At its zenith in 1912, the cotton textile industry dominated Lancashire. Spinning mills and weaving sheds, humming with busy mules and looms, created wealth for the few and a subsistence for many thousands. The industry flourished in the damp Lancashire ambience, sitting above vital coal, and where a native population possessed inveterate skills. That said, without the presence of a competent and efficient railway network, the cotton industry would have languished. Local canals and roads would not have sufficed: railways alone gave both speed and the capacity that no other land transport could emulate.
The following essay attempts to link the two industries, the received wisdom being that they were inextricably bound together, the one working with the other, in a close mutual partnership. The railways and the cotton industry: a story unfolds...
RAILWAYS AND LANCASHIRE COTTON INDUSTRY
It used to be taught in schools that there was a regional separation of activities in the Lancashire cotton industry. Every school boy and girl knew that cotton spinning took place in the broad sweep of satellite towns on the northern flanks of Manchester, in towns such as Oldham, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, and a host of smaller places, whilst power loom weaving reigned in north east Lancashire, in Blackburn, Accrington, Burnley, Nelson, and Colne. It was not a clear cut as this. In 1901, there were weaving sheds in Rochdale, Manchester, Salford, Bury, Bolton, and Oldham. On the other hand, Burnley, Blackburn, Preston, Nelson, and Accrington led the field in cotton spinning in north east Lancashire.
Nevertheless, a sub-regional specialisation did exist: our teachers were essentially correct. Manchester had, by 1854, earned the sobriquet "Cottonopolis". The city was not only a focal point of warehousing but also the financial and marketing centre of the industry. By 1894, the Manchester Ship Canal gave Manchester the status of an inland port into which came imports of raw cotton from America, Egypt, and India. It was also into Manchester that 70% of the Lancashire (and Cheshire) cotton cloth was collected, stored, packed, and distributed to all parts of the world. Manchester's pre-eminence was unequalled.
In amongst this hive of activity were auxiliary industries: bleaching, dyeing, printing, and the manufacture of textile machinery and mill engines. Names destined to become world famous ran their businesses in Oldham (Platt Brothers), Rochdale (Tweedale & Smalley), and Bolton (J. Musgrave & Son), to name but three. There were many others.
The mills and weaving sheds needed bulk quantities of coal to keep them running. Long before electricity was introduced into these monolithic buildings, coal kept the industrial boilers fuelled, whilst coal gas found its way along a nexus of conduits to provide illumination for the cotton operative to work by. Coal and raw cotton were the staple requirements of the industry: coal lay underground; raw cotton had to be imported. Both had to be transported.
The cotton industry could not have functioned and flourished without an effective transport system. So penetrating was the railway network that every mill town had its own goods shed or warehouse and a set of sidings to handle the goods and mineral traffic. This railway infrastructure reduced the need of the local textile firms for outbuildings and storerooms, and many mills and weaving sheds possessed their own sidings by an agreement with the railway company, or had a privately-owned siding connected to the railway company's lines. As early as the middle of the 19th century the railway network had become such an integral part of the cotton economy that the winter of 1854, with its heavy snowfalls and consequent line blockages, brought cotton commerce and industry almost to a standstill.
Thousands of tons of coal were loaded at the collieries and despatched to mineral yards located at convenient places to feed the insatiable industrial demand, and for domestic consumption. The presence of the railways extended the markets of the Lancashire collieries, enabled new ones to open so that the supply of coal was assured. There were more subtle influences. By dint of the electric telegraph, the railways transmitted market intelligence to and from Manchester and Liverpool, and between the spinning towns and weaving towns themselves. They also stimulated the expansion of market gardening and dairy farming, furnished cotton workers with cheaper and fresher foods.
Large cotton towns benefited from the passage of a railway through them: especially towns standing at a railway junction. Even small villages nestling in the heart of Rossendale (Bacup, Rawtenstall, and others) took advantage of the railway: coal, raw cotton, machinery, and finished goods came and left with ease via the railway company's facilities. Without the railway such villages would never have developed. Just as Liverpool was usurped in the cotton trade after 1850, so Blackburn and the settlements of Rossendale grew apace when the railway came to them.
Perhaps more than any other railway company, the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, with its headquarters at Victoria Station, Manchester spread its influence throughout the shire. The L&YR's lines had by the 1890s reached every corner of the cotton empire, carrying raw cotton, yarn, 'grey cloth' (ready for bleaching and printing), finished cloth, coal and coke to and from goods yards and sidings in towns large and small.
The Oldham area had, by 1910, outstripped its neighbours in the number of mills - some 250 of them. It has been estimated that 200,000 tons of raw cotton were transported by the L&YR that year to the Oldham area. In any one night trains comprising 50 to 80 wagons left the goods yards in Oldham, Royton, and Shaw loaded with yarn, destined to arrive by early morning in the weaving towns of north east Lancashire. In return vast quantities of 'grey' cloth arrived at Oldham Road Goods Depot, an area of 23 acres situated on the periphery of the city centre. Here, large overhead cranes assisted unloading flats or trays for transfer to horse-drawn drays and motor lurries that plied between the depot and the city warehouses. Consignments of finished goods were also conveyed to Trafford Park where transhipment took place alongside the Manchester Ship Canal docks.
Far less known is the part the railway played in the conveyance of building materials and equipment for mill construction. Large numbers of mills were constructed between 1880 and 1910, a year when the growth of the railway network shared by different railway companies had reached its zenith. Since roads at the time were of poor quality, at best surfaced with granite blocks or sandstone setts, they were unsuitable for heavy vehicles carrying heavy loads. It is supposed that industrial boilers, masonry, bricks, bags of cement, sand, cast iron and steel floor supports, timber baulks, floor boarding, window frames, sheets of glass, and machinery, were carried from sources and manufacturers to the construction sites by means of railways, carried, that is, to the most convenient railhead where transfer to road took place. It is known that the L&YR had 40 ton well wagons designed to carry heavy beams, iron and steel girders, and industrial boilers. Observers of the day failed, however, to record by word or photographic image, what was then an every-day common occurrence.
Thousands of mill and weaving shed operatives lived close to their place of work. Many travelled to work by railway using workmen's daily tickets. A handbill, issued by the L&YR and dated March 1898, informs operatives that such tickets are available between Wardleworth (Rochdale) and Bolton, via Heywood only, priced 1s 1d, third class, same-day return. This is one example of many workers' train services available. Other railway companies operating in Lancashire, no doubt offered similar workmen's tickets. Where there was a mobile labour force, there was profit to be had.
It is hoped that this brief account has given an insight into the complex interplay between the two industries. Each benefited the other: it was a symbiotic relationship.
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