Decline of British Cotton


Thanks to John Morrison UCLAN for his reply to Sean Spenser's question.

The decline of Britain’s cotton industry.

The peak prosperity of the British cotton industry was just before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1914, 25% of British exports by value was made up of cotton textiles and about 80% of the cloth produced in Lancashire was exported. Lancastrians could quip with some justification that Britain’s prosperity hung by a cotton thread. During the war, however, strict limits on the import of raw cotton severely hampered the British industry. Japan took over much of its trade in the Far East while domestic producers in India supplied the demand in what had been Lancashire’s most lucrative market. In truth, the war accelerated trends which had been evident for years before 1914. The modest capital and skill demands enabled many countries to set up their own textile industries and these were increasingly protected by tariff walls from the 1920s. The growing demand for autonomy in India even resulted in tariffs placed on British cotton imports. Technically, the British industry began to fall behind rivals which adopted labour- saving ring spinning and automatic weaving looms. Lancashire producers stuck by the spinning mule and the traditional power loom, technology which had proved highly effective and adaptable during the prosperous decades form the mid-19 th century onwards. By 1929, British cotton cloth exports were half the 1913 level and by 1939 they fell below their mid-nineteenth century level. The spinning areas around Rochdale and the weaving districts around Blackburn and Burnley which concentrated on supplying cheap cloth to foreign markets were hardest hit. In 1931, unemployment in the weaving areas reached 47% and as high as 70% in the worse affected mill towns. The spinning industry around Bolton and the weaving producers around Nelson which supplied the home market were initially less affected though even these began to suffer rapid decline in the 1930s. The high profits made in the domestic re-stocking boom of 1918-1920, which might have been a source for new investment, were frittered away on spectacular dividends and speculative takeovers. Instead, mill owners responded to the crisis of the inter-war period by increasing workloads and driving down costs, especially wages. Industrial relations deteriorated culminating in the tumultuous weaving strikes and lockouts of the early 1930s. By 1939, employment in the cotton industry had fallen by over 200,000 from 1914. By the 1950s, Britain was importing more cotton goods than it exported. The decline of the British cotton industry in the twentieth century has spawned a vigorous debate about its causes. Various reason have been suggested: a failure of entrepreneurship; the difficulty of adapting to change in an industry split into specialist spinning and weaving producers and districts; the resistance of the cotton unions to change; Britain’s attachment to laissez-faire economics and free trade. Generally, the industry was trapped by its 19 th century success rather than using this as a resource to meet new challenges in the twentieth. Having said that, some of Lancashire’s cotton weaving firms did hold on and found a niche for themselves in the late 20 th century. One of the most notable of these bears the same surname as you – John Spencer Ltd of Burnley. In the inter-war period, its then owner Tertius Spencer was a leading cotton cloth manufacturer. He was hated by many weavers for being the leading advocate of the more-looms system in the 1930s – doubling the number of looms minded by a weaver from the traditional four to eight. On the other hand, he appears to have been a paternalistic employer of the best sort: interested in his

workers’ welfare and regarded by them as a fair boss. He also displayed considerable entrepreneurial flair, deploying many of the managerial approaches recommended by modern leadership textbooks. Had your mother become a weaver in the 1920s, she would almost certainly have joined the Amalgamated Weavers’ Association, 220,000 strong – almost 90% of the workforce – and two-thirds of them women. The 20,000 mule spinners were exclusively male and, before the First World War, were among the best paid of Britain’s so-called ‘labour aristocracy.’ By comparison, weavers were modestly paid but women were as skilful as men in this trade and could earn as much as them since pay was by piece-work. At this time, in fact, women weavers were the highest paid female industrial workers in Britain. Their wages were necessary to provide a decent standard of life for weaver families. Almost uniquely for the times, women weavers stayed in employment after marrying and having children. The relatively high income of these women afforded them considerable social standing in the weaving communities of North-East Lancashire. It also fostered more equitable conjugal roles with far more sharing of household responsibilities than was typical for the times. By the end of the 1930s, however, the size of the weaving workforce had halved and wages had been reduced considerably. Better paid opportunities for women were appearing in light engineering, the new consumer industries, administration and retail. Cotton manufacturers found it increasingly difficult to attract workers. After the Second World War, they tried to plug labour shortages by recruiting abroad, first from Eastern Europe and then from Asia. Your mother’s short stay in a 1960s weaving mill was perhaps not untypical. A couple of generations earlier, she would have been in a job for life, proud to be doing a well-regarded trade in a critically important industry for the British economy.

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