Death of a Factory Girl

Berkshire genealogy silk weaving

On the morning of Wednesday 3rd August 1842, Sarah Parsons was standing above the winding room’s revolving engine shaft at Messrs Baylis’s Silk and Crape Manufactory, staring out of the window. She wore a handkerchief around her neck and shoulders and was carrying some waste silk over her arm.


At 15,1 she was one of the older girls at the factory,2 with a long day of work still ahead of her. Of what (or of whom) she was dreaming, we can only imagine. Somehow, the waste silk, then the fringe of her handkerchief got trapped in the shaft below. For five minutes she was observed quietly trying to untangle herself. No-one thought anything of it, until she let out a sudden cry for help.

The engine was pulling her down beneath it. Her head was being dragged between the iron shaft and the woodwork, lacerating her face, tearing at her jaw and bruising her neck.

John Fry, the winding room superintendent, heard the shouts of alarm from the other girls and quickly turned off the machinery. Sarah was hurried to the Royal Berkshire Hospital but died later that day.3 The horrific injuries to her face and neck had been ‘irremedial’.4

There was an inquest at the Hospital the following evening, in front of Borough Coroner JJ Blandy. The jury qualified their verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ by stating their unanimous opinion “of the great impropriety of leaving any part of the machinery in an uncovered state”. In its report on the inquest, The Berkshire Chronicle added some editorial of its own:

the least the proprietors of factories ought to do is to protect to the utmost the lives of those unfortunates who are, from dire necessity, condemned to pass the best and the primest years of their existence in such a miserable manner.5

Sarah could not have been working at the factory long, as it had only opened the previous year,6 part of the development of north-east Reading. Built on half an acre with 500 square feet of floor space, Messrs Baylis’s Silk and Crape Factory was on the perfect spot for a silk mill – the newly created ‘wedge-shaped island’ between ‘the canal and the river’ situated on the recently opened King’s Road.7

Berkshire genealogy silk weaving

When they arrived in Reading in 1841, John and James Baylis of Gutter Lane, Cheapside,8 were expanding their small silk manufacturing empire, an empire which relied on child labour. They were confident in the fact that the Factory Act of 1833, which put an end to children under 13 working more than 8 hours a day in cotton mills, did not apply to them. The silk industry and its parliamentary supporters claimed that “employment in silk mills was not as unhealthy as that in cotton mills” nor as arduous because “the temperature was much lower”. They argued that as their process required so much more delicacy and dexterity than cotton, children needed to be admitted into silk mills much earlier, in order to learn the necessary skills.9

In 1843, less than a year after poor Sarah’s demise, the Baylis brothers were declared bankrupt and the factory in Reading was closed.10 In the same year, the first ‘health and safety’ Factory bill started to make its way through Parliament. Eventually passed in 1844, it also began to address the controversial use of (very young) children in the silk industry.11

Understandably, the Reading newspapers covered the Baylis bankruptcy in great detail. The Baylis brothers were exposed as being the kind of bankrupts who “did not state the whole of the truth” in “relation to the amount of their property as really available for their creditors“.12

Three years later, in September 1846, the vacant silk factory was sold by Reading solicitor John Weedon, for £1800. The buyers were George Palmer and Thomas Huntley.13

Berkshire genealogy silk weaving
[1] Sarah Parsons was baptised in Tilehurst St Michael in 1826.
Berkshire Record Office Tilehurst St Michael Parish Register (Ref: D/P132/1/6).
At the time of the accident she was living with her family in Box Court.
1841 Census for Reading St Mary (TNA Ref: HO107/1165/13/5) Ancestry & findmypast
[2] Berkshire Chronicle Newspaper Saturday August 6th 1842: “we believe that out of the 50 girls employed at that factory, very few of that number are of a similar age, but much younger” British Newspaper Archive
[3] IBID
[4] Reading Mercury Newspaper Saturday August 6th 1842 British Newspaper Archive
and see also ‘A Statistical Report of the Surgical In-Patients of the Royal Berkshire Hospital from its Establishment May 1839 to May 1845‘ By George May, Surgeon to the Royal Berkshire Hospital. Published Reading (1846). Reading Local Studies Library Shelf No: L587R.
Sarah was buried in Reading St Mary’s on 7th August 1842, resident of Box Court, aged 15. Berkshire Burial Index 11th Edition. Berkshire Family History Society
[5] Berkshire Chronicle Newspaper Saturday August 6th 1842 British Newspaper Archive
[6] Reading Mercury Newspaper Saturday September 25th 1841 British Newspaper Archive
[7] ‘Quaker Enterprise in Biscuits: Huntley and Palmers of Reading 1822-1972‘ By TAB Corley. Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd London (1972) ISBN 0 09 111320 2
Reading Local Studies Library Shelf No: R/IX
[8] Reading Mercury Newspaper Saturday June 24th 1843 British Newspaper Archive
[9] Hansard  HC Deb 01 July 1839 vol 48 cc1063-94
[10] Berkshire Chronicle Newspaper Saturday September 2nd  1843 British Newspaper Archive
[12] Berkshire Chronicle Newspaper Saturday August 26th  1843 British Newspaper Archive
[13] ‘Quaker Enterprise in Biscuits: Huntley and Palmers of Reading 1822-1972‘ By TAB Corley. Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd London (1972) ISBN 0 09 111320 2
Reading Local Studies Library Shelf No: R/IX

© Emmy Eustace


Comments and Replies

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.