The Wainstall Waifs and “Her-Story”

Have you ever wandered round a city and wondered why most of the statues are of famous men? Or picked up a history book and read tales of Kings, knights, politicians and priests – all male? Did this leave you baffled, and wondering – what were all the women up to?

Because of their second-class position in society, women throughout history have always been overlooked and forgotten. They are rarely commended, rarely included in the history books – history was almost universally ‘his story’.

On the rare occasions when women throughout history have been recognised, it is typically the stories of people with power, money and influence that we hear of. The 18th century entrepreneur, diarist and ‘modern lesbian’, Anne Lister, is a great example of this – as much as we are extremely proud of her story here in Calderdale, her privileged position in society allowed her to act in ways that most women at the time simply couldn’t. Her story has been remembered, celebrated and retold, but others haven’t.

Things are changing however, and a growing interest in social history and stories of ‘lived experience’ shines a light on the history of people from all backgrounds, including working class women, women of colour and women from marginalised communities. Campaigns like ‘International Women’s Day’ allow us to learn more about these diverse stories, and many museums nowadays acknowledge their responsibility to retell history from multiple viewpoints.

Calderdale Industrial Museum is one such museum. Their brand-new exhibition tells the story of the ‘Wainstalls Waifs’ – 250 young girls who came from Liverpool to work in the mills of the Calverts at Wainstalls in Calderdale – and their journey from workhouse to independence.

Most of the girls came from Brownlow Hill workhouse, a large workhouse in Liverpool, and some of them were orphans. Before being transported by train to Luddendenfoot the girls were given a medical for Tuberculosis, which in those days was a rampant disease and a major killer. They were then taken by cart from the station to the fresh moorland air of Wainstalls – another world from the squalid urban environment of Liverpool! Girls were preferred to boys as they were thought more reliable and were recruited from the age of 10.

Although conditions at the Calverts Mill at Wainstalls were harsh, the girls were not slaves – they were employed under contract as apprentices, and were only allowed to work a certain number of hours thanks to various Factory Acts which had been introduced by the 1860s. Through their experiences gained at the spinning textile mill, they effectively learnt a trade as worsted spinners. The skill they acquired was a form of female empowerment and allowed them to earn a wage and integrate into the local Wainstalls community. Some later married local men.

The graves of some of the Wainstalls girls can be seen in the Luddenden Dean graveyard (the chapel was destroyed by fire in the late 1950s), on Heys Lane, Wainstalls. And you can find out more about the ‘Wainstall Waifs’ exhibition at Calderdale Industrial Museum here.