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WHEN I came to live in the cotton district of Lancashire in the early sixties, the textile industry that had helped to change the world was already in terminal decline.
By Doug
Peacock

Few of those involved were prepared to admit it, but amid the townscapes of tall, still-smoking chimneys, cavernously-depressing mills and sad, endless rows of cheap workers' housing, what I was witnessing was the slow, agonising death of King Cotton.

Watching a friend die is a sobering experience and it made me reflect on how little I knew about this once-great industry. I decided I owed it to myself and to the vanishing breed of mill people to discover more about them and about the revolution they started.

The Industrial Revolution wasn't simply a switch in the way we earned our living, a move away from farming into manufacturing. It was an absolute upheaval, bringing about the overthrow of almost everything that had gone before. It was a volcano spouting out new ideas and concepts that buried the past, leaving nothing - not even our religion or our other long-cherished beliefs - unscathed.

It all began, strangely enough, in an area of England that was considered behind the times. London in the 18th century was fashionable and sophisticated but Lancashire, far to the North, was still in a comparative dark age. It was a wilderness populated by poor farmers scratching a living from inhospitable soil, not the sort of territory into which a civilised gentleman would venture without a pressing reason.

Bounded in the south by the River Mersey, in the west by the Irish Sea, in the north by the wild mountains of the Lake District and separated from Yorkshire in the east by the bleak Pennine moors, Lancashire had seen little change since medieval times.

Putting out

By the middle of the eighteenth century, farming communities were supplementing their miserable income by weaving cotton or wool under the "putting-out" system. Town merchants provided their raw materials and paid for the finished goods. By and large, the only contact these country folk had with the towns was when they came in to deliver their workpieces and collect fresh supplies of wool or cotton.

Then, everything changed. Those rustic weaver-farmers, despite their lack of education, found suddenly from somewhere the brains and the imagination to produce a great fountain of invention.

The machines they made might seem quaint and clumsy to us, but they were the cutting edge of technology in an era when the plough and the sail held sway. And amazingly, all these mechanical geniuses - John Kay, James Hargreaves, Samuel Crompton and the now-forgotten Thomas Highs - lived and worked within a few miles of each other, and within a few miles of my new home.

In the space of just a few decades, the simple, wood-and-iron contraptions they created were to change the English landscape. Particularly in the North and Midlands, the old, agricultural England was very soon just a folk memory, and it is difficult to imagine what those country people made of it all as they saw their green fields and woodlands turned into mean streets and smoke-belching mills.

Cotton Times is the result of my quest to find out more about these people. It's far from perfect or comprehensive, but it's an honest attempt to put cotton into perspective in relation to that wider phenomenon that Arnold Toynbee later dubbed "The Industrial Revolution."

I've taken a look at the great thinkers and inventors, at the businessmen who brought in the factory system, at the politicians and the social reformers, and at the men, women and children who slaved and suffered in the early years in the name of progress.

Cotton, of course, was not the sole reason why Britain's pre-1770 agricultural economy emerged into the world's first, fully-fledged industrial society, making its living by importing raw materials, turning them into manufactured goods and exporting them at a profit.

But a sound argument can be made for the claim that Lancashire textiles were at the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution, opening the door for other manufacturers to conquer the world.

Cotton masters used to claim proudly that they satisfied the home market before breakfast, and catered for the rest of the world afterwards. It was they who made Britain the workshop of the world

Starting with yarn and cloth, we poured vast quantities of goods abroad to countries who could not manufacture their own and who were eager to pay us to do it for them.

In the process, steam engines drained our mines and powered our factories, while canals and then railways shifted the materials.

Misery for millions

Fortunes were made - and sometimes lost - overnight. But the reverse of the coin was misery for millions. Shoehorned into the mills even as toddlers, forced to work unbelievably long hours when trade demanded it, starved when boom turned into bust, on the scrapheap at 35 or 40 with nothing but the hated workhouse and then death to look forward to. That was the lot of many workers.

One of the big questions I asked myself was, why this had happened in Britain? Why not France or Germany, say? Well, the time and the social conditions just happened to be right.

Before you can think of investing your money in a manufacturing business, you need to be reasonably confident you can sell what you make. Likewise, before you can think of exporting to the world, you need to sell at home - and that means living in a country which has the surplus cash and the inclination to buy what you are making.

The operative word is 'inclination.' It wasn't simply a matter of making something useful, advertising it for sale and waiting for the customers to roll up to your door.

Attitudes that had ruled for centuries first had to be changed and it was no easy matter to persuade people to buy, when they were used to making and growing things for themselves. What had to happen was a complete transformation in our thinking and our way of life. Easy enough? Well just think difficult it would be if we were asked to change back again.

However, the sophistication and growing wealth of 18th-century London, which I mentioned earlier and which was unparalleled elsewhere meant that, gfradually at first, people were able to demand not just the necessities of life, but some of the luxuries, too.

In the countryside, land enclosure was increasing, allowing better crop rotation, while agriculturalists like Jethro Tull and 'Turnip' Townshend helped improve food production to a point where, by about 1760, Britain was not only self-sufficient in food but also able to support a large, non-agricultural work-force.

So the demand, at first faltering, was growing, labour was becoming available as agriculture became more efficient and less labour-intensive. All it needed was a fuse, and that was provided by Lancashire.

A series of brilliant inventions between 1733, when John Kay perfected his flying shuttle, and the early 19th century, when the powered loom and the self-acting spinning mule finally came into their own, helped to make the cotton trade the jewel in Britain's industrial crown, accounting at one point for more than half the country's exports.

In some ways, there was nothing unique about the Industrial Revolution. Machines had been invented before. Goods had been exported for centuries. Men had even worked in factories. But it was the sheer scale of what happened and the speed with which it developed that made the Industrial Revolution such a watershed in our history.

What was achieved, however, came at no small cost. Men who had once been their own bosses were now herded into mills and made to obey the factory hooter and dance to the tune of the tireless machines.

Women joined the wage-slave economy, neglecting home and hearth, even drugging their babies with laudanum so they would sleep while mother worked. Children as young as five were thrown into the mills, while others a little older worked 12, 13 or 14 hours a day in the grimmest and most dangerous conditions, and were beaten by overseers just to keep them awake towards the end of their back-breaking shifts.

But grim or not, the conditions were sometimes preferable to those existing at home. Manchester and her cotton satellites became "frontier" towns, with long, sunless terraces of jerry-built houses thrown up piecemeal to accommodate the thousands of workers pouring in from the countryside, built with little regard to basic sanitation and none at all to comfort.

Disease on the prowl

With families crowded into these unhealthy hovels, sickness and disease were close neighbours and epidemics struck regularly.

P>Cholera and typhoid were always on the prowl, and in the smoke-saturated air of the cotton towns, where the sun was never more than a dull orange glow through the smog, children were lucky to survive into adulthood. More than half of them died before their fifth birthday, as sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick pointed out.

Chadwick's interest in the problem was ambiguous. Was he really worried about infant well-being when he wrote in 1842: "It is an appalling fact that, of all who are born of the labouring classes in Manchester, more than 57 per cent die before they attain five years of age; that is, before they can be engaged in factory labour, or in any other labour whatsoever."

If disease didn't get you, then poverty invariably did. Slump followed boom with predictable regularity in the textile trade, and when the bad times came there was no Social Security to catch the workers who were thrown onto the scrapheap. The economics were simple. If you didn't work, you starved.

Perhaps the greatest single mystery about the Industrial Revolution is that it did not start a full-scale social war. The workers had their example in the French Revolution, which began in 1789, and heaven knows they had good reason to rebel: They knew well enough what their labour was worth, and they saw that the profits of that labour were going to the masters and the State.

However, a repressive government kept them firmly in their place. Spies roamed the countryside looking for the first signs of rebellion, and often inventing them when they couldn't find them. Any hint of trouble was crushed - the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester being a case in point.

The trouble was that protest lacked a real political edge. Workers could be roused in the bad times but, perhaps understandably, their fight in the early days was always for cheaper bread and better pay. When the boom times returned, the fight faded into the city smog.

Only gradually did they begin to realise that, to improve their conditions, they needed a political voice, and so started the call for the Charter. The closest Britain came to a revolution was the Chartist uprising of 1839. But the organisers failed to organise, or even to agree on a policy, and the moment passed.

In the end, the workers got what they wanted and deserved without shedding blood. Successive governments realised the value of reforming legislation and gradually the life of the working man became just about bearable - the 10-hour working day gave him time for leisure and self-improvement, education became a right rather than a privilege and he even got the vote.

But those early, suffering masses had been in their graves a long, long time before that came about.

Although, as I have admitted, the Industrial Revolution strode a far wider stage than Lancashire and encompassed far more than cotton, I make no apologies if this site appears weighted towards the world of textile mills.

Eventually, I hope to redress the imbalance by adding articles on other regions and other industries, so please come back and look again. For now, however, Cotton is still King ...

2017 | Admiral Nelson | Read about the Industrial Revolution