Industrial Revolution caught Burnley napping

Whenever I think about it I feel quite sad. The truth is that, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, Burnley and the district around the town appears to have been asleep.

If you look at the histories of Blackburn, Bolton or Preston it seems, at least superficially, they were embarking on what was, for good or evil, a great adventure which, in time, would change the world. Even much smaller places, still in Lancashire, like Stanhill, Todmorden and Leigh, were making progress and contributing to the creation of a new way of living, one which would be adopted by much of mankind.

Today, we are going to talk about technology, not the technology of the computer or television but an older technology. It is the story of the inventions which resulted in the construction of great cotton factories which were first powered by water and then steam.

Burnley was not new to the idea of a factory. As early as the 13th Century, Burnley had its corn mill which was owned by the Lord of the Manor. Burnley also had a very early fulling mill for a process in the woollen industry. The existence of this fulling mill has always worried me. My concerns run like this – was the local wool industry big enough to sustain such a mill or was it that the Lord of the Manor was speculating in the hope his investment would prove to be worthwhile? It is my view the latter is the answer.

We tend to forget Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln, and Lord of the Manor of Ightenhill, was not only one of Edward I’s most important advisers, he was the owner of a great estate. In other words, he was a medieval businessman trying to maximise his income, essential in an age when the great office holders of State were not paid directly for their labours on behalf of the Crown.

Henry not only secured the corn and fulling mills for Burnley, he also, in 1294, acquired, for his Ightenhill estate, exclusive rights to hold a market. This he did by persuading the king to grant him a Charter. The Charter did not only refer to Burnley. It lists five other places, including Pontefract, which was also part of the Earl’s great national estate.

Here you can see the origins of Burnley’s mechanised industry but the valley of the Lancashire Calder, of which Burnley is a part, had other advantages and resources which could be exploited. First among these were the vast amounts of timber that were grown here. There are lots of records of Burnley timber being used in building projects over a wide area. Then there was coal which was being extracted in our area in simple mines from the early Middle Ages.

This area has long since been known for its pastoral farming but it does not mean there was no arable here. Our area, for much of these early days, was more suitable for rearing cattle and sheep and, to a lesser extent, pigs. The result was that Burnley acquired a sizeable leather industry. Similarly, Burnley could grow vast quantities of willows, suitable for making into baskets, walls and fences. Reeds, ideal to be used in the construction of roofs, also grew profusely in the damp conditions of the Burnley area.


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Of course, there was much of what was known as “free-stone”, building stone which was useful in the construction of the better buildings in the Middle Ages and was coming into use, by the later Tudor period, for house building and a host of other structures. There was also the limestone buried in the glacial clays throughout the district. The uses for lime increased until the end of the 18th Century when local lime was replaced by material imported, mainly via the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, from Yorkshire.

Then there was the adornment of the whole of north east Lancashire, the product of its thousands of sheep. The Cistercian monks of Kirkstall, together with the Premonstratensian monks of Newbo, Lincolnshire, saw that money could be made by exporting sheep’s wool to their houses in Europe. The monks taught us Brits how to produce fine quality wool which, in time, we learned to spin and weave into cloth thus adding to its value.

Of course all of this was happening all over Lancashire and, towards the end of the period, the next big change was taking place. These were the improvements that were necessary to transport so the resources of different regions could be linked together for the common good.

What Burnley seemed to lack - why it appears the Calder valley was, to some extent, asleep - was inventors. Bury claims John Kay. Blackburn, claims James Hargreaves. Both Bolton and Preston claimed Richard Arkwright. Bolton itself claims exclusive rights to Samuel Crompton.


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These men were the inventors, respectively of the “flying shuttle”, the “spinning jenny”, the “waterframe” and “the mule”, inventions that, until recently, all small boys knew about and were proud that they originated in Lancashire. The truth is that Kay did not live in Bury, but Walmesley. Hargreaves was not a resident of Blackburn, but Stanhill, near Oswaldtwistle, later moving to a remote site near Haslingden before he left for Nottingham.

Arkwright was indeed a native of Preston and it was at that place he invented his waterframe, perhaps the most significant of the early inventions, though he had lived in Bolton where he had been in business as a wig and peruke maker. Crompton was born at Firwood Fold in the hills above Bolton, but it was when he was living at the Hall i’ th’ Wood, also above Bolton, he developed his spinning mule.

These were the seminal inventions. The first, the “flying shuttle” (or more accurately, the “fly-shuttle”) was an improvement in the handloom which made it possible for the weaver to produce a broader cloth unaided by a weaving partner. In the old days, two weavers, passing the shuttle between each other, were necessary to make broader cloths. The fly-shuttle also speeded up the weaving process without introducing factory conditions. As a consequence, most weavers remained at home though some did move into Dandy Shops, larger workshops in which a number of handlooms were set to work. Burnley had several of these. One was by the river Brun, in Massey Street, near Keighley Green, not far from the St Peter’s Centre. Another was in Briercliffe and I include a picture of it with this article.

It is generally thought the invention of the fly-shuttle, though it took some time to catch on, stimulated activity in the spinning sector which, at the beginning of the period we are referring to, was still using the spinning wheel which had only one spindle. This was an improvement on the distaff but it was not all that sophisticated.


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The situation can be defined if I tell you a spinner, before the great 18th Century inventions, could only make one piece of yarn at a time whereas every individual weaver was using thousands of yards of yarn to make his piece of cloth. Similarly, the yarn produced by the spinner, usually a woman or a girl working at home, was of variable strength and thickness. This was not good for the quality of the resultant cloth and it was this which was responsible for the plethora of cloths made before the 18th Century, many of which were called, as we saw in the first of the Cotton Town articles, “cottons”. They were, of course, not cottons, as we understand the term.

Two of the three spinning inventions (those of Arkwright and Crompton) were not the product of the inventive genius of one man. However, the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves, has more of a claim to being the work of a single individual. Hargreaves was a handloom weaver presumably aware of the yarn supply problem. He is reputed to have worked for a considerable time to make a device that would speed up the spinning process in his own household. He eventually succeeded after an accident in his house at Stanhill gave him an idea.

What may have happened is that a spindle was over turned and Hargreaves saw it might be possible for a spinner to work six, or possibly eight, spindles at the same time. He worked on his idea and the result was the spinning jenny, one of the most famous inventions ever devised.

There is, though, one thing that can be said to set the record straight. Hargreaves’ wife was called Elizabeth so the old story that the machine was named after her is not credible. The name of the spinning jenny derives from the old word for a machine, “engine”. Thus, the “spinning engine” or “spinning jenny”.


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Hargreaves’ machine was designed to be used in the home but, when news of it became common place, it was not long before it was adapted to be worked in mills. The inventor, after initial reluctance, even contrived in this, but it was the second of the three inventions, that of the “waterframe”, by Arkwright, that really heralded the factory system in spinning.

Arkwright’s machine was, in reality, a combination of the ideas of a number of men not all of whom were from Lancashire. However, a case has been made for the invention of the key principle of the waterframe to have been devised by a man called Thomas Highs, who lived in Leigh. This was the roller, a device which made the resultant yarn more even in thickness and a little stronger.

It was the roller which was copied by Arkwright in the waterframe and the success of this machine, which was continuously improved over the years, transformed the industry. The qualities of thread which it was not possible to make when using the waterframe could be achieved on the third of the great inventions, that of the “spinning mule”, which got its name, it is said, because the machine was a combination of the principles embodied in both the jenny and the waterframe.

By the last quarter of the 18th Century the spinning sector of the cotton industry was moving into the mills, most of which were in South Lancashire, North Cheshire and Derbyshire though there were outriders in other parts of the country. The success of Arkwright in exploiting his machine resulted in others essentially copying the methods which had been successful for him. The first mills were all water powered but, then, with Watt’s improvements to the steam engine in the mid 1780s, it was not long before steam-powered cotton mills, with their distinctive mill chimneys, were being built.


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None of the early cotton inventions were made in Burnley but the town, and its residents, were not completely oblivious to what was going on. Some of its citizens even embarked on making improvements to the machines that had already been invented and we will look at this in a future article.

Before the end of the 18th Century there were several early, initially water powered, mills in and near the town. These could be found at Hapton, in Burnley itself, at Heasandford, at Reedley and possibly at Roggerham, where a former corn mill was converted, not into a cotton mill, but into a woollen mill and later into a cotton mill.

The Industrial Revolution had arrived in Burnley, but not on the scale of other towns. A comparison between Burnley and Blackburn would show that, as late as 1800, the former was still a wool town, though cotton was being introduced, whereas Blackburn was very much the cotton town, its old allegiance with wool largely forgotten.

The one factor which both towns shared was that they both had large numbers of handloom weavers among their working populations. In Blackburn more of the weavers were working in cotton than in Burnley and district which retained a high proportion of wool weavers.


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The next stage of the story of Burnley, as a cotton town, is the struggle which took place here between wool and cotton. As we know, the latter was successful and it is this story that we will look at in the next article in this series.