The author has kindly shared with our readers the following passage from his 2015 book, Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body. — George P. Landow]'

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y the late 1820s factory accidents attracted attention all over England. The scenes of grisly dismemberment in A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (which ran in The Lion from 25 January through 22 February 1828) helped establish and then popularize what became known as “the man-eating-machine” genre in daily newspapers. Thomas Lacqueur has shown how these stories forged a “humanitarian narrative” linking those who suffered and those who read about such suffering (1989: 176). The Times published a representative example of this new narrative in its reporting of the death of Daniel Buckley, a mill worker who died in 1830 as a result of gruesome injuries to his hand by a machine used for carding horsehair. The article recounts in graphic detail how Buckley’s left hand “was caught and lacerated, and his fingers crushed” by the studded teeth of a cylinder before the machine could be stopped by his co-workers (“Coroner’s Inquest” 1830). The Times article also reports that Buckley died after spending two full weeks in Middlesex Hospital—the same facility in which Sir Charles Bell, the future author of the Bridgewater Treatise on The Hand, was employed as the lead surgeon.

Other accounts of factory life from this period show the extent to which workers were constantly confronted with the specter of losing their hands to machines. The Narrative of the Experiences and Sufferings of William Dodd, a Factory Cripple recounts the life of a young boy who enters the factory in 1809 and leaves it with an amputated hand in 1837. Though he does not describe his own maiming, Dodd describes how his sister's right hand became entangled in a carding machine barely ten pages into the narrative:

Four iron teeth of a wheel, three-quarters of an inch broad, and one-quarter of an inch thick, had been forced through her hand . . . and the fifth iron tooth fell upon the thumb, and crushed it into atoms . . . This accident might have been prevented, if the wheels above referred to had been boxed off, which they might have been for a couple of shillings; and the very next week after this accident, a man had two fingers taken off his hand, by the very same wheels—and still they are not boxed off! [1841: 285]

P. W. J. Bartrip and S. B. Burman have demonstrated in The Wounded Soldiers of Industry how factory workers had few, if any, rights to compensation from their employers after their survival from workplace accidents. This was partly because the rapidly expanding economic activity provided employers with financial incentives to ignore the law (1983: 21). It was simply cheaper for employers to pay nominal fines when there were injuries and to keep the factory equipment running as usual than to stop the machines and fence off the most dangerous parts. As a result, factory production in this unregulated era created large numbers of industrial amputations, particularly of the hands and fingers (Bronstein 2007: 2).

Furthermore, many factories maintained policies that did not allow for their engines to be shut down even during service or maintenance (Cawthon 1997: 49). The Times reported on the case of William Floyd who was oiling the cogs of an operating engine when it drew in his left hand and severed it at the wrist (March 24,1838). Surgeons consequently trained their students to operate with an awareness of their patients' chances to gain employment after hand injuries. One surgeon at St. Georges hospital cautioned his students that a finger or a thumb, or even the stump of a finger, [would] always be more useful than any artificial appendage, particularly when the accident occurs to a mechanic” (qtd. in Cawthon 1997: 59), Stories abound of workers who attempted to return to their former factory positions only to be turned away because of mangled hands. What’s worse, machines existed for those who had survived lower-body injuries because such machines could be operated from a seated position. None, however, could operate without the assistance of hands. Therein lay a particularly cruel historical irony: the hand became simultaneously the most valuable and most vulnerable part of the human body for a factory worker.

Tending to hand injuries in the 1820s compelled Charles Bell to visit surgeons at other hospitals in England's manufacturing towns. One of the colleagues Bell visited was Samuel Smith, his former student and a surgeon at the Leeds General Infirmary, where severe injuries to the arms and hands occurred in disproportionately large numbers. Smith testified to Michael Sadler's Parliamentary Committee on Factories in July 1852 that he had “frequently seen accidents of the most dreadful kind that it is possible to conceive . . . cases in which the arm had been torn ofF near the shoulder joint . . . the upper extremity chopped into small fragments, from the tip of the finger to above the elbow . . . the most shocking cases of lacerations that it is possible to conceive' (Smith 1832: 503). Bell toured the regions hospitals during that summer and heard similar reports of the gruesome hand injuries sustained by the area's workers. He testified before the same parliamentary committee less than a month later, saying that he 'was very much struck with the nature and number of the accidents received [from machinery]" both in his own hospital and in those he visited (Bell 1832: 605).

The experiences of many other medical practitioners reveal similar responses. William Lutener, a Montgomeryshire surgeon, testified that he “had frequently to amputate the hands and fingers of children" who would most likely become paupers for life (1832:179). The Sadler Committee's report was controversial with factory owners partly because its grim findings were thought to lack firm data. The Factory Act of 1833, though, required official inspectorates to keep lists of injuries with specific headings such as "Time, place and Mode of Maiming," "Distorted," and "Description or Degree of Distortion” (Instructions 1833; 34-35). This more formally collected data confirmed that the most common injury requiring hospitalization was the severing or pulverization of the hand by mechanized fly-wheels. In one year during this decade, for instance, severe injuries to the hand, thumb, or fingers accounted for 243 of the 261 patients (over 93 percent) treated at the Leeds Infirmary in cases related to mill accidents (Lee 1964: 89).

Related material


Capuano, Peter. Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2015.

Last modified 8 March 2017