History explorer: the power of cotton

Terry Wyke and Nige Tassell visit Queen Street Mill in Burnley to discover the period when Lancashire dominated the global textile trade

Queen Street Mill in Burnley. (Photo by Alamy)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Even though its chimney reaches 120 feet into the Lancashire skies, you have to go looking for Queen Street Mill. Or at least you would if a succession of road signs didn’t carefully guide you to its home on the north-eastern outskirts of Burnley. And here, at the far end of just another unremarkable side street, it stands – the last surviving steam-powered weaving mill in the world.

Queen Street Mill is one of the few reminders of an industry that not only reshaped and redefined south-east Lancashire, but was also a fundamental base upon which the industrial revolution, and Britain’s industrial might, was cast. This corner of the country took on the global cotton industry and dominated it for more than a century.

The towns dotted around Manchester – Oldham, Bolton, Stockport, Burnley and many others – became throbbing, smoke-stained hives of phenomenal productivity. Manchester itself became a boomtown, the industry’s financial centre that was famously dubbed ‘Cottonopolis’.

There are few more authoritative companions with which to visit Queen Street Mill than Terry Wyke, senior lecturer in social and economic history at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Most people rightly associate the cotton industry with the industrial revolution,” he says. “It’s one of the central industries in that great transformation. But it’s often overlooked that the cotton industry in Lancashire had a much longer history. By the 17th century, one sees cotton being imported and used to make mixed-fibre cloth, cloth that had a linen and cotton mix. In this part of the country, there developed the well-known domestic system of production, whereby clothier merchants put out raw cotton which was worked by men and women in cottages.

“This went on during the 17th century and into the 18th century. Alongside that, all-cotton cloth was being imported. This was seen as far superior to the existing cloth. It was comfortable to wear, it was convenient to wash, it was often cheaper than the existing woollen and linen fabrics, and it could be more easily printed upon. It became a much more attractive cloth.”

Rush of technologies

Terry explains how the rush to produce this superior cloth drove mechanical advancement. “There was a series of technological changes that led, in the 1770s and the 1780s, to that domestic system of production being challenged. The key individual in that process was Richard Arkwright. It was his development of new technologies that moved the industry away from the cottages into purpose-built buildings. He came up with a new production process driven by water power. As a result, the cotton mill began to appear.”

Before too long, these new mills adopted the technology that really transformed the cotton industry – steam power. Soon, vast numbers of steam-powered factories were springing up in and around Manchester.

“By the late 1790s,” explains Terry, “you began to see colossal spinning mills erected in the city. But this revolution was still only a revolution in spinning. The movement of weaving into the factory really didn’t begin until the 1820s, by which time the spinning revolution had been going on for 30 or 40 years.”

And weaving is what occurred here at Queen Street Mill. We head upstairs where the 500-horsepower engine that powered the looms here is still fired up three times a day, an immaculately preserved example of the finest British engineering. Today it’s operated by a pair of proud, beaming engineers. It’s easy to get a sense of the scale of the entire operation. Not only is the engine enormous, but the power it produces is all too audible elsewhere in the mill.

The filth and the fury

The noise draws us back downstairs to the weaving shed, a vast room with the dimensions of a football pitch. It’s home to 308 looms, the belts of which are currently spinning with great fury. This isn’t the half of it. At its peak, this mill housed more than 1,000 looms, each one noisily whirring, clanging and clacking all day long.

As well as the noise, you get a sense of the working conditions of the weavers, each of whom would be assigned four looms to oversee. While enduring high levels of dust and humidity in the mill, the weavers would be employed on piece work; they would only be paid for the amount they produced.

Often their income would be affected by mechanical failure, by circumstances out of their hands.

This meant they needed to be on good terms with the tacklers, those employees charged with fixing looms in the event of breakdown. Among the museum’s range of exhibits are some perfectly preserved tackler work benches, complete with the tools of the tackler’s trade. The sooner a loom was fixed, the more money the weaver could earn, so the weaver/tackler relationship was important, and one that could be defined by favouritism or bullying.

Each town became known for its own particular contribution to the cotton industry. For instance, Oldham and Bolton were both great spinning towns, but while the former was known for its cheaper product, the latter concentrated on higher-grade fine yarn. Oldham’s place in the story of cotton is fundamental. Dubbed ‘Spindleopolis’, its mills were once said to contain more spindles than the entire US cotton industry. “It was the world’s major cotton-spinning town,” says Terry with no hint of hyperbole.

Meanwhile, Manchester was shaping itself into becoming the industry’s beating commercial heart. “Manchester took on a slightly different role to what Charles Dickens later described as the ‘Coketowns’. It became the merchant centre for cotton, famously summed up by the historian Asa Briggs when he argued that the typical textile industry building in Manchester was not the cotton mill, as it was in Burnley or Bolton or Oldham or Stockport. It was the warehouse. And the Royal Exchange in Manchester was where the business deals were done.”

Dizzying change

These were undeniably exciting times. “The new machinery was changing very rapidly. If you’d walked into one of the Manchester mills in the early 1800s and then walked in again in the 1840s, you would have more or less recognised the processes, but the machines were entirely different. They would have been working much faster, they would have been much more reliable. And this process of perpetual technical improvement that drove the industry went on throughout the century. The looms that we see today in this wonderful museum are from the end of the 19th century and are vastly different from those that were installed in the first weaving sheds in the 1820s and 1830s.”

According to the cliché, the Lancashire cotton trade produced for the domestic market before breakfast, before concentrating on the rest of the world for the bulk of the day. Great fortunes were made and confidence remained high into the 20th century, despite the First World War and its effect on the British economy. But other countries – particularly India and Japan – were beginning to make inroads into Lancashire’s dominant position. The arrival of man-made fibres also accelerated the demise.

“When the decline did come, it came dramatically,” explains Terry. “The cotton industry had been the first into the industrial revolution. It had pioneered the factory system of production. But it can also be seen as the first industry to come out of the industrial revolution. No other industries had collapsed this way. The markets began to shrink. The towns suffered and there were extraordinarily high rates of unemployment. There were no more jobs for life.

“Mills were closed or amalgamated. New forms of technology were introduced, but none of these measures could halt the decline. By the 1960s, the cotton industry had all but disappeared. The skylines still bristled with these factory chimneys. It was just that, inside them, there were fewer and fewer people working.”

Queen Street Mill itself survived until into the 1980s, after which it became the museum it is today. Terry, who is a frequent visitor to textile mills across the world, regards it as the most significant of all the mills that still survive. To him, it’s not just regionally or nationally important: it’s internationally important.

This importance is set into sharp relief by the knowledge that the Grade I-listed mill may be threatened with closure due to the budgetary restraints faced by Lancashire County Council. As for Terry, he believes that, rather than being mothballed, Queen Street Mill should be declared a World Heritage Site.

Historical advisor: Terry Wyke, co-editor of Manchester: Making The Modern City (Liverpool University Press, 2016). Words: Nige Tassell.

The cotton industry: five more places to explore

1) Cromford Mill (Derwent Valley, Derbyshire)

Where the factory system was born

This is one of the key sites of the world’s first industrial revolution, where Richard Arkwright brought together carding (the cleaning and straightening of the cotton fibres) and spinning machinery to establish the modern factory system. More than 200 years later, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Visit cromfordmills.org.uk

2) Quarry Bank Mill (Styal, Cheshire)

Where orphans were provided for

Initially a water-powered spinning operation, Quarry Bank evolved over time, eventually becoming a steam-powered weaving mill. The idyllic site also includes workers’ accommodation and the Apprentice House, home to the orphaned children who worked at the mill.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/quarry-bank

3) Helmshore Mills Textile Museum (Helmshore, Lancashire)

Where seven mills were sited

This quiet village in Rossendale was, at one time, home to no fewer than seven working mills. Two remain – Higher Mill and Whitaker’s Mill – which have combined to provide a joint museum experience.

Visit lancashire.gov.uk

4) Royal Exchange (Manchester)

Where all the big deals were struck

This may be the single most important building in the entire cotton industry, as it was the crucible for worldwide deals in yarn and finished cloth. Known as the ‘parliament of the cotton lords’, it closed its doors in 1968. The trading floor is now occupied by the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Visit royalexchange.co.uk

5) New Lanark (South Lanarkshire)

Where mill workers were housed

Another Unesco World Heritage Site, the cotton mills established here formed part of an industrial community on the banks of the river Clyde, developed by the Welsh utopian socialist Robert Owen. With extensive housing for its mill workers, New Lanark was an early example of urban planning.

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Visit newlanark.org.uk