On the Watch in West Chelmsford, Mass.

When people think of textile mill employees, they often think specifically of the “mill girls” of the early to mid-19th century, who were employed in the weaving and spinning rooms of hundreds of textile factories. But men were employed in the mills as well, in supervisory capacities as well as in mechanical positions or in areas requiring much physical labor. One position that certainly all large businesses would include in their personnel, regardless of whether or not it was a textile mill, was that of the night watchman. And unlike most positions in a mill where you shared your workspace with dozens of others, this would be a more solitary job. Thanks to an unknown watchman working in West Chelmsford, Mass., we have a detailed idea of what his duties entailed and how he filled his time during work.

correspondence - watchman

(Letter) 1856 Apr. 7, West Chelmsford, Mass. : (to) G.W. Walton, Sargentville, Hancock Co., Maine; 0022.407 (detail)

On April 7, 1856, an unknown man wrote a letter to his friend, G.W. Walton in Sargentville, Hancock County, Maine, from an unidentified mill in West Chelmsford, Mass. Unfortunately the second half of the letter is missing, including the signature, so we have no idea who this man was, but it is clear that he is reasonably young and may have taken the job in order to have some time to study as he is thinking about teaching. (Sounds like your classic college-age job!)


“Perhaps you would like to know my routine of exercises. I commence at 6.30 P.M. and hoist several flood gates, lock certain gates and doors and prepare several fires to kindle in the morning. Then from 8.30 to 12 oclock at night I alternately ring the bell = 9, 10, 11 and 12 and “drive pins” at 8½, 9½, 10½, and 11½ — every half hours, this takes perhaps each 3 or 4 minutes on the average. The rest of this time 8½ to 12, I have to stay, &c or sit still as I like.” Driving the “pins” may refer to clocking in at various stations around the mill by inserting a pin into a mechanism that would record the time it was done, thereby insuring that the watchman had actually made his rounds, rather than sitting by the fire with his feet up!

He stops ringing the bell after midnight and does not start again until 4:30 am, at which time he starts fires under the boilers to get up steam, unlocks gates and begins ringing the bell again. During his “off” time, he has some “book accounts of R.R. freightage and factory matters to write.” He also has charge of the fire engines in case there is a fire “and next Saturday I intend to ‘play’ the fire engines a little to get an idea of working them. So you see I have an opportunity of getting much practical knowledge of machinery, steam engines, fire engines, book-keeping, ringing bells, studying human nature &c. And much leisure for studying books too if I choose.”

The mill at which is he was employed was possibly the Chelmsford Company in West Chelmsford, a woolen manufacturer, but we don’t know for certain. He describes the company as having “several buildings connected with the factory – The principal factory building is four stories high, of stone walls. $75000 capital is invested here. 110 hands are employed, 65 male hands and 45 female.” Like most young men, he has taken notice of some of the female employees: “There are some good looking girls among these, some particularly so (confidentially.)” For a twelve-hour day, he receives $1 per night: “My wages are $1 a night from 6.30 to 6.30 —- Wages are paid monthly.”

It’s clear that this unknown night watchman enjoyed his work, was probably better educated than most watchmen, and in fact, may postpone teaching to stay in his job: “But I like so well perhaps I shall prefer to ‘watch.’ I am most of the time nights in the ‘Counting Room,’ with lights, fire, [pen?], paper, books and Newspapers furnished. So I enjoy my self at study nights almost as well as though at school – and at the same time make good wages.” The letter ends here, but thanks to this young man, we have a glimpse into one of the lesser-known but certainly important jobs in a mill.

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

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