women worked in mills at Fall River
In the nineteenth century, Fall River, Massachussetts, USA,
was known as 'Spindle City' due to its prominence to the
United States textile industry. Fifty seven percent of the
print cloth made in the United States was manufactured in
Fall River and the number of textile workers increased each
In 1875, more than 15,000 people worked in the mills and
75 percent were foreign born. One of the largest groups
of immigrants was the Irish who accounted for 38 percent
of the total Fall River workforce. Many of the Irish who
arrived in the city in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
century came from Beara Peninsula. Both before, during and
after the famine, Beara was a place of extreme poverty.
The main employer was the Puxleys who operated the copper
mines at Allihies where men, women and children engaged
in dangerous, back breaking work. The mining industry offered
little security to its employees because of the uncertain
nature of mining and the economic downturns in Ireland.
By the mid 1800s the mines were slowing down and many Beara
families sailed for the United States. Some went to Michigan,
Montana or Rhode Island to work as miners but a large number
went to Fall River, Massachussetts. With its booming textile
industry, that city gave them a hope and a chance for a
Many women from Beara found work in the mills of Fall River.
The work was difficult and the hours were long but many
young women welcomed the chance to provide for themselves
and to help their families. Whether working as a mill operative,
a domestic, a seamstress or a laundress, these women found
a sense of independednce they had not had in Beara. Often
they sent money back to brothers and sisters at home to
pay for their passage to the United States.
This patteren of gradual immigration is illustrated by a
Mary Harrington who arrived in Fall River by herself at
the age of 20. She worked in a mill and was able to send
for her sister, Katherine, a year later in 1886. Katherine
also worked in the mill but their younger sister, Bridget,
who arrived in 1889, obtained work as a clerk in a bakery.
This immigration pattern is seen in many households and
in 1860 there were more than 236 Beara families in Fall
River. By 1870 the number was more than 270. In the 1870,
1880 and 1900 census of Fall River the names of Harrington
and O'Sullivan appeared in large numbers.
Due to the predominance of these names on the Beara Peninsula,
they represent a large majority of Beara female immigrants.
The number of single women from Beara who worked in the
mills was at least 104. This number represented 93 percent
of the working women from this area. The remaining single
women were servants, laundresses or seamstresses.
A few ran boarding houses. Reading through some newspapers
of the time, it appears that the 1870s was a turbulent decade
in the Fall River Mills. Large scale strikes in 1870, 1875
and 1879 brought no improvement in the wages or conditions
of the mill workers. We notice that in the 1875 weaver's
strike the women led the way by planning a 'work stoppage'
in several selected mills. The inital result was a ten percent
increase in wages but this was later rescinded by the Board
of Trade and workers were required to sign a statement agreeing
not to unionise. That decade ended with the mill management
successfully blocking every effort for improved conditions
made by the workers.
Despite these conditions Beara women still came to Fall
River to seek employment. It appears that of the women from
Beara who worked outside the home, approximately 93 percent
of those were textile workers.
Typical of these women was Margaret O'Sullivan from Glenora,
in the Allihies Parish. The oldest daughter of a family
of seven children, she began working in the mills in 1800
soon after her family arrived in Fall River. With other
Beara residents they lived in a part of the city known as
Corky Row sharing a house with Margaret's widowed aunt and
her four children.
workers backbone of the U.S. cotton industry
In the last week's 'Down Memory Lane,' we left off where
Margaret O'Sullivan of Glenera, in the Allihies Parish and
her family had moved in to live with her aunt on Corky Road,
Fall River. When her mother died in 1888, Margaret became
a surrogate mother for her siblings. She married in 1894
and she and her husband lived next door to her family.
She stayed home for a few years after the birth of her daughter
but when her child was only two years old, Margaret became
a widow and she was soon back in the textile mills working
as a speeder tender, a skilled job in which she tended a
machine called a double speeder that prepared cotton silvers
for weaving. She worked well into her forties and then retired
and kept house for her brother, her daughter and her sister,
Annie, who also worked in the cotton mills for over forty
years, first as a doffer helping to clean the cotton and
later as a speeder tender. Annie and Margaret O'Sullivan
worked in non-supervisory positions tending machines.
Some positions required more skills than others and paid
more money but none of the women reached the level of overseer.
For Margaret and Annie, this means that their younger brother
was a mill overseer by the age of 28 while they would never
have that opportunity.
The women workers were the backbone of the cotton industry.
Some like Maggie Harrington, a member of another Beara family,
worked in the mills from the age of 11. She joined her sisters,
Hannah, Lizzie, Mary and Bridget while her father, Philip,
was a labourer and her mother, Hannah, kept house. Another
daughter, Agnes, who was the youngest, was still at school
at the age of eight.
Here she obtained a basic education she would not have received
in Ireland since there were no National Schools in Ireland
until 1885. Because of this, the parents and older children
in Beara families were frequently unable to read and write.
Despite this, some women started their own business where
they did laundry and dressmaking.
By 1880, the percentage of Beara women in the mills was
down to 77 per cent. Domestic work now seemed to have attracted
more and 22 per cent worked as servants, often in the homes
of mill owners and their families. One of these Beara women,
Mary Harrington, worked for William Davol, owner of the
Davol Mills Company.
She lived with her family and was one of a succession of
Irish servants he employed. Some of the Beara women also
worked and lived in hotels.
We notice that the Mellen House, which was in North Main
Street, Falls River, employed many Irish emigrants. One
was Gertrude Harrington who came from Beara in 1887 and
in 1900 was working there as a waitress.
Even in Fall River, however, the more recent emigrants began
to prepare for professional work. Some became nurses or
joined religious orders but the majority became teachers.
Despite the years spent training to be a teacher, teaching
was an attractive profession for young Irish women. By 1908,
American born daughters of Irish emigrants made up 26.4
per cent of Fall River teachers.
Many bore the Beara names of O'Sullivan, Harrington, Lowney,
O'Shea. The success of these 'granddaughters of the Beara'
was based upon the sacrifice and courage of their Beara
ancestors who had left Beara in search of a better life
and found it by years of hard work in the mills and homes
of Fall River, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Southern Star