Our missionaries arrived during a traumatic upheaval as cotton had moved from a domestic to a factory setting.  At first cotton manufacturing was a wholly domestic affair.  In the early 1700s many Lancashire homes were purposely built to accommodate spinning wheels and weaving looms.  Many of these homes can be easily identified today by their basement windows – the damp basement helped prevent the cotton from snapping. 

A typical ‘cotton’ home.   The Wife & Children spinning and the husband weaving

In the early days the males would often be employed in agriculture during the day, but in the evenings and winter months their income would be boosted by domestic weaving.  Traditionally the wife and daughters would do the spinning.


Domestic Weaver’s Home, New Cock Yard, Preston

This white house was built as a domestic hand-loom weaver’s home. Weaving looms were kept in the cellars of houses to take advantage of the damper environment. Each cellar could contain up to four hand-looms, and it could take about six spinners to keep one hand-loom supplied with thread.  The eventual mechanisation of the spinning process seemed inevitable to keep the supply of thread flowing.

Basement Windows providing light to the weaving looms

The late 1700’s was the golden age for the hand-loom weavers and building societies built thousands of homes like this around Lancashire.   Gradually the weaver’s dependency on agriculture disappeared as the demand for cotton grew, and weavers were soon employed full time.  By 1830 Preston had around 1,500 hand-loom weavers, and in 1834 the Royal Commission heard the Preston District had 13,000 hand-loom weavers with 40,000 dependent on the trade. Historians have estimated there were as many as 4,000 houses like this in Preston. Today this is the only surviving weaver‘s house in the whole of Preston, but in 1837 the landscape of the town would have been packed with similar looking houses in long lines of terraced rows (Hunt 2003) . (Hunt 141).

The introduction of power loom weaving meant that during the 1840’s the hand-loom weavers declined rapidly, although there were a few that remained in business right up to the 1860s. (Anderson p. 22)

Our missionaries would have entered a town where spinning was already firmly established in the factory system, and weavers were gradually recognising that their days of private weaving were drawing to an end.  There was no way they could compete with the factory output.

Tightly packed streets once hummed to the sound of domestic weavers

The mechanisation of spinning and weaving caused a lot of grief for the working class.  In both instances they saw their jobs being stripped away from them and were naturally concerned about their future.  To put this in perspective we need only recall just a few short decades ago when workers fought against companies who wanted to bring computers in.  There were strikes and protests, but eventually the computers won.

Likewise, these domestic units of industry saw these factories and worried how they would be able to feed their families.  And their fears were well founded.  Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877), having witnessed Arkwright’s spinning machines in operation in his father’s New Lanark mills, observed,

“A tiny superintendent, boy or girl, took the place of a multitude of adult work people…I had a thousand opportunities to witness the skill and vitality with which these child rulers acquitted themselves. I found that each of them, aided by the magic rollers [of the water frame] was even then producing as much, in any given time, as two hundred cottage spinners had done before Arkwright’s day.” (Aspin, p. 13)

What they could not appreciate at the time was how the industry’s rapid growth would still demand thousands of workers and  these displaced domestic spinners, and later on weavers, could still be put to work in the cotton trade.

New Lanark Cotton Mills

Child Employment

The Owen’s quote above indicates the employment of children in the mills.   This was common practise.  Children automatically helped at home when the business was a domestic affair, and it was a natural process for them to find work in the new mills as they took over.  For many families having children working seemed vital for their survival, and parents felt it a blessing to have their children working.   Sadly the use of child labour was abused by many.

1785 – Watson developed two spinning mills outside town. He “may be regarded as the leading spirit of his day in the founding of the Cotton Industry of Preston” (Hunt 148). Both of his mills used apprentice or orphan labour. In his autobiography Joseph Livesey described them:

“poor, squalid, deformed beings, the most pitiful objects I think I ever beheld… apprenticed to a system which nothing by West Indian slavery can bear analogy (and living in ) a wretched physical condition, with crooked legs from standing 12 hours at a time.” (Hunt 146).


Joseph Livesey - Preston
Joseph Livesey – Preston

Many of London’s poor and orphans were shipped off to northern mills.  In 1787 one report recorded them being “sent off in carts like so many negro slaves” (Aspin, 47).  A typical working day in 1806 would be from six in the morning to seven at night with ten minutes for breakfast and another ten minute break in the evening.  Dinner was thirty minutes except for twice a week when “we had an hour allowed us for dinner, while the machines were oil’d” (Aspin 50).   And my children complain about tidying their bedroom!

Over the decades government acts tried to prevent the abuse of children.   In 1816 you could no longer send a child to work more than forty miles away, but this use of pauper apprentices from places like London had already been diminishing  (Aspin, 47).  In 1844 the Factory Act cut the working day of under 13 year olds to 6 ½ hours, and lowering the minimum age of work to 8.   By 1851 the census suggests that for ages 5 – 9 only 2.8% of boys and 1.6 % of girls were in full time paid employment.  For ages 10-15, the figure was no more than 44 % for boys, and 34% for girls.   (Timmins p.31)

Our next post will introduce us to Richard Arkwright who played a key part in this transformation from Domestic to Factory.