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Poverty in NE Lancs in 1843The term ‘The Hungry Forties’ is applied in different ways to the 1840s, for example internationally and in Ireland. In much of English society, times were hard economically, with the cotton workers of Lancashire hit as badly as anyone, most particularly handloom weavers.

Two books tell the story, ‘The Handloom Weavers’, 1969, by Bythell, and ‘The Last Shift’,
1993, by Timmins. In fact, Bythell is concerned with just cotton, largely, but nationally, and Timmins is concerned mainly with Lancashire, but with other fabrics too. Both are a good read, probably best in chronological order as Timmins updates Bythell in some respects, using some ‘new’ sources.


The Hungry Forties 

This article by Rex covers the everyday working lives of people in NE Lancs in 1843.
It just goes to show, that no matter how difficult it was for Bob Cratchit in Scrooge or how difficult we sometimes think we have it in the modern era, nothing can quite compare with the destitute poverty and misery of early industrial Lancashire in 1843. Thanks Rex for digging this evidence up and
giving us all a sour taste of what was then. 


In 1995, resulting from my interest in Family and Local History (in the Burnley-Colne area) I wrote a piece with the above title, using a Quaker charity source. This was published in Local Population Studies, which can be found online, free. [There are a couple of editorial gremlins, so look out for these if you are reading !] Various occupations were involved, for example quarrymen, cotton factory workers, colliers, but handloom weavers predominated.

The document used was a notebook ascribed to Ann Ecroyd, a Quaker of Marsden (roughly, modern Nelson and Brierfield), one of a number of similar ones spanning around thirty years, in the Farrer collection in Manchester Archives. My initial interest had been my own family history, and indeed many of my ancestors and other relatives make an appearance.

The documents are arguably relatively unknown, though they have been used by local and other historians, not least by Roger Frost in his History of Briercliffe, which lies in this area of study. They can certainly be used fruitfully by family historians.


The year 1843 was one of the most dire for the handloom weavers. Chartism seems to have been quite strong in the area, and the days of trade union support for workers generally lay largely in the future. 

The document gives a great deal of information, quantitative and qualitative, about living conditions of something like the poorest two thirds of the population. Family size, earnings, employer, poor relief received, number of beds, are all noted. Ages and sex of the children
are often given, though the only name in a household is that of the Head. Some occupations are more or less absent, particularly spinners (though the area had small spinning mills) and agricultural workers. Maybe many of these workers were not needy in the same way as
weavers and others. For many of the families, material needs by way of clothing and bedding are noted (the survey was done in February). Another notebook in the series gives information about actual disbursements made in due course.

Briefly now I will note some of the main general findings. The document covers Great Marsden, Briercliffe (including the more westerly parts of Extwistle), and Cop Row, just in Burnley township near its boundary with Briercliffe.

1. The number of people per bed was around three on average. Possibly this mightimply some ‘shift’ arrangements, or maybe simply sleeping on the floor for some.

2. Handloom weavers earned less on average than their counterparts in factories. (Most factory workers in the document lived in the parts of Gt Marsden near toColne.) This comes as no surprise as handloom work was over a considerable period
being succeeded by factory work. Having said this, Timmins suggests that the two types of work coexisted for many years. In our area, at least one factory owner also employed handloom weavers.

3. Earnings potential for head of household handloom weavers peaked very clearly between the ages of about 28 to 35. The work would be quite demanding physically.

4. Parish (or rather, township) relief generally made up income for members of a household to around 1s 6d a week, somewhat more for older people. There were though rather different arrangements for families of ‘dole’ workers, these workers usually being employed directly by the township on road work and the like.

5. Almost all relief was financial, rather than in kind (such as food or clothes). It was nonetheless ‘outdoor relief’, given to support families in their homes, rather than ‘indoor’, in the dreaded workhouse. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had promoted the building and use of these, but Lancashire was slow to take up on this, and continued pre 1834 practices for many years. 

I hope this summary may encourage a full reading of my article. But principally I hope it may encourage greater use of this wonderful set of resources.


Rex Watson

RICHARD BRIGHT WATSON (1868-1963)  Twister, Trade Union Secretary, Socialist

By: Rex Watson

[This is a shorter version of a piece originally published in ‘Retrospect’ (2014), the Journal of the Burnley Historical Society]

Richard Bright Watson was my grandfather. I remember him with great fondness, he died when I was
19. The story of a life might often be found in a family history publication, but it seemed to me that Richard’s
life might be of wider interest, in the Burnley area at least. He was I think a good example of the Victorian
‘improver’, a self-made man perhaps, in terms of education, career, and progression to various types of public
service. This did not extend to material wealth : for example he lived for about the last 55 years of his life in
the same terraced house in Stoneyholme.
One of my treasured possessions after fifty years of study of my family history is a 1967 letter from
Walter Bennett, author of course of the History of Burnley. I had written to him about some aspect of Burnley
history, mentioning my grandfather. In his reply he noted that he knew him ‘very very well’ and that he was ‘a
mine of information and should have been appreciated far more than he was’. I have naturally always been
proud of this tribute : Richard did indeed have a deep knowledge of the early days of socialism in Burnley, and,
through his work, of textile trade unionism.
The Sections that follow overlap, inevitably, both in terms of chronology and content. One of the main
general sources has been local newspapers, mainly of later years, where I have cuttings. There will I am sure
be much more to discover from contemporary papers from say 1905 to 1930, if as expected these become
available digitally (via the ongoing British Newspaper Archive) [2022 : this has proved so]. Already some
useful material pre 1905 has been found.

Family background and early working life

Richard was born 28 th October 1868, at Holton St, off Oxford Rd. He was the first child of the marriage.
His father James was a staunch Liberal, and out of his admiration for the great Liberal politician and champion
of the working man John Bright he gave his son the distinctive middle name. Later in life it would be said,
accurately, of Richard that he was ‘bright by nature, Bright by name’. Richard himself became an early
socialist, thus diverging from his father in political views, but both were much involved in trade unionism.
By 1871 the family had moved to Whittlefield, living variously on High St. and Junction St., and
Richard was married from the latter in 1894, to Bertha Tindall. They then settled in Stoneyholme.
He attended Sandygate School, becoming a part-timer at the age of ten, working as a reacher(-in) at J.
H. Whittaker’s mill in Whittlefield. Full-time work started at 13, and in due course he became a twister(-in) at
the same mill. Later he was at Oak Mount Mill and the Exors. of John West’s Rakehead Mill (this at some
considerable distance from Whittlefield, on the northern side of the town), continuing to work as a twister, also
In fact, Richard’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and various other family members, were all
twisters. Twisting, drawing, reaching (and beaming) were all processes preparatory to weaving. Very largely
they were a male preserve, with a few exceptions (one woman member of the union in 1904 !). The trade union
of which Richard became a member in 1883 represented workers in all these specialisms, with the exception it
seems, from the title, of reaching, which was a juvenile occupation.

[The twister would twist or tie together the ends of the old and new warp threads : I remember my grandfather in old age being able to join two thread ends together by placing them between thumb and fingers and apparently just rubbing them together ! The drawer would pull warp ends through the healds of the loom, assisted by the reacher on the opposite side. In the earlier part of the 19 th century, male hand loom weavers when moving to factory work might take on such specialised tasks.]

Although Richard left school at the age of 13, he later continued his education at night school at the Burnley Mechanics. I have in my possession his certificate from 1886 for Mathematics, and a similar Science one is also in the family. He would need mathematical ability in his later trade union work, having to deal with complicated wage lists for various types of fabric. In fact, his mathematical bent was passed on : my father became a bank clerk, and I became a mathematics lecturer !

Trade union work

The Burnley and District Branch of the Amalgamated Association of Beamers, Twisters and Drawers (such was the title in 1903, it varied somewhat over the years) was formed in 1878, around the time of the great Cotton Strike, as a defence against proposed reductions in wages. Richard’s father James was the first president. Unfortunately the earliest Minute Books do not survive. There is one from 1895 to 1898, then a gap until 1903, another short gap from 1910 to 1912, also much of the later 1920s missing. About 30 years ago the Branch was still active, and I was fortunate to be able to look at the Books up to around 1930, coinciding largely with the time that my grandfather worked as secretary, subject to the missing volumes noted. What follows therefore in this Section is largely based on my notes from this time, and a few photocopies of Reports, etc. After the Branch ceased work towards the end of the last century the earlier Books were deposited in the Lancashire Record Office.

Like many textile unions, the Burnley Twisters (they tended to be called this colloquially) looked two
ways for their wider affiliations. The Branch formed part of the Amalgamation of all the various towns’
Twisters (etc) branches, but also was affiliated to the Burnley Textile Trades Federation, and in turn the town’s
Trades Council. This perhaps would make the work of a secretary, and of other officials, quite onerous in some

As noted earlier, Richard became a member in 1883. At the age of only 17 he was one of the auditors
(mathematics again !), and served on the committee. In the later 1890s he was still auditing, also ‘collecting’,
and was proposed (unsuccessfully) as Treasurer.

Meetings were held at the (Oddfellows) Central Club in Keighley Green, through at least to 1931 it
seems. In 1895, if not earlier, the question of a full-time paid Secretary was under discussion. An affirmative
decision was not taken until late 1897, for a twelvemonth trial period, and at a wage of 28/- a week. In these
early days Brierfield was included with Burnley, and in an 1896 ballot there were 241 voters, giving some idea
of the size of the membership then (above this figure presumably on account of non-voters). Entry into the
‘profession’ of twisting/drawing was tightly controlled by the union, and an attempt by an employer to take on
a non-union member would be resisted, by industrial action if need be. Richard himself had apparently
graduated to twisting from reaching and maybe drawing, at the age of 14, but in 1896 it was resolved that there
be no learning of twisting or drawing under 15 (for ‘strangers’, under 16 : this would refer to youngsters from
families not already involved in the work).

In 1903, just before the extant Minutes restart, Richard was appointed full-time (permanent) Secretary, a
post he would hold till his retirement in 1931. His work would of course take him to most of the mills in the
town. My father recalled that he ‘tramped all over’, though he would have been able to use public transport
increasingly as the 20 th century progressed. The office was at the Central Club by 1931, probably earlier too.
There was a telephone in 1931 ; Richard did not though have one at home.

The Secretary’s wages by 1915 were £48-15-00 for a half-year, but in 1931 on retirement only £84 perannum. However, Richard suffered some ill health prior to retirement, and was working reduced hours. Theretirement itself was an ‘early’ one, brought about it is believed largely by the stresses of the work.
Between 1905 and 1912, membership increased from 360 to 608. From about 1905 however some twisting work was becoming mechanised, and the operators of the machines were admitted to the union, nodoubt many being existing twisters. ‘Machine Workers’ was included in the title of the Branch from 1912.

Back in 1907, there were around 5000 twisters in the whole of the country. In 1931 the membership of the Branch was just over 500. Membership of the union cost 1/- a week in 1931 (not during the July or September holidays), together with a 1d per day levy when working : this would all be quite a substantial proportion of a weekly wage. The initial learning fee for a budding twister (in 1906) varied from 5/- to 10/-. Of course the demands on funds could be considerable. For example, those out of work in the early days of warp-tying machines were supported. During a time of strike or other action the funds would be very much under pressure, as the
following example will show.


The Half-Yearly Report of April 1916 gives details of strike/stoppage pay for the previous six months .The major item was for £395-5-3 for the recent extensive Harle Syke strike. The other items totalled a little over £50, involving 18 different mills . One by-product of the introduction of warp-tying machines was a shortage of reachers : parents feared for their sons’ future employment as twisters, and put them into weaving instead. There is little information about wages received by the twisters, etc, though much of Richard’s work would be concerned with adherence to standard agreed Lists. However, an interesting document of 1916enables a comparison to be made with other textile occupations. This is a Red Cross Fund ‘flyer’, issued by the United Textile Factory Workers’ Association, suggesting weekly contributions, for six weeks, for purchase ofambulances for use in the war. ‘Assessed’ at 10d were Tape Sizers, Warp Dressers, and Loom Overlookers (tacklers), then Drawers at 8d, Twisters, Clothlookers, Warpers (Beamers), Bleachers, Dyers and male CalicoPrinters at 6d, Winders and Reelers at 4d, Women and Juveniles at 3d. Weavers were given at a pennyhalfpenny per loom.Whilst on the subject of the Great War, the Half-Yearly Meeting of April 1916 had a motion against conscription


it was seen as the ‘thin end of the wedge towards industrial conscription’. It is hoped that the above few paragraphs will give some idea of the issues and material conditions that formed the background to Richard’s work. No doubt much of his working week was routine, mundane perhaps .I suspect much of his time would be spent trying to anticipate problems, to nip them in the bud. He was certainly a very patient person, very knowledgeable, and with a good eye for detail. He would I think be the sort of negotiator who could gain respect from employers.In addition to his work in the Branch, Richard was involved in the Amalgamation and in the localTextile Trades Federation and Trades Council. Newspaper reports differ a little in the dates they give, but oneearly 1930s cutting gives the following. Between 1911 and 1919 he was on the executive of the Amalgamation; locally from 1907 for ten years he was secretary of the newly-formed Federation, and secretary of the TradesCouncil from 1906 to 1912.

Socialist, local electioneering

Bennett in the final volume of his History of Burnley (1850+) has a chapter ‘Local Politics’. He discusses in some detail for the period from say about 1880 to 1914 the development of socialism in its various guises, in the town and more widely, and also the quite complicated interplay between socialism and trade
unionism. Certainly in the earlier years of this period there was considerable friction between the two groups, and indeed most trade unionists perhaps would be Liberal/Radical in their political leanings. Richard’s father James is an example. When it comes to discussion specifically of socialism, Bennett has a footnote ‘Much information supplied by R.B. Watson, J.P’. This would explain why Bennett knew Richard well. The Labour Party as such was named in 1906, previously the Labour Representation Committee (LRC).

This in turn had been constituted in 1900 as a Federation of Trade Unions and socialist organisations. The principal two of these were the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The former was in origin Marxist, and its charismatic leader Henry Hyndman stood unsuccessfully for the Burnley constituency on four occasions. The latter was formed by Keir Hardie, with the principal aim of improving the condition of the working classes. It eventually separated away from the Labour party, and was particularly strong in Nelson. Socialist candidates in local elections were elected initially in small numbers from around 1900. Burnley’s first socialist MP was Dan Irving in 1918. Richard himself stood unsuccessfully as a Labour candidate on three occasions for the town council, for St Peter’s ward in 1904 or 1905, and for St Andrews in 1908 and 1909. He was also unsuccessful in two
attempts at election to the Board of Guardians. In his brief 1908 town council ‘manifesto’ he is described as LRC candidate, despite the fact that the Labour party had by then been thus named. Liberals and Tories were ‘combined against him, thus proving the emptiness of their pretensions’ ; he ‘will oppose the Police being used in the interest of the employers during Strikes, etc’ ; he ‘is in favour of Municipal Housing in order to prevent the increasing of Rents’. I suspect that the hurly-burly of politics might not have quite been to Richard’s taste, and his later attentions were directed towards non-political public service. 

In conclusion

One of the spurs for the writing of this article was a book published in 2001, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, by Jonathon Rose. He uses the term ‘autodidact’ for members of the working classes seeking to ‘improve’ themselves, and uses a wide variety of sources in an effort to answer various questions about them. At the time of first reading this, a chord was struck, and more than ten years on I have finally made my contribution !

Richard of course is just one of countless autodidacts. Self-made he may have been in large measure,
but the contributions to his development made by his elementary education, and by his family, particularly
perhaps his father, should not be forgotten. The story might have been very different a generation earlier, with
a lesser education, and, in Lancashire at least, grinding economic circumstances : Richard’s father James had
been born into poverty in the early 1840s, this only becoming gradually ameliorated mid-century.

Nonetheless the story of Richard’s life is one in which I and his other descendants can take great pride.
If you read the above book, you may well be reminded of an ancestor of your own !

Great thanks to Rex Watson 

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