Thomas Priestley and Joseph Sefton were apprentices at Samuel Greg’s Quarry Bank Mill. Thomas Priestly was 13 when he ran away and Joseph Sefton was 17. They were bound by an indenture – which is a legal document binding an apprentice to an owner – in exchange for food, clothing, shelter and work. In 1806 Priestly and Sefton ran away from the Mill, but were later caught – supposedly stealing apples – and were taken before the Magistrates.
Priestly was interviewed by the Magistrates. However, there is an argument that Priestley’s report may be inaccurate. The first reason for this is that Thomas Priestly, as aforementioned, had an indenture against him. This meant that whatever he said, the Magistrates would send him back to the Mill, regardless of what Priestley said. Priestley would have known this, as he had signed the document, even though it is doubtful that he could read it.
Thomas Priestley, may have exaggerated the condition, making them sound better, as the Gregs, were in charge of punishing them (although this was usually delegated to the Superintendents). Knowing this, Priestley may have made the conditions sound better, so that he would have been punished less. For example, in Priestley’s transcript he says ‘we had…new clothes when we wanted them.’ This seems a rather blatant exaggeration. The Apprentices would not have simply been able to ask for more clothes. It would not make sense for the Gregs to waste money, by allowing them to do so.
As I have also mentioned, Priestly was illiterate. He had to sign his indenture with a non specific mark, because he could not write his name. The language in the transcript from his hearing also uses quite sophisticated language. For example, Priestley is recorded as saying ‘cotton manufactory’ and ‘consented before the magistrate.’ I would suggest that the transcript is a Clerks interpretation of what Priestley said. This argument is further supported by Sefton’s transcript, which uses similar language, such as ‘I have consented before the magistrates at this office.’
If we take this argument further, it could even be considered that maybe, very little of this is Priestley’s own words. As he was illiterate, he could not check what he had been given to sign.
Further evidence of inaccuracy comes from where Priestley said the money that they spent came from. He says that ‘she (his mum) sent him a Crown.’ This was a sizable amount of money and seeing that his Mother worked in a workhouse in Hackney, it seems almost ridiculous to suppose that she could have sent it.
Joseph Sefton also contradicts this by saying that ‘I had a shilling…The shilling I had arose from my overwork.’ Sefton is saying that the money came from overtime payment. It appears that Priestley invented the story of the Crown, as they were supposedly caught stealing apples.
Even though there are many inaccuracies, quite a few of Priestley’s points are supported by Sefton. For example, Priestley says that ‘with porridge for breakfast and supper throughout the week, we had plenty of it and brown bread with it.’ Sefton says ‘Monday we had for dinner milk and bread and sometimes thick porridge.’
Also, the Greg’s doctor Mr Holland kept records which confirmed Priestley’s story of ‘one of the wheels caught my finger and tore it off…I was attended by the Surgeon of the factory Mr Holland.’ The fact that the doctor, personally verified (through his records) that he had treated Priestley lends Priestley credibility.
Furthermore, it cannot be suggested that Sefton did not run-away from the Mill to see his mother. Priestley was a thirteen year old, who had had his finger torn off by a machine (supported by Doctor Holland’s records). Life at the Mill must have been hard and it is unreasonable to suggest that he would not have wanted to see his Mother.
Overall, I believe that he was telling the truth about his motives to leave. However, I am certain that based on the evidence; he was lying about his Mother’s Crown funding his and Sefton’s trip. I also believe that he was probably exaggerating the Mills conditions.