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Image Number: 331
Textiles have been made in the Burnley area since at least the Middle Ages. At this time the spinning and weaving of woollen cloth by hand would have been done in the home for home use. In 1296 a fulling mill was built on the banks of the River Brun, not far from Saint Peter's Church. Here the woollen cloth was beaten under water to clean and thicken it. This suggests that a considerable amount of cloth was being made in the area by this time.

At first weaving was carried out by farmers to eke out their living, but by the 17th Century some weavers were working full time, either for themselves or for an employer known as a clothier. In 1647 a Burnley weaver could earn 8d (3p) a day - or 4d (1 p) and his food. A new wage-earning class of industrial employees had made its appearance in the town.

The 18th century saw the beginning of the changes which were to turn Burnley into an industrial town. By 1700 the woollen trade was already well established and two new developments were taking place. The first was the introduction into the area of worsted manufacture. This involved the careful combing of the raw wool, and by the end of the century Burnley had become and important centre of the wool-combing industry. The second development was the introduction of fustian weaving. Fustian was a cloth with a warp of linen and a cotton weft. Its manufacture provided the first use of cotton in Burnley.

Textile manufacture was mainly carried out under the "domestic system", in which the cloth was made in the worker's own home. Occasionally the weaver worked for himself, buying the raw material and selling the finished product. More frequently, he was employed by a clothier who provided the raw material and paid him a wage for his work. As it took several spinners to keep a weaver supplied with yarn, the whole family was usually involved in the work.

Sometimes the work was carried out in a "shed" or "factory" belonging to the master. Burnley's earliest known factories were a dye-house, a cloth mill and a fulling mill, built between 1736 and 1741 by John and Henry Halstead. They stood on the banks of the River Calder, close to where it is joined by the Brun. Later, hand-loom factories were opened, such as the "Dandy-Loom Shop" erected in 1787.

During the second half of the 18th Century, further changes took place in the textile industry. The manufacture of cotton began to replace that of wool, and the introduction of machinery brought about the decline of the domestic system. The invention of the spinning machines - the "jenny", "water-frame" and "mule" - led to the building of water-powered factories. The first spinning mills in Burnley were built near rivers; for instance Extwistle Mill, Heasandford Mill and the Mill Dam Mill. The patenting of the steam-engine freed the mills from the reliance on water-power, and in 1790 the Peels used steam-power in their new cotton factory at the bottom of Sandygate. By 1830 there were thirty-two steam-engines in Burnley.

Although a power-loom was invented in 1785, it was at first cumbersome and inefficient. Its adoption was slow and weaving continued to be done largely by hand. Indeed, the last decade of the 18th century was regarded by hand-loom weavers as a "golden age", when even an ordinary weaver could earn at least 1 a week - a good wage for the time. It was at this time that many of the stone-built weavers' cottages were erected in the area. It has been estimated that as late as 1830 there were three times as many cottage weavers as factory weavers. Where weaving sheds were built, they were almost always attached to spinning mills.

As industry developed, a number of small iron foundries and loom-making shops were opened, and in the second half of the 19th Century these were to become an important part of Burnley's industrial life.

With the development of industry, the population of Burnley increased rapidly. The number of inhabitants of the Township of Burnley grew from just under 4,000 in 1801 to almost 21,000 in 1851. It was necessary to provide homes for the increasing population and during the first part of the 19th Century the appearance of Burnley changed completely.

What is today the centre of the town was quickly covered with back-to-back houses, tenements and cellar dwellings, either in terraces or grouped round "courts". Conditions in these homes were indescribably bad. Often a family lived in one room which was dark, airless and damp. There was no adequate water supply, and sanitation, where it existed at all, consisted of one or two privies shared by a group of houses.

Working conditions were no better. The new mills were frequently dark, badly ventilated and crowded with unguarded machinery. Hours were long. Between 12 and 18 hours a day were common, with a short break for breakfast and dinner. Young children were often employed, and there is a record of one Burnley seven-year-old child working 12 hours a day, and sometimes from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Various Acts of Parliament were passed limiting the hours of work of women and children, but these were usually opposed by the manufacturers and sometimes even by the workers who feared that shorter hours would mean lower pay.

In the period 1800 to 1850 wages fluctuated a great deal. In 1818, attempts to fix a minimum wage for textile workers failed and there was a strike of hand-loom weavers. In Burnley this resulted in a riot during which the prison was attacked and prisoners released. By 1826 wages were so low and unemployment so common that the "Times" reported that people in Burnley were digging up carcases of diseased animals for food. However, after about 1845 the cotton trade began to expand, leading to a rise in wages and some improvement in workers' conditions.

The second half of the 19th century saw Burnley's development into the most important cotton-weaving town in the world. In 1850 there were some 9,000 looms in the town, all belonging to firms whose main business was spinning. By 1900 Burnley had 79,000 looms, the majority owned by firms engaged solely in weaving. One of the main reasons for this change was the introduction of ring spinning in Oldham during the 1880s. This made it cheaper for Burnley manufacturers to buy yarn rather than spin it themselves. Many mills were now concentrating on weaving light calico for printing - known as "Burnley printers" - and by 1886 it was claimed that Burnley was producing a greater length of cotton cloth than any other town in the world. In the years following 1850, not only did an increasing number of spinning mills change over to weaving, but many new factories were built. Many cotton manufacturers hired "room and power" from the ownder of a factory rather than buying or building their own mill. This system enabled anyone with a minimum amount of capital to become a manufacturer. However, it also led to frequent bankruptcies, and during the later years of the century several limited liability companies were formed to take over the mills.

The development of Burnley's weaving industry was not without its set-backs. The most serious of these was the "cotton famine" of the early 1860s, caused by the American Civil War. The ensuing shortage of cotton led to many mills working short-time or even closing down altogether. Although Relief Committees were set up to distribute food and clothing, distress among the workers was widespread, reaching its height in 1863, when over 9,000 workers were out of work in Burnley alone.

The cotton industry was also affected by a number of disputes, particularly over wages. These varied considerably from firm to firm and in 1858 the East Lancashire Amalgamated Society of Power Loom Weavers was founded to work for a uniform rate of pay. A branch was set up in Burnley but did not last long. This was re-founded in 1870 and three years later the town's manufacturers accepted a "Burnley List" of agreed wages. In 1878, however, the Masters' Association decided on a 10% cut in wages and this led to a serious strike in the town which was accompanied by several riots.

In spite of this and other strikes, the cotton industry flourished in Burnley, reaching its peak in the early years of the 20th Century. During this period several new mills with up-to-date machinery were built, and by 1910, there were in the region of 99,000 looms in the town.

The growth of Burnley's textile industry was accompanied by the development of the engineering industry, particularly the manufacture of steam-engines and looms. The town was renowned for its mill-engines and the "Burnley loom" was recognised as one of the best in the world. By the 1880s the town was manufacturing more looms than any other place in the country.

The early years of the 20th Century saw Burnley's textile industry at the height of its prosperity. The First World War, however, had a serious effect on cotton manufacture. Raw material was difficult to obtain; there was a shortage of manpower and many important markets were lost. The war was followed by a short period of prosperity, but then came the slump of the 1920s and 30s. This led to short-time working, unemployment and the collapse of many firms. Attempts were made to reorganise the industry by the introduction of the six-loom system, the weaving of new types of cloth, and eventually, the use of the automatic loom and the shift system. This led to some recovery, but since the Second World War, competition from abroad and the use of man-made fibres meant further decline. At the end of the 20th Century Burnley, once the cotton-weaving capital of the world, had only a handful of firms producing textiles.

Brian Hall

Brian Hall is a history graduate of Manchester University and a retired teacher. As chairman of the Friends of the Weavers' Triangle, a society dedicated to the preservation of Burnley's industrial heritage, he now spends much of his time helping to run its Visitor Centre. He is the author of a number of publications on local history and is treasurer of the Burnley and District Historical Society, and a former president and executive member of the Lancashire Local History Federation.




Further reading:

W. Bennett, "The History of Burnley" (4 vols - particularly vols. 3 and 4)

General books on the cotton industry:

C. Aspin, "The Cotton Industry."
A. Burton "The Rise and Fall of King Cotton."
M.B. Rose (Ed.) "The Lancashire Cotton Industry."
G. Timmins "Four Centuries of Lancashire Cotton."

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