Historic Structures

Labor Manchester Cotton & Woolen Manufacturing Company, Richmond Virginia

By the mid-19th century, Manchester had become known as a working class community. Black and white laborers employed in industry and domestic work in Richmond or in agricultural work in nearby Chesterfield County found living in Manchester convenient and inexpensive. A handful of immigrant workers, principally Irish and Scots, also resided there and found work in industry or as seamstresses and domestic workers.

Manchester residents depended heavily on the local cotton mills for employment throughout the nineteenth century. Besides jobs in the tobacco factories and grain mills, the cotton establishments provided substantial employment opportunities, especially for numerous women and children living in the small community. In 1866, a recession threatened to shutdown Manchester's leading employer. "We regret to learn that the total suspension of the Manchester Cotton and Wool Mill is in contemplation," wrote one reporter, "but we hope that at no distant day they may be able to resume their old system of work. Should the mills be compelled to suspend totally, there is no calculating the amount of distress that must inevitably follow.

In 1850, according to U.S. Census figures, the Manchester mill employed 150 men and 200 women. By 1860, the mill employed 150 men and women, and by 1870 it employed 30 men, 40 women, and 60 children. Southern mills probably employed a larger number of men before the Civil War. But after the war many women took the place of the men who had died in combat. In Manchester and Petersburg the mill owners employed widows who, upon the death of their husbands, entered the factories in order to support their households. Furthermore, by 1867, operators of the Manchester cotton mill were also inclined to cut labor costs by hiring "a very large number of women."

The female mill workers in Manchester probably came from the farms in nearby Chesterfield county and from Richmond as well as Manchester itself. During the busy season (in the autumn and spring) they labored twelve hours a day, six days a week. During the summer and early fall season, prior to the arrival of the cotton crop, and when the river was at its lowest, their hours decreased to 55-60 per week. A United States Commission of Labor Report noted in 1888 that Women working in Richmond cotton mills earned $3.95 a week. These women regularly earned less than $150 per year, while lawyers, doctors, public officials could earn $1500-2000 and machinists earned $700.

Manchester residents depended on the continuous operation of the cotton mills because few factories employed such large numbers of people. Besides several mining companies and one cedar works establishment, no other industry utilized the large work force hired by the cotton mill owners. During the 1840s the Manchester mill employed 250 people, while the Dunlop and McCance flour mills utilized 50 workers.

For women and children the mills represented one of the few opportunities for employment outside of domestic work. Men could secure jobs in a variety of industries where the hard physical labor requirements excluded women workers. Generally, women and children found their employment opportunities limited to the cotton mills and tobacco factories.

Mill owners did not limit their work force to adults but employed a large number of children as well. In some instances parents brought their offspring to work as "helpers". Since the children only assisted their parents and were not formally employed they failed to appear on the work roles. Thus, though the census data only began to indicate their presence in the cotton mills in 1870, they undoubtedly worked in the factories before that date.

Because the textile manufacturers paid low wages whole families worked together in the factories and pooled their earnings to support the household. Children, as young as five labored alongside their parents and performed a variety of tasks. They carried water to the workers, swept the floors, and retrieved broken threads. Their small, nimble hands and fingers made them well equipped to work around the delicate threads. They untied knots and spliced broken strands together.

Though youngsters did all types of work, their inexperience with the whirling textile machinery sometimes led to serious injuries. For example, in one court case involving the Manchester cotton mill, a twelve year old boy sued the company after his arm was badly damaged when it got stuck in a weaving machine.

Just as the children had specific jobs in the cotton mill, as too did the men and women employees. Usually, men constituted the "operatives" or skilled laborers. These male operatives worked very long weeks (sometimes in excess of 80 hours) and earned up to $400 to $500 a year. They repaired and adjusted the looms, the spinning and carding machines, and the water power system, including the gates on the canal, the turbine, and the horizontal shafting. Men also filled all supervisory positions.

There is no evidence that the cotton mills in Manchester or Petersburg ever owned many slaves. Generally, the Manchester cotton mill profits did not allow for a large investment in bondsmen. However, the 1860 slave census indicated that the Manchester company did own two twenty-year old male slaves. There is no indication of the jobs these bondsmen performed. They may have worked in the picker room, but most likely held custodial jobs or worked at the loading dock and warehouse.

It is quite possible that bondsmen were leased to work in the mill. This was especially true during the 1840s. A notice in a local newspaper stated that the mill desired to "hire for the ensuing year....two hundred boys, girls, and young women. Persons having such slaves at their disposal will do well to call" at the mill office. The Manchester mill probably did not employ slaves very long after the 1840s. In general, textile mills throughout the south decreasingly used bondsmen during the 1850s when the rise in cotton prices increased the field slaves value beyond the financial reach of struggling manufacturers.

Other social factors mitigated against the employment of slaves in the mills. White society frowned on the use of slaves in industries where white women and children were employed. In other industries, whites struck in protest of hiring the bondsmen, fearing that the practice would spread to other industries and eliminate their own positions.

As early as 1837, the owners of the Manchester cotton mill were providing tenement housing for a percentage of their employees. Insurance records indicated that the mill authorities owned a servant's house, an overseer's house and a smoke house. The presence of nearby Richmond made it unnecessary to build workers' housing on the same scale as seen in northern cotton mills and later in the southern piedmont mill villages. However, in October of 1876 when Alex Donnan and J. Wesley Friend sold the mill the S.P. Arrington he also purchased eighteen tenement houses located in Manchester on Second and Third Streets between Hull and Decatur.