PEEK INTO PAST: The days when King Cotton reigned

OLD: Trafalgar Street c. 1908
OLD: Trafalgar Street c. 1908
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IT is some time since I have mentioned the cotton industry in this series. The kind gift of a number of photos of old Burnley by one of my colleagues, Coun. Jean Cunningham, has now made it possible for me to address the subject again.

The picture which accompanies this article was taken in the Weavers’ Triangle, Burnley. more than 100 years ago. In those days the name by which we now know this area had not been coined but, at that time, it was one of, if not the most, important of Burnley’s industrial areas.

As you can see this is a completely industrial scene. To the right is Trafalgar Mill which was built as a spinning mill with a single-storey weaving shed attached. The mill is the best-preserved of the larger mills in the Triangle and, some 40 years ago when I first became interested in the area because of its historic buildings, I was particularly interested in Trafalgar Mill because the weaving shed was still in use.

Its looms were, so far as I can remember, all Burnley made, some of them made within yards of the shed. I recall that tea towels, and other cloths used in the kitchen, were being made there. This had been an important little industry for smaller weaving firms because the making of towels, once the looms were set up, was pretty straight forward. There was always demand for the materials made in places like this and, when there were lots of corner shops, many of them would stock tea towels, dish cloths and floor cloths all ideally made of cotton because it was so absorbent.

Today cloths like these are either made abroad or are made from man-made fibres but you will remember the Lancashire-made tea cloths. Often they were made out of a heavy material and, usually, they had stripes of red running the length of the cloth. These stripes, which were on the right and left of the towel, were possible because of the use of a device called the dobby. This was not actually invented in Burnley but quite a number of Burnley firms made dobbies and several, including the best-known, Lupton and Place, could be found in the Weavers’ Triangle.

Next to Trafalgar Mill you can see the footbridge which links Trafalgar Street to the Meadows area of Burnley. The bridge, of course, takes the walker over the canal which was, at one time, a considerable barrier for those who lived above Trafalgar Street and who wanted to go shopping in the town centre or who had other business there.

On the left of the picture you can see part of the warehouse section of Trafalgar Shed. This building had no spinning section like Trafalgar Mill – it was intended just for weaving and most of the building was single-storey with only relatively small area with more than one floor. This latter was the “warehouse section” where a number of the more interesting processes in the mill were carries out.

In season you can visit a mill warehouse much as one might have been more than 100 years ago at Queen Street Mill, Harle Syke. If you go there you will see the huge, and now unique, sizing machines and other what are called preparatory processes which I will describe in a future article. However, the warehouse also housed some of what might be termed the finishing processes, as they might be called, in a weaving shed.

I ought to point out that “finishing”, so far as cotton textiles was concerned, really refers to the processes after cotton cloth has left the weaving shed. These were carried out in specialist premises where dyeing, bleaching and calico printing were the processes. They were all vital to the industry, adding vast amounts of value and, in the industry as a whole, employing thousands of workers in premises which were very capital intensive.

Burnley had a number of such firms but they were never as important to the town as were first the spinning mills and then the cotton sheds. Some of the calico printing works were very well-known in their day, the most well-known being at Lowerehouse where they are commemorated in “Printer’s Fold”. Another was situated where the new Burnley College buildings have recently opened. We remember the site as Burnley Paper Works but, before 1875, these premises had housed Margerison’s calico printing works. There were other buildings at Hapton and in Victoria Street where the town hall car park is found today.

The photo you have before you shows quite a rare scene as those employed at the mill are actually working! Do not get me wrong. I know cotton weaving was hard work but most photos show mill buildings or mill interiors without much going on. There are lots of images of the former and they often show the chimneys belching forth vast amounts of smoke but one cotton weaving shed is much like another and it is much more interesting to see the processes being undertaken by the workers.

Here mill workers, mostly men but there are two boys, are loading a “lurry”, as they were termed at the time, which took the cloth which has been woven at Trafalgar Shed to another mill where the chosen finishing processes would be carried out.

Incidentally, I have used the word “shed”, rather than “mill”, to describe the place of work of the factory weaver. Lots of maps might have the word “mill” alongside a cotton factory but often they were wrong. Strictly, mills refer to the spinning process whereas sheds were where the weavers worked.

Historians do not agree as to why two distinct words should be used to describe premises used in the production of cotton goods. There are several alternatives and one of them goes right back to the early days of the cotton industry in Lancashire. The first cotton factories were generally mills where spinning was carried out. The spinning process was the first to be mechanised but when power looms were introduced it was found they were so heavy they had to be set to work in buildings added on to the existing mills. These looked like big sheds so that name was adopted.

Before that, in the handloom days, some weavers had worked in “sheds”, small buildings where there might have been 10 to 20 looms, each of them worked by a single weaver who might have the assistance of a small boy learning how to weave. Again these buildings were simple and very shed-like. The word was used in its natural context and, once established, it continued to be used.

I like to think there was another reason why mill and shed were used. In integrated premises – ones in which there was both spinning and weaving – it may have been convenient to have individual words for the spinning and weaving departments. Mills and sheds were the natural word to use.

This picture might remind some of you of the dark days of the cotton industry but we can’t understand our Burnley past if we don’t refer to the cotton industry. Those who worked in cotton were mostly proud of their achievements and those of the industry itself.

As late as the 1930s cotton accounted for more than one-third of manufacturing production. The industry, at this time, employed more than any other and it had the largest share of Britain’s export trade. Cotton had made Manchester and Liverpool great and made our town famous as the most important cotton weaving town in the world.

As I have written before, the cotton industry was far from perfect but, for the best part of 200 years, Burnley was synonymous with it. Sadly, cotton’s decline has led to the decline of our town. We have never recovered from the collapse of King Cotton and, to me, there was no need for us to have lost as much of it as we have done. The blame for that lies with the Government in Westminster and the bankers of the City of London.