The first of a series of posts explaining the background to some of our songs.
If you are into family history, like us, and are of working class stock (also like us) then you may well become familiar with some of the old occupation names. I say may, as I have huge swathes of my predecessors who were described accurately enough with the word “labourer.” However, if you are descended from people in a textile town then it’s likely that the census records you look at are full of terms like slubber doffe, heck-maker, and piecer.
A piecer was a very specific job in a mill (woollen, cotton or anything else.) Before the fibre could be woven, first it had to be spun into yarn. In previous times this would be done on a spinning wheel. Before that, every thread of every cloth that existed was spun on a spindle. A spindle is a stick, with some kind of weight to keep the momentum of the rotation. There are various types, the most common being a drop spindle, where the weight of the spindle is held by the yarn you are spinning. When my son was at junior school, hew was given a factsheet with a drawing of a young Tudor girl with a drop spindle. The person who had designed the factsheet had assumed it was a spinning top of some kind and had captioned in “The girl is playing.” I sent my son back to school with the sheet recaptioned “The girl is WORKING.” My son’s teachers never liked me very much.
I digress, but only slightly. By the industrial revolution spindles and spinning wheels were replaced by spinning frames. These were room-sized bits of equipment which consisted of a series of spindles on a frame which would be pulled back and forth in the room. Anyone who has spun on a spindle or wheel will know that yarn snaps from time to time. When this happened, the job of the piecer (a child of between six and twelve) would be to lean over the machinery, get hold of the two broken ends and tie them together. You would have to be quick and dexterous to achieve this without injury. This is why the children who did it were aged six and over – under sixes didn’t have the co-ordination and instead would be set simpler tasks, like scavenging for unspun bits of fibre under the machine.
Piecing, like other mill-work, was hard labour.
“At a meeting in Manchester a man claimed that a child in one mill walked twenty-four miles a day. I was surprised by this statement, therefore, when I went home, I went into my own factory, and with a clock before me, I watched a child at work, and having watched her for some time, I then calculated the distance she had to go in a day, and to my surprise, I found it nothing short of twenty miles.”John Fielden, factory reformer
Millworkers would be woken by the factory bell or buzzer, and start work at six in the morning. The hours were long and the work was hard. It seems inconceivable to us that the singer of The Little Piecer, Willie’s mum, could send her son into such conditions but it was not only normal, it was necessary for the family’s economic survival. Long before the factories children work to help the family income (like the little girl on the Tudor factsheet.)
The Little Piecer is a poem by G A North, set to music by Dave Brooks. North was a Yorkshire poet, so it seems more likely than not he was referring to the woollen trade, although there was some cotton working in the west of Yorkshire. Assuming you figure out t’ is short for “the” (where I’m from we don’t even say t’, we just make a kind of glottal stop) there’s very little inaccessible dialect.
Sithee is short for “see thee,” meaning “look.” It’s a lovely Yorkshirism which makes me love singing the song, it’s like going back home for a few minutes.
A cellar head is the entrance to the cellar, often a small pantry off the kitchen around the steps down to the cellar. The bun is probably a breadcake/barmcake/bap/whatever you call it. When I was growing up a bun was what we’d now call a cupcake. Poor Willie wouldn’t have got one of those before work, or ever.
The Little Piecer is really the opposite of a lullaby, it’s a song waking up a child. But it does have a gentle, lullaby-like melody and as many of us know, there’s nothing to encourage you to doze off like the idea it’s time for work. While most of us can’t imagine sending a six year old to a twelve hour shift at the mill, most parents will empathise with telling their still-sleeping child “Come on, best get ready lad, it’s almost time to go.”
Listen to The Little Piecer below