a leeds revolution

Education For All – how the Marshalls set about upskilling Holbeck

June 25, 2019

Education For All – how the Marshalls set about upskilling Holbeck

John Marshall was a different kind of mill owner. Not just in his ground-breaking implementation of productivity, engineering and raw material procurement practices, or his adoption of visionary design, construction and architectural techniques, but in his treatment of people.

Through the way he lived his life, John Marshall was a utilitarian and followed a strict doctrine that served him well in the development of his industrial empire from the 1790s onwards, that being that actions are right and correct if they are useful or for the benefit of the majority. He gave considerable weight to actions being practical rather than attractive. This was a typically 19th century way to justify actions in a developing industrial society, but Marshall gave a name to it, practised it and people followed him.

Utilitarianism is a version of consequentialism, and is one of the best known and most influential moral theories. Like other forms of consequentialism, its core idea is that whether actions are morally right or wrong depends on their effects. More specifically, the only consequences of actions that are relevant are the good and bad results that they produce. This was not a practice you would immediately attribute to a 19th century mill owner in Leeds, primarily because, as opposed to other forms of consequentialism such as egoism and altruism, utilitarianism considers the interests of all beings equally. Marshall couldn’t afford to have an ego and he couldn’t afford to be altruistic, but in developing his empire at a time when society regimentally enforced strict divisions between wealthy mill owners – of which he was one - and their workers, he was quite unique in considering everybody to have equal value.

The industrial revolution was a seismic shift in thinking which brought wholesale change the world over, but it was a long time before altruism and philanthropy were on a mill owner’s radar. People were a commodity and a means for a mill owner to make money. The use of women and child labour was widespread because it was cheap and because only a small proportion of the workforce had to be skilled in any way. The largescale mechanisation of processes exacerbated that problem and naturally led to exploitation, long hours and the wilful acceptance of a downtrodden existence for much of the labouring classes.

Visitors to Marshall’s mills would routinely wonder at the levels of organisation, the fluid workflow and the extensive record-keeping. Girls as young as 12 and 13 were employed by Marshall, as they were everywhere else at the time, but Marshall also fostered a reputation amongst his contemporaries because he regulated the work his labourers undertook, and instilled disciplinary practices that both punished lateness and poor quality but also rewarded diligence, aptitude and application. Many of these practices are seen as repressive today, but were enlightened for their time, and Marshall built much of his procedural structure on the edict that what was good for other people was ultimately good for himself.

Few others thought so laterally in the 1790s, and hence Marshall knew where to draw the line with exhausting hours of work, but also installed fans, changing rooms, stoves and baths, way before such basic welfare facilities were a legal pre-requisite or even a moral consideration. The changing rooms were provided as an acclimatising buffer area to prepare workers for the cold streets outside, having emerged from the hot and humid mill interior. The stoves were provided for drying clothes. The fans and air blowers moderated the temperature and removed dust from the atmosphere, an unavoidable by-product of the carding and hackling process. And this was all long before the officious health and safety jackboot took a firm hold over manufacturing practices.

With Marshall’s mills being the biggest in Leeds, he naturally drew most attention, but adversaries of the new factory systems looking for evidence of brutality and vice could gorge more readily on the grisly findings in the smaller factories springing up in the surrounding Holbeck streets, where discipline and regulation was scarce or non-existent.

In truth, from the very beginning of Mills A and B in the 1790s, Marshall had encouraged his adult male workers to form ‘friendly societies’ where they would pay a regular subscription into a common fund. This was used to meet the natural calamities of sickness or death, but it taught the workers to shoulder their own responsibilities and make their own rules.

Marshall had already mingled in London society and dabbled in politics by the 1820s. He had always thought deeply about the problems in society and had long been connected with educational interests, particularly in Leeds. He had a hand in founding the Lancasterian School, the Mechanics’ Institute, the Literary & Philosophical Society and in 1826 he made the first proposal for what would become the University of Leeds. While other factory owners had experimented in setting up schools for their workers, Marshall had the drive and vision to put actions into words. In 1822 he persuaded a number of mill owners in and around the Water Lane area to join him in setting up a school in Holbeck.

(Marshall's first school as it appeared on an 1850 Ordnance Survey map. This was originally a stand-alone building but note how its skewed angle has been incorporated into the Temple Mill building) 

This was a small, stand-alone two-storey building which still exists today and was for some reason incorporated into the design of the grandiose legacy of Temple Mill, which was built around it in 1838, despite necessitating the back wall of the building to be constructed at a skewed angle in order to accommodate it. During the day, boys and girls were taught to read and write for 2d (pennies) per week, roughly 48 pence today. In addition to this, girls were taught to sew and for an extra 1d, boys could learn accounting. From 7pm to 9pm, an evening class would teach children who had been working in the mills during the day, the charge was the same as the day school, except children would be charged 1d extra if they didn’t bring their own candle…………

Marshall’s associates soon withdrew their support when the school ran at a financial loss, blaming a working class indifference they believed to be inherent. Marshall carried on alone, but doubled the prices for the day school and made the night school free. By 1825 he had started a programme whereby groups of 20 children as young as 11 and 12 were sent directly from the mills to the school during the day, for free as a ‘privilege’. He instructed his supervisors to choose only the best-behaved and deserving children, a little discriminatory and self-defeating perhaps, but at least a primitive enforcement of a belief that education was something of value. This criterion was soon extended to children who ‘wanted to go’.  

The groups got larger and by the time a separate infants’ school was built in 1832 nearly two thousand children had passed through the school. Free, compulsory education for all was still nearly 50 years away, and Marshall had no commercial reason for offering an education to his employees, when only his skilled mechanics – a small proportion of his workforce – would materially benefit his business by having one. Furthermore, the mills had an average length of service of just over five years, so any value gained from an employees’ education was routinely lost to the company very quickly.

By this time, the Marshall’s had cut the working hours of children under the age of eleven to an eight-hour shift only. Again, incredible to read now as a compassionate concession to a child’s welfare, but this was done before the 1833 Factory Act placed restrictions on the use of child labour for the first time. And soon, any child under 13 and in Marshall’s employment was spending half their working day in the factory school.

(The north elevation of the original former school as it appears today. Photo source: Stephen Levrant Heritage Architecture Ltd) 

The early 1830s also saw further concessions to employee welfare. The Marshalls introduced a surgeon, who would visit the mills twice a week and tend to any ailments of the workforce. A thirteen year-old Margaret Kendall, for example, was moved from one department to another, and put on shorter hours, when her back began showing signs of deformity.

At the time, only 1% of working time was lost to illness, which was a remarkable statistic for the industry and the period as a whole, and while there was clearly some self-interest in their motives, the Marshalls believed that compassionate treatment was advantageous to the workers themselves and that enlightened leadership would bring benefits to everyone.

John Marshall’s strong belief in education for all came from being increasingly convinced that education was indispensable to successful living. He knew that three out of four families in Leeds lived in basic labourer’s dwellings and upon leaving for work for the day, most children were left to roam the streets and “…contract habits of idleness and vice…” With words that could be just as relevant today, Marshall believed social evils were derived from the neglect of a child’s ‘moral education’ and he feared that each generation would grow to be equally as helpless and miserable as the present one.

The success of the schools can’t be measured objectively, but rival flax-spinners in the area soon followed suit, and it was noted that country landowners – the other significant employers within the UK’s aristocracy - did little to improve the lifestyle, character or moral fibre of their own workers, and the mill owners of filthy, dirty, acrid Leeds enjoyed a rare ethical victory. Marshall’s determination and endeavour prompted rivals to replicate his actions, and the mill schools contributed much to the widespread literacy of the urban masses, and stood as an honest attempt to offer them some independence and an ability to stand on their own two feet.  

It was found that the proportion of the workforce who could read, write and count was improving, and the Marshalls felt satisfied that they were enabling the self-improvement of their workforce and allowing them to “raise themselves out of the class into which they were born”. The Marshalls equipped the infants’ school with a library and the 112 children attending borrowed an average of 30 books per year.

The vision was not simply to improve the factories and the products, but to improve the people within them to be worthy of the new society that was evolving in industrial Britain. The country’s mill owners enjoyed little positive publicity at the time, but while the Marshalls could only do so much to improve the general ills of the labouring classes – poor sanitation, overcrowding, a lack of public open space – they could at least improve an individual’s ability to contribute to society and seek a better way of life.

Following the infants’ school built in 1832, a new junior school followed 10 years later. By this time, John Marshall’s political career had begun and ended. He was MP for Yorkshire for just 12 months, retiring from office because of ill health. His third son, James Marshall – the eventual brains behind the magnificent Temple Mill – also served as an MP for Leeds in 1847, becoming an outspoken figure in favour of compulsory education and contesting a parliamentary election purely on this issue. He would also demonstrate some unlikely compassion for his workers by creating 114 allotment plots on land adjacent to Temple Mill for their exclusive use. These were the only evidence of rural land in the area and it is believed these allotments also provided a home for the sheep that famously grazed the grass roof of the incongruous Egyptian palace in Holbeck.

(Women and children leaving the side workers' entrance to Temple Mill in 1872 and these same steps as they appear today)

The 1842 juniors’ school was built on a site south of Commercial Street, on what is now Sweet Street West and adjacent to the site of the now derelict Commercial pub. It sat alongside the Holbeck Mechanics’ Institute and the Holbeck Liberal Club, also built with the help of generous donations from the Marshall family. All the buildings survived into the 1940s but were demolished soon after suffering from bomb damage inflicted in the Second World War air raids over Leeds.

The Leeds Times reported on the school opening on September 10th 1842 “Messrs Marshall & Co have erected a very handsome and spacious school in the vicinity of their extensive factories at Holbeck. The building is a very elegant specimen of brick architecture, and comprises two spacious school rooms, and a residence for the school master…they are very handsome rooms, lofty and well lighted, and ventilated.” The same paper also reported a couple of weeks later that “The exertions of this gentleman (James Marshall) to improve the moral and social condition of the people in his neighbourhood cannot be too warmly commanded.

The new school further regulated the education system the Marshall business – now led almost completely by James, with his father John largely retired from the business - was developing, bringing direct structure in separating age groups, sexes and abilities. 

In the meantime, the Marshalls’ visionary use of productivity techniques allowed them to shift the demographic of their workforce. Possibly as much a commercial consideration as it was a moral one, but the proportion of child labour reduced as productivity increased and more skilled, experienced and expensive labour could be used to tend to the developing practices in the mills.

There was a growing country-wide resentment at the industrial movement though, and the use of child labour was a big part of it. In the early 1800s, primitive production techniques and the demographic spread of the population made it necessary financially to use child labour. The Marshalls argued that this had shifted as time went on, and they fiercely denied exploiting child labour, maintaining a youngest age of employment of 11, where other more unscrupulous employees in Leeds utilised labour as young as nine.

Although the Chartist Riots (also known as the Plug Riots) of the 1840s did arrive on the Marshalls’ doorstep - Chartism was a political movement seeking voting reforms following the People’s Charter of 1838, and in 1842 a 10,000-strong mob marched to Holbeck and attacked the Marshall and Benyon flax mills - the family were generally known as considerate employers, particularly in the years that the founder, John Marshall, ran the company. The second generation carried on many of his methods before essentially losing control and interest in the business, while the third generation openly resented the business and slowly watched it slide into the mire, along with the flax industry in general.

In terms of the welfare of the workers, the Marshalls were still heralded as forward thinking. As trade slowly receded, rather than sacking employees, they worked shorter weeks, again, as much because of the utilitarian belief that such workers would be harder to re-employ when work picked back up, as for any altruistic reasons.

The mill schools continued to operate as the industry died, with the infants’ school amalgamating into the junior school in 1870 due to the decreasing numbers of children employed. The original school that by now was part of the Temple Mill building also ceased to operate and became warehousing.

Industry morale was at an all-time low and country-wide strikes over pay and conditions in the 1870s didn’t help. The Marshalls couldn’t avoid the strikes and the game was nearly up for them. Compulsory education had been on the cards for a number of years, and the 1870 Education Act was followed by the 1880 Elementary Education Act, which effectively outlawed child labour and finally offered a free education to all.

(Women and children working in the main mill room at Temple Mill in 1859. Photo source: Knowledge is Power, Charles Knight)

These events were mirrored in the decline in numbers of child workers over the last few years of the Marshalls’ business. At the height of the firm’s prosperity in the early 1830s, 28% of the total workforce employed by the business were children under the age of 13. By 1870 they employed 500 children out of a total of around 2500 employees at all the mills. By 1878 this was just 100 out of 1300 employees and in 1885, just a year before the business closed for good, only three children were employed. The rising labour costs that compulsory education forced upon the industry went a long way to sounding the death knell for many manufacturers in Leeds, and the Marshalls were no different.

Except that in the meantime, the Marshalls had done more than anyone to raise standards, to instil some individual pride and to offer a purpose to a huge mass of people who had hitherto existed purely for the benefit of someone else. The incidental benevolence of the Marshalls gave people the chance to stand up and see what was around them, and if they wanted to they could grab it.

Fast forward 133 years and there are some parallels to how development work in Leeds is utilising local people, and offering training and education opportunities that aren’t necessarily available to them elsewhere. The Forging Futures Campus is an example of an organisation providing a vital conduit back into everyday society for young people who have, for whatever reason, not related well with the education system in many cases. The fact that the CEG:South Bank development currently underway in the Holbeck area of Leeds has employment and training opportunities for local people at its core, neatly brings the story full circle.

The buildings, the history and the stories are not the only legacy of the Marshall Empire on industrial Leeds and what people can see today. There is also the principle of treating everyone as an equal and recognising they have as much potential as anyone else, even when it doesn’t necessarily benefit yourself. Sometimes it might just make their life better. Sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.

(Main header pic "Factory Hands Leaving For Dinner". Photo source 'The Liszt Collection'. Used wth permission)