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Clocking on - meaning & origin of historical work sayings

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While we might be proud of Britain's history as a hive of industry, what was it like for our ancestors who toiled those long hours and lived, worked and died in the shadow of the mill? In Family Tree November Adèle Emm looks back at their experiences, and below she reveals the meanings behind some familiar expressions that have roots in factory work.

Unsurprisingly, there are lots of everyday expressions associated with work. We spend much of our time there and, before the concept of pensions (inaugurated 1909), holidays and ‘life/work balance’, people literally worked until they dropped. It’s not unusual to find people in censuses working into their 70s and beyond (not much new in the world…)

Clock on & clock off

The time-clock for factory workers to clock in and out of work (clock on/clock off) was invented in 1888 by New York jeweller Willard Le Grand Bundy (patented 1890) and almost instantly incorporated in UK factories to regulate workers’ attendance and subsequent wage packet. Modern day factories still use a timesheet clocking on system.

Come a cropper

To come a cropper relates to the cropper’s job (sometimes called cloth dresser). Highly paid and incredibly skilled, his apprenticeship was longer than most; ten years was not unusual. Cropping was one of the final processes in cloth manufacture and mistakes were costly. Once fabric had been woven, using giant, heavy metal cropping sheers, a cropper evened out the nap and cut it smooth – if he went wrong, the fabric was ruined.  

Unfortunately for croppers, a machine was invented in 1790. They weren’t happy. 

In fact, they were furious and their action, together with that of hosiery makers (whose work was also replaced by machines) led to the Luddite movement 1811-c1817 in which machines were routinely smashed. As we know, the Luddite movement failed and croppers literally came a cropper.  

On the carpet

Should an employee’s attendance or behaviour cause concern, they were ordered to the manager’s office, a posh area with, unlike the factory floor, a carpet. There they were told off ‘on the carpet’.

To spin a yarn

Some believe the expression ‘spinning a yarn’ originates from sailors c1800, a pun on yarn meaning thread (as in mending ropes) and yarn meaning a long implausible story. An alternative suggestion is that spinning wool in a cottage (cottage industry) took so long, stories were told to pass away the time.

Doff your cap

Doffing one’s cap. A doffer in a mill (wool, linen, silk and cotton) was the lowest of the low and, depending on the law at the time, could be a child as young as five. Their job was to collect full bobbins/reels of spun yarn from the machine as fast as possible risking a clip round the ear if too slow (time is money when working piece work) and replace them with empty bobbins. The doffers had to show respect to everyone by tipping their hat. I have read alternative definitions of this expression…

Teasing

Finally, teasing was the method by which fabric surface, usually wool, was raised and made fluffy and soft (see cropper above). Teasels were rubbed across the surface of the material to raise the nap. If you tease someone, you are rubbing them up the wrong way. Thousands of teasels would be used in wool machinery in the napping process. You can still see teasels in the countryside; some grow near where I live.

Read 'Clocking on: a brief history of factory work' by Adèle Emm in Family Tree November to discover what it was like for ancestors, some extraordinarily young, to work in factories. Buy now or subscribe and save!

Adèle Emm is the author of Tracing your Trade and Craftsman Ancestors (Pen and Sword) and her new book, My Ancestors Worked in Textile Mills, will be published by the Society of Genealogists.

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