The Mill's apprentices came from the parish workhouses of Staffordshire, South Cheshire, Liverpool and as far afield as London and East Anglia. Under the apprentice system, it became the factory owner's responsibility to provide food, clothes and lodging, thus relieving the pressure on parish outdoor relief, so guardians commonly made agreements with certain industrialists, satisfying the latter's need for labour and relieving the parish of their legal responsibility for the pauper children. Some children were also apprenticed by their parents, serving under slightly different terms to the parish apprentices, working for board and lodgings but also with a small weekly wage.
By 1790, the Apprentice House had been built to provide accommodation for the apprentices under the control of superintendents. At its height, approximately 100 apprentices lived at the House. By modern standards, working and living conditions were harsh, but the Gregs' were considered to be fair employers, providing conditions better than the norm and in advance of legislative requirements. Discipline was strict, with punishments enforced for indiscretions, but there is no evidence of the cruelty which occurred elsewhere. It is the testimonies of runaways brought before local magistrates which has given us the insight into daily routines at the Apprentice House.
The daily regime was designed to enforce institutional life, but offered the hope that, through self-improvement, the individual could advance their status. There are instances where an
ex-apprentice has risen to the position of overlooker, and one case where an apprentice eventually became Mill Manager. Their diet was basic, but relatively plentiful for the time, with produce grown or farmed locally, some from the Kitchen Garden at the House, tended for by the apprentices. Their health was supervised by the Gregs' physician.
Unusually, there were opportunities for employment upon completion of the indenture period. Apprentices were provided with some education, and with a range of industrial skills beneficial to their future careers. Mill records reveal that over 1,000 children served their apprenticeships with the Gregs, many of whom continuing to live and work in Styal as adults, raising their own families in the village. Even today, there remain Styal residents who are able to trace their families back several generations to work at the Mill.
By the 1820's, the cost of employing apprentices was higher than that of free labour, and the system began to lose favour nationally. However, the Gregs' persisted with it until the abolition of the apprentice system in 1847, no doubt due to the difficulties in obtaining sufficient supplies of external labour to keep the Mill at full productivity.
View the Apprentices House collection to find out more >