knocking on ur window at 4am. no thanks.

Tom Hiddleston August 7, 2023 - 1:49 am

Myles’s story is heartbreaking. the factory owners were so cruel!

Sarah Connor August 7, 2023 - 6:25 am

its like time itself was a form of slavery… makes u appreciate modern labor laws more

Katie Holmes August 7, 2023 - 11:04 am

this piece made me realize how important timekeeping was in history, never really thought bout it that way

John Smith August 7, 2023 - 3:23 pm

Really hard to believe what kids had to go through back in the day. Child labor in the watch industry, unthinkable stuff!


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