The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash is an Eloquent Tribute to Forgotten Mill Workers
One hundred years ago this year my father started work as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill near Manchester, England. He was 12 years old. The school leaving age in England at the time was 14, but because the cotton industry depended on juvenile labour an exception was made for the cotton towns allowing children to start work at 12 provided they attended school in the afternoons. After a morning shift at the mill most children slept through their lessons.
The mill where my father worked now makes garden furniture. Very few Lancashire mills still spin cotton. However the National Trust operates a mill at Quarry Bank, just south of Manchester, as a working museum, spinning cotton with the machinery used before the First World War. To step onto the spinning floor is to have all five senses assaulted simultaneously. The wall of clattering, screeching sound makes lip reading the only means of conversation; ranks of machines, belts and bobbins whirl and shuttle; the vibration makes one’s hands tremble; the air tastes of lint and reeks of engine oil. This is where the workers spent 12 hours a day, six days a week.
Wiley Cash’s latest novel, The Last Ballad, begins in this tumult, when the heroine, Ella May Wiggins, is signalled to leave her machines (each worker tended several) and report to the mill owner’s office. After a brief interview she is reprimanded for missing a shift to care for her sick child. The date is June 1929 (by which time my father had fled his mill and was in India) and the place was Gaston County, North Carolina. The Carolinas were latecomers to the Industrial Revolution, but by the 1920s the Gaston County mills were out-competing the mills of both New and old England and setting them on the path to terminal decline. The Loray mill, at Gastonia, founded in 1900, claimed to be the largest cotton mill in the world.
The secret of success was cheap labour. Ella May earned nine dollars for a 72-hour week. She had come to North Carolina to escape the even worse poverty of the mountains of Tennessee and there were thousands like her. Lancashire and New England had also built their cotton industries by drawing labour from an impoverished rural hinterland (my father’s family came from rural Derbyshire) but in bringing together such large numbers of people and imposing such strict discipline the mill owners created a force they found difficult to control. The Peterloo Massacre (Manchester, 1819) when the workers were scattered by a cavalry charge has become part of Trade Union mythology. Yet the success of workers in one region in getting a better life exposed then to competition from regions where workers were still easily exploitable.
Ella May was a real person. It may not have been her interview with the mill owner which made her decide to attend the union rally which launched her brief career as an activist and martyr, but it is not surprising if the spark was not poverty itself but the crushing inhumanity of a system which depended on wringing the last ounce of effort from each worker. As one of the characters in Cash’s book says, declining the offer of a watch, ‘what do I need a fancy watch for? I only care about four times: waking up time, getting to work time, getting off time and going to sleep time. I know when to do what.’
It was as songstress that Ella first won fame, singing a protest song at the rally she attended, held by striking workers at the Loray Mill (not Ella’s mill). She quickly became the voice of the strikers. When the strike leaders were arrested following a clash with the police she became the organiser as well as the voice. She was murdered in an ambush by vigilantes hired by the mill owners.
Ella was white but poverty drove her to live in an African American community and to work alongside African American workers. Most mill workers and all those at the Loray mill were white. Ella succeeded in integrating the union in the face of fierce opposition from other unionists. In her day she was famous, but now she is largely forgotten. The fact that her union, the National Textile Workers Union, was set up by the American Communist Party has not served her memory well.
Wiley Cash grew up in Gastonia where the Loray mill once stood (it still stands but has long since ceased to spin cotton, although there is a museum to commemorate its history). His parents and grandparents worked in the cotton mills. Even so, he learned about Ella May only during his graduate studies in 2003. This book is his homage to Ella May and the workers of the Carolina mills and, he notes, ‘for my grandparents who were born on farms and saw hope in the mills . . . for my mother and father who were born in mill villages and dreamed of the suburbs.’
I wish I could have written such an eloquent tribute to my own family.
About the contributor: Edward James is one of the UK review editors for Historical Novels Review. He has published two historical novels, The Frozen Dream (Silverwood Books) and Freedom’s Pilgrim, A Tudor Odyssey (Endeavour Press) and is working on a third, Beyond the Big River.