Working Conditions

A painting depicting working conditions inside the Northampton ironworks.
Artist depiction of the iron making process.

NPS/Harpers Ferry Center

Time-books for the colliers, who worked with charcoal at the furnace, give us the work schedule for indentured servants. They were expected to work a twenty-six day month with only Sundays free, year after year. Dr. Randall Hulse, who was employed to care for ailing furnace workers, described general working conditions of the ironworks. In a letter dated February 22, 1777, to Captain Ridgely, Dr. Hulse described workers subjected to “a mean diet and barbarous usage” and a “wanton abuse of power.” He personally witnessed labor and punishment “excesses that call aloud for redress.”

Dr. Hulse cited a laborer, who made for “a miserable spectacle,” whom the overseer had driven to work “with a 56 lbs. chained to his leg.” “The despotic manager,” continued the doctor, “beat him with a stick and he died the next morning.” Hulse charged that any “unconcerned spectator” who witnessed the labor practices of Northampton without a more humane response “must possess a heart of stone and be deaf to every Sentiment of Humanity.”

Between November 1775 and December 1777 the daybooks recorded in the business category of “Profits and Loss” that five servants working at the forges died from the exertion of their labor. Historian Kent Lancaster has concluded that the conditions at Northampton were so harsh that, for slaves and convict laborers, “accidents resulting in broken bones, burns, or crushed feet were frequent.”

Last updated: July 9, 2020

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