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18 June 2014
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Work
Cotton mills
Cotton mills in Preston

© Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston
Factory work in Victorian Lancashire

The cotton factories of Lancashire are a key symbol of the world's first Industrial Revolution. Here, within about a 30-mile radius of Manchester, is where the modern world began. The factory system was well established in preparing the raw cotton and spinning it into yarn by the beginning of Victoria's reign, but at the next stage of the cloth making process there were still many hand-loom weavers who manufactured cloth at home, although the final stages of bleaching and dyeing the cloth and getting it ready for market were organised on a larger scale.

Hand-loom weaver
Hand-loom weaving faded out in the 1870s
© Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston
By the early 1850s, almost all the weavers had been brought into the factory system, and 20 years later only a handful of hand-looms still operated. The triumph of the factory was complete; but the system continued to expand. At its peak in the early-20th-Century, the Lancashire cotton industry employed around 600,000 people. The spinning and weaving processes were concentrated in different areas, however, the former close to Manchester, the latter further north on an axis between Preston, Blackburn and Nelson.

Throughout the period, a high proportion of factory workers were women (more than 60 per cent of the workforce at the end of the period) and children, many of whom were taken out of school at the earliest opportunity to boost the family's earning power. Women were heavily concentrated into weaving, the preparation of cotton for spinning in the dirty and dusty conditions of the cardroom, and ring spinning, a new technology which appeared in the 1880s. Especially unusual was the high proportion of married women, who formed more than one-third of the female labour force in certain weaving towns.

Words: John K Walton - University of Central Lancashire

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