COTTON IN PRESTON
Photo of a typical weaving shed. Taken at Queen Street Mill Textile Museum, Burnley.
Cotton coupled with steam was the transformer of the north west of England that moved the balance of the population from the country to the town, introduced industrialisation and changed the social order. It eventually created a region of some wealth and amenity for the time with large trophy buildings like Blackpool Tower being said to be 'built on cotton', as could be said of many of Preston's most iconic buildings.
Cotton manufacturing became the largest employer in Preston in the 19th Century. It developed from the first mill in Preston in 1777 and by the middle of the 19th Century 80% of the population of Preston depended on it. Not just making cotton but making the buildings and machines.
Photo: cotton workers ragged clothes for the Channel 4 programme 'The Mill' on display at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire.
Prior to then there had been a significant spinning and weaving industry based on traditional home based methods. Spinning was the first element to become mechanised in factories. The factory owners putting work out to handloom workers in weavers cottages and bringing it into factories to be finished - bleached, dyed. Ultimately the weaving became mechanised and factory based.
After the Spinning Jenny was invented and enabled multi-spindle spinning it still had to be hand powered. Preston born Richard Arkwright developed the Water Frame in Preston that enabled it to be powered by a water mill which greatly expanded output.
Photo of Richard Arkwright, born in Preston and invented the water frame in Preston. Part of the display at Helmshore Textile Museum.
Richard Arkwright's water frame enabled power operation of looms such as this one, on display at Helmshore Textile Museum, well worth visiting.
As the cotton industry grew more people were sucked into the town and conditions were poor, Preston peaked quite early, around 1850. There were disputes about wages and unions were set up using the name 'association' and 'friendly society', encouraging members through paying funeral expenses in return for a weekly subscription. Each town had its own associations. There were attempts to amalgamate them. In reply the mill owners created their own associations. The first Amalgamation in 1853 being one of the biggest weavers groups, and the Cotton Spinners and Manufacturers Association (CSMA) the mill owners. Preston was not very unionised, only about 10% of weavers. (Ref A. The Lancashire Weavers Union by Andrew Bullen (web-authors comment: this reference could be biased but is a readable account)).
In 1853/4 Preston had a 9 month lock out. George Cowell was a leader and is featured in the Harris Museum. The workers demanded a pay increase after several cuts and the mill owners set up the Preston Millowners Association. Eventually the workers gave in. The Blackburn workers supported the Preston workers. It was Blackburn who set up the first formal weavers association and set what was known as the Blackburn Standard or standard rate of pay. Other towns factored this to compensate for other expenses and there was an informal agreement that disputes would occur in Blackburn as a proxy for other Lancashire towns. (Ref A as above).
Below map drawing of the Yard Works in Preston around 1900 showing the Yellow Factory which was small compared to later building. Also Golden Square where Horrocks lived for a while. See also the model in the Harris Museum that is photographed on the Harris Museum page.
Business and trade were very competitive with mills competing, towns competing, and eventually countries competing, creating tariff bariers and developing their own industries. Meanwhile mill building continued. In addition cotton prices were affected by events like the American Civil War that created the Cotton Famine in 1861 that caused great hardship, and it sometimes became more lucrative to re-sell stocks of cotton than to make material. Before the cotton famine a weaver could earn 6/- (6 old shillings or 30p) a week per loom and on average cover 2.4 looms (some up to 6 with helpers), during the cotton famine it was as low as 2/- , especially if poor weaving Indian Surat cotton was substituted for American cotton. Sometimes wages could be forced up but sometimes, like 1877/8 they were forced down.(Ref A as above).
Mill building started in the late 18th century and stopped in the mid-19th century. It resumed from 1890 up to WW1 when a number of large mills were built such as Centenary Mill on New Hall Lane. After that Courtaulds built a rayon mill in 1939. Read more about mills and the development of Preston on our History page.
In 1946 Horrockses brought out their fashion range to use the high quality cotton from the Preston mills. This range of up-market female fashion clothing from Horrockses Fashions was very successful in the 50's and examples are in the Harris Museum.
In the 1950's the mills began to close and were used as retail or warehouse centres. In the 2000's mills continued to be demolished and some were converted into apartments. Preston council has cause to retain some mills due to their historic interest and has been seeking interested parties in their local plan 2004.
In 1981 Courtaulds closed their mill and Horrockses moved work from Centenary Mill to the Courtaulds site. In 1986 Centenary Mill was taken over for blue jean manufacture and 50% of UK jean manufacturing was done here employing 3000. A regeneration plan for Centenary Mill (a listed building) was made in 1996 involving restoration and setting up training courses for NVQ at Preston College. In 2005 it was decided the main building would be converted into apartments.
Not all went smoothly. The transformation from an administrative and market town to an industrial town brought many changes in social life including change from aristocratic power to industrialist power and the movement of the wealthy out of the town. The fast growth of population created many very poor areas for the incomers with very poor housing. The changes from home spinning and weaving to industrialised caused groups of 'Luddites' to attack the factories. Boom and bust, wars and shortages of cotton caused large fluctuations in wages, strikes, lock-outs, riots and shootings with 1842 and 1860 being notable times.
Link to our page on Preston Embroiderers Guild nice display of work.
Photo of a display at the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum:
1732 Richard Arkwright (1732-92)
Richard Arkwright invented the Water Frame that enabled powered multi-spindled cotton spinning and took advantage of James Hargreaves Spinning Jenny. The new technology put home spinners out of business. This was coupled with the fast weaving enabled by John Kays Flying Shuttle putting home weavers out of work. Groups of workers, called Luddites, broke and burnt the new factories which were the beginning of the 'factory system' on the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Arkwright was born in Preston and trained as a barber and wig maker. He set up his first business in Bolton. In 1769 he rented a room at the house of the Headmaster of Preston Grammar School which is preserved as Arkwright House and is located at the end of Stoneygate next to the Minster. It is said that the first water frame was tested in the arch next to the entrance to the Red Lion pub on Church Street.
Arkwright patented the device in 1769 but the patent was later disputed and withdrawn. Arkwright moved to Derbyshire to use his device in a mill at Cromford that had good water supply and was isolated so less likely to be hit by Luddites. Later Arkwright had mills all over Britain and died a wealthy man after being knighted and made High Sheriff of Derbyshire.
The Harris Museum in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery acquired a significant artwork of Richard Arkwright in 2009 and it will alternate between the two galleries.
Reference: The following information of the painting from the Harris Museum website:
Photo of Arkwright House, Preston. Jan 2013. Where the water frame was developed.
1768 John Horrocks (1768-1804)