Spinning jenny borne of having large family to feed

On a number of occasions, I have recommended somewhere for you to go to enjoy our local countryside.

Friday, 12th June 2015, 9:17 pm

We have visited Whalley, Great Mitton and a number of other places in the Ribble Valley but, today, I want to suggest you visit the little village of Stanhill, between Blackburn and Accrington.

It is a little more complicated than that as I also want to suggest you follow up your visit with another, this time to Helmshore, Rossendale.

There you will find the sister museum to our own Queen Street Mill Museum but, whereas Queen Street concentrates on the weaving side of the cotton industry, Helmshore is more involved with the spinning of cotton.

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Spinning Jenny

Stanhill and Helmshore are linked by one famous man, James Hargreaves, inventor of the spinning jenny, the first of the really successful spinning inventions which led, in part, to the revolution in the cotton Industry. Burnley has a connection to Hargreaves, not in his lifetime, but through one of our more well-known Mayors.

This was John Hargreaves Scott who was Mayor of Burnley from 1871-73. He was a very successful watchmaker and jeweller, with premises in Manchester Road in town, but he was also a member of the family of the inventor James Hargreaves. When John died, he left instructions that the residue of his property, once his widow had died, should be used for the public good of the people of Burnley. Scott Park is the consequence of his gift to the town.

Stanhill is a small village on the old road from Blackburn to Accrington. It is one of those places in which little seems to have happened but the invention, in 1766 or 1767, of the spinning jenny put an end to that.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the spinning jenny. James Hargreaves’ invention was responsible, to a large extent, for the huge changes in the textile industries, not only of Britain but of the world. Of course other things had to change as well – the means by which industry was powered, capitalised and organised are but three of these.

Spinning Jenny

The spinning jenny, however, was perhaps the most important single reason for the developments which revolutionised the cotton industry. As many of you will be aware, Lancashire was once famous, throughout the world, as the centre of the cotton industry. The industry once accounted for over one-third of British manufacturing and commerce and none of this would have been possible without James Hargreaves.

The man himself did not come from a wealthy or privileged background.

He was a poor, married, largely illiterate handloom weaver with a large family to feed. In those days most local weavers worked in wool rather than cotton though fustian, a combination of wool and linen (or wool and cotton), was also made.

Although factories had been established in the silk industry, in Derby in the early 18th Century, apart from fulling and printing, most of the textile industry was domestic. Spinning and weaving were carried out, by hand, in the homes of the workers.

One of the great heritage assets of North-East Lancashire, and neighbouring parts of Yorkshire, is what is left of the domestic textile industry. There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of handloom weavers’ cottages throughout the area. We have many of them in Burnley, Briercliffe, Worsthorne, Cliviger and Higham etc and most of them make fine homes, 200 years or so after they were built.

James lived at a time when those engaged in the cotton, linen and the growing cotton industries were aware improvements were needed in the spinning sector of the industry. In the mid 1730s a weaver, John Kay, from near Bury in Lancashire, though he was working in Essex, had invented the fly (or flying) shuttle which had speeded up the weaving sector of the industry. The spinners, after Kay’s invention, had difficulty in keeping the weavers supplied with warp and weft.

The “fly shuttle”, as I prefer to call it as that it is how it was termed at the time, was a simple device. It could easily be fitted to almost any handloom but came into its own for the weaving of wide cloths, blankets (in the wool industry) and sail cloth (made largely, at this time, from linen).

Before the introduction of the fly shuttle it took more than one weaver to make a wide cloth. This was because the width of the finished product was determined by how far the weaver could stretch, passing the shuttle (which contained the weft) through the warp (which ran from the warp beam at the back of the loom to the cloth beam at the front). Wide cloths were made by more than one weaver passing the shuttle between each other.

The fly shuttle has been described as a device rather than an invention though I would maintain that even devices have to be invented. However, I suppose the point is that the fly shuttle was not a machine: it was fitted to an existing machine (the loom) to make it more efficient.

It is thought that, by the time the fly shuttle (so called because the shuttle appeared to fly across the loom rather than being passed by hand) was in common use, by the 1750s, it took about six spinners to keep a single handloom weaver in work. This was often not the problem it might appear to have been as most weavers were men and they had their wives and children working for them.

While the weaver worked on his wooden loom, in the family loom shop (it might have been a cellar, bedroom or room at ground floor level) his family were spinning – making the yarn, the warp and weft, which were combined, in the loom, to make cloth. However, it was not as simple as this as the spinning sector did not merely consist of spinning. To make the yarn, wool for example, had to be cleaned and combed before it could be spun.

Spinning itself had changed very little over the years. Without going into too much detail, spinning had been first undertaken on the distaff which was then replaced by the spinning wheel. This latter, before Hargreaves’ invention, was capable of producing only one continuous yarn at a time. In a loom, it is often the case that there are hundreds of warps each one of which had to be spun individually.

Anyone who could increase the number of ends of yarn, as they are called, spun at one time would be able to establish an advantage over others engaged in the industry, and this is what James Hargreaves achieved. However, his understanding of the term “advantage” was a personal one rather than one by which he could gain a large scale commercial advantage.

This probably did not enter into his head. He, in the wider sense of the term, was in the business of weaving and selling cloth. Spinning, and its concomitant processes, was of secondary importance to him. He looked at the situation in simple terms: the more yarn he could produce, the more cloth he could make ready for the market and the more money he could make for himself and his family.

In these circumstances, James Hargreaves tried to keep his invention secret. According to a family story the invention had been made when one of James’ daughters knocked over a single spinning wheel in the family home. James, it is said, noticed the wheel continued to turn even though it was in an abnormal position. It came to him that a number of spindles could be attached to a wheel in a similar position and only one person would be needed to operate the resulting machine.

It is not known whether this is true or not but the name by which the new machine became known, the “spinning jenny”, it was once speculated, was derived from James’s wife. However, as she was called Elizabeth, unless she was also known as Jenny, this seems unlikely. It is probable “jenny” comes from the 18th Century word “engine” from which we get gin, as in cotton gin, and ginny or jenny. Today, in similar circumstances, we might use the word “machine” but, at the time, this word was not in common use.

James could not keep his invention secret. First he was visited by one of the larger manufacturers in the district, none other than Robert Peel, the grandfather of Sir Robert Peel who was twice Prime Minister. Mr Peel asked to see James’s spinning jenny and was allowed to do so on condition he would not tell anyone else about it. On inspecting the machine, Peel recognised its importance and said, throwing a few coins on the floor of James’s cottage for his children, he would make the invention public.

At about the same time, it is said local people noticed James was producing more cloth, of a better quality, than had been the case before. Some of them decided to investigate and, when they found out what the situation was and fearing for their own employment, James’ machines were attacked and destroyed.

After this, James moved away from Stanhill to nearby Ramsgreave where he started work again, but this did not work out and James accepted an invitation to go to Nottingham where he adapted his machine for use in a cotton spinning mill. This was one of the first of its kind but the spinning jenny, which ultimately could run scores of spindles from one wheel and was powered by water or steam, was not the only early spinning machine.

The principles upon which the jenny was based became features of a line of spinning machines. These included the water frame, invented in 1768 by Sir Richard Arkwright; the “throstle”, so-called because it sounded like a flock of thrushes when in use in large numbers; to the speed frame and the mighty Rabbeth Spindle. It is worth commenting that the most important place for the production of the latter was the great works of Howard and Bullough in Accrington, hardly a stone’s throw from Stanhill, where it all began.

So what is the link between Stanhill and Helmshore? We have seen the spinning jenny, one of the most famous inventions of all time, was first made in Stanhill about 1766. Four years later, Hargreaves patented his invention, though this did not bring him the wealth he might have expected. However, the patent records survive and, from them, the Helmshore Jenny was made almost 200 years later.

It is Chris Aspin, who we should thank for the Helmshore Jenny. He came from Helmshore and was one of the founders of the great museum I recommend you visit. It is there you will find Mr Aspin’s reconstructed spinning jenny.

At Stanhill, at the cottage believed to have been the home of James Hargreaves, there is a plaque which commemorates his great invention but you will agree it is much better to be able to see the original machine.