An English Family History

Tradesmen: a millworker

by Florence English

The development of the cotton industry

For many centuries, British cloth had been made, not from cotton, but from sheep’s wool. Merchants delivered wool from local farms to the cottages of the worker. But because the population was growing so fast, it needed more and more clothes, so machines were invented to produce cloth more quickly. But they were too large to be used in worker’s homes. The obvious next step was to collect workers and machinery together under one roof. The first modern mill was set up in 1771, at Cromford in Derbyshire.

By the end of the eighteenth century, there was a growing fashion for a new light, exotic cloth made in India. It was made from the seed-heads of cotton plants, which have thin hairs or fibres that can be spun into a thread.

An enormous amount of cotton was picked by slaves working on plantations in America. The raw cotton was cleaned, then pressed into square bags called bales. Thousands of these bales were sent to Liverpool by ship and taken to the new mills by canal. By the mid-nineteenth century, Liverpool had become one of the largest ports in the world, simply because of the cotton industry.

At the mill, raw cotton had to be prepared before it could be spun. First, it was cleaned by beating, or ‘scutching’, to remove dust. A process called ‘willowing’ then separated the cotton fibres. Next, these tangled fibres were combed or ‘carded’ to make them lie straight.

Many cotton workers suffered breathing problems. In the winter, they left the intense heat of the mills and walked home in the icy cold. Such changes in temperature, and the constant breathing of cotton dust and steam in the air, ruined their lungs. Diseases such as pneumonia were common.

If you look inside a Victorian mill, you will see rows of machines called "spinning mules". The mule had been invented in 1779 by Samuel Crompton. It combined the ideas of two older machines, the spinning jenny and the waler frame. Crompton’s mule could operate large numbers of bobbins at once, producing strong, fine thread very quickly.

Workers brushed dust from the mules while they were in motion. There were no safety guards, and they had to crawl under and reach into sharp, fast moving gears and cogs. There were many accidents. By the end of the day, workers became careless. They were exhausted by hunger, heat and long hours watching the hypnotic movements of the machines. Workers maimed by mill machinery were a common sight in Lancashire.

Once it had been spun, the cotton was ready to be woven into cloth. With mules spinning more and more thread, weavers still using the old hand looms in their homes could not keep up. A solution lay in the power loom, invented in 1786 by a vicar named Dr. Edmund Cartwright. By 1829 there were 49,000 power looms in the mills.

Many of our DUERDEN, HOLT, STANSFIELD, WOLKINSON and SUTCLIFFE ancestors were power loom weavers.