Situated in the Roch valley, Rochdale grew rapidly in the 19th Century, the first cotton mill erected in 1795: one of the weavers there was Jacob Bright, father of John Bright. Rochdale was initially a wool town, specialising in baizes, flannels, kerseys, coatings and cloth, all of which was exported widely abroad. Like many other places, King Cotton came to rule Rochdale, the town's spinning mills producing around 1.7 million spindles annually and with 23,000 looms in operation by the dawn of the 20th Century. Local collieries fed the local cotton indsutry which also included textile machinery manufacture. The towns around Rochdale were also important textile centres. Heywood, Middleton, Littleborough, Wardle and Milnrow all had a strong cotton presence, the three latter having many cottages with upper floors where cotton (and earlier wool) weaving was carried out before the factories dominated.
Nestling between Rochdale and Bury, Heywood's name derives from the Old English word meaning "animal enclosure", something entirely in keeping with the town's rural origins. Together with the nearby villages of Heap, Hopwood and Hooley Bridge, heywood now comprises around 15% of the population of Rochdale Borough. The Heywood family have been traced back to 1164. In 1264, Adam de Burgo (Bury) granted land in Heywood (then in the parish of Bury, in the county of Lancaster) to Peter de Heywood.
But it was a later inhabitant, Sir Robert Peel (creator of the police force), who arguably created modern Heywood, with the conversion of Makin Mill to cotton production for the firm of Peel, Yates and Co. (1780), thus creating the modern industrial town from the former agricultural settlement. By 1830, the population had shot up to 3,000 Heywoodites, and a decade later there were 34 cotton mills in the town. In nearby village Hooley Bridge, Joseph Fenton was one of the first industrialists to build a model village for employees at his cotton mill, built in 1826. It was said that his workpeople were the best housed, fed, clothed and educated in the whole of Lancashire.
Middleton was second only to Rochdale itself in size and importance to the Borough. Another important Lancashire cotton town, Middleton has a strong local identity, epitomised by the collective name for a local, a "Moonraker" - after the legendary local poachers who threw their plunder into a pond if police were nearby and then later rake back their booty by the reflection of the moon in the water! Famous Middleton residents include the architect Edward Hall, Cardinal Thomas Langley and - perhaps greatest of all - Samuel Bamford.
Littleborough is another important textile town, with a history of both wool and cotton weaving. Littleborough's importance was also in its location, located at the junction of the road over Blackstone Edge and packhorse route to Todmorden. It was the building of the Rochdale Canal (1794-1804) that enabled Littleborough to develop throughout the Industrial Revolution.
Milnrow is located at the foot of the Pennines, situated between Rochdale and Oldham, approximately 10 miles north-east of Manchester. Milnrow dates back to the Norman Conquest, when local families formed the township of Butterworth, from which Milnrow developed as a separate community. It is thought that the name ultimately derives from an early corn mill located in Mill Hill, in Old English, "Milner Howe."
Like many of the smaller settlements, Milnrow was originally an agricultural settlement, but it was also home to many handloom weavers - as illustrated by the many weavers' cottages still standing in the present day village.
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