Between the Mills and the Stars
‘welcome reminders of the place that was my home, in a time that is gone’
By Ronnie Bray
When I was preparing to leave my beloved Yorkshire to live in the desert of Arizona, the treed ridges of Tennessee, and the fir-clad mountains of Montana, I looked lovingly at the scenes of my childhood, hoping to press their images deep into my memory, so that in exile I could conjure them up in graphic detail, and so that when the lamp of my life shall burn low in the years of my old age, sweeping me along in the rush towards eternity, I can bask in the fading glory of people, days, and places that once were so real, but which now, phantomlike, grow dimmer, making me wonder if they were ever real at all.
Most of the giant mills are gone, their machinery silent, their workers gone to their graves or fast approaching them, and their chimneys felled or truncated. Those that remain are turned to other uses than making worsted cloth whose quality has been seldom equalled and never surpassed. My memory rejoices not only by the images of these stone massives, but also from the recollection of the sound of their rumbling machinery complete with familiar thuds, and from the smells, whose memories, whilst not pleasant, are vivid and welcome reminders of the place that was my home, in a time that is gone.
Into these mills on many a dark wet morning went quiet people wrapped up against the cold, inured to their misery, too familiar with poverty and its attendant ills, but harbouring a secret cheerfulness that their circumstances should have denied them.
Children went to work in the mill, leaving, if they were lucky, some fifty or sixty years later with broken and bent bodies, no savings, and no homes of their own. The factories broke their bodies whilst distorting and impoverishing their spirits, and not a few succumbed to the combination of cruel toil and deficient health services..
After the steam whistle blew its last signal of the day, these morning mutes spilled themselves out onto the streets a little more erect than when they entered the confines of their place of imprisonment and labour in the dark morning hours, and more vocal.
Flowing from the strangely silent mills at hometime gave workers pause to breathe clear air and leave the din of noisy machinery behind.
Grimy day had no claim on their souls when their hours of bondage ended, and they were freed until the morning hooter recalled their soulless bodies from warm blankets to a thraldom whose release came only with death.
Dinner was eaten at teatime, and passed with some sense of relief. Children were warned to be quiet while father ate, after which some time for them might be stolen from the evening’s ration before bed called.
The stillness of outside nights was broken by occasionally raised voices from those who didn’t know how to behave in public. Shouts of intemperate laughter echoed through empty thoroughfares, ran around courtyards, jiggled down muddy lanes, rattling off the walls of the tiny back-to-back terraced houses, while shared jokes, and quips giggled outside curtained closed windows, coming louder then softer as they faded into darkness, and the night closed in again on hushed and dim oil lamp lit streets.
No textile worker ever got rich, but mill owners and merchants drove Rolls-Royces as big as workers’ houses, and lived in houses almost as large as their giant mills. They lived different lives and spoke a different language, unaware of the things their workers spoke about, for they were of another world and had a culture denied that them insight into the misery of the world of their employees.
Mill workers did without essentials as well as luxuries, because they could not afford interest on credit, yet could not afford to live without it, so debt, with all its demands and fears, was ever present. They lived between the devil and the deep blue sea; tossed between the mills and the stars, but few turned their eyes and minds outward or upward.
Nevertheless, after work, some listened to the radio, read newspapers, magazines and books, and broadened their horizons by attending evening classes at a worker’s educational institute. These few discovered worlds outside of the circumscribed environment that was the lot of their kind for generations.
In the strange nights that come after long hours of hard labour, while some lost their pain through drink, these cerebral argonauts and entered realms through imaginations and longings that refused to accept the limits set upon it by birth and circumstance. Intellectual rebellion was frowned upon, and frequently condemned. The smallest expression of self-improvement was denounced as disloyalty to one’s family, community, and class.
Yet, as the minds of those who dared dream of other worlds rose to the stars, wondering what was beyond the world of their bodily captivity, their souls were liberated by a sense of freedom that was often no more than an illusion. Yet, it was these almost frivolous reveries that eventually opened the doors of their minds and made liberation a reality. If not for them, then for their children and grandchildren.
We owe the opportunities we have enjoyed to those courageous spirits, who in the gut of dark satanic mills dared to dream when others said they could not and must not, ignoring the limitations of their world to set their minds free to bathe in the sunlight of other places, other times, even from the very bellies of the dark mill-tombs.
And it is these I shall miss most. The gritty men and women of the hard land of the North who, though their lives were moulded by the unyielding landscape and by the iron discipline imposed by their work and culture, harboured esoteric hopes that blazed avenues of escape for them and especially for those who would succeed them.
These are my heroes. These, who held fast to their dreams in the face of hostility, who, in houses made of stone as hard as their own existence, played out their wretched lives and dared to dream their dreams, somewhere between the mill and the stars.
Ronnie Bray ~~~ a Son of Yorkshire