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Cotton Industry


 

This page holds information about Lancashire's main industry, King Cotton. The county was the centre of cotton production, having at one time more than 80% of the cotton spindles in the whole world. It had been Lancashire men who invented the machinery needed to produce cloth in quantity. John Kay, James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton - all Lancashire born and bred. Before the Industrial Revolution, thread would be produced and then woven into cloth by members of the same family - we still use the term "spinster" for an unmarried woman.

It turns out that Lancashire has the ideal climate for processing cotton. A particular humidity is needed for the fibres to twist together reliably. Mills were built initially where there was a good supply of water power, but steam engines rapidly became the driving force of the industry, with much of Lancashire sitting over massive coal reserves which enabled the boilers to be run cheaply.

Raw cotton was shipped from many parts of the world to Lancashire's main port, Liverpool, and moved from there to the spinning mills. Thread was transported from these to the weaving mills, then to bleachers and printers, and finished cloth went to the big wholesalers in Manchester and thence to the far corners of the globe. To this day the generic term used for drapery such as sheets and pillow-cases in Australia and New Zealand is Manchester. The wholesalers in that city built ever more opulent offices with which to impress their customers. Have a look at the photo gallery at www.britanniamanchesterhotel.co.uk to see one of the fantastic buildings which the cotton trade paid for. Don't forget that what you are looking at is a warehouse - including the fancy staircase with the big chandelier.

Many towns specialised in particular processes. Bolton, for example, spun fine thread, as used in good shirts, while Oldham spun huge amounts of courser thread, as used in sheets. The towns from Blackburn to Burnley were given over almost entirely to weaving.

Of course that means a lot of goods need moving from place to place, and Lancashire was quick to adopt new forms of transport. Canals sprang up to link Lancashire manufacturing towns with their suppliers and markets. The first steam railway for goods was in County Durham, but in Lancashire a railway was built to carry passengers between Manchester and Liverpool. The enormous cost was to be funded by fares collected from the super-rich, who could then travel from one city to the other, attend a business meeting, and be back home the same day. The equivalent of Concorde in 1830! The story of the Rainhill Trials in 1829 is well documented, but it is not commonly known that the very first railway station in the world still exists, at Castlefields in Manchester.

A couple of years later these same people discovered that they could rush raw materials from Liverpool, and finished goods to the port, and revenues leapt up, causing a railway boom which was picked up around the country, and indeed across the world.

The railways became the backbone of Lancashire's industries, and sleepy villages became home to cotton mills simply because a railway was handy to deliver raw material and fuel, and take the finished product to the customers. Agricultural workers became spinners and weavers in mills. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway had thousands of railway wagons moving cotton around. Raw cotton from the Liverpool docks could arrive in one place, be spun into thread, shipped overnight to another town, woven into fabric, then transported to the great warehouses in Manchester for sale to the rest of the world, making another train journey from there to the docks - Hull or Grimsby for most of Europe, Liverpool for the rest of the world. Other wagons handled the output of Lancashire's other great industry, coal, feeding the boilers of mills and the forges of makers of mill machinery.

Of course one thing always rankled the cotton traders of Lancashire, and that was the fact that the traders in Liverpool had to be paid their cut as raw cotton arrived in the country and also as finished goods left the country. So in the 1880s they put up fifteen million pounds (about a hundred times that in today's money) and built the Manchester Ship Canal, enabling ocean-going ships to travel all the way to the heart of the city. Fees would still be paid, of course, but the money would stay in Manchester.

Click here for a list of jobs which I've found while researching my family history.

Click here for some statistics about the mills of Lancashire.

Click here to read something about the effects of the American Civil War on Lancashire.