The Fall of the Weavers

‘Fifty years ago there lived in this district a goodly number of handloom weavers; a class of men to which Lancashire is indebted for much of its subsequent commercial prosperity. Some of these men had a narrow and stern piety, but their thoughtfulness, good common sense, and general sterling qualities left their mark upon us.’ (Heywood Advertiser, 1908)

‘The handloom weavers... though they labour 14 hours upwards daily, earn only from five to seven shillings a week. They... are affected by all the causes of moral and physical depression... ill-fed, ill-clothed, half-sheltered and ignorant - weaving in close, damp cellars or crowded workshops.’ (Dr J.P. Kay, 1832)
One of the trades worst affected by the onset of the Industrial Revolution during 1760-1840 was handloom weaving, in which cloth was spun and woven inside the home.

When it came to weaving, Heywood was exclusively a cotton village (whereas Middleton had a thriving silk industry). Although the weavers were not a wealthy class of people, there were advantages to ‘working from home’ as opposed to being at the beck and call of the factory clocks. The industry had been regulated by Craft and Trade Guilds since medieval times, effectively creating a ‘closed shop’ that required would-be weavers to serve an apprenticeship. The guilds also set standardised prices for the cloth. Living conditions were also comparatively decent as weavers cottages initially tended to be located away from the worsening pollution of town centres.

In the late 18th century, these weavers were in a powerful position because although recent technological advances had mechanised cotton spinning operations (such as Hargreaves' Spinning Jenny in the 1760s, Arkwright's waterframe in 1769, and Crompton's spinning mule in 1779), nobody had yet invented a satisfactory power loom. This created a surplus of spun cotton and a production bottleneck that the weavers were able to exploit. They were guaranteed a constant supply of yarn, full employment and high wages. During the 1790s, Bolton handloom weavers could earn up to £1 10s a week - a large sum in those days.

Then things took a turn for the worse. In 1785, Cartwright invented a weaving machine that could be operated by horse power, a waterwheel, or a steam engine, and he began using these looms in a Manchester mill. They enabled unskilled boys to weave three and a half pieces of material in the time it took a skilled weaver using traditional methods to weave just one. The rise of the power loom was gradual but inevitable. As demand for cloth increased, a flood of new workers (particularly Irish immigrants) entered the weaving trade, resulting in an oversupply of labour that caused wages to fall. There had been approximately 75,000 handloom weavers in Britain in 1795. This grew to more than 200,000 by 1812, when there was a burgeoning number of power-loom factories. The number of town weavers increased and their characteristic three-storey weavers’ cottages were built in larger numbers.

Weaver's cottages, Huntley Brook, Bury. These have since been demolished. (Pat Papertown)

The situation was made worse by the deep economic recession caused by Britain's war with France, and by 1807 manufacturers were taking advantage of this by putting out work to desperate handloom weavers at breadline prices. Completed pieces were then stockpiled for when better times returned and labour prices went up. For cottage weavers, of which there were still many around Heywood, it was a sign of troubles to come, and it was not long before industrial conflict broke out. 

In 1807, 13,000 weavers signed a petition calling for higher wages, but in May 1808, with the average pay for an 80+-hour week down to about 8 shillings, the House of Commons rejected the Weavers' Minimum Wage Bill. A few days later up to 6,000 weavers assembled on St George's Fields in Manchester to protest and call for a 33% wage increase. Dragoons dispersed the protesters, but 15,000 weavers gathered at the same spot the next day, and this time the dragoons shot and killed one man, and seriously wounded several more.

This only inflamed the situation, and strikes followed, with troops being used to break up worker’s meetings. Weavers took direct action by squirting vitriol (a corrosive acid) through factory windows and onto the cloth on power looms. Arrests were made, but the Rochdale town prison was torched after prisoners were forcibly released, as reported in The Times on 7 June 1808:
‘Things continue tolerable quiet here; but a variety of rumours have been pouring in, and are hourly increasing from the country. A number of weavers have been compelled to leave their looms, and have been deprived of their shuttles by the mal-contents, rewards for the apprehension of whom have been offered by the Magistrates; the cavalry are scouring the country and general alarm prevails. The small gaol at Rochdale, we are told, has been burnt down by them, and a few of their incarcerated brethren liberated. A respectable manufacturer at Heywood was dragged from his bed last night, and several beaten by a party of weavers. Respecting the prospect of a settlement of the dispute, I have thought best to enclose you three printed bills, the last of which, from the weavers, appeared this day. The aspect, upon the whole, is gloomy.’
The situation in Rochdale led to a troop of cavalry from Manchester and the volunteer infantry from Halifax being called in by magistrates. The volunteers marched from Halifax to Rochdale in pouring rain. 

The Heywood incident mentioned in the Times involved five men - John Barlow, Thomas Lowe, James Crabtree, James Scolfield, and William Smith - who assembled with others outside the home of fustian manufacturer Thomas Ashton one night. After ‘forcibly dragging him into the highway, and beating him so as to endanger his life’, they forced him to his knees on the road and made him sign a paper promising to increase wages. They also made him admit that ‘his wages were not above half as much as they used to be’, before ‘tearing off his coat-lap and stealing a pocket-book containing from six to ten pounds in Bank notes.’

The attackers were tried at Lancaster Assizes in August 1908, but public sympathy was on the side of the weavers. The Crown was apparently anxious not to press the charges, and even Mr Ashton expressed his wish that ‘the prosecution should be as lenient as possible’. The jury acquitted all the prisoners, and only one man was found guilty of setting fire to the Rochdale prison, his sentence being two years' imprisonment.

The industrial strife ended in compromise in July, when the weavers went back to work with a phased 20% increase. Although they had won partial concessions from their employers, the raises were only temporary and the weavers remained in a state of poverty while their industry continued to decline.

The impact of factory machinery on older trades also saw the machine-smashing Luddite movement become active by 1812. Although machine-breaking was a capital offence, riots and loom-smashing continued that year, and four men were killed at Middleton during rioting there. In 1817, hundreds of weavers, carrying blankets to sleep in, set off on the ‘Blanketeers March’ from Manchester to petition the Prince Regent against political repression. More than 200 had been arrested, and the rest dispersed by the time they reached Macclesfield.

Luddites break machinery as part of their industrial campaign. 

A Manchester engineer called Richard Roberts developed a more reliable power loom in 1822, leading to the rapid adoption of powered weaving. The number of power looms in British factories was estimated to have risen from 2,400 in 1813 to over 115,000 by 1835. The profitability of handloom weaving fell even further, and the number of weavers in Lancashire dropped from about 180,000 in 1821 to around 30,000 in 1861. Most children of handloom weavers chose not follow their fathers in the trade, which now had an increasingly ageing workforce. By the late 1820s, industry conditions had worsened even further, with most earning around 5 shillings per week, and urban weavers survived by having their families join the factory workforce, while rural weavers earned supplementary incomes in farming and mining.

Handloom weavers continued to struggle against the changes, with one notable protest taking place in Manchester on the occasion of the historic opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway in 1830. Angry weavers pelted the coach carrying the Duke of Wellington, while high above the crowd a symbolic loom had been erected, manned by a representative ‘tattered, starved-looking weaver’.

By the mid-century, handloom weaving was clearly a dying industry. The Radical Peter Murray McDouall wrote in his Chartist and Republican Journal in 1841 that the rise of the factory system under industrial capitalism had created wage slavery and, as seen with the ongoing disappearance of the weavers, destroyed ‘independence, family economy and control over the pace and nature of work’.

In 1842 the journalist William Cooke Taylor was on his way to Colne, Lancashire, when he came across a group of men begging at the side of the road.
‘One of the men particularly struck my attention; he was the living skeleton of a giant. He told me he had been a weaver and in prosperous times had earned from thirty or forty shillings per week; he had a wife and four children and had long maintained them in decency and comfort; work began to grow slack. He drew the fund he had placed in the savings-bank; he was soon exhausted, and work was slacker than ever. He began to sell his furniture. Before last Christmas everything had disappeared, including the Sunday clothes of himself, his wife, and children. Since that time he had been for seventeen weeks without work of any kind. When I offered him a shilling, he refused to receive it until I had given him my name and address, that he might repay it.’
A couple of letters to the Heywood Advertiser in the 1900s recalled the last of the handloom weavers in the town:
‘It is about 70 years ago since the last handloom was worked in Heywood, and the last man to shuttle a cop on this relic of the early days of cotton manufacture was the late Mr. Benjamin Taylor of Wham Bar. He was better known as Owd Ben Taylor o'th' Wham. The loony house was behind what is now known as Linden Lea, and just behind where the Wham Bar mill stood before being burned down. "Owd" Ben Taylor's likeness has been handed down to the public of Heywood. And should they wish to see him as he liked to be let them go down Manchester-street and look at the sign over the door of the Staff of Life public-house and they will get a good glimpse of "Owd" Ben. This information I have gathered from "Owd" Ben's son, Mr. David Taylor, who was 83 years old on the 1st of October, 1908, and who is now living with his son in Bury New Road, Heywood. I wish Mr. Taylor many happy returns of the day, for I believe he has many years before him yet. He appeared to me to be very healthy, and though his hearing is not quite so quick as formerly his memory is fairly good… 
In the silk handloom industry I can only find one individual who is working at his trade: Mr. Fellows (76 years old), 12, Spring Gardens, Middleton. When I visited Mr. Fallows a few days ago he was busily engaged twisting another silk warp. Mr. Fallows said "he was the only one left who was working. A relative of his had been working alongside of him, but his loom was stopped for orders, and he did not think the loom would start again." Mr. Fallows is now working on his own account and is weaving silk mufflers and sells them to friends. Should any one of your readers wish to have a memento of one of our dying industries, Mr. Fallows will be pleased to sell them a good article. 
There were others in Middleton who were working on silk handlooms until recently. A short time ago I heard one of these silk handlooms working in Higher Wood-street, Middleton, and another at Hebers, if not more. Several people are still living at Hebers and neighbourhood who have been silk weavers. Two of these are Mrs. Jacques, Langley Lane, Hebers, and Mr. Tankard, both of whom were silk handloom weavers up to a short time ago. About three years ago the last of this industry at Bowlee was worked by a Mr. Robert Clegg, who has since gone over to the great majority. There were several others, and amongst those still living are Mr. David Fitton and Mrs. Alice Howarth, both of Bowlee, and Mr. Edward Wrigley, 76 years old. It is 25 or 26 years since Mr. Wrigley did any silk weaving (handloom). The last silk handloom weaving at Birch was done by Mr. Thomas Greenhalgh, who died seven years ago aged 78 years. Mrs. Partington (Mr. Greenhalgh's daughter) tells me it is about 14 years since her father did any weaving, and he was the last at Birch.
Joseph LORD.’
A second letter read:
‘I send herewith a few more notes on the above, and hope they will bring further information. In my last note I said that Mr. B. Taylor was the last handloom weaver in Heywood. I am informed that that is wrong, and that handloom weaving was done 50 years ago at Heady Hill at what is now No. 15. The weaver's name was James Kay, and he used to fetch his warp, etc ., from and carry his woven piece back to Whitefield. He died about 46 years ago. It is said that in addition to weaving he kept a toffee shop, making treacle toffee, and also selling toffee which he bought in Manchester in half-pound lots, the same being sold at four for a halfpenny to the boys and girls who were fortunate enough at that time to possess that valuable coin. There was then no such thing as giving children a penny in the shilling as is done today, and which I believe is working untold harm amongst boys and girls. At this time for a lad to become possessed of about twopenee, he would have been looked upon as a bloated capitalist. The above James Taylor had a son, John Kay Taylor, who was reckoned a first-rate portrait painter, etc.. It was in the house of James' Kay that many of the old Chartists used to meet, and drill with their old pikes, etc. 
Amongst the last of the handloom woollen weavers in this neighbourhood was John Ashworth, father of Abel Ashworth of Hooley Bridge, and also father of John Ashworth, the author of "Strange Tales," and who was also connected with the Chapel for the Destitute in Rochdale. The house in which Mr. Ashworth did his weaving was in a house where Mr. Barker now lives at Simpson Clough. And another handloom weaver was Mr. Shepherd, father of Dr. Shepherd of Glasgow, who lived at a house called Clough Stile, near to St. Michael's school, Bamford. This house has recently been pulled down and in place thereof a high wall now obstructs the view of the Park, etc., from the Bury Old Road. So far as I can ascertain these two men were the last of the woollen handloom weavers, and the time is fixed as about 60 or 70 years ago. The weft and warp had to be carried on their backs from Bury or Rochdale; and the pieces were returned in the same way. It would be interesting to know what became of these old handlooms.