Benjamin ran through the gate in the iron fence surrounding the factory and into the building. He knew the later it got the more strife he would be in. Catching his breath, he tiptoed upstairs, wary Farrell may be lurking, ready for him. When he got to the third floor, where he worked, he heard loud footsteps behind him. He turned to see the tall, angular figure of Farrell hurrying up the stairs, a menacing frown on his face. The apprentices called him Feral – not to his face, of course – short for Farrell the Feral Cat, because of the way he crept about and pounced on any youngster not working hard enough. He would hit them with his stick, or prod them first if they were asleep and then whack them.
“You’re late, boy,” the master said. “You start at six, not quarter past. What excuse do you have this time?”
“No excuse, Sir. I …”
“Shut up then, you despicable boy. Once again I’ll have to teach you a lesson.”
Like a cat seizing its prey, he snatched Benjamin by the scruff of the neck and led him across the dirty, gloomy room, full of noisy machines powered by steam and operated by scores of children, all apprentices, some as young as six, a good number of women and a few men. The room took up the whole floor. The smell of rancid machine oil and smoke from lamps hung in the air.
Farrell unlocked a cupboard containing sundry consumables and ointments used to treat the sick. Shackles, iron weights and canes of various sizes were kept there too. He chose a cane somewhat thicker than the stick he carried around. Benjamin didn’t protest. Last time he complained, his punishment was doubled. He was marched to his work place.
“Loosen your trousers, boy. Hurry up,” Farrell said, tugging at them. “Lower them and turn around.”
Shaking, Benjamin pulled his clothing partly down. Bruises and other marks were still evident from last week’s beating. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and screwed up his face ready for the pain .
“Look up!” Farrell called out to all apprentices in earshot.
Many did, though they daren’t stop work. A caning was meant to be a deterrent to them, and cause embarrassment to the person being caned. Without emotion, Farrell brought the cane down hard on his victim’s backside. Benjamin let out a cry that could be heard above the noise of the machinery.
The flagellator waited a moment before letting go a second time. There was another scream for mercy.
“Two,” Farrell said calmly.
The children’s reaction was mixed, ranging from fright to muffled laughter to nonchalance. No one talked.
The count stopped at twelve, six more than last week. Benjamin slumped to the floor, groaning in pain. Farrell took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the cane and his hands on it before putting it back in his pocket.
“Mr Thorndike doesn’t tolerate people coming late,” he said. In fact, he could attest that Thorndike, the owner, never hesitated to belt him if he failed to deal properly with errant apprentices.
“No, Sir,” Benjamin said.
“You’ll always be on time in future, won’t you, boy?”
“Just remember, if it wasn’t for the cotton factories, useless paupers like you wouldn’t have a job.”
“You’ve got work to do, boy. Hop to it,” Farrell said, pulling him up. “We’ll never get those orders finished.”
The master made Benjamin take his usual place beside other children on a large spinning mule, one of several at the factory. He then picked up his stick and wandered around the room as before, making sure everyone was busy, like nothing had happened.
When Farrell had gone to the other end of the floor, children near Benjamin glanced at him, smirking, as if to say “serves you right”. Several had stunted growth. All were thin and pale and many had bad coughs. Some had swollen necks and joints and other deformities from constantly bending over low machinery. One girl, Charlotte, an orphan apprentice employed as a piecer and a year or two younger than Benjamin, had a withered left leg from rickets. She had a chair to sit on. One day she went to sleep on the job and fell into a machine and was lucky not to suffer a terrible injury or be killed. Since then she had been strapped to the chair so she couldn’t fall. Everyone else had to stand, all day every day, including Benjamin. He was glad to be standing that day as his backside was too sore to sit.
Sweat dripped from his face and neck, not due to the belting but because the room was warm and moist. It was kept that way, being the best atmosphere for making cotton. Usually robust, he had a touch of bronchitis the previous winter and had to go to the infirmary for a few days. The doctor said his problem was he was warm and damp at work and cold and wet at home. And breathing in dust and fibre particles, which could be seen in the lamplight as they floated in the factory air, didn’t help.
Soon Farrell emerged from the darkness and paced the floor near him. Anyone in trouble got special attention for the rest of the day and often beyond. Benjamin knew he would be goaded, and punished for any trifling offence such as talking.
Suddenly the master stopped opposite him. Benjamin took little notice and the master became agitated when he saw his young apprentice showing no signs of fear.