Cotton is a mainstay of the textile industry, and it remains a crucial resource to this day. The East India Company first imported cotton to Britain in the 16th century. As a result, cotton’s popularity grew, and its value soared. The spinning frame (1769) generated large-scale industrial production. Consequently, the cultural and social impact upon British towns and cities were huge. We explore some of Britain’s major centres for cotton.
Built along the River Derwent in the 18th century, Richard Arkwright’s first mill gave birth to the modern factory system. The spinning frame and system of organised labour became an internationally adopted model, and the construction of Arkwright Mill complexes and weirs took place along the Derwent Valley. Furthermore, workers’ settlements and a transport network were built. Today, Derwent Valley Mills is a World Heritage Site, and includes 838 Listed buildings.
Cromford is a significant town in terms of the Valley’s development. This is because it was the site of Arkwright’s first mill. The village expanded to accommodate the new workforce – it grew as a direct result of the new industry. Not only that, but Cromford acted as a prototype for other towns across the valley. North Street is an early example. Rescued from dereliction in the 1970s by the Ancient Monument Society, it’s testament to the area’s significance.
Groups can visit Masson Mill at the Derwent – a working textile museum and retail village – as a means learn more about the fascinating history.
Cotton became concentrated in Lancashire from the late 1700s. This is because the county was better situated than Derbyshire. Its canal networks, and then railways, provided straightforward means of import and export. As a result of the boom, Manchester was nicknamed ‘Cottonopolis’ and ‘Cotton City’ by the mid-1800s.
Oldham grew into an international centre for cotton manufacture. It produced more cotton than France and Germany combined, at its peak. Cotton industry entered Oldham in 1778, and it became one of the first industrialised towns. Consequently, 19 mills stood by 1818 mills. Surrounding villagers flocked to Oldham for work – a factory town.
However, problems arose due to over-reliance on cotton production and affiliated employment. For example, the Luddites sabotaged mills in protest at new job-threatening industrial machinery. In 1812 an Oldham delegate vandalised a Middleton cotton mill. And the Lancashire Cotton Famine struck during the American Civil War (1861-65). Cut-off cotton supplies from the US
Importation of cheaper yarns grew evermore commonplace into the 20th century. Resultantly Oldham’s economy slumped into depression. The last cotton spun in the town was in 1998 – although Oldham’s architecture remains characterised by its distinctive red-brick mills.
Situated in the borough of Oldham is Saddleworth Museum. Visitors can learn all about the area’s cotton history in this converted mill. Visitors can also explore more about the town’s heritage on one of the Museum’s bespoke walks in the summer months.
Bury is another Lancashire town that had significant cotton industry. But, unlike Oldham, it had previously produced wool domestically (from the 18th century). The Peel family (related to future Prime Minister Robert) introduced the first Bury mill in 1773. By 1818 there were 7 cotton mills in the town. Farmers’ fields were redeveloped into rows of terraces to accommodate workers.
Notoriously plagued with harsh working conditions, mill workers in Bury were the subject of a government report. Commissioned by Peel, it found that King Street’s 10 houses each had one bedroom, and a total population of 69. Life expectancy was 13.8 years, on average.
Peel Mills are still in use as an industrial estate, despite a Post-War decline in industry. They remain a reminder to Bury’s links to Robert Peel. Peel Tower was erected in 1852. Located on Holcombe Hill it is a striking landmark.
New Lanark, Lanarkshire
New Lanark was an important milestone in the development of urban planning. David Dale founded its cotton mills in 1786, and the settlement of workers with it. Robert Owen, who famously promoted social and welfare programmes as part of his industry, was New Lanark’s mill manager. Owen bought out his business partners, because they were unhappy about Owen’s programmes. However, New Lanark developed a reputation throughout Europe as a factory town with good living standards for workers (good wages, free healthcare, a new education system, a workplace necessary school), and for being a commercially viable enterprise.
New Lanark is a World Heritage Site – one of six in Scotland – and its historical authenticity has been conserved. As well as being a living community, it is full of attractions and exhibitions. The New Lanark Visitor Centre tells the town’s story; and other attractions include Robert Owen’s House, Millworkers’ Houses (from 1820 and 1930), and a ride that takes visitors back in time!