English Workers at the Dayton Woolen Mill

power looms

Many of the employees at the Dayton Woolen factory were from England, bringing their previous experience of factory work to the Dayton mill. One of these, William Lancaster, was working in Dayton as a wool sorter in 1870.

William was born in Addingham, Yorkshire on May 31, 1835, the son of Thomas and Ann (Wildman) Lancaster. Thomas and all his family were deeply involved in the wool trade.  Thomas worked in the West Yorkshire mills as a wool top finisher;  at least five of his sons and three of his daughters also worked in the factory. The children would start by the age of ten, on the spinning machines. As they got older, they moved on to more responsible jobs – wool combing overseer, power loom weaver, or wool top finisher. William, at the age of fifteen, was a power loom weaver of worsted cloth.

In 1859 William married Elizabeth Muff, the daughter of William and Patience (Elsworth) Muff. They had a daughter, Frances Elsworth Ann, born the following year, and in 1862, a son, Seth Elsworth. For whatever reason, William seems to have left the wool trade and moved to Pudsey, Yorkshire, where he was a milk dealer in 1861. Whether this was because of a slowdown in the wool trade or merely a desire for a change, in 1866 William left Yorkshire altogether and with his wife and son (Frances having died in 1865) took ship for America on the City of New York leaving from Liverpool and arriving in New York on July 30, 1866.

Apparently wool was in William’s blood though, as he found recruiters were encouraging workers to go to Lowell, Massachusetts, to work in the mills there. He found work there as a wool sorter, and while living in Lowell, a daughter, Martha Ellen was born. More research will be needed to explain how he heard of Dayton and why he decided to go there, but by 1870 he was at work in Dayton as a wool sorter. He inspected all incoming wool and was skilled in sorting it into lots by color and quality, as length and fineness of fiber. A successful wool sorter would have had a perception of color shades greater than that of an artist.

By 1880, William had moved his family to Jacksonville, Illinois, where he and his son, Seth, were working in the Jacksonville Woolen Mills. Apparently unable to settle in one place, by 1900 he was working and living in Chester, Pennsylvania, another mill town not far from Philadelphia. Here his wife, Elizabeth died in 1893, and a few years later he remarried, to Margaretta, widow of John Blithe. In 1910, at the age of 74, he was still working as a wool sorter. He died on March 9, 1917, bringing to a close a life dedicated to the wool trade.

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