Industry and Autonomy in Early Occupational Health Nursing: The Welfare Officers of the Lancashire Cotton Mills in the Mid-Twentieth Century

By Hallett, Christine; Abendstern, Michele et al. | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Industry and Autonomy in Early Occupational Health Nursing: The Welfare Officers of the Lancashire Cotton Mills in the Mid-Twentieth Century


Hallett, Christine, Abendstern, Michele, Wade, Lesley, Nursing History Review


In her incisive study What Makes Women Sick, Lesley Doyal observed that women throughout the world have long been employed in hazardous industries, often for lower pay than their male counterparts, and often in nonunionized workforces.1 A number of authors have observed that women have been driven into low-paid employment, often involving very poor working conditions, sometimes because of the desire for a measure of economic independence but more frequently because of economic hardship. Such hardship has frequently been linked to motherhood; women have often undertaken strenuous and difficult work along with the work of raising a family.2 Moreover, the pressure of piecework and an abundance of available labor meant that many of them would go to work even when ill or injured.

Welfare officers were introduced into the Lancashire cotton mills during the middle years of the twentieth century as a response to regulatory requirements diat followed in the wake of the 1916 Factory Act. A number of welfare officers employed by mill owners in these towns were drawn from a well-defined social group: trained registered nurses. Others had less extensive and formal training, often consisting only of training by the St. John Ambulance Service, a British voluntary organization specializing in teaching first aid skills. These welfare officers provide an interesting example of a new occupational group whose members were obliged to define and develop their own roles under pressure from their employers. This study focuses on women welfare workers in the mid-twentieth-century Lancashire cotton towns of Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne, both in die Nordiwest of England. This study explores the history of a particular occupational group, but also, more importantly, a history of occupational loyalties in a context that required commitment to both the needs of patients and the demands of employers.

Data for this study were obtained by two means: archive searches and oral histories. Most of the material comes from the oral histories of twenty-eight workers and three welfare officers who had worked in cotton mills in Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne. The contributions of participants are reported here anonymously; all names are pseudonyms. All participants gave permission for their contributions to be published. Much of the data are focused on the fairly narrow period from about 1950 to the 1970s, when the welfare officers in the mills were seen as practicing nurses rather than as inspectors, social workers, or bureaucrats.

This study suggests that mill welfare officers developed their roles in diverse ways. In addition to offering first aid to mill workers, they dispensed medications-particularly analgesics-offered comfort and support to the mill workers, and undertook some health promotion and screening work. When asked, the former cotton workers expressed some satisfaction with the work of the welfare officers, who were able to offer them considerable relief from injuries and symptoms associated with mill work. The position of the welfare officer, however, remained ambiguous. Both mill owners and workers often expected that welfare officers would act as management instruments, serving the interests of the organization rather than those of the workers. The data here suggest that welfare officers who were also trained nurses brought a sense of autonomy and independence to their role and were able to resist these expectations.

Women, Mills, and Occupational Health

Women mill workers in the mid-twentieth century carried on a tradition of work in an industry with a long and somewhat infamous history. Having its origins in the late eighteenth century, and achieving its greatest economic success during the nineteenth, the British cotton industry has been viewed as one of the pillars of the Industrial Revolution.3 Centered around what have subsequendy been referred to as the "Lancashire cotton towns," which include not only Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne, but others such as Rochdale, Bury, Bolton, and Preston, the industry found its ideal location in an environment where the climate was damp enough to protect the fragile cotton fibers and the workforce compliant enough to ensure that the mill owners could place a high premium on productivity and keep wages and other costs low. …

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