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  • Writer's pictureRex Watson

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

A few words about books

For younger readers, these are paper versions of that which you read on your device !

Arguably it is valuable to read around any subject of study, and history of the local, family,

social, occupational, varieties is no exception. They look good on bookshelves too, especially

with dust wrappers ! [Hint : remove before reading, to preserve condition]

In recommending books, I will give some detail of the main contents, the issues discussed,

but will not get into the substantive matters myself, that is what the books do ! So I am not

really writing conventional reviews.

I think generally the reader of a book should not feel guilty about not reading from cover to

cover. For fiction, one probably does, for a ‘reference’ book, not so. For most non-fiction

books there will be particular chapters or sections of interest : in general why not read these

first, though appreciating their setting, if that feels best ? Often then a less concentrated

reading of the rest will round things out. Also, in many books the final chapter is one

summarising the book, and it isn’t forbidden to read it when you want ! In a nutshell, don’t

be a slave to the format ! You might in the future be using the book principally for

reference.


Here I will introduce a couple of books, the two standard works, on handloom weaving,

which largely died out in the nineteenth century. Its ‘rump’ perhaps, if that is not too unkind

a term, is a ‘craft industry’ (though of course power loom development built on existing

handloom technology). The social and economic legacy, in terms of ways and standards of

living, is of central importance. Both books were briefly mentioned in my article on Quaker

charity in the December 2022 bulletin.


The Handloom Weavers, A Study in the English Cotton Industry during the Industrial

Revolution. Duncan Bythell. CUP 1969.

Bythell is writing of cotton, though of course other fabrics receive some attention, and

indeed the change to cotton from wool, linen, etc is itself a subject of interest, especially in

Lancashire and some adjacent parts of Yorkshire and Cheshire. The handloom persisted

longer generally for much work in wool and particularly silk. There were also mixed cloths

such as fustians having a warp of one type of thread and a weft of another.

The heartland for factory cotton weaving was perhaps northeast Lancashire, more so later

in the nineteenth century, with spinning mainly nearer Manchester. Handloom weaving in

the county, earlier, was also strong in the northeast of the county, and this area features

prominently in the book. (Bythell hailed from near Burnley.)


There are chapters on all the major relevant matters, such as the general organisation of the

industry, the constitution of the labour force, powerloom development, wages, public

opinion regarding the weavers, and the poverty in which weavers found themselves. Most

of interest perhaps in view of the title of this website are the chapters on organised

industrial action among the weavers, and on their radical politics, including of course

Chartism. The final chapter discusses their demise as a group.

The Preface and Introduction emphasise the extent to which the author has been able to

make use of a variety of sources hitherto relatively little used : of course the internet was

still a quarter of a century off. The Bibliography is extensive.


The Last Shift, The Decline of Handloom Weaving in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire.

Geoffrey Timmins. Manchester University Press 1993.

Timmins covers all fabrics, though of course cotton predominates. As the title indicates, it is

at least notionally only a Lancashire study. In fact the general change to cotton, and

contrasts between the progress of different fabrics, constitute major themes.

Writing a generation on from Bythell, but still before the internet, just, Timmins uses census

returns and parish registers to obtain greater detail about occupations at various periods.

The last three chapters, out of seven, are all concerned with the extent to which handloom

work survived, varying of course as to fabric. The broad conclusion is that survival through

the 1850 to 1880 period was much greater than hitherto thought.

There is less it seems here on nascent trade unionism and labour relations generally than in

Bythell. Geographical variations within the county, with some study of particular

settlements, receive attention. Again In summary, very readable. Again there is a good

Bibliography.


In summary, both books are very readable. It will be of some advantage to have a good

working knowledge of the topography of the county, and of its more general textile history,

but not vital.


THANK YOU - Rex Watson



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