The Cotton Industry experienced many highs and lows during the war years. The industry in Blackburn was at a peak at the beginning of the first World War, but it was ultimately to destroy the industry which had dominated the town for nearly a century.
War was declared in August 1914 and by September upwards of 3000 Blackburn men had enlisted. With the men away fighting for King and country it fell to women to help run the town. This was not as much of a shock as it was in some parts of the country as the workforce in Blackburn had always had a large proportion of female workers, particularly in the mills where men and women earned much the same wages as both sexes were paid by the piece.
The post-War period was particularly difficult for Blackburn. During the war, work and wages had been readily available, in part because of the war effort. Times had been hard due to the rise in prices and the scarcity of goods, but much worse was to come. The export trade on which Blackburn had been so reliant was about to fail. The bulk of cotton produced locally had been to exported to India who during the war had developed their own cotton industry to such an extent that they no longer need to import cloth in such huge quantities. When Gandhi visited the area in 1931 it was hoped that the poverty and distress he witnessed would move him but he felt that it was insignificant when compared to the suffering and distress in his native land.
By 1923 one third of the looms were lying idle. The next decade saw the closure of over half the town's cotton mills, and machinery was sold or scrapped. There was no money to modernise mills which were outdated and unable to compete with the modern, more efficent overseas mills.
The outbreak of another World War in 1939 did little to help the ailing cotton trade. Many were employed making munitions at the Royal Ordnance Factory whilst those at British Northrop made aircraft components. Mullard employees were busy producing valves for military systems and equipment but the cotton industry saw no such revival. There was a brief period in which some mills were employed making fabrics for parachutes etc. but the old-fashioned equipment in these mills did not lend itself easily to the fabrics which were required. The late 1940s saw a short-lived boom, in part responsible for the sudden influx of immigrants from Asia who were recruited to fill empty jobs in the mills. Many who had been employed in the mills before the war did not return after and many made the switch from textiles into working in engineering and manufacturing, trades felt to have a positive rather than a declining future.
The outbreak of the First World far had an immediate effect on the Blackburn cotton trade. A number of mills produced cloth for Turkey and the Levant. This trade immediately ceased, and the mills concerned closed with the cloth still in the looms. Later in the war the industry was run by a Government Cotton Control who have out cotton to the mills in proportion to their consumption in the six months prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
Contracts were awarded by the Government for cloth for army clothing, tents, bandages and dressings and fabric for covering aeroplane bodies and wings. Blackburn did not get a fair share of the contracts, as many of the looms were designed for the Indian trade, and not very adaptable to other uses.
Towards the end of the war, a system of payments to out of work weavers was started. Any weaver who was unemployed after the Cotton Control was set up received a stand-by wage, administered by the Weavers Association. These payments continued into 1919 after the end of the war. When the war ended, it was found that mills could not restart because engineers and overlookers were still in the forces. The Chamber of Commerce applied for sixty-two overlookers to be released from the Army, and the number of out-of-work weavers soon halved. A strike in June and July 1919 was settled with a pay increase, and the weekly hours were reduced to 48.