The Real Oliver Twist?

The original 19th-century mill became notorious during the Industrial Revolution for its unsavoury employment practices.

The ”Poor Law” Act of 1601 had, among its provisions “the putting out of children to be apprentices”. An agreement was made between the churchwarden and an employer, by means of an indenture sworn before a Justice of the Peace, that the latter would provide for and give employment and training to a pauper child. Often this worked for the benefit of the child but often it was seen by employers as a source of cheap labour and a way for a parish to relieve itself of responsibility. In the absence of any local labour at Litton Mill, this was the course taken by the owners.

Robert Blincoe was born around 1792. By 1796 he was an orphan and living in the St. Pancras workhouse in London. His parents are unknown. At the age of six he was sent to work as a chimney boy, an assistant of a chimney sweeper, but his master soon returned him to the workhouse.

In August 1799, at the age of seven, he was sold to work as a “mule scavenger” in the Gonalston Mill in Lowdham, near Nottingham. According to his later memoirs, he was one of the 80 seven-year-old children the St. Pancras workhouse sold to “indenture” as parish apprentices. They travelled there in wagons for five days. Ostensibly they were supposed to be schooled to better their lives, but that never happened.

Blincoe and the others lived in a dormitory, and their food consisted of “porridge” and black bread. They worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. Blincoe’s first job was to pick up loose cotton waste from the spinning frames when the machine was working, even in the face of injury. He lost half a finger. Overseers beat the children on the slightest provocation. Blincoe later stated that he contemplated suicide many times. When he did finally run away and tried to flee to London, a tailor who sometimes worked for the mill recognised him and dragged him back.

In 1802, when Lowdham Mill was closed, Blincoe and others were sent to Litton Mill in Derbyshire. Treatment remained the same, and he remained there till he was an adult.

Robert Blincoe became active the in the movement to abolish child labour in England and his memoirs were submitted to the Royal Commission that was established at the time.

Historian John Waller has asserted that Charles Dickens based his character Oliver Twist on Blincoe. This book is in the lounge room in Six Litton Mill and you can read it for yourself.

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