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