The Mill – Channel 4

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Having been away on holiday, I’ve just watched the first three episodes of the second series one after the other, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’m probably biased, because a) the cotton industry is a subject about which I can happily waffle for hours and hours and b) I know Quarry Bank Mill, one of my local National Trust properties, very well, but I really do think it’s good.

The new series is set in 1838, and part of its focus is the effect of the 1834 Poor Law, linked in with the effects of the Corn Laws, and also the Chartist movement. The Corn Laws, as all good Mancunians – hurrah for Free Trade! – know, were a Very Bad Thing. Quite seriously, they were, keeping the price of bread artificially high, and focusing only on the wants of landowners. The Poor Law was … well, partly what governments are still struggling with now, trying to find a balance between supporting those in need without creating a situation where it was preferable to choose not to work than to seek work, and partly the result of a Whiggish over-obsession with socio-economic theories which didn’t necessarily work in practice. One of the main authors of it was Edwin Chadwick and, given that he came from Manchester, you’d think he’d have realised that relying on workhouses as a means of poor relief wouldn’t work in industrial areas where poverty tended to be cyclical rather than absolute, but unfortunately he didn’t.

The new series sees a number of people from the South of England arrive in Styal looking for work. There seems to be this idea, going back to Georgian times, that the dark satanic mills were some sort of hell on earth, in contrast to some kind of mythical Merrie Englande which lived on in rural areas, in which everyone had rosy cheeks and skipped around in fields with little lambs. That’s nonsense, as The Mill shows. Certainly by 1860, millworkers in North West England were the highest paid in the country. One of the main aims of “poor relief” in the 1830s and 1840s was to encourage people to move from rural Southern areas to industrial Northern areas, precisely because the industrial Northern areas were better off. Good to see that point being made.

Then the Chartists. Incidentally, could someone please teach the producers a bit about the geography of the area?! Even in 1838, getting from Styal to Kersal Moor would definitely not have been “a walk in the country”! Trust me on this: I only live a mile and a bit from Kersal Moor. I’m rather proud of its association with the Chartists. We’re getting a “human interest” story with this too – Daniel Bate is becoming obsessed with promoting social and political reform, and neglecting his family as a result.

There are two other main “human interest” stories. One is that of Peter, the freed slave, and his relationship with Miriam, one of the mill girls. The other is that of Our Heroine Esther Price, the star of the first series. Esther is now old enough to have moved out of the Apprentice House and into her own home … but she’s using her new-found freedom to get drunk and sleep with a man she hardly knows, whilst the remaining female apprentices are bonding together and managing very well without her.

The first series of The Mill got some poor reviews. It didn’t deserve them: it was very good. The second series, so far, has been even better.

2 thoughts on “The Mill – Channel 4

  1. Enjoyed this review. Yes, was surprised to see that the show got such bad reviews last year. The criticism seemed mainly to be ‘too grim’ which seemed weird coming from the Independent or Guardian. It didn’t seem much more grim than elements of, say, ‘Call the Midwife’ — just fewer of those forced, whimsical “stiff upper lip” moments. And I think I forgave much of the soapiness having learnt of the source material being from actual documents. I live near Quarry Bank too, and one of the great things about it is the emphasis on histories of the real people. Much better than ‘

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