Peters reply -Cotton - Big Business ? Rise & Fall

NOTICEBOARD: Lancashire Cotton

Par Feeley asked, ’how big was the Lancashire cotton industry and why did this industry


Ok, answering how big the Lancashire weaving industry was can be demonstrated in a

number of ways; one can measure cotton output, number of looms in use or the number of

workers employed. Most of these indicies should provide Pat with an indication of the

famous weaving industry in Lancs. In a similar vein, tracking the decline of the industry is oft

related to a number of renown domestic and international factors. A good place to begin

would be with some general background information.

Following the industrial weaving boom of the early nineteenth century, Lancashire endured

a period of deep recession in the early 1860s, known as the Cotton Famine, perhaps in part

due to over-production, but in the main caused by the disruption of raw cotton imports as a

result of the American Civil War. Following this, as the industry revived, much of the cotton

entering Lancashire was derived from Egypt and India. Ready access to new supplies of raw

cotton and to international markets, through the port of Liverpool, combined with

technological advancements in mills, resulted in a cotton-producing boom, and by 1871 the

British textile industry provided the entire world with 32% of its cotton goods.

This boom also resulted in a rapid population expansion in some of the mill towns of the

region, particularly the ‘new’ weaving centres of north-east Lancashire such as Burnley, the

population of which doubled in size between 1871 and 1901. The region’s cotton economy

was further enhanced by the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894, which provided

Lancashire with improved access to both raw materials and international markets.

Therefore, by 1914 Lancashire’s cotton industry was producing vast amounts of cotton

goods, with India, the largest single customer, buying 3000 million yards (2,743,200 metres)

of cotton cloth. Following the First World War, Manchester reached its cotton-producing

zenith and, by 1920, Lancashire’s cotton industry peaked with trade union membership of

the Amalgamated Weavers Association peaking at 224,219 in 1921.

After 1920, despite cotton remaining Britain’s leading export until 1938, the industry

declined rapidly, largely through a fall in exports. Countries that had formerly provided

lucrative markets, particularly India, developed their own mills, using similar technology,

whilst Japan captured many former British markets in China and the Far East. The imposition

of tariffs by America then caused further damage to the export of British cotton goods.

Although a short boom period began in 1945, as a result of shortages caused by the Second

World War, after 1952 British cotton textiles faced intense competition from manufacturers

in the Far East, which possessed a ready pool of cheap labour.

Another factor, however, was to further the decline of Lancs cotton. By 1962, the

manufacture of man-made fibres had captured 40% of British cloth production. This gradual

dominance of synthetic fibres was particularly detrimental to the room and-power weaving

industries of Pennine Lancashire, which during the Second World War had largely focused

on, and been economically protected by, the production of cotton uniforms for the military.

In consequence, Lancashire were slow to adapt to the production of synthetic fabrics, and

faced a rapid decline following the war.

These international and domestic factors combined and resulted in the end of an era. The

British textile industry largely collapsed during the second half of the twentieth century and

many Lancashire lads’ and lasses were negatively affected by it. The dereliction and

demolition of Lancashire’s textile mills ensued and mum went and got a job working at the

Great Universal Store mail order company – no doubt a sign of things to come.

Hope that helps you out Pat. Put the kettle on mum!

Peter John Fyles

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