The British textile industry

Britain has a long history of manufacturing textiles. The industrial revolution in the 18th Century was based on Richard Arkwright mechanising cotton goods production and flooding world markets. It made Britain great, it made Britain rich.

Clearly people have always needed clothes. Mostly for practical reasons, but also for ceremonial and social occasions. Britain was on the edge of European society until colonial expansion started at the end of 16th century when Elizabeth 1 was Queen.

English uplands were suitable for sheep-rearing, and along with providing mutton, sheep could be shorn for wool. Wool is tough, warm and has a significant water resistance. But it is hard to work and clean. British wool production led to an influx of skilled Flemish weavers. All the work of converting a sheepskin into wool thread and then woven into cloth, was carried out by hand. It was often done in the home by farmers and their families. The weaving could have been done in small craft workshops in market towns and distributed by cart around the country.

The British Empire grew cash crops in the American and Caribbean colonies. Plants had been discovered by explorers all around the world. The American climate was suitable for plantations, to grow sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton, tea and tobacco. These were all new luxury products that would exponentially increase British wealth and status. The trade crazy, capitalist British were oblivious to the suffering of the slaves who did the work for nothing overseas.

In 1750, Richard Arkwright a wigmaker from Preston moved to Bolton in Lancashire. Bolton was known as for its textile trade. It manufactured fustians, which were made from local wool and cotton brought from the Americas. The cotton was spun into thread by hand. It was woven with wool by hand in the traditional method. Not much is known about Arkwright’s early life, he had no proper education as far as we know, but he got involved in trying to mechanise the process of manufacturing cotton.

Picture the scene, Arkwright was set to become the richest man in England. He was a wigmaker had an alehouse, and he would tinker around in a shed making a machine to spin cotton. Cotton was like a ball of fluff and is carded into treads then stretched and twisted into thread before being woven. To replicate the action of skilled fingers, Arkwright had to experiment with tension’s, distances and weights on a wooden machine called a water frame.

Eventually he managed to get it right and moved to Nottingham to start a factory with some financial backers. The machine was to be powered by horses. But in 1771 Arkwright made a momentous decision. He found an outflow from a lead mill at Cromford Mill near Matlock in Derbyshire. It was a regular and strong flow of water that never froze. It was perfect for driving a watermill. Cromford Mill was a remote valley in the Peak district, there was a road over the moors to Derby, and this was the only access to the markets, until a road was built along the river valley. Arkwright built a five-storey building for spinning cotton thread. It contained his water frame, built by him a first and a watermill on the side of the building. It was the first factory. His drive and energy made the project happen. He recruited from the local area, and managed to attract textile workers from the traditional craft shops.

The factory was constructed, so was accommodation, shops and pubs. The wages were high, and production was vast. The thirst for cotton was enormous. It was flexible, washable and easily printed. It was being produced in large quantities, cheaply and consistently. The industrial revolution had started.

The workers mainly consisted of children as young as 10, who would do the manual labour. One of the tasks was to scavenge under the machines to collect loose cotton. Important for recycling and to prevent fire. The women would run the machines and manage the children and the men would be trained as engineers who would maintain and adjust the machines. Families could work in units and could make a good wage. There was some weaving on site, but much was done by men at home who would supplement the wage of the main earners, the women.

But there was opposition from the rival Lancashire spinners who fought him all the way. He struggled to get patents for the water frame and had to lobby parliament. But he managed to start other smaller mills around the Peak District, in Derbyshire, Lancashire and Scotland. The main rival in size was New Lanark. He started this mill with Glaswegian David Dale by the fast-flowing Clyde. This was an excellent place to build a mill like Cromford.

New cotton goods were flooding world markets. Manchester was the new epicentre as Arkwright built a mill there and started to use the new and perfected steam engine built by Watt and Boulton. A coalmine was dug at Bradford near Manchester and the town quickly developed into one of the biggest cities in the world. It was synonymous with the industrial revolution. Robert Owen worked there at the turn of the 19th Century as a 21-year-old owner. He moved to New Lanark to develop a new community to harness the potential of the workforce. He encouraged education and good living standards and was able to raise production. Manchester’s explosion was shrouded in the clouds of smoke and grime associated with steam power. The rapid expansion of the City led to desperate conditions and amenities. The situation for the workers was unfavourably compared with Jamaican slaves.

The once sparsely populated Lancashire countryside was filling up with new towns. Oldham became a centre for spinning. There was Burnley and Blackburn to the north, Rochdale, Stockport, and others on the edge of the Pennines. The fast-flowing streams that powered water mills, the abundance of coal to fire steam engines and the growing port of Liverpool were the reason for establishment of the textile industry in the region. It had come a long way from Arkwright’s first adventures and now was the workshop of the world.

The growth carried on into the 19th century, with new manufacturing industries. There were factories to build machines to be exported around the world. In the 1830’s the railways came. Railway mania gripped Manchester and there were many lines for commerce and public use. The docks were built to the south-west and the Manchester ship canal was built at the end of the century to rival the Liverpool docks.

The vast Trafford industrial park was the first of its kind and contained many new industries that exploited the industrial advantages of being in Manchester. Banks, insurance companies and other financial organisations came there to support the trade.

By the twentieth century other countries had started to catch up. The first World War saw a drop in production and a loss of skills as the workforce was sent to the Front and many never came back. India rebelled under Gandhi and made homespun cotton to negate the British monopoly. Ironically reversing the revolution and signalling emancipation for the jewel in the crown of the failing British Empire.

The industry continued to contract throughout the 20th Century. Pressure on prices would have negative effects on wages that were expected to rise due to the social and socialist revolutions. Competition with Europe and the far east was too intense. A lack of investment in new technology, an apathy and arrogance led to a lack of competitiveness. All industry in the UK was challenged when the Thatcher Government in 1979 removed any support to industry and they had to sink or swim. The new leaner meaner economy had still fallen behind the rest. The powerhouses were China and India who were always the economic centre of the world before Arkwright’s invention.

The world would never be the same. Industrialisation employed the world, enabled cities, created multitudinous manufactured items and created new urban communities. One of the legacies of the industrial revolution in the North of England is the many separate towns spread around the edge of the Pennines. They all grew up around factories and specialised parts of the textiles industries and other industries. Each town had a football or rugby team that focussed their identities and gave the hard-working factory folk a time to let off steam at the weekend. And perhaps most fascinating is the slight variation in accent, dialect, culture, cuisine and identity that can be found in each Northern town.

I hope these traditions continue and England does not become a featureless urban sprawl like so many other countries. More than that I hope for the return of industry to its birthplace. The the culture is there, the infrastructure is there, and the history is there. But above all it is the people. Hardworking grafters, salt of the earth and straight talking with a competitive spirit fired by the individualism of their local towns. They are the lifeblood of industry and Arkwright was one of them before he became the richest man in England. If you want to invest in industry in the North of England, then in my view you need to invest in the biggest asset, the people.


Conway-Laird (2018)

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