Will the Real Esther Price Please Stand Up? Archival Fiction & The Mill

By Catherine Feely

Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, the setting and subject of Channel 4’s drama The Mill, holds a privileged place in my early historical training. My mother remembers that when I was a child, bored stiff by country houses when my parents invested in membership to the National Trust in the 1980s, a trip to the cotton mill could always be counted on to stop me moaning. (My father half-jokes that he has spent all of his adult life trying to be middle class only for his children to identify with the working class he had moved out of …) While Quarry Bank was somewhat of a sanitised heritage attraction by then – all tea towels, country fudge and afternoon tea in the café – the main appeal was the movement and whirr of the machines that would have once filled it, demonstrated by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers. I was the sort of child to never knowingly pass up the opportunity to pretend to be an apprentice, so when my GCSE coursework involved imagining my fifteen-year-old self as such and describing a typical day, I took the task in my stride.

Until relatively recently, I questioned the educational worth of this exercise, thinking it creative writing rather than ‘proper history’. But now I think that, if my school had really got us to think about it and I had been mature enough to appreciate it, this coursework could have got to the crux of what it is to be a social historian: the endless tightrope walk between veracity and imagination; the awareness of the enormous chasm between what the archive allows you to claim and lived experience; the problem of situating the individual within your wider knowledge, and yet the desperate hope that, somehow, you are doing the memory of these people justice. Historians have to work with what little we have and try to make some sort of sense out of it. The archives are not flawless raw material – full of gaps, silences, dead-ends and even outright lies – but an awareness of these flaws reminds us that our relationship with the past is always mediated and incomplete, despite the impression of order given off by file numbers and finding aids.[i]

Trailer for The Mill

In this respect, The Mill is a fascinating experiment in using archival evidence to inspire a period drama, with Channel 4’s departments of Drama and History co-producing for the first time. Writer John Fay has worked with the archives to tell the stories of Quarry Bank’s indentured apprentices, although he is open that the process has involved taking liberties both with some facts and chronology, setting the action in 1833 in the context of the movement for the ten-hour day. In itself, this is not so much of a problem; most historians would, I think, agree that drama dictates that changes of this nature will be made. Moreover, the programme’s makers, as well as National Trust staff at Quarry Bank Mill, have been forthcoming in discussing some of these changes.[ii] However, the programme’s claim to be based on documented history – its reverence of the ‘real’ archive, without much explicit acknowledgement of its own constructed nature – is, I think, highly problematic, and raises ethical and theoretical questions worth exploring. Numerous issues have come to mind whilst watching the first two episodes, but I can only touch on a few of the most obvious here.

One of these issues concerns how a multitude of documents – parish records, indenture certificates, medical records, disciplinary reports, etc. – are translated into workable dramatic dialogue. I don’t want to be unfair to the scriptwriters and actors here, because it’s incredibly difficult to do and for the most part they do it very well. But it doesn’t always work, and occasionally I wished they’d left out what was obviously documentary evidence entirely or given it to a different character to voice. Some reviewers have complained that the speech is too modern; I am actually more distracted by the mixing of genres when the words of an official document are put into the mouths of apprentices. A particularly jarring example of this in the first episode was when one apprentice launched into a statistical defence of the safety record at Quarry Bank while talking in bed (I paraphrase): ‘There have been 20 fatalities and only 2 of those were accidents. Think about how that compares with other mills, Esther!’ It’s unnatural to hear apprentices speak that way in the context of everyday conversation, and seemed to me to get in the way of the drama.

Central to the narrative arc of that drama is Esther Price, apprenticed to Quarry Bank from the Liverpool Workhouse at the age of 12 in 1833.[iii] Complete with Scouse accent – the authenticity of which in this period is something I will leave to others to argue – Esther is portrayed as a feisty rebel-rouser. Being one of the best documented of all of Quarry Bank’s apprentices in the archive, it’s no surprise that Esther is one of the more fully-fleshed characters in The Mill. Esther Price does seem to have been an unusual apprentice, having been in court for assault, been punished for running-away and contested the official record of her age, presumably to assert her independence at the age of 21. So far, Esther’s life seems ripe with dramatic possibilities. And yet, the script finds that this is not dramatic enough and decides that Esther’s charge of assault be changed from one on a fellow apprentice to an overlooker who has been sexually assaulting the female apprentices. This might seem like a subtle change, but it has significant consequences for how we view Esther. A common assault becomes something much more understandable and faintly politically motivated. It will be interesting to see how the next two episodes complete Esther’s ‘arc’, as in ‘real life’, Esther did not, for whatever reason, leave the mill at 21, continuing to work there and allowing her own children to do so. We don’t know exactly what motivated Esther, and will never do, but it’s easier to make her into an easily-recognisable dramatic ‘type’ than to delve into the complexity of apprentice lives and the society that created them.

This decision to change the nature of Esther’s crime has other, more serious, consequences. A relative of Crout the overlooker has already spoken up to quite reasonably to claim that there is no evidence that her ancestor was involved in such activities.[4] Another ‘character’, Mr Timperley the apprentice house master (based on a real person), left an entirely fictional character, a small child, to die in the second episode. However much we know that fact and fiction are not always so removed from one another, the use of real names in this way is surely ethically dubious when not based on even a shred of evidence.

Meet the Apprentice Girls in The Mill

I thought that The Mill would either be incredible or excruciating. Actually, it is neither. I have found it provocative in terms of thinking about the difficulties faced by anybody trying to make living, breathing creatures out of piles of paper. But it is strangely unmoving and empty, and the characters seem less real to me than either fictional ones or those I have ‘met’ in the archives myself. By the end of the second episode, it was increasingly hard to watch and don’t know if I will continue. This was not due to the bleakness that many of the newspaper reviewers complained about – forced child labour was never going to be a laugh-a-minute affair, even if focused on the supposedly more humane places like Quarry Bank – or even because of the mix of fact and fiction per se, but the particular and slightly misleading way in which this programme was marketed. One of the actresses in the film above expresses this perfectly: ‘It’s not a documentary, but it almost is because it’s real.’ Except it’s not, not really, and nor could it ever be. That’s not to deny, of course, that pauper apprentices were routinely treated cruelly and inhumanely during the ‘industrial revolution’. They undoubtedly were. But, in a sense it is the banality of this evil, the everyday and unremarkable way in which a whole system was built upon it, which is most shocking. Yet the real pantomime villains in The Mill are not the politicians who encouraged it to happen, or even the mill-owning Greg family who merely stand accused of rank hypocrisy, but their ‘middlemen’: the overlookers and managers of the apprentice house & c.  Having an overlooker take an apprentice into the privy and have his wicked way with her makes for some great drama. And there is no doubt that many young girls were abused. But to take a real person’s name and attribute actions to them for which there is absolutely no evidence – serious offences such as molestation and essentially leaving a (fictional) child to die – is, for this historian partially made at Quarry Bank Mill, both a step too far and misses the point. One thing’s for sure: I would never have got away with it in my GCSE coursework.

[i] As well as personal experience, my understanding of the archive has undoubtedly been profoundly shaped by my reading of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001) here, especially pp. 17-19. For the emotional experience of the historian in the archive, see Emily Robinson, ‘Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible’, Rethinking History 14: (2010), pp. 503-520. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13642529.2010.515806#.Uf-ySW0izKc

[ii] See, for example, ‘All Fact or Fiction?’ on the Channel 4 website.

[ii] A post on Esther Price can be found on the Manchester Archives Plus blog: Archive plus have also put together an excellent Flickr album featuring the documents of Esther’s life to be found in the archive.

[4] See the second comment on this Quarry Bank (National Trust) blog.

Catherine Feely is a cultural and social historian of modern Britain, specialising in the histories of publishing and reading in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is currently working on a book about the publication, circulation, reading and non-reading of Karl Marx’s Capital in Britain. Having recently taught at the universities of Durham and Sheffield, she will be lecturing in nineteenth-century British history at the University of Manchester from September.


  1. Great review – really hits the mark! Super point about the difficulties faced by social Historians and the intrinsically biased construction of history (swayed by interpretation, inference and all-out fabrication!)

    Something I love in my own archival research is piecing together a complete person – warts and all! Tempting to present the ‘version’ of them that suits your ideal narrative, but programmes like this have a responsibility to the audience, the archives and the people they are portraying.

  2. Great piece Cath; a really enjoyable critique.

    I was wondering how we might view the ‘documentary’ from the perspective of Quarry Bank Mill. It strikes me that the format also proposes to expand ‘living museum’ styles of exhibition to include elements of Mill culture which museum visitors can hardly be expected to ‘live’. Such an expansion would be problematic, of course, because the use of a screenwriter acts to prevent the imaginative interaction of audience, and so abandons some of the key rationales of exhibiting in a strongly interactive way. While the altering of historical events for which we have evidence can hardly be tolerated, I think it is also possible to regard ‘The Mill’ as a missed opportunity for a public discussion about the very issues about imagination and information you raise in the first paragraph. It is one occasion that one of those ‘Making of’ series bookends might provoke genuinely helpful discussion.

  3. A really good review. You are spot on at so many points, and I particularly like the way you endorse the use of empathetic reconstruction as a valid means of approaching social history, especially at secondary school level. You are right to pick up on the misapplication of sexual abuse as a trope in this story: it says much more about our present day concerns than it does about the valid history. I do overall like series, but I am worried at the presentation of the 1830s as overwhelmingly grey. It casts over everything an aura of gloom which is difficult to escape, and suggests grimness to the viewer in every scene. The sun did shine and grass was green in 1830s Styal.

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