The rag sorting business was dirty and could be extremely dangerous for the workers who handled them every day. The grinding process created an enormous amount of dust which would then be inhaled. Rooms were poorly ventilated and respiratory illnesses were common. Being poorly paid, rag workers often had to continue working when they were ill. Crowded hot workrooms provided the perfect conditions for infectious diseases to spread. In 1883 an outbreak of smallpox was reported at the home of David Murgatroyd, a rag boiler at a paper mill in Goose Eye, Keighley. The patient was his 17 year old daughter, a rag sorter at the mill. [ 1]

In some instances it was the actual rags that transmitted the diseases. “Shoddy Fever” had been identified in the 1840s as a form of bronchitis resulting from prolonged exposure to shoddy dust that led to repeated attacks of fever which weakened the lungs and could lead to “pulmonary consumption”. [2] Another source of infection came from imported rags. Imports from Spain in 1885 and Italy in 1887 were banned because of the fear of spreading cholera. [3] Rag workers also fell foul of anthrax or rag sorters disease, also known as the Bradford disease and the wool sorters disease.

[ 4] Rag Pickers Disorder was identified in 1888 amongst Austrian rag sorters, the condition producing symptoms of pleuro-pneumonia and patients dying within seven days. [5] Respiratory illnesses would have been a constant risk for rag workers, with fibres being inhaled from a wide range of textiles. Exposure to soiled rags, some stained with blood and other emissions, also put them at risk of infections. Working with scissors included the risk that any cut could easily become infected and septic.

Rag workers were also exposed to other dangers in the workplace. The drying room at Raglan Mill was the scene of an accident involving two young men, John Devine aged 17 and Alfred Studhall, 23. [ 6] An explosion of a chemical substance used in the drying of rags resulted in the men being seriously burnt and being taken to Bradford Infirmary. The rag warehouse of Arthur Pickles was also the scene of the death of John Sweeney who fell into a fire there in 1904. [7]

A major risk for rag merchants and their workers was the danger of fire. These not only caused damage to premises and loss of stock but also temporary loss of work to the rag workers. Often the cause of the blaze was the spontaneous combustion of rags. The fires often spread rapidly because the bales of rags were often tightly packed together and were improperly stacked. The presence of grease was also a contributing factor. Other factors included timber flooring, dilapidated buildings and limited means to extinguish fires once they had started. Local newspapers are full of reports of fires in rag warehouses. [ 8]

A fire at a rag mill in Drighlington belonging to Middleton, a rag extractor, was caused by refuse from the machines overheating and setting fire to bags of rags. [ 9] The roof fell in but the damage was covered by insurance. Quick work by firemen at the premises of rag merchants David Thomas & Co in January 1881 meant that the fire was speedily extinguished and damage did not exceed £40. [10]

In November 1899 a fire broke out at John Richard Burrows rag warehouse on Gratton Road in Bradford. The potential cause was attributed to a pile of greasy rags. [ 11] The fire was discovered by two policemen who had seen thick smoke coming from the building and called the fire brigade. Part of the building was occupied by two women and a child and the policemen braved the suffocating smoke to rescue them. The damage had been minimal and the financial impact would also have been temporary as rags were a cheap stock to replace. The rag merchant, John Richard Burrows, continued to use these premises until 1929.

It is difficult to know just how many of the Bradford rag workers suffered in later life from illness or injuries incurred during their time in the rag industry.

Tracey Williams

End notes

  1. Bradford Daily Telegraph: Monday 12 March 1888
  2. AB Reach “The Yorkshire Textile Districts in 1849”, edited by C. Aspin (Helmshore Local History Society, 1974), pages 7-10

3 Leeds Mercury: 30 December 1885

4 Richard M Swiderski “Anthrax : a history”,(MacFarland & Company Publishers), pages 10-29

5 Hull Daily Mail: Wednesday 26 September 1888

6 Bradford Observer: 22 April 1882, Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer: 22 April 1882

7 Bradford Daily Telegraph: Monday 21 November 1904

8 For example Bradford Observer: 8 July 1874 : Bradford Daily Telegraph : 22 May 1903

9 Bradford Observer: 4 September 1882

10 Bradford Daily Telegraph: 14 January 1881

11Bradford Daily Telegraph: 22 November 1899