Cotton towns

Weaving loom

Weaving loom 1949 © Manchester Library and Information Service: Manchester Archives & Local Studies

Cotton mills

Cotton has shaped the North West as we know it. Whole communities were based around the cotton textile industry in Lancashire.

As the cotton industry changed from a cottage industry to the factory system, large mills and factories came to dominate the landscape. As the cotton industry has declined, so the mills have been demolished or reused as places to live, work or visit.

The working conditions in a cotton mill were dreadful. In spinning mills, temperatures and humidity were kept high to prevent the thread breaking. Cotton dust hung in the air and was breathed in by the workers, causing a lung disease called byssinosis. Days were long, and in the 19th century children as young as seven were regularly employed.

Mule spinning

Mule spinning © Manchester Library and Information Service: Manchester Archives & Local Studies

Why Lancashire?

Lancashire was the main centre for cotton spinning and weaving in Britain. Each town specialized in different products, from fine muslins in Bolton, to mopheads in Oldham. Various products were made from different grades of cotton.

Lancashire became the centre of the cotton textile industry for two main reasons. Firstly, there were skilled workers, as there was a tradition of spinning and weaving in the area. Secondly, it had the natural resources necessary for the development of industrialised production: fast-flowing water for water-powered mills and later coalfields for steam engines.

The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830 meant that cotton could be despatched more quickly to the spinning mills. It also made it easier for the spinners to travel to Liverpool to visit their broker and inspect the cotton. The number of cotton firms increased as a result of the railway. The finished cotton goods were also transported by rail to Liverpool for export.

Next: find out about the decline of the cotton industry.