The first industrialised cotton mills were opened in the 18th Century and by the middle of the next Century there were over 2500 mills in Lancashire employing over half a million workers. The mills either prepared and spun the cotton or wove it into cloth before exporting it over the whole world. The location of this powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire was due to the proximity to the Port of Liverpool which imported raw cotton from America, the fast flowing streams which initially at least powered the mills, the damp climate and and the abundance of coal for the machines.
Conditions inside the factories were grim especially before various Factory Acts were passed in the 1830s and later. Men, Women and children worked a 12 to 14 hour day six days a week. The noise in the factory was deafening due to the noise of the looms and overhead pulleys bringing in the power- this led to the development of a peculiar method of communication between the workers known as ‘mee-mawing’ a combination of mime and lipreading. Also the air in the factory was kept very hot and humid to strengthen the cotton threads and these threw up a fine choking dust.
The work was divided up according to age and sex with the men generally getting the better paid jobs which included operating the huge steam engines driving the looms and supervising on the factory floor. Women had various less well paid jobs some of which required a high degree of skill with many in charge of four to six weaving looms, making sure they were working properly and replacing the shuttles on a frequent basis so that the manufacture of cloth never stopped. Children as young as 10 or 12 years in age had basic tasks which included working under the machines retrieving spare cotton or investigating a blockage. Accidents were common with clothing, hands and arms being caught in the machines and there was generally no insurance. Disease was also rife due to the cotton dust, high humidity and the contrast with the conditions outdoors’
As stated earlier conditions for the workers gradually improved during the middle and latter part of the 19th Century with shorter working hours and longer holidays. The annual holiday when all the factories closed down at the same time was known as Wakes Week. When I first lived in Lancashire in the late 1960s this holiday was still in force even though there were very few working mills left. The whole town shut down with all local shops and businesses closed – you couldn’t even get a newspaper. Everybody had gone to a seaside resort such as Blackpool! ( this was before the days of cheap foreign holidays)
There are various websites which relate this story in more detail. One of these is: