Trouble at Mill: transcript with description of film scenes and images
A silent, black and white film lasting 7 minutes 37 seconds.
This is a combination of film shot on location at Leeds Industrial Museum, archival black and white photographs of mill buildings and 19th century mill workers, including children, plus inter-title cards which convey key points in text. The entire film uses an effect to make it look grainy, scratched and jerky, giving it the appearance of an early silent movie.
Opening title 1: Any work that wanted doing. This title is set against photographs of a mill chimney, with logos for Leeds 2023, Leeds Industrial Museum and Leeds City Council.
Opening title 2: Trouble at mill. Text is at the top of a photo of the character Sarah Hartley, brush in hand, in a mill.
Opening title 3: Exploring the life of Deaf mill worker Sarah Hartley (1818-1875). Text next to a photo of Sarah’s face, looking serious.
The film begins with a series of inter-titles: Using historical records and our imagination. Based on our own experiences of being Deaf.
Sarah attended Doncaster School for the Deaf or the Yorkshire Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, as it was known then, which used the manual or sign method as its primary mode of communication. This was before oralism in 1880 when sign language was banned in education.
After leaving school, Sarah lodged with a family in Hunslet.
Scene: Sarah Hartley, dressed in a long apron, woollen shawl and mob cap, is in a kitchen. She checks a sheet hanging to dry from the ceiling on a clothes maiden. She takes a kettle off the stove and carries it towards the table.
Inter-title: Sarah worked with her old school friend, Jane Holmes.
Scene: At a kitchen table, Jane Holmes, in a similar outfit to Sarah, including a floppy mob cap, wraps a doorstop sandwich in brown paper, tied with string.
Inter-title: They were both Deaf.
Scene: Outside the house, on a cobbled path, Jane waits for Sarah to join her. They walk briskly towards the camera, arm-in-arm.
An image of an industrial town is shown, the camera panning across dozens of tall, smoking chimneys which recede into the distance.
Inter-title: They worked at Dickinson and Barraclough, a textile mill in Hunslet.
Images of smoking chimneys, along with film of a drive belt that operates mill machinery. An old photograph of a crowded factory floor, with lots of young women in aprons.
Inter-title: They worked 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week.
Scene: Sarah and Jane arrive at work and quickly clock on.
Inter-title: Conditions were hot and dusty.
Scene: Sarah bends to sweep the floor under the spinning mule. She waves dust from her face and coughs, but carries on.
Film of moving drive belts.
Inter-title: The machinery was so loud and noisy, many hearing workers became deafened and had to communicate using mime and gesture.
Scene: Yarn is drawn out from the rollers of the spinning mule. Jane, working quickly, loads a large wicker basket with bobbins.
Inter-title: Sarah worked as a bobbin-winder. Later she was promoted to stuff (worsted) weaver.
Image: 1851 census listing “Sarah Hartley, stuff weaver, Deaf and Dumb”, in cursive handwriting.
Old photo of a mill girl minding a power loom.
Inter-title: Sarah and Jane had an advantage - they could communicate in sign language.
Scene: Sarah and Jane walk through the mill, signing to each other.
Inter-title: There was little in the way of health and safety. Many accidents occurred, some fatal!
Images: Young children at work in textile mills.
Inter-title: Sarah was reported to be “not quite so even-tempered as other girls in the same employment”. Perhaps she was teased for being Deaf?
Scene: Sarah sits, facing camera, signing about being teased.
Inter-title: The overseer (boss) told Sarah to ignore the teasing. He said she was a good worker.
Scene: In the mill, the overseer, waist-coated and bearded, communicates with Sarah using gestures and simple signs. Jane passes by, glances at them. Sarah nods to the overseer, and gets on with her work.
Inter-title: In our story, Sarah goes to see the mill owner to express her concerns about child labour.
Scene: Sarah knocks on a large wooden door in a house with an expensively-decorated hallway. The door opens onto a grand dining room with a large table.
Inter-titles: The mill owner agrees for Sarah to teach the children signs. This will aid communication and help keep them safe!
Scene: Sarah leaves the room with a big smile on her face.
Inter-title: Sarah is excited to pass on her sign language skills.
Scene: Sarah sits outside, facing camera, and tells, in sign language, of her excitement about teaching the children.
Inter-title: Sarah would have used the manual method she learnt at the Yorkshire Institution.
Scene: Rows of wooden desks in a classroom, followed by a 19th century chart showing the finger-spelled alphabet.
Sarah stands at the front of the room, holding a shuttle. She puts it aside and finger-spells s-h-u-t-t-l-e. She then shows this word written in chalk on a school slate.
Inter-title: The children would have learnt quickly to communicate more effectively using their eyes instead of ears in the noisy environment of the factory.
Scene: Back in the classroom, Sarah stands in front of a blackboard covered in rows of arithmetic. Using signs, she asks the class the answer to a simple sum.
Inter-title followed by a scene of Sarah signing this message: Sarah believed that children have the right to be safe, to learn how to change and improve conditions to secure a better future.
Sarah Hartley - Katie Redstar
Jane Holmes - Janet Alexander
Overseer - Barrie Mackwell
Film crew: Donna Burrows, Janet Alexander, Katie Redstar
With special thanks to Gill Crawshaw for her research, and the staff at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills.
Devised, directed and edited by Janet Alexander.
Technical support by Lewis Alexander.
Filmed on location at Leeds Industrial Museum.
Final image: a photograph of a young child’s face, wearing a flat cap.