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Image Number: 661
Prior to industrialisation the Oldham area was dominated by dispersed agricultural settlements. The marginal nature of agriculture in this part of the Pennines led to the development of a strong domestic-based textile industry in the 18th century, and in the Saddleworth area completely eclipsed agriculture as the main industry. Many Saddleworth buildings may still be seen where loomshops in upper rooms needed a longer row of windows and taking-in doors. The many fast flowing rivers in the area encouraged the building of water-powered textile mills from the 1770s onwards, particularly woollen mills in the Saddleworth villages of Uppermill, Greenfield, Dobross, Diggle and Delph. However, from the early 19th century Oldham was the focus for urban growth, its population rising from just over 12,000 in 1801 to over 137,000 in 1901.

Oldham was not of great importance in the early years of the cotton industry, although it did have 19 cotton mills in 1818. Even so, its rise to dominance came in the second half of the 19th century when it became the world's manufacturing centre for cotton spinning. It overtook Manchester and Bolton as a result of a mill building boom in the 1860s and a further boom in the 1870s confirmed its position. This mill building culminated in a final massive expansion in the Edwardian period, with mills of unprecedented size built by companies taking advantage of the new laws on limited liability. By 1911 there were 16.4 million spindles in Oldham, compared with a total of 58 million in the UK and 143.5 million in the world. However, the industry reached its with the opening of the last new mill in Oldham, Elk Mill, in 1928. When it closed at the end of 1998 it was the last mill in Oldham to be spinning cotton.

Oldham developed an extensive engineering industry, strongly linked to the cotton industry. Platt Brothers originated in Saddleworth but moved to Oldham, developing large works on two sites, at Greenacres Moor and at Werneth. It became the largest textile machine makers in the world employing over 15,000 people, twice the size of their nearest rivals, Dobson & Barlow in Bolton and Asa Lees on Greenacres Moor, Oldham. Although textile engineering declined with the industry, leading to the demise of Platts in 1982, other engineering firms arrived, notably Ferranti in 1896 representing the 20th century electrical and, later, electronics industry. Ferranti went into receivership in 1993 but some of its former works continue in other hands, notably the original Hollinwood site now operated by Siemens.

Oldham ceased to be the largest single centre of cotton spinning in 1964. Many mills have been demolished but those that remain still form impressive features in the Oldham landscape, a reminder of the town's former industrial dominance. The successful conversion of several large cotton mills to residential and commercial uses demonstrates Oldham's continuing ability to re-invent itself.

(source: R. Mc Neil an d M. Nevell (2000) AIA Guide to the Industrial Archaeology of Manchester)

Click on the images below to see covers of Oldham Mill Sales Catalogues. Only the covers are included here but the complete catalogues which include detailed descriptions of many mills that have been demolished are held at the John Rylands Library.

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