WHEN LANCASHIRE BECAME THE WORLD’S COTTON MANUFACTURING CAPITAL: New study of the impact of mechanisation on jobs, Manchester 1780-1840

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28 Mar 2015

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Until the last 25 years or so of the eighteenth century, textiles such as wool, cotton, linen and silk, were all spun by hand, normally at home. Hand spinning by distaff or by wheel was an occupation undertaken largely by children and women, the latter sometimes part-time, combining spinning with household duties or other work. The textile industry was transformed when spinning machines were introduced. Cotton was the first of the yarns to mechanise and with the manufacturers in Manchester at the forefront, Lancashire was to become the cotton manufacturing capital of the world.

There were essentially three types of spinning machine; Hargreaves’ jenny, based on the wheel; Arkwright’s water frame, which span by use of a system of rollers; and Samuel Crompton’s mule, which made use of both a wheel and of rollers. There were key differences in how these three machines worked, in the quality of the cotton yarn they produced, and particularly on their dramatic impact on female and male labour.

The jenny was suitable for spinning only cotton weft, the water frame suitable only for the warp. The small jennies, with eight to sixteen spindles, could be operated by children, and were domestic machines. The larger jennies were located in mills. Those with up to 80 spindles were worked by women, those with 120 spindles by men.

As the name implies, Arkwright’s water frame was powered by water. These machines were built in mills and operated by children and women.

Crompton’s mule, which could produce a fine yarn, and unlike the other two machines produced both warp and weft, was operated mainly by adult men. The mule was to become the machine of choice. Adult men, once largely excluded from poorly-paid hand spinning, were now employed, and well paid, to work the mule and the large jennies. Women and children were excluded from spinning the early mules, but they did work alongside the men in ancillary tasks such as repairing broken threads and scavenging.

Although a great deal has been written about the introduction of cotton spinning machines, there remain a number of outstanding questions to be answered. For instance, how quickly were large jennies and mules introduced? When did cotton spinning become a dominantly men occupation? When was cotton hand spinning effectively redundant?

To answer these questions, it would be expedient if the change in the occupations of women and children at this time, circa 1770-1840, could be traced and quantified. Unfortunately, in this respect, the records are scanty and of little value.

On the other hand, some parish records do contain information on the occupation of adult men. For instance, the marriage records for the church of Manchester St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George, the parish church later to become the cathedral, contain a temporal series from 1754 onwards, in which the occupation bridegroom is customarily recorded.

Manchester parish was large, covering approximately 60 square miles. It contained two towns, Manchester and Salford, and many townships. By means of the imposition of double duty to those in the parish who married at another church, residents were financially encouraged to marry at St Mary, St Denis and St. George. So, these church registers are considered to be a fair representation of single men, bridegrooms, who resided within the parish.

The analysis of these registers – in research by Keith Sugden presented at the Economic History Society’s 2015 annual conference – shows that there were no entries for spinners prior to 1777. The 1780s, however, saw a rapid rise as large jennies and mules were introduced. The number of male weavers increased also, but not at the same pace as male spinners.

What is interesting is that the growth of male spinning slowed. By the mid-1790s, the ratio of adult male spinners-to-weavers had reached a plateau, a level at which it remained for the next 20 years. The ratio did not change until power weaving was introduced in the 1820s, at which point males were displaced and women employed to weave.

The plateau in the mid-1790s suggests that the commercial practice of hand spinning was effectively over in Manchester. Large jenny and mule spinning were dominant and the transition from hand spinning-to small jenny and water frame-to-mule and large jenny was complete to all intents and purposes.

These church records represent one parish only, albeit a very important one. To confirm these findings, it is necessary to track spinning and weaving in other Lancashire places. Work to that effect has begun with the analysis of the marriage registers of Oldham St Mary, Wigan, Bolton le Moors, and of Blackburn St. Mary.

These parishes show that while Manchester was at the forefront of the change in spinning, others followed. Similar trends are observed, albeit at different time periods. This work continues. The change in all Lancashire parishes, for which occupational information is available, will be mapped As far as the data will allow, a picture of the transition of Lancashire spinning will be drawn.


The impact of the mechanization of cotton manufacture on male and female employment; a case study of Manchester c.1780-1840

Keith Sugden

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